‘Government science’ is important but greatly undervalued. For about four decades, the UK has built up a world-leading university sector – but perhaps at the cost of taking its eye off the value brought by science done within the public sector and, in particular, within the Civil Service itself.
The value of this science was illustrated to me on a recent visit to a Defra laboratory – the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquatic Science (Cefas) in Weymouth.
Cefas is a world leading organisation in marine and freshwater science and technology; providing solutions to local and global issues in marine environment protection and food safety. The laboratory in Weymouth has specialist aquarium facilities that are unique within Europe and of global importance. Fish and shellfish can be held in biosecure conditions so that some of our most challenging fish diseases can be studied. Not only does the work in the lab service the needs of the UK government and others across Europe, it also supports the testing of new diagnostics and vaccines by commercial companies. It is doubtful whether the UK could have a credible aquaculture industry without Cefas, its laboratory and, most important of all, its excellent scientists.
Here are a few examples:
Richard Paley is studying the potential viruses carried by the Garra rufa fish; the fish which became famous in the ‘fish pedicure’ craze across the country. Import of these species into Britain dramatically increased between 2010 and 2014 to keep up with demand. Whilst the British public were enjoying, or being horrified by this new treatment, Richard and his team were working to ensure these fish were not bringing in any harmful diseases which could be a threat to both humans and local aquaculture.
Tim Bean has been leading the fight against the oyster herpesvirus, which appeared in Britain in 2010 and has been affect European oyster populations. There is no cure and it can wipe out up to 90% of juvenile oysters. Resistant individuals are selected based on genetic markers and these now provide the brood stock for the future oysters that appear on our plates. But this is likely to be a never-ending story; as viruses are likely to evolve to counter this selection, Tim always needs to work to stay one step ahead of the viruses to ensure a thriving British oyster stock into the future.
Shellfish such as oysters feed by filtering seawater, which is actually a thin soup of plankton, bacteria, viruses and other organics. One of the services they perform is to clean the water but this feeding technique can also results in uptake of sewage, chemicals and naturally occurring toxins which may be harmful to human health. Government standards set the levels of toxins deemed safe for human consumption, and Cefas undertakes monitoring to ensure the shellfish that reach our plates is safe, as well as continually updating and improving its methods. Alex Turner and colleagues devised a new method to improve the detection of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), caused by the accumulation of neurotoxin, saxitoxin.
Cefas has also been at the forefront of detecting the presence of new and emerging threats in UK shellfish. Between 2013 and 2014, presence of the extremely dangerous pufferfish toxin, Tetrodotoxin, was detected in low levels in South coast UK shellfish populations. These toxins were previously thought not to occur in temperate waters, however increasing sea surfaces temperatures are opening a gateway for new toxins to thrive in waters previously deemed too cold. Cefas is leading the way in monitoring these new unwelcome guests before they become a problem.
Not only have new detection technologies benefited the UK – Cefas has led projects with shrimp farmers in South East Asia to detect White Spot Syndrome Virus (WSSV), which is extremely infectious and able to wipe out entire populations of shrimps in a matter of days. They are also using DNA in aquaculture ponds to monitor genomic changes over time, to determine when an outbreak is about to occur. This allows early warning signals that the stock may be at risk. This technique enables the discovery of viruses and pathogens previously invisible to standard PCR techniques.
Work on prediction methods to pre-empt harmful Virbrio sp. outbreaks across Europe (cholera is a vibrio) is also being led by Craig Baker-Austin. We now know that Vibrio sp. thrive at specific salinities and temperatures narrowing down the areas of risk. We need to keep an eye on these dangerous pathogens.
These examples illustrate the vital work being done by government scientists. They are a modest bunch of people who rarely talk openly about the great work they do. But the next time I eat seafood from British waters, or from abroad, I will be grateful for the work and dedication of the people at Cefas in Weymouth. Because, thanks to them, I will know it is safe to eat.