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Jodrell Laboratory

Kew's first Jodrell Laboratory was built in 1877. It was named after Mr T.J. Phillips Jodrell, who provided the £1,500 needed to construct and equip it.
Photo of Jodrell laboratory, Wolfson wing

Historical information

This first Jodrell building had four rooms for research, plus an office. Research focused initially on plant physiology but studies on plant anatomy later dominated. In 1934, an artist’s studio and darkroom were added, highlighting the importance of botanical illustration and photography. A new section on cytology (structure and function – now called cytogenetics) complemented the anatomy studies.

A video showing science in action at the Jodrell Laboratory

Having become overcrowded by the 1950s, this building was replaced in 1965 by a new laboratory. Kew wanted to revive research into plant physiology, so it added new sections on physiology and biochemistry. Seed collection for plant conservation purposes soon became an important strand of the physiological research. The biochemistry section, meanwhile, expanded and began focusing on plants containing ‘secondary compounds’ that might be useful in medicines.

After more space became necessary for storing and examining seeds, the physiology section (renamed seed conservation) moved to Wakehurst. Kew’s scientific research continued to expand, with the addition of a section studying molecular systematics (classification using DNA profiling). The Agricultural Research Council, meanwhile, set up a biochemistry department in an adjacent building. Soon, more space was again required to accommodate visiting researchers and unite all’s Kew’s scientists under one roof. In 1994, the Jodrell Laboratory was tripled in size with the addition of an extension. A decade later, the Wolfson Wing provided even more room.

Today Kew’s scientific research embraces plant anatomy, genetics, molecular systematics, biochemistry and biological interactions. Some recent achievements by Kew scientists include:

  • discovering anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties in some British plants
  • using genetic fingerprinting to show the sacred lotus is more closely related to London plane trees that the water lilies it resembles
  • identifying remains in the stomach of a headless corpse found in the River Thames as having come from a highly toxic African bean
  • the first complete DNA sequence (ie genome) for a flowering plant, the mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), published in 2000

With plants on the front line of climate change, Kew scientists will be more important than ever in the coming years.

Helping David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough asked Kew’s wood anatomy team in the Jodrell Laboratory to identify the wood of an antique statue from Easter Island. No trees remain on Easter Island now as the early inhabitants cut them all down. Kew experts worked out that the wood came from the Sophora toromiro tree. This is now extinct in the wild but grows in some botanic gardens. Kew identified the mystery tree from samples of wood taken from two of the tree’s close relatives.

Things to look out for

Outside the Jodrell Laboratory, close to the Aquatic Garden, is the sculpture Bootstrapping DNA. Cast in steel, this is Charles Jenck’s interpretation of the double helix, the structure of DNA. It was installed in 2003 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick.