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Harnessing the chemistry of plants (Prof. Sarah O’Connor, MPI for Chemical Ecology)

Plants, which make thousands of complex natural products, are outstanding chemists. Through the concerted action of enzymes that are assembled into metabolic pathways, nature creates enormous chemical complexity from simple starting materials. Keynote speaker at the 2022 International Symposium on Chemical biology, Prof. Sarah O’ Connor focuses on plant biosynthetic pathways, ranging from gene discovery, structural and mechanistic enzymology, and metabolic engineering.



Plants produces natural products with ecological, evolutionary, and pharmaceutical importance. For instance, there are several plants’ derived medicines that have played a huge role in medicine like anti-cancer agents such as vinblastine, from the tropical flowering plant Madagascar periwinkle, and taxol, isolated form the Yew tree, the analgesic morphine, and the anti-malarial artemisinin and quinine.

Natural products are usually molecules with complex structures that are difficult to make via organic chemistry. They are also difficult to make by the plants or other organisms that make them and usually require lengthy metabolic pathways involving dozens of steps consisting of enzymes, regulatory factors, and transporters. For instance, the anti-cancer drug vinblastine requires more than 35 dedicated enzymes for its synthesis. Elucidation of these pathways has historically been challenging making plant natural products expensive and very time-consuming to develop.


Keynote speaker at the 2022 Symposium in Geneva

Keynote speaker at the 2022 International Symposium on Chemical Biology, Prof. Sarah O’ Connor, director at the MPI for Chemical Ecology (Jena, Germany), focuses her research to understand plant biosynthetic pathways. She takes a multi-disciplinary approach to answer research questions and discover new genes responsible biosynthesis of complex natural products. Her group also studies the mechanism, engineering, and evolution of these biosynthetic enzymes with a particular interest in the iridoids and alkaloids. By understanding the mechanism of natural product synthesis, the O’Connor lab gives us an understanding of the evolution of natural product synthesis and crucial information to harness the wealth of compounds and biocatalysts that plants have provided, produce these compounds as well as novel ones by synthetic biology.

During her talk at the Symposium, entitled “Harnessing the chemistry of plants”, she will highlight the discovery process for enzymes that catalyze unusual or unprecedented enzymatic transformations, mechanistic and structural characterization of these enzymes, and methods by which these enzymes can be harnessed for metabolic engineering to generate pharmacological important compounds.


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More about Sarah O’Connor

Sarah O’Connor received her degrees in chemistry from the University of Chicago (BSc) and MIT (PhD) and performed her post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School. She was a Professor and Project Leader in Biological Chemistry at the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK) from 2011 to 2019. She has been the Director of the Department of Natural Product Biosynthesis at the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology since summer 2019. She has received various awards throughout her career, including Royal Society of Chemistry Perkin Prize for Organic Chemistry (first woman to receive this prestigious prize (2019); European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (2018); Elected to European Molecular Biology Organization (2017), Wain Medal (2013).

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