Our history and mission

Throughout our history, we have developed an enviable reputation for the quality of our fundamental scientific research but we are also committed to delivering science solutions that reduce crop losses to important diseases.

Aerial picture of The Sainsbury Laboratory building. Photo credit: Phil Robinson, John Innes Centre Photographer.

The Sainsbury Laboratory was established in 1987 when an agreement was signed, setting up the Laboratory as a joint venture between the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the John Innes Foundation, the University of East Anglia and the Agricultural and Food Research Council (now BBSRC).

The first staff were employed in late 1987 and the current laboratory building was constructed alongside the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park, before we moved in during 1989.

An original aim of establishing The Sainsbury Laboratory was to ensure that discoveries made within the science groups would lead to beneficial agronomic applications.

The strategy of funding talented, innovative scientists rather than specific projects was crucial in the establishment of TSL and the achievements of the first senior scientists, David Baulcombe, Mike Daniels and Jonathan Jones in 1987-88, followed by Paul Schulze-Lefert in 1996 were key to developing the reputation of the lab over the course of the first two five-year research cycles.

Groundbreaking work that arose from TSL during that period includes the cloning of the first of the receptor-like protein class of plant resistance genes and the discovery of small interfering RNA (siRNA), the specificity determinant in RNA-mediated gene silencing.

The continued policy of recruiting outstanding individual scientists to lead research groups during subsequent research cycles broadened the scientific base of the laboratory; Anne Osbourn, Jane Parker, Martin Parniske, Ken Shirasu, Scott Peck, John Rathjen, Volker Lipka, Ksenia Krasileva, Silke Robatzek and Matt Moscou all have left their scientific mark on both the laboratory and the worldwide research community. Presently the laboratory houses five research groups, headed by Jonathan Jones, Sophien Kamoun, Wenbo Ma, Nick Talbot, and Cyril Zipfel.

In 2009 the Laboratory formed a research partnership with the Two Blades Foundation. The new partnership enables 2Blades to operate an applied research program within The Sainsbury Laboratory, giving them access to the world-renowned expertise while enabling the laboratory to expand its fundamental scientific research to support agriculture directly. The 2Blades group at TSL made huge strides under the former leadership of Eric Ward and Peter van Esse, and will continue to grow under the current leadership of Kamil Witek.

In addition to scientific excellence within the research groups, one of the many strengths of TSL has been our ability to invest in scientific support teams, which allows us to quickly take advantage of new techniques and technologies.

The Tissue Culture and Transformation team was established as a lab-wide support service in 2003, followed by Proteomics and Bioinformatics in 2005. More recently, in 2013, The Laboratory has established a Synthetic Biology group which will allow us to quickly adopt, and be at the forefront of, new advances in targeted mutagenesis and genetic engineering. Former platform team leaders include Alex Jones, David Studholme and Nicola Patron.

From our inception, we have been generously supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. Our Group Leaders also receive competitively awarded funding from BBSRC, EU and other research grant funding bodies.

Many scientists who have passed through the Laboratory have continued their careers in prestigious laboratories and institutes around the world.

Our main goals are to:

  • Make fundamental discoveries in the science of plant-microbe interactions
  • Build on fundamental scientific research and deliver science solutions that reduce crop losses to important diseases
  • Provide an outstanding training environment that prepares scientists who pass through the Laboratory to excel in their careers
  • Develop and deploy cutting edge technologies to combat plant diseases and accelerate breeding

Our current research topics include:

  • Plant disease resistance genes
  • The biology of pathogen effector proteins
  • Innate immune recognition in plants
  • Signalling and cellular changes during plant-microbe interactions
  • Plant and pathogen genomics
  • Biotechnological approaches to crop disease resistance