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Dr Heather Whitney

Dr Heather Whitney

Dr Heather Whitney
BSc(Lond.), PhD(Bristol), F.L.S.

Reader in Plant Interactions

Area of research

Plant Surface Interactions

Office Life Sciences: 307
Life Sciences Building,
24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ
(See a map)

+44 (0) 117 39 41206


I am primarily interested in how the structure of the plant surface can influence both biotic and abiotic interactions. I use a range of techniques to investigate these interactions including plant molecular biology, optical analysis, biomimetics and animal behavioural assays.

My research group is currently investigating the control of iridescence production in phylogenetically diverse leaves. Very little is known about leaf iridescence despite the fact that is found in at least 64 different species in 26 families. I was awarded an European Research Council (ERC) starting grant, which started January 2011, to look at the mechanisms and development of iridescence production and its genetic basis in Selaginella uncinata. This species can produce a vivid metallic blue iridescence over its surface, dependent on light conditions. The ERC starting grant is a lab-based plant development and molecular biology project focusing on developing Selaginella uncinata as a model system, and will use a transcriptome-based approach to identify the genes controlling the production of iridescence and behavioural methods to determine the impact of iridescence on animal vision.

Selaginella uncinata

Other current areas of interest include:

  • Plant surface gloss
  • The impact of surface structure on plant wettability and temperature
  • Plant insect interactions (pollination and herbivory)
  • Bee behaviour
  • Iridescence in algae

Moraea villosa


I did my first degree at Imperial College London (Plant Sciences BSc Hons, 1998). I moved to the IACR-Long Ashton Research Station, University of Bristol to conduct a PhD under the supervision of Professors Johnathan Napier and John Pickett. This project investigated the production of unusual monounsatuated lipids in the plant Bassia scoparia, which can be used to produce mosquito ovipositioning pheromones.  From Bristol, I moved to the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, where I was employed as a post-doctoral researcher for a cross-disciplinary project between Plant Sciences (Professor Alison Smith), Biochemistry (Professor Tom Blundell) and Chemistry (Professor Chris Abell) investigating the production of pantothenate (vitamin B5) in plants. I stayed in Cambridge to undertake an interdisciplinary post-doctoral position looking at how the petal surface structure influences the behaviour of insect pollinators with Dr Beverley Glover (Dept Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge) and Professor Lars Chittka (Queen Mary, University of London), which gave me the opportunity to use both molecular biology and animal behavioural methods. A six month MRC ‘discipline-hopping’ fellowship in the lab of Professor Ullrich Steiner (Biological and Soft Systems group, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge),  gave me further opportunities to collaboratively develop biomimetic and optical methods for analysing how the plant surface reflects light. I returned to Bristol in 2008 when I was awarded a Lloyd’s of London Tercentenary Trust fellowship. In 2011 I started an ERC starting grant to investigate the production of iridescence in plants.

Moraea villosa


  • Plant surface
  • Iridescence
  • Insect behaviour
  • Pollination
  • Bee behaviour
  • Plant-insect interactions
  • Plant development


  • Plant molecular biology
  • Insect behaviour
  • Plant optical analysis

Recent publications

View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

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