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Bioscience for life

Advances in areas such as the understanding of disease, microbiology and plant science mean that bioscience is constantly impacting on our day-to-day life.

BBSRC funds around £450M of research across the biosciences - from molecules to populations - this research is helping us tackle the big challenges of our time: food security, sustainable bioenergy and healthy ageing.

Bioscience makes broccoli better for you

Ensuring food security is not just about producing more and more food, it is also important that this food is healthy and nutritious and that waste is kept to a minimum.

Scientists are studying some of the hundreds of different molecules in the foods we eat to find more about:

  • Their properties
  • How some could be important nutrients
  • How others are involved in determining shelf life
  • How their levels change when foods are stored and start to break down

Broccoli is major natural source of a potential anticancer compound called sulforaphane, so eating few portions of the vegetable each week may help protect against cancer.

However, only half of us have the right form of a gene that enables us to make the best use of sulforaphane. To help the other half, scientists at the Institute of Food Research have bred a variety of super broccoli that contains 3 times more sulforaphane than ordinary broccoli and eating this should give everyone the full health benefits. Super broccoli is now being taken through to the marketplace by Seminis Inc.

Scientists are also investigating the natural genetic variation in broccoli to discover the genes responsible for traits that make broccoli that stores well with less loss of nutrients.

Bioscience comes before the chicken and the egg

Poultry and egg production in the UK is an important industry with a total value of £1.4Bn.

More than 40% of the meat we eat is chicken and the UK produces 9Bn eggs every year.

Over 860M chickens are produced here each year to meet our appetite for their meat and the UK is home to 28.7M laying hens.

Bioscience makes major economic and animal welfare contributions to this industry through interventions including:

  • Vaccination
  • Selective breeding

The disease coccidiosis costs the UK poultry industry £40M each year. It is caused by the single-celled parasite Eimeria which causes gut swelling and major blood loss and is often fatal. Farmers use a combination of medication and vaccination to control the disease in their flocks. There are 7 different species of Eimeria that can infect chickens and vaccination against one doesn’t protect against the others – this and other factors made development of a vaccine difficult.

In 1989, the Institute for Animal Health created Paracox, a vaccine that gives life-long immunity against all 7 species of the parasite from a single treatment. The vaccine now protects 1Bn chickens worldwide and has been estimated to save the global poultry industry more than £1.5Bn annually.

Bioscience is helping to feed the world

According to United Nations predictions, the world population will grow from the current 6.78Bn to top 9Bn in 2050.

Population growth and movement combined with climate change, changing consumption patterns and competing demands for land make continuing to feed the global population a huge, complex problem.

Bioscience is contributing to long term food security in a wide range of ways from developing more nutritious crops to defending animals and plants from pests and disease.

Plants use chemical signals to repel pest species and attract beneficial insects such as pollinators. Scientists are making use of this to develop companion “push-pull” planting schemes to manage pests. In push-pull planting a plant which repels the pest is planted with the crop (the push) and a crop that attracts the pest is planted round the borders of the plot (the pull). This way, the pest is lured away from the crop into the trap plant where they can easily be controlled.

Push-pull planting has helped over 3000 farmers in Eastern Africa increasing cereal production as much as five-fold.

By studying the ecological interactions and chemicals involved in the processes of attraction and repulsion, scientists are continuing to develop better planting strategies.

Bioscience is working towards a second Green Revolution

In the 1940s, scientists started breeding high-yield, pests-resistant dwarf wheat that produced 2-3 times more grain than traditional varieties.

In the 1960s, these wheat varieties were cultivated in India and Pakistan and yields almost doubled in just 5 years.

This dramatic increase in wheat production became known as the Green Revolution.

Crop yields have continued to increase since then, but we will need another major increase in food production if we are going to be able to continue to feed the world’s growing population.

In 1999, the John Innes Centre identified the genes responsible for the dwarfing that prompted the Green Revolution. They are now using what they have learned about these genes to try to produce higher-yielding, dwarf varieties of other important cereals including rice.

New techniques now allow scientists to learn much more about which genes are responsible for different traits. This helps targeted breeding, not only in producing dwarf varieties, but to introduce other characteristics that lead to increased yield through larger grain size or better survival in stress environments. Because of climate concerns, we may also need new high yielding varieties that need less water and fertiliser.

Bioscience is helping ensure food security by breeding higher yielding, less wasteful crops.

Bioscience is beating bluetongue

Bluetongue is a devastating viral disease that affects sheep and cattle.

  • Spread by biting Culicoides midges
  • First found in southern Africa, but over recent years, it has spread into northern Europe
  • Reached UK in 2007
  • Major problem in Belgium, France and Germany
  • UK has managed to successfully control outbreaks so far with vaccination and data from pre-emptive modelling

Scientists at the Institute for Animal Health are collecting data on midge numbers and their biting behaviour. They combine this with Met Office data to develop complex mathematical models to work out when the midges are most likely to be active and when they are most likely to be giving disease-spreading bites to farm animals. This allows the team to advise farmers about when it is safest to move susceptible animals and to consider moving animals indoors when midge biting activity is predicted to be high. The data is also used to advise farmers of the best times to use insecticides and to when vaccinate at risk animals.

In 2008, the voluntary bluetongue vaccination programme saved an estimated £400M and 10,000 jobs.