I began the week, as part of our activities on the Sustainable Bioeconomy in Europe, by attending part of the 15th meeting of the European Federation of Biotechnology. I used to attend more regularly as an academic, but had not been for a while. Much of the focus is still on what is called ‘white’ (i.e. microbial) biotechnology for the production of enzymes, fuels and chemicals, and some substantial progress had been made. Systems biology now also had its own strand, referred to (I do not know why) as ‘purple’ biotechnology. Presumably when applied to microbes it becomes lilac. [...]
Tag: food security
Much of last week was occupied by my attendance at an eponymous conference in Dundee that we helped sponsor on plant root biology, under the auspices of the International Society for Root Research. I co-chaired one of the sessions and gave a short talk based on a couple of review articles and calculations.
There were a huge number of highlights, not least in meeting so many of this community, but probably the outstanding talk was the opening keynote by Jonathan Lynch, whose wide-ranging review covered everything from molecular genetics and very high-tech measurements of root morphology at different scales (e.g. using laser ablation tomography as the best method for measuring aerenchyma) to the substantial yield improvements that these methods, and some careful thinking, plant breeding and agronomy, were having in a variety of African countries. Effective breeding increases both shallow (and spreading) roots for improved phosphorus uptake and deep roots for improved nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance. Roots should be ‘steep, deep and cheap’, said Lynch. I also much enjoyed keynote presentations by Malcom Bennett and Michelle Watt, both vertically integrating quite fundamental molecular knowledge with downstream physiological properties (with the latter showing improvements in water acquisition by deep roots, with 10cm of increased depth in no-till agriculture in Australia translating to 0.5 tonnes per ha increase in wheat grain yields). Overall I learnt a lot about the potential and research needs of this core element of Global Food Security. [...]
The report of the Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures (GFFF) Group was released in January 2011, and I attended a One Year On meeting of its ‘High Level Stakeholder Group’ that looked at the already considerable impacts it has had on both thinking and action (not least that of BBSRC). One of these is the appointment of a Food Security Champion, Professor Tim Benton, with whom I also had a useful catch-up on the very many activities that are going on in the Food Security space.
Food and agriculture, as well as Industrial Biotechnology, also figured largely in a meeting I had with Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Brazil is, of course, an agricultural superpower, and we had a very useful meeting with Professors Glaucius Oliva (Head of the CNPq funding agency) and João Carlos Teatini (Head of the CAPES agency, that mainly looks after graduate education). We already have many excellent links with Brazil, including a LabEx (laboratory exchange) scheme with the Agricultural Research agency Embrapa (and whose Head I also saw at the GFFF meeting); we now anticipate strengthening these further. [...]
It is obvious (not least from the recent recognition of the effects of anthropogenic climate change) that we shall have to move rather soon to sustainable means of living that do not rely on fossil fuels, that solar energy in various guises is going to (have to) provide the wherewithal, and that research in biology sensu lato will make a major contribution to our success. Most relevant industries recognise this already, and are already gearing up to derive their materials from environmentally sustainable sources. This agenda lies at the core of our strategies in global food security and in bioenergy and sustainable industrial biotechnology (the BioEconomy).
We are developing these in many ways, one of which – on innovative approaches to improving photosynthetic efficiency – was highlighted at a session that we sponsored at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (A very interesting biochemical network model of photosynthesis has just appeared, that with other methods may serve as a useful starting point for the bioengineering-based improvement of photosynthesis.) [...]
Among last week’s meetings was one to discuss how we might best take forward our implementation of the Athena Swan arrangements, and in particular the development of requirements for our fundees to have done so (by applying for and achieving the necessary charter awards), probably in the manner set down by the NIHR for bids to become Biomedical Research Centres.
I managed to attend the dinner discussion of the first meeting of our new Exploiting New Ways of Working Panel, and also had a first meeting since his appointment with Tim Benton, the new Global Food Security Champion. [...]