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Profile - Howard Atkinson

Howard Atkinson explains how his work in developing world agriculture and founding Africa College started from an early interest in nematode worms.

What got you interested in science?

I always had an interest in biology, particularly zoology, from bird watching as a boy to, like many other people, David Attenborough and in my case his Zoo Quest books. Zoology was a childhood interest until I went to Newcastle University to study it.

At what point did you decide to go to university?

I just drifted there I suppose as an alternative to going to work at eighteen. I don't think I was that committed at first – that came when I was challenged to think for myself rather than just reading text books and remembering facts. That got me interested in the prospect of completing research and having to think projects and problems out for myself.

What was your PhD?

After graduating I wanted to stay in Newcastle to develop something where there was a real utility. Within my degree in zoology there were lots of threads and I got into parasites and then into nematode worms because of that. It had nothing to do with plants originally, it was interest the worms themselves in a sense and I compared the respiration of two similar nematodes – one from a rocky shore and the other living nearby in an intertidal mud with low oxygen availability.

Professor Howard Atkinson in the tissue culture facility provided to the University of Leeds' Centre for Plant Sciences by BBSRC. Image: University of Leeds

Professor Howard Atkinson in the tissue culture facility provided to the University of Leeds' Centre for Plant Sciences by BBSRC. Image: University of Leeds

And your first posts?

After my PhD, I continued work on the marine nematode living in mud and the role of its haemoglobin when it fed. This got me into experimental approaches and physiology. I was fortunate after a couple of years because a post became available in 1972 at the University of Leeds to work on plant nematodes. I was 27, so I was lucky to get a lectureship this early as it was before people were so interested in nematodes which developed once the now famous species Caenorhabditis elegans became a model animal.

Looks as if you chose the right organism...

Up to a point. When I first started there were very few experimental approaches as the nematodes that attack plants are so tiny. Eventually other people and my group developed approaches to study these animals and then molecular biology really got things off the ground and now it's amazing to see the way C. elegans has contributed to biology. I didn't have the imagination to see that it could make such a contribution to medical science! What I wanted to do was see a utility for my research and plant nematodes in agriculture was it.

So you saw that angle a long time ago?

Yes, I really worked on it from the nematode point of view as I didn't have much of a plant background. But working with other scientists you learnt new tools and new approaches to understand the interactions between the nematode and the plant, such as PCR [polymerase chain reaction] so you could work with small amounts of material. Out of such collaborations, what is now called the Centre for Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds was started by people with very different backgrounds.

What have been your personal research highlights?

Gaining an understanding of how nematodes parasitize plants and how their hosts respond at both gene and protein levels. I'm very grateful that BBSRC has supported me throughout my career. My main interests moved on in the mid-1980s when I got involved with a US biotech company to support their in-house development. Although that company eventually died, it got me interested in the biotech aspect of nematode control which has continued until this day.

Did you encounter the business end of science at this time?

Certainly, I worked with a wide range of companies and went quite a long way along the road of patenting and saw the advantages and disadvantages. And, for instance, how the approach of patent offices has changed and how they now seek to restrict the width of claims.

What were you patenting?

Various transgenic plant defences against nematodes because genetic modification was what the US and UK companies I worked with centred upon. I was working with a company out in Hawaii on pineapple and that was one thread that got me interested in tropical agriculture, and then developing world issues.

That led to my work for the Department for International Development (DfiD) plant sciences programme, which was about developing nematode defences in developing world crops. We have always since donated our technology for developing world use.

And this leads up to founding the Africa College?

Yes, interactions with DfID got me interested in cooking bananas, plantain, rice and using, for example, my work on defences for potato which is a European problem and funded by BBSRC, and then adapting what we found to benefit developing world crops.

Out of that exploration of developing world issues and compiling the Research Assessment Exercise [RAE, the government's research quality assessment for universities] in 2006 for more than 100 people at Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, I saw the tremendous range of expertise in our staff and the opportunities to use that expertise and that of others in the university in new collaborations to enhance the impact of the science that we do. That was really the idea behind Africa College.

Where does the funding for Africa College come from?

Our Vice Chancellor wanted to enhance the impact of the university's research and held a competition for what he termed transformation grants. In the first round he funded five out of 80 and Africa College was one of them. That provided money for three new academics to come and draw expertise together. We now have about 100 members in Africa College ranged across several faculties, mostly from Leeds but also from two leading organisations based in Africa. They are IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) and ICIPE (International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology). The idea is that the College should be self funding in five years.

Howard Atkinson and the SARID team in the tissue culture facility in Uganda.

Howard Atkinson and the SARID team in the tissue culture facility in Uganda.

Is it funded by BBSRC?

It's not funded by BBSRC, not directly, but I have funding in the SARID (Sustainable Agricultural Research for International Development) initiative from BBSRC.

What is your work in that area?

I work on cooking bananas, which are mostly eaten in East Africa and plantains which are their counterpart in West Africa. The idea is to develop a transgenic nematode resistant banana. This is needed because bananas are sterile plants and not easy to improve by conventional means.

Can you elaborate on that?

It's a good case for needing it [genetic modification, GM] because the plant is sterile and propagated vegetatively and difficult to improve because they cannot be crossed like a cereal. Slow progress can be made with other techniques, but in the meantime banana has problems in that it grows at very high density, has a very narrow genetic base, and lacks natural resistances to a wide range of pests and diseases, of which nematodes are just one.

It's also an orphan crop – it hasn't had a lot of research on its genome or the intensity of research like maize in the US. Both cooking bananas and plantains are very important crops for food security in Africa, the fourth most important crop grown globally.

How can developing countries increase research capacity?

We also have a supplementary SARID Capacity Building Scheme grant from BBSRC. It's important for African countries to develop the capacity for agricultural innovation and make their own minds up about what approaches they want to use. I don't support the idea of technologies being parachuted into these countries – they've got to develop the science base to make their own decisions.

So we've been training people with various sources of money to work in this grouping in Uganda. One person has recently been trained in qPCR [quantitative polymerase chain reaction], which can quantify the expression of a transgene in banana. We are also devising a confined field trial in Uganda for our GM nematode resistant bananas and so recently a second person came over here to train her in evaluation of these plants.

Why does Africa produce less food per capita than it did in 1960?

Howard Atkinson and Dr Andrew Kiggundu inspect a banana tree with the black sigatoka fungal disease caused by Mycosphaerella fijiensis.

Howard Atkinson and Dr Andrew Kiggundu inspect a banana tree with the black sigatoka fungal disease caused by Mycosphaerella fijiensis.

I think one issue is the low number of trained people there to develop their sciences. This would be true for medical sciences too. In China they have the best labs like those in USA and UK, and India is halfway there, but most of Africa doesn't have sufficient expertise and facilities. Too few people have been trained in these modern techniques and I think there is a need to build capacity to underpin Africa's agricultural development.

And back to what we were saying about orphan crops, with the exception of maize, Africa is not dependant on the same crops that benefited in the first 'green revolution'. Africa isn't dependent on a crop like wheat, but crops like plantain, cassava and yam, that are not of interest to American agribusiness and so haven't had the level of research where you can look at publications and adapt to an African need.

You're saying Africa got less out of the green revolution?

Oh definitely. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan himself said he wanted a "rainbow revolution" for the neglected crops. There are also issues of the fertility of soils. In Africa there are a lot of acid soils which lowers fertility and is another reason why yields are so low. These are big questions for Africa and we have people at Africa College beginning to face up to what we can do about those issues.

Any other BBSRC awards?

The group led by Peter Urwin and I have benefited from several recent BBSRC grants that address UK agricultural needs. There is also an ISIS award (International Scientific Interchange Scheme) to bring people together. Again in a sense it's an aspect of being concerned about African development issues. For example, vegetables produced around and in cities on small plots are very important to the poor but they have an enormous range of problems, such as pesticides authorised for use on cotton being used on vegetables in West Africa, and even issues like using night soil – human faeces – as manure which risks recycling parasites such as the nematode Ascaris onto food. And people can't afford the fertiliser and can't necessarily get fresh water. But vegetables are important as a cheap means of improving nutrition. So what type of science could be done to benefit them? In an ISIS-funded workshop we had scientists from Africa College, Africa, China and USA to learn from different experiences and adapt for Africa's needs. At the moment we're trying to get funds to pursue the ideas that came out of that workshop.

What do you say to critics of GM approach?

As far as UK field trials go, our government needs evidence of the benefits and the concerns and scientists must collect the necessary data base. We've looked at a wide range of things for potato and we can't see any evidence of environmental harm from our technology. Progress should be made on safe approaches like ours to replace the environmentally harmful pesticides being withdrawn from EU agriculture. But what is true for UK potato cannot be assumed for an Indian or an African crop without further careful evaluation.

What are you measuring?

What we're currently looking at are those soil nematodes that don't harm plants. They are extremely abundant in soils and some opposed to GM approaches have argued in the past that if we control pest nematodes then these other nematodes will be harmed. And nematodes are some of the best indications of soil condition because they occupy a whole range of habitats, some of them eat bacteria, some eat fungi and some eat other nematodes, and so if you disturb the soil environment you upset the balance of nematodes. So people have developed an approach to look at this, it's called the nematode faunal index, which in the past was done by identifying nematodes. We've been using a DNA-barcoding approach to identify them at the molecular level, speed the process and make it generic to any crop.

How do your nematode resistant GM crops work?

We take a cysteine proteinase inhibitor which plants produce naturally, in maize seeds and rice seeds for example, so they are present in nearly everyone's diet. They block cysteine proteinases which nematodes but not humans or many other animals use to digest protein in their diet. If the plant parasitic nematode's food includes the cysteine proteinase inhibitor it is malnourished and can't develop normally. So we're taking safe proteins already consumed, and putting them in potato plants, but not into the part of the plant that we eat, just in the roots, and only where the nematode feeds. That's an example but we also use other approaches.

Can science enhance food security and feed the world?

I do think it's important that the UK science base finds ways of having impact. I'm not saying everyone's science can be applied to the developing world, but I think it's important we address major issues if we want UK science to remain strong – it has to be shown to have value – I'm not denying the importance of curiosity-driven research but a good part of what we do must have a wider value in the modern world for the British tax payer to continue to fund us.

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