Professor Hugh Dickinson

Subject: Biology, Plant Sciences and Zoology


I was born in London, moved to the Midlands and was swiftly packed off to boarding school. I read biology at my local university, Birmingham (UK), but became quickly distracted by the worlds of motor racing and band promotion – only to re-engage with the subject during a final year project supervised by the charismatic Jack Heslop-Harrison. Fortunate to get a reasonable degree, I continued with PhD work under Jack’s supervision in both Birmingham and Madison (Wisconsin) focusing on plant ‘germline’ development and genetics. Despite discovering that major RNA processing changes were taking place in plant reproductive cell lineages, the lack of current technology made characterising these ‘reprogramming’ events increasingly slow and challenging. Thus, while still wrestling with high-resolution TEM autoradiography and some of the first in situs in plants, I went on to develop a successful second line of research on plant self-incompatibility systems, first during a post-doc at University College London, and later as a lecturer at Reading University. As time and technology moved on, new methods developed in the 1980-90s rendered the problems encountered in my PhD work tractable, and moving to the Sherardian Chair of Botany in Oxford in the early 1990s, I stopped work on plant mating systems, and returned to my ‘unfinished’ PhD study of cell specification and fate in reproductive lineages – freshly rebadged as ‘epigenetics’.

Now retired, I am very lucky both to be Emeritus at Magdalen and a guest in the Department where I help with teaching and providing some technical backup. I also have a corner of a lab where I am working down a list of all those ‘Friday afternoon’ experiments that never got done (see below). However, having been back and struggling at the bench for a year or two I am beginning to feel a need to write to all my past postdocs and DPhil students apologising for unreasonable expectations…

I have also has time to reflect whether my life in science has contributed anything significant – apart from playing a useful part in the education of a large number of undergraduate and graduate students. Individual discoveries seem very important at the time, but retrospect is a cruel lens through which to view them. I guess the lab did start the ball rolling in plant germline reprogramming all those years ago, and our work on the cellular basis of self-incompatibility in the brassicas established a foundation for most of the recent studies. More recently, together with Rod Scott’s group – now at Bath – we wrote the ground rules of parent-of-origin imprinting in Arabidopsis, and my lab’s work on maize (led so capably by Jose Gutierrez-Marcos [now at Warwick]) delineated the difference between plant and animal imprinting systems at a gene control level, discovered a key family of molecules regulating endosperm development, and showed that there was more than one way to ‘imprint’ a gene. However you judge these ‘achievements’ it has been a real pleasure to follow the careers of young researchers involved in these projects as they have left the lab and gone on to greater things. It has also been a privilege to participate in the success of other institutions (albeit from the boardroom) including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the John Innes Centre by working as a member of their governing structures.

I also feel strongly about the world of scientific publishing, and how it seems to be very much stacked against those researchers not in large well-funded labs or from developing countries. For this reason I have become involved with the Annals of Botany Company, a publishing charity whose aim is to tackle some of these problems.

More details of my take on life in general (and particularly in science) can be found at: Dickinson, H.G. (2016) Q &A Current Biology 26: pp R261- 263. doi:

Research Interests:

My current research is on the epigenetics of plant reproductive cell lineages where we aim to understand how small RNAs, histone modifications and methylation pathways set up the chromatin ‘landscape’ of the Arabidopsis reproductive cell lineage, and the impact of this landscape on the outcome of meiosis and gametophytic cell specification. This research, carried out in collaboration with Xiaoqi Feng (John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK), is focused principally on the male reproductive cell lineage in the young anther, but work in collaboration with Lucia Colombo (Milan, Italy) is underway to investigate cell fate determination and meiotic outcome in the developing ovule.

Selected Publications: