A long-heralded and especially interesting engagement last week involved the launch of the funded outcomes of the multi-agency Insect Pollinators Initiative of which we were a significant part (and for which we provided the secretariat). This initiative – part of the Living with Environmental Change programme – was developed in response to the recognition that bees and other insect pollinators may well be in decline. What their true dynamics are is something we need to keep monitoring, and their numbers certainly exhibit potentially alarming annual fluctuations. Consequently, given the huge influence of insects as pollinators of major crops (most fruit and veg, forage legumes such as beans, and oleogenic crops such as oilseed rape) – potentially worth over £440M p.a. at a primary level (much more, I suspect if our crops actually fail, since such estimates are based on the results of present productivity) – it was very timely to improve what turns out to be a rather meagre scientific understanding of the details.
The funded projects cover a wide range of issues, including bee nutrition, the role of multiple biotic predators, and of abiotic influences such as pesticides and the like, and the ecology of urban pollinators. I really enjoyed meeting and speaking with the experts involved, some of whom had not previously met each other – implying that the scope for further multidisciplinary projects is great. I am very confident that this programme will achieve great things. As in many cases, improvements in the understanding necessary for exploitation requires the former to be achieved.
The biological (and world) community has been celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the draft sequencing of the human genome (see e.g. the podcast from Francis Collins and Sir John Sulston). While the original plans were derided even by scientists (the mainstream by definition is not at the forefront), it is of course the case that huge advances in genomics sequencing power (outstripping even Moore’s Law) have come since the origins in the late 70s. Our prescient response to this has been the construction of TGAC, where a special focus will be on the necessary bioinformatic analyses. An interesting analysis in last week’s Nature came to a similar conclusion, i.e. what is most limiting the conversion of genomic data to biological knowledge is a combination of a lack of good algorithms and of bioinformaticians.
Some interesting recent developments regarding the issue of why genome-wide association studies have been possibly less productive than had been hoped. There are suggestions that of the various possibilities discussed to account for the ‘missing heritability’, it may well be that a major contributor is simply the fact that thousands of genes do contribute to a trait of interest, just by a very small amount each.
My plans to visit the Royal Society summer exhibition (this year’s a special one for the 350th anniversary, and including exhibits from Rothamsted and Babraham) were thwarted by an extreme disruption of the rail network occasioned by the theft of signalling equipment. However, I was able to go to an interesting talk at the New Zealand Embassy by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister. New Zealand is of course an important agricultural nation.
A sad postscript. Last August we hatched four ducklings, the ultimately enormous products of the unlikely liaison of our pet ducks (a mallard and a white table duck). Unfortunately they and their parents have all disappeared entirely, seriatim, save one that died of its wounds. We think that an avian predator is responsible, as there was no evidence of foxes, the ducks were latterly in a foxproof chicken run (where the chickens survive), and foxes anyway do not tend to make clean kills that leave no trace even of feathers.
- Butler, D. (2010). Human genome at ten: Science after the sequence. Nature 465, 1000-1.
- Maher, B. (2008). The case of the missing heritability. Nature 456, 18-21.
- Yang, J., Benyamin, B., McEvoy, B. P., Gordon, S., Henders, A. K., Nyholt, D. R., Madden, P. A., Heath, A. C., Martin, N. G., Montgomery, G. W., Goddard, M. E. & Visscher, P. M. (2010). Common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height. Nature Genetics advance online publication (2010). http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ng.608.
Related posts (based on tags and chronology):
When genetics meets the environment…the case of the missing heritability
22 December 2008
Frogs, bees, parasites and stress – data driven analysis of species decline and biological dynamics
15 December 2008
Scientific advice, synthetic biology, tomatoes and Heads of Department
11 June 2012
Oxford Farming, synthetic biology and our hi-tech future
09 January 2012
Oxford Nanopore Technology and IBERS
17 October 2011