Leading plant scientist Prof Sir David Baulcombe on feeding the world and the new £30million Cambridge Centre for Crop Science
Today, 925 million people across the world are undernourished.
By 2050, the planet’s population is predicted to have reached 9.6 billion and pressure on our food sources will have intensified.
Eminent plant scientist and molecular biologist Professor Sir David Baulcombe believes science and technology must provide the answers to this challenge.
“I think it’s quite clear that modern agricultural methods are not sustainable,” says Prof Baulcombe, head of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences. “We are degrading the soils used to grow crops, depleting aquifers and the effect on bird and flower life biodiversity are very evident.
“Making agriculture profitable as well so people can continue to grow food is an important dimension to all of this. These are all huge issues. A question we’re asking is to what extent we can use science to develop technologies that will address them.”
Funding of £31.4million was announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) this month for a new Cambridge Centre for Crop Science, or 3CS.
A new state-of-the-art research laboratory will be built on the Cambridge site of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), where scientists will work with industrial partners to help translate the university’s plant research into new farming methods that will deliver higher crop yields and lower environmental impacts while contributing to improving dietary health.
During his distinguished career, Prof Baulcombe has contributed to our understanding of disease resistance and genetic regulation in plants.
“I’m a basic scientist – a molecular biologist,” he says. “What I’ve seen is the molecular biology of plants and crops, as in the biomedical field, go through a revolution in the last 30 years or so, and it’s got increasing pace with genomic sequencing and other technologies.
“I’m asking myself, are we seeing this science being translated into technology in crops and agriculture in the way it is being in the biomedical arena? The answer is, it’s not.
“The structure of the industries is different. There probably aren’t blockbuster technologies in agriculture that will generate billions in revenue in the way there are in biomedicine.
“We haven’t got our head around how we take advantage of the technologies and support technological development. It’s partly because in the research infrastructure we haven’t had the capacity.
“That’s why we’ve been talking with NIAB for some years about developing a partnership – and this is what the Cambridge Centre for Crop Science is all about.”
Bringing the university’s interdisciplinary science skills together with NIAB’s own research, which connects directly to growers, Prof Baulcombe is working with NIAB chief executive officer Dr Tina Barsby to create a centre that will excel in translating research from the lab to the field.
“One of the really crucial developments is genome sequencing,” he says. “We can now determine the whole genome of crops in the way we can of people.”
Before genome sequencing, farmers would have to grow crops in the field for several seasons to discover which benefit from a useful trait – such as disease resistance or being more efficient at using fertiliser or water.
“Now we can look at a breeding population of thousands of plants and inspect them for the genes you know support this and take them forward in the breeding programme without the lengthy trialling,” says Prof Baulcombe.
This acceleration means attention can be given to a much wider range of crops, enabling diversification that could play a role in promoting healthy diets.
“Until now a lot of the really powerful plant-breeding has been focused on maize, wheat, soya beans and rice,” says Prof Baulcombe. “We will now be able to address what have been called orphan crops – pulses, beans, legumes. We will be able to integrate breeding programmes with different ways of growing crops.”
These could include the revival of companion cropping, used in traditional and organic farming. Instead of today’s monocultures – which can have significant impacts on the ecosystem – it involves growing crops together.
“To take a theoretical example, you could grow barley with beans. The beans, being legumes, would fix nitrogen and fertilise the soil and provide other benefits. We could use genomic sequence breeding methods to select crops adapted to that sort of cultivation strategy,” says Prof Baulcombe.
He suggests the university’s engineering expertise could then be employed to enable companion crops to be harvested together – perhaps using image processing or other technologies.
“Although the focus of the research in the Cambridge Centre for Crop Science will be biology and plant science, we will want to integrate with other types of science and technology engineering,” he says.
Among Prof Baulcombe’s most significant discoveries – for which he won the 2008 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, sometimes called ‘America’s Nobel Prize’ – is how plants use something called RNA silencing.
RNAs are ribonucleic acids that deliver the instructions for protein building. Working with postdoctoral fellow Andrew Hamilton, Prof Baulcombe hunted for small interfering RNA (siRNA) in plant cells containing foreign genes.
They discovered plant cells recognise the foreign genetic material of a virus and copy a section of the viral DNA into siRNA. This binds to the viral genetic material and causes a protein to stop the virus from working.
“It’s a bit like an immune system that plants use naturally to protect themselves against viruses,” Prof Baulcombe explains. “Humans produce antibodies that are targeted against a virus and it eliminates it.
“A plant doesn’t make antibodies but when it is infected with a virus, it uses a bit of the virus to give specificity to an immune system, so that it is targeted against the virus.
“The bit of the virus it uses is a bit of RNA. We can screen plants for their capacity to do RNA silencing for their immune systems, so we can select varieties of plants in breeding programs that are better at doing this. We can genetically modify plants so they are specifically immune to viruses that are a problem or one exciting innovation is that we can use RNA as a spray that we put on to crops to protect them against pests or pathogens.
“It’s an approach developed by a company in the USA but the use of RNA as a spray started with a company in Israel trying to protect bees from colony collapse disorder. Part of the thinking is that the colony collapses due to a virus.
“The company developed a proprietary technology allowing them to produce RNA in huge amounts very inexpensively. Then people thought if you can make enough RNA to use in bee hives can you make enough for a spray on plants. These are research angles being followed up in laboratories rather than in the field but there is evidence that you can spray RNA to protect plants against viruses, insects and fungi.”
It is clear that regulators need to keep pace with scientific advancement.
Prof Baulcombe says: “There are some things that are very clearly genetic modification and those are subject to strict regulation and an approval process that doesn’t work very well in a European context – it works better in north America.
“Other technology like genome editing is an approach being considered in a whole range of biotechnology fields and it’s not clear at present whether a genome-edited plant will be considered GM or not.
“Then you go into a whole raft of other technologies, including RNA as a spray. You are not altering the genome at all here but you are applying RNA to plants.”
Public concern over GM food has put a brake on its use – and remains a contentious and complex area.
“It’s not a question of us as scientists telling the general public what we think and waiting for them to come around our point of view,” says Prof Baulcombe. “It’s a dialogue and we haven’t been good enough in the past about having that dialogue in the past – what are people’s concerns, how can we address them and how can we move on?”
Whatever the answer to that, change is inevitable in the agricultural landscape. But what will Britain’s farmland look like in 2050?
“I think we will continue to grow the crops we have now but maybe on a smaller area,” answers Prof Baulcombe. “We will have the opportunity to spare land to support biodiversity and ecosystem services.
“We may see structures and machinery on our fields to do with sensors ensuring they are fed and watered optimally so the knock-on environmental consequences are much less – fertiliser run-off will be eliminated, for example, and we’ll apply fewer chemicals to our crops.
“One could ask whether mixed agriculture – where animals and plants are grown together – might come back. We might eat less meat but use animal husbandry as part of an integrated farming system.”
For Prof Baulcombe – and those who go to work at 3CS – there is an unmissable opportunity to learn the lessons of the past while using science and technology to change guide the future.
‘A centre unlike anywhere else in Europe’
A professor of crop science will be recruited to lead the new Cambridge Centre of Crop Science.
The centre will be home to researchers from university departments including plant sciences, along with those from NIAB, the Cambridge Sainsbury Laboratory and other UK and international institutes.
A building of glasshouses and growth chambers is being planned and will be operational by March 2020, by which time the money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) must be spent.
The HEFCE-managed UK Research Partnership Investment Fund has given £16.9million towards the centre, while the NIAB Trust has given £14.5million. In addition to the Cambridge centre, the funding will also provide new field stations and offices at NIAB’s Histon site.
“3CS innovations will generate new crops and new ways of growing crops for food, fuels, industrial feedstocks and pharmaceuticals,” said Prof Baulcombe.
NIAB’s CEO and director Dr Tina Barsby added: “The delivery of both public goods and economic growth is an essential agenda for today’s plant scientists, with the need to produce sufficient healthy nutritious food without harming the environment being at the top of the international agenda.
“Creating the facilities to bring together NIAB and the university in 3CS presents an extraordinary opportunity for impacting this agenda through the development of world-class science and translation.”
Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the university’s Vice-Chancellor, said: “3CS will be unlike anywhere else in Europe because it connects a world-leading university directly to growers, breeders and other sectors of industry associated with crops. The opportunity could be compared to the potential for advances in healthcare when a research-active medical school co-locates with a hospital and pharmaceutical company.
“The 3CS will be the centrepiece of what will be significant new collaborations, and an exemplar of what can be achieved by bringing together interested parties to focus on sustainable crop production – essential for food security, resilience to climate change, and the growing bio-economy.”