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Professor Austin Smith FRS

Director, Living Systems Institute

 Living Systems Institute 


Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter, Stocker Road, Exeter, EX4 4QD


Austin Smith studied Biochemistry at the University of Oxford where he became captivated by the topic of pluripotency. He pursued this interest in PhD studies with Prof Martin Hooper at the University of Edinburgh and post-doctoral research in Oxford with Prof John Heath.  Austin then joined the Centre for Genome Research in Edinburgh as a Group Leader. In 1995 he became Director of Centre which he transformed into the Institute for Stem Cell Research. In 2006 Austin moved to the University of Cambridge and was founding Director of the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute until 2016. In 2019 he took up the post of Director of the Living Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

Pluripotent stem cell biology

Pluripotency is the capacity of single cells to generate all cell types of the animal. This cellular plasticity is the foundation of mammalian development. In the embryo pluripotency is short-lived, but in vitro pluripotent stem cells may be propagated without limit in an undifferentiated state while retaining the ability to differentiate into multiple cell lineages including the germline. Our aims are:

  1. to understand the conditions required to capture pluripotency from the early embryo;
  2. to define the regulatory network that confers broad developmental competence;
  3. to elucidate and take control of the mechanisms that direct alternative cell fates.

Collaboration with bioengineers, biophysicists, bioinformaticians and computational modellers is embedded in our research. An anticipated output is the provision of robust pluripotent stem cell platforms for biomedical research and bioindustry.

Research Team

The Smith research group are currently based at the Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge www.stemcells.cam.ac.uk/People/pi/smith  The group will relocate to Exeter in summer 2020.


BA (Hons), Biochemistry, University of Oxford, 1982
PhD, Developmental Genetics, University of Edinburgh, 1986


  • Feb 1986-May 1986   Research Assistant, Dept. Zoology, University of Oxford
  • Jun 1986-Dec 1986    Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Dept. Zoology, University of Oxford
  • Jan 1987-May 1990    Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Dept. Biochemistry, Oxford
  • Jun 1990-Dec 1994    Group Leader, Centre for Genome Research, University of Edinburgh
  • Jan 1995-Dec 1995    Acting Director, Centre for Genome Research, University of Edinburgh
  • Jan 1996-Jul   2006    Reader, from 2001 Professor, University of Edinburgh
  • To April 2005              Director, Institute for Stem Cell Research (formerly Centre for Genome Research)
  • 2004-2005                  Director, MRC Centre Development in Stem Cell Biology
  • Aug 2005 – Jul 2020  Professor, Department of Biochemistry & Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, University of Cambridge
  • Jan 2007-Mar 2016    Director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, later Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute
  • Nov 2019 – present    Director, Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter


Research interests

Pluripotent Stem Cell Biology
Our research focusses on understanding the developmental and molecular foundations of pluripotency in vivo and derivative pluripotent stem cell states in vitro. We seek to uncover the basic principles underlying pluripotent stem cell properties and apply this knowledge to control their generation, self-renewal and lineage commitment. To identify generic principles and expose species-specific adaptations we compare pluripotent cells from rodents, humans and other mammals. Our overarching goal is to recapitulate ex vivo the developmental trajectory from an emergent naïve population, through acquisition of multi-lineage competence, to lineage-specification.

  • Human naïve pluripotency
  • Formative pluripotency
  • Cell state transitions
  • Network design and logic
  • Principles and plasticity of mammalian pluripotency – from marsupials to humans

Research projects

Research themes

  • Human naïve pluripotency
  • Formative pluripotency
  • Cell state transitions
  • Network design and logic
  • Principles and plasticity of mammalian pluripotency – from marsupials to humans

Prospective Interdisciplinary PhD Project (co-supervised by Dr Stefano Pagliara, LSI)

Bioengineering lineage segregation from human naïve stem cells to recapitulate early human development

This project is a fusion of stem cell biology with bioengineering and physics of living systems. The aim is to engineer formation of a blastocyst, the paramount structure in development of the early mammalian embryo. To achieve this we will use human naïve stem cells, which have the capacity to produce all types of cell. In order to regulate and organise differentiation precisely in four dimensions, a combination of chemical and mechanical cues will be applied to defined numbers of stem cells confined within microfluidic chambers. Morphological, cellular and molecular criteria will be applied to evaluate blastocyst structures generated from naïve stem cell building blocks. Finally, the effects of specific genetic and environmental perturbations will be interrogated by real-time imaging and single cell ‘omics.


  • Medical Research Council Professorial Fellowship
  • Medical Research Council Programme Grant – Human pluripotency
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Project Grant – Capturing formative pluripotency
  • UKRI/JSPS Collaborative Project Grant – Authentication of primate pluripotent stem cells
  • ERC Advanced Grant – Plasticity of the pluripotency network
  • Ministry of Science and Technology (China) international collaboration grant – Study of pluripotency between different species

External Engagement and Impact

Awards and Honours

2000      Pfizer Academic Award, 'For pioneering work in the field of stem cell science'

2002      Ellison-Cliffe Medal, Royal Society of Medicine

2003      Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

2003      Medical Research Council Professor

2004      Member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation

2006      Fellow of the Royal Society of London

2010      Prix Louis-Jeantet de médicine

2010      Member of Academia Europaea

2016      McEwen Award for Innovation, International Society for Stem Cell Research


Supervision / Group

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