Eleanor Healicon

The Mechanics of Shape Change in Plants

Stomata are microscopic pores on the epidermis of land plants that regulate the uptake of CO2 and the loss of water from the plant. The pores are flanked by guard cells, and changes in the volume and shape of these guard cells alters the aperture of the pores and hence the regulation of water loss and gas exchange between the plant and its surrounding environment. The mechanical properties of the guard cell wall determines the amount and the direction of this shape change, therefore limiting and defining stomatal function in controlling gas and water flux in the plant. My project aims to investigate the interaction of the physical properties of guard cell walls and the effects on guard cell shape change and stomatal function.

This research degree is a multidisciplinary project, taking place primarily in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences, but also between the department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and the department of Physics at the University of Sheffield. I hope to combine multiple lines of discipline, including a molecular genetics approach in the form of Arabidopsis mutant phenotyping; visualising guard cell shape change through microscope imaging techniques from both confocal and light sheet microscopes; and force data generated from AFM that can provide information about the physical properties of guard cell walls. In the future, these results could be used to select for or genetically modify guard cells with altered cell wall properties that can improve water use relations and CO2 uptake in crop plants.


I graduated from The University of Sheffield with a 2.1 in Biology in 2015. I am now studying for my  PhD with Professor Andrew Fleming, Professor Julie Gray and Professor Jamie Hobbs at the University of Sheffield.