A Norwich scientist whose pioneering research into plant cells could unlock environmentally-friendly solutions to crop diseases has won a major award accolade.

Dr Yiliang Ding, a group leader at the John Innes Centre, is among nine recipients of the 2024 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK, which are internationally recognised by the scientific community.

She is the first UK plant scientist to receive the accolade, bringing a global focus to her group's work to explore the structure of RNA (ribonucleic acid) - and understanding its vital role in cellular biology, plant genetics and crop viruses.

“This is a great personal accolade, an honour for my group and the John Innes Centre," she said.

"It's wonderful that the global community has recognised the importance of plant science in trying to solve the critical challenges of feeding the world, improving crop yields, and combating plant health threats,” she said. 

Dr Ding's team have developed new methods to profile and analyse RNA, which are already being applied in therapies for both human and plant viruses - with "exciting" potential applications in agriculture.

One example is in tackling a major disease threat to East Anglia's sugar beet production.

Beet yellows virus (BYV) can cause massive yield losses in sugar beet crops. It was previously controlled using neonicotinoid pesticides until they were banned by the EU in 2019 due to their potential impact on pollinators and the environment - although temporary approvals have subsequently been issued to protect UK beet crops in years of high virus risk.

The Ding group has developed a novel anti-viral molecule to treat this disease which it says is "environmentally-friendly, safe, sustainable, and effective".  

Tests have shown 95pc efficiency in cleaning the virus from sugar beet plants - and the strategy could be widely applied to treat other plant viruses.

The technology is being carried forward in collaboration with industrial partners as part of the spinout company RNAshield. 

Prof Graham Moore, director of the John Innes Centre, said: “Yiliang’s research is world-leading and it is wonderful that she has been recognised by the Blavatnik Foundation with this award.

"Yiliang and her team push the boundaries of what we know about RNA, developing tools and techniques to unravel this fascinating and vital area of biology. Their fundamental scientific discoveries, and their dedication to translating this into real-world solutions epitomises the role of the John Innes Centre.”