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Strategic Plan: Enabling theme 2 – exploiting new ways of working

Enabling innovative working practices in an era of rapid technological advancement, multidisciplinary research, high throughput technologies, the next generation internet, and quantitative and computational approaches to bioscience.

Cutting-edge bioscience is critically dependent on the availability of modern and sustainable research infrastructure and the adoption of new ways of working. New tools and capabilities will continue to revolutionise bioscience, making it possible to ask and solve previously intractable questions and inspiring major breakthroughs.

Case study: New technologies

Photodisc Thinkstock
BBSRC-funded research at Cambridge University on DNA chemistry led to a high-speed DNA sequencing company, Solexa, which sold for $600M in 2007. The impact of this funding extends beyond commercial benefit; this new technology generated a step change in the production of biological data.
Image: Photodisc/Thinkstock

BBSRC will continue to support developments in tools, technologies and approaches that enable researchers to push the boundaries of scientific discovery and increase the impact of their research.

New tools and facilities

Multidisciplinary research in areas such as bioimaging, 'omics' technologies and biomolecular characterisation advances knowledge in bioscience. We will promote technology development, strengthen the associated skills base and embed the latest equipment in facilities. The Institutes and Centres we support play an important role in providing access to the specialist facilities our strategy demands. For example, the large-scale redevelopment of The Pirbright Institute will provide the UK with world-class high-containment facilities for animal health research.

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) provides national capability in genomics and bioinformatics for the development and application of sequencing in animals, plants and non-medical microbes. Low-cost, high-speed, next-generation sequencing will fundamentally change the range and depth of questions that bioscientists can address.

BBSRC will continue, with other funders, to build on commitment to the Diamond Light Source and previous investment in structural biology to support cutting-edge research on interactions between biomolecules.

Data-driven biology

Biological discovery is increasingly being driven by ground-breaking technologies, such as high-throughput genomic and proteomic analysis and next generation biological imaging, that generate massive and complex datasets. In order to investigate complex biological phenomena, researchers need access to comprehensive, integrated and interoperable data resources, built to community-accepted standards. To meet these challenges, BBSRC will strengthen investment in bioinformatics and biological resources, focusing on the needs of the research community, and facilitating the development of sustainable models of operation.

We will stimulate data-driven biology and data reuse and promote open data initiatives, including supporting data reusability through improved, and greater uptake of, standards. We will support development of computer (and software) resources for large-scale data analysis, e.g. genome assembly, metagenomics, real-time image analysis. We will also continue to shape and support the ELIXIR project to establish a sustainable infrastructure for biological information in Europe, as well as working with other Research Councils on the provisioning and sustainability of cross-cutting e-infrastructure such as sustaining software.

EMBL-EBI
The ELIXIR Technical Hub at the European Bioinformatics Institute, opened in 2013, forms part of a pan-European infrastructure for the sharing and analysis of the vast quantities of biological data, which is essential in tackling the serious challenges our society faces, from providing healthcare to an ageing population to sustainable production of food and energy. Image: EMBL-EBI

A further challenge lies in bridging the gap between hardware architectures and the researchers generating biological data. We will target potential new user communities, hardware architectures and facilities including 'cloud', and 'biologist-friendly' software solutions.

Working practices in the biosciences were largely set down in the pre-internet age. In contrast, data sharing and mass collaboration are now a reality, and the quantity of information instantaneously available is almost overwhelming. Exploiting information-rich approaches is essential to maintaining the UK's competitive position. Increasingly these will deliver new biological understanding that is not possible via other routes. BBSRC will drive the development and uptake of 'new bioinformatics' that includes semantic computing and novel web tools, and share best practice with industry and other partners, nationally and internationally.

In this era of data-driven bioscience, a new cadre of skilled researchers is required, from computationally proficient and mathematically literate biologists to software engineers, developers and data curators, to tackle the complexity and diversity of biological data. BBSRC will strengthen capacity and ensure that the necessary skills and expertise are supported and rewarded.

Integrative and systems biology

Increasingly, researchers routinely apply computational and mathematical modelling techniques to high-quality quantitative biological data, and use the models generated to test new hypotheses and inform experimental strategies. This enables a deeper and more rapid understanding of complex biological problems at molecular, multicellular, and multiorganism or ecosystem scales.

Case study: New ways of working

TEK Image Science Photo Library
In May 2011, a new strain of E. coli bacteria claimed over 50 lives as it spread around Europe. The event mobilised researchers across biological disciplines and highlighted a new form of scientific cooperation – crowdsourcing – in which genomic data from the outbreak strain was released into the public domain allowing all scientists to join in the race to decode the organism’s DNA; the resultant analyses provided valuable information on the virulence, resistance genes, and evolutionary origins of the new strain.
Image: TEK Image/Science Photo Library

BBSRC will continue to drive integrative and systems approaches to tackle complex biological questions, particularly in our priority areas. We will also promote collaboration between Systems Biology Centres and other BBSRC-funded researchers to ensure widespread application of systems approaches, as well as building on strong international links within the EU and further afield.

The ultimate realisation of predictive biology lies in the development of 'digital organisms' – collections of integrated models underpinned by quantitative data, which together represent key biological systems and processes. The UK is well placed to take a leading role in this long term, international challenge.

Synthetic biology

World-class bioscience is critically dependent on new technologies, methodologies and resources. BBSRC will continue to support the emerging area of synthetic biology, which can be described as the design and construction of novel biologically based parts, devices and systems, as well as redesign of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes (ref 1). It incorporates the principles of engineering into classical biotechnology, and has a broad range of potential applications within the bioeconomy, in areas such as medicine, energy, the environment, chemicals, national security and agri-food.

Working with other Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board, BBSRC is leading the Synthetic Biology for Growth programme, which will enable the UK to compete globally by establishing an expanded world-leading UK research community working on strategic research challenges, collaborative industry-academia research projects and new biological and engineering platforms. The programme will support the long-term growth of UK synthetic biology, development of a highly skilled workforce, and an infrastructure to underpin and enable cutting-edge research in industry and academia, as well as providing support for synthetic biology start-up companies. Additionally we will continue to foster strong international links in synthetic biology, in Europe and further afield, through participation in ERA-NETs and other international initiatives.

New technologies can be disruptive to society and they can raise social, ethical and legal issues. As an investor in research BBSRC recognises its responsibly to engage with these issues and to support our researchers to do the same.

Key priorities

  • Deliver the Synthetic Biology for Growth programme, in collaboration with the Technology Strategy Board, EPSRC and other Research Councils
  • Enhance the UK's international lead in systems biology and exploit integrative and systems approaches to research across a range of scales
  • Develop the next generation of bioscience tools to drive new and deeper understanding in bioscience
  • With industry and the Technology Strategy Board, harness the economic potential of new technologies (e.g. systems and synthetic biology)
  • Provide bioinformatics and biological resources required by the UK research community to stay internationally competitive, and through ELIXIR establish a sustainable infrastructure for biological information across Europe
  • Enhance skills and capacity to exploit new tools and approaches e.g. through training for researchers and working to establish a career track for technical experts
  • Working with other Research Councils, exploit the 'data deluge' and thereby facilitate information-rich biological research
  • Ensure computational hardware and software solutions are accessible to, and used by, a wide range of bioscience users

References

  1. Realising European potential in synthetic biology: scientific opportunities and good governance, European Academies Science Advisory Council (2010)