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Department of Plant Sciences



Supervisor: Andrew Tanentzap (Plant Sciences)
Co-Supervisor: Stéphanie Swarbreck, NIAB

Importance of the area of research concerned:

Plant to plant interactions are critical in shaping ecosystems and determining primary productivity. Weeds are unwanted in agro-ecosystems, due to the severe crop yield loss that they can cause. A combination of agricultural practises and herbicides application is used to control weed population at a cost to the environment (and to the farmers). In the UK, 3.9m ha of land is dedicated to arable crop production (in 2019), with 82% of this used for cereals and oilseed crop. Past and current agronomic practices have led to a change in the abundance and diversity of weed species. An estimated 5m t of herbicides are applied each year for cereal production in Great-Britain, and many weed species in particular blackgrass (Alopecurus myosuroides) are developing resistance to herbicides thus driving more application and the search for different chemistry. Crops have so far been selected under conditions that prevent competition from weeds and very few weed-crop interactions have been characterised in detail. This project aims to uncover mechanisms underlying crop-weed interactions.

Project summary:

Plant to plant interactions are highly species-specific. Even though blackgrass is a major weed in the UK and Northern Europe, threatening winter wheat production, little is known on the mechanism that lead to a negative impact on wheat primary production. In other plant to plant interactions systems, the role soil microorganisms has been established. Here we will test the hypothesis that soil born fungi can mediate the effect of blackgrass on wheat. The student will use both field-based experiments setup at The NIAB Blackgrass centre (near Cambridge) and pot experiments (setup in NIAB glasshouses in Histon) to study the community of soil fungi in the rhizosphere and test their role on wheat growth.

What will the student do?

The student will be primarily based at NIAB integrated in the Genetics & Breeding Department, and Farming Systems which manage the Blackgrass centre.

In the field, the student will collect soil rhizosphere samples to analyse the soil fungal community using sequencing-based method (analyses can be conducted at CHAP established in NIAB HQ). Root exudates from blackgrass and wheat rhizosphere will be collected in the field and analysed. The composition of exudates of blackgrass alone, blackgrass growing alongside wheat or wheat growing alone will be compared. The effect of specific compounds (or family of compounds) on root system architecture will be tested on a small monocot crop (Eragrostis tef, it is small crop that lend itself to high throughput analysis of root system). Additional pots experiments will be conducted to quantify the effect of fungi on weed-crop interaction, fine mesh preventing hyphal growth will be used to prevent fungal-mediated interaction.

Training to be provided:

This project offers an excellent opportunity for the student to develop a skill set including

  • (a) development of strong data analysis skills and use of statistical programming languages such as R, as well as bioinformatic skills
  • (b) experimental design and practical fieldwork abilities
  • (c) thorough understanding of plant biotic interactions.


  • Finch J.A., Guillaume G., French S.A., Colaco R.D.D.R., Davies J.M., Swarbreck S.M. 2017. Wheat root length and not branching is altered in the presence of neighbours, including blackgrass. PLoS One.
  • MacLaren C., Storkey J., Menegat A., Metcalfe H., Dehnen-Schmutz K. 2020. An ecological future for weed science to sustain crop production and the environment. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development.
  • Bennett J.A.& Cahill J.F. 2016. Fungal effetcs on plant-plant interactions contribute to grassland plant abundances: evidence from the field. Journal of Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12558

For details on how to apply to the Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships see