Seeds to micro-factories: Q&A with Director of the John Innes Centre

As Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) I get ample chance to visit the scientific “gems” of the UK. This has included notable visits to laboratories as varied as the National Nuclear Laboratories in Sellafield and the National Oceanographic Centre in Portsmouth. More recently I spent a day in Norwich at the John Innes Centre (JIC) and surrounding innovation park. Part of the visit was to understand the work of the JIC and also get an idea of the directions that crop science might take in the future. In particular I was keen to know how JIC had grown into a world class research institute and how it was going to continue to support the new bioeconomy agenda. As part of the visit I sat down and had an excellent discussion with the Director of the JIC, Professor Dale Sanders and I thought it would be helpful to share some of this discussion. What follows is a digest of our Q & A session.

Dale, so tell me about what actually goes on at the John Innes Centre?

JIC is an international centre of excellence for plant science and microbiology, funded predominantly by BIS through the BBSRC. There are about 50 different labs here, each headed by a senior scientist. We work to understand the basic biology of plants and microbes and how they interact with the environment. We use our discoveries for the benefit of agriculture and human health.

How does the work that you do at JIC help the wider agri-tech community?

We work with plant breeders in developing traits – crop characteristics – that essentially increases the amount and quality of food that we produce. We currently have a global population of 7 billion people, which is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. We can’t take it for granted that the world will be able to produce enough food. Our scientists are working with the agri-tech community to develop new crops, such as new varieties of wheat, which produce more grain, which are more resistant to disease and climate change, and which have more nutrients in them. We have lots of international links, particularly with China, sub-Saharan Africa and India which helps us to get the knowledge generated by our research to some of the countries where it is most needed.

Am I correct in thinking that a lot of your breeding success is due to your seed bank? How was this created?

Yes, we have the Germplasm Resources Unit here at the John Innes Centre. This contains thousands of seeds from different lines of wheat, barley, peas and other crop plants. One of the collections is the “Watkins Wheat Collection”, named after a researcher who, in the 1920s, wrote to British Consulates around the world to ask for samples of wheat typical of the local area. The result is a collection of some 1,200 lines from 33 countries – so, this means that we have seeds adapted to all sorts of different growing conditions. Modern plant breeding has resulted in new varieties which have positive traits such as high yield and higher protein content, but in doing so we have bred out some traits which may be useful for today’s demands. The Watkins Wheat Collection has lines which are adapted to a range of environmental temperatures, altitudes, diseases – if we can understand what makes those lines resilient to different conditions we can work with the agri-tech community to breed those traits into new varieties for future challenges.

Food production will be one of the major global challenges for the future. What do you see as the major technical challenges and how is JIC addressing them?

Land availability is always going to be a limiting factor, so if we are able to produce enough food for 9bn people we need to be able to increase the amount of food per hectare. JIC is addressing this in a number of ways – for example, we have programmes of research which are looking at how wheat grains could be larger and more numerous on a wheat ear. We are also looking to increase agricultural yields through identifying genes associated with disease resistance, and the mechanisms by which a plant could become diseased. Similarly, water availability is a challenge that the whole world is facing - even the UK can be limited in the wheat-growing season! So, with global environmental change, we need to develop crops which can withstand heat and drought.

I work with the challenger business team in BIS. What are the largest challenges you see to the UK agri-tech industry?

New breeding techniques, such as genome editing and synthetic biology, have enormous potential for transforming our ability to feed the planet and reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. However, the complex regulatory landscape and public perception of these techniques is holding back industry’s ability to make best use of these. If the UK is to truly benefit further from the fantastic bioscience here, dialogue with the general public will be essential.

Just how much more yield do you think you can get from wheat? Surely there must be a limit?

In the UK, there is ambition to achieve 20 tonnes per hectare. Typically, yields are about 9 tonnes per hectare but there is a wide variation across the country. Farmers have achieved 16 tonnes per hectare but this is at the current upper end. There is a balance between yield and inputs, with the greater yields arising with most effective use of fertiliser and water. Yields in the UK plateaued a decade ago, indicating that the inputs are already at the optimal levels. We need to turn to science to develop new crops which will achieve more with the same, or less, level of input.

When I visited JIC recently, I was really impressed by the range of technologies being developed. Which do you think is currently the most exciting?

I’d like to highlight one research project here at JIC which is using a synthetic biology approach. Peas and beans have a relationship with beneficial bacteria, which sees them trap nitrogen from the air – if we can understand the complex relationship and develop this for cereals crops like wheat and maize then we would not need to add artificial fertiliser to the crop. This is a long term and ambitious project at JIC, and one with a significant potential for the world – especially in sub-Saharan Africa where most smallholder farmers do not even have access to artificial fertilisers.

Does the research carried out at JIC provide opportunities in sectors other than agri-tech?

Absolutely. As well as our work in crop research, we also have scientific programmes in antibiotic discovery and vaccine production. We are currently building a new company from JIC science called Leaf Systems, which uses plants as mini factories to ‘make’ large quantities of proteins. This JIC technology is already being used in the US and Canada to make doses of vaccines in a far quicker and efficient way than other methods.

So as you see JIC has a much wider range of science programs than I certainly thought before I visited. Things have really moved on from the days of civil servants in far flung lands collecting seeds for researchers back home, although our modern day equivalent is our Science and Innovation Network which is a more strategic version comprising 90 staff, based in 28 countries and 47 cities around the world. The drive to exploit the technologies developed at JIC to produce other new materials really shows the versatility of the bioeconomy and for me shows how blue skies research can lead in very unexpected (and potentially lucrative) directions.

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