• Research

Exploring the metabolic diversity of UK plants

Identifying genes involved in the biosynthesis of metabolites with medicinal properties

Project summary.

Start date: September 2019

End date: March 2025


John Innes Foundation International PhD Fellowships in Data-driven plant science

Plants synthesise a multitude of specialised metabolites, many of which are used to provide protection against pests and pathogens, as attractants for beneficial insects, or to model their microbiomes. In addition, many plant natural products are used as medicines, fragrances and industrial ingredients.

The aster family (Asteraceae) is one of the largest plant families with over 25,000 species, of which many have been cultivated for medicinal purposes. In some species, therapeutic properties have been attributed to the presence of triterpenes. However, the genetic basis for the vast majority of these molecules is unknown.

This project aims to identify genes required for biosynthesis of metabolites with therapeutic properties found in UK species of Asteraceae and to explore the mechanisms of metabolic diversification in this plant family.


Understanding the relationships between genetic and functional diversity is a major goal in evolutionary biology, important both for conserving biodiversity and for identifying and utilising beneficial natural products.

Bioactive natural products remain the best source of novel ingredients for medicines and industry but also enable the survival of the organisms that produce them in a changing environment, often by mediating resistance or attraction to other organisms.

By linking both transcriptomic and metabolic profiling datasets to plant genomes, we will enable the identification of unknown chemical diversity as well as revealing the genetic blueprints for bioproduction of valuable molecules.


Anne Osbourn

John Innes Centre

Impact statement.

Plants are an important source of pharmacologically active compounds with many drugs being derived directly or indirectly from plant natural products.

This project aims to identify sources of known and unknown chemical diversity and reveal the genetic blueprints. In the future, this could pave the way for harnessing synthetic biology approaches for bio-based production.