Last week we had our third ‘roadshow’ conversation at what had been the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where again we enjoyed a very useful and helpful dialogue with our community. I also took part in a very useful meeting held by Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington with a number of the Departmental CSAs and Research Council CEOs. These provide a very useful forum for topics where there is the potential for major cross-Government activity. An obvious area of present interest in the UK is the response of both the research base and regulators to the ash die-back disease cause by pathogenic variants of the fungus Chalara fraxinea, where BBSRC and partners had already initiated a call on Tree Health and Plant biosecurity. Hopefully by getting in early we can avoid the levels of tree loss seen with Dutch elm disease.

I also enjoyed a visit to Council member Jim Godfrey’s farm for a series of discussions of modern agriculture and the role of our research therein. It was very striking how very much science, and scientific approaches, do indeed contribute to modern successful agricultural enterprises.

My first new word of the week is skeuomorphic, a concept that refers to designs that are intended to masquerade as something else, such as (in this case) having a computer interface that provides a list of book titles actually looking like a wooden bookcase with the books visible. It is an interesting question as to whether this makes such an interface easier to use and more agreeable to navigate. Not something I had much considered (in that one has little real control over the appearance or functional workings of, say, a smartphone), but it is something that nonetheless has a major influence on the ‘user experience’. Even logos can, it seems, attract multiple design awards (though I can’t say that I had ever noticed the ‘FedEx arrow’…)! All of this said, the main point for biology is that the user interface is a key aspect of the ease of use of the kinds of complex software we shall need if we are to exploit bioinformatics and e-science widely and to the full.

My other new word of the week is ‘fungible’; as Wikipedia has it, “Fungibility is the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are capable of mutual substitution”, a concept that has equivalence elsewhere.

I have been alerted to the fact that NIH Director Francis Collins now has a blog.

I enjoyed an article on the detection of causality (rather than merely correlation – which causality does not even require), an adjacent one on the engineering of non-native transition metal binding sites into enzymes for the purposes of novel biotransformations, one on the major role of epistasis in protein molecular evolution, and one giving the structure of the multidrug P-glycoprotein transporter homologue from C. elegans.

Finally, I hope that this blog is not entirely fungible.

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