The High Value Biorenewables Network Co-director, Professor Anne Osbourn, has been awarded the 2023 Novozymes Prize for her pioneering work in helping to produce important drugs in greater volumes and improving the natural defence systems of plants.
The Prize awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation recognises outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit biotechnological science.
Plants produce a wealth of useful natural products. These are often structurally complex, limited by difficulties in accessing source species and beyond the reach of chemical synthesis. The discovery – by Professor Osbourn – that plant genes for specialised pathways are organised like beads on a string has fuelled the finding of novel plant compounds and pathways.
“Plants produce more than 1 million compounds, but the genes are only known for around 50 complete pathways. Thus, our understanding of how these compounds are synthesised is highly fragmented. Our lab has developed a platform to characterise plant genes and engineer structurally diverse molecules so that we can investigate the relationship between structure and function,” explains Professor Osbourn, Deputy Director of the John Innes Centre and Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglia.
“We can basically unlock the chemistry of plants and the instruction manual encoded within the DNA of plant genomes to make not only known molecules and structural analogues but also entirely new-to-nature molecules, because we can mix and match from across the plant kingdom.”
Bernard Henrissat, Chair of the Novozymes Prize Committee, says: “Anne Osbourn’s discovery that the genes for many of these pathways are organised in clusters in plant genomes has greatly accelerated the ability to find new pathways and chemistries and has opened unprecedented opportunities for genome mining for discoveries of medicinal but also agronomic importance.“
Professor Osbourn is a poet and from this she developed, and coordinates the Science, Art, and Writing (SAW) Initiative, a cross-curricular science education outreach programme. Bernard Henrissat, continues: “Anne has reached out in a unique and beautiful way to society by connecting her work to poetry and art.” Her prize-winning poetry collection Mock Orange was published in 2021.