Allison Maree Heskes – University of Copenhagen

Allison Maree Heskes

Assistant professor

Diterpenoid Group
Section for Plant Biochemistry
Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences
Faculty of Science

This research could result in the discovery of novel treatments for diseases of the Central Nervous System (CNS) and also new types of antibiotics. If such medicines do arise, then I hope that the ability to produce them in an efficient and sustainable manner will ensure that they are widely and affordably available”

What is your research area?
My work focuses on elucidating the biosynthetic pathways of bioactive diterpenoids in medicinal plants and the development of biotechnological tools for their production in alternative organisms. The main plant species I am working on is Vitex agnus-castus, a medicinal plant which contains dopaminergic diterpenoids.

This work sits within a broader movement that aims to produce high value compounds in a greener, more sustainable manner by engineering plant pathways into hosts that can be optimised for industrial scale production such as yeast, cyanobacteria and algae.

Why did you choose to work with this?
The plants I am working with make potentially important medicines that cannot currently be used. This is because some species are difficult to cultivate, they produce complex mixtures of molecules that are difficult to separate or produce low amounts of key compounds. Through the application of synthetic biology these problems can potentially be overcome; host organisms can be engineered to produce large amounts of specific molecules by recreating plant biosynthetic pathways in them and optimizing their metabolism to enable efficient biosynthesis.  This form of production also minimizes subsequent resource intensive purification steps.

How would you like your work to be applied?
This research could result in the discovery of novel treatments for diseases of the Central Nervous System (CNS) and also new types of antibiotics. If such medicines do arise, then I hope that the ability to produce them in an efficient and sustainable manner will ensure that they are widely and affordably available.

Do you collaborate with other researchers?
My current collaborations include:
Christoph Crocoll from DynaMo. We collaborate on mass spectrometry ( LC-QTOF-MS) analyses of plant extracts. This provides us with high mass resolution data which aids in the identification of diterpenoids.
Sileshi Gizachew Wubshet from the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology at UCPH. We work together on the structural elucidation of new enzyme products and also testing of diterpenoids for novel bioactivities.
Simon Rasmussen from the Centre for Biological Sequence Analysis (DTU) on  de novo transcriptome assembly and analysis
Berin Boughton from Metabolomics Australia, University of Melbourne. We collaborate on bioimaging using MALDI-MS to map metabolites of interested across different plant tissues.

How do you benefit from your collaborations both within and outside science?
Working with the different collaborators gives me access to specialised knowledge and techniques essential for my projects. For example, through the work with Berin Boughton we have been able to pinpoint the distribution of diterpenoids in Vitex agnus-castus to specialised tissues using the MS-imaging setup at the University of Melbourne. 

What motivates you in your work?
What motivates me is simply a desire understand how things work.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Finishing my god damn PhD! Achieving my PhD degree is an accomplishment I am quite proud of. And being fortunate to continue my work within this field working with fantastic collaborators is a great joy.   

When not doing science; how do you like to spend your time?
I love hiking and spend as much time as I can in nature.  

Short CV

  • 2015-         Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual postdoc Fellowship 
  • 2013-2014: Research Assistant, Plant Biochemistry Section, Department for Plants and the Environment, University of Copenhagen
  • 2009-2014: PhD in Science School of Botany, The University of Melbourne, Australia, Plant Physiology Laboratory
  • 2007-2013: Teaching Assistant, Melbourne School of Land & Environment, The University of Melbourne. 
  • 2008: Bachelor of Science (Honours), Botany major, The University of Melbourne, Australia


Pateraki I, Heskes AM, Hamberger B (2015) Cytochromes P450 for terpene functionalisation and metabolic engineering. Advances in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology 148, 107-139.

Pateraki I, Andersen-Ranberg J, Hamberger B, Heskes AM, Martens HJ, Zerbe P, Spanner Bach S, Møller BL, Bohlmann J, Hamberger B (2014) Manoyl oxide (13R), the biosynthetic precursor of forskolin, is  synthesized in specialized root cork cells in Coleus forskohlii. Plant Physiology 164, 1222D1236.

Heskes AM, Goodger JQD Woodrow IE (2013) Contrasting ontogenetic trajectories for phenolic and terpenoid defences in Eucalyptus froggattii. Annals of Botany 112, 651-659.

Heskes AM, Goodger JQD, Tsegay S, Quach T, Williams SJ, Woodrow IE (2012) Localization of oleuropeyl glucose esters and a flavanone to secretory cavities of Myrtaceae. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40856.

Heskes AM, Lincoln CN, Goodger JQD, Woodrow IE, Smith TA (2012) Multiphoton fluorescence lifetime imaging shows spatial segregation of secondary metabolites in Eucalyptus secretory cavities. Journal of Microscopy. 247,33-42.

Hakki Z, Cao B, Heskes AM, Goodger JQD, Woodrow IE, Williams SJ (2010) Synthesis of the monoterpene esters cypellocarpin C and cuniloside B and evidence for their widespread occurrence in Eucalyptus. Carbohydrate Research. 345, 2079-2084.

Goodger JQD, Heskes AM, Mitchell MC, King DJ, Nielson EH, Woodrow IE (2010) Isolation of intact sub-dermal secretory cavities from Eucalyptus. Plant Methods 6, 20.

Goodger JQD, Heskes AM, King DJ, Gleadow RM, Woodrow IE (2008) Micropropagation of Eucalyptus polybractea selected for key essential oil traits. Functional Plant Biology 35, 247-251.