Monthly Archives: August 2015

Gene drives

Nuclear fission – the process that underpins nuclear power and nuclear weapons – relies on the huge amount of energy it produces in a chain reaction; rather like the feedback screech you get when a microphone is placed too close to a speaker it’s connected to via an amplifier.

Before the first creation of nuclear fission in the laboratory, some theorists thought that creating such a chain reaction could result in the Earth’s destruction because they weren’t sure how it could be contained.

This was an extreme case of an innovation that carried a risk, but all innovations are like this to greater or lesser extents. Innovation is about stepping in to the unknown. In the case of nuclear fission, the probability of the chain reaction becoming global was assessed as extremely low, but people’s appetite for risk is changing.

This is evident in the public reaction to many of the issues Defra is responsible for. The technology used to genetically modify organisms is one long-standing issue where there is considerable public interest in the risks. While there is little, if any, reliable evidence of negative environmental and human health effects of genetic modification, despite exhaustive searching, we have to be aware that the technologies being used to change the genetic constitution of organisms are themselves evolving. Genetic modification has demonstrable benefits – many in the area of medical genetics and the manufacture of new medicines but also importantly in agriculture – provided it is used wisely.

One of the latest innovations in genetic techniques involves something called ‘gene drives’ which we’ve heard quite a lot about in the press recently. These allow the rapid spread of genetic traits through populations similar to a chain reaction. Used wisely, they could be a powerful tool for the rapid spread of beneficial traits through populations of organisms, for example to render wild mosquitos incapable of transmitting deadly diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.

For some this will conjure up fears of genes being released and propagating themselves through whole populations and getting out of control. Doubtless what can be a powerful force for good can also be a powerful force for bad, but there are a few facts to bear in mind before we start to worry.

Firstly, they cannot be used in viruses or bacteria because they can only spread within organisms that reproduce sexually. This means they could not be used to worsen, or mitigate, some of the most deadly disease. Secondly, the rate of spread depends entirely on the reproductive rate of the organism concerned. This means that for long-lived organisms like humans, bats, albatrosses, elephants and whales it would take hundreds or perhaps thousands of years for the genes to spread. For species like flies and many plants, including crops, the rate of spread through the population would be much quicker. Third, gene drives are relatively easy to detect so they could be regulated.

However, to my way of thinking the most important feature of gene drives is that they already occur in nature, but they are not very common. This is really good news; it looks as if the equivalent of gene drive chain reactions are very unlikely, and some of the more extreme scenarios that people might conjure up become quite improbable.

Evolution has a way of weeding out or ignoring genetic mechanisms that do not confer a long-term advantage. Scientists know little about how to engineer organisms for evolutionary robustness. Knowing more about how these kinds of traits are maintained in natural populations would be essential to develop the best strategy for stopping gene drives from dying out. Getting gene drives to work may be quite difficult.

So while the down side is that gene drives are probably not as powerful as we first thought, but the up side is that this means they are less likely to create problems that get out of control. So to render mosquitos incapable of transmitting malaria would probably require a long-term effort involving multiple releases of gene drives to prevent the desired characteristic dying out prematurely.

Any new technology needs to be treated with great care and researchers take the need for caution very seriously. However, while planning for the worst case is sensible, just because we are careful in the face of uncertainty doesn’t mean that these worst case risks will necessarily materialise. Like the nuclear fission that brings the UK about one-third of its electricity, genetic engineering technologies are now a part of our every-day existence.

The recently developed ebola vaccine – probably a game-changer for managing that devastating disease – would not have been possible without genetic engineering.  We have a well-developed system of regulation in the UK and across Europe so we can be assured that as technological innovations spring up, they are considered in a balanced and proportionate manner.

For example, Defra operates a committee of independent experts, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, to advise ministers on any proposals to use genetically modified organisms in the wider environment. This would obviously include gene drive technologies. In addition, we have a legislature that is active in these areas and is highly informed. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology announced a few weeks ago that it was to conduct an inquiry in to genetically modified insects.

Our society is built upon the technological inventions of past generations. If gene drives are to become a part of this story they have a long way to go but, at the very least, we should welcome the potential they bring to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

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Eye in the sky is hope for the future

When the Chancellor announced a few weeks ago that some government departments might have to make budget savings of 25-40% many will wonder how this can be achieved. Many functions of government will need to be done differently but, for people like me, the challenging question is what does ‘different’ really mean and how can we turn this in to real, meaningful change?

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

This week I visited Surrey Satellites Technology Limited (SSTL) a medium-sized company run by a brilliant engineer and business-man, Sir Martin Sweeting. It is a success story of the leading edge of British Industry. Having emerged as a small company from the University of Surrey, it is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of small satellites; with annual revenues exceeding £100M and total export sales in excess of £600M to 18 different countries. When I was there, I saw the latest satellite they are building for the UK.

SSTL have an imaginative business model. They are adapting the kind of mass-produced electronic innovations that we all have in our smart phones to deliver satellites at a small fraction of the historical costs. Until recently, only whole nations or massive telecoms companies were rich enough to be able to buy and launch satellites. Now, cities are beginning to buy their own satellites to help them do their business.

Satellites do three basic things for us; help us navigate around our world, communicate across the globe, and see what is going on across the surface of the Earth and in its atmosphere.  GPS-type systems and phone systems are such an integral part of our daily lives , we do not really know (or care) when we are using satellites. But the story is not quite the same for the benefits of Earth observation (EO) because of the complex nature of the data that satellites provide about the surface of the Earth and the atmosphere.

There are a remarkable range of applications of EO information and many of us probably are aware of very few of these. From providing information about the height of waves in the sea to measuring the amount of oil in oil tanks, seeing if planning consents have been complied with or understanding the extent of tree diseases, the array of things one can do with information from space is remarkable. It is changing our ideas of what woodland is and where it is located because we find that many urban areas and suburbs have so many trees along roadsides and in gardens that they are effectively woodlands.

Satellite Earth observation is a potentially disruptive technology that can completely change the way we do things and government is no exception. I believe the challenge set out by the Chancellor can be partly met by the rapid adoption and expansion of Earth observation in Government. This is not to say that Government has been slow to use EO in any way. Defence is a leading user of EO as is Defra when it uses it to help monitor agriculture, forestry, habitats and flood events, but more could be done.

What has changed to make me say this? The lessons from Surrey Satellites Technology are only part of the story. The other part comes in the form of new satellite constellations, like the Copernicus  sentinel satellites I saw being built when I visited Airbus in Stevenage a few weeks ago. They will provide a continuous flow of freely available data which we need to use in business and in government.

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

Many years ago I was a student travelling on a train between Peterborough and Edinburgh and got into conversation with a technology sceptic. He proclaimed that although our train was averaging over 100 miles an hour, nothing had really changed since the Flying Scotsman travelled from Edinburgh to London averaging over 100 miles an hour many decades before. I pointed out that the Flying Scotsman record was a one-off and now trains regularly achieve the same speed several times a day.

The same principles apply to EO from satellites. We have been able to photograph the surface of the planet from space with useful precision for decades, but it is only now that this imagery is collected regularly and with sufficient reliability and accessibility to the every-day user, at a reasonable price, that it can start to replace older ways of working.

Encouraging people to adopt new ways of doing things can be difficult and government is no different. Defra is taking a lead by establishing a Centre of Excellence in Earth Observation which will lead the necessary discussion with those who develop policy and delivery communities about how satellite EO can change our ways of working. This is also aimed at helping to stimulate the businesses sector to take up this challenge because the real benefits will only truly accrue when EO becomes a part of the daily life and decision making in our productive and service industries. For example, supplying data about the distribution of nutrients within fields and feeding this in to the sophisticated robotic systems used by some of our best farmers is likely to be with us very soon. This can reduce costs for the farmer and potentially reduce fertiliser use and the environmental problems this causes.

I see EO as a transformational technology making us look forward to a better future. Its potential applications when placed in the hands of imaginative people are vast and almost limitless. A cross-Whitehall group, chaired by the Permanent Secretary of DECC with me as his deputy, has been assembled to help drive the uptake of EO technologies to help government improve its ways of work and to make the kind of step changes in efficiency envisaged by the Chancellor.