The phrase ‘sustainable bioeconomy’ may seem like obscure policy-speak, but it represents a big and important idea; one that is set to have a growing impact on all of our lives.
The bioeconomy is already estimated to be worth €two2 trillion euros across Europe and to support 22 million jobs. These already mind-boggling numbers are set to grow further throughout the 21st century as new technologies and services, rooted in the biosciences, help to deliver economic growth while also addressing some of the most pressing challenges we face as a society.
In the coming decades, bioscience will be at the heart of providing solutions to some of the biggest global challenges. We need to find a way of producing more food, sustainably,tosustainably, to feed a growing world population set to reach nine billion by 2050. We need to find alternatives to dwindling fossil fuels, both to power transport and to produce plastics and other materials. And we need to help an ageing population to remain healthy for longer so that people can enjoy their lives and contribute fully to society into old age.
We cannot hope to meet these challenges without harnessing the strengths of both the academic research community and those of industry. We have an outstanding academic research community in the UK. By bringing research users – businesses that use bioscience in many ways – together with this academic community we can make sure that the fundamental research that our scientific community excels at can be directed to where it will be most useful.
BBSRC has been working hard to bring business and academia together through our research and technology clubs for around seven years. In June, this year we launched the Animal Health Research Club (ARC), the newest member of our family of five clubs. ARC will unite farmers, farm animal breeders and pharmaceutical companies to help combat the threat of animal diseases, investing around £9.5 million of public and private money in research projects. This model is shared across all of our research clubs. By drawing on the complementary strengths of the public and private sectors we can ensure that a club’s funding is directed to where it can be most useful in delivering improvements that will eventually benefit the consumer. The scientific outputs of club projects are shared at regular dissemination events to make sure that the industrial partners can make use of any new advances as soon as possible.
BBSRC is currently funding research through five clubs: the Crop Improvement Research Club (CIRC) the Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC), the Diet and Health Research Industry Club (DRINC) and the Integrated Biorefining Research and Technology Club (IBTI Club) as well as ARC.
These operate by establishing a funding pot provided both by BBSRC and other public funders, and by industry, at a ratio of approximately 9:1 public to private funding. The projects funded by the clubs are both pre-competitive, helping to address problems that beset the industry as a whole rather than those of any particular partner company, and intellectually challenging.
Together, over eighty research projects have been funded by these clubs over the last eight years to the tune of around £40 million. Collectively, BBSRC is working with over fifty companies through the clubs from the agriculture, food, chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors and beyond.
Despite being a relatively new strand of BBSRC activity, the clubs are already having some impressive impacts.
Last year, for example, researchers funded by the IBTI Club announced that they had identified an enzyme in bacteria which could be used to make biofuel production more efficient. The enzyme is important in breaking down lignin, one of the components of the woody parts of plants. The research was carried out by teams at the Universities of Warwick and British Columbia, and could make sustainable sources of biofuels, such as woody plants and the inedible parts of crops, more economically viable.
The researchers identified the gene for breaking down lignin in a soil-living bacterium called Rhodococcus jostii. Although such enzymes have been found before in fungi, this is the first time that they have been identified in bacteria. The bacterium’s genome has already been sequenced which means that it could be modified more easily to produce large amounts of the required enzyme. In addition, bacteria are quick and easy to grow, so this research raises the prospect of producing enzymes which can break down lignin on an industrial scale.
Another project, this time funded by DRINC, found that that eating flavanols – phytochemicals found in cocoa powder – can stimulate the growth of ‘good bacteria’ in the human gut. The research was carried out by researchers at the University of Reading. As part of their wider DRINC-funded project, they are looking at the broader health benefits of flavanols, and are working with manufacturers to identify ways to optimise processing to prevent flavanol loss. This is because conventional processing (drying, fermentation, roasting and alkaline treatment) drastically reduces the amount of flavanols in cocoa powder.
BRIC was the first of BBSRC’s research and technology clubs. It was launched in 2005 to address a number of issues which had been identified as holding back the development of biopharmaceuticals.
Biopharmaceuticals are medicines made up of relatively large and complex molecules which mimic the structure of compounds found naturally within the body. Examples include vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, hormones, and peptide therapeutics. Biopharmaceuticals make up over a third of the medicines currently under development and the number of licensed biological medicines is expected to grow by 20% each year.
However, despite having many advantages over small molecule medicines biopharmaceuticals require sophisticated manufacturing methods and are slow, expensive and complicated to produce. Research funded through the BRIC programme aims to develop solutions to bottlenecks in production so that these new treatments can become available to patients quickly and affordably.
In 2009 an independent review panel found that BRIC was supporting high-quality, industrially-relevant research in a strategically important area, and this research has the potential to deliver significant impact. BRIC has already produced a number of promising achievements: strengthening the UK bioprocessing research community; encouraging new academics to conduct bioprocessing research; providing relevant training to postdoctoral researchers; and developing networks and partnership links between academia and industry.
The evaluation found that the most successful BRIC projects were those that had a focused set of objectives or strong links to industry partners. For example scientists at the University of Birmingham have partnered with industrial collaborators to try to understand how to optimise production of ‘difficult’ proteins. The primary objective of the project is to develop improved generic production methods and define physiological, biochemical and genetic factors that limit or enhance recombinant protein production. The project’s milestones have been reached significantly ahead of schedule, and this is attributable to the close interactions between the academic and industrial groups.
As well as delivering value for money for the funders, both public and private, the clubs are popular amongst researchers. During the BRIC evaluation, comments were invited from the funded-researchers. One grant holder commented “BRIC has two main advantages: a critical mass with many interested parties contributing at once; and the friendly involvement of so many companies as advisors. The added value is enormous because information is circulated – rapidly – among a huge group of people and there is constant input of advice from knowledgeable companies and academics.”
The industry club model is proving to be successful and, having expanded into animal health research, we now have good coverage across the industry sectors closest to BBSRC’s strategic priorities. However the club model does not suit all industries. We recently launched a horticulture and potato initiative which will invest £7 million for research projects with both an academic and an industrial partner with the aim of delivering bigger yields of better quality fruits and vegetables for the consumer through more sustainable farming practices. The horticulture and potato sector wasn’t as well suited to the club model as, for example, the pharmaceutical sector. As such we had to adapt the model to fit the sector. It is important not to be overly proscriptive but rather to focus on value of uniting the right academics with the right industry.
Meeting grand challenges in food, energy, renewable and health will need every ounce of effort and ingenuity from our excellent bioscience community and their industry partners. Yet whilst these challenges are fierce, in working to meet them we have an opportunity to drive the growth of a competitive economy based on knowledge and innovation. This will generate jobs, income and deliver new products, processes and innovations that will benefit us all.
The author: Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Director of Innovation and Skills