News & Events



Members of the department were united today in remembrance of Professor Lorna Casselton CBE FRS. Her funeral provided an occasion to mourn her passing and to celebrate her life.
Lorna was an outstanding scientist whose passion and enthusiasm inspired all around her; ten years after her retirement she frequently came into the Department to talk to postdocs and students about their research. She was always encouraging and could always offer practical suggestions to solve any problems presented.
Above all, Lorna was a highly respected colleague and friend to many of us. She had been a member of the Plant Sciences Department for over 20 years and was proud to call it her base when she was Vice President of The Royal Society after her retirement.
She will be greatly missed.


'Tree of life' distances are no shortcut to conservation


Attempts to preserve the most diverse range of biological features that target which organisms to save based on distances on a 'tree of life' may not succeed, Oxford University research suggests.

Some conservation strategies assume that the evolutionary distances between species on a phylogenetic 'tree of life' (a branching diagram of species popularised by Charles Darwin) can be used to predict how diverse their biological features will be. These distances are then used to select which species to conserve in order to maximise interesting biological features - such as potentially useful drug compounds and resilience to climate change.

But a new analysis of data from 223 studies of animals, plants, and fungi, shows that methods based on such distances are often no better at conserving interesting biological features than picking species at random. A report of the research is published this week in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

"Whilst 'close neighbours' on the branches of the tree of life are likely to share more biological features than distant ones, we found that you only have to move a short distance away before predictions about how much more diverse an organism's features should be are no better than a random choice," said Dr Robert Scotland of Oxford University's Department of Plant Sciences. "Much of this may be down to parallel or convergent evolution that sees similar biological features - such as eyes and wings - evolving independently again and again throughout the history of life."

The new analysis suggests that phylogenetic distance by itself is not an adequate way of prioritising which organisms are most dissimilar to target for conservation.

"Maximising biological feature diversity is clearly important to conservation but you won't achieve this if you don’t select the right range of species, and our study shows that you are unlikely to select the right range of species if you use phylogenetic distance," said Dr Scotland. "What our work suggests is that we need better, more nuanced, methods for identifying feature diverse species to underpin conservation strategies."

For further information contact Dr Robert Scotland on +44 (0)1865 275059 or email

Alternatively contact the Oxford University News & Information Office on +44 (0)1865 283877 or email


The Plant Sciences BRAHMS Project is highlighted in February's Blueprint magazine


The Oxford University BLUEPRINT staff magazine for February 2014 carries an article which highlights the work of The BRAHMS Project run by Denis Filer in the Department of Plant Sciences.

The article can be viewed online at or downloaded as a PDF from

More about BRAHMS is available on the BRAHMS website.


Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis


A paper entitled "Land-use intensity and the effects of organic farming on biodiversity: a hierarchical meta-analysis" is published today in the Journal of applied Ecology by Sean L. Tuck, Camilla Winqvist, Flávia Mota, Johan Ahnström, Lindsay A. Turnbull, Janne Bengtsson

DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.12219


We analysed 30 years of studies comparing the number of species on organic and conventional farms. We found that, on average, organic farming increases the number of species by a third. This shows that organic farming is a tried and tested method for increasing biodiversity on farmlands. Organic farming is therefore an important tool in reversing continued declines of formerly common species in developed nations.

Read more in the University of Oxford press release at


Secrets of potato blight could help farmers fight back


Scientists have discovered vital clues as to how the pathogen responsible for the Irish potato famine adapted to spread between different plant species.

Read the full press release at

A report of the research is published today, January 31st 2014, in Science:

Effector Specialization in a Lineage of the Irish Potato Famine Pathogen
Suomeng Dong, Remco Stam, Liliana M. Cano, Jing Song, Jan Sklenar, Kentaro Yoshida, Tolga O. Bozkurt, Ricardo Oliva, Zhenyu Liu, Miaoying Tian, Joe Win, Mark J. Banfield, Alexandra M. E. Jones, Renier A. L. van der Hoorn, and Sophien Kamoun
Science 31 January 2014: 343 (6170), 552-555. [DOI:10.1126/science.1246300]