Jackie Hunter, BBSRC: “Breakthroughs will happen where disciplines coalesce”

Categories: funding, synthetic biology
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Published on: November 12, 2014

Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of BBSRC, delivered a lunchtime presentation at the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences on Monday this week. She gave an overview of BBSRC investments and strategy, and spent the final twenty minutes in discussion with the gathered researchers, who posed questions from the floor.

Supporting bioscience in the UK

BBSRC is the biggest source of plant science funding in the UK. Its charter is to fund research and training in world-class bioscience, deliver social and economic impact, and to promote public dialogue.

Hunter explained that BBSRC responsive mode funding (around £150m per year) aims “to ensure excellence in science, wherever it comes from.” It must be functioning well as the UK is top of citation impact index, and the UKPSF found that UK plant science, mainly funded by BBSRC, is second only to the US in terms of publication impact. Strategic funding, capital and campus capital funding to institutes (£6m, £73m and £30m respectively) is used to maintain skills and output in economically important areas of research at the institutes; though Hunter made it clear that ‘blue sky’ research, funded via responsive mode, is important for impact as it generates both top REF scores and top impact metrics. BBSRC also invests £29M per year in specific initiatives.

When asked for advice about increasing BBSRC funding to the department, Hunter emphasised that funding allocation is based on excellence, so departments should provide an environment where excellence can flourish. She also said, “Interdisciplinarity is important: breakthroughs will happen where disciplines coalesce.”

Training and skills

There are around 2000 PhD students at any one time in the Doctoral Training Partnerships that make up part of the £71M BBSRC investment in Knowledge Exchange, Training and Skills. During the discussion session, someone asked about support later in a researcher’s career and Hunter pointed out that investment in early career fellowships must come at the expense of something else. She suggested that BBSRC may consider the value of studentships versus early career fellowships carefully, and in consultation with the community, over the next few years.

Plant science and Agriculture

Jackie Hunter is on the Agri-tech Leadership Council, which aims to increase UK agricultural exports and the value of the UK agri-tech industry by aligning public and industry funding and building skills and research output in agriculture and agri-technology. She also spoke about future directions in BBSRC’s Agriculture and Food theme: improving the nutritional qualities of plants and biopesticides regulation are both likely to become priority areas of research.

Hunter trailed two documents intended to help make two arguments, both of value to the UK plant research community. The first is an upcoming review on animal and plant health, lead by Defra and with input from BBSRC. To be launched later this month, it will be a starting point for BBSRC and Defra to develop joint strategies in tackling current animal and plant health issues, and to work together to call for more funding in this area. The second is a discussion document about synthetic biology and other new ways of working; Hunter hopes this will help make the case for trait-based, rather than methods-based, regulation of new crops.

On-going activities

Hunter also highlighted a few current initiatives our readers might be interested in.

BBSRC has invested £18m in 13 Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (NIBBs). Here at GARNet, we’re in touch with the High Value Chemicals from Plants Network about a synthetic biology event next year and I recommend you join (it’s free) if you’re interested in high-value plant products or synthetic biology. The other plant science network is the Lignocellulosic Biorefinery Network.

One of Hunter’s objectives as CEO is to promote dialogue between scientists and a broad audience, and the first step towards engaging with the general public is the Great British Bioscience Festival. It is taking place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Bethnal Green, London, and there will be some amazing plant science among the exhibits. Lisa will be visiting the Festival to cover it for the next issue of the GARNish newsletter so stay tuned for her report!

ADAS Boxworth Open Day

Categories: guest blogger
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Published on: June 26, 2014

Charlotte White, crop physiologist at environmental and agricultural consultancy ADAS, reports from the ADAS Boxworth Open Day where science from ADAS is showcased alongside work funded by Defra and HGCA as well as private enterprises. It is a great opportunity for scientists, agronomists, farmers and seed/agrochemical representatives to network and discuss their needs and current work.

adas boxworth

On the 3rd of June ADAS Boxworth in Cambridgeshire opened its fields to welcome around 200 visitors. The rather wet morning, which made the behind the scenes setup soggy, dissipated in time for the mid-day opening and the afternoon was lovely and sunny. Visitors included farmers, agronomists, members of the seed and agrochemical industry, students and the farming press.

On arrival visitors were welcomed with a complementary hog roast and could register for BASIS and NRoSO points. At reception there was a demonstration of electrical weeding, which had a lot of interest, along with updates on the SCEPTRE project, the fertiliser value of anaerobic digestate and the HGCA stand. There were then two routes: wheat followed by oilseed rape or oilseed rape followed by wheat. The majority took the latter.

The oilseed rape field had a number of Defra, HGCA and commercially funded project demonstration plots. These included optimising seed rates/row widths, and the project I was demonstrating, which looks at precision applications of late foliar nitrogen fertiliser to increase yield and feed value of the rape-meal (CC: described in this UKBRC factsheet). Dr Steve Ellis spoke about pollen beetle thresholds and neonicotinoids, while Dr Faye Richie was on hand to answer questions on oilseed rape diseases relevant to this season and give updates on the latest findings from the pathology group. The industry variety and product demo plots appeared to have a high yield potential and formed the perfect environment to catch up with sponsors and collaborators. As you turned the corner in the field it was a surprise to find Ken Smith stood in a soil pit promoting good soil management on behalf of HGCA, a topic which always generates a lot of interest and gets people talking!

The wheat field was across the farm road and had a similar mix of government, levy and industry funded project demonstration plots, industry stands and variety and product plots. Prof Roger Sylvester-Bradley explained the yield enhancement network (YEN), an innovation competition to help growers break existing cereal yield records. The demonstration plots, testing ‘innovative ideas’ to maximise grain filling, included irrigation, reflective soil strips and plot cooling (if you are interested in entering the YEN competition, visit the website). The triticale demo plots also received a lot of attention and Dr Sarah Clarke and Dr Daniel Kindred were on hand to discuss the benefits of triticale – it out-yields wheat as a second cereal – and to promote the LearN project, which is using a novel on-farm approach to investigate nitrogen monitoring and management. Jonathan Blake was there to discuss the HGCA Fungicide Performance work, and had some interesting demonstration plots to show yellow rust and septoria tritici control. In addition to these and other interesting research demonstration plots, national ADAS experts in weed, pest and disease management were around to answer all manner of questions. Visitors were kept lingering long after the 4pm close.

For me, it was a long and invigorating day and great to talk to farmers and agronomists about their experiences with late application of foliar nitrogen and to provide an update on the latest project findings, as well as seeing what everyone else in ADAS has been working on. Don’t worry if you missed it, keep your eye out for flyers for future open days!

Image credit: Charlotte White

Traditional varieties are key to modern rice farming

Analysing root growth and yield of rice plants.

Highlighted article: Rico Gamuyao, Joong Hyoun Chin, Juan Pariasca-Tanaka, Paolo Pesaresi, Sheryl Catausan, Cheryl Dalid, Inez Slamet-Loedin, Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza, Matthias Wissuwa & Sigrid Heuer (2012). The protein kinase Pstol1 from traditional rice confers tolerance of phosphorus deficiency. Nature 488, 535–539 doi:10.1038/nature11346

Over centuries, many local rice varieties have been bred into a few modern varieties which are extensively farmed throughout much of Asia. In regions where soil is poor such as western India and Thailand, rice crops are dependent on rainfall, frequently suffering from floods and draughts, and importantly also require phosphorus fertilizer. Phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, and as phosphorus fertilizer is made from a finite store of phosphorus rock the current situation in the parts of Asia with poor soil is not sustainable.

A solution to this problem was found in a traditional rice variety, Kasalath. Another traditional rice variety has already supplied modern rice breeders with submergence tolerant gene SUB1, which enables rice plants to survive up to two weeks of flooding. A decade ago, a major quantitative trait locus was identified in Kasalath that conferred tolerance to phosphorus deficient soil. This locus was labelled Pup1, and last year the Heuer group at the International Rice Research Institute defined a core set of Pup1 markers and used them to backcross Pup1 into modern rice varieties, which were grown in their natural environments and all produced significantly more rice in P-deficient conditions than their wildtype counterpart. These Pup1 introgression lines also showed improved root growth under stress. (more…)

Orange sweet potato champions biofortified foods in Africa

Two Ugandan children dig in to a plate of orange sweet potato (Credit: HarvestPlus)

According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition this month, eating orange sweet potato reduces the prevelance of vitamin A deficiency in children in Uganda and Mozambique. Vitamin A is critical for the development of good vision as it is an essential component of rhodopsin, a pigment in photoreceptor cells in the eye. Consequently in poor communities in Africa and south-east Asia, where diets poor in vitamin A are widespread, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness. Healthy levels of vitamin A are also necessary for normal organ formation and maintenance. Orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties contain more than 50-fold more β-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A after ingestion, than the yellow or white varieties commonly eaten in African countries.

The study monitored the effects of the Orange Sweet Potato (OSP) project, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and coordinated by HarvestPlus. The conclusions predict a promising future for the use of biofortified foods bred for increased nutritional value. It was the first large-scale study of its kind, involving 24 000 households from Uganda and Mozambique. Nutritionists and farmers educated communities on the health benefits of orange sweet potato and on growing, storing, and commercialising orange sweet potato crops. Local women were also given recipes and information about hygiene practices. (more…)

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