Over the past few months, since I first spoke at the Royal Society of Biology’s parliamentary reception (part of their annual Biology Week), to explain how important it was to BBSRC that we champion and support the best ideas that seek to expand the frontiers of knowledge across the biosciences, I have heard about many excellent examples.

Copyright: ZEISS Microscopy on Flickr by CC 2.0
Copyright: ZEISS Microscopy on Flickr by CC 2.0

So what is it that we mean when BBSRC uses the term frontier bioscience? It is about research that is pushing at the boundaries of knowledge to make new discoveries and provide new insight into the function of biological systems – at all scales. It is about discovering the unexpected – the most surprising results can sometimes be the most significant and transformational and it is often the case that frontier bioscience emerges at the intersection of disciplines. It is also notable that discoveries in frontier bioscience often provide the inspiration for innovation – as the overall winner of the 2017 Innovator of the Year, Shelby Temple, illustrates, as did Shankar Balsubramanian’s work with David Klenerman, which led to the development of Solexa (now Illumina) sequencing.

I was delighted recently to be able to attend the annual Awardees meeting of the Human Frontiers Science Programme. If you are not familiar with HFSP I suggest you take a look at the HFSP website. BBSRC and MRC make the UK contributions to this international programme, which has excellence, interdisciplinarity and international collaboration at its heart. And it supports truly global collaborations. This year the meeting was held at Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon and as part of the conference I had the opportunity to visit the facilities of the centre – including an impressive imaging suite which is pushing the boundaries of functional neuroimaging.

Copyright: Diamond Light Source
Copyright: Diamond Light Source

And advanced neuroimaging technologies featured strongly in talks at the HFSP meeting itself. William Bialek – a theoretical physicist from Princeton – described work he and collaborators have pioneered to develop conditions that allow imaging of the brain in as close to natural conditions as possible with non-anaesthetised subjects. I was struck by the use of virtual reality as a vital part of this – creativity meets physics meets neuroscience – truely interdisciplinary.

Other highlights for me at the HFSP meeting were presentations on environmental adaption – from understanding the role of meiotic recombination in the adaptation of stickleback fish to marine versus freshwater conditions, to how human populations have adapted to extreme cold – using populations in Greenland as the case study. There were also several talks reporting on fundamental biological processes that could provide the inspiration for future design. For example, I had no idea that guanine crystals have one of the highest refractive indices of all biological materials – and form the basis of many iridescent structures in a wide range of marine organisms.

Copyright: Diamond Light Source
Copyright: Diamond Light Source

What came through loud and strong at the meeting was the importance of access to cutting edge infrastructure and technologies. The previous week I learnt first-hand, on a visit to Diamond Light Source, how technologies using different beamlines are accelerating discoveries in bioscience. From the MIRIAM beamline, which is making it possible to measure metabolites at a single cell level, the ability to generate 3D structures from ever smaller crystals in even shorter periods of time, advances in the use of free electron lasers and the revolution in solving the structures of membrane proteins and protein complexes that CryoEM has facilitated.

Hearing about such breakthroughs is truly inspiring – and one of the privileges of my role.

Related posts (based on tags and chronology):