Products of plants and bacteria already have a multitude of food, therapeutic, agricultural and industrial uses.
Our research focuses on the biological questions relevant to the improvement of existing uses, the discovery and design of new products, and the discovery of new uses for existing and novel products.
Research from the Molecules from Nature ISP will contribute to the bioeconomy in the following ways:
New leads for the pharmaceutical industry
The rise of anti-microbial resistance and of dangerous viral illnesses has increased demand for new antibiotics, diagnostics and vaccines. Our research on actinomycetes – the bacteria that already produce half of all clinically-useful antibiotics - will uncover a wealth of new products that can be tested for antibiotic properties. Our transient expression systems that allow rapid, cheap, high-level production of valuable proteins in plant leaves will revolutionise production of vaccines for existing and emerging viral diseases.
Our research will also provide new leads for drug production, including anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory drugs. These leads will come from better understanding of how existing plant-derived drugs are synthesized, and hence a new capacity to discover or “design” a range of new molecules with drug potential.
New industrial feedstocks and catalysts
Interest in plant and microbial natural products as feedstocks for industry is being accelerated by the need to replace fossil fuel feedstocks. Our research is highly relevant to the development of new feedstocks, including terpene derivatives (detergent and foaming properties), flavonoids (UV-filtering properties), and starch and other glucans (multiple uses in food and non-food sectors). Expansion of use of natural products requires that bioactivities and properties can be appropriately tailored and problems of availability can be overcome. Our research will address these issues by, for example, engineering “designer” terpenes for specific applications, developing a Natural Product Discovery Platform for actinomycete products with novel structures and activities, and increasing our capacity to generate products for testing by industrial and academic partners.
New agricultural chemicals and interventions
There is an urgent need for new agrichemicals as existing products are withdrawn for legislative reasons, and for more environmentally-friendly and sustainable means of maintaining crop and livestock health. Our research offers many new opportunities in this sector. These include discovery of natural products with potential as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, improved understanding of “chemical messages” between soil organisms, including antagonisms that reduce levels of plant disease organisms, cheap, fast and effective means of producing vaccines against livestock pathogens, and identification of natural products with potential for growth control in crop plants and for maintaining health in farmed fish.
Improvement of the UK pea crop
We provide the academic base for enhancing the economic value of the UK pea crop. Pulse crops contribute positively to the goals of crop diversification and the reduction of agricultural inputs, and are an efficient source of plant-derived protein for food and animal feed. However, problems of cultivation and of nutritional value limit their uses and their attractiveness to farmers. In close collaboration with stakeholder and end-users of the pea crop, our research will provide new understanding of protein composition in relation to yield, anti-nutritional properties, health-promoting properties, and industrial uses; and new germplasm for breeders.
More nutritious food products
Our research outcomes will contribute to the development of new, more nutritious products by the UK food sector, by generating crop plants with systematic variation for starch digestibility, protein content and quality, mineral nutrient content and contents of health-promoting metabolites. These materials will be assessed by collaborators for health benefits and for functionality, providing a rational basis for the development of cultivars with improved nutritional quality. The outcomes will provide new economic opportunities for crop breeders and food manufacturing industries, plus healthy diets that will reduce the vast economic burden of obesity and related diseases.
We focus on research with global implications for human health and well-being, in particular on molecules with potential as anti-microbial and therapeutic agents and on the design of crop plants with improved nutrient contents.
Our research also contributes to the development of more sustainable agricultural and industrial practices, with positive environmental benefits. Through collaborators, new compounds and enzymes will be tested for utility as environmentally-friendly agrichemicals, sustainable feedstocks and industrial catalysts. Our research on chemical interactions between soil organisms has huge potential for the development of new ways to maintain crop and soil health.
Training a new generation of scientists
Our Institute Strategic Programme will equip a new generation of researchers with excellent technical, scientific and professional skills to ensure that the UK maintains its leadership in exploiting plant and microbial chemical diversity to fuel economic growth. We will provide training, mentoring and career advice to ensure that our researchers fulfil their potential.
We will also train PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and provide career development advice and opportunities for support staff. We will also offer training for PhD students and postdoctoral researchers beyond the John Innes Centre, via taught courses on plant and microbial products for international participants and opportunities for visits and internships.