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Innovators 2012 part one – George Lomonossoff

10 April 2012

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2012 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.


In this, the first, Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre explains how a safe and accessible way to make proteins in plants could revolutionise vaccine screening and yield novel metabolites. In the second, Professor Russell Foster explains how discovering an entirely new class of photoreceptor in the eye transformed our understanding of how body clocks regulate healthy ageing. In the third, Professor Jim Murray of the University of Cardiff describes how new DNA detection technology using light could improve on-the-spot medical and food diagnostics.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. See 'The money of all invention' for details on how innovation powers the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier.

Congratulations! How does it feel to win?

It's actually very pleasant indeed. You go into these things thinking you have a chance. However, you don't dare to think you may be the winner.

Were you surprised to win?

It's an odd one. I always thought I was in there with a shout, but I was genuinely shocked by the announcement. You don't get to see other candidates' presentations, so you're in a bit of a vacuum in that sense.

Innovator of the Year 2012. Image: BBSRC
Innovator of the Year and Most Promising Innovator winners Dr Frank Sainsbury (far left) and Professor George Lomonossoff (second left) collect their award including £30,000 of prize money with (l-r) UK Business Secretary Dr Vince Cable MP, BBSRC Director of Innovation and Skills Dr Celia Caulcott, and BBSRC CEO Professor Douglas Kell. Image: BBSRC

Describe your innovation in your own words...

When you want to make a protein you make an mRNA [delivered by a plant virus into the plant] that is translated into protein by ribosomes. What we've done is found a method for making the translation of those mRNAs extremely efficient.

What myself and Frank Sainsbury (former PhD student and Innovator co-winner) found was that if you included a suppressor of the gene silencing which knocks down the RNAi pathway, then you stabilise the mRNA so much that you don't gain much more expression by viral replication.

How does it work?

It stems from a number of years of research on the use of plant viruses as gene vectors for protein expression in plants. For many years, we, along with many others, assumed that to get high levels of protein expression in plants you would need replicating viruses. People used different viruses and various methods but it always relied on virus replication.

Frank Sainsbury in particular did some mutagenesis studies around a region (the 5' untranslated region) right at the beginning of the viral messenger, a region you need to preserve to get replication, which we hadn't touched up until then. We thought we'd need to make some alterations to make cloning into the vectors easier. Unexpectedly, some of the mutations Frank made showed massively enhanced translation from the RNA. So you didn't need replication anymore as you had made the RNA hypertranslatable.

Composite image of liquid drop. Image: Eva Thuenemann
A JIC colleague's composite image beautifully illustrates the 'proteins from plants' principle. Note virus particles in the liquid drop. Image: Eva Thuenemann

So it was one of those discoveries that was a bit of an accident?

Yes, it's based on a background of work but we didn't expect that phenomenon.

How is this different to normal, viral-induced protein production?

It's much more efficient because your mRNA doesn't require amplification by replication machinery.

The problem with a [viral] replication system, which everyone has come up against, is that if you copy RNA to RNA it's not a very faithful process – you build up errors and mutations very quickly and large chunks of the gene you want to express often get deleted. The other problem with replication systems is that if you have more than one RNA molecule replicating in the same cell they compete and eventually one will dominate. You could put in two, three or four RNAs to make a complex protein, but in most cases you only get one of them.

What is the technology for?

What it's really very good for is the rapid, transient protein expression in plants – as when you need a result very quickly.

The classic way of expressing foreign proteins in plants is transgenics [genetic modification] where you actually transform the plant and add genes. And that can take weeks or months or years. With transient expression you take your gene of interest, use an agrobacterium [with a DNA plasmid] to transfer it into the nucleus of a plant. And all you have to do is infiltrate a leaf with a suspension of bacteria using a syringe without a needle, or under vacuum. It's very simple, almost too good to be true.

Easy as that: a needleless injection of the right RNA virus. Image: JIC
Easy as that: a needleless injection of the right RNA virus is enough to make plants produce proteins to order. Image: JIC

What other advantages does your system have?

This work does not have to occur under a high degree of containment, or on premises licensed to handle viral pathogens. So it's a lot cheaper, and much more accessible to the worldwide research community.

Why rapidly express proteins in plants?

The technology is great for screening, especially when you want to make a lot of protein variants on a small scale very quickly.

The people who have really adopted it are a company in Canada called Medicago who are very interested in using it to make flu vaccines. In particular for rapid response situations, such as seasonal flu when you identify a new strain, and can very rapidly express the immunologically important proteins, such as haemoglutanins, in plants.

So when the race is on to produce candidate vaccines and they have used this system to produce candidate, experimental vaccines only two weeks after receiving genomic sequence data.

As well as getting successful expression, the other great thing about our system is that you get your failures very quickly! Therefore, you don't waste time on dead ends.

Has Medicago been the only interested company?

No, not at all. There are many uses of this technology so we wanted to get this out to as wide a variety of users as possible, including both academic labs and commercial companies.

When we first observed the effect in September 2007 it was so dramatic that we approached Plant Bioscience Ltd [PBL, a private technology transfer company owned by the John Innes Centre (JIC), BBSRC and The Sainsbury Laboratory] and filed a patent in January 2008. PBL operate a tech scheme, like a 'try before you buy', so I've sent kits to various companies and offer support info.

We've sent it to more 120 academic labs worldwide – that's been great as all sorts of things I'd never have thought of trying to express have been investigated – it's just a genuinely useful technique.

What kind of further impacts could the technology have?

The great help with working at a place like JIC is that there are different groups working on different aspects of plant biology. So we've used the system to alter plant metabolism. You can express enzymes whose function you don't know, and look at the novel products being made, and understand and analyse the metabolic pathways. And you can potentially mix and match enzymes from different sources and make 'new-to-nature' compounds. Then you can screen them very rapidly in Nicotiana benthamiana [a close relative of the tobacco plant used widely in research]. For instance, when you know gene sequence but want to ask: what is the activity here? Does this gene really exist or do anything?

Lomonossoff at work in his lab. Image: JIC
Lomonossoff at work in his lab. Image: JIC

How long have you been working on this?

Since the hypertranslation effect was discovered; that's just over four years. Before that I conducted a lot of background work on the virus – Cowpea Mosaic Virus (CPMV). I've worked on that for 30 years at JIC – how it works as a pathogen, how it multiplies, what its particles look like. A lot of basic science so you can start to manipulate bits of it; all culminating in this work in the last four years.

That must be very satisfying feeling after 30 years' work...

Very much so. But I'm a great believer in what I call a virtuous cycle. In that when you try to apply some of your basic knowledge, you often find that it doesn't work in quite the way that you think. They are not divorced from each other, the fundamental and the applied I think, but they reinforce each other.

What specific BBSRC grants have you used along the way?

JIC is aided by a long-term strategic grant from BBSRC. We've also had money from the Tools and Resources Development Fund, which was used for development of technologies such as the vector systems we made. We realised we needed to make them user-friendly as the vectors we used for the initial work were rather cumbersome. I take my hat off to Frank and Eva Thuenemann who, during their PhD studies, made a wonderfully streamlined series of vectors, very easy accessible and quick, which is why the use of our expression system has taken off so rapidly.

And taking it further some funding to produce empty nanoparticles or nanoshells has been obtained under a BBSRC Industrial Partnering Award. In addition, although Frank's PhD was a rotation studentship with funding from several sources the research all took place in a BBSRC-funded institute.

When did you first become interested in science?

My first interest was astronomy when I turned a telescope to the skies aged ten or eleven, and then decided I was more interested in biology. I always wanted to do research; perhaps inspired by the Beatles' song Maxwell's Silver Hammer that has the line "late night all alone with a test tube". I rather liked the explanation angle of science and also the lifestyle – I envisaged not having to be terribly regulated and doing new things which other people hadn't done – that looked a bit a bohemian, suitable for the time in the 60s! I've been very lucky that I've been able to do it.

Professor Lomonossoff’s research group at the John Innes Centre. Image: JIC
Professor Lomonossoff's research group at the John Innes Centre. Image: JIC

And it's all gone mostly well since then?

I've had a very enjoyable career in science. I didn't think I'd necessarily do something that would be practically useful. But nothing would make me happier than practical application for the good of society, I guess.

What's next?

Good question. Carry on exploring ways that we can use this technology. Originally it was all developed for transient expression, but another student in my group, Pooja Saxena, has shown that by modifying the suppressor of gene silencing you can make stable transgenic plants. The original suppressor prevented the regeneration of transgenic plants because it interferes with the development pathways. The mutation turns down the suppressor activity a notch or two, so you can now use our expression system to produce transgenic plants with high levels of your target gene.

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto
Science can be a big moneyspinner. Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (ref 1).


  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth?
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector

Further reading

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