Prof Rob Jackson, Chair in Tree Pathology 


Academic Staff 

Prof Nicola Spence, Director of BIFoR, a part-time adjunct to her primary role as Defra Chief Plant Health Officer 
Prof Christine Foyer, Professor in Plant Sciences
Dr Florian Busch, Senior Lecturer 
Dr Marco Catoni, Lectuer 
Dr Lindsey Compton, Lecturer 
Dr Adriane Esquivel-Muelbert, Post Doctoral Researcher
Dr Scott Hayward, Lecturer Molecular Ecophysiology
Dr Graeme Kettles, Lecturer in Plant Pathology
Dr Estrella Luna-Diez, Lecturer in Plant Pathology 
Dr Megan McDonald, Birmingham Fellow 
Prof Nigel Maxted, Chair in Plant Genetic Conservation 
Dr Andrew Plackett, Royal Society University Research Fellow 
Prof Jeremy Pritchard, Professor of Life Sciences Education 
Dr Tom Pugh, Reader in Biosphere-Atmosphere Exchange

Postdoctoral Researchers / Fellows

Dr Sabrine Dhaouadi -  Sabine's research includes several approaches to be employed for the establishment of robust pathosystem models that underpin a detailed examination of infection and disease progression. This research will be applied to the main tree diseases in the UK: acute oak decline, bacterial canker of cherry and ash, bleeding canker of horse chestnut, diseases that had emerged in both UK and Europe within the last 20 years.

Dr Carolina Mayoral - Carolina is a member of the BIFoR FACE NERC large grant funded QUINTUS research project 

Dr Olivia Mosley - The microbial nitrogen cycle is predicted to play a major role in nitrogen transformations in the terrestrial subsurface. The cycle comprises six distinct N-transformation processes, including ammonification, nitrogen fixation, nitrification, denitrification, anaerobic ammonium oxidation (anammox), and assimilation. Olivia’s previous research with the University of Auckland, New Zealand, involved using a variety of molecular approaches to analyse and quantify microorganisms that performed these processes to predict the sources and sinks of nitrate – a major anthropogenic contaminant of aquifers. Olivia’s current research aims to incorporate the same molecular approaches to investigate bacterial canker on trees.

Dr Mojgan Rabiey - Mojgan is an expert in molecular plant-microbe interaction. She works on biological control of tree diseases caused by bacteria. Her main interest is the evolution of tree pathogenic bacteria and bacteriophages, and how bacteriophages can be utilised as an alternative to antibiotics to control fungal and bacterial diseases in plants.

Dr Rosa Sanchez-Luna - Rosa's research focusses on Oaks. Oaks are the predominant species of the European forest, however, these species are endangered by climate change factors and pathogens. Plants defend themselves with highly sophisticated strategies. Priming of defence is a sensitisation of defence mechanisms for a faster and stronger activation upon subsequent attack. 

Dr Thomas Welch - Thomas's research focusses on Acute oak decline and Oak powdery mildew. Genomes of woody tree species frequently exhibit expansion of gene families related to disease resistance, leading to speculation that large cohorts of resistance (R)-genes are an important for the long life-span of woody perennials. The role of such gene families in immunity is little studied among trees; a significant knowledge gap considering the increasing threat trees face from invasive diseases. English Oak is under threat from diseases like Oak powdery mildew (OPM) and Acute oak decline (AOD) in the UK. Exapted resistance to their causative pathogens exists in the Q. robur population, but no Q. robur R-genes have been characterised. Our project aims to identify R-genes that contribute to successful immune responses to OPM and AOD.

Dr Diana Vinchira-Villarraga - Metabolomics approaches to study tripartite solanaceous plant-microbe and tree - pathogen interactions.  

PhD Students 

Kieran Clark:
Supervisors: Prof. Pola Goldberg Oppenheimer (Chem Eng), Dr Estrella Luna Diez (Bio)
Year of Study: First
PhD Draft Title: Study and Fabrication of Rapid Engineered Spectroscopic Technology (FoRESTech) for Identification of Filamentous Pathogens in Leaves
Info: This project aims to use the non-destructive and versatile method of Raman spectroscopy as a diagnostic tool to probe biomolecular changes to the surface structure of the leaf during the course of ash dieback and oak powdery mildew infections. A microscopic survey of the surface of the leaf is conducted and areas of non-vein, secondary vein and primary vein tissues are identified. An 830nm laser is used to probe these tissue types and Raman spectra are formed for the healthy and infected classes for ash and oak leaves both grown in ambient and elevated carbon dioxide environments. An initial study, conducted for a healthy oak leaf grown in an ambient carbon dioxide environment, indicated spectral similarity between all tissue types with the primary vein tissue being the most dissimilar. The major differences between the tissue type spectra were identified between the pectin region at 800-900cm-1; the carotenoid peaks at 1158cm-1 and 1527cm-1; and the lignin peak at 1610cm-1. The produced spectra will be further compared in different ways using advanced computational methods to identify spectral differences. These differences will be attributed to either biomarkers of disease, structural differences between growth conditions or further tissue type differences. Finally, a handheld Raman spectrometer will be developed to identify these biomarker-related spectral changes to diagnose these diseases in the field.

Emily Grace - 
Supervisors: Professor Robert Jackson (Bio) 
Year of Study: First
PhD draft title: Analysis of phage that infect oak pathogens and the dynamics of phage population changes and bacterial community change in a disease lesion 
Info: There are currently no anti-microbial treatments available for AOD. However, bacteriophages (phages) are a biocontrol alternative to traditional antibiotic and copper compounds.  Phages, viruses that infect and kill bacteria, have been proven to be effective treatments for several bacterial tree pathogens. This study aims to isolate phages which infect the four AOD-associated bacteria species and characterise them via several assays to assess their suitability as biocontrol agents. It is also important to identify the extent and consequences of phage resistance; therefore, the coevolution dynamics of these different phages and bacteria species will be tracked over a period of 7 days, both in vitro and in planta. Seasonal sampling of infected trees will be performed to determine how phage diversity changes over symptom progression. Dependent on these findings, cocktails of the different phages will be trialled to assess their ability to reduce AOD symptoms and bacteria prevalence.

Katherine Hinton - 
Supervisors: Professor Robert Jackson (Bio) Dr Megan McDonald (Bio), Professor Richard Buggs (Kew Gardens)
Year of Study: First
PhD draft title: Examining risk of new disease outbreaks in a diseased population using ash as a model
InfoPseudomonas savastanoi pv. fraxinii causes canker disease in ash trees, and although it is widespread in the UK, the severity of the disease is relatively low. Why this is the case is not understood and there could be potential for severity to increase in trees weakened by other diseases like ash dieback or pest attack like Emerald Ash Borer. This project therefore aims to develop new tools to study this pathosystem and examine whether there is any potential threat of bacterial disease outbreaks in ash.

Vanja Milenkovic: -
Supervisors: Robert Jackson (Bio), Vincent Gauci (GEES)
Year of study: First
PhD Draft Title: Examining the impact of soil on tree health and disease progression.
Info: Soil around plant roots (rhizosphere) is critical to plant health and biotic and abiotic stresses in the tree rhizosphere may cause tree health to drop and make them more prone to disease. Previous work in the PuRpOsE project on protecting oak ecosystems has indicated that trees with acute oak decline may be pre-disposed to disease due to water fluctuations in the root system. This project aims to examine soil properties around diseased and healthy trees with a view to alleviating the stress. This project will work in concert with a PDRF to develop an experimental design to look at what changes occur in trees living in different soil environments. This should involve a study of tree changes (traits and internal metabolome and biochemistry) as well as monitor pathogen population changes and performance. Together, these experiments will allow us to understand how soil influences tree health and enable us to develop policy advice for this.

*Mark Raw - 
Supervisors: Estrella Luna Diez (Bio), Scott Hayward (Bio) 
Year of study: Second 
PhD Draft Title: Priming of defence in an elevated CO2  world
PhD: Priming of defence in an elevated CO2 world  - Rising CO2  levels are a reality of our current world, however the impact of this on plant species is still little understood. Elevated CO2 is believed to result in increased growth in some species however there are reports that elevated levels could negatively impact on plant defence making them more susceptible to pests & diseases. This project aims to understand how elevated CO2 will impact oak defence priming in both juvenile & mature oak trees against the oak pathogen powdery mildew & insect herbivores. This knowledge will allow humans to better assess risks to future forests & allow for better protection of these vital organisms. 
Further information: Poster 2021 

Amy Webster - 
Supervisor(s): Prof Robert Jackson (Bio)
Year of study: First
PhD (draft) title:  A study of tree disease on St Helena
Info: Affiliated with St Helena Research Institute and CABI. St Helena is home to an abundance of endemic flora and fauna. The islands cloud forests are found at the volcanic peaks, providing a complex ecosystem for biodiversity to thrive. However, human activity has left much of the land barren of naturally occurring vegetation. This has fragmented communities of ecological importance and reduced genetic diversity. Due to this, as well as the introduction of invasive plants, many of the tree species on the island are threatened by diminishing numbers and increased risks of pests and diseases. One of the most fundamental species to this unique environment is the black cabbage tree (Melanodendron integrifolium) which is suffering from sudden death due to an unknown disease-causing agent. Other symptoms such as leaf wilt, yellowing, spotting and root rot are also seen across nurseries. Assessments of eDNA from samples taken from nurseries, wild black cabbage trees, as well as other species showing signs of disease, may indicate whether a pathogen is the most likely candidate for this dieback. These findings may then inform management decisions to help prevent the spread of disease, through methods such as plant clinics and media communication with locals, tourists and land owners 

Jiaqi Wei:
Supervisors: Prof Robert Jackson (Bio), Dr Graeme Kettles (Bio)
Year of study: First
PhD (draft) title: Evaluating the threat of Xylella on UK trees 
Info: Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterium that is endemic to central America. It is an established pathogen in the US and is a recently emerging pathogen causing devastating disease in southern Europe. Presently, they are limited to Italy, Portugal, Spain and France, but detection of infected plants has been found in other countries in Europe triggering control and eradication procedures. Tree species like ash and oak have also been observed with Xylella infections in Europe, highlighting the wide host range of the pathogen. 
There is considerable concern around the potential threat to the UK’s horticulture and ecosystem, particularly to trees, should Xylella establish in the country and thus it is important that investment is made to fully understand the threat the pathogen poses. This will help with identifying the potential hosts for the pathogen and whether any resistance exists in the plant population. It will also help with identification and monitoring as well as considering the risk of widespread disease spread.