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More crop per drop: optimising root system architecture for sustainable food production

   Faculty of Biological Sciences

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  Prof Stefan Kepinski, Prof Pippa Chapman  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The rising world population and increasingly conspicuous effects of climate change are creating a ‘perfect storm’ in which the demand for food and other agricultural commodities is growing dramatically and unsustainably. With limited additional land to be brought into agricultural production and pressure to reduce environmentally-damaging agricultural inputs, increases in food production of ~60% must be achieved through a sustainable intensification of agriculture over the next two-three decades [1]. Key to this will be the development of new crop varieties with improved yields under optimal and sub-optimal soil and climatic conditions. Root systems are central to the acquisition of water and nutrients by plants and have thus become a focus of crop improvement programmes and seed companies. In particular, traits such as root length, branching and growth angle determine the distribution of root surface area within the soil profile where nutrients and water are unevenly distributed[2]. For example, water and nitrogen (in the form of nitrate) are highly mobile within the soil and levels are generally higher within the deeper layers of the soil. For this reason, steep rooting angle has become recognised as a high-value crop improvement target associated with improved performance of crops at lower levels of irrigation and nitrate fertiliser application, both of which are associated with high carbon footprints and financial costs[2].

Work in the Kepinski lab has defined the mechanisms by which plants set the angle of growth of their lateral organs with respect to gravity identified multiple exciting new genetic approaches to the manipulation of root growth angle, including the generation of steeper, deeper rooting phenotypes[3,4]. This PhD project will build on these findings by combining functional characterisation of mutations in novel genes regulating root growth angle, number and length in Arabidopsis, wheat, sorghum and bean, as well as exploring genetic diversity for root architectural traits in cereal and legume crop germplasm collections. The project will involve approaches including genome editing to demonstrate the effects of novel mutations in commercially important crop species. Further, in collaboration with partners at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, the student will investigate the possibility of translating our fundamental research on root growth angle control to sorghum and maize, crops of high socio-economic significance in the Global South [5,6]. The project will also involve field evaluation of the effect of variation in root system architecture on crop performance under different fertiliser and irrigation regimes and also effects in soil health. This will include analysis of the predicted benefits of steeper, deeper rooting on soil organic carbon levels arising from placing more of the root body in lower soil horizons.

This exciting project will allow the student to make fundamental discoveries with real-world impact while gaining a broad range of research experience from plant genomics and genetics to field evaluation of crop performance. The student will be based in Leeds under the supervision of Profs Stefan Kepinski (School of Biology) and Pippa Chapman (School of Geography).

Potential applicants are encouraged to contact Prof. Stefan Kepinski ([Email Address Removed]) if they would like to discuss the project.


You should hold a first degree equivalent to at least a UK upper-second class honours degree or a MSc degree in a relevant subject.

Applicants whose first language is not English must provide evidence that their English language is sufficient to meet the specific demands of their study. The Faculty of Biological Sciences minimum requirements in IELTS and TOEFL tests are:

  • British Council IELTS - score of 6.0 overall, with no element less than 5.5
  • TOEFL iBT - overall score of 87 with the listening and reading element no less than 20, writing element no less than 21 and the speaking element no less than 22.

How to apply:

To apply for this project applicants should complete an online application form and attach the following documentation to support their application. 

  • a full academic CV
  • degree certificate and transcripts of marks
  • Evidence that you meet the University's minimum English language requirements (if applicable).

To help us identify that you are applying for this studentship please ensure you provide the following information on your application form;

  • Select PhD in Biological Sciences as your programme of study
  • When asked for source of funding please make it clear that you are applying for a "Gosden PhD Scholarship"
  • Give the full project title and name the supervisors listed in this advert.

If you have any further queries regarding this opportunity, please contact [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

The Gosden PhD Studentship in Plant Science will cover academic fees at the UK rate and attract an annual tax-free stipend of £17,668 for up to four years, subject to satisfactory progress. Due to limited funding we can only consider applicants for this position who are eligible to pay fees at the UK rate.


1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2017. “The Future of Food and agriculture – Trends and Challenges.”
2. Lynch, JP. 2013. Steep, cheap and deep: an ideotype to optimize water and N acquisition by maize root systems. Annals of Botany 112:347–357.
3. Roychoudhry, S., Del Bianco, M., Kieffer, M., Kepinski, S. (2013) Auxin controls gravitropic setpoint angle in higher plant lateral branches. Current Biology 23:1497-504.
4. Roychoudhry, S, Kieffer, M, Del Bianco, M, Liao, C, Weijers, D and Kepinski, S. (2017) The developmental and environmental regulation of gravitropic setpoint angle in Arabidopsis and bean. Scientific Reports 7:42664 | DOI: 10.1038/srep42664
5. Del Bianco, M. & Kepinski, S. (2018) Building a future with root architecture. Journal of Experimental Botany 69:5319-5323.
6. Jennings et al. (2022) A new integrated assessment framework for climate-smart nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa: the integrated Future Estimator for Emissions and Diets (iFEED). Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 6,

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