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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Ottoline Leyser

Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Ottoline Leyser - 3 April 2014. Sue Sparrow, The University of York
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

In the fifth in a series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, Professor Ottoline Leyser at the University of Cambridge highlights advances in the understanding of plant developmental biology.

Professor Ottoline Leyser. Image: Nuffield Council on Bioethics
Professor Ottoline Leyser.
Image: Nuffield Council on Bioethics

How did your bioscience career first begin?

"Excellent teachers at school and university first got me excited about developmental biology. I was particularly impressed by the discoveries achieved using Drosophila, the fruit fly, as a model. I was frustrated that work in plants, where development is continuously adjusted dependent on the environment, was lagging behind.

"This was the mid-1980s and Arabidopsis was beginning to emerge as a model organism in plant biology. Fortunately for me, Ian Furner at the University of Cambridge was just establishing his lab in the Genetics Department and agreed to take me on as a PhD student using Arabidopsis developmental genetics to study shoot growth."

What are you working on now?

"I am still working on Arabidopsis developmental genetics, with a focus on how environmental information is integrated into plant developmental programmes. We are using the control of shoot branching by nutrient availability as our main study system. We are particularly interested in the action of a network of interacting plant hormones which move throughout the plant, integrating local and global information to regulate branch activation."

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

"Twenty years ago I was just starting my own lab at the University of York. At that time, the main bottleneck in plant developmental genetics was identifying mutationally defined genes at the molecular level. This bottleneck has been gradually removed through genomics and high throughput genome sequencing. As a result, we now know the main players behind many key regulatory processes, with some understanding of their biochemical activities.

Section through an Arabidopsis shoot apex just after floral transition showing developing shoot branches. Image: Petra Stirnberg
Section through an Arabidopsis shoot apex just after floral transition showing developing shoot branches. Image: Petra Stirnberg

"This complexity and the degree of feedback in these systems mean that computational modelling is now an essential tool for understanding their function. I would say that the main advance in my field over the past 20 years has been the shift from deconstruction to reconstruction. The new focus is on understanding how these molecular systems work dynamically to deliver whole plant function."

What are the 5 key bioscience milestones that you've been part of?

  • 1986 - 1990 PhD with Ian Furner, University of Cambridge
    Identification and characterisation of Arabidopsis mutants in meristem homeostasis.
  • 1990 - 1993 Post-doc with Mark Estelle, Indiana University
    Successful map based cloning of a mutationally defined Arabidopsis gene, providing hints that auxin signalling involved regulated protein degradation.
  • 1994 - 2005 University of York
    Contributions to understanding the auxin signalling pathway that regulates gene expression, from receptor to degradation of the Aux/IAA transcriptional repressor family.
  • 1994 - 2010 University of York
    Contributions to the discovery of the strigolactone pathway and its role in auxin-mediated branching inhibition.
  • 2003 - 2014 University of York and University of Cambridge
    Elucidation of the role of auxin transport canalisation in systemic regulation of branching, and the ability of strigolactones in influencing it.

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

"BBSRC has supported my career in many ways. The most obvious is in the provision of research funding. The first grants to my lab were from the former Science and Engineering Research Council (shoot branching project) and Agriculture and Food Research Council (auxin signalling). Thereafter with the formation of BBSRC, my lab at York received three consecutive responsive mode grants for each of these projects, funding them continuously from 1998 to 2008. I have always considered these two projects to be the core work in my group over that period.

Ottoline’s research group at the University of York circa 2003. To date, Ottoline has supported 19 BBSRC-funded PhD students. Image: The University of York
Ottoline’s research group at the University of York circa 2003. To date, Ottoline has supported 19 BBSRC-funded PhD students. Image: University of York

"BBSRC support was also instrumental in allowing me to move swiftly to adopt post-genomic approaches with a career development fellowship and grants from several relevant initiatives such as the Investigating Gene Function Initiative. This allowed me to found GARNet, a BBSRC sponsored network to support functional genomic approaches in the Arabidopsis and the wider plant community.

"Between 1997 and 2012, I served almost continuously on various BBSRC committees, starting with the Genes and Developmental Biology Response Mode Committee, and ending with the Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel. I have always found this work interesting and rewarding, and the opportunity to contribute in this way has certainly supported my career.

"I have supervised 19 BBSRC-funded PhD students and enjoyed numerous interesting collaborations with researchers at BBSRC-funded institutes. Most recently, these collaborations have allowed me to apply the understanding we have developed in Arabidopsis to crop systems. For example, we are collaborating with Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research to apply this understanding to willow grown for bioenergy. We have identified a remarkable degree of similarity between the mechanisms regulating branching in willow and those in Arabidopsis, which is helping to accelerate the Rothamsted willow biomass breeding programme. We also hope our work on branching responses to nutrients will help improve nutrient use efficiency in crops to allow high yields with a reduced need for fertiliser."

Tags: 20 years of bioscience crops people pioneers plants feature