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Pick of the Crop


The John Innes Centre ( JIC) has an outdoor heated swimming pool, as well as squash and tennis courts--all for the use of its staff. It also happens to be one of the world's leading centres for basic crop research, boasting more than 8000 square metres of greenhouse space, a farm or two, and a brand-new genomics building.

Even in the middle of winter, the glasshouses are full of plants--from the lowliest Arabidopsis, through blooming antirrhinums, to the tallest maize--all tended by a dedicated team of horticulturists who support the scientists' work. High-powered lights ensure that the turnip plants used for research by Simon Fox, one of approximately 120 PhD students at JIC, keep growing all year round.

Fox studies cauliflower mosaic virus (CMV), which is indigenous to the UK and can affect the yield of all species of the cabbage family (brassicas). Because CMV is transmitted by aphids, Fox's experimental plants must be grown in Category 2 containment facilities, the highest level of containment that can apply to plant diseases. So, the greenhouse is kept at negative pressure, Fox (and everyone else) needs an electronic swipe card to enter it, and all wastewater is collected and treated. The availability of such facilities is one of the reasons Fox believes that JIC is the only place in the UK that he can do his research.

Plant Research: The Human Connection 1

CMV isn't interesting just because of its economic impact on cabbage crops. It is that rare thing, a DNA plant virus, and it uses an "extremely interesting method of replication, very similar to that of HIV," explains George Lomonossoff, supervisor of student Simon Fox. These analogies with HIV are being explored and, of course, the advantage is that basic research can be carried out "in a much safer manner" on the plant virus.


Rice grows in a bench-top paddy field.

Unique facilities are also the reason that Graham Moore chose to come to JIC to do his research. JIC is home to the UK wheat germ plasm collection, and Moore describes it as "the major centre for wheat genetics in the UK." In addition to the carefully stored seed of wheat varieties from locations as diverse as Thailand and Siberia, JIC's vast cold room holds the genetic material of other cereals, brassicas, and legume crop species from around the world.

Not so long ago, the only way JIC scientists could investigate the characteristics of the diverse genetic material stored at the centre was to grow the seed. Although this is still done (in strict rotation to ensure that each variety remains viable), JIC, like research institutes around the globe, is also investing heavily in genomic and postgenomic technology. For example, JIC and the Institute for Food Research, which is conveniently located just over the road, share a proteomics facility that is equipped with mass spec and protein sequencing machinery. But, the star of the show has to be JIC's new £13 million Genome Centre.

Plant Research: The Human Connection 2

A chance meeting on a train led to Graham Moore's interest in one of the world's major food crops. At the time, he was working for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London and had developed techniques for human chromosome pairing. His travel companion, a wheat researcher, was interested. "Wheat has a very large genome," Moore explains, so it's a difficult species in which to get chromosome pairing to work. It's worth doing though, as it allows you to bring new traits into a variety by a non-genetically modified route--something that Moore points out has attracted renewed interest in recent years. With the world's population steadily growing, and Asian countries moving away from rice-based products, "demand for wheat will increase," says Moore, especially since it is grown in more varied climates than any other species. These are all good reasons to give some attention to the source of our daily bread.

The first researchers moved into the light and airy new building earlier this year. But, they don't just have more elbow room. Dedicated equipment is the order of the day, too--£2.5 million worth of it, all geared towards high-throughput DNA sequencing and transcription analysis. However, the financial wherewithal to throw at such a facility is rare, and "you can't be a small operator in this area," according to Ray Mathias, JIC's Head of Science Communication and Education, so the Genome Centre shares its largesse. It offers a service not just to the rest of the Norwich Research Park on which JIC sits but also to plant biologists around the UK.

Atrium of the new Genome Centre

A similar economy of scale applies to the proteomics facility, explains Mathias. Because it's a large resource, "there's quite a lot of duplication of equipment and facilities," he says, leading to a "robustness of service" and also a great opportunity for "sharing of expertise and experience."

In addition, it's not just plants that benefit from JIC's hothouse atmosphere. Commercially minded scientists should find their ideas carefully nurtured, too. In 1994, with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Centre created an independent, for-profit, technology management company, Plant Bioscience Limited ( PBL). PBL offers basic business development support (for example, developing a business plan) right through to help with finding venture capital. The aim, says Mathias, is to create "a very safe, nurturing environment, so that small companies can get stuck into the science," rather than having to scrabble around worrying about the next step, whether it is finding laboratory space or funding.

The Norwich Bio-Incubator, housed on-site in the new Genome Centre will--when it reaches full capacity--support up to 12 new businesses. Two have moved in already, with a further three spinouts from JIC science in the pipeline. John Innes scientists also have access to the recently created £4 million Iceni fund (named after Boudicca's famous East Anglian tribe), which is providing start-up cash for business ideas originating across the Norwich Research Park and the University of Essex.

Not all JIC scientists wear wellies.

Given the outstanding facilities, Fox finds it surprising that JIC is not well known among students in the UK. In fact, it tends to be mistaken for a supplier of a certain proprietary compost. (There is a connection, but it's from a long way back.) One of the greatest advantages of working at the Centre, as compared to a university, is that "there's so much more money to use here," Simon Fox believes. Add the "high concentration of like-minded individuals," an excellent specialist library, and the "very friendly" atmosphere, and one thing quickly becomes clear: Fox would recommend that any serious plant scientist beat a path to the centre's front door. And there's not a compost bin in sight. ...