Photo: Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs. Continue reading

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Mustard seeds (Dennis Wilkinson/Flickr)

Conserving our crops’ genetic diversity

More than 22 years have passed since the Convention on Biological Diversity was signed. It called for international efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity, which had long been suffering the effects of human activities. Since then, there has been a lot of debate over what the best way of securing this biodiversity is.

But really, there isn’t a best way. There isn’t a clear consensus, one method to fit all. We can’t choose one way to preserve all the different elements that form what we call biodiversity.

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Eight great technologies

The UK is an important player in academic research worldwide. This includes being one of the world leaders in many emerging scientific fields. The UK government has recognised eight fields as Eight Great Technologies – technologies that, with support, can lead to UK strengths and business capabilities.

In the 2012 autumn statement, £600m was put into these fields, and this week’s Science and Technology Strategy announced continuing support for them, including funding for new research centres.

But what are these eight technologies? Despite working at an institute with clear links to several of the technologies, I admit to only having heard about them recently – and not in my role as a researcher, but through my interest in science policy. So I’ve summarised the eight in this post.

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Are you a typical biologist?

The market research company YouGov has released a new tool for profiling users of brands and services. The web-based app, called the YouGov Profiler, shows the “quintessential member” of each group – readers of particular newspapers, for example.

The app also profiles people based on their interests in particular subjects. Let’s assume, then, that the common interest of this blog’s readers is biology. Of all the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), biology had the largest sample size (8692), so we’re off to a good start. So how well does the YouGov Profiler describe you?

Demographics

According to the profiler, you’re probably female and aged between 25 and 39. You’re most likely to live in the west country and work in healthcare, research or agriculture. Meanwhile, those interested in physics are generally male, are more rightwing in their politics and have much more money to spare each month than biologists. Biology is the only Stem subject where the quintessential person interested is a woman.

Demographics

The demographics of people who are interested in biology, according to the YouGov profiler.

Continue reading

Reaching gender equality in science

The Athena SWAN award is a UK scheme set up to recognise commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in academia. The scheme has been running for several years with Universities and their departments applying for recognition at bronze, silver or gold level. In 2012 a pilot scheme was set up to investigate the inclusion of research institutes into the Athena SWAN scheme. The John Innes Centre was one of these pilot institutes, and we are proud to say that this year we have been awarded an Athena SWAN silver award.

We celebrated the award this month and as part these celebrations we had a panel debate. The debate discussed  a recent report on Women in Science written by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee,  and the commitment of both the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia (UEA) to ensuring gender equality within their academic communities. This event was run by ResNet, a UEA network set up to promote gender equality. The panel at this event consisted of David Richardson (UEA deputy Vice-Chancellor and member of the BBSRC council), Tracy Chapman (co-lead of the UEA School of Biological Sciences Athena SWAN team), Carole Thomas (chair of the JIC Athena SWAN Committee) and Dale Sanders (director of JIC who also sits on the JIC Athena SWAN committee).

The Science and Technology Committee report on Women in Scientific Careers highlighted many issues facing women in STEM careers. One of the key issues highlighted in this was the ‘leaky pipeline’. The leaky pipeline is a phrase used to discuss the drop-out rates of women in STEM subjects as they ascend the career ladder. In life sciences, for example, undergraduates tend to be around 50/50 male to female. However, when you then look at the senior scientist level, this ratio clearly drops, with only 20.5% of STEM professors in the UK being female . Many reasons have been put forward for this leaky pipeline, ranging from a lack of female role-models for aspiring female scientists, to the lack of stability in early-career research jobs. However there are certainly  multiple reasons to explain the lack of gender diversity.

A clearly identified reason in the report was unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the hidden personal bias that we all have, rooted by the stereotypes that we are brought up around and our own personal preferences towards people, for example that are similar to us. Unconscious bias is currently thought to play a large role in the lack of women in senior roles, both in sciences and in other fields such as business. If you ask someone to think of a manager, for example, the majority of people will picture a man. Many traits considered useful for leadership are thought of as male traits, whilst more caring traits are considered female. Now that unconscious bias has been recognised, many institutions and businesses are actively running training to help eliminate these biases – including UEA and on the Norwich Research Park. These bias issues may not be exclusive to recruitment either. It was highlighted that only 7 out of 75 major life sciences awards given out last year were given to women, and it is generally agreed that it is often less common for panels to recommend  women  for the awards. The same applies with guest speakers, although this highlighted an additional issue. Although women may be as likely to be invited to speak, they tend to be more likely to turn down the opportunity. This year will be the first time ever that a woman will give the plenary talk at the John Innes Centre ASM.

Another barrier identified in the gender equality issue is that early-career academic jobs are characterised by short-term contracts. Post-doctoral jobs are not permanent, and often at the end of these short (one to five years) contracts the academic will be faced with uprooting their life and moving to a new town, country or even continent to continue their career. This early-career stage coincides with an age when many people are considering building a family. Women tend to be the primary carers, and often end their academic career at this point – although it is not an issue that exclusively affects women, as some men also chose to be  a primary carer for a family. Academia is all about your research portfolio, and if you have a two-year gap in your CV due to building a family it may have serious repercussions for job applications. There are schemes in place now to try and help this issue, and the Government has called on the higher education sector to review career structure and increase the number of longer-term positions for post-docs. However, we need to be careful – a post-doc job is a training job – and if you are stuck in the same position for 5-years you will get a very different type of training to someone who has completed two or three post-docs in this time. Other schemes for this include fellowships from the Daphne Jackson Trust – a fellowship scheme that JIC now sponsors. These fellowships were designed to help people return to STEM careers after a break of two or more years, which can make a big difference for people hoping to return to their field.

Reaction to this report seemed to have a similar theme from the panel at the event – disappointment. Although our panel all agree with issues brought up during the discussion, and feel positive that the key issues were recognised, they recall that this is not the first time that these issues have been brought up. Many of the issues were brought up a decade ago, and the lack of progress is rather disheartening. Agreement was clear that there are still changes to be made, and also clear that incentives such as Athena SWAN have been great for forcing these changes to be made. At our local institutes, the Athena SWAN application process forced the committees to look closely at their workforce, gather data and scrutinise current practices. Since beginning our application several great changes have been brought into effect. For example we have set up  a family support fund to financially support researchers with caring responsibilities when they need to travel as part of their work. The award has also raised awareness about the issue nationally, helping people to realise that the biases are there and that changes need to be made. It has also raised the awareness that many issues attributed towards women may also be issues for men – such as caring responsibilities, especially with rising costs of childcare. It was agreed that the report did help to break down the challenges facing the scientific community into different sectors.

When asked to name a single development that they would like to see taken up to promote gender equality our panel generally were in agreement on a single topic;  the lack of financial structure available to support childcare for academics in caring responsibilities, as well as career breaks and transition to part time work. Removing unconscious bias from the system was the other issue highlighted, and this included the fact that financial worries over childcare are not a solely female issue.

From reading the committee report and sitting on the Athena SWAN committee (although I am new to the committee, and missed much of the hard work put in towards the award), I would personally agree that there is no single issue blocking gender equality, and no single solution to remove it. However, there is now real drive to change things for the better and try to eliminate the inequality facing us today. Rather than seeing positive discrimination towards women I would like to see equal opportunities for all, and see people gaining recognition on their merits alone, not the presence/absence of a Y chromosome. I would like to wholeheartedly congratulate both UEA and JIC on their achievements in the Athena SWAN team, especially JIC on their recent Silver Award. I also think that Carole Thomas deserves some special recognition for the sheer amount of work and dedication she put into Athena SWAN. Hopefully, JIC will be able to continue their efforts in improving equality across site, and maybe we will even be able to aim for a Gold Award in the future. I also hope that in 10 years’ time we won’t be in the same situation as now, where many of the problems have been identified but not resolved.

To see my previous post on Women in Science, click here

By Izzy Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole

Genetically modified foods: would you eat a purple tomato?

In the past week there has been a lot of press coverage about genetically modified foods. The first of these was a proposal made by Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire to carry out field trials on plants engineered to produce the omega-3 oils that are usually found in fish. The second of these was a farm in Canada who had produced 1,200 litres of juice from‘purple tomatoes’ – a genetically modified tomato developed here at the John Innes Centre. With all the buzz around these genetically modified foods, it made sense to write a post about the potential that genetic modification (GM) has for increasing the benefit of our foods.

GM is a type of plant breeding that has been used to improve crops, and has been in global commercial use for 18 years. These GM organisms, or GMOs, contain a DNA sequence that does not occur naturally in its own genome and has not been created by conventional breeding. GM has been used to create more efficient and improved crops, for instance increasing food production or creating herbicide-resistant plants.

Genetic modification is usually carried out using one of two systems. Both systems begin with identification of a desired gene. The gene is then inserted into a circular piece of DNA called a plasmid. This plasmid is then transferred into a bacterium which reproduces to create several copies of the gene. The gene is then transferred to the plant by one of two ways. The first is to attach the DNA sequence to particles of gold or tungsten and firing the particles into plant tissue. The second is to use an infective soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens which has been modified so that it takes the chosen gene into the plant tissue but does not become active once inside the plant. These processes are usually done involving an antibiotic marker to allow detection of successful GMOs, although new technologies are being developed that work without an antibiotic marker1.

The first commercial GMOs were grown in North America in the late 1990s. Globally over 12% of arable land is now used for GM crops. Soya is the world’s leading GM crop imported for both feed and human products, with GM maize, oilseed rape and cotton being other important GM crops.

Most GM crops that are commercially grown are modified to improve their yields or pest/disease resistance. However, in more recent years, the potential of GM has been directed to improving the crops to make them more beneficial to health or to provide nutrients that are more difficult to get into the diet otherwise. Here I will briefly highlight three examples of this to show the potential that this technology can have.

Golden Rice vs Normal Rice
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Golden Rice:
Golden rice is a strain of rice that has been engineered with higher levels of vitamin A than normal rice. It was developed to combat childhood vitamin A deficiency – a common problem in developing countries such as India, which can lead to a compromised immune system and even blindness. This golden rice was developed with the aim that it would be freely available to developing countries without the demand for payment or licences which they simply could not afford. Engineering this sort of crop could make a huge difference to the lives of children in developing countries, and golden rice has had a lot of positive publicity behind it2.

If you are more interested in Golden Rice, there is an event at JIC this week, which will be streamed online and open to questions on twitter. More information here.

purple tomatoes

Only the purple tomatoes are GM.
The rest are natural varieties

Purple tomatoes:
These tomatoes produced here at the Norwich Research Park have two new genes from the snapdragon plant. These genes increase the levelsof anthocyanins in the tomatoes. These anthocyanins are the antioxidants found in blackberries and cranberries, and it is thought that these anthocyanins offer protection against some cancers, cardiovascular disease and age-related diseases. Considering that in 2012 32% of UK deaths were caused by circulatory disease, and 29% from cancer, developing foods that could combat these diseases is a top priority3. Tomatoes and their by-products such as tomato sauce are a widely produced and consumed food in the UK, and are more commonly consumed than the berries with naturally high anthocyanins. These purple tomatoes have been shown to extend the lifespan of cancer-susceptible mice4, leading to possible application in human cancer treatment/prevention. As mentioned previously, a farm in Canada has recently grown and juiced a crop of these tomatoes. This juice can now be used for further research on its benefits, as well as used to attract new investors. To find out more about the new advances in this, check out this video or this press release
People may be put off by the purple colour of the tomatoes – but humans have been breeding to change the colour of vegetables for centuries. Ancestral carrots were once purple – but the Dutch bred them to be orange, and those are the carrots we eat today.

Many people take fish oil capsules as a supplement (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Omega-3 oils in plants:
Some fatty acids that we need in our diet are found in oily fish – which gain these oils by consuming marine algae. Eating these fish allows the fatty acids into our diets, and there are also dietary supplements that can be bought. Increasing omega-3 oil consumption is putting pressure on rapidly diminishing fish stocks, and fish farming relies on feeding fish existing omega-3 oils rather than the marine algae that they would get them from in nature adding furtherpressure on the industry. Researchers at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire have inserted algal genes into oil-producing crops (such as Camelina sativa, or false flax) to enable them to produce these oils in a more sustainable setting5. The crops that they have produced are currently awaiting approval for field trials of these GM crops.

As you can see from these three examples, there is a huge potential for using genetic modification to improve the crops that we grow and improve our diets for the better (and possibly cheaper too!). GM still has its skeptics, as well as a large amount of regulation at the EU and government level. We won’t be growing any of these crops for consumption here in the UK in the near future, but as even more developments come in the science, maybe changes will be made in the regulation and we might finally get the chance to try these exciting new products. I’d certainly like to try a purple tomato – would you?

To read about our experiences talking about GM at Science Festivals, check out our post from a few months ago here

References:

  1. http://www.food.gov.uk/policy-advice/gm/gmanimal#.UhyxKxuko50
  2. Am J Clin Nutr 2009; 89:1776–83; 7. Nature Biotechnology 26, 1301 – 1308 (2008)
  3. Deaths Registered in England and Wales (Series DR), 2011, ONS
  4. Nature Biotechnology 26, 1301 – 1308 (2008)
  5. Plant Biotechnology 7: 704-716 (2009)


By Izzy Webb – a second year PhD student in Phil Poole’s group