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  Improving Nitrogen Use Efficiency in Cereal Crops for Sustainable Food Production

   Department of Plant Sciences

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  Dr Matthew Milner, Dr Jeongmin Choi  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Nitrogen is an essential element, and its supplement boosts plant growth, development, and health, yet it is often limited in most agricultural soils. Industrial fertilizer production overcame this problem largely by relying on the chemical reaction called the Haber-Bosch process. However, industrial fertilizer supply is no longer a desirable option for future crop production because it causes too much financial and environmental burden. One impactful way to solve this problem is to develop new crop varieties and chemicals to improve the Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE, defined as ratio of grain produced per unit of nitrogen supply).

Plants take up nitrogen in two ways: direct uptake from the soil through the roots and indirect uptake by root microbial symbiosis such as nodule (for example, legumes) and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbioses. Both nitrogen uptake and subsequent transport require significant energy; plants therefore regulate nutrient uptake by monitoring their internal and external nutrient levels. Our own work recently showed that a class of phytohormones called brassinosteroids (BR) regulates nutrient use efficiency in wheat.

This project aims to develop cereal crops that use less nitrogen fertilizer by characterising the roles of brassinosteroid phytohormones in direct and symbiotic nutrient uptake pathways and has three main aims:

  •  to characterise the roles of the BR in NUE in wheat with and without the AM symbiosis by using existing and newly developed genetic material with altered BR biosynthesis levels
  • to translate the BR regulation of NUE in wheat to other crop species such as barely and rice
  • to investigate the role of BRs in changes in the soil microbiome of wheat and barley in the field


The successful applicant should have, or be in the process of obtaining an Honours Degree, or equivalent, in Plant Science, Applied Statistics or a related science subject with a minimum achievement of an upper second class (good 2:1). Applicants with an appropriate Masters degree are particularly encouraged to apply. Those interested in gaining expertise in a wide variety of molecular biology techniques are also strongly encouraged to apply since the project takes diverse disciplines, including genetics, plant hormone signalling, symbiosis, metagenomics and analytical biology. Applicants can contact Dr Matthew Milner or Dr Jeongmin Choi for an informal discussion on the research content of this project. 

The successful applicant will be based at the Crop Science Centre and registered with the University of Cambridge and will have a unique opportunity to work both in the state-of-art laboratories as well as take their findings into the field. Through collaborations with multiple institutes, including the University of Cambridge, Crop Science Centre, NIAB and The Morley Agricultural Foundation, the successful applicant will benefit from a variety of knowledge exchange and networking opportunities, which will be highly beneficial for their future career progress. 

See details of the University's Entry Requirements here.

All applications need to be submitted through the University’s Applicant Portal. Note there is an application fee.

Agriculture (1) Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

The Morley Agricultural Foundation (TMAF) is a charity that supports farming in the East of England by funding agricultural research, student studies, educational programmes for schools and the professional development of farmers and others. Its annually awarded Morley PhD Studentships are highly competitive and come with a stipend and a project budget. This studentship is for four years and is fully funded in line with UKRI-BBSRC standard rates. Applicants must be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), have settled status, have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements) or have indefinite leave to remain or enter.


Suggested Reading:
1. Wang Y, Cao JJ, Wang KX, Xia XJ, Shi K, Zhou YH, et al. BZR1 mediates brassinosteroid-induced autophagy and nitrogen starvation in tomato. Plant Physiol.; 2019;179:671–85.
2. Milner MJ, Swarbreck SM, Craze M, Bowden S, Bentley AR, Wallington EJ. Over-expression of the brassinosteroid gene TaDWF4 increases wheat productivity under low and sufficient nitrogen through enhanced carbon assimilation. bioRxiv 2021.09.21.461226
3. Wu C, Trieu A, Radhakrishnan P, Kwok SF, Harris S, Zhang K, et al. Brassinosteroids regulate grain filling in rice. Plant Cell.; 2008;20:2130–45.
4. Koh S, Lee S, Kim M, Koh J, Lee S, An S, et al. T-DNA tagged knockout mutation of rice OsGSK1, an orthologue of Arabidopsis BIN2, with enhanced tolerance to various abiotic stresses. Plant Mol Biol. ; 2007;65:453–66.
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