Research Fellows Directory
Dr Harriet McWatters
University of Oxford
Circadian clocks are found in all multicellular organisms. They are a fascinating adaptation to a rhythmic environment. Each individual cell contains the clockwork, although (in animals at least) a hierarchical arrangement means that some clocks are more equal than others; in plants the cell clocks are arranged in parallel. As circadian clocks have all evolved in response to the same challenge – the rotation of the planet that gives rise to day and night – circadian biology is truly cross-disciplinary. I began my career working with insects, am now studying plants and am extending my research to the circadian clock of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium.
Plant clock: My particular interest is the process by which plant clocks are co-ordinated with the environment, on a daily or seasonal timescale. My research is conducted at all levels from the gene through the cell to the individual and thence to the population. Recently, I have begun to ask questions about the way a plant can tell the time using information from changes in its own physiology, such as temperature-induced alterations in cell membrane rigidity. Elucidating how plants perceive temperature and relay that information to the circadian clock is fundamental to understanding how plants integrate information from a changing environment. Since the clock is central to optimising plant growth, understanding how it responds to temperature may have significant implications for improving crop productivity and provide insight into how plant populations will be affected by climate change.
Parasite clocks: To complement my work on the plant clock, I am seeking to determine how the malaria parasite Plasmodium uses light and time to organise its cell-cycle and gametocyte production strategies. This is a cross-disciplinary project designed to broaden our understanding of malaria by marrying chronobiology with parasitology. This may provide new approaches to controlling malaria, which kills 2 million people per year.