Prof Sarah O'Connor

Project Leader
Biological Chemistry

Sarah’s research focuses on elucidating biochemical pathways in plants including those involved in the synthesis of the monoterpenes and the alkaloids, the enzymes involved and the evolution of these pathways.

Sarah works on plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and uses modern sequencing and bioinformatics to characterise pathways and identify new genes. This work has led to the development of platforms which allow fast, inexpensive production of compounds.

  • Monoterpene and alkaloid synthesis
  • Evolution of biochemical pathways in plants
  • Synthetic biology for compound production


Plants produce hundreds of thousands of complex metabolites called "natural products" that have many uses.

Anti-cancer agents such as vinblastine and taxol, the analgesic morphine, and the anti-malarials artemisinin and quinine are each natural products that are produced by a plant. Despite the importance of these compounds, it is unclear how many of these complicated molecules are made by the plant.

The O'Connor group elucidates and engineers the metabolic pathways that construct these compounds from simple building blocks. An understanding of these pathways allows us to harness the wealth of compounds and biocatalysts that plants have provided. Moreover, the group can also begin to speculate how and why plants evolved to produce some of these molecules.  

They take a multi-disciplinary approach to answering research questions, using plant molecular biology, enzymology and chemical strategies in their group.


Tel: 01603 450334

Pulses raised as new study reveals secrets of the plant that keeps people calm

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Milestone research on Madagascar periwinkle uncovers pathway to cancer-fighting drugs

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Sarah O'Connor elected into EMBO

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MIA transport protein no longer missing in action

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Sarah O'Connor

  • Benjamin Lichman Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Mohamed Kamileen Technician
  • Jakob Franke Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Dr Scott Farrow Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Katy Davis Student Other
  • Dr Evangelos Tatsis Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Dr Thu-Thuy Dang Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Dr Dorota Jakubczyk Postdoctoral Scientist
  • Dr Lorenzo Caputi Research Assistant
  • Dr Trinh-Don Nguyen Postdoctoral Scientist


2013 Wain Medal

2011 Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award

2011 ACS Pfizer Award in Enzyme Chemistry

2007-2009 Sloan Research Fellowship

2007 Arthur Neisch Young Investigator Award of the North American Phytochemical Society

2007-2010 American Cancer Society Research Scholar

2005-2008 Beckman Young Investigator

2004-2007 Latham Family Career Development Professor

2003-2005 Smith Family Medical Foundation New Investigator

2000-2002 American Chemical Society Irving S. Sigal Postdoctoral Fellowship, Harvard Medical School

1998-1999 American Chemical Society Organic Division Graduate Fellowship, California Institute of Technology

1998 Distinguished Graduate Student Everhart Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology


For media enquiries, contact the John Innes Centre communications team 01603 450962,


Discovering and designing plant-derived medicines to treat cancer

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