Our impact

Established in 1987, highlights of The Sainsbury Laboratory include:

  • discovery of RNA interference in plants by Prof. Sir David Baulcombe FRS as recognised by the Lasker Award and the Wolf Prize in Agriculture,
  • discovery of the first immune receptor in plants by Prof. Jonathan Jones FRS,
  • three current Group Leaders are Fellows of the Royal Society,
  • five researchers have been on the Highly Cited Researchers list of top 1% scientists in the world since 2018.

How do we impact the world?

The Sainsbury Laboratory has made major contributions to the fundamental understanding of plant diseases through ground-breaking discoveries in molecular plant-microbe interactions. These discoveries are taken from the laboratory to the field with the aim of reducing worldwide losses to crop diseases. Through the discovery, engineering and deployment of novel immune receptors in crops, as well as genome editing tools, we can enable the generation of novel alleles for crop improvement.

Some of our revolutionary discoveries

Small interfering RNA – a change in the landscape of biotechnology

Work by Professor (now Sir) David Baulcombe and colleagues in The Sainsbury Laboratory was pivotal in discovering small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and understanding the phenomenon of RNA interference (RNAi). Genetically engineered plants are increasingly used to over-express foreign genes, including those for pharmaceutically valuable polypeptides. However, expression of transgenes is repressed via RNAi, a system that probably evolved to combat viral pathogens. In response, viruses themselves encode a “silencing suppressor protein” that counteracts this defence response.

Graphical representation of RNA

Increasing the yield of medically important proteins in plants by suppression of RNA silencing

We were able to exploit this phenomenon by introducing the suppressor gene into plants and improving them as hosts for transgene expression. These contributions not only revolutionised understanding of fundamental processes, from cancer to viral infections, but have already underpinned significant economic impacts. RNAi Suppression Technology was patented worldwide and licensed for fees >£500k to several companies, including Medicago, that use it to generate plants that effectively produce pharmaceuticals.

Image showing a group of potato tubers cut in half, the GM varieties show no signs of blight but the non-GM variety is brown due to blight infection.

Discovery and exploitation of Resistance (R) genes in agriculture

Through the development of novel approaches in genetics and immune receptor discovery, Prof Jonathan Jones and colleagues have developed late blight (Phytophthora infestans) resistant potato cultivars, tested these in UK fields, and developed commercial crops through partnership with SimPlot, a US-based potato breeding company.

Read more about the project here.

A hand holds some ears of wheat, displaying them to the camera

Improving global crop disease diagnosis to reduce economic loss and improve food security

The research from Professor Sophien Kamoun’s group resulted in novel genomics-based tools Field Pathogenomics (sequencing technology), and OpenWheatBlast (a web platform) that enabled the rapid and accurate diagnosis of a specific strain of devastating wheat blast, originating from wheat imported from South America. Field Pathogenomics has subsequently diagnosed further crop disease outbreaks. The impact of this research was:

  1. Immediate changes to farming practice in affected areas in Bangladesh preventing most severe crop losses and minimising the consequent humanitarian and societal disaster;
  1. Rapidly improved biosecurity measures that included capacity building in Bangladesh and more globally (Australia, Ethiopia, Europe, India and the UK) to alleviate yield and associated economic losses, by preventing the further spread of emerging crop diseases, such as wheat blast.

Read more about the project here