Prof. Dr. Sarah Ellen O’Connor - Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prizewinner 2023

Prof. Dr. Sarah Ellen O'Connor

Prof. Dr. Sarah Ellen O'Connor

© DFG / David Ausserhofer

Natural Product Biosynthesis, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena

Sarah Ellen O’Connor receives the Leibniz Prize for her fundamental discoveries relating to natural product biosynthesis in plants. Plants have developed special enzymes and synthetic pathways to produce organic compounds with which they can defend themselves against predators and parasites. Many of these natural substances are used as medicines, but it is often impossible to replicate them by means of conventional chemical methods. O’Connor explores biosynthetic pathways in plants and uses the discovery of new gene functions, the elucidation of enzymatic mechanisms of action, and molecular genetic and genomic methods to decipher the synthesis of even the most complex natural compounds, such as cancer-inhibiting or neuroactive substances. For example, O’Connor’s research group recently succeeded in completely elucidating the biosynthetic pathway of strychnine – something others had spent many years attempting to accomplish. As a chemist and biologist, she also uses the insights gained in the process to produce novel compounds in plants. This opens up possibilities for the optimised production of natural substances as well as synthetic access to new classes of molecules.

Sarah Ellen O’Connor obtained her doctorate in organic chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA, in 2001. After professorships at MIT and the University of East Anglia, UK, and a group leadership at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, she became Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena in 2019. She has also been an Honorary Professor at the University of Jena since 2022. O’Connor has been a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization since 2017, and in 2018 she was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. Her distinctions include winning the 2022 American Chemical Society’s Ernest Guenther Award in the Chemistry of Natural Products.



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