Research project: Multi-modal imaging of elemental defences in metal hyperaccumulator plants

Primary supervisors

Prof. Gail Preston1, Dr. Fred Mosselmans2

Project description

Metal hyperaccumulation, defined as the uptake and storage of exceptionally high concentrations of a metal in the aerial tissues of a plant, is an unusual trait that has been observed in around 400 plant species. Our recent work has provided strong support for the hypothesis that metal ions can provide a direct defence against pathogens through their toxicity to invading microorganisms, a hypothesis sometimes referred to as the “elemental defence” hypothesis. However, the mechanistic contribution of metal accumulation to disease resistance has yet to be fully demonstrated.

This project will investigate how metal hyperaccumulation limits plant disease using the interaction of the montane crucifer Noccaea caerulescens, with the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas syringae as a model system. N. caerulescens can accumulate zinc, nickel and cadmium to many times higher than normal physiological concentrations, and is widely studied as a model metal hyperaccumulating plant.

All accessions of N. caerulescens we have studied to date acquire increased protection against P. syringae through metal accumulation, and the degree of protection correlates with the abundance of metal in plant tissues. However, the distribution of metals inside its leaves is not uniform. Therefore metal toxicity will depend on the local concentration of metal at the specific site of pathogen colonization and on host responses to infection that alter metal localisation or speciation. Hence, merely measuring the total amount of foliar metal is unlikely to be indicative of the concentration, speciation and metal complexes to which pathogens are exposed.

An important step forward would be imaging of the cellular and subcellular concentration, localization and chemical speciation of metal within healthy and infected plants, in relation to pathogen location, activity and viability; and other plant defence mechanisms, including the production of defensive metabolites and localized programmed cell death. 

In this project we will use synchrotron-based imaging techniques including micro-X-ray fluoresence spectroscopy and micro X-ray absorption near-edge structure (µ-XANES) to examine the distribution and chemical speciation of elements, including zinc, cadmium and nickel, in healthy and infected N. caerulescens leaves. We also aim to further develop approaches to study elemental distributions in 3D using cryo-XRF-tomography and to apply them to this biological system.

We will combine insights from these analyses with confocal microscopy and confocal Raman microspectroscopy analyses of pathogen gene expression and viability, and of plant defence responses, to investigate how metal hyperaccumulation limits pathogen growth. We will use analytical techniques such as GC-MS or MALDI imaging mass spectrometry to observe the changes that occur in the abundance and distribution of metabolites in healthy and infected plants.


Student profile

Applicants would be expected to possess at least an upper-second class degree (or equivalent) or in bioengineering, biophysics or chemistry. Applicants with excellent degrees and relevant experience in other physics, engineering and biology disciplines will also be considered.

Applicants with any of the following skills are highly encouraged to apply: imaging instrumentation, image analysis, programming in Matlab or/and LabVIEW and/or python.

Further reading

Fones H., Eyles C.J., Bennett M.H., Smith J.A.C., Preston G.M. (2013) Uncoupling of ROS accumulation and defence signalling in the metal hyperaccumulator plant Noccaea caerulescens. New Phytologist 199, 916-24

Fones, H., Davis, C.A.R., Rico, A., Fang, F., Smith, J.A.C. and Preston, G.M. (2010) Metal hyperaccumulation armors plants against disease. PLoS Pathogens 6, e1001093

Fones H.N., Preston G.M. (2013). Trade-offs between metal hyperaccumulation and induced disease resistance in metal hyperaccumulator plants. Plant Pathology 62, 63-71.

Moore, K. L., Chen, Y., van de Meene, A. M. L., Hughes, L., Liu, W., Geraki, T., Mosselmans, F., McGrath, S. P., Grovenor, C. and Zhao, F.-J. (2014). Combined NanoSIMS and synchrotron X-ray fluorescence reveal distinct cellular and subcellular distribution patterns of trace elements in rice tissues. New Phytologist, 201: 104–115.

Zhao F-J, Moore KL, Lombi E, Zhu Y-G 2014. Imaging element distribution and speciation in plant cells. Trends in Plant Science 19: 183-192.

This project is supported through the BBSRC-funded Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme in association with Diamond Light Source. The student recruited to this project will join a cohort of students enrolled in the DTP’s interdisciplinary training programme, and will be able to take full advantage of the training and networking opportunities available through the DTP.  They will also spend a substantial part of the studentship working at Diamond on the Harwell campus. For further details please visit and  

Prospective applicants should contact the project supervisor Prof. Gail Preston ( prior to submitting an application. Applications for this project will be made via the Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP. For further details please visit

Funding notes

This project is jointly funded for four years by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council BBSRC and Diamond Light Source. BBSRC eligibility criteria apply ( The successful student will receive a stipend of £16,300 in year 1, increasing each year in line with increases in RCUK stipends.