The Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL / Birkbeck

Prof John Ward

Prof John Ward

Emeritus Professor of Biochemical Engineering

Dept of Biochemical Engineering

Faculty of Engineering Science

Joined UCL
1st Oct 2022

Research summary

John Ward’s research interests are in the use of bacteria their enzymes and phages to develop new chemicals, pathways and active entities for applications in synthetic biology, biocatalysis and host cell engineering for bioprocessing.John has developed the molecular biology and biochemistry to access many enzymes for biocatalysis for the Bioconversion-Chemistry-Engineering (BiCE) programme, these enzymes include dioxygenases, transketolase, Baeyer-Villiger mono-oxygenases, cytochrome P450's, transaminases and synthetic plant enzymes such as norcoclaurine synthase. The aim, within the BiCE programme is to produce robust biocatalysts and to have many examples of each enzyme type available in our ‘toolbox’ to enable the rapid development of new biocatalytic steps and pathways. The programme brings together a group of researchers from UCL with a long history of collaborative research including Prof Helen Hailes (Chemistry, UCL) together with Prof Paul Dalby, Prof Gary Lye, Dr Frank Baganz, Dr Martina Micheletti, Dr. Darren Nesbeth and Dr Nicolas Szita.  It is supported by a group of 13 leading national and international companies who comprise the BiCE Industrial Steering Group.  In addition, with Prof Helen Hailes in the Department of Chemistry, John is developing the de novo construction of biosynthetic pathways for chiral molecules such as plant alkaloids and recently has discovered antimicrobial activities in novel compounds from this alkaloid project. John is using metagenomics which is a non culturing method of accessing novel enzymes and pathways from the microbiomes of various environments such as the human tongue with Prof Brian Henderson. John collaborates with Prof Christine Orengo (SMB, UCL) who provides the bioinformatics support for the metagenomics projects.The hunt for novel enzymes extends to collaborations in Astrobiology with Dr Ian Crawford and Prof Peter Muller, and the UCL Origin of Life Reactor a Leverhulme Trust funded project with Dr Nick Lane and Dr Julian Evans.   The future inputs for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry need to move from non-renewable petrochemicals to sustainable materials such as plant biomass. The whole bioprocess from the physical, enzymic and chemical treatment to separate the biopolymers such as cellulose, hemicelluolose, pectin and protein through to the depolymerisation of the key polymers and the use of synthetic biology to create engineered pathways to make high value products is being tackled. John is the lead in Synbion, one of the UK’s Networks in Synthetic Biology

Teaching summary

I am degree programme tutor of the MRes in Synthetic Biology which I founded in 2010 and I teach on this course and undergraduate courses in the areas of synthetic biology, microbial molecular biology and biochemistry.


University of Bristol
Doctorate, Doctor of Philosophy | 1981
University of Bristol
First Degree, Bachelor of Science (Honours) | 1976


I studied Biochemistry at the University of Bristol and graduated in 1975. I moved departments and joined the Department of Bacteriology to carry out research for my PhD on antibiotic resistance plasmids and transposable elements using the newly discovered restriction enzymes. After gaining my doctorate in 1981 I moved to UMIST in Manchester to a postdoctoral position on Pseudomonas catabolic plasmids. In 1983 I moved to the Biochemistry Department at UCL and started the MSc in Applied Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. I ran the MSc course for 17 years and in 2001 took over as programme tutor for the BSc in Biotechnology. I was appointed Professor of Molecular Microbiology in 2006.

In 2010 I started the MRes in Synthetic Biology and in 2012 I moved to the Department of Biochemical Engineering as Professor of Synthetic Biology for Bioprocessing.