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ATW23: Embedding entrepreneurship in research

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Clinical solutions for new drugs – inspired by crop research – and a breed of tomato designed to bring health and nutrition to consumers were among the innovations showcased at The Sainsbury Laboratory’s Agri-Tech Week “open-house” event.

Biotechnology was the topic of the day: how can genetics, gene-editing or gene engineering advance the health of consumers and the efficiency of the food system? More than two decades of research, plus a supportive environment for the commercialisation of science, has facilitated the creation of businesses being led by the researchers.

Today’s event showcased such companies alongside discussions around the facilitation of entrepreneurship in research institutions.

Nick Talbot, James Canham, Sophien Kamoun, Jose Salguero Linares, Roberto Hofmann, Jonathan Jones, Nathan Pumplin, Agnieszka Witek
Nick Talbot, James Canham, Sophien Kamoun, Jose Salguero Linares, Roberto Hofmann, Jonathan Jones, Nathan Pumplin, Agnieszka Witek

Boosting plant immunity

Unlike animals and humans, plants don’t have responsive immune systems that adapts to fight off a new virus or bacterium. Instead, they carry a suite of “resistance” genes and receptors to help them combat challenge by pests and diseases.

NELARIX can provide “made-to-order” disease resistance in a variety of crops. CEO Jose Salguero Linares explains:

“Harnessing plant biotechnology, we have developed a boost to the plants’ own immune system. Our patented “Pikobodies” work in the plant and confer additional resistance to the plant. This potentially enables us to bring ‘new-to-nature’ traits to plants and help combat some of the major crop diseases.

From the crop to the clinic

EffectorMED is using machine learning for protein design, using the scientists’ deep knowledge of plant genetics to eliminate harmful disease-causing proteins. CEO Roberto Hofmann is excited about the potential for human therapeutics:

“Many human diseases are caused by proteins acquiring new functions” he commented “So by selectively targeting these proteins and leaving the correct versions, there is real potential to combat human diseases – all inspired by plants!”

From purple tomatoes to pink pineapples

If you think tomatoes only come in red or yellow, think again, advises Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce, which has commercialised research introducing purple anthocyanins into tomatoes.

Anthocyanins are responsible for the pigmentation of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and act as antioxidants, which are thought to play a role in protecting against cancer. Now approved for sale and consumption in the US, purple tomatoes are being scaled up and commercialised. Inspired by Del Monte’s pink pineapples (bred to carry the red pigment gene from tomatoes), Nathan is enthused by the level of demand from consumers and growers.

A research engine for commercial success

As the capacity of scientific research has increased globally, so has the amount of – and need for – more data. Get Genome aims to democratise genomics research around the world, promoting collaborations between scientists. CEO James Canham is optimistic about the potential philanthropic impact of this sharing approach.

Decades of research underway by Prof. Jonathan Jones has led to the development of Maris Piper potatoes, designed to be resistant to late blight disease. A round table discussion with a eclectic mix of participants – including two Deputy Lord Lieutenants of Norfolk – revealed a positive approach to science in the food system and reflected an appetite among growers for material generated by biotechnology.

ATW23: Heat and Drought – University of Essex 

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Industry representatives and researchers from the Essex Innovation Centre at the University of Essex got together to discuss the impact of unpredictable weather patterns in agriculture and to explore solutions that farmers are already implementing in the field alongside emerging academic research. 

What impact does climate change have on crop production? 

The impact of unpredictable and extreme weather events varies from crop to crop. Three different crops – sugar beet, wine grapes and onions, illustrated this variety.  

‘Sugar beet is water demanding’ explained British Beet Research Organisation’s Georgina Barrett. This means that when water is lacking, as has been the case during recent spells of drought, leaves wilt and the sugar content drops. Droughts are particularly damaging early in the season, before the crop has properly established, resulting in increased levels of seedling deaths. 

In onions, climate change means dealing with different types of challenges year on year. Jonathan Bell, a farmer from Stourgarden, described how, in 2022, dry weather and lack of sufficient irrigation limited root growth which caused yield losses of up to 30%. In contrast, 2023’s wet July led to markedly larger onion bulbs which meant a higher percentage of the crop fell ‘out of spec’ for retailers to sell. 

Wine grapes are the fastest growing edible crop in terms of acreage in the UK. But it’s not all rosy for Rosé, reflects Phoebe French from WineGB:

“Climate change is often portrayed as a catalyst for the growth of the [British wine] sector, but it has actually brought about a lot of challenges”  

Warmer temperatures may have led to more reliable grape ripening in the UK, but spring comes with increased risk of frost damage.

Daniel Johns, Managing Director, Water Resources East 
Dr Georgina Barratt, Applied Crop Specialist at British Beet Research Organisation 

How is the industry coping and what solutions does emerging research offer? 

Daniel Johns from Water Resources East stressed how the East of England is already classified by the Environment Agency as an area of ‘serious water stress’. Precision irrigation, rainwater storage and improved soil structure are already in the farmers’ toolbox, but they can’t be achieved overnight.  

Stourgarden is applying organic matter to improve soil health and, ultimately, soil structure; the farm is also trialling drip irrigation to better direct water at the crop, but this currently remains an expensive option.  

The BBRO is investing in soil health research and, together with the University of Essex, is also exploring potential avenues of collaborative research in the areas of plant physiology and photosynthesis to help address the challenges faced by beet growers. Increased collaborations between researchers and industry will be a key contributor in identifying new solutions. 

Research at the University is providing a better understanding of how specific traits like non-leaf photosynthesis in legumes, stomatal density, and light sensitivity cam improve photosynthesis and crop thermal resilience in crops in periods of high heat and drought. 

From left to right top row: Dr. Georgina Barratt, BBRO; Dr. John Ferguson, University of Essex; Mengjie Fan; William Atkinson; Jonathan Bell, Stourgarden; Robert Crook, Innovate UK. From left to right bottom row: Amanda Milliken, Dr. Amanda Cavanagh, University of Essex; Prof. Tracy Lawson, Plant Innovation Centre. 

Conclusions

Climate change will continue to have an impact on crop yields and quality, and periods of extreme weather events will become the norm. But collaborations between research and agriculture will go a long way in continuing to identify solutions. 

ATW23: Research to tackle the impacts of climate change 

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

At Agri-Tech Week 2023, “Ferrari” sugar beet met “Caveman” sea beet. Delegates learned that soil carbon can be categorised as either “scones with jam and cream” or “Brussels sprouts”, according to a soil carbon fate model, and heard about a novel cover crop proposed by the farmers  – all inspired by research underway at the Norwich Research Park

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership. Photo by Farrel O’Keeffe, Norwich Research Park

All Carbon is Not Created Equal 

A “soil carbon fate model” developed by Brian Reid at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is providing a better understanding of the long-term fate of this increasingly valuable commodity in our soils.  

Crucial to this is the recognition that not all carbon is the same. Some, such as the carbon from fresh and degraded crop residues, is degradable and supports soil life, health and ecosystem services. Other organic carbon, such as humus, is stable, and delivers long-term carbon storage.  

“The degradable carbon is like jam and cream scones in the soil!”

Brian explained: “It’s the preferred and easy choice to be broken down and digested. The longer-term storage is not so easily degraded by life in the soil. Thus is the “Brussels sprout” option when it comes to being chosen by soil life to support itself.” 

Understanding the ratio of the two, and how to enhance them is key to UEA’s model and for informing payments that farmers might receive for their carbon. Profiling carbon stability, advised Brian, will help with decision-making around how best to manage soils for effective carbon management.  

Of Prof. Brian Reid, UEA

Cavemen and Ferrari – breeding better sugar beet 

Sugar beet accounts for 50% of the UK’s sugar demand and is proving not only a model system to understand crop domestication, but it also yields new insights into options for disease resistance.  

“Sugar beet was only relatively recently domesticated from its wild relative – sea beet,” explains Mark McMullan from the Earlham Institute.

“You can imagine one is a high-performance Ferrari, while the other is a relatively undeveloped caveman. But the caveman version is well adapted for the conditions in which it is growing. So, there’s a big, untapped reservoir of locally adapted genetic diversity for UK growing conditions which we can potentially introduce into commercial beet varieties.” 

Working with the British Beet Research Organisation and breeders KWS, the team at Earlham is working to identify novel genes for disease resistance and other “climate sensitive” genes that could improve the UK sugar beet crop. Over 50,000 sea beet seeds have been collected from populations in East Anglia, the Humber and Merseyside and they are being screened for genes that have a potential role in breeding for the climate of tomorrow.  

The grass pea’s promise and peril: overcoming its toxicity barrier

Grass pea is a highly nutritious relative of sweet peas and, like all legumes, it can fix atmospheric nitrogen and is drought tolerant, due to its origins in parts of Africa and Asia. Surely a wonder crop ready to transform agriculture and food security? 

Alas not – or not yet anyway.  

“Grass pea currently has one big drawback,” says John Innes Centre PhD student, Jasmine Staples: “It is toxic to humans and livestock if eaten in large quantities over a long period of time”.  

This toxicity has created a stigma about the grass pea which Jasmine’s research aims to address, by transforming the performance and reputation of this legume. There are few commercial varieties, so identifying the genetic pathway of the toxin’s production would pave the way for breeding new varieties in which this toxin-producing pathway removed.  

Toxin-free grass pea could be a major new opportunity for both human and livestock nutrition which – as one delegate pointed out – could make for a very exciting new cover crop if sheep could safely graze it down.  

Nick Goodwin, Anglia Innovation Partnership; Sanu Arora & Jasmine Staples, both JIC; Mark McMullan, Earlham Institute; Jonathan Jones, The Sainsbury Laboratory

P(r)ea-dicting root rot in pea crops 

Sticking with the pea theme, the John Innes worldwide pea collection has been harnessed to help understand more about the genetic basis of disease resistance in peas.  

Group Leader Sanu Arora is working with the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) to tackle yield instability in green and dry peas.  

“Peas are susceptible to many pests and pathogens,” explained Sanu, “they differ across the world but in the UK it is mainly root rot and downy mildew, and key chemicals to combat them are starting to be withdrawn.” 

By screening the JIC pea collection, a “genetic diversity panel” has been developed which is helping identify new ways of identifying root rot. This has led to a new diagnostic, to predict if a field is low, medium or high risk for root rot.  

Sanu is looking for farmers keen to help trial the new device – those interested should get in touch with us and we will connect you with Sanu.  

New Genetics for a New Revolution 

Today’s talk made clear that it’s the combination of traditional plant breeding and new tools, such as gene-editing, that holds the key to a new, genetically powered agriculture. On behalf of the Royal Society, Jonathan Jones, Senior Scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory has just co-authored a new report entitled “Enabling Genetic Technologies for Food Security.” 

Alongside the world-leading technologies and science being deployed at the Norwich Research Park, one thing is certain – biology is the future for adapting to climate change.