Professor John Crawford


I’m interested in how different levels of organisation emerge from complex networks of interactions. My research is focused on understanding the link between the nature of these networks and system-scale properties, and how they can be optimised and supported indefinitely.

Research interests

I am fascinated by the fact that we do not understand the natural systems that support terrestrial life, but that we take them for granted. Food and water are the basic human requirements yet upward trends in consumption are at odds with declining capacity for supply. There is good evidence that we have about 20 years to adopt more sustainable approaches or face an unprecedented global scale crisis. Now focusing on systems approaches to agriculture I am studying the integrated behaviour of the soil-microbe system and have shown that the interaction between biological and physical components results in the system behaving like a single self-organising ‘biomaterial’. I am extending these ideas to include the evolutionary ecology of the microbial community, particularly fungi, to understand how the system can be optimally managed to meet future demands of higher efficiency and lower inputs. I am interested in the link between intra-specific variation and community structure and function and have developed the first individual-based model for plant community structure and function that integrates geneflow and seedbank dynamics with a physiologically-based description of plant growth. I am now developing this approach to study the interaction between above and below-ground processes in the soil-plant-microbe-atmosphere system to explore the internal regulatory pathways in the system. Finally, over the past 12 years I have been developing a systems biology approach to study the dynamics of plant cell networks implicated in metabolism, and the regulatory networks involved in diseases of the cell cycle in humans including cancer. I am interested in extending these approaches to study epigenetic processes in cells i.e. hereditary changes in cells that do not originate from changes in the cells DNA, which can play an important role in promoting desirable behaviour in plants.


John Crawford was awarded the prestigious Judith and David Coffey Chair in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney in 2008. He holds a BSc in Physics from the University and Glasgow and a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics from the University of London. He has published more than 100 papers in international peer-reviewed journal articles with over 1700 citations. Some research highlights include the theoretical prediction and first empirical evidence for self-organisation in the soil-microbe system (Science, Nature Reviews), the development of a general theory of biodiversity (Nature), the first demonstration of regional-scale gene flow in relation to GMOs (Nature) and the development of the first theoretical ecology of indeterminate systems (Proc. Roy. Soc.). Earlier highlights include the demonstration that the standard Big Bang theory was inconsistent with observed local scale structure (Nature) and the discovery of clouds on Venus (Nature) that is the subject of the current Venus Express space mission.

In the UK John Chaired the main funding committee responsible for supporting research in sustainable agriculture, diet and health and he has written several policy documents that have changed the way the UK delivers interdisciplinary science. He has also served on the UK research Council strategy panels for both sustainable agriculture, and research at the interface between physical and life sciences. He has been invited to become a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications in recognition for services to mathematics in 2003, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2007 in recognition of his contribution to science.

John is an experienced supervisor and has successfully supervised 11 PhD students in the past 8 years. He has active research collaborations in Australia, Europe, China and the US. Grantsmanship exceeds $Au20M and he currently holds grants exceeding $Au5M from research councils and industry sponsors.

Recent publications

  • Faratian, D., Clyde, R., Crawford, J.W. and Harrison D.J. 2009. Systems Pathology–taking molecular pathology into a new dimension. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 6, 455-464
  • Clyde, R.G., Craig, A.L., de Breed, L., Bown, J.L., Forrester, L., Vojtesek, B., Smith, G., Hupp, T., Crawford, J. 2009. A novel ATM autoregulatory feedback mechanism in Murine Embryonic Stem Cells. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 6, 1167-1177
  • Falconer, R.E., Bown, J.L., White, N.A., Crawford, J.W. 2008. Modelling interactions in fungi. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 5, 603-615.
  • Young, I.M., Crawford, J.W., Nunan, N., Otten, W., Speirs, A. 2008. Microbial distribution in soils: physics and scaling. Advances in Agronomy, 100, 81-121.
  • Bown, J.L., Pachepsky, E., Eberst, A., Bausenwein, U., Millard, P., Squire, G.R., Crawford, J.W. 2007. Consequences of intraspecific variation for the structure and function of ecological communities. Part 1. Model development and predicted patterns of diversity. Ecological Modelling, 207 (2-4), pp. 264-276.
  • Falconer, R.E., Bown, J.L., White, N.A., Crawford, J.W. 2007. Biomass recycling: A key to efficient foraging by fungal colonies. Oikos, 116 (9), pp. 1558-1568.
  • O'Donnell, A.G., Young, I.M., Rushton, S.P., Shirley, M.D., Crawford, J.W. 2007. Visualization, modelling and prediction in soil microbiology. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 5 (9), pp. 689-699.
  • Crawford, J.W., Harris, J.A., Ritz, K. and Young, I.M., 2005. Towards an evolutionary ecology of life in soil. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 20(2), pp. 81-87.
  • Falconer, R.E., Bown, J.L., White, N.A. and Crawford, J.W., 2005. Biomass recycling and the origin of phenotype in fungal mycelia. Proceedings of the Royal Society - Biological Sciences (Series B), 272 (1573), pp. 1727-1734.
  • Young IM & Crawford JW 2004. Interactions and self-organisation in the soil-microbe complex. Science, 304, 1634-1637.