Gene genies – Norfolk’s DNA scientists reveal their amazing work to the public
PUBLISHED: 17:55 21 May 2019 | UPDATED: 06:41 23 May 2019
A rare chance to see how Norwich scientists use cutting-edge biology and DNA supercomputers to “decode” life on earth brought hundreds of visitors to one of the city’s research institutes.
The Earlham Institute (EI), at the Norwich Research Park, held an open day to show how data-driven science can tackle global challenges ranging from crop disease and food security to climate change and disease prevention.
The centre explores the genetic code of a huge range of organisms, to find out how bacteria in the human gut pass on antibiotic resistance, how algae in the Antarctic oceans are affected by warming temperatures, how important agricultural crops defend themselves against drought or infections, or how threatened animals such as koalas and Andean bears can be preserved.
Visitors were also given tours of the life science labs and one of the biggest supercomputers of its type in Europe, used to process the vast torrent of data needed to sequence the genomes of complex organisms and plants such as strawberries and wheat - both five times larger than a human genome.
The EI's scientific communications manager, Dr Peter Bickerton, said the open day was an important opportunity to explain the centre's work to the public.
"We have a duty to the taxpayers to show them what we are doing," he said.
"We use computers to understand life. Sometimes it is hard to fathom. We sequence DNA, so we read the code of life to understand the essence of all these organisms, but then we need to explain that, OK, now we have got a wheat genome, but how do we use that to make better wheat varieties or improve food security?"
Another display at the event illustrated the pace of development in the world of DNA computing. PhD student Ned Peel used a portable DNA sequencer to decode his own genome while visitors watched in real-time. He said this process would take two days using a piece of equipment which cost a few hundred pounds - 20 years ago when the first human genome was sequenced, it took ten years to complete and cost an estimated £3bn.
Visitors were also shown the EI's latest agri-tech hardware including Crop Quant, a computerised crop-monitoring system using in-field cameras - augmented by aerial drones and even autonomous robots - to continually capture multi-spectral images of plant growth.
The data is processed on computers to generate useful intelligence on how valuable crop traits change in response to genetic mutations and environmental factors - which could help farmers to optimise fertiliser applications, spot diseases earlier or respond to heat stress.
Project leader Dr Ji Zhou said: "It is important for us to show we don't only do things in the laboratory. It is important for us to convey our work to the general public so they can understand that stuff like artificial intelligence is not science fiction. It can be used to help us with our agricultural practices - and it is already happening."
Prof Neil Hall, director of the EI, said he hoped events like this could boost the profile of the institute and its partners on the Norwich Research Park.
"When I speak to people they are aware of the Norwich Research Park but they would like to know more and it is part of our job to give them the opportunity to find out more," he said. "Quite rightly, Norwich is proud of what happens on the research park and we have long established places like the John Innes Centre, but we are a very new institute and its really useful to be able to communicate what we are doing."