Apologies to the late Sonny Bono for that title. My first main visit of the week was to Broom’s Barn, between Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds. Although it now carries out a much broader portfolio of activities, and is part of Rothamsted Research, it is embedded (like the British Sugar factory at Wissington (PDF), about which I blogged before), in the sugar beet-growing areas of East Anglia. The sugar beet portfolio focussed on molecular breeding for yield improvement and disease resistance (especially to leaf viruses and to Rhizomania), where a reference beet genome sequence will be invaluable, while other foci included agronomy, drought tolerance and non-invasive methods for plant phenotyping. Although average UK yields of sugar beet are 60-70t/ha, some growers are achieving over 100 t/ha. A two-fold variance of agricultural yields is not atypical, and suggests that there is indeed considerable room for improvement, not least in terms of sugar content (which is still under 20% w/v).

Much of the income of Broom’s Barn comes from an agricultural levy, which means that the investment of public money from BBSRC enjoys considerable leverage. The clear benefit to the user base was also evident from the many users and stakeholders who attended the Open Day in the afternoon.

A clear recognition is that sugar beet has the potential to contribute importantly to the production of substrate for industrial biotechnology, as well as its use in processed foods – not least because the latter has a quota while the former does not.

Dragon’s Den” is a somewhat theatrical TV series in which inventors (sensu lato) pitch business ideas to a Panel of five wealthy individuals – the Dragons – who are potential investors (with their own real money). Clearly many scientific ideas have the potential to translate into products and businesses, and I served as a ‘Dragon’ on a Panel judging four possible businesses emanating from Imperial College’s Institute for Chemical Biology and from the RASOR consortium. Up for grabs was an early stage £20,000 investment (not my own money; it came from Imperial Innovations…). The event was thoroughly professionally organised, including specially recorded video footage from Evan Davis (the full edited video will be online anon), and the young teams presented their ideas with flair and aplomb. After a lengthy discussion, the Panel awarded the top prize to a team developing a low-cost, portable HPLC.

Large Facilities (defined as costing over £25M) are a significant part of our landscape, where the Research and Development Group (JPG) of RCUK acted as the ‘Dragons’ for a prioritisation Panel. As so-called ‘champion’ of this group I served as one of four observers. The results of this and related processes will inform important decisions later in the year.

Although extreme longevity of vegetative forms is rarely an issue for agricultural crops (in contrast to the need for long-term preservation of seeds and seed banks), it holds a huge if unsurprising level of interest for humans! The average lifespan in developed countries such as the UK is continuing to increase by 5h in 24 (leading to suggestions that more than half of the babies born today will be centenarians). Since genes to not evolve on anything like this timescale, it is clear that most of this increase is due to lifestyle or at most gene-environment interactions. However, it is also clear that the variance (as opposed to the average) of lifespan might well have a significant genetic component, especially for folk lucky enough to make it to beyond their mid-eighties!) and although it may be anticipated that many genes might contribute it is obviously of interest to begin to understand which they are. A recent online paper provides some guidance, where a panel of some 150 human genes is said to be able to predict 77% of living individuals who will become centenarians. The good news is that with scientific understanding (noting gender differences) and informed lifestyle management, the healthspan can also increase with the lifespan.

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