Discovering hidden plant medicines on your doorstep

26 November 2019

Scientists at Earlham Institute (EI), UK, are delving into the genetics of UK wildflowers to find the medicines that we never knew were right on our doorstep.

EI is part of the global effort to sequence the DNA all of the known species of animals, plants and fungi on earth, known as the Earth BioGenome Project. Contributing to the UK arm Darwin Tree of Life Project, one aspect from EI is unearthing useful new medicines that are produced in plants by decoding their genomic data profile.

Plants produce a vast array of bioactive compounds to guard themselves against pests and diseases as well as to attract species like insects and microbes that help them grow. Some of these chemicals can help us too.

For example, a precursor of the well-known painkiller aspirin was originally found in willow bark, paclitaxel is a chemotherapy drug found in certain yew trees, and digoxin, found in foxgloves, is used to treat heart conditions.

Foxgloves and several species of willow trees are still common throughout the UK, but many other plant species are threatened by the rapid decline in hay meadows, which have largely been replaced by intensive grasslands since the second world war.

A team from EI and John Innes Centre led by Synthetic Biology Group Leader Nicola Patron aims to explore the chemical diversity of UK plants, identifying the genes that plants use to produce molecules that could provide benefits in health and industry.

The search will begin in the daisy family (Asteraceae) for which over 900 species have been recorded in the UK. Several of these were used in traditional medicine and, more recently, some of the molecules responsible for these healing properties have been identified.

The team will use biochemical techniques to identify the chemicals being made and sequence the genomes to discover the genes responsible for the production of these molecules. This will help us to understand how plants have evolved the ability to make such complex chemicals and could also enable the large-scale biomanufacturing of useful molecules in the future.

Dr Nicola Patron, said: “Understanding how species evolve the ability to make new molecules is a major goal in evolutionary biology and it can also help us to identify and make new molecules for use in health and industry.

“By linking data about the chemicals being made and the genes being expressed, we will be able to identify unknown chemical diversity as well as the genes used for their biosynthesis.”

Director of EI Prof Neil Hall, added: “This work is a great example of how sequencing genomes of wild species could lead to entirely new ways of harnessing nature for the public good. My hope is that in the next ten years we will have sequenced the vast majority of plant genomes, unlocking a treasure trove of pathways that make compounds which can be used in medicine and biotech.”

This pilot project is funded as part of a £600k grant from the BBSRC for the Darwin Tree of Life Project.

Notes to editors.

Notes to editors


Accompanying images can be found in the following Dropbox.

Please credit Earlham Institute, images show: Dr Nicola Patron (lead) and Dr Melissa Salmon (postdoctoral scientist) both from EI who work on the research project, others show the Asteraceae plants. 


If you would like to speak to Dr Nicola Patron, please contact:


Hayley London

Marketing & Communications Officer, Earlham Institute (EI)

  • +44 (0)1603 450 107

About Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research Institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £5.43m in 2017/18 - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.


More information about UK Research and Innovation.

More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.

More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

About John Innes Centre

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2014-2015 the John Innes Centre received a total of £36.9 million from the BBSRC.