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Department of Plant Sciences


There has never been a more exciting time to study plants - they are the focus of key global issues: How do we feed an additional 2‐3 billion people? How do we replace fossil fuels? How do we maintain biodiversity in the face of climate change.

The course prepares students for these challenges, from the marriage of conventional crop breeding to transgenic methodologies, to the sustainable development of bioenergy crops and their processing, and likely direct or indirect effects on carbon emissions and sequestration by plants.

The study of microbes is integrated throughout the course, whether as used in synthetic biology, as models of cellular development, or how phytoplankton and bacteria can help to generate sources of second and third generation biofuels.


Course aims and learning outcomes

  • The course provides an up‐to‐date understanding of plant and microbial sciences.
  • Students are trained in scientific and transferable skills through modular lecture courses, research projects, written work, seminars and supervisions.
  • At the end of the course, students will have increased their capacity to think critically; ability to design and execute an experiment; and their confidence and ability in communicating ideas. This will serve as a lasting and practical basis for a career in research as well as teaching, media, law, commerce, government or management.

The modular nature of the courses means that students can specialise for an entirely molecular Plant Sciences degree, an entirely ecological Plant Sciences degree, or a degree with a significant microbiology component or all in combination.


The modules

Students choose four modules to study, two in Michaelmas term and two in Lent term. We offer seven modules covering cellular and ecological options. Plant Sciences students can also take up to two modules offered by other Departments.


  • Plant signalling networks in growth and development
  • Microbes: evolution, genomes and lifestyle
  • Evolution and Ecosystem Dynamics
  • Conservation Science (Interdepartmental, based in Zoology)


  • Plant Genomes and Synthetic Biology
  • Responses to Global Change (Interdepartmental, based in Plant Sciences)
  • Exploiting Plant Metabolism: a focus on food and fuel security (Joint with Biochemistry)

Additional Modules (all timetabled in Lent)

  • Bioinformatics
  • Evolution and Behaviour: populations and societies (from Zoology)
  • Applied Ecology (from Zoology)
  • Evolutionary Genetics and Adaptation (from Genetics)


Research Project

Students complete an independent research project in Part II as an integral component of their studies. Investigative work is undertaken in Michaelmas and the first four weeks of Lent Terms - typically occupying an average of 16 hours per week. 

Students receive a list of research project titles during the long vacation from which to select. Students are encouraged to explore current research interests in the Department to develop and choose their research projects and critical review essay topics. Students may also undertake research projects at the Sainsbury Laboratory. 


Critical Review Essay

Students complete a 2000-2500 word essay chosen from a list of titles provided at the start of the Michaelmas Term. A student's supervisor for this essay must be different from that of their research project. 

The essay is written as a critical review in the style of a “Commentary” or “News and Views” article covering recent developments in Plant Sciences or related areas. These types of articles are published routinely in journals such as Nature, Science or Plant Cell etc when a particularly important piece of work has been published.



Students sit four theory papers, writing three essays from a choice of six covering an entire module in each paper. Two questions will assume an understanding of the material taught by at least two lecturers in the module concerned. All essays are double marked.

  • 64% of marks from four theory papers
  • 27% of marks from your research project
  • 9% of marks from your critical review essay


Other routes in plant sciences

Ecology at Part II

Many students take what is in effect a Part II Ecology course based in either Plant Sciences or Zoology.  

Part II Plant Sciences (Ecology) students will take four ecological modules from those listed above, together with a Research Project and Critical Review Essay supervised by Plant Sciences staff. 

Final year Plant Scientists and Zoologists have the chance to attend a Tropical Field Course, run in either Panama or Borneo. Data collected on the Tropical Field Course can be used as the basis of your Research Project.


Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Part II

Plant Sciences can also be studied as major or minor options within NST Part II Biological and Biomedical Sciences (NST BBS).

NST Part II BBS allows you to maintain some breadth in your study at Part II and requires the submission of a dissertation rather than a practical laboratory‐based research project.

You can find further information about NST Part II BBS here.