Societal impacts

The research we do at the John Innes Centre has direct benefits on the health of people around the world.

Our discoveries have seen advances made in food security, nutrition, the environment and education. Below are just a few examples.

Improving agricultural
productivity around the globe

Increasing the nutrition
of the food we eat

Educating and encouraging
the next generation

Developing new antibiotics and
accelerating vaccine production

Fighting back against
Ash Dieback

Contributing evidence to
government policy

Improving agricultural productivity around the globe

Today, humankind faces unprecedented global challenges. By 2050 the global population will have risen from 2 billion to 9 billion in just a little over 100 years. The amount of food required by humans in the next 40 years may be more than we have consumed in the last 10,000 years.

A changing climate and water scarcity threaten agricultural output in many areas across the globe. Diseases and pests are migrating and evolving. It is therefore crucial that the speed at which we are able to improve our food supply accelerates to match these unprecedented global challenges.

The second UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 of “zero hunger” could not be clearer or more challenging. In Africa, where demographic change and climate change will impose additional burdens, meeting this goal will require significant improvements in agricultural productivity.

One of the strongest routes to improved agricultural productivity is through research and development. However, African science is currently underpowered to deliver the necessary research stimulus for agricultural development.

It's therefore essential that the strengths of the global scientific community and recent advances in technology are harnessed to improve food crops for Africa.

As such, we've developed partnerships with key African scientific institutions to deliver both research outputs for agricultural productivity and capacity building for international development in Africa and in the UK.

Increasing the nutrition of foods

We are also working to improve the nutrition of the food we eat.

Recent research has bred a wheat that contains twice the typical amount of iron, something that cannot be achieved by normal breeding.

GM purple tomatoes developed by John Innes Centre scientists in the UK are being harvested in Ontario, Canada, for future research and to attract interest from private investors.

The colour of the tomatoes is derived from high levels of anthocyanins, compounds normally found in blueberries, blackberries and other deeply coloured berries.

The purple tomatoes have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects compared to regular ones and to slow the progression of soft-tissue carcinoma in cancer-prone mice. Purple tomatoes also have double the shelf life.

Educating and encouraging the next generation of scientists

We have a long standing commitment to support and encourage young people to pursue careers in science.

In 2013, Samantha Fox and Dee Rawsthorne introduced the Year 10 Science Camp a now annual event giving 10 to 15 school students in Norfolk and Suffolk the chance to experience life as a scientist at the John Innes Centre and partner institutes on the Norwich Research Park.

The course aims to build students' knowledge, confidence, skills and aspirations and to provide opportunities for scientists (PhD students, postdocs, research assistants and project leaders) to engage with, and inspire, future scientists. Places are awarded on a competitive basis.

The lack of women in STEMM continues to be a real cause for concern for employers.

Women of the Future is a unique event designed to inspire the next generation of female STEMM professionals. 

First launched in 2015, this year’s will be the third event, building on the resounding success of the previous two conferences.

The students meet engineers, academics, science media professionals, women who work in medical research and healthcare and top female figures from tech companies. The students get advice, personal stories, links for future connections and challenged some stereotypes about what girls can achieve and what a ‘scientist’ looks like.

Developing new antibiotics and accelerating vaccine production

At the John Innes Centre we are working on a number of medical advancements including; discovering new antibiotics in the joints of leafcutter ants and hybrid antibiotics in a bacteria called streptomyces. We are also working on how plants can help us to produce more vaccines, faster.

To take one example; flu is the curse of the winter season and accounts for over 400,000 trips to see a GP each year, costing the UK health service over £22 million.

Flu viruses are changing continuously allowing the virus to escape the immune system, meaning each year we must update the seasonal influenza vaccine.

Technology invented at the John Innes Centre is driving a revolution in the speed at which large volumes of vaccines and other valuable proteins can be produced.

Using a plant virus, Prof George Lomonossoff produced pharmaceutically-relevant proteins in plants such as an avian flu vaccine reducing production times for 10 million doses from 9 months to 30 days.

These can be used as a vaccine that can stimulate the human immune system to make antibodies.

This versatile system is not only being used to make season flu vaccines, but also vaccines to combat outbreaks of pandemic flu such as H5N1 avian flu and to produce animal vaccines that could stop the viruses before they move from animal to human.

Fighting back against Ash dieback

Back in 2012 John Innes Centre researcher, Dr Anne Edwards recognised Ash dieback disease in ancient woodland in Norfolk and triggered a call to arms. The disease that had decimated 60 to 90% of ash woodland in Denmark was about to invade.

Within a matter of months the Nornex consortium was formed to exploit the UK’s research infrastructure and capability to investigate and combat the threat.

Genome sequencing, bioinformatics, genetics, ecology, computer gaming and phone app technology were all deployed and the general public were mobilised through crowdsourcing to monitor and report the spread of the disease.

By 2014, the genome of the fungus (Chalara fraxinea / Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus) had been sequenced and the invasive pathogenic strain traced to Japan.

While headlines warn that Ash dieback is now “unstoppable” with their demise threatening hundreds of insects, mosses, lichens and birds. Our research outputs offer a real prospect that a “natural recovery process” can be initiated that will maintain ash biodiversity.

“It is a tribute to the enthusiasm of the scientists involved, the benefits of international collaboration, and the funding from the BBSRC and Defra. This rapid and effective response was only possible because of sustained UK investment that has maintained our National research capability” said Prof Alan Downie.

In September 2017 tighter controls on timber and plant movements into Europe were called for to prevent further disastrous effects of plant diseases, follwoing a new study of the ash-dieback pathogen.

Contributing evidence to government policy

At the John Innes Centre we contribute to the formation of UK policy in science and technology.

We do this through interactions with policy-makers and by contributing written evidence to Government committee inquiries.

Examples of the kinds of impact and involvement on policies are below.

Brexit; EU membership and UK science

We are contributing to an inquiry into the relationship between membership of the EU and the effectiveness of science, research and innovation in the UK.

The UK's membership of the EU has wide-ranging influence on the vitality of UK science, research and innovation.

This inquiry aims to try and understand and characterise these interactions with particular regard to four major themes; funding, collaboration, regulation and scientific advice.

In the evidence we provided, we outlined the range of benefits that the UK has experienced from the European research programmes and the funding they provide.

The EU regulatory framework surrounding the genetic modification of food crops has a direct impact on our research and on the potential translation of our research for societal benefit.

The mechanisms for the provision of scientific advice on matters of public policy are less well-developed for some EU institutions than they are for the UK Government. However, it is clear that the EU institutions are actively seeking to strengthen their performance in this area.

Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)

In 2014 the Science and Technology Committee held an inquiry into antimicrobial resistance, chaired by Andrew Miller, to find out whether the Government’s current and proposed actions will contribute enough to tackling this serious global threat.

The committee invited responses on how microbial resistance has developed, where our knowledge gaps are, whether there was sufficient research into new antibiotics, as well as what the best measures are for controlling the spread of resistant pathogens, and what global coordinated action is required.

In our response, we highlighted that coordinated action and funding is needed to enable researchers to work closely with industry to progress new candidate molecules through to commercialisation, and this could be achieved through establishing centres of excellence in antimicrobial research.

We also suggested that mechanisms to ensure industry buy-in could help reverse the slowed rate of antibiotic discovery.

Training for the next generation of synthetic chemists will help ensure the UK can continue to provide leadership in research excellence in this area.

GM foods and the application of the 'Precautionary Principle' in Europe

This 2014 inquiry aimed to scrutinise European regulations restricting the growth of genetically modified (GM) foods in Europe.

Andrew Miller MP said "GM technology potentially offers an array of benefits, but concerns are being expressed that it is being held back by misuse of the precautionary principle. This inquiry will look at whether such restrictions are hampering UK scientific competitiveness and whether they are still appropriate in light of the available evidence on the safety of GM."

In order to meet the challenge of providing nutritious food for the growing population we need all available technologies, including GM.

We feel it now seems unreasonable to have a regulatory system that assumes that GM crops are more hazardous that those produced by conventional means - basing the regulatory process on the introduced trait or final product would be more appropriate.

As scientific uncertainty is reduced and potential benefits increase, as in the case of GM crops, application of the precautionary principle becomes less appropriate

Current EU and UK regulations take no account of the history of safe use of GM foods nor the considerable experience gained in the 20 years since the first commercial GM crop in 1994.

The lack of a joined-up path from the research lab, through field testing, to commercialisation is a significant issue, and that, as such, important UK scientific discoveries have had to be taken forward outside of the UK.

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