Leadership group


Prof. Sir David Baulcombe's group was the first to identify small interfering (si)RNAs as the specificity determinant of RNA silencing and through their genetic analyses have identified many components of RNA silencing pathways. Relevant to this application the group has unravelled many aspects of the role of RNA silencing in virus defense and other aspects of genetic and epigenetic regulation. His work has been recognised through several awards including the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Science, the 2010 Wolf Prize for Agriculture and the 2012 Balzan Prize for Epigenetics.


PROF. DALE SANDERS, Principal Investigator

Prof. Dale Sanders’ research investigates how plant cells respond to changes in their environment and how they store the nutrients they acquire. He is a leading authority on the mechanisms for the transport of chemical elements across cell membranes in plants. These mechanisms have key roles in the control of crucial crop traits such as nutritional value of foods, seed germination, response to drought and how plants cope with toxic compounds in the soil.


Prof. Anne Osbourn, Director

Prof. Anne Osbourn investigates plant natural products - function, synthesis and mechanisms underpinning metabolic diversification. An important advance from the Osbourn laboratory has been the discovery of gene clusters for specialized metabolic pathways in plants, a finding that has opened up new opportunities for elucidation of new pathways and chemistries through genome mining and for the development of synthetic/refactored clusters for improved/high-value plant traits. She has also developed and co-ordinates the Science, Art and Writing (SAW) initiative, a cross-curricular science education programme for enabling engagement of scientists with society.



Prof. Jim Haseloff and his lab engineered the first synthetic RNA enzymes with targeted substrate specificity, developed fluorescent proteins for plants, new misexpression systems in plants, new 3D microscopy and visualisation methods and computer models for plant morphogenesis. He has pioneered the application of Synthetic Biology approaches in plants, including new quantitative imaging techniques, genetic circuits for cell-cell communication, and adoption of lower plant systems for bioengineering.

Coordination group


Dr. dieuwertje van der does, programme Manager

Dr. Dieuwertje van der Does is the Norwich-based Project Manager for OpenPlant. With a research background in the plant sciences, she has a broad overview of OpenPlant research activities, and coordinates events, training, and outreach to build new synergies and increase the impact of the centre.

Alexandra Ting, Coordinator

Alexandra is a coordinator for OpenPlant and the Cambridge Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative. She organises a wide range of events such as Cafe Synthetique and the SynBio Forum that bring together students, researchers and external collaborators around synthetic biology. She also manages the Biomaker initiative that provides funding for interdisciplinary team-based projects at the intersection of engineering, biology, design, and low-cost instrumentation.


Dr. Susana Sauret-Gueto
Cambridge Lab: Research Manager

Dr. Susana Sauret-Gueto is an experienced molecular biologist and microscopist. She has established new facilities for robotic liquid-handling and advanced microscopy in the Cambridge OpenPlant laboratory, and is coordinating the sharing of standardised Marchantia resources. These include libraries of DNA parts and transformed plant lines. With a scientific background in plant growth and development, she supports researchers and strengthens the integration of research projects. Susana is the main organiser of the ROC Group (Researchers with OpenPlant Cambridge). 

Laboratory heads

Dr. Fernan Federici
International OpenPlant Fellow

Fernan is an assistant professor at PUC (Santiago, Chile) and manages a research group that explores spatial patterning, open science and educational efforts across Latin America. Fernan has a long association with Cambridge as a Gates Scholar and research fellow.  He is continues to play a pioneering role, contributing open technologies for bioengineering, science and education across Latin America, and exploring international collaborations with OpenPlant colleagues. 


Dr. Nicola Patron

Dr. Nicola Patron is a Group Leader in Synthetic Biology at the Earlham Institute. Her work aims to develop technologies to engineer photosynthetic organisms for the biosynthesis of materials and therapeutics and to improve plants for increased production and nutritive value. Her broader interests are in understanding the function of DNA sequences and the mechanisms and consequences of gene transfer. As a SynBio LEAP fellow Nicola was recognized as an emerging leader in synthetic biology with a desire to ensure that synthetic biology has positive social impact; she is interested in the complex questions of ownership and intellectual property that surround genetic sequences and biomolecules.


Dr. Jim Ajioka

Dr. Jim Ajioka's lab works on large scale DNA assembly of synthetic circuits in Gram positive bacteria and protozoan biology. He leads a Wellcome Trust programme to build and employ novel biosensors, using Synthetic Biology techniques. Jim’s lab is also funded by the EPSRC for foundational work such as generalised codon optimisation, robust switches and counters and big DNA manipulation. The lab’s work on big DNA extends to the collaboration with the Haseloff lab on plant plastids.


PROF. Sarah O’Connor

Prof. Sarah O’Connor uses transcriptomic and genomic data to elucidate the alkaloid pathways of Madagascar Periwinkle, a medicinal plant that produces compounds that are used to treat a variety of cancers and other diseases. All plants synthesize thousands of complicated molecules that they use to protect themselves from predators, attract pollinators and communicate with other plants. Thousands of years ago, humans realized that many of these plant-derived molecules also have a powerful impact on human health and well-being. Advances in genomic and transcriptomic sequencing have rapidly advanced our understanding of the complex metabolic pathways that produce these high-value chemicals.


Prof. Rob Field

Prof. Rob Field has 30 years’ experience in glycobiology and associated (bio)chemistry. His interests lie in understanding and exploiting carbohydrate recognition, in the design of enzyme inhibitors as probes plant and microbial metabolism, and for the development of lectin-binding anti-adhesive agents to impact on cell adhesion by microbial pathogens (trypanosomes, Campylobacter, flu virus). These activities are underpinned by synergistic synthetic chemistry and synthetic biology efforts aimed at providing new routes to scalable bespoke carbohydrate production.


Prof. Paul Dupree

Prof. Paul Dupree studies plant cell wall polysaccharide synthesis, structure and function. These carbohydrates have important functions in the human diet, agriculture, bioenergy, paper and packaging and for building construction using timber. He has developed a range of innovative techniques for quantitative analysis of polysaccharides, such as PACE for studies of polysaccharide structures and enzyme activities, and DASH capillary electrophoresis of oligosaccharides using DNA sequencers. Having discovered a number of the enzymes that synthesise cell walls, he is now engineering plants to produce novel polysaccharide structures. This approach will generate plants with modified cell walls for improved material properties, and will enable producuction of high value plant products.


Prof. Giles Oldroyd

Prof. Giles Oldroyd is a leading investigator in plant-symbiotic interactions, with a particular focus on the signalling processes that allow the establishment of nitrogen-fixing and arbuscular mycorrhizal associations. His work has provided the genetic underpinnings to understand the symbiosis signalling pathway that allows rhizobial recognition in legumes and mycorrhizal associations in most plants. He leads an international programme funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the BBSRC that is attempting to engineer cereal recognition of rhizobial bacteria as the first step towards engineering nitrogen-fixing cereals.


Prof. Christopher Howe

Prof. Christopher Howe has long experience with the biochemistry and molecular biology of photosynthetic bacteria and chloroplasts, with a particular emphasis on electron transfer reactions. His lab has pioneered the development of ‘biophotovoltaic’ technology – the direct production of electricity from photosynthetic microorganisms – which underpins his contribution to OpenPlant. He has also made influential contributions to our understanding of the evolution of chloroplast genomes in organisms ranging from plants to protists. He is a scientific advisor to two local companies working in microbial biotechnology.


Prof. Cathie Martin

Prof. Cathie Martin uses genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology to investigate the basis of cellular specialisation in plants. This includes many aspects of metabolic specialisation, particularly phenylpropanoid metabolism and its regulation. She has used this to effectively engineer the production of polyphenol bioactives in crops, demonstrating healthpromoting properties in preclinical studies. Her expertise on transcriptional regulators of metabolic pathways has been applied in a wide range of plant species, establishing effective plant production systems of natural products including natural colours and bioactives from Chinese medicinal plants.



Prof. Alison Smith (JIC) studies starch and sucrose metabolism. Her recent work is on starch degradation in Arabidopsis leaves at night, the control of flux through this pathway and its relationship to carbon availability and growth. Her lab also studies pathways of starch metabolism in crops, including potato and wheat. A major current interest is the relationship between starch synthesis and grain yield in wheat.


Prof. Alison Smith

Prof. Alison G Smith (CAM) focuses on metabolism of plants and algae, particularly biosynthetic pathways for high value products such as vitamins, pigments and lipids. She has been developing tools for improved genetic manipulation of microalgae, in particular by generating regulatory genetic circuits using vitamin responsive promoters and riboswitches. By taking a synthetic biology approach to generate standard parts and workflows for optimal transgene expression, the aim is to establish microalgae as suitable platforms for industrial biotechnology production. In addition, she has established the Algal Innovation Centre in Cambridge that allows scale up of algal cultivation.


Prof. Alex Webb

Prof. Alex Webb’s lab is investigating how plants measure time by studying the circadian clock. They identify how the circadian clock provides benefits to plants to maximize their growth and productivity. As part of these studies they discovered that the regulation of photosynthesis, carbon metabolism and growth are regulated by the circadian clock. They use molecular genetic, transcriptomic, imaging and physiological techniques to understand circadian mechanisms. They also develop new engineering approaches for systems biology in collaboration with Engineers. They are collaborating with Bayer to convert our biological discoveries in to real world solutions for crop improvement.


Prof. Julian Hibberd

Prof. Julian Hibberd’s research aims to understand how C4 photosynthesis operates and to provide insight into the molecular mechanisms driving its evolution. The group uses a mixture of wet-lab, computational and synthetic approaches to answer these questions. His work includes the demonstration that C3 plants possess characteristics of C4 photosynthesis, the identification of cis-elements that underpin the expression of multiple C4 genes in evolutionarily independent C4 lineages, and technologies to allow specific cell types to be marked and isolated in leaves of C3 species.


Dr. Sebastian Schornack

Dr. Sebastian Schornack studies processes underlying the interaction of microbes with plants, especially plant processes targeted by microbial effector proteins. He is credited with the discovery of DNA base-specific TAL effector repeat-binding in promoter elements of target host genes. This discovery led to generation of customised TAL based transcription modulators and nucleases with unrivalled DNA binding specificity, that are now being widely exploited in animals and plants.


Prof. George Lomonossoff

Prof. George Lomonossoff is a project leader in the Department of Biological Chemistry JIC, with more than 30 years post-doctoral experience working with plant viruses and plant virus-derived expression systems, including the recently developed CPMV HyperTransTM system for which he was named BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2012. This expression system has proved extremely flexible and is currently used by over 200 academic institutions around the world and has been licensed to a number of commercial organisations, including Medicago Inc. who have used the system to produce a number of candidate vaccines for human use. He has considerable previous experience in working on large collaborative projects and has been involved in numerous international collaborations in the field of biotechnology. He also has extensive experience in handling intellectual property issues, is a named inventor on several patents and acts as a consultant for several companies.


Dr. James Locke

Dr. James Locke is an expert in mathematical modelling and single cell analysis of genetic networks. He developed the first model of the plant circadian clock, and experimental data and modelling to correctly predict a new feedback loop. He co-developed a high-throughput time-lapse single cell analysis and tracking system for bacteria, and used the system to discover a new mode of prokaryotic gene regulation; stochastic frequency modulated pulsing. He is studying stochasticity and signal integration at the single cell level in B. subtilis, plants and Cyanobacteria.


Prof. Pietro Cicuta

Dr. Pietro Cicuta's group use optical tweezers, microrheology, advanced confocal microscopy and image analysis methods to address dynamics both in colloidal and cellular systems.


Prof. Lisa Hall

The main theme of research in Lisa Hall's Analytical Biotechnology Group is in heterogeneous analytical systems, with a primary but not exclusive focus on molecular sensors, the latter including both chemical and biological systems. The activities are concerned with interfacing these systems and/or principles of mechanism and action, with transduction technologies to achieve diagnostic devices and monitoring capability. This research is directed towards environmental, medical and industrial application, with the group pro-active in responding to and advising industry of existing capability and future direction.

Research Council programme managers

Dr. Ceri Adams-Tong

Strategy and Policy Manager at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), covering Synthetic Biology, Systems Biology, Genomics and Mathematical Biology.



Dr. Rowan McKibben

Head of Science Strategy: Exploiting New Ways of Working at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)


Alex Broomsgrove.jpg

Dr. Alex Broomsgrove

Portfolio Manager for Synthetic Biology and Process systems at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).