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More crop per drop: optimising root system architecture for sustainable food production


Key facts

Type of research degree
Application deadline
Friday 3 February 2023
Project start date
Sunday 1 October 2023
Country eligibility
UK only
Competition funded
Source of funding
Professor Pippa Chapman and Professor Stefan Kepinski
School of Biology
Research groups/institutes
Plant Science
<h2 class="heading hide-accessible">Summary</h2>

The rising world population and increasingly conspicuous effects of climate change are creating a &lsquo;perfect storm&rsquo; in which the demand for food and other agricultural commodities is growing dramatically and unsustainably. With limited additional land to be brought into agricultural production and pressure to reduce environmentally-damaging agricultural inputs, increases in food production of ~60% must be achieved through a sustainable intensification of agriculture over the next two-three decades [1]. Key to this will be the development of new crop varieties with improved yields under optimal and sub-optimal soil and climatic conditions. Root systems are central to the acquisition of water and nutrients by plants and have thus become a focus of crop improvement programmes and seed companies. In particular, traits such as root length, branching and growth angle determine the distribution of root surface area within the soil profile where nutrients and water are unevenly distributed[2]. For example, water and nitrogen (in the form of nitrate) are highly mobile within the soil and levels are generally higher within the deeper layers of the soil. For this reason, steep rooting angle has become recognised as a high-value crop improvement target associated with improved performance of crops at lower levels of irrigation and nitrate fertiliser application, both of which are associated with high carbon footprints and financial costs[2].&nbsp;

<h2 class="heading hide-accessible">Full description</h2>

<p>Work in the Kepinski lab has defined the mechanisms by which plants set the angle of growth of their lateral organs with respect to gravity identified multiple exciting new genetic approaches to the manipulation of root growth angle, including the generation of steeper, deeper rooting phenotypes[3,4]. This PhD project will build on these findings by combining functional characterisation of mutations in novel genes regulating root growth angle, number and length in Arabidopsis, wheat, sorghum and bean, as well as exploring genetic diversity for root architectural traits in cereal and legume crop germplasm collections. The project will involve approaches including genome editing to demonstrate the effects of novel mutations in commercially important crop species. Further, in collaboration with partners at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, the student will investigate the possibility of translating our fundamental research on root growth angle control to sorghum and maize, crops of high socio-economic significance in the Global South [5,6]. The project will also involve field evaluation of the effect of variation in root system architecture on crop performance under different fertiliser and irrigation regimes and also effects in soil health. This will include analysis of the predicted benefits of steeper, deeper rooting on soil organic carbon levels arising from placing more of the root body in lower soil horizons.&nbsp;</p> <p>This exciting project will allow the student to make fundamental discoveries with real-world impact while gaining a broad range of research experience from plant genomics and genetics to field evaluation of crop performance. &nbsp;The student will be based in Leeds under the supervision of Profs Stefan Kepinski (School of Biology) and Pippa Chapman (School of Geography).</p> <p>Potential applicants are encouraged to contact Prof. Stefan Kepinski ( if they would like to discuss the project.</p> <h5>References:</h5> <ol> <li>&nbsp;Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2017. &ldquo;The Future of Food and agriculture &ndash; Trends and Challenges.&rdquo; &nbsp;</li> <li>Lynch, JP. 2013. Steep, cheap and deep: an ideotype to optimize water and N acquisition by maize root systems. Annals of Botany 112:347&ndash;357.</li> <li>Roychoudhry, S., Del Bianco, M., Kieffer, M., Kepinski, S. (2013) Auxin controls gravitropic setpoint angle in higher plant lateral branches. Current Biology 23:1497-504.</li> <li>Roychoudhry, S, Kieffer, M, Del Bianco, M, Liao, C, Weijers, D and Kepinski, S. (2017) The developmental and environmental regulation of gravitropic setpoint angle in Arabidopsis and bean. Scientific Reports 7:42664 | DOI: 10.1038/srep42664</li> <li>Del Bianco, M. &amp; Kepinski, S. (2018) Building a future with root architecture. Journal of Experimental Botany 69:5319-5323.&nbsp;</li> </ol> <p>&nbsp;</p>

<h2 class="heading">How to apply</h2>

<p>To apply for this scholarship opportunity applicants should complete an <a href="">online application form</a> and attach the following documentation to support their application.&nbsp;</p> <ul> <li>a full academic CV</li> <li>degree certificate and transcripts of marks</li> <li>Evidence that you meet the University&#39;s minimum English language requirements (if applicable)</li> </ul> <p>To help us identify that you are applying for this scholarship project please ensure you provide the following information on your application form;</p> <ul> <li>Select PhD in Biological Sciences as your programme of study</li> <li>Give the full project title and name the supervisors listed in this advert</li> <li>For source of funding please state you are applying for a Gosden PhD scholarship</li> </ul> <p><em>As an international research-intensive university, we welcome students from all walks of life and from across the world. We foster an inclusive environment where all can flourish and prosper, and we are proud of our strong commitment to student education. &nbsp;Within the Faculty of Biological Sciences we are dedicated to diversifying our community and we welcome the unique contributions that individuals can bring, and particularly encourage applications from, but not limited to Black, Asian, people who belong to a minority ethnic community, people who identify as LGBT+; and people with disabilities. Applicants will always be selected based on merit and ability.</em>&nbsp;</p>

<h2 class="heading heading--sm">Entry requirements</h2>

Applicants to research degree programmes should normally have at least a first class or an upper second class British Bachelors Honours degree (or equivalent) in an appropriate discipline. A Master degree is desirable but not essential.

<h2 class="heading heading--sm">English language requirements</h2>

The minimum English language entry requirement for research postgraduate research study is an IELTS of 6.0 overall with at least 5.5 in each component (reading, writing, listening and speaking) or equivalent. The test must be dated within two years of the start date of the course in order to be valid. Some schools and faculties have a higher requirement.

<h2 class="heading">Funding on offer</h2>

<p>This Gosden PhD Studentship in Plant Science will cover academic fees at the UK rate and attract an annual tax-free stipend of &pound;17,668 for up to four years, subject to satisfactory progress. Due to limited funding we can only consider applicants for this position who are eligible to pay fees at the UK rate.</p>

<h2 class="heading">Contact details</h2>

<p>For further information please contact the Faculty Graduate&nbsp;School&nbsp;</p> <p>e:&nbsp;<a href=""></a></p>

<h3 class="heading heading--sm">Linked funding opportunities</h3>
<h3 class="heading heading--sm">Linked research areas</h3>