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PhD in Plant Biology - Improving cowpea as a crop for sub-Saharan Africa

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences

About the Project

Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp) is an important grain legume crop in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is used as food, feed livestock and source of income. Cowpea is an important food source as it is high protein and able to fix atmospheric nitrogen through symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria. The crop is relatively tolerant to drought and poor soil fertility conditions, but yields are limited under unfavourable conditions by water and nutrient availability, insect pests and diseases. This project aims to incorporate root traits for efficient phosphate acquisition and tolerance to drought into improved cowpea varieties.

You will use novel root imaging techniques (Electrical Impedance Tomography) to examine root system architecture (RSA) development in response to water and nutrient limitations. You will screen the RSA of cowpea populations under different nutrient and irrigation conditions to select plants with the most appropriate root structure. The acquisition of water and nutrients by the plant also depends on host biochemistry and interactions with symbiotic microbes. There is considerable scope for improving N-acquiring symbioses between cowpea and Rhizobia, but that this potential is often limited by other limiting nutrients, particularly phosphorus (P). You will study different routes by which cowpea can acquire immobile P from nutrient-poor soils. This will include screening populations for organic acid root exudation which can mobilise P using the metabolomics approaches. In addition, interactions with P-mobilising bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi will be investigated, to determine which strategy provides the optimal method of P acquisition. These studies will be used to explore the underlying genetic variation in cowpea populations and provide genetic targets for improved breeding and mechanistic studies.

Science Graduate School

As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you will get access to training opportunities of the Science Graduate School designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You will be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.

Funding Notes

Applicants will need to obtain funding to cover tuition fees and living expenses. The applicant should have, or expect to gain at least an upper second class degree, or equivalent overseas qualification, in a relevant subject

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