Research strategy

The Living Systems Institute will create knowledge and predictive capability from cell to organism to secure human health and future wellbeing

Combating serious disease in humans, animals and plants.


Predicting the rapid evolution of pathogens and diseases.


Predicting and treating disease at a sub-cellular level.


The University of Exeter has a strong reputation in disease-related research which covers human, animal and plant diseases. This ‘cross-kingdom’ disease expertise is a critical strength for Exeter. It allows the potential for discoveries in one area to be mapped onto others, thus maximising the impact of research outputs.

The emphasis is on detailed physiological, genetic and epigenetic expertise in mammalian systems and a focus on plant disease – the greatest threat to human food security – with world-leading strength in the cell biology and genetics of microbial pathogens.  Optimising this approach requires a high degree of interaction between scientists across broad disciplines to achieve desired research outcomes.

The LSI brings together bio-medical research scientists with the sophisticated modelling and high-end diagnostic technology developed by mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and engineers. This will enable the study of disease at a fundamental level to inform treatment and more durable and effective disease therapies.

This ambitious goal will be realised through an innovative combination of four approaches, which shape the unique concept of the Institute. In brief they are:

  • An investigation of fundamental cellular principles that govern morphogenesis, cell form and function.
  • An inter-disciplinary approach to develop predictive modelling of living systems.
  • Development of improved techniques for early detection of disease.
  • Increasing the impact of disease-related research to ensure that fundamental scientific discoveries are translated into socio-economic applications.

Central to the Institute’s core research programme is the principle that common fundamental cellular processes are required to ensure the function and survival of eukaryotic cells. For example, underlying the healthy functioning of neurons in humans are processes, such as membrane trafficking and long-range signalling, that are required for proper brain development. The same processes however, also occur in plant pathogenic fungi – the greatest threat to our food security – and are required for infection. Understanding these processes will not only allow us to develop new ways of diagnosing and curing human neurodegenerative diseases but also inform disease management strategies in plants. Thus, the Institute’s research outputs have the potential to deliver a ‘double impact’.

Driven by iterative cycles of theory, experiment, measurement and observation, our approach will advance understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of basic cell processes and the multi-scale perturbations through which disease states can emerge. Key to this is the development of predictive mathematical models, alongside high quality experimental data from biologists and biomedical researchers: thus, the requirement for experimental scientists and theoreticians to work so closely together.

This commitment to an inter-disciplinary approach to foster greater collaboration is also critical to develop new diagnostic tools and processes for treating human and plant disease. The Living Systems Institute will see physicists and engineers working with bio-scientists and medical clinicians to this end.

Research structure

View the Living Systems research structure (.pdf)


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