Leibniz Prize 2023 for Sarah Ellen O'Connor
Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena honoured for her discoveries on plant natural product biosynthesis
The Leibniz Prize, which comes with prize money of 2.5 million euros each, is considered the most important research funding prize in Germany. In 2023, it will be awarded to four male and six female scientists who will be able to conduct research for seven years without bureaucratic effort. The award ceremony will take place on 15 March 2023 in Berlin.
“I am deeply honored that I was selected to receive this important prize”, O’ Connor said after the announcement. “I consider myself to be very fortunate to be part of the vibrant scientific community in Germany.”
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 compounds are used as medicines, but often cannot be replicated using classical chemical methods. That is why Sarah O'Connor researches biosynthetic pathways in plants and uses new gene functions and enzymatic mechanisms as well as molecular and genomic methods to decipher the synthesis of complex natural compounds, such as cancer-inhibiting or neuroactive substances.
Her research group recently succeeded in completely elucidating the biosynthetic pathway of strychnine, something other teams had been trying to do for many years. The chemist and biologist is using the insights gained to develop biological platforms that open up possibilities for optimised production of natural substances as well as synthetic access to new classes of molecules.
Two Leibniz Prize winners and nine Leibniz Prize laureates have received the Nobel Prize so far: 1988 Hartmut Michel (chemistry), 1991 Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann (both medicine), 1995 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (medicine), 2005 Theodor W. Hänsch (physics), 2007 Gerhard Ertl (chemistry), 2014 Stefan W. Hell (chemistry), 2020 Emmanuelle Charpentier (chemistry) and Reinhard Genzel (physics), 2021 Benjamin List (chemistry) and 2022 Svante Pääbo (medicine).
About the person
Sarah O'Connor received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and returned to MIT as a professor from 2003 to 2010. Since 2011, she has led the Biological Chemistry Project Group at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. Her work has been recognised with several awards: in 2018, among other things, she successfully obtained a large EU project (Advanced ERC Grant) on "Harnessing the Molecules of Medicinal Plants". In 2019, she became director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena.