Feed the world: harnessing Nature’s molecules for maximising future food productivity

University of Oxford

Currently, via the process of nitrification, the vast majority of nitrogen fertilisers are lost to the environment. This can cause serious environmental problems, including greenhouse gas emissions and fertiliser leaching, as well as significantly impacting already strained global food production networks.

Anna’s project seeks to develop an agrochemical that can inhibit nitrification to help improve the efficacy of fertilisers. Her strategy is to take inspiration from Nature to investigate new classes of nitrification inhibitors that function via novel pathways. Whilst these compounds are naturally occurring, their scarcity has led to insufficient quantities being isolated to allow for rigorous testing. This has limited the understanding of their biological activity.

The solution is to synthesise such bioinspired molecules in a laboratory, using commercially available chemicals. This will allow for thorough biological testing, a crucial step in furthering our knowledge of the biological processes behind nitrification inhibition.

This joint process of chemical synthesis and subsequent probing of biological function will provide valuable insight and guidance into how to best synthesise further molecules. Moreover, the knowledge acquired during this project, and other subsequent synthesis projects, will be instrumental in the development of a commercial nitrification inhibitor, which could become a key tool in fighting world hunger in a sustainable way.


Anna graduated with a first class Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Glasgow, and is currently undertaking a PhD in Professor Darren Dixon’s group at the University of Oxford, after being awarded the Oxford-Radcliffe scholarship, in partnership with Syngenta. Anna also completed a placement year in the process chemistry department at Pfizer, focusing on route development toward an API – receiving multiple W.E. UpJohn awards.