Dr James S Borrell

Research Fellow

James S. Borrell

Trait Diversity and Function


Plant Health and Adaptation


Evolutionary and conservation genetics, species distribution modelling and climate adaptation

My research focuses on combining cutting edge genetic and genomic methods with high resolution environmental niche modeling to guide conservation and agricultural interventions. In a period where habitat fragmentation and degradation, together with climate change, are major drivers of global biodiversity loss species may survive through a combination of plasticity, dispersal or adaptation. I am interested how local adaptation evolves, and whether strategies such as assisted gene flow or assisted migration can be targeted towards 'at risk' species or populations.

At Kew, my current research focuses on the underutilised crop enset (Ensete ventricosum). Enset is a close relative of the banana, and the staple food for ~20 million people in Ethiopia. Here, it plays an important food security role where it is known locally as 'the tree against hunger'. Working as part of a collaborative team, we are using state of the art modelling and genomic approaches to understand the diversity of Enset landraces in cultivation as well as explore wild crop relatives. We hope to use these data to guide a national strategy for enset, and ensure it can continue to deliver food security despite a changing environment.

More broadly, Ethiopia is an important center of diversity for food cops.  Southern Ethiopian agri-systems include more than 78 cultivated species encompassing roots, tubers, cereals, vegetables, fruits and pulses, including a very high proportion of indigenous crops. Typical farms average 19 different crop and livestock species underpinned by over 120 species of useful trees and shrubs co-occurring across the homegarden landscape, despite an average farm size of less than a hectare. With a population predicted to reach 172 million by 2050, Ethiopia is particularly exposed to emerging food security threats resulting from climate change. However, the substantial genetic and species diversity of food crops present in agri-systems of the southern Ethiopian highlands could hold the key to resilience to these future challenges.

If you are interested in a collaboration or internship, please contact me.

  • PhD, Queen Mary, University of London, 2017
  • BSc (Hons), University of Exeter, 2011

Borrell, J.S. et al. (2019).

Enset in Ethiopia: a poorly characterized but resilient starch staple

Annals of Botany 123: 747–766.

Borrell, J.S., Wang, N., Nichols, R.A. & Buggs, R.J.A. (2018).

Genetic diversity maintained among fragmented populations of a tree undergoing range contraction.

Heredity 121: 304–318.

Zohren, J., Wang, N., Kardailsky, I., Borrell, J.S., Joecker, A. & Nichols, R.A. (2016).

Unidirectional diploid–tetraploid introgression among British birch trees with shifting ranges shown by restriction site‐associated markers.

Molecular ecology 25: 2413-2426.

Wang, N., Borrell, J.S., Bodles, W.J.A., Kuttapitiya, A., Nichols, R.A. & Buggs, R.J.A. (2014).

Molecular footprints of the Holocene retreat of dwarf birch in Britain.

Molecular ecology 23: 2771-2782.

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James Borrell