In the 1990s I became very interested in the potential of novel technologies to alter gene expression and co-edited a book on antisense and its potential to manipulate novel gene expression in the central nervous system. Technology has moved on enormously since then and we now have many different ways of manipulating gene expression in animals and plants. BBSRC funds some of this work though the institutes and in universities. Recently a paper was published from workers at the Bristol University on how the CRISPR system functions which was co-funded by ourselves and the Wellcome Trust.

CRISPR is one of several new gene editing techniques which can be used in both animals and plants. In the case of plants such technologies can be combined with conventional breeding techniques significantly enhancing the plant breeder’s tool box. This month BBSRC is hosting a science-led workshop to help develop a position statement on these new crop breeding technologies. The workshop will bring together relevant experts from a variety of backgrounds to discuss current and prospective developments in new plant breeding technologies together with their application in crop breeding. I am looking forward to learning more!

I did learn a tremendous amount when I visited pig and arable farmers in Lincolnshire recently. As well as hearing their concerns, which ranged from black grass (PDF) (a particularly UK problem) to keeping the UK free from porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus. We had some interesting discussions and identified some opportunities where BBSRC could play a role.

An area where we all need to play more of a role is that of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Although I couldn’t attend the evening discussion hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology on the subject, I did listen to the presentations from Dame Sally Davis, Dr Jeremy Farrar and Dr Patrick Vallance on the subject, posted on the Foundation’s website. I strongly urge you to listen to them and also to read Dame Sally’s Annual Chief Medical Office Report from 2011 (volume 2) (PDF) which focuses on infections and the rise of antimicrobial resistance.

I was reminded of a short film that was shown at the WHO conference in 2004 on Priority Medicines for Europe and the Developing World. It depicted a world without antibiotics – one where childbirth was once again dangerous, where no hip operations or transplants could be carried out, one where patients undergoing immunosuppression or cancer chemotherapy would die through infection. It was a frightening prospect ten years ago and the situation has grown considerably worse since. In fact due to the lack of diagnostic tools and adequate surveillance, the incidence of resistant bacteria is probably vastly underestimated. Sally is urging that people should vote for the Longitude prize to go to antibiotic resistance and I agree with her – for in a world with few or no effective antibiotics the other Longitude challenges would become less daunting: dementia would be less of a problem as the increases in life expectancy would be dramatically reversed, people with paralysis would be unlikely to recover from the initial insults that caused it through an inability to stop infection after trauma and the world’s population would cease to grow, reducing pressure on food security. The New Statesman hosted a round table on AMR the day after the Foundation’s discussion which I attended and which involved other funders and experts. Certainly some innovative thinking and business models are required as well as coordinated efforts at both basic science and policy levels. There is a lot of work on-going across the Research Councils and other funders on AMR in order to see how we can best address this important issue.

Lastly I would like to pay tribute to Ron Egginton, Head of BBSRC and ESRC Team in Research Funding in BIS who died suddenly last weekend – he was a pleasure to work with and a great advocate for UK science and technology. He will be sorely missed.

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