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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge
January 2017: Meet Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser

Appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours List, Ottoline Leyser talks about her research in plant developmental biology, its importance to global food security, and the legacy she hopes to leave for future generations.

Q: What’s your research about?

A: I have a fundamental interest in understanding plant developmental biology, particularly the ability of plants to tune their development according to the environment they’re growing in. As a model of this I look at shoot branching in response to nutrient availability.

Q: Why is this important for global food security?

A: Shoot branching is important in agricultural productivity, and it’s been changed through crop domestication. For example the maize we grow today has very few branches, but it was domesticated from a wild grass that was very branched. The advantage for modern agriculture of less branches is better yields, through less shading between plants, increased Harvest Index (the proportion of the plant’s energy that goes into making seed rather than stem), and more synchronous ripening of seeds. The drawback to being less branchy is that if some seeds don’t germinate in a bad year, the crop has lost the ‘filling in’ ability that most plants have. This means that yield stability is affected - the years when you get maximum yield from a crop are few and far between.

Plants may be rooted to the spot, but they have developed remarkable ways to adapt to the environment in which they find themselves. This ‘developmental plasticity’ influences their chances of survival and reproduction, but agriculture has driven towards reduced plasticity. With our increasingly unpredictable climate we need to work out how to put plasticity back in.

Q: Why have you dedicated your career to understanding plant development?

A: Because it’s interesting! I’m curiosity-driven, and I’m excited by the big questions in developmental biology - how do you go from a single cell to a complex multicellular organism with everything in the right places and working properly.

Q: Have you ever had a Eureka moment?

A: The depiction of science as a linear process where you come up with a hypothesis, test it by experiment, and get the results you want only happens a few times in your career. I did once have an exciting afternoon like that, when I was trying to understand how plants recognise how much of an important hormone called auxin they have. We had developed the hypothesis that auxin controls the stability of a particular family of proteins and so the amount of auxin would determine the amount of these proteins inside the plant’s cells. We spent a lot of time and effort making plants in which we could see directly how much of these proteins were present by tagging them with a marker that could be visualised. When all these plants were ready, we added auxin and watched what happened, and indeed the tagged protein disappeared. But most of the time it’s the slow evolution of ideas that drives change.

Q: What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?

A: My PhD supervisor once said that I was very good at asking for advice but not at taking it. In fact, the best advice I can give is don’t take advice! If you know what you want to achieve in biology, that should be your guiding light, and I was very fortunate in knowing what I wanted to achieve. You need to try and figure out what you want in life, what interests and fulfils you, and then find the environment that matches who you are.

Q: As a female scientist have you faced any particular challenges to your career progression?

A: It’s rare to come across anything I’d call direct discrimination, but lots of women can be intimidated by the male-dominated scientific environment and the competitiveness that comes with that. I’ve ignored it rather than felt uncomfortable, and I’m fortunate that gender has been an obvious focus as a way of increasing diversity to catalyse creativity - I think I’ve been given opportunities earlier than men, in the drive to promote diversity.

Q: How do you feel about being appointed a DBE?

A: Very happy. I view it in terms of recognition for science, the importance of science in society, and creating an environment in which science is open to everyone.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: It’s lovely to get the DBE, but it’s not about being remembered for being in the New Year Honours list. I’m much more interested in leaving a research culture in science that is more welcoming to diversity, and having increased our understanding of how plants work.


Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser is Director of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory, and her research is supported by grants from the European Research Council and the Gatsby Foundation.