Plant scientist wins grant to help crops cope with climate change

  • Date

    Mon 10 Jan 22

Dr Amanda Cavanagh

Plant scientist Dr Amanda Cavanagh has won a Rank Prize New Lecturer grant for her work in developing strategies to improve crop performance in response to our changing climate.

Dr Cavanagh, from our School of Life Sciences and one of the three successful grant winners, said: “I am honoured to receive this award from the Rank Prize, which will play a critical role in establishing my research program in the Plant Productivity Group at Essex.”

The annual Rank Prize New Lecturer research grant is offered in the areas of human nutrition, animal nutrition and crop science to help postdoctoral scientists establish their careers as independent investigators.

The grant will fund Dr Cavanagh’s project to identify strategies to enhance the ability of brassica crops – such as cabbages and broccoli – to be more tolerant to extreme temperatures.

Climate change has meant earlier springs and delayed winters in the UK, resulting in longer growing seasons and more frequent and intense heat waves. Whilst longer growing seasons could increase the productivity of some crops, more frequent heat waves can reduce the yields of some crops by 30%.

Therefore, strategies to improve crop productivity to meet the anticipated two-fold increase in demand over the next 30 years must also adapt crops to warmer temperatures and extreme heat events.

Crops use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into sugars, but many crops – including major UK crops like wheat and rapeseed – are plagued by a photosynthetic glitch that can limit their yield potential because the enzyme responsible for converting carbon dioxide to carbohydrates can mistakenly grab an oxygen molecule, resulting in a process called photorespiration.

Dr Cavanagh’s project will provide the first detailed characterisation of this photosynthetic glitch which will help address the defining challenge for today’s plant researchers: producing enough food of sufficient quantity to meet the demands of a growing global population at a time of unparalleled climate change.