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Robert Hancock

Staff picture: Robert Hancock
Cell and Molecular Sciences
Cell and Molecular Sciences
Plant Biochemist
+44(0)1382 568779

The James Hutton Institute
Dundee DD2 5DA
Scotland UK


Robert Hancock is a senior biochemist and plant physiologist with 25 years post-qualification experience. His primary interests are concerned with the biochemical determinants and impact of biotic and abiotic stress on crop quality and how crop management and management systems can influence yield and quality. He works in soft fruits, potatoes and cereals where he has extensive industry links across the production and retail chain. His laboratory uses a range of physiological, biochemical, analytical and molecular techniques to understand the impact of stress on crop quality at a systems level. This research is supported by links with bioinformaticians working within Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS), co-located at the James Hutton Institute.  Fundamental work is complemented by more applied aspects of research which are facilitated through close interactions with colleagues working in the area of molecular breeding as well as extensive interactions and joint research projects with industrial partners.

Current research interests

My current research interests focus on the impact of plant genotype, the biotic and the abiotic environment on crop quality with particular focus on the role of reactive oxygen signalling and the cellular redox environment in modulating plant responses to environmental cues. I conduct a mixture of both fundamental and applied research adopting a physiological, biochemical and increasingly molecular approach. Primary crops of interest are potatoes and soft fruit.

The laboratory currently hosts three PhD students. Two of these research projects aim to understand the interaction between genetics and environment in the accumulation of phytochemicals associated with quality in soft fruit (blackcurrants and blueberries) and a further project is examining plant responses to aphids.

In blueberry we aim to understand the relationship between fruit chemistry and sensory attributes in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Strathclyde. In addition, we aim to understand the interplay between crop genetics and growing environment with respect to the accumulation of compounds providing potential health benefits to consumers (vitamin C, polyphenolic antioxidants). Our analytical and biochemical work feeds into a genetic map being produced by colleagues to allow the rapid breeding of blueberry cultivars suitable for production of fruit meeting UK consumer expectations.

A similar approach is being applied to understanding the accumulation of a range of phytochemicals in blackcurrant fruit. Here we aim to characterise genes associated with the accumulation of specific phytochemicals by developing a blackcurrant microarray to allow analysis of global gene expression throughout the course of fruit ripening. Fruit phytochemistry changes dramatically over the course of ripening and by combining phytochemical analysis with gene expression studies we aim to identify genes contributing to phytochemical accumulation. This will feed into the Hutton blackcurrant breeding programme providing candidate genes for cultivar improvement.

Microarray technologies, in combination with metabolome analysis has allowed us to characterise the response of the model plant Arabidopsis to aphid infestation. In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Leeds, we have demonstrated the divergence of local and systemic responses and identified cellular redox processes as key determinants of the plant response. This has been further verified by analysis of mutants that have low vitamin C levels and hence a more oxidised cellular redox environment. Furthermore, we have been able to demonstrate that redox processes are also key in the response of crops (potato) to aphid infestation.

The laboratory is also currently funded by the Scottish Government to develop an understanding of potato to heat stress in order to breed heat resistant cultivars. Our focus is on understanding the impact of high temperatures on carbon partitioning within the plant and the role of redox processes on carbon assimilation, transport and metabolism.

  • Innovate UK Strawberry molecular breeding 10015546 2022-2025 (£298,987) (PI)
  • BBSRC GCRF ZIRON Pulse BB/T008865/1 2020 – 2023 (£1M) (Co-I)

Past research

My initial work at the Institute took a biochemical and physiological approach to understanding the accumulation of vitamin C in blackcurrant fruit and potato tubers. We were able to demonstrate that in addition to biosynthesis within the fruit or tuber, vitamin C was transported long distance from leaves via the phloem. Additional work involved the development of engineered yeast strains capable of vitamin C biosynthesis. I have also worked on key plant developmental programmes including bud dormancy, potato dormancy and potato tuberisation. Applied work included a Scottish Enterprise funded programme developing methods for the extension of shelf-life in minimally processed (fresh-cut) fruit and vegetables.


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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.