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. [...]
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. [...]
The first part of last week was spent at the superb Bioeconomy in action meeting (twitter @bioeconomy_dk) arranged under the auspices of the Danish Presidency of the EU. Recognising the integrated nature of the bioeconomy that starts with the plant-based (and possibly algal) photosynthesis of biomass and creates high value products, speaker after speaker saw this as the vision for the creation of sustainable growth and jobs. The meeting was far too broad and detailed to repeat all of the messages, but some came through both strongly and regularly, such as the need to integrate farmers into the vision for food and non-food crops, the importance (stressed especially by Ruud Lubbers, ex-Prime Minister of the Netherlands) of taxing net CO2 production, and the key role of scientific research in effecting sustainable intensification of agriculture and subsequent biotransformations. The decline in manufacturing in the UK in favour of financial ‘services’ means that we are a little behind parts of Europe, but the situation is retrievable as we are at the beginning of the transition (back) to a bioeconomy. Many processes are already operating at scale, e.g. a huge bio-succinate plant for bioplastics built by Novamont in Italy, and the very large IAR Cluster biorefinery in the Champagne-Ardenne and Picardy regions of France. Neither did the meeting forget the importance of nutrition in a healthy lifestyle, and the likely diabesity epidemic if we do not act. Overall, an inspiring meeting, and it is worth giving the link http://ec.europa.eu/research/bioeconomy/index_en.htm to the European Bioeconomy website explicitly. [...]
My first external engagement last week was at a breakfast discussion organised by BP Biofuels around the issues of the economics, sustainability and utility of various kinds of biofuels, especially those based on the starch component of feed wheat (with the protein concentrate being used for animal feed). Chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, It featured contributions from Dave Richards, Managing Director of Vivergo fuels, Jeremy Tomkinson of the National Non-foods Crop Centre, Peter Kendall – recently re-elected as President of the NFU, and Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future. There was much consensus that while electric vehicles may take over in time, liquid biofuels were going to be more important for a good while. (I do not understand why vehicles that use fuel cells to transform liquid fuels rather than dihydrogen to electricity are not discussed more, as these combine the high energy density of liquid fuels such as ethanol with the environmental benefits of electricity.) There was also considerable recognition that we need to be able to agree much more carefully how we assess the true sustainability of a bioprocess; indeed I see the research needs underpinning a transition to true sustainability being an important theme for BBSRC science and scientists as we move more fully to a BioEconomy. For these kinds of biofuels (but more generally), this would require good process data being made publicly available. The enormous Vivergo plant near Hull will certainly operate at considerable scale, with planned production of 420 million litres of bioethanol per year. Truly things have moved apace since the BBSRC Review on Bioenergy (PDF) that I chaired in 2006 and the UK is already well placed for making a major contribution to its sustainability in biofuels. [...]
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.) [...]