Gail Taylor Plantago Roots Spinach Watchet watercress tatlor lab poplar leaf Life Science Building Farm Cannon Leaves

Current Research Projects

WATBIO - Development of improved perennial non-food biomass and bioproduct crops for water-stressed environments

WATBIO is about discovering and implementing science-based solutions to address one of modern agriculture’s great challenges: delivering non-food biomass without competing with food production while protecting already stretched water resources. The project is 5-year translational research project, which consists of a 22-partner consortium, made up of 15 academic and seven private sector institutions. University of Southampton is the project coordinating institution, where Professor Gail Taylor leads the research work and is the WATBIO project coordinator.

The goal of WATBIO is to use the power of next generation sequencing to accelerate the breeding of non-food biomass crops for drought-stressed conditions while maintaining biomass productivity and quality in water scarce environments, which are unsuited for food crops. WATBIO focuses on the improvement of poplar, miscanthus and arundo which are perennial non-food crops with high biomass yield. For poplar and miscanthus the research will produce new germplasm with increased drought tolerance. For arundo, its genetic diversity will be assessed and increased, and breeding tools will be developed.

See website


This project is funded by the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/ 2007‐2013) under the grant agreement n° FP7‐311929. WATBIO is a five-year translational project which commenced on 01/11/2012

  Official WATBIO Logo





Understanding processes determining soil carbon balance under perennial bioenergy crops.

Carbo-BioCrop aims to improve understanding of how second generation bioenergy crops such as short rotation coppice (SRC) and Miscanthus will influence the UK greenhouse gas balance. Currently a significant knowledge gap exists in this understanding.

The UK is committed to an 80 % reduction of 1990 CO2 emissions by 2050 and such dedicated second generation bioenergy crops will contribute to the UK’s renewable energy generation with a resulting change in land-use. Carbo-BioCrop will provide information to quantify how the land-use change to SRC or Miscanthus will influence soil carbon emissions. This will provide key data to under-pin the production of ‘carbon opportunity maps’ for the UK and identify the GHG balance when land identified as optimal for conversion is converted to SRC or Miscanthus. The contribution of soil augmentation with biochar to soil carbon processes will also be investigated as a potential CO2 sequestration strategy for the UK landscape.

See website


With the world growing an increase in energy demand, the development and use of renewable, sustainable liquid biofuels has become a strategic priority for the EU. Biofuels can minimise energy import dependence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and assist rural and agricultural development. Bioethanol can be produced from energy crops that do not compete with food crops for land use. This alcohol can be obtained from biomass feedstock and in particular from cellulose, a sugar present in the cell wall of woody plants. ENERGYPOPLAR aims to develop energy poplar trees with both desirable cell-wall traits and high biomass yield under sustainable low-input conditions to be used as a source of cellulosic feedstock for bioethanol production.

See website



EVOLTREE stands for EVOLution of TREEs as drivers of terrestrial biodiversity. It is a network of excellence that was launched in April 2006 and financially supported by the European Union within the 6th framework programme. The overall goal of the Network is to link four major disciplines (Ecology, Genetics, Genomics and Evolution) to address global issues that European forests are currently facing as environmental changes and erosion of biodiversity.

See website



In the context of climate change mitigation, technologies for removing the CO from the atmosphere are key challenges. The transfer of carbon from the atmosphere into useful carbon deposits is currently one promising option. Transferring biomass to carbon-rich materials with potential mega-scale application is an option to sequester carbon from plant material, taking it out of the short-term carbon cycle and therefore binding CO efficiently and even in a useful, productive, way into longer term non-atmospheric carbon pools. EuroChar will investigate carbon sequestration potentials that can be achieved by transforming plant biomass into charcoal (or Biochar) and add that to agricultural soils. Biochar production will be demonstrated using thermochemical (TC) or hydrothermal carbonization processes (HTC) that can produce energy and store 15 to 20% of the Carbon originally contained in the biomass. Specific investigations will be made to assess Biochar decomposition using CO2-efflux measurements from C labelled Biochar. Three large-scale field experiments will be made in Italy, France and UK to analyse “realistic scale” application of Biochar.




ExpeER (Experimentation in Ecosystem Research) is a European project (2010-2014) which aims to bring together, for the first time, the major observational, experimental, analytical and modelling facilities in ecosystem science in Europe. By uniting these highly instrumented ecosystem research facilities under the same umbrella and with a common vision, ExpeER intends to form a key contribution for structuring the very fragmented research community on terrestrial ecosystems within the European Research Area and improving the quality and the performance of these infrastructure components in a durable and sustainable manner.

See website

UKERC Mapping biomass

The aim of the UKERC Spatial Mapping project is to use a whole systems approach to explore spatial aspects of bioenergy development in Great Britain to 2050, subject to environmental, economic and social factors. Fundamental to this research is the application of process-based models that simulate Short Rotation Coppice and Miscanthus growth, alongside knowledge of soils and climate, to predict the yield and supply of these second generation bioenergy crops.


See website


Global ecosystem service footprint for UK biofuel

Over the coming decades the global footprint of energy used for transportation fuel in the UK is likely to change radically as crude oil production in North Sea fields declines and there is an increased use of biofuels derived from crops such as soybean and sugarcane. As the UK’s reliance on imported fuels increases there is a pressing need to understand the impacts that this will have on other parts of the world. The aim of this project is to develop a methodology to assess the impact that the production of different transportation fuels has on ecosystem services globally so that the UK can prioritize investment in areas where there is likely to be the least impact. Through the use of life cycle analysis the project will examine the aggregate environmental impacts of oil and biofuel production to gain a more comprehensive view of the effects of each on the provision of ecosystem services globally. 



ELUM (Ecosystems and Land Use Modelling) is a multimillion pound project funded by a joint incentive of public and private investment from the Energies Technology Institute (ETI). The main aim of this project is to assess whether land conversion to bio-crops produces a carbon sink or carbon source based on the previous land use regime. Southampton’s contribution to the project includes a data mining exercise to quantify the current state of knowledge concerning GHG balance of energy cropping and identify knowledge gaps. We also have a field site which will allow us to assess the transition from grassland to SRC willow on GHG emissions using static soil chambers and Eddy Covariance equipment.

See website

ETI-Biomass Value Chain


Vitacress Research Unit


Why research salad crops?

The leafy salad market is worth almost £500 million per year in the UK and is forecast to continue expanding as the trend for convenient and healthy foods continues. Consumers are increasingly shunning the purchase of a single whole-head lettuce in favour of buying a bag of mixed baby leaves with a combination of different colours and flavours. Leaves are grown and harvested from locations across the world to provide the supermarkets with fresh, bagged, salad 365 days of the year. Research at the University of Southampton in collaboration with Vitacress Salads Ltd. is striving to further optimise the sustainability of this production as well as improving the quality of the product.

Research focus

We are working across the production chain – from seed supplier, to breeder, grower and major multi-national supermarkets – to translate the results of our research on salad leaves as quickly as possible for commercial benefit.

 Our current effort in the VRU is to improve the health benefits of leaves, through manipulating anti-oxidant metabolism, to improve sustainability through minimising water use and to extend shelf life so that leaves stay fresh for longer.


Optimising the sustainability of leafy salad production

Thirty to forty percent of global food production occurs on artificially irrigated land and accounts for approximately 70% of freshwater abstractions. Climate change is leading to water resources becoming less predictable, while a growing human population is driving the need for agriculture to be more productive.

Reducing water use in agriculture, without compromising crop yield and quality, can be approached from two angles:

  • Genetics and genomics

Improving the water use efficiency and yield potential of lettuce using high throughput traditional breeding programs based on the UC Davis lettuce mapping population (see below).

 The lettuce mapping population growing in the  glasshouse and in the field in Portugal


  • Agronomic

Modifying irrigation scheduling protocols using infra-red thermal imaging to remotely detect crop water stress in a range of leafy salad crops. We are manipulating irrigation quantities in order to determine ‘best-practice’ for producing a high yield of high quality crop using the minimum amount of water necessary.





Spinach canopies under two irrigation treatments show clear differences in their thermal spectra


Enhancing nutritional qualities and flavour


Modern day consumers increasingly demand more convenient and quick-to-prepare food.  Despite the recent advent and availability of pre-packed and pre-cut fruit and vegetables, two-thirds of British adults fail to eat their "five-a-day".  Indeed, poor diet has been linked to diseases such as cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and nutritional deficiencies are surprisingly common in the Western world.

Improving the nutritional content of plant-based foods is already a large area of research, driven by the aim of improving human health.  Lettuce is a good target for such improvement, as it is one of the few leafy vegetables widely consumed (third most popular) and it is already a good source of important nutrients. 


The RILs have been screened for enhanced amounts of nutrients, including polyphenols and other anti-oxidants, using a combination of several enzyme-based assays and mass spectrophotometry.  We have linked these biochemical traits to underlying candidate genes and are using SNP genotyping to develop molecular markers for lettuce with high anti-oxidants, a trait for which we have resolved the chemical constituents.

FRAP assay – a rapid, spectrophotometric method for analysing total antioxidant potential of salad leaves


 We have access to a set of Recombinant Inbred Lines, courtesy of Professor Richard Michelmore, UC Davis, which are the progeny of a cross between a cultivated lettuce, Lactuca sativa cv. Salinas and a wild subspecies,Lactuca serriola US96US23.



Lattuca sativacv. Salinas                                                           Lactuca serriola (US96US23)




214 F9 & F10 offspring


The genetic map for this project is available as part of the Compositae Database. Previous work in this group (PhD students: Fang Zhu Zhang and Gaia Biggi, Project Technician: Mark Totten) has mapped QTL for several physiological traits associated with shelf life and antioxidant potential in this population.

The current PhD project has utilised the RIL mapping population to determine the genetic basis of enhanced nutrient content, including polyphenols and other anti-oxidants, using a combination of several enzyme-based assays and mass spectrophotometry.  We have linked these biochemical traits to underlying candidate genes and have used SNP genotyping to develop molecular markers with which to breed a lettuce with high anti-oxidant content.


Harnessing the Genetic Diversity of Watercress for Improved Morphology and Anti-cancer Benefits

Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum) is a member of the Brassicaceae family. Increasing interest in healthy diets has turned the focus to watercress since it is known to contain one of the highest concentrations of the beneficial antioxidant, phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC). This has exciting possibilities to breed a higher quality crop with increased concentrations of the key antioxidant providing a mechanism to aid in the prevention of cancer. Dwarfism is another desirable characteristic for many agricultural crops. A crop with a reduced stem length produces a stable increased yield and is easier to harvest as well as package.



 Watercress in flower: ready for crossings to be made.


The main objective of this project is to explore any underlying variation in an understudied popular crop, watercress, which could be taken forward to initiate a watercress breeding programme. By establishing a global germplasm any phenotypic, biochemical or genetic variation could be investigated. Phenotypic variation can be assessed by measuring stem length, stem diameter and leaf to stem ratio whilst the biochemical variation can be deduced using an antioxidant assay and High Performance Liquid Chromatography along with Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry for specific glucosinolates and isothiocynantes respectively. Amplified Fragment Length Polymorphism and microarray analysis allows the genetic diversity and any variation in gene expression to be explored. This project provides valuable information and data regarding the progression of all aspects of the genetics in watercress breeding. It provides an important base for future research in this field.


A single line of the watercress germplasm collection growing in a commercial bed. 



Our research is helping the baby salad industry to produce better quality produce with a lower environmental footprint.

See Centre for Biological Sciences website for further details of past and present research as well as publications: