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Subject Summary: Part IB Plant & Microbial Sciences

Plant productivity is the basis for life on Earth. Research into fundamental plant processes informs teaching and learning, as we discover how plants continue their vital role: from providing food and sustainable fuel sources, to sequestering carbon, maintaining diversity and ecosystems. Learn how plant selection and crop improvement – or even designer plants and micro-organisms – will be used to tackle environmental stress, pests and pathogens, so as to feed humankind and provide a sustainable future.  The course reflects the growing need to understand how plants work, from cellular to population and community levels. It also features microbial science, currently one of the most dynamic areas of biology.  This scope enables you to experience experimental approaches ranging from molecular biology to ecological modelling.  Specific supervision support offers additional examples of how your learning translates into wider global issues such as food and fuel security, bioremediation, biodiversity and climate change.  The study of plants is essential if we are to achieve the conservation and sustainable exploitation of the biosphere, and deal with issues such as renewable energy, nutrition, pollution and biotechnology.  The Part IB Plant and Microbial Sciences course develops a number of aspects introduced in the first year (Part IA) Biology of Cells, Physiology of Organisms and Evolution and Behaviour courses.  The aim of the course is to provide a treatment of plant and microbial sciences that truly integrates molecular, cellular and ecological approaches to the subject.  Under each topic the lectures deal with the major issues and ideas to arise from studying plants in the field, and describe our current understanding of the relevant processes at the cellular and molecular levels.  The course offers students the opportunity to consider all aspects of modern plant biology, including fundamental physiological processes such as photosynthesis, water relations and water uptake, the interaction of plants with micro-organisms and animals, plant development, and conservation, along with the exploitation of plant products. 

Accompanying the lecture course is a set of integrated practical sessions, which comprises both lab-based experiments and field work, and which provide a fundamental training in good laboratory practice through the maintenance of laboratory notebooks. Students work collaboratively on a joint, themed research project in which they contribute to the design and development of the research strategies. A field course to Portugal is also offered to all students during the Easter Vacation. 

The Part IB Plant and Microbial Sciences course is an ideal complement to several other Part IB subjects including Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cell and Developmental Biology, Animal Biology, and Ecology. It provides important background to the more specialised subjects covered in Part II Plant Sciences, and also provides an excellent basis for Part II in Biochemistry, Genetics, Zoology, or Ecology. 

It would be difficult to take Part IB Plant Sciences without some previous training in Biology, as provided for example by Part IA Physiology of Organisms or Biology of Cells. However, mathematicians, physicists, and chemists may wish to take the course to maintain an interest in Biology, and are in an excellent position to learn from and make a valuable contribution to a number of aspects of the subject.

Programme Specification: Part IB Plant & Microbial Sciences

This course is taught by the Department of Plant Sciences.


  1. to extend the interest and knowledge of modern plant and microbial science acquired during Part IA courses;
  2. to consider fundamental physiological processes such as photosynthesis, water relations and nutrient uptake; the interaction of plants with micro-organisms and animals; plant development; conservation; exploitation of plants and plant products;
  3. for each topic, to deal with the major issues and ideas that have arisen both from studying plants and microbes in the field, and to describe current understanding of the relevant processes at the cellular and molecular levels;
  4. to provide experience of practical experiments that stimulate, educate and illustrate experimental approaches to plant and microbial sciences, both in the laboratory and in the field, and in local industrial settings;
  5. to provide the opportunity to compose and present individual discussions of specific topics in oral presentations;
  6. to provide a framework for further study of plant and microbial sciences in Part II courses.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course students should:

  1. have developed a sound knowledge of key concepts and current experimental approaches in plant and microbial sciences;
  2. be able to provide reasoned arguments both for and against current hypotheses in plant and microbial sciences;
  3. be able to assimilate and provide critical analysis of review articles in plant and microbial sciences;
  4. be able to design, perform and interpret experiments to analyse fundamental aspects of plant sciences.

Teaching and Learning Methods

These include lectures, supervisions, practical classes, including integrated class research projects and a vacation field trip.


Assessment for this course is through:

  • two unseen written examinations, based on the content of the lecture courses (for aims 1-3 and learning outcomes 1-3)
  • practicals are assessed as two components: marks given for practical write-ups and one unseen written examination, based on practical work conducted throughout the year (for aims 4-5 and learning outcomes 1, 2 and 4).

Courses of Preparation

Essential: None.

Recommended: One or more of the following NST Part IA courses: Biology of Cells, Physiology of Organisms, Evolution and Behaviour.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.