Meet the researcher creating designer molecules and poetry from plants

Professor Anne Osbourn OBE FRS is group leader at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park 

Professor Anne Osbourn OBE FRS is group leader at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park - Credit: The Royal Society

Professor Anne Osbourn OBE FRS is group leader at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park. Find out how her research on plant genomes could create designer molecules for anti-cancer compounds, vaccines and crop protection – which also inspire her work as a published poet. 

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.  

What does your role entail? 

I lead a research group at the John Innes Centre working on understanding how plants make certain chemicals. These molecules play important roles in a plant’s ability to adapt to survive in particular habitats, for example by providing protection against pests and pathogens or attracting seed dispersal agents and pollinators.  

We’re interested in the ‘instruction manual’ that’s hidden away in the genomes of plants because these chemicals include scents, colours, flavours and drugs that are important to humans. We’re using advanced computational methods and machine learning to mine plant genome sequences. We're also building a toolkit of hundreds of enzymes that we can mix and match to make different plant-inspired chemicals.  

Our aim is to make the next generation of designer molecules that are tailored for particular applications like anti-cancer compounds, vaccines and crop protection agents. 

Which plant molecules are you working with? 

In the 1940s, Elizabeth Turner at the University of Oxford discovered avenacin, a molecule produced by oat roots that fluoresces bright blue under ultraviolet light. We tested her hypothesis that avenacin might protect oats from attack by soil-borne pathogens by using a chemical mutagen to create oat roots without avenacin. We were able to confirm her hypothesis because those mutants without the fluorescent molecule proved to be more susceptible to disease.  

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We unravelled avenacin’s biosynthetic pathway so that we now understand exactly how that molecule is made. This is important because other cereals and grasses like wheat, rice and maize don't make avenacin. If we can introduce that pathway into wheat or barley, for example, then we might be able to protect crops against attack by diseases like Take-all, which is a fungus that can’t be effectively controlled by using pesticides.  

We are also looking at QS-21, a molecule extracted from the Chilean soapbark tree that is valuable as an immunostimulant. It is added to vaccines to make them more effective. Today it is used for the Shingrix shingles vaccine and anti-malaria vaccines. It’s also being evaluated for Covid-19 vaccines. We are trying to understand how this tree encodes QS-21 so that we can make the molecule sustainably without having to remove the bark from the tree.  

Anne Osbourn's first poetry collection, Mock Orange, is published by SPM Publications

Anne Osbourn's first poetry collection, Mock Orange, is published by SPM Publications - Credit: SPM Publications

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career?   

My parents are both literary people and our house was full of books. I’d always loved English and creative writing but I was also fascinated by plants and botany. I learned to say ‘Primula denticulata’ when I was three! 

We lived in Yorkshire on the edge of the moors. My mother and I would sit by the stream and have picnics in the snow. I remember her showing me the first flowers in early spring: coltsfoot, celandines, violets and windflowers.  

If I had had the option to do creative writing at A Level, I would have. But I couldn’t, so I studied science. I did a degree in Botany at Durham University and then a PhD in fungal genetics at Birmingham. In 1985, I came to the John Innes Centre to learn about molecular biology, but my real passion is plants, which I love to write about. 

In 2004, I received a Dream Time Fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to study creative writing at UEA, so I took a sabbatical for one year and started writing poetry. My first book of poetry, Mock Orange, is about my fascination with plants.

My second collection, Rockall, will be published soon. It is about an uninhabitable islet 250 miles off the west coast of Scotland with a fascinating history. There are lots of voices in the book including Rockall itself, the Atlantic Ocean and birds like gannets, guillemots and puffins. 

What’s your favourite thing about working at Norwich Research Park? 

Norwich Research Park is a huge critical mass of world-leading scientists working not just in plant and microbial science but in many other different areas. I collaborate with people in computational biology, bioimaging, synthetic biology, pharmaceuticals, chemistry and even the arts. 

Norwich is internationally renowned for both science and creativity thanks to Norwich Research Park, as well as the National Centre for Writing, the UEA and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. My lab is a meeting place where people from different disciplines can come together around a common goal. 

What do you get up to when you are not working? 

I like walking, reading, writing and going to the gym. I’ve always liked swimming but recently I have been trying wild swimming in the Chet River. My 93-year-old mother lives just up the road, so we spend a lot of time together doing the crossword and she critiques my poetry. 

Professor Anne Osbourn OBE FRS is group leader at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park. You can follow her on Twitter @AnneOsbourn1