Why study plants?
Plants are utterly fundamental to life on earth. From single-celled algae to the planet's largest living organism, they all contribute to our world's biodiversity and generate the oxygen, food, fibres, fuel and medicine that allow human life to exist. Studying plants allows us to develop our understanding of
...fundamental processes and substances
Plants and fungi are exceptionally convenient organisms in which certain fundamental processes (the production and use of proteins, for example) can be studied, without the ethical dilemmas of studying animals or humans. Many features of plants are also found in other organisms:
- Substances - e.g. lipids and vitamins
- Structures - e.g. chromosomes, and microtubules - the conveyor belts that control movement within cells
- Processes - e.g. how cells 'decide' what sort of cell they are going to be
These features can be common to humans, animals and plants - and investigation using plants can be the first step in uncovering their secrets.
. . . our impact on the ecosystem
We cannot take responsible decisions about the future direction of the human race until we fully understand the species of our planet, and their interdependence.
It is believed that there are over 13 million species of life-form on the planet, but so far only 1.75 million - about 14% - have been identified. Amongst that number are over 250,000 known species of higher plants (compare only 4,327 known species of mammals). There is a real danger of human activity damaging - even eradicating - species which have yet to be identified or understood. Disciplines such as plant systematics and taxonomy, as well as ecology and plant physiology, help to ensure that, when we discuss environmental problems and possible solutions, we literally know what we are talking about.
. . . strategies for feeding a growing population
Plants produce, directly or indirectly, all of the food we eat, and with a growing world population, that fact is more important than ever. Three plant species - rice, wheat and maize - between them account for 80% of the world's food. There is mounting concern over the diminishing area of fertile, farmable land available. At present each US citizen enjoys the benefit of approximately 2 hectares of cropland, which provides all the food the citizen might need, plus $155 earned in exporting the surplus. By 2050, the US population - even at its relatively low current birth rate compared to that of other countries - will have doubled, and loss of cropland due to erosion and growth of towns will leave only 0.15 hectares each. This is a best case scenario for the richest country on earth! Already more than a billion people in the world are malnourished, and soil is being eroded seventeen times faster than it can be replaced. This being so, we urgently need to understand:
- How to increase the yield per hectare of traditional and other crops
- How to persuade crop varieties to grow on land which cannot at present sustain them
- How to prevent plants succumbing to pests and diseases
The disciplines of stress physiology, plant development, virology and epidemiology address these issues.
. . . developing new cures for disease
Plants produce medicines: 25% of the medicines on the UK market are derived directly from plants. Drugs made from fungi, for example, prevent the rejection of transplanted hearts and other organs. The active ingredient in aspirin was originally derived from willow bark. Paclitaxel, a compound found in the Pacific yew tree, has been found to assist in the treatment of some cancers. The rosy periwinkle, meanwhile, yields drugs which help treat diabetes. In addition to these direct applications, the study of plants' internal biochemistry - their production and use of vitamins, for example - can inform us as to the actions of those compounds on the human body.
Why study at Cambridge?
It can be seen that, as well as being a fascinating and rewarding topic of study in its own right, a sound understanding of plants' inner workings and their relationship to their environment is crucial to the future of our society. Our Department aims to make a significant contribution to increasing that understanding.
Our teaching staff contribute to all three years of Natural Sciences teaching in Cambridge. The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education has awarded a score of 24 out of 24 to teaching in all our courses including Part IB and Part II Plant Sciences. Please use the links on the left for more detail on individual courses.
Our lecturers are experts in their fields and committed to undergraduate teaching - and students consistently award them high scores on course questionnaires!