John Innes: more than just a compost

When most people hear the name John Innes, the first thing that comes to mind is the compost. Though it’s nice to see some recognition in people’s faces when talking about where you work, over 500 people in 6 different departments can’t just be coming up with compost recipes. In fact, the John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology with a mission to carry out fundamental scientific research.

William Bateson 'Founder of the term genetics'   Image courtesy of wikipedia

William Bateson ‘Founder of the term genetics’
Image courtesy of wikipedia

It all started in 1910 with the founding of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in London, which was financed using a bequest from Mr John Innes, a City of London merchant. William Bateson, an important figure in the history of genetics (in fact, he actually coined the term “genetics” itself!) was the first director. Under Bateson, the institute became the first, and one of the foremost, UK centres for research in plant breeding and genetics.

It was in the mid-1930s that the institute developed the formulae for the “John Innes Composts” that our centre is so associated with in the public mind. These composts originally provided a sterile and well balanced growing medium for the experimental plant material needed at the institute. True to one of its central missions of making findings available to society, the Institution made the formulae generally available, but never manufactured the composts for sale or benefited financially from their production. We still use these composts today in our glasshouses!

After World War II the Institution moved to the large Bayfordbury estate in Hertfordshire, where the director at the time, Cyril D. Darlington, established a flourishing School of Cytology (for the study of cells). In the years that followed, the work at the John Innes became less focussed on breeding for plant traits and more focussed on biochemical and molecular studies. In 1966-67, the John Innes Centre moved to its current site at Colney, near Norwich in order to form close ties with the University of East Anglia nearby to encourage scientific study. In 1990 the John Innes Institute merged with the Plant Breeding Institute, followed by the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory in 1995, forming the John Innes Centre as it is today, with a large active research community. In 1989 the science here was further enriched by the establishment of the Sainsbury Laboratory, a lab focussed on the research of plant-microbe interactions.

Collecting together the shared history of all the institutes that make up the John Innes Centre, many important and exciting agricultural techniques and scientific discoveries have been made here. From woolly aphid-resistant apple rootstocks and methods for propagating roses still in use today to developing over 130 new varieties of wheat, barley, oats, triticale, potatoes, field beans, maize, oilseed rape, clover, sugarbeet and grasses.

The John Innes Centre was central in the breeding and identification of the reduced height (Rht) gene in wheat, fundamental to the green revolution which enabled crop productivity to increase. Genes responsible for antibiotic production in the soil bacteria Streptomyces were also identified here, allowing research into new antibiotics that could help in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Current research includes the development of tomatoes containing high levels of antioxidants – “purple tomatoes” – that may help combat cancer, and also provide improved taste and an extended shelf life.

Purple Tomatoes. Image courtesy of the John Innes Website

Purple Tomatoes. Image courtesy of the John Innes Website

The John Innes Centre is also leading the fight against the deadly Chalara fraxinea fungus which causes Ash Dieback, a huge threat to UK ash trees, by studying both the fungus and ash trees around the country in the hope to find resistant plants.

Cultured Ash dieback fungus. Image courtesy of the John Innes website

Cultured Ash dieback fungus. Image courtesy of the John Innes website

The John Innes centre is also responsible for the training of many generations of PhD students and Post-Doctoral researchers, making it a dynamic and multinational community of scientists and students. It provides an ideal platform for cutting-edge research in the plant and microbial fields. Findings from fundamental research are then available for society to use, in the areas of increasing crop yield and quality, using microbial and plant products to promote human health and the use of plants and microbes as biotechnological agents.As research in these areas is constantly evolving it is important to engage with society. The John Innes Centre holds many outreach events to engage the general public across all age ranges, and the centre is also involved in advising the government to make decisions about science policy. Blogs (such as this one!) and press releases form an important part of how the John Innes Centre communicates its science with the outside world.

The John Innes Centre. Image courtesy of the John Innes website

The John Innes Centre. Image courtesy of the John Innes website

To conclude, the John Innes Centre is a plant and microbial research centre in Norwich with a long history of scientific excellence. Cutting –edge research is constantly being carried out here, and students are being trained who will go on to become the scientists of tomorrow and add to the ever expanding list of John Innes discoveries, compost being one of them!

by Claire Drurey- a second year PhD Student in the lab of Prof Saskia Hogenhout.


The John Innes Centre: History Retrieved 20/8/13

“Introducing the John Innes Centre” October, 2011

The John Innes Centre and John Innes Compost, retrieved 20/8/13


One thought on “John Innes: more than just a compost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s