The acronym KBBE (and its equivalent twitter hashtag) may not yet be well known, but what it stands for – the Knowledge-Based BioEconomy – soon will be as it is recognized as being at the very core of the European Union’s economic development. To this end I visited Brussels to attend an extremely important conference on ‘the KBBE towards 2020’. The plenaries were from EC Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geogheghan-Quinn, from Marion Guillou (CEO of our sister French Agriculture Research Organisation INRA), ex-EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and the CEO of Novozymes Steen Riisgard. It was excellently chaired by Maive Rute, Director of the Biotechnologies, Agriculture and Food Directorate. What was striking about each of these brilliant and inspiring presentations was the straightforward recognition – to the extent that they simply regarded it as axiomatic – that

  1. a very large fraction of the future EU economy was indeed going to (have to) come from innovations in agriculture and the bioindustries that flow from the fact that pretty well all carbon (for energy and chemicals and materials of all kinds) will need to have been fixed from atmospheric CO2 by modern photosynthesis (as opposed to that which occurred on geological timescales).
  2. that world-class bioscience and biotechnology were going to be the main means by which this would be achieved.

While this might be seen as preaching to the choir (the 500 attendees included many funding organizations in the biotechnology space), the consensus was so clear that it virtually represented a ‘call to arms’ for our community, and gave some very suggestive pointers as to what would be recognized as important in the next Framework Programme. As stated about the KBBE, “in Europe alone this represents a market worth over €1.5 trillion and employs more than 22 million people. A cohesive research agenda is therefore crucial to boost the competitiveness of the EU agro-food and biotechnology industries, and to solve today’s most urgent problems”. The mapping onto, and consonance of thinking with, our own strategic plan was very striking, so it was welcome to see that we are indeed addressing the appropriate agenda.

Some of the quotes from the Commissioner’s plenary included “we need a vibrant bioeconomy to ensure a safe and nutritious food supply”, and she made reference to “an economy driven by the bio-revolution” that would provide “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”. These sentiments were further and persuasively developed in a separate meeting that we had organized between the Commissioner, Marion Guillou, myself and Aalt Dijkhuizen (President of  Wageningen University and Research Centre). Needless to say, as a representative of the leading country in agricultural and biological research, I was happy to endorse and to promote BBSRC’s commitment to meeting the  challenges of the Knowledge-Based BioEconomy, within a framework that recognizes the complex dangers accompanying climate change, some of which are set down by Sir John Beddington on the BIS website. Readers might also find the Europabio website of considerable interest.

Recording the genomic revolution could be a full-time job, but as a major world commodity item, the sequencing of the ‘chocolate’ (Theobroma cacao) genome cannot go unremarked.

I also attended a very interesting meeting sponsored by the Research Information Network and NESTA on the use of web-based tools in research, including an excellent plenary by Timo Hannay. This is a very fluid landscape indeed, and one (of course) with massive promise; indeed. many of our community will have been at the ‘All Hands’ meeting this week, where the way forward (possibly including cloud computing) was discussed.

My last external visit of the week was to Queen Mary, famously ‘the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions’ of the last RAE, where I was given a very helpful overview of many recent academic developments (not only in biology, since it is recognized that the most exciting developments occur at the interfaces, not all of which, by definition, are obvious) and saw a number of cutting-edge biophysical techniques that are being deployed to attack the problems of biology.

I also attended a most interesting meeting of our Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, where the wide-ranging discussions in a packed agenda had a particular focus on our activities in synthetic biology and bioenergy. Several members of this Panel are retiring, and – as with the members of all of our other Panels and Committees – I wish to thank them most warmly for their massive contributions to our thinking, our activities and our delivery. It is our community that makes us world leading, and you contribute not only by your research outputs but by your science citizenship. The UK science culture that fosters this is very important, and long may it continue.

Another paper from my academic activities was published last week, setting down the discovery of a suite of early pregnancy metabolomic biomarkers for pre-eclampsia; it represents a significant development from an agenda that we first put together in 2003, and for which the first paper is already 5 years old, and there are others. Science is like that. It would be great to be able to compare the markers we discovered therein with those lighting up in other scientific areas; unfortunately we await the (computational) tools for analyzing papers automatically to extract such data. Even the simple process of ‘fitting a model to data’ as a straight line is not straightforward. At least we have now have a new ‘BioPAX’ standard (parallel to and purportedly exchangeable with SBML and CellML) for describing biochemical pathways in an interoperable manner, and a new data-exchange format for a subset of bioinformatics web services. I also found useful a summary of visualization tools for systems biology, and contributed to a paper on the automation of the production of biochemical network models from enzyme kinetic measurements. Tools of all kinds, such as these, will be needed to help us hasten the Knowledge-Based BioEconomy.

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