Diggers & Dibblers visit the John Innes Centre, Norwich

Written by Ally Rae.

On a very warm afternoon in July an enthusiastic group of members of Diggers & Dibblers and their friends enjoyed a fascinating tour of the John Innes Centre (JIC) on the outskirts of Norwich. This world renowned research establishment has its roots at the end of the 19th century when John Innes set up a small horticultural institution in Merton (London) with a focus on fruit and flowers and how characteristics are passed on in plants. It has blossomed over the years bringing together on the Norwich site numerous related fields of plant research and now with a special interest in agricultural plants – wheat, barley, peas and brasicas.

John Innes visiting group

James Piercy, the Communications and Engagement Officer, lead us through several of the departments, where we plunged from the heat of July into the cool air conditioned Archive and Library with a wonderful display of exquisite historic plant illustrations, the deliciously chilly Germ Plasma Research Unit (‘seed store’) at 4-6℃, the heat of massive greenhouses growing on trial plants and the compact equipment- filled rooms of the Bio-imaging Department where the most up-to-date scanning electron microscope can produce extraordinarily detailed pictures of plant cells, bacteria and viruses. A fascinating detail was the ultra-fine brush made by glueing a single hair from an eye-brow to a stick so the slivers of plant samples could be lifted into the microscopes. I could write pages about all we saw and heard, but the JIC website does a much better job than I can.

John Innes Centre

Some of the highlights for me were getting a glimpse of the range of skills and areas of research covered by JIC and it’s associated organizations. Its ground-breaking work in plant breeding, genetic research and pathogens may help us with some of the challenges of climate change – developing drought and pest resistance – and in the search for new antibiotics, many of which are derived from soil-based bacteria. The levels of collaboration across the UK and the world were impressive as was the patience needed to develop new plant variants and nurture the generations of plants necessary to see if changes are successful and desirable.

The Seed Store

JIC has been a leader in plant genetics and genetic modification remains an area on which there are conflicting views. GM crops can’t be grown commercially under EU regulations. A surprise for me was to hear that the growing medium used by JIC is based on Irish peat. This provides important comparability with earlier growing trials. With changes in legislation coming into effect relatively soon the search for another medium is now on – and hopefully will benefit the wider horticultural community. It seems as if they need a new ‘John Innes compost’!

Brands carrying this name have nothing to do with JIC as the ‘recipes’ were given to the nation during the Second World War to help with the Dig for Victory campaign. Finally it was rather lovely to hear that John Innes concern for his employees' well-being has reached down the years and the staff are able to relax from their intense and demanding work on a site with some lovely green areas and a swimming pool. The visit was free and we are very grateful to James and his many colleagues who showed us so much of what they do. Thanks also to Roger Ranson for organizing the visit for us. We were delighted to make a donation to JICs work.