Professor Anne Osbourn – plant scientist and poet receives prestigious Novozymes Prize

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 

Professor Graham Moore, Director of the John Innes Centre says: “I am delighted that the innovative work and distinguished career of Anne Osbourn has been recognised with this prestigious award. It reflects Anne’s huge contribution to the exciting field of natural product biosynthesis, and in providing solutions for human medicine and plant health.” 

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.” 

The Osbourn group has characterised an extensive set of genes and enzymes for biosynthesis of triterpenes. One pathway on which they are working is for an immunostimulant, QS-21, which is a key component of vaccines for shingles, malaria and COVID-19. It is also used in vaccines being developed for ovarian cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, tuberculosis, and HIV. QS-21 is currently extracted from the bark of a tree that grows in Chile (the soapbark tree). 

“There has been concern about the supply of this molecule and the sustainability of using the tree,” explains Professor Osbourn. “We are working on elucidating the entire pathway for QS-21, and we have a rapid way of putting those genes to work in a heterologous plant expression system, which means that we can go from expression constructs to making chemicals in five days. So that attracted the interests of big pharma.” 

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.“ 

Science, poetry and communication

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.  

For Anne Osbourn, poetry and science communication are much more than sideshows to the science. 

“I was always fascinated with the natural world, especially plants, but I also loved creative writing and English. But I could not do both of those as A-level in school, so I had to choose between these subjects and science. And my parents were both literary people. So, my sister and I both became scientists. I did a degree in botany, did a PhD in genetics, did a postdoc and became well established. But then I just felt that somehow something was missing.” 

While looking at job ads in Nature, Anne stumbled on an advert from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, whose mission was to promote creativity and innovation. A programme called Dream Time Fellowship caught her attention. 

“I just said, I am going to go and write for a year, so I went on sabbatical for a year. It was a massive thing to do at that time. It would be more acceptable now, but there is still this view that if people are going off and doing communication or engagement in schools, they are wasting their time.” 

For a while, Anne thought that she was going to become a full-time writer, but fortunately she insisted that her group continue running while she was on sabbatical, and she continued her scientific research for one day a week. 

“We had a very productive year, partly because I was not there all the time. People made a great effort to do things so they could show them to me, and I gradually realised that these three strands – science, poetry and communication – were not fighting each other. They began to support each other.” 

Anne will officially receive the Novozymes Prize at a prize ceremony in Bagsværd, Denmark on 21 April. 

About the Novozymes Prize 

The Novozymes Prize recognises outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions. 

The Prize is awarded annually and is intended to further raise awareness of basic and applied biotechnology research. 

The Prize is accompanied by DKK 5 million (€672,000) and comprises a DKK 4.5 million (€605,000) research grant and a personal award of DKK 0.5 million (€67,000). 

The Foundation will award an additional DKK 0.5 million for hosting an international symposium within the recipient’s field(s) of research. 

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