Last week involved 2 days of interviews, on which announcements will be made in due course, the first for the Directorship of the John Innes Centre and the second for future members of Council. The latter is an annual event, and I would encourage readers of this blog to consider the best ways to make themselves and colleagues aware of the opportunities to join our Council. As someone who did previously serve on BBSRC Council for 6 years, I can certainly confirm that it is an interesting, illuminating and worthwhile activity.

Almost all Government Departments now have Chief Scientific Advisers, several of whom serve in Departments whose interests overlap considerably with ours. Thus, another day involved meetings at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at the Department for International Development, where we rehearsed our new Strategic Plan, and in particular the recognition that Food Security is a global issue. We have already developed a number of productive research programs with DfID, including SARID and CIDLID. Sciencexpress also published a most useful overview of the Food Security agenda by a high-level UK-based team.

The ‘big data’ agenda continues to occupy our thinking, since it provides both challenges and opportunities. If – using a standard internet link – it took (charitably) 1 minute to transfer a Gigabyte, it would take 2 years to transfer a Petabyte – and genomics and other data are being produced in at least such quantities on scary timescales (see e.g. my talk and video at the 2009 International Digital Curation Conference). It is vital that we are ready for this, and I had a useful meeting with Mario Caccamo, head of bioinformatics at TGAC, where we discussed how best to develop plans. Supercomputers have historically concentrated on FLOPS (‘performance’), but the needs of modern integrative biology are much more for bytes (storage) and bauds (bandwidth/access rates). I have no doubt that optimising our funding and activities in the bauds/bytes/flops triangle will be a major focus of our strategies for driving and delivering the (Computational and Integrative) Biology of the future.

The allocation of awards through the BBSRC Research Experience Placements scheme is announced this week. These awards are designed to give promising undergraduate students the opportunity to experience bioscience research first-hand, thereby raising the profile of research careers amongst undergraduates and encouraging them to pursue postgraduate studies in strategically important areas.  This is the first year of the new Research Experience Placements scheme (it was previously known as the Vacation Bursaries scheme). 200 awards of £2,500 each have been allocated to 88 different departments / institutions as determined by the BBSRC Bioscience Skills and Careers strategy panel. Because of the importance we attach to enthusing the bioscientists of the future, this re-branding of the scheme comes with a doubling in the number of places available this year.  Placements are for up to 10 weeks, to be carried out during the 2010 summer vacation, after which each student and their awarding department will submit a report to us that outlines the outcomes of the bursary. History shows that many of the students so enthused do indeed go on to pursue research in the sponsoring or other Institutions.

I do not tend to see prime-time TV, but I managed to use the estimable iPlayer to see a couple of the excellent “Jimmy’s Global Harvest” programmes on world agriculture. Thoroughly recommended.

Quite a while ago, when the apparently virulent 2009 swine flu outbreak was emerging in Mexico, I mused in this blog about our ignorance of why most individuals are actually resistant. Following evidence that pregnant women are significantly more susceptible, an astute observation and idea by a young Australian doctor (reported at a meeting and in a free newspaper I read on the London tube, and due to be published this week) suggests that at least one important factor is the level of IgG2 antibodies, something that could potentially lead to a straightforward therapy. A nice piece of observational biology.

My first paper of 2010 was published in J Royal Society Interface (though it has been online for months). Apatamers are nucleic acids capable of binding specific targets, and are usually selected in a rather ‘blind’ way from huge libraries (typically 1015). We have been exploring, in the spirit of synthetic biology, how to design and evolve them using much smaller number. This paper was an experimental and computational analysis of the complete binding landscape for all (410 = 1,048,576) DNA 10mers for a protein, showing explicitly the nature and extent of the ruggedness of that landscape.

The structure of water remains an important question for biology, and is still less than fully understood from the physical and computational chemistry points of view (some of our own calculations are here). Consequently, I much enjoyed reading an excellent piece in this week’s New Scientist on recent significant advances based on novel methods of X-ray and other analyses, leading to a model involving fluctuations between two major structural subtypes. This model serves to explain many of the ostensibly anomalous properties of water.

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