Tag: environment

  • Research showcase, environmental monitoring and synthetic biology

    Uncategorized | Douglas Kell

    The week began with a ‘Research Showcase’ event in the Palace of Westminster, highlighting the contribution made by five HEIs to various grand challenges, including bioenergy, and attracting some 30 MPs and members of the Upper House.

    Most other meetings were internal, but I did enjoy a very interesting visit to the National Centre for Earth Observation where Robert Gurney showed me some of the very nice online tools they are producing for mashing up environmental and other data. Some of these may well be applicable to other datasets (and I note our call for crowd sourcing applications). I also had a very useful discussion with Sir John Beddington on environmental monitoring, an area where NERC and ourselves share some common interests. [...]

  • The 2011 STS forum, global problems and Council

    Uncategorized | Douglas Kell

    As presaged last week, I attended the 2011 Science and Technology for Society Forum in Kyoto, Japan. This was a truly wide-ranging and high-level meeting of politicians (including many present and previous Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers), funders, academic leaders and CEOs of major companies. The focus was on ensuring sustainability, not least in energy. I cannot possibly do it full justice, so I present a few examples, arguments and highlights.

    The terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, 2011, with its devastation of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, had served to concentrate minds firmly on the wisdom or otherwise of including nuclear power (especially conventional fission) in energy supply plans, with countries such as Germany and Japan likely abandoning it while others (the US, France and UK among them) are seemingly taking a different view. This looks like having the makings of a classical example (and study) of how and on which bases policies are made in different places. According to Matthias Kleiner of the DFG, “no production engineer would develop a process where after 50 years we do not know where to put the waste”. [...]

  • Biofuels, bioenergy and neuroscience

    Uncategorized | Douglas Kell

    We are again (and see a similar period last year) in a period of ‘Purdah’ ahead of the upcoming local elections, and so we are limiting our announcements so as not to distract from campaign media,  as well as making sure that any we do make could not be interpreted as potentially influencing voter opinion or as political comment. In any case, with the concatenation of Easter, May and other Bank Holidays, this blog would necessarily be fairly quiet anyway over the coming period, so this is the last one until 9 May.

    Last week’s cluster of meetings – possibly reflecting their rise up the actual agenda, seemed to have a focus that was strongly on Biofuels and Industrial Biotechnology, and began with a meeting with David Brown (CEO) and Des King (President) of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. We all recognise the very great importance of getting right the interface between the more biological and the more process engineering aspects of industrial biotechnology, and thus that our interface with the world of experts mainly represented by the IChemE is both a highly significant one and one to be nurtured. [...]

  • Greenhouse gases in agriculture, ministers, genomics and data

    Uncategorized | Douglas Kell

    The Climate Change Act of 2008 committed the UK to lowering its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 80% of their 1990 levels by 2050, and led to the establishment of the Committee on Climate Change. Agriculture contributes some 8% of these GHGs, mainly as nitrous oxide (54%) and methane (37%), with carbon dioxide itself contributing just 9%. Nitrogen fertilisers and livestock slurry are mainly responsible for the first of these, and livestock (and some paddy fields) for the second. As part of the response to the Global Food Security agenda (pdf), a sustainable intensification of agriculture has been widely advocated, for instance in the Royal Society ‘Reaping the Benefits’ report and the Foresight Global Food and Farming futures document. However, this intensification cannot be at the expense of extra GHG emissions, and I was pleased to attend a very useful Discussion meeting at the Royal Society on Reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions from agriculture. The full conclusions and papers will be published later in the year, but some facts are worth noting. First of all, the numbers are large: 50-700 t/ha of carbon are already stored in soils, from deserts to peatlands, and while the UK has only 1% of the relevant world land area, we can and should demonstrate intellectual and practical leadership. The world’s net gross primary productivity (GPP) from photosynthesis is ca 120 Pg C/y, with net primary productivity (NPP) about half that, while fossil fuel emissions amount to ‘just’ 8 Pg C/y. Secondly, there are huge ranges for ostensibly similar things, whether the yield of wheat in t/ha (at least a 2-fold range in similar conditions) or methane emissions from beef cattle (8-fold, depending o the style of husbandry), implying substantial benefits to be had from sharing existing best practices. A useful report (pdf) summarises options for mitigation (also known as abatement), using Marginal Abatement Cost Curves. [...]

  • When genetics meets the environment…the case of the missing heritability

    Uncategorized | Douglas Kell

    That genetic differences account for a substantial part of biological variability is hardly in dispute, and the inclusion of genetics (and increasingly molecular genetics) was arguably the key contribution that created neo-Darwinism and led to the ‘modern synthesis’ of evolutionary theory.

    Selective breeding programmes amply illustrate the contribution to the phenotype that can be effected by genetic variation. Thus in a very nice summary, Hill (2005) describes an experiment at the University of Illinois (Laurie et al. 2004) that has been running since 1896. In this experiment, scientists have selected (and bred) strains of maize (corn) that are either high or low in the content of oil in their kernels (a trait of considerable agronomic importance). Over the years, the initial 5% oil has changed to 20% in the high-oil lines, and has decreased almost to zero in the low-oil strains. (A similar experiment using protein as the trait of interest gave a similar result, save that the ‘low-protein’ lines retain about 5% of protein.) Genetic analysis (of the quantitative trait loci) showed that a great many parts of the genome contributed this variation in oil content, that the largest could account for a difference of only 0.3% in oil content, and most accounted for just 0.1 – 0.2%. Given this, it is possibly unsurprising that these (small) effects were seen as additive (i.e. independent); put another way, there was negligible epistasis observed in these populations in which all other genes were also segregating. [...]