It is obvious (not least from the recent recognition of the effects of anthropogenic climate change) that we shall have to move rather soon to sustainable means of living that do not rely on fossil fuels, that solar energy in various guises is going to (have to) provide the wherewithal, and that research in biology sensu lato will make a major contribution to our success. Most relevant industries recognise this already, and are already gearing up to derive their materials from environmentally sustainable sources. This agenda lies at the core of our strategies in global food security and in bioenergy and sustainable industrial biotechnology (the BioEconomy).
We are developing these in many ways, one of which – on innovative approaches to improving photosynthetic efficiency – was highlighted at a session that we sponsored at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (A very interesting biochemical network model of photosynthesis has just appeared, that with other methods may serve as a useful starting point for the bioengineering-based improvement of photosynthesis.)
The understanding, preservation and sustainability of our natural environment are the focus of our colleagues in the Natural Environment Research Council, and I had my first formal 1:1 meeting with its new Chief Executive Duncan Wingham. While there are extensive collaborations already, it is clear that some of our communities could align their expertise more effectively.
I had a couple of meetings focussed around the communication of our activities. The first was the second meeting of the Industrial Biotechnology Stakeholder Council, a parallel body to the Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum, where discussions of sustainability were very much to the fore. In a similar vein, a meeting brokered by the Science Media Centre with David Shukman and colleagues (David being the new Science News Editor of the BBC) allowed several of us to rehearse the recognition that science and the concept of scientific evidence are in fact to be seen as pervasive, and just not just to be considered under the ‘science’ tag. Thus, a greater appreciation of relevant ecological principles might have enabled better regulation that could have prevented the 2008 financial crash.
More generally, having better mathematical models of the systems we study is a significant part of our agenda in systems biology and in ‘exploiting new ways of working’, and we had a number of meetings to take forward activities in (or that will be fuelled by) e-science.
Models should not exist in isolation, and are to be tested (nowadays) by genome-wide analyses. To this end, I was pleased to see publication of the final version of a paper we did analysing the means by which pharmaceutical drugs enter yeast cells. This has major significance for chemical genomics and for understanding the means by which pharmaceutical drugs are taken up (and expelled) by different cells and tissues by hitchhiking on natural carriers.
As well as carriers, biology exploits pores, and a very interesting announcement pertained to the exploitation of a modified biological ‘nanopore’ in the high-throughput sequencing of DNA.
I have a particular interest in any system in which the whole is greater than (or at least different from) the sum of its parts (as is common enough in ‘complex systems’ and systems biology), and heterosis or ‘hybrid vigour’ – where an offspring displays ‘better’ characteristics than either of its parents – provides an especially pertinent example, of great significance in plant and animal breeding. A recent paper from Sir David Baulcombe’s lab shows that small silencing RNAs and epigenetic DNA methylation may play important roles here.
Finally, I like to include the odd curiosity from time to time, so here is a link to an interesting story that sets down why Charles Dickens was more or less directly responsible for the first England Cricket tour of Australia in 1861-2.
- Dobson, P. D. & Kell, D. B. (2008). Carrier-mediated cellular uptake of pharmaceutical drugs: an exception or the rule? Nat Rev Drug Discov 7, 205-220
- Haldane, A. G. & May, R. M. (2011). Systemic risk in banking ecosystems. Nature 469, 351-5
- Kell, D. B., Dobson, P. D. & Oliver, S. G. (2011). Pharmaceutical drug transport: the issues and the implications that it is essentially carrier-mediated only. Drug Disc Today 16, 704-714
- Lanthaler, K., Bilsland, E., Dobson, P., Moss, H. J., Pir, P., Kell, D. B. & Oliver, S. G. (2012). Genome-wide assessment of the carriers involved in the cellular uptake of drugs: a model system in yeast. BMC Biology 9, 70. Full free text
- Nogales J, Gudmundsson S, Knight EM, Palsson BØ, Thiele I: Detailing the optimality of photosynthesis in cyanobacteria through systems biology analysis. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2012; 109:2678-2683. Full free text
- Shivaprasad PV, Dunn RM, Santos BA, Bassett A, Baulcombe DC: Extraordinary transgressive phenotypes of hybrid tomato are influenced by epigenetics and small silencing RNAs. EMBO J 2012; 31:257-266
- Wilhelm C, Jakob T: From photons to biomass and biofuels: evaluation of different strategies for the improvement of algal biotechnology based on comparative energy balances. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 2011; 92:909-919
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