Last week’s activities very much centred around the capture by biology of solar energy and its conversion into chemical bonds. On Monday I attended and spoke at the opening of the new phenotyping centre at IBERS in Aberystwyth. I had myself moved to Aberystwyth a year after Fred Sanger published the first systematic sequencing paper, involving the phage phiX174 with about 5.000 nucleotides, a number that had taken a year and a half to sequence. That number could now be done on one modern machine in about a millisecond! Given these advances, and the increasing cheapness of sequencing, it is clear that attention must now focus much more on the phenotype and the mapping between genotype and phenotype.
I also attended a superb meeting on solar fuels and artificial photosynthesis, organised along with a report by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The undoubted highlight was an acute, scary and occasionally amusing analysis of energy options consistent with keeping atmospheric CO2 levels low, given by Nate Lewis, leader (inter alia) of a hub of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis. Since the world will need some 20TW of energy, producing much of that with nuclear energy would need say 10,000 1GW nuclear power stations, i.e. we would need to build one every two days for about 40 years – not a realistic option (leave alone the frequency with which they seem to explode or melt down, and the radioactive waste, security and other issues). Similar analyses for other options (including chemical carbon capture and storage) led to one simple conclusion: since the amount of sunlight hitting the earth is equivalent to about 100,000 TW, one hour’s worth would cover our annual energy needs, and solar plus storage in chemical bonds is the only serious option for a sustainable energy future. Nate had a number of memorable comments, e.g. “The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone”, and neither should the fossil fuel age, since if global warming melts the permafrost it would take 3000 years to reverse, and (on the combinatorial search for effective materials), “the only proven way to get more golden eggs is to buy more chickens…”.
We had a very useful meeting with the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington to discuss Industrial Biotechnology. For the same reasons as given above, the only sustainable sources of carbon and energy for chemicals and polymers are CO2 and the sun, and we need to use biology to do the necessary chemistry.
I also attended a very useful meeting to discuss, based on the experience of the very successful Rural Economy and Land Use programme (Relu), the useful lessons learned about how to run complex multidisciplinary programmes. There is no doubt that most if not all of our global challenges have a strong social (sciences) dimension. The Relu policy and practice notes had been particularly influential.
I would also draw attention to our Call for members of BBSRC Strategy Advisory Panels, Follow-on Funding Panel and Pool of Experts/Core Committees. BBSRC is looking to appoint high-calibre, committed individuals from academic and industrial sectors to fill a number of vacancies on three Strategy Advisory Panels (Bioscience for Industry, Bioscience for Society and Bioscience Skills and Careers), Follow-on Funding Panel and the Pool of Experts. Now is the time to put your name forward and to apply (and to ask your friends to do so too)!
Finally, I enjoyed papers about the enhanced role of plants in CO2 buffering, a little history of bioinformatics, a summary of nanopore sequencing, an analysis of the optimality of microbial metabolism, and a lovely explanation of why some antibiotics are bactericidal rather than bacteriostatic, a predecessor of which I had highlighted before.
- Foti, J. J., Devadoss, B., Winkler, J. A., Collins, J. J. & Walker, G. C. (2012). Oxidation of the guanine nucleotide pool underlies cell death by bactericidal antibiotics. Science 336, 315-9.
- Hoffert, M. I., Caldeira, K., Jain, A. K., Haites, E. F., Harvey, L. D. D., Potter, S. D., Schlesinger, M. E., Schneider, S. H., Watts, R. G., Wigley, T. M. L. & Wuebbles, D. J. (1998). Energy implications of future stabilization of atmospheric CO2 content. Nature 395, 881-884.
- Kell, D. B. (2002). Genotype:phenotype mapping: genes as computer programs. Trends Genet. 18, 555-559.
- Kell, D. B. (2010). Towards a unifying, systems biology understanding of large-scale cellular death and destruction caused by poorly liganded iron: Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, prions, bactericides, chemical toxicology and others as examples. Arch Toxicol 577, 825-889. Full free text.
- Lewis, N. S. & Nocera, D. G. (2006). Powering the planet: chemical challenges in solar energy utilization. Proc Natl Acad Sci 103, 15729-35. Full, free text.
- Milcu, A., Lukac, M., Subke, J. A., Manning, P., Heinemeyer, A., Wildman, D., Anderson, R. & Ineson, P. (2012). Biotic carbon feedbacks in a materially closed soil-vegetation-atmosphere system. Nature Climate Change 2, 281-284.
- Ouzounis, C. A. (2012). Rise and demise of bioinformatics? Promise and progress. PLoS Comput Biol 8, e1002487. Full, free text.
- Pennisi, E. (2012). Search for pore-fection. Science 336, 534-7.
- Sanger, F., Nicklen, S. & Coulson, A. R. (1977). DNA sequencing with chain-terminating inhibitors. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 74, 5463-5467. Full, free text.
- Schuetz, R., Zamboni, N., Zampieri, M., Heinemann, M. & Sauer, U. (2012). Multidimensional optimality of microbial metabolism. Science 336, 601-4.
Related posts (based on tags and chronology):
European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology, and Systems Biology in Switzerland
22 October 2012
IB strategy, impact, making science work, and digital organisms
25 June 2012
Biotechnology for fuels and chemicals
08 May 2012
Sustainability, BSBEC, capital equipment and Newcastle
23 April 2012
Sustainability, media and e-infrastructure
20 February 2012