Centre for Synthetic Biology and the Bioeconomy

Staff Profile

Professor Robert Edwards

Head of School - Institute Director, IAFRI


Robert Edwards qualified with a BSc in Biochemistry  (Bath University) and a PhD in Environmental Toxicology (St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, University of London).  His interests are focussed on the biotransformation of synthetic compounds and natural products in plants and the manipulation of these pathways for applications in crop protection and biorefining using technologies including synthetic biology.  These interests have been developed through working in both the private and public sector in the UK (Schering Agrochemicals ) and USA (Noble Foundation), with an independent research group established in 1990 in the Biology Department at the University of Durham.  In 2008 he became the Head of Biological Sciences at Durham and in 2010 took up a joint position as Chief Scientist at the UK’s Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera; www.defra.gov.uk/fera) and a chair in Crop Protection in CNAP, University of York.   To further consolidate his interests in basic and applied agrifood research, in March 2014 he took up post as the Head of the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development where he continues to direct personal research programmes in crop protection. 




The major themes of our research programme are based around the enzymes responsible for the biotransformation of xenobiotics and secondary metabolites in plants to yield products with modified biological activities.  Through the identification and functional characterization of these proteins, our research goals are to understand the integrated biosystem involved in xenobiotic detoxification in plants (the xenome) and establish its associated functions in endogenous metabolism and physiology.  Areas of specialization include determining the role of the xenome in herbicide metabolism and selectivity in crops and weeds and using these enzyme systems for the metabolic engineering of plant and microbial secondary metabolism.


Our group is best known for our classification and functional genomic work with the plant glutathione transferases, which included the discovery of two new classes and the identification of their roles in the metabolism of herbicides in soybean, wheat, maize and of natural products in Arabidopsis.  Most recently we have defined a new role for GSTs in mediating herbicide resistance in black-grass, a major weed of wheat.  Other firsts for our group include the identification and structural elucidation of an N-glucosyltransferase which conjugates aniline pollutants and the isolation of herbicide bioactivating esterase’s in grass weeds and Arabidopsis.  Collectively, these studies have advanced our understanding of the plant xenome and its role in controlling the biological activity of crop protection agents and natural products in both crops and weeds.

Current projects
  • Herbicide selectivity in cereals and competing weeds (Funding body: Syngenta)
  • The Black-GRass Herbicide Resistance Initiative  (BGRI) (Funding body: BBSRC and HGCA)


Current PhD BBSRC CASE studentships in Agricultural Biochemistry:

Growth Promoting Effects of Next-Generation Agrochemicals in Cereals

Effect of Herbicide Safeners on Pesticide Metabolism in Crops


Teaching is delivered to students studying agriculture, plant sciences and food and health.  Topics include herbicide metabolism, selectivity and resistance, plant secondary metabolism and pesticide residues in the food chain.