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Improving drought tolerance in wheat: is delayed senescence the answer?

Primary Supervisor: Dr Philippa Borrill, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Dr Marco Catoni

PhD project title: Improving drought tolerance in wheat: is delayed senescence the answer?

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Wheat is a staple crop for billions of people worldwide and provides 20% of calories eaten by humankind. However, wheat is strongly affected by drought which can cause up to 50 % yield losses. In 2020 an exceptionally dry spring contributed to one of the worst wheat harvests for decades in the UK, with a 15% reduction in yields. This is not a one off event - climate change is causing droughts to increase in frequency and severity globally, which threatens food security.

One route to increase drought tolerance is to delay senescence i.e. make the crop stay green for longer. Delayed senescence has been shown to increase drought tolerance in several crop species, and maintain yields in dry conditions. However the genes regulating senescence, particularly in drought conditions, are not well understood in wheat. In this project we will use molecular biology, genetics and genomics to understand the genes underpinning the connection between senescence and drought tolerance in wheat. This will contribute to the development of more drought tolerant wheat cultivars.

We have identified a number of candidate transcription factors that may regulate both senescence and drought tolerance. These transcription factors will form a starting point for this project which can be tailored according to the interests of the student. The project will take advantage of the suite of genomic resources developed by the Borrill lab through international collaborations including the wheat genome sequence (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, Science, 2018), gene networks (Ramirez-Gonzalez et al., Science, 2018) and sequenced mutant populations (Krasileva et al., PNAS, 2017). The project will provide training in a wide range of skills including molecular biology, plant physiology, genomics and bioinformatics.


  1. Borrill P, Harrington SA, Simmonds J, Uauy C. 2019. Identification of transcription factors regulating senescence in wheat through gene regulatory network modelling. Plant Physiology 180: 1740-1755.
  2. Gálvez S, Mérida-García R, Camino C, Borrill P, Abrouk M, Ramirez-Gonzalez RH, Biyiklioglu S, Amil-Ruiz F, The IWGSC, Dorado G, Budak H, Gonzalez-Dugo V, Zarco-Tejada P, Appels R, Uauy C, Hernandez P. 2019. Hotspots in the genomic architecture of field drought responses in wheat as breeding targets. Functional & Integrative Genomics.10: 295.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Plant and Crop Science

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

        This project will use a wide-range of cutting-edge molecular biology, genetic, genomic and bioinformatic approaches to investigate the molecular mechanisms regulating senescence and drought tolerance in wheat. The student will gain experience in analysing big data (gene networks and genomics/transcriptomics), generating mutant and/or transgenic lines to investigate gene function, plant husbandry, marker design, genotyping, gene expression analysis (qPCR) and carrying out physiological and molecular phenotypic evaluation. This project will offer the opportunity to integrate wet lab experience with computational biology which will stand the PhD candidate in good stead for a range of career opportunities.

        Contact: Dr Philippa Borrill, University of Birmingham