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our strategy
Professor Alison Smith, Head of Department
The University of Cambridge has been central to innovation and teaching in Plant Science for many years; the scientific home for a dynasty of famous botanists including John Ray and Stephen Hales in the 17th and 18th centuries, Darwin’s mentor JS Henslow in the 19th century, and Blackman, Tansley and Godwin in the 20th century. Blackman discovered the basic mechanisms of photosynthesis and Tansley, who established our nature reserve system, coined the term ecosystem. Their legacy continues today with vibrant research and teaching in the Department of Plant Sciences. Elsewhere in the University the Sainsbury Laboratory works exclusively on plants and there are groups with related interests in other University Departments.

The three strategic targets of our work are global food security, various types of synthetic biology and biotechnology, and climate science and ecosystem conservation. Some projects are directly targeted to application. Other projects are fundamental research that, in the words of George Porter (President of the Royal Society 1985-1990) is “not yet applied”. The potential impact of these projects could be in terms of the three strategic targets, or in basic science that is then applied by others in diverse areas including medicine.

Recent discoveries from our fundamental research include:

  • Genetic control mechanisms in plants that also operate in animals. These mechanisms underpin research tools in modern biology and they have potential application for both diagnosis and therapy of disease in plants and animals including man.
  • Principles underlying the spread of disease in plant communities and crops.
  • Mechanisms affecting protein accumulation in chloroplasts so that pharmaceuticals can be produced in plants.
  • Modifications made by viruses to plant metabolism that influence the feeding behaviour of insects, with implications for spread of viruses and crop pollination.
  • Identification of new components of the molecular clock in plants that influences flowering and seed size.