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    2023 start September 

    Plant and Microbial Biology

    School of Biosciences, Faculty of Science

    Research plants and microbes in the School of Biosciences or take an industrial placement as part of this research-focussed course.
    Plant Sciences student

    Course description

    Plants and microbes are fundamental to food security, as well as being central to global ecosystems. At Sheffield we study them from every angle: from the molecular level up to whole organisms, in the context of ecosystems, industry and major global challenges.

    Our world-class research expertise spans topics including plant development, plant biotechnology, soil health, genomics, food security, sustainable agriculture, photosynthesis, plant-microbe interactions, plant immunology, and climate change biology, allowing you to examine the effects of past, present and future climates on plants and the wider environment.

    It is possible for students with a particular interest in agricultural or horticultural research to complete their MRes project at other organisations, including Enza Zaden in the Netherlands or Rothamsted Research in the UK.

    Research experience

    This research-focused MRes course allows you to spend an academic year embedded in one of our research groups, working alongside students and staff who are at the forefront of their research field. Throughout your course, you’ll develop your research skills, giving you the opportunity to contribute new knowledge in your chosen area.

    Whether you complete your research in the field, the lab or in industry, in the UK or abroad, you’ll be provided with a research budget for your project. Previous students have conducted research in conjunction with our industrial partners, as well as in research groups at the University of Sheffield.

    Example research projects include:

    • Leaf anatomy contributes to the control of leaf water content and subsequent adaptation to low temperature in C4 grasses
    • CO2 fertilisation limited by multiple factors in two phosphorus deficient grasslands
    • Characterisation of novel desaturation in arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

    How to apply

    Because of the research-intensive nature of this course, we ask you to include a short supporting statement of 500-700 words with your application. This should:

    • Explain how your interests and experience relate to the plant and microbial biology research we do in the School of Biosciences.
    • Explain why you want to do a research-intensive masters degree and how this fits with your career plans.
    • Include which particular supervisors or research groups you would be most interested in working with and why. If you have already been in contact with a prospective supervisor, please let us know.
    • State whether you'd like to be considered for a research project at one of our partner organisations.

    Please submit your application by 15 August if you require a student visa and by 31 August if you do not require a visa.

    Potential supervisors

    Choose a subject area:

    Plant ecology and evolution
    • Dr Holly Croft - Remote sensing of terrestrial ecosystems, from the leaf to the globe. Drones; plant physiology and plant-environment interactions
    • Dr Helen Hipperson - Applying genomic techniques to answer questions in plant and soil biology, ecology, evolution, conservation and population genomics
    • Dr Maria Val Martin - Atmospheric composition, air pollution and atmosphere-biosphere-climate interactions;  land-based CO2 strategies to mitigate climate change and reach net zero emissions
    • Professor Gareth K Phoenix - Impacts of climate change and pollution on biodiversity, biogeochemical cycling, and the consequences for ecosystem feedback to climate, particularly in Arctic, northern boreal and upland (mainly grassland) ecosystems
    • Professor Charles H Wellman - Evolution of land plants over geological time, with emphasis on their origin and early diversification
    • Professor Colin P Osborne - How evolution leads to physiological diversity in wild plants and the significance of physiological differences for ecological behaviour. Photosynthesis, growth, climate change and sustainability are central themes, as is the significance of physiological responses for ecosystems
    • Professor Jonathan R Leake - Plant-soil functioning in sustainable agriculture, including management options to improve soil biology, soil structure, carbon sequestration and crop performance and guide agri-environmental policy for soil sustainability
    • Dr Guillaume Chomicki - Ecology and evolution of mutualisms, crop domestication and origin of agriculture, plant systematics and evolution, and the evolution of plant morphology (especially plant architecture). Approaches including phylogenetic comparative methods, comparative genomics, phylogenomics, field experiments, stable isotopes, CT scanning and 3D reconstructions, plant architectural analysis
    • Dr Luke Dunning - How plants rapidly adapt to extreme environments using a combination of genomic techniques, comparative analyses and experimental approaches
    Plant-microbe or plant-environment interactions
    • Dr Stuart Campbell - Plant chemical and molecular ecology; secondary metabolite diversity and function; plant-insect interactions in wild species and crops; mechanisms and consequences of self-incompatibility
    • Professor Katie Field - Evolution, diversity and ecophysiology of plant-fungal symbioses (mycorrhizas) and responses to global change; applications in sustainable agriculture
    • Professor Jurriaan Ton - Plant environmental signalling: molecular perception and signalling of resistance-inducing chemicals, epigenetic basis of plant immunity, biochemical and genetic basis of plant-beneficial rhizosphere interactions
    • Professor Duncan Cameron - Resolving resource fluxes and chemical signals in plant-microbe symbioses in both agricultural and natural systems. Application of metabolomics and isotope tracers to understand the mechanisms underpinning symbiosis and microbial evolution
    Plant development
    • Dr Sam Amsbury - Plant cell walls: combining biochemistry, antibody technology, molecular biology and advanced imaging to understand the regulation of cell wall structure and composition in relation to stresses and the impacts this has on plant performance
    • Dr Lisa Smith - Plant development, genetics and molecular biology: cell-to-cell signalling during fertilisation, kinesin function during reproduction, and cell division suppression in crops
    • Professor Andrew Fleming - Plant development: combining cell and molecular biology, physiology, mechanics, advanced imaging and computational modelling to understand leaf structure and function
    Microbial biology
    • Dr Ellie Harrison - Ecology and evolution of plant associated microbial communities. Specifically, how communities are shaped by mobile genetic elements and horizontal gene transfer
    • Dr Ian Lidbury - Microbial ecophysiology in the plant microbiome. Organic phosphorus and polysaccharide cycling. Studying individual genes and their proteins to whole microbial communities in order to develop sustainable agricultural practices
    • Dr Helen Hipperson - Applying genomic techniques to answer questions in plant and soil biology, ecology, evolution, conservation and population genomics
    • Professor Tim Daniell - Plant interaction with soil communities including mycorrhiza and impacts on soil nitrogen cycling.  Linking soil function and community dynamics


    A selection of modules are available each year - some examples are below. There may be changes before you start your course. From May of the year of entry, formal programme regulations will be available in our Programme Regulations Finder.

    Core modules:

    Research Project

    This module allows students to develop skills relevant to a career in biological research. It will consist of a laboratory, field-based or computational research project where each student will work under the supervision of a member of academic staff. The student will formulate the hypotheses and questions to be addressed and plan and carry out experiments to test these hypotheses. The project will be written up in the form of a scientific paper and the student will keep a notebook of the research.

    120 credits
    Literature Review

    The literature review requires the student to write a critical review of a biological topic of choice. The literature review will involve extensive reading of original research papers, reviews and books together with information extracted from other media. The student will be required to critically analyse hypotheses in the field and critically analyse the quality of the evidence used to support them. Where controversies exist the student should be prepared to indicate which side has the stronger case. The literature review should also identify gaps in our current knowledge and understanding and make suggestions for the future developments in the field.

    15 credits
    Scientific Skills and Project Management

    The aim of this module is to provide students with advanced training in the use of statistical methods and computers to visualise and analyse biological data which is necessary to pursue a research career in whole organism biology. Advanced principles of programming for data analysis, data interpretation and statistical analysis, and graphical presentation are stressed. The course is based on the statistical programming language R and the Integrated Development Environment RStudio. The course is comprised of eight introductory sessions delivered in Semester 1, and then a choice of two out of six specialist modules selected to support student-specific requirements in research. Semester 1 content is delivered as a mix of online recorded videos (watch this), a set of readings (read this) and a practical exercise (do this). This is supported by a weekly live mini-review lecture and Q andamp; A, and a help session. Semester 2 content is delivered live via three to four 3-hour practical computing sessions (1 specialist module/week, 3-4 sessions per week).

    30 credits
    Science Communication for Researchers

    This module provides training in the skills and approaches necessary to effectively communicate science. The module has three main components:
    1. An intensive science communication workshop focusing on interactions with the print and broadcast media;
    2. A poster presentation, where students design and produce a poster to communicate their research project to a target audience (e.g. general public,
    research audience);
    3. A formal oral presentation, where students present their research results to their peers.

    15 credits

    The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption. We are no longer offering unrestricted module choice. If your course included unrestricted modules, your department will provide a list of modules from their own and other subject areas that you can choose from.

    Open days

    An open day gives you the best opportunity to hear first-hand from our current students and staff about our courses. You'll find out what makes us special.

    Upcoming open days and campus tours


    1 academic year full-time


    You’ll learn through a mixture of working in a research laboratory or on a field-based research project, tutorials, discussion groups, attendance at seminars, and statistics and other workshops.


    Most assessment is through coursework. Your assessment includes, but is not limited to, a project report, literature review, poster presentations, oral presentations, written grant proposals and online statistics exams.

    Your career

    This degree provides an ideal springboard for a research career in your chosen field, including crop and soil science, evolutionary and behavioural research, genomics and related technologies, and ecological and environmental research. Past students have gone on to study for PhDs both in Sheffield and elsewhere, as well as taking up positions in government science, environmental consultancy and industry.


    Firth Court quad

    The School of Biosciences brings together more than 100 years of teaching and research expertise across the breadth of biology.

    It’s home to over 120 lecturers who are actively involved in research at the cutting edge of their field, sharing their knowledge with more than 1,500 undergraduate and 300 postgraduate students. 

    We carry out world-leading research to address the most important global challenges such as food security, disease, health and medicine, ageing, energy, and mitigating the biodiversity and climate crises.

    Our expertise spans the breadth and depth of bioscience, including molecular and cell biology, genetics, development, human physiology and pharmacology through to evolution, ecology, biodiversity conservation and sustainability. This makes us one of the broadest and largest groupings of the discipline and allows us to train the next generation of biologists in the latest research techniques and discoveries.

    Entry requirements

    Minimum 2:1 BSc honours degree in biology or a closely related quantitative subject.

    In addition, you should be able to demonstrate evidence of aptitude and enthusiasm for research, for example, through an undergraduate research project.

    We also consider a wide range of international qualifications:

    Entry requirements for international students

    Overall IELTS score of 6.5 with a minimum of 6.0 in each component, or equivalent.

    If you have any questions about entry requirements, please contact the department.

    Fees and funding


    The cost of all core fieldwork and practical project work is included in your tuition fees, this includes travel and accommodation for any one day field trips and compulsory field courses as well as obligatory safety equipment. Necessary vaccinations and visas required for travel, as well as travel to field sites for research project work, may incur additional costs.


    Because of the research-intensive nature of this course, we ask you to include a short supporting statement with your application. Please see the course description above for more details.

    Apply now


    +44 114 222 2341

    Any supervisors and research areas listed are indicative and may change before the start of the course.

    Our student protection plan

    Recognition of professional qualifications: from 1 January 2021, in order to have any UK professional qualifications recognised for work in an EU country across a number of regulated and other professions you need to apply to the host country for recognition. Read information from the UK government and the EU Regulated Professions Database.

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