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Plant scientist and poet Anne Osbourn receives prestigious Novozymes Prize

Photo: Mette Frid Darré

Anne Osbourn is receiving the 2023 Novozymes Prize for her pioneering work that has opened the possibility of producing important drugs in greater volumes and improving the natural defence systems of plants. At the height of her scientific career, the British professor decided to take a year off to study poetry. Today, poetry and plant research support each other.

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 Anne Osbourn – that plant genes for specialised pathways are organised like beads on a string has fuelled the finding of novel plant compounds and pathways.

For her pioneering work that has opened the possibility of producing important drugs in greater volumes and improving the natural defence systems of plants to benefit both people’s health and the sustainability of the planet, the Novo Nordisk Foundation is awarding Anne Osbourn the 2023 Novozymes Prize.

The Prize recognises outstanding research or technology contributions that benefit the development of biotechnological science for innovative solutions and is accompanied by DKK 5 million (€672,000).

“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 Anne 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.”

For example, Anne Osbourn’s lab 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).

“So, there has been concern about the supply of this molecule and the sustainability of using the tree. 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.“

Bernard Henrissat is also impressed that Anne is a poet and has developed and coordinates the Science, Art, and Writing (SAW) Initiative, a cross-curricular science education outreach programme.

“Her new prize-winning poetry collection Mock Orange has been recently published. She has thus reached out in a unique and beautiful way to society by connecting her work to poetry and art.”

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

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

About Anne Osbourn

  • 2020: Mock Orange published by SPM Publications
  • 2013–present: Director, Norwich Research Park Industrial Biotechnology Alliance, UK
  • 2005–present: Group Leader, Department of Metabolic Biology, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
  • 2005–2010: Branco Weiss Science in Society Fellow
  • 2005: Founder of the Science, Art and Writing (SAW) Trust
  • 2004–2005: National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts Dream Time Fellowship
  • 1999–2005: Group Leader, Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, UK
  • 1987–1999: Research Fellow, Sainsbury Laboratory, Norwich, UK
  • 1985: PhD, University of Birmingham, UK
  • 1982: BSc, University of Durham, UK

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.

Further information

Anne Osbourn – [email protected]; +44 7889 173093

Christian Mostrup, Senior Lead, Corporate Affairs, Novo Nordisk Foundation, +45 3067 4805, [email protected]