She has been a group leader at the John Innes Centre, Norwich UK since 1983. The John Innes Centre is the leading Research Institute in Plant Sciences in Europe. She is Professor at theUniversity of East Anglia and she holds a chair as Niels Bohr Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Life Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her research has focused on cellular specialisation in plants and she was the first to identify genes regulating cell shaping in plants. While there has been an explosion of research in the EvoDevo area on floral morphogenesis, very few have taken forward research into the evolution of determinants of cellular form and function in flowers, or are studying the importance of these traits with respect to function; pollinator attraction. She is a recognised authority on MYB transcription factors in plants as evidenced by an enormous number of requests to review manuscripts and grant proposals on all aspects of MYB-gene function in plants. She lists 144 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals including publications in Nature, Nature Biotechnology, Cell, EMBO Journal, EMBO Reports and PNAS as well as more specialized journals. Her scientific expertise extends to the transcriptional regulation of secondary metabolism, in general. She also conducts research in plant biotechnology. She has been a plenary speaker and session organiser at several international biotechnology meetings, and She has been asked to present the work she co-ordinates on the European Union-sponsored FLORA project at many international biotechnology meetings. She is inventor on seven patents and she recently co-founded a spin-out company (Norfolk Plant Sciences) with Professor Jonathan Jones FRS, to bring the benefits of plant biotechnology (improving both producer and consumer traits of potato) to Europe and the US. She has been involved in setting up the Centre for Preventative Medicine in Norwich which is supported by a unique combination of internationally leading researchers who are developing the scientific understanding of how diet can help to maintain health, lead to healthy ageing and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Her interests span the entire spectrum of plant biology, and in biological questions from the fundamental right to the applied ends of plant science. It is for these qualities that she is Editor-in-Chief of Plant Cell, the highest ranking international journal for research on plants sponsored by the American Society of Plant Biologists. She is the first woman and the first non-American to hold this post.
Tackling chronic diseases: the potential of preventive medicine through improvements to diet
A major challenge for Western societies over the next 50 years is to reduce the frequency of the major chronic diseases; cardiovascular disease, cancer and age-related degenerative diseases. These diseases are particularly exacerbated by the metabolic syndrome which is increasing in frequency associated with a general increase in obesity, linked to declining levels of exercise and increasingly poor diets. Numerous epidemiological studies have demonstrated the efficacy of diets high in fruit and vegetables in reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and age-related degenerative diseases. The importance of fruit and vegetables in the diet comes from them contributing a number of important phytonutrients or bioactives which often serve to promote antioxidant defence mechanisms. However, despite the specific recommendations of the “five-a-day” program of the National Cancer Institute of America (Launched 15 years ago and now adopted by many countries) which encourage consumption of at least five servings of fruit or vegetables a day, the most recent estimates are that only 23% of the US population reach these dietary targets and, even more worryingly, that the numbers of people that do reach them have declined in recent years. These figures argue strongly for strategies to increase the levels of health-promoting bioactive compounds, in the fruits and vegetables that people actually consume in significant amounts. Plant biotechnology can make a very significant contribution to exploring this option in a number of ways: developing model foods that test the importance of specific bioactives in promoting particular aspects of health, developing markers that allow molecular breeding for enhanced levels of bioactives in crops and genetic engineering that provides novel, health-promoting foods. Due mainly to the increasing cost of curative medicine, preventivemedicine is becoming crucial for improving healthin Western societies. Amongst non pharmacological interventions, nutritional improvements developed through plant breeding and plant genetic engineering represent a feasible means of developing preventive strategies against chronic degenerative diseases for the future.