Modern perspectives: Dr Steven H. Spoel

Steven H. Spoel is a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh

He received his undergraduate training and M.Sc. from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and earned his Ph.D. from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA. He carried out his post-doctoral training at the University of Edinburgh, UK, where he is currently a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences.

During the course of his career Steven held the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Long-Term Fellowship as well as the Netherlands Science Foundation (NWO) Rubicon Fellowship, and received various awards, including the 2008 Harold Sanford Perry Prize (Department of Biology, Duke University, USA) and 2009 New Phytologist Tansley Medal for Excellence in Plant Science.

Current research

Each cell in every organism depends on correctly ‘reading’ the genes on its DNA code for instructions on growth, development, and immunity. ‘Reading’ – also known as transcription – of these genes is carefully regulated to precisely dictate which genes and how much of each gene is ‘read’. Failure to precisely regulate gene transcription may have disastrous consequences for an organism. Well-known examples include various types of cancers, in which deregulated transcription leads to uncontrolled cell proliferation. Moreover, our immune system greatly depends on coordinated transcription events and malfunction leads to immune deficiencies. Thus, transcription regulation plays an important role in human health.

Coordinated transcription also plays an important role in agriculture. With the world population expanding every year and land designated for agriculture in decline, there is extraordinary pressure on the food and bio-fuels industry to secure the supply of agricultural crops. However, every year farmers suffer tremendous losses in crop yields due to plant diseases caused by pathogenic viruses, bacteria, fungi, and herbivorous insects. Cutting back crop disease by sustainable and environmentally safe strategies represents a major challenge. An economically attractive way of securing our crop supplies, while avoiding the health risks associated with chemical disease prevention, is to enhance the plant’s existing immune system. To do this, we must understand how the plant immune system orchestrates the expression of thousands of genes.

Our research aims to understand how cells translate environmental signals (e.g. pathogen attack) into changes in gene expression. Moreover, we want to understand how the activity of transcription regulators can reprogram cellular gene expression.


“Black History Month is a wonderful time to take a moment to appreciate the contribution black scientists have made to science both at present and in the past. While diversity in science is currently increasing, we may still have some way to go. Therefore, we should remember that increased diversity will bring many benefits to science. Arguably the most important is related to the fact that too many young, bright minds from diverse backgrounds remain undiscovered. Increasing diversity amongst scientists now sends a powerful message to and captures the imagination of next generations: no matter where you are from, what you look like, or who you are, you can pursue a successful career in science and your ideas could help tackle the pressing problems of the world we live in”