BIFoR Forest Health / Tree Pathology Research

As demonstrated powerfully by outbreaks of tree pests and diseases such as ash die-back, oak processionary moth, and phytophthora, current forestry and woodland management practices leave us vulnerable to catastrophic landscape change and economic losses. BIFoR addresses tree defence, susceptibility and resistance under current and future climate, using discovery tools drawn from biomedical science and from a broader ‘complex systems’ perspective, innovative approaches to manage risks to forest health. Laboratory based research is tackling these increasingly important issues.  
19 and 20 June 2024 hybrid BIFoR annual conference, Forests as Communities, Forests in Communities. 

Details of publications can be found on our Research Portal


The University of Birmingham has world class Environmental Science Facilities. Including the Wolfson Advanced Glasshouses which offer state-of-the-art facilities, providing a fully controlled experimental environment on campus.  The Glasshouses connect colleagues working across biology, chemical sciences, ecology, water and atmospheric sciences.

Research opportunities are also greatly enhanced as we are able to investigate tree health of mature trees and complex forest ecosystem under future carbon dioxide atmospheric conditions at the BIFoR FACE facility.  
Wolfson Advanced Glasshouses
BIFoR FACE facility

With thanks to BIFoR Director / Chair in Tree Pathology, Prof Robert Jackson, the BIFoR Forest Health research team continues to thrive.  BIFoR is also proud to have on our team of Directors the Chief Plant Health Officer for Defra, Prof Nicola Spence

Research Areas

Plant-pathogen-interactions & microbiology 

Prof Rob Jackson's (Biosciences) lab focuses on studying bacterial pathogens of trees in the UK and also one overseas territory in St Helena. 

Rob Jackson is joined by post doctoral researchers Dr Diana Vinchira-Villarraga (Metabolomics approaches to study tripartite solanaceous plant-microbe and tree - pathogen interactions), Dr Sabrine Dhaouadi (establishment of robust pathosystem models that underpin a detailed examination of infection and disease progression) and Research Associate Maria Laura Cuisa (how new strains of pathogens emerge and evolve on trees). 

The team are part of the UK Treescapes-funded project DiversiTree, led by Ruth Mitchell at the James Hutton Institute, which focuses on whether planting mixtures of tree species leads to increased microbial diversity on leaves and improved resilience to pathogens
The doctoral researcher team have been busy with data collection and the 5 PhD students who commenced in 2021 now move towards writing up / and publishing. 
Bacteriophages – a safe and natural alternative for treating cherry canker?

Research areas include:

  • examining risk of new disease outbreaks in a diseased population using ash as a model (Katherine Hinton)
  • examining the impact of soil on tree health and disease progression (Vanja Milenkovic
  • evaluating the threat of Xylella on UK trees (Jiaqi Wei
  • a study of tree disease on the Island of St Helena (Amy Webster
  • analysis of phage that infect oak pathogens and the dynamics of phage population changes and bacterial community change in a disease lesion (Emily Grace
  • development of phage biopesticide to control bacterial diseases of trees (Naina Korotania
  • investigating the molecular basis of bacterial cherry canker pathogenesis through integrative omics approaches, including transcriptomics, metabolomics, and effector protein function analysis (Andrea Vadillo Dieguez)

Further details of the doctoral research that is underway in Rob Jackson's lab can be found on our 'Doctoral Research' page by clicking on the '+' next to 'Biosciences'.

Dr Graeme Kettles(Biosciences) lab is working towards understanding the molecular mechanisms that underpin oak resistance to fungal and bacterial diseases. They also investigate how fungi and bacteria interact with each other in the oak tree microbiome, and subsequent heath-related consequences.  

Dr Megan McDonalds (Biosciences) group focuses on fungal pathogen and symbiont biology. For example, looking at relationships between certain types of fungi and root rot pathogens.
FH Lab work


Microbial Ecology

Prof James McDonald (Biosciences) is currently carrying out the UK’s largest analysis of oak-associated microbes to identify those that might cause disease as well as identify beneficial microbes, with a view to developing ways of using beneficial microbes to support oak health. His group focuses on Acute Oak Decline and microbiomes.  The scale of the research effort is outstanding - 350 trees across 30 sites sampled in the UK. 

In the team are also Dr Marine Cambon (host microorganism interaction and microbiota with a focus on Acute Oak Decline), Dr Lisa Lamberte (the relationship of tree diversity and microbial diversity to ecosystem functionality), Dr Beth Pettifor (investigating host pathogen interactions in declining oak trees) and Sophie Powell (the effect increasing COlevels have on tree microbial diversity). 

Priming / immunity

Dr Estrella Luna-Diez’s (Biosciences) group focuses on priming in trees – an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. The team, including Dr Rosa Sanchez-Lucas, have identified a defence elicitor that enhances resistance to powdery mildew which is not affected by elevated CO2.

Estrella is also PI for a UK Treescapes Programme funded project called MEMBRA, which is exploring if a tree's 'memory' can increase its resilience.  For more information about MEMBRA, please view the short video (right). 

Estrella supervises PhD student Kieran Clark (Engineering) who has a new (2024) publication 'Vibrational spectroscopic profiling of biomolecular interactions between oak powdery mildew and oak leaves.' 

lab oak research


Plant Physiology

Prof Christine Foyer (Biosciences) is an expert in plant metabolism and its regulation under optimal and stress conditions. She was named 4th on the list of Best Science and Agronomy Scientists in 2023.
Impact of pests, unravelling plant responses to aphids, Prof Christine Foyer


Dr Florian Busch's (Biosciences) group, which includes Dr Diego Marquez, focuses on fundamental photosynthetic processes and how they acclimate under changing environments. The team investigates COdiffusion inside leaves and its impact on photosynthetic carbon uptake.  

Dr Andrew Plackett's (Biosciences) tree related research has focussed on oak flowering under elevated carbon dioxide. 

FH Carolina Mayoral smaller
Prof Jeremy Pritchard (Biociences) is our Director for Education and has also supervised a number of BIFoR PhD students. Jerry works closely with BIFoR Education and Outreach Officer, Sam Dobbie, to develop innovative teaching resources. Jerry chairs the Royal Society of Biology curriculum committee and he is increasingly obsessed with blended learning and authentic/inclusive assessment. Jerry has led the way in the development of our virtual forest tours 
Jerry Pritchard introduces the virtual tour of a mangrove forest in Dubai

Forest Genetics 

Forest Genetics team includes

Dr Marco Catoni (Biosciences) studies epigenetic regulation of plant development and is a co-PI of the MEMBRA project.  His group includes bioinformatician Dr Joe He.  
Prof Nigel Maxted (Biosciences) 
Dr Lindsay Compton (Biosciences) 


actionoak_logo_0BIFoR is proud to be part of the Action Oak initiative

Estrella Luna Diez and colleagues in lab

(L to R); Dr Carolina Mayoral, Dr Estrella Luna-Diez, Dr Rosa Sanchez-Lucas and Isabel Okeke are currently developing the project “Resistance strategies of oak trees in the arms race with pathogens”