Making scents of pollination: Leveraging metabolomics, artificial intelligence and molecular biology to understand and improve reproduction of wild plants and crops

   School of Biosciences

  , Dr Michael Smith,  Friday, June 21, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Pollination is critical for the production of fruit, vegetable and seed crops for human consumption: over 65% of the top world crops are at least moderately dependent on animal pollinators. Pollination is also crucial for sustaining healthy, genetically diverse populations of wild plants. Our dependence on pollination as an ‘ecosystem service’ has led to growing concern over widespread declines in the abundance and diversity of wild pollinators. These declines represent a significant threat to food security, and highlight the importance of understanding the mechanisms by which plants attract pollinators.

One key mechanism by which plants attract pollinators is by producing attractive odours from floral tissue. Many flowers emit complex blends of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which act to advertise the presence of a reward (e.g. nectar). These scents are one facet of the stunning diversity of secondary metabolites produced by plants. The production of these metabolites is sensitive to the environment, and many are upregulated as an adaptive response to herbivore attack or abiotic stress. However, we know surprisingly little about whether and how plants can also modulate their floral scent in order to improve pollination. Answering these questions has profound implications for our understanding of plant diversity, and for improving yields of a wide range of insect-pollinated crops.

Our recent research has been studying the origins and mechanisms of tissue-specific VOC regulation, using wild and cultivated tomato (Solanaceae) as a model system. We are currently investigating how complex floral scent blends act as finely-tuned signals to bee pollinators, by analysing volatile scent production and environment-dependent gene regulation, and using novel machine learning approaches to study insect behaviour. In this studentship, you’ll take a lead role in these interdisciplinary investigations. You’ll have the opportunity to combine cutting-edge techniques in chemical ecology/metabolomics, transcriptomics, and computational approaches, as you discover the underpinnings of some of the most important yet enigmatic traits of flowering plants.

Project goals include:

1) Characterising volatile metabolite production in floral tissue using state-of-the-art metabolomics instruments (LC-MS/GC-MS) in Sheffield’s Biomics Facility; 2) Identifying key VOCs, and VOC blends, involved in pollinator recruitment, using state-of-the art 3D flight tracking analysis; 3) Investigating how plants regulate scent production under stress and how this affects pollination; and 4) Evaluating candidate scents and scent blends for crop improvement using whole-organism experiments in horticulturally relevant settings.

However, there is also scope to tailor the project depending on your interests, and prospective candidates are encouraged to contact us with questions in this regard.

You will be part of three diverse research groups, including the labs of Stuart A. Campbell (plant and insect chemical ecology); Michael Smith (AI-based 3D tracking of bumblebee behaviour); and Jurriaan Ton (molecular basis of plant-environment signaling), with added opportunities to engage with stakeholders for work with crops. This multidisciplinary team and project will equip you with training in molecular biology, metabolomics, computational biology, and whole-organism plant sciences. This studentship is funded by the Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food, one of the University’s flagship research institutes, where you will also have the opportunity to work and train with diverse academics from across the natural and social sciences, engineering and humanities and gain a multidisciplinary understanding of the complex challenges facing the agri-food system. The project team and wider institute will thereby equip you for a wide range of career paths in academia, industry, and/or policy.

We welcome applications from students with diverse backgrounds, and prospective applicants are encouraged to with informal inquiries about the project.

This PhD studentship is fully funded, including tuition fees, stipend (UKRI rate) and research/training grant for 3.5 years. To apply, please use the link to the University of Sheffield’s online application system. As part of their application, applicants are requested to upload: 1) a current CV; and 2) a one-page (max) research statement, summarising your past research experience and outlining specifically why you are interested in this project.

Agriculture (1) Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

This PhD studentship is fully funded, including tuition fees, stipend (UKRI rate) and research/training grant for 3.5 years.

First class or upper second 2(i) in a relevant subject. To formally apply for a PhD, you must complete the University's application form using the following link:

View Website

All applicants should ensure that both references are uploaded onto their application as a decision will be unable to be made without this information.


More information on working in the Campbell Lab can be found at:
More information on the Sheffield Sustainable Food Institute can be found at:

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