“How will the world end? Not with a bang but a whimper”. These are, of course, the closing lines of T.S.Eliot’s famous poem of 1925 The Hollow Men, and I was reminded of their cosmological nature when reading various announcements of the ‘discovery’ (interestingly, as at the BBC, often in inverted commas) – or more accurately the inference from many trillions of candidate collisions – of the existence of a particle that may or may not be related to the ideas of Peter Higgs. In all of this I have largely failed to find the actual data (here are some secondary data) that underpin the announcement, and whether they have any statistical merit (given that quite recently similar data did not). Especially in the absence of any detailed data, and knowledge of whether the analysis of the trillions of tests was subject to a Bonferroni correction as one would assume is necessary, I do strongly wonder whether, and rather suspect that, the actual result will be similar to the one I predicted for the tachyonic neutrinos. I hope I am wrong, and that we can now firm up our thinking of what this knowledge actually means for our scientific understanding of these matters and their intellectual consequences. […]
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. […]
For much of last week I – along with more than 700 other delegates – attended the 34th eponymous Symposium on Biotechnology for fuels and chemicals in the USA. The attendees were fairly evenly split between academia, industry, students and ‘Government’, while the country mix was interesting, with non-US representation mainly (in order) from Brazil, Korea, Canada, Denmark and Sweden, and with just 7 UK representatives.
In a very interesting plenary, David Glassner from Gevo described some large-scale processes for producing lactate (hence polylactate) and isobutanol in yeast. A 22 million gallon per year facility is being constructed! Many other talks followed a similar pattern, as microbial strain engineering based on systems biology modelling, pathway and enzyme engineering and ’omics were used to create strains with excellent potential and prowess, many of which were progressing to large-scale trials. Examples included 1,4-butanediol from Genomatica (and see the paper), 2,5-furan dicarboxylic acid at Bird Engineering (and paper) and a variety of long-chain alkanes, esters and fatty alcohols from LS9 (and representative paper). What is clear is that substantial progress is being made in developing processes for industrial biotechnology, and that they can only become more economic as the feedstocks for the petrochemical processes that might otherwise be used to make them increase in cost. One speaker pointed out that during one single 3h symposium session the world would use 12 million barrels of oil, or 4 supertankers’ worth! […]
My first appointment last week was to give the welcoming address at the opening of the Systems Microscopy Centre in Manchester, led by Mike White. The Department of Bioenergy and Climate Change published its Bioenergy Strategy, noting that indeed bioenergy is expected to play a key role in our ability to meet the 2020 renewables target as well as longer term carbon reduction targets to 2030 and 2050. It is also a response to the Committee on Climate Change’s Bioenergy Review. The timing chimed with the announcement of a new grant on Miscanthus breeding, that was also mentioned in the Prime Minister’s speech on the Green Economy. We also had a very useful meeting of the members of Rothamsted Research.
I attended a very interesting meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology, on “Reducing the risk of a systemic failure of the banking system” (or ‘yet another’ failure, one might say). The speakers included John Kay, who provided a very thoughtful insight on some aspects that insiders got wrong, and Andy Haldane, whose wonderful paper with Lord May I blogged about before. I would like to conclude that I was reassured, but there is a distance between the perceived remedies (some of which – like requiring banks only to trade at levels that are backed by real assets – seem and are rather obvious) and their application. There was however general agreement about the need to separate investment (‘casino’) banking from retail banking, and the need for simplicity, a loose coupling of subsystems, and proper incentivisation. Certainly we need to get ourselves a financial system (‘responsible capitalism’) that provides for the creation of value and not just the simple transfer of money (real and imaginary) from the majority of taxpayers to others who are seemingly out of the control of the public and the public good. […]
As part of a truncated post-Easter week I had a very interesting meeting with Ketan Patel, author of a very interesting book and who I had met at the STS Forum last autumn. A particular focus was on sustainability and how to estimate the full environmental and economic costs of various strategies, especially in agriculture, bioenergy and industrial biotechnology.
Continuing that theme, I attended part of the very interesting BSBEC grantholders workshop, where excellent progress is being made in this large and wide-ranging programme in sustainable bioenergy.
I had a very interesting visit to Newcastle University, where I visited a number of centres including the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, gave a talk about BBSRC strategy and also gave a scientific talk. I then returned south for a meeting by videoconference of the ‘Members’ (part of the new governance arrangements) of the John Innes Centre. […]