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John Innes Centre

General view of a laboratory at the John Innes Centre, Merton, early 1900s.


Through the JI100 website you are able to explore our history in depth and find out how some of the great scientific minds of the past and present work, add your contribution to the memory bank, find out how to order 'John Innes', a very special centenary rose, register to attend the centenary events happening across the UK and find out about Centenary events happening in other countries as and when they are announced, and much more!

John Innes Centenary


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  • The ‘John Innes and Apple Breeding’ leaflet explains why the John Innes began work on fruit breeding in 1910 and gives an introduction to Institution’s main achievements through nearly 70 years scientific research on apple breeding. It incorporates short biographies of the John Innes scientists and plant breeders who led the research which aimed to make orchards around the world more productive.

A short history of the John Innes Centre


The John Innes Centre as it exists today is made up from three founding organisations:

These organisations were originally independent of one another but in the 1980s were combined into one administrative 'super institute', although still on separate sites. In the early 1990s the PBI and the NFL were moved to the JII's site in Colney and in 1994 the three were merged into a single organisation - the John Innes Centre.

In 1989 the Sainsbury Laboratory (SL) was opened on the Colney site. Although the SL is an independent orgnisation it has close scientific and administrative links with the JIC.

The John Innes Institute.

In 1910 the John Innes Horticultural Institution was founded at Merton, South London , under the directorship of William Bateson. A bequest from Mr John Innes, a City of London merchant, financed the setting up of the Institution.

William Bateson was an important figure in what was then the new science of genetics. Gregor Mendel had published his seminal work on the principles of inheritance in the 1860s but its significance had been overlooked for 40 years. When Mendel's observations were rediscovered, in 1900, Bateson was one of the scientists who pioneered the study of this new science. Indeed it was Bateson, in a letter to Adam Sedgwick in 1905, who coined the word "genetics". Under his directorship the Institution became the first, and one of the foremost, UK centres for research in plant breeding and genetics.

On Bateson's death in 1926, Sir A. Daniel Hall, an expert on soils and agriculture, was appointed Director and the following year J. B. S. Haldane became part-time Head of Genetical Research.

In the mid 1930's the formulae for the 'John Innes Composts' were developed at the Institution to provide a sterile, well-balanced growing medium for experimental plant material. The Institution made the formulae generally available, but the JI has never manufactured composts for sale or otherwise benefited financially from their production.

Sir Daniel was succeeded, in 1939, by a cytologist, C. D. Darlington.

After World War II the Institution moved to the 372 acre Bayfordbury estate in Hertfordshire, where Darlington established a flourishing School of Cytology. At this time D. Lewis and M. B. Crane were studying incompatibility in fruit species and A. G. Brown began a programme breeding for resistance to scab and mildew in apples. A method for propagating roses was developed that is the basis of the technique still used to produce many millions of roses annually. A new range of hybrid Streptocarpus pot plants was also introduced and these are now widely cultivated commercially.

Darlington resigned as Director in 1953, the year Watson and Crick published a proposed structure for DNA. His successor, K. S. Dodds from Cambridge, brought with him the Commonwealth Potato Collection and established a new Potato Genetics Department. Biochemical genetics was developed under J. R. S. Fincham and a Cell Biology Block was built. As biochemical and molecular studies developed, and the fruit breeding and cytological work diminished, the need for a large estate was less important, but establishing a close liaison with a university was felt to be imperative. Accordingly, in 1966-67 the John Innes Institute moved to its present site at Colney, near Norwich, and established close links with the University of East Anglia.

The first Director at Colney was Roy Markham, who brought with him his team from the Virus Research Unit, Cambridge. In 1980 Harold Woolhouse succeeded him. Woolhouse oversaw the early stages of the site's recent rapid expansion, with the building of the Sainsbury Laboratory and new laboratories to accommodate scientists from the former Plant Breeding Institute (PBI), Cambridge. Professor Richard B. Flavell, a former PBI molecular biologist, became Director in 1988.

Scientists from the PBI arrived on the JI site in 1990 (to form the Cambridge Laboratory) and there was a further influx of scientists, in 1995, when the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory moved to Norwich from Sussex University. The John Innes Institute, the Cambridge Laboratory and the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory were merged in April 1994 to form a new organization, the John Innes Centre, under the Directorship of Professor Flavell.

The Plant Breeding Institute.

The Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) was established in 1912 (at the instigation of the then Board of Agriculture) within the Cambridge University School of Agriculture. The Director, Sir Rowland Biffen. is regarded as one of the first scientific plant breeders as he was among the first to demonstrate that Mendel's Laws could be applied to economically important crop characters. He discovered that wheat yellow rust resistance was simply inherited and used this knowledge to breed the rust resistant wheat variety "Little Joss".

The early work of the PBI was entirely devoted to the breeding of improved varieties of wheat, particularly with regard to better grain quality. Biffen insisted that breeding for improved crop quality must be based on research into crop genetics and physiology. In 1916, the variety "Yeoman" was released, which set a standard for yield and grain quality that would last for many years; it remained on the National Institute of Agricultural Botany Recommended Varieties list until 1957.

After the First World War F L Engledow (later Sir Frank) was appointed as a wheat breeder, H Hunter to work on oats and sainfoin and A E Watkins to study the genetics of wheat. Engledow combined his breeding work with a study of wheat physiology, taking advantage of field experimentation then being developed by R A Fisher at Rothamsted. Engledow's most successful variety was "Holdfast".

Meanwhile the work at the PBI had expanded to include barley and peas. The barley breeding programme, headed by G D H Bell, played a substantial part in the expansion of PBI. The PBI variety "Proctor" combined excellent malting quality with very high yield and remained on the NIAB Recommended List until 1978.

Hunter became Director in 1936 and was succeeded in 1948 by G D H Bell. In this year the PBI was established as an Agricultural Research Council institute, severing its formal link with Cambridge University. In 1955 it moved from the University Farm to Trumpington, on the outskirts of Cambridge. By this time the Institute included sections working on Cereals, Forage Crops, Potatoes, Sugar Beet and Cytogenetics. Following the move to Trumpington the work in all sections expanded rapidly, with particular emphasis being given to plant pathology. Four Crop Sections were established at the Trumpington site: Cereals; Potatoes and Brassicas; Sugar Beet; Forage and Grasses.

In 1971 R Riley (later Sir Ralph Riley) became Director of the PBI. In the mid to late 1970s PBI's science was characterised by studies on DNA organisation within wheat and its relatives. In 1978 ten new positions were created to exploit the emerging science of biotechnology and seven years later a new Department of Molecular Genetics was launched under R B Flavell.

In 1985 the Agricultural and Food Research Council's Forward Policy proposed that its research institutes should be re-organised into eight 'super' institutes. This was closely followed (1987) by the sale of the PBI breeding programmes and farm site to a private company (Unilever) under the government's privatisation policy. The non-privatised part of the PBI (the Cambridge Laboratory) was integrated into the Institute of Plant Science Research, which included the John Innes Institute (Norwich) and the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory (Sussex). In 1990 the majority of the PBI's scientific staff were relocated to newly built facilities at the John Innes Institute where they formed the 'Cambridge Laboratory'.

Over its 75 year history the PBI produced over 130 new varieties of wheat, barley, oats, triticale, potatoes, field beans, maize, oilseed rape, clover, sugarbeet and grasses.

The Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory.

The Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory was established in 1963 as the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) Unit of Nitrogen Fixation. The first Director was J Chatt FRS with J R Postgate FRS as Assistant Director. Initially the unit consisted of small teams working in temporary accommodation at the Royal Veterinary College and Queen Mary College, London. In 1965 the nucleus of the Unit was moved, temporarily, to the Chemistry Laboratories at the University of Sussex, where its work got properly under way. It moved into its own building on the Sussex campus in April 1968 and occupied further extensions to the buildings in 1971 and 1976.

In 1980 J Chatt retired and J R Postgate took over as Director. In 1987 the Unit was incorporated into the AFRC Institute of Plant Science Research (IPSR) which included the John Innes Institute and Cambridge Laboratory. J R Postgate retired and Barry E Smith became Head of Laboratory. In 1992 AFRC decided to move the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory into a purpose-built laboratory on the John Innes Centre site. This move took place in late summer 1995.

The Sainsbury Laboratory.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is based at the John Innes Centre, Norwich and has rapidly established a worldwide reputation in the field of molecular plant pathology and genetics. The new Laboratory was completed in 1989 through the generosity of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, a Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust, which continues to support the research programmes.