University of Dundee

Dr Sarah McKim

Developmental biology of plant architecture
Principal Investigator
University of Dundee at JHI, Errol Road, Invergowrie, Dundee
Full Telephone: 
+44 (0) 1382 568916, int ext 8916


Genetic Mechanisms underlying Cereal Architecture

Cereal grain provides more calories to the human diet than any other source. Grain yield is especially influenced by a cereal’s architecture or body plan. In fact, fundamental changes in body plan were hallmark events in cereal domestication. Modern plant breeding continues to select for better yielding crop architectures; however, we still know relatively little about how different genes work together at a molecular level to control cereal body plans, especially in the Triticeae, such as wheat, barley and rye.


Barley as a Model System

I am a plant developmental biologist with extensive experience in Arabidopsis thaliana and its close relatives. I am translating these approaches into crops by using barley as a model. Barley, the fourth largest grown crop worldwide, is a diploid, self-pollinating plant. Recent generation of sophisticated genomic resources enables us to combine the genetic utility of barley with molecular approaches to learn about developmental mechanisms underlying architecture in the Triticeae. This is an exciting time to work in molecular crop genetics!



Reproductive Development

In contrast to animals, plant architecture is determined after embryogenesis as plants grow, develop and transition through vegetative and reproductive stages. Vegetative phases involve leaf and shoot production while the reproductive phase promotes development of a flower-bearing inflorescence often borne on an elongated stalk. In barley, the inflorescence develops as a terminal spike. Nodes along the central spike stem (rachis) initiate rows of reproductive units called spikelets, each of which can develop into a single kernel of grain.

Developmental phase transitions are controlled by antagonistic activities between  two microRNA (miRNA) families that negatively regulate the activity of specific transcription factors. These miRNAs and transcription factors appear deeply conserved across plants and are conspicuously represented in factors regulating agronomically important traits. We are keen to learn how these transcription factors control stage-specific morphologies and architectures in barley and Arabidopsis and the role of miRNA regulation in this process. Given its intimate association with grain production, we are especially interested in growth, development and presentation of the spike.



By deciphering gene function we will learn more about the genetic networks influencing plant architecture and apply this knowledge to molecularly-inform crop breeding.


I am passionate about teaching and consider teaching an essential aspect of scholarship.

My current teaching responsibilities include:

BS32008 (module manager) - Plant Sciences

BS32005 - Cell and Developmental Biology

BS22002 - Biological Sciences

BS31005 - Genetics

BS42005 - Honour's Research Project



Shoesmith J, Solomon CU, Yang X, Wilkinson LG, Sheldrick S, van Eijden E, Couwenberg S, Pugh L, Eskan M, Stephens J, Barakate A, Drea S, Houston K, Tucker MR, McKim SM. 2021. APETALA2 functions as a temporal factor together with BLADE-ON-PETIOLE2 and MADS29 to control flower and grain development in barley. Development. 148(5):Article dev194894.

Parry G, Benitez-Alfonso Y, Gibbs DJ, Grant M, Harper A, Harrison CJ, Kaiserli E, Leonelli S, May S, McKim S, Spoel S, Turnbull C, van der Hoorn RAL, Murray J (2020) How to build an effective research network: lessons from two decades of the GARNet plant science community, Journal of Experimental Botany, eraa397,

McKim SM (2019) Moving on up – controlling internode growth. New Phytologist 226, 672-678.

Paulo Rapazote-Flores P, Brown JWS, Zhang R, Stephen G, Schreiber M, Barakate A, Casao MC, Zwirek M, McKim SM, Kam J, Halpin C, Morris J, Hedley PE, Guo W, Fuller J, Mayer C-D, Milne L, Bayer M, Waugh R, Simpson CG (2019) BaRTv1.0: an improved barley reference transcript dataset to determine accurate changes in the barley transcriptome using RNA-seq. BMC Genomics 20, 968 (2019) doi:10.1186/s12864-019-6243-7.

Patil V, McDermott HI, McAllister T, Cummins M, Silva JC, Mollison E, Meikle R, Morris J, Hedley PE, Waugh R, Dockter C, Hansson M, and McKim SM* (2019) APETALA2 control of barley internode elongation. Development 146: dev170373

Zwirek M, Waugh R and McKim SM* (2018) Interaction between row-type genes in barley controls meristem determinacy and reveals novel routes to improved grain. New Phytologist. 221(4): 1950-1965.

Monniaux M, Pieper B, McKim SM, Routier-Kierzkowska A-L, Kierzkowski D, Smith R and Hay A (2018) The role of APETALA1 in petal number robustness. eLIFE 2018;7:e39399

McKim SM*, Koppulu R and Schnurbusch T (2018) Barley Inflorescence Architecture. Pp.171-208 in The Barley Genome, ed. Nils Stein and Gary Muehlbauer.

Bull H, Casao MC, Zwirek M, Flavell A, Thomas W, Guo W, Zhang R, Rapazote-Flores P, Kyriakidis S, Russell J, Druka A, McKim SM* and Waugh R* (2017) Barley SIX-ROWED SPIKE3 encodes a putative Jumonji C-type H3K9me2/me3 demethylase that represses lateral spikelet fertility" Nature Comms 8: 936.*co-corresponding authors.

McKim SM, Routier- Kierzkowska A-L, Monniaux M, Kierzkowski D, Pieper B, Smith RS, Tsiantis M and Hay A (2017) Seasonal Regulation of Petal Number in Cardamine hirsuta. Plant Physiol. 175(2):886-903.

Monnieux, M, McKim SM, Parcy F, Tsiantis M, and Hay A (2017). Conservation versus divergence in LEAFY and APETALA1 functions between Arabidopsis thaliana and Cardamine hirsuta. New Phytologist 216(2):549-561.

Houston K§, McKim SM§, Comadran J, Bonar N, Druka I, Uzrek N, Cirillo E, Guzy-Wobelska J, Collins N, Druka A, , Halpin C, Hansson M, Dockter C, Druka A, and Waugh R* (2013) Variation in the interaction between alleles of HvAPETALA2 and microRNA172 determines the density of grains on the barley inflorescence. P.N.A.S. U.S.A. 110(41): 16675–16680. §Co-first authors


Since joining the university in 2012, I have coordinated and developed public and school engagement activities for the Division of Plant Sciences. We have a strong ethos of science outreach with a very high percentage of people from our division volunteering for events held throughout the past year. Much of our work is done in close association with the University of Dundee Botanic Gardens ( which hosts several free, public annual events including Botany Family Fun Day and Fascination of Plants Day.

A major recent effort of Plant Sciences was the development of our Genetics Garden at the Botanic Gardens. Funded from the College of Life Sciences' BBSRC Excellence with Impact Prize, we mounted three installations in the Genetics Garden to highlight the importance of plants in our understanding of genetics and the critical contribution of plant variation in selecting and breeding better crops. Establishing the Genetics Garden involved a massive volunteer effort of over 40 people, both from Plant Sciences and the James Hutton Institute and culminated in the opening of the garden by eminent scientist Dr. Richard Flavell ( More than a stand-alone project, the Genetics Garden now acts as a hub for science engagement activities for the Division.