The lab seeks to understand how plants make decisions. Like us, plants use information from the environment to time key decisions in their life. These include when to reproduce by flowering, or when to start a new plant by breaking seed dormancy. Unlike us, plants don’t have a brain. Despite this, they have a remarkable ability to accurately time their decisions and survive even when conditions in the environment are highly variable.
To investigate plant decision-making, the lab takes an approach where they are viewed as computers. Inputs are received (signals from the environment) and processed to generate outputs (decisions such as flowering or germination). Their lack of a centralized brain (or CPU) means they possess a distributed, decentralized architecture.
Understanding how plants make decisions has many important applications in agriculture, particularly in light of rapid climate change. Achieving rapid and uniform seed germination is required to maximize yields and reduce chemical herbicide use. The accurate timing of flowering is crucial for many field crops, including wheat and oilseed rape, which grow through the winter and flower in the spring.
The lab is leveraging its key findings to contribute towards food security by enhancing crop species using CRISPR. In this way, crops resilient to fluctuations in the environment and climate change are being developed.
Research: Technical Summary
The lab takes interdisciplinary “systems-based” approach to investigate how complex living systems are created and operate. Using plants as a system of study, we are seeking to understand how cells come together to create organs which are greater than the sum of their parts. In particular, how plants make decision using these collections of cells.
Like us, plants use information from the environment to time key decisions in their life. These include when to reproduce by flowering, or when to start a new plant by breaking seed dormancy. Unlike us, plants don’t have a brain. Despite this, they have a remarkable ability to accurately time their decisions and survive even when conditions in the environment are highly variable.
A biological computation perspective to investigate this decision-making is being taken. By viewing plants as distributed and decentralized information processing systems, parallels between these naturally evolved and human-engineered computational systems can be performed. This provides for a discrete framework to investigate this complex biological phenomenon.
First, the functional relevance of cellular configurations is being quantitatively examined using quantitative 3D image analysis and network science. Second, the capacity of these collections of cells to process information from the environment is studied through a combination of experiments and information processing models such as cellular automata.
This research, which lies at the interface between developmental biology, mathematics, physics and computer science, is bridging gaps in our understanding of complex life, and has application for the rational reprogramming and design of multicellular systems. In particular, the development of crops with customized responses to variable environmental conditions.
Findings from the lab are being leveraged to produce crops which are resilient to climate change through the use of CRISPR.
For a full list of publications, see WRAP
- 2019 Professor, University of Warwick
- 2016 Professor, University of Birmingham
- 2012 Birmingham Fellow, University of Birmingham
- 2009 Marie Curie IIF, University of Nottingham
- 2007 NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of Nottingham
- 2006 PhD University of Guelph