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Agri-science and Agri-tech

In 2012 the government selected eight great technologies, for which the UK has:

  • a combination of science strengths and business capabilities
  • world-leading research, with a wide range of applications across a spectrum of industries
  • the potential to be at the forefront of commercialisation.

The eight great technologies are: big data, satellites, robotics and autonomous systems, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, advanced materials, energy storage, and agri-science.

You can read more about how we use our knowledge, skills, facilities and resources for the benefit of the United Kingdom and its people, in our Impact Report.

In 2014, the UN warned that a 60% rise in global food production would be needed by 2050, in order to avoid social unrest and civil wars caused by serious food shortages. Rising food demand is being caused by increasing wealth, as well as a rising population that is expected to reach 9.7 billion by the middle of the 21st century.

Climate change is also having an effect on food security, and the UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience predicts that, by 2040, major food “shocks” caused by extreme weather will occur at least once every 30 years.

The challenge of agri-science is to find greater, greener ways to feed the world. The case studies shown below are just a sample of the significant social and economic impacts of STFC’s agri-science, but showcase the strength of UK expertise in this area.

Foot and mouth disease

Britain - The Fight Against Foot And Mouth Aka Foot And Mouth Epidemic Continues (1967)
(Credit: British Pathé)

Foot and mouth

Foot and mouth disease virus lifecycle
(Credit: Diamond/University of Oxford/Pirbright Institute/University of Reading)

Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is one of the most contagious animal diseases and has an estimated global impact of £4 – 13 billion per year. The 2001 outbreak cost the UK alone around £8 billion, with agricultural producers, the food industry and tourism all affected. Research carried out at the SRS determined the 3D structure of the virus, which allowed the first vaccines to be developed.

In 2013 researchers used the Diamond Light Source to develop a new way to produce an FMD vaccine that does not require the use of live viruses. The new synthetic vaccine is therefore much safer to produce, and is also less fragile and easier to transport. There’s still a long way to go before the vaccine reaches the market, but the signs from early clinical trials are very promising.

Unlike current vaccines, this new vaccine allows vaccinated animals to be differentiated from infected animals, protecting UK exports. What’s more, this approach to making and stabilising vaccine could also impact on how similar viruses from the same family are fought, including the virus that causes polio in humans.

Earth observation

The World's Most Important Beer Cooler
(Credit: STFC)

Accurate measurements of sea surface temperature are an essential input for climate models. The Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) is scheduled to launch on Sentinel 3a in late 2015, and is capable of making highly accurate measurements of global surface temperatures. RAL Space played a key role in the design process for the SLSTR, building a dedicated facility for pre-flight calibration activities.

Sentinel 3a will be the third satellite in the EU Copernicus programme, which aims to build the most efficient and comprehensive Earth-observation system in the world, using a constellation of satellites closely monitoring the planet.

The first satellite, Sentinel 1a, was launched in April 2014. Its task is radar mapping, and its key role is to provide rapid damage maps to help the emergency services deal with disasters such as earthquakes and severe floods. Sentinel 1a will also be able to monitor coastal waters for oil spills (or icebergs) and investigate subsidence. Airbus developed the radar instrument for Sentinel 1a in Germany, and the associated electronics in the UK.

Sentinel family

The Sentinel family of Earth observation satellites
(Credit: ESA)

Sentinel 1a is expected to produce 600 gigabytes of data per orbit, which is about 2.5 terabytes per day. When it has been joined by a full complement of Sentinel satellites, that figure is expected to rise to 8 terabytes per day. Dealing with this amount of data has required considerable investment in computer processing power and storage on the ground, but the aim of Sentinel is that it will be able to return data to Earth much faster than existing satellites, which store data to be sent down when they pass over a ground station. The European Data Relay System will use lasers to transmit data within minutes, rather than hours, meaning that Sentinel 1a could be used for flood prediction as well as flood monitoring.

Sentinel 2a, launched in June 2015, takes pictures of the planet's surface in visible and infrared light. It can also be tasked to view the extent of natural disasters, but has been designed to keep an eye on the world’s food crops, with a camera sensor that detects wavelengths of light that show the health of plants. Its data will give us advanced warning of poor harvests and potential famines.

With six satellites in orbit by 2019, Copernicus will have many uses, including climate studies and monitoring fish stocks, air quality and waste disposal. All of Copernicus’ data will be open, and freely available. Research has shown that allowing unfettered access is likely to stimulate novel uses of the data, resulting in the emergence of many new companies selling new services. It is anticipated that the Copernicus programme will give rise to around 48,000 jobs, and a boost to the EU’s GDP of €30 billion, by 2030. The vision is for Copernicus to be an open-ended programme, with satellites being replaced as they reach the end of their lifespan and more Sentinel series to come.

Improving plant defences

Plant membrane

Plant membrane proteins anchored at the
plasma membrane
(Credit: Dr John Runions, Oxford Brookes University)

In 2014, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invested in a new and world-leading instrument for the CLF and the life science user community. The super-resolution STimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscope will enable scientists to study, in real time, almost any organelle (sub-unit within living cell) to see how it is functioning.

Researchers will also be able to use STED to monitor the behaviour of receptor molecules in plants as they respond to bacteria attacks, which will help us to develop plant varieties that are more resistant, and so reduce the need for pesticides.

The CLF has already been involved in a discovery about how plants defend themselves in the face of pathogen attacks, which could hold the key to making crops more disease-resistant. For a BBSRC-funded project led by Oxford Brookes University, the CLF has developed a unique technique that has answered a question that has puzzled scientists for many years. Why do certain proteins in plant cells move around less than their counterparts in animal cells?

By showing the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells in real time for the first time, the new technique has revealed that the cell wall plays a crucial role in limiting the movement of proteins produced when a plant comes under attack.

The cell wall allows these proteins to stabilise in the plasma membrane (a ‘skin’ covering the inside of the cell wall). This restricts their ability to move around and fight invading pathogens and so increases the plant’s vulnerability.

Increasing our understanding in this area could help to boost food production and improve global food security.

Download the RCUK Agri-science timeline PDF.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000