Lady Emily Smyth Studentships

The Lady Emily Smyth Studentship is a prestigious award to support two scholars undertaking Masters by Research at the University of Bristol. Funded by the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation, the award will cover the full cost of fees, stipend and consumables for a year, with a supplement to support dissemination. 


Fee £4,475
Stipend (BBSRC level) £15,561
Research support £ 4,500


UK students are eligible to apply for this award using the University of Bristol's postgraduate application form. Students should indicate their preferred supervisor and that they wish to be considered for the Lady Emily Smyth Studentship. The closing date for applications is 7th January 2021. Supervisors will be asked to nominate their preferred candidate for the award and applications will be ranked by committee prior to interviews, which will be held in the week commencing 25th February 2021.

The Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation embraces an inclusive workplace culture and encourages qualified candidates from all backgrounds to apply.

Projects for 2021 admission:

Identifying genes with the potential to reduce soil erosion in crops using plant model systems

Professor Claire Grierson

We wish to understand how plants help hold roots and soil together. This is important because crops have major effects on soil erosion rates and the fertility of land in cultivation. The selection and use of crop plants that are better able to hold soils together is a key goal of sustainable agriculture. Using forward and reverse genetics and proteomics, we have identified candidate genes affecting soil erosion and prioritised these candidates based on the abundance of their gene products in Arabidopsis root exudates and the strength of mutant phenotypes. We now wish to identify related genes in crop species. 

The gene regulatory logic of plant stem cell function 

Dr Jill Harrison

Plant shape is patterned by the activity of stem cells in the growing shoot tips and is a major determinant of plant productivity and yield. The size of the stem cell pool in Arabidopsis shoot tips is kept constant as plants grow by the activity of a small genetic circuit comprising small peptides, their receptors which act as kinases, and a downstream transcription factor. The CLV3 peptide acts via the CLV1 receptor to suppress the transcription of the WUSCHEL transcription factor, and WUSCHEL then moves to the CLV3 expression domain, promoting expression to generate a feedback loop to maintain the size of the stem cell pool. The hormonal environment of cells in the shoot apex is also important in regulating stem cell activity, and the CLV/WUS feedback loop intercepts auxin and cytokinin signalling.  

The CLV/WUS pathway operates in a similar way in many flowering plants. However, the WOX gene family has undergone extensive duplications and losses in the plant tree of life, and CLV is only present in land plants. These findings raise questions about the fundamental requirements of land plant stem cell function. 

This project aims to interrogate the fundamental requirements for land plant stem cell function by testing whether CLV acts via WOX genes in Physcomitrium. The project will involve generation of loss-and gain-of function mutants and reporter lines and phenotypic analysis to build a model of WOX function.  

Combined with ongoing work in my lab on hormonal interactions with CLV, the findings will enable us to deduce the regulatory logic of Physcomitrium stem cell function. Comparison with findings from Arabidopsis will reveal generalities in the regulatory logic of land plant stem cell function, with broad potential significance in plant science.  

 Re-engineering peroxisome movement in plants

Imogen Sparkes

The growing global population requires the development of novel strategies to sustainably increase food production. Organelle movement is dynamic and linked to changes in cell size, plant biomass and in response to factors which affect food production such as pathogens (Perico and Sparkes, New Phytol. 2018; Ryan and Nebenführ, Plant Physiol 2018). Our understanding of the molecular mechanisms which drive and regulate organelle movement is poor, as is our understanding as to how movement affects cell growth.   

 The project will identify the molecular components which drive organelle movement, more specifically the peroxisomes. By mutating the identified molecular tools, we will then be able to re-engineer peroxisome movement and determine how changes in movement affect cell size.  

 The project will provide training in plant imaging, cell biology and molecular biology, and will be based at the University of Bristol in Dr Sparkes’ research group within the plant biology grouping ( Experience in plant biology is not essential although may be advantageous. 

Why are storage pests so successful at adapting to novel environments?

A major problem for grain storage is infestation by insect pests whose larvae bore into grain, causing significant damage and economic loss. As storing grain is a human innovation, crop pests provide an example of a recent yet highly successful adaptation to novel environments.

One compelling reason for why stored grain pests are so successful is that they are highly flexible in adapting to new grain types, in part because of adaptive strategies by breeding females. Most research on stored grain pests has focused on pesticide resistance, however, with less known about how they evolved and why they are so successful.

This project will investigate the role of maternal effects in determining the ability of stored-grain pests to successfully adapt to changed storage conditions and novel hosts using a powerful combination of phylogenetic meta-analysis and experimental evolution. These analyses will not only provide tests of recent theory on the role of plasticity in evolution, but can also have impact for developing strategies to control these significant pests. 

Saving Cassava : A novel gene in a deadly virus

Professor Gary Foster and Dr Andy Bailey

Cassava is a major crop in tropical areas around the world, and ranks 7th for its contribution to human calorie contributions world-wide, and 3rd in tropical areas. Its production is threatened in sub-Saharan Africa by two related viruses, CBSV and UCBSV. The Cassava brown streak viruses encode novel Ham1 proteins with conserved Maf/Ham1 motifs. Such proteins, found across prokaryotes and eukaryotes, have nucleoside triphosphate pyrophosphatase activities, which reduce mutation rates by preventing the incorporation of non‐canonical nucleotides into RNA and DNA, but such proteins are not usually encoded by viruses. The aim of this MSc is to exploit infectious clones (ICs) to viruses of cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) to fully understand the function of this novel gene Ham1 within the viral genome. The typical experiments would be to explore viral genome sequences, to generate a panel of chimeric ICs consisting of interchanged genes between CBSV and UCBSV, in addition to a panel of mutated individual genes, and to use these to study gene function and viral virulence. If we can discover the role of the Ham1 protein, it might be possible to use this knowledge to help combat CBSD and hence safeguard cassava crops into the future.

Phenotype analysis of cider apples and correlation with genomic data

Dr Andy Bailey and Keith Edwards

With the recent innovations from the Edwards lab in establishing high density markers for cider apples using the SeqSNP process with over 1500 SNPs spread cross the genome, it should be feasible to start to correlate particular phenotypes to genetic loci. Key characteristics of interest to cider producers involve cropping traits such as ripening date, disease resistance and fruit characteristics.

In this project we aim to work with local cider producers, and particularly those with heritage collections displaying significant diversity in these properties. We will catalogue the available varieties for each of these characteristics using a combination of questionnaires, and with biological assays on sampled material. These data will be assessed to see if there is any clear correlation to genotype, making use of the existing genome data and QTLs already developed for the eating apples. The aim is to identify particular SNPs that might be important in marker assisted breeding of cultivars in the future.

Pollen: The missing data in floral resource projects

Professor Jane Memmott

Pollinators feed on the nectar and pollen from flowers and from these they get most of the energy and nutrients needed to survive, reproduce and fulfil their crucial role as pollinators of 75% of world crops1. In 2016 we published a paper in Nature which documented a 32% decrease in nectar since the 1950s and showed that more than 50% of nectar in the UK comes from just four plant species2. In 2019, we added to this work with a paper on the ‘nectar hunger gaps’ experienced by bumblebees in British farmland3. A further paper on nectar supplies in cities4 will extend this work to cover nectar availability in almost every part of the country. These papers however tell just half the story, as pollinators feed on pollen as well as nectar.

In the original nectar project2, we collected nectar and pollen from 260 common plant species in the UK and measured the volume of each resource produced by flowers of each species. Nectar is replenished by flowers each day, so we could calculate nectar availability over a 24-hour period. Pollen however, is not replaced after the flower opens, so it is crucial to know how long each flower lasts for (i.e. its floral longevity) if we want to calculate pollen availability in a given period of time. Some flowers are open for just one day, and some for several weeks, though most are open between 2-10 days. This floral longevity is the missing piece of the puzzle; without it, our data is of limited use.

This masters project will complete the puzzle by collecting the missing dataset on floral longevity and combining it with our unique dataset on floral pollen production. With these two datasets combined, we can calculate the amount of pollen produced per flower, per 24-hours and thereby have unrivalled access to a rich vein of information on pollinator resources. The student working on this project will collect floral longevity data for 260 plant species from a variety of field sites, mostly in the south west of England and use the data, for example, to analyse the pollinator resources provided by Environmental Stewardship options and to design schemes to improve pollinator resources on farmland. 

flowers of plant species for which floral longevity data will be collected 

Photographs of some of the plant species for which floral longevity data will be collected.


1. Klein, A. M., Vaissière, B.E., Kremen, C. & Tscharntke, T. (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 274, 303-313 (2007).

2. Baude, M., Kunin, W.E., Boatman, N.D., Conyers, S., Davies, N., Gillespie, M.A.K., Morton, R.D., Smart, S.M. & Memmott, J. (2016) Historical nectar assessment reveals the fall and rise of floral resources in Britain. Nature, 530, 85-88. doi:10.1038/nature16532

3. Timberlake, T.P., Vaughan, I.P. & Memmott, J. (2019) Phenology of farmland floral resources reveals seasonal gaps in nectar availability for bumblebees. Journal of Applied Ecology:

4. Tew, N.E., Memmott, J., Vaughan, I.P. Bird, S., Stone, G, Potts, S.G. & Baldock, K.C.R. (submitted) Quantifying the nectar supply for pollinators in urban and rural landscapes, Ecology, invited resubmission.

5. Breeze, T. D. Bailey, A. P. Potts, S. G., Balcombe, K. G. (2015). A stated preference valuation of the non-market benefits of pollination services in the UK. Ecological Economics 111, 76-85



General Enquiries

All funding enquiries should be directed to Dr Helen Harper  All general enquiries should be directed to Rowan MacGregor

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