At Norwich Research Park there is a world class business and research cluster of expertise in genome analysis and manipulation of animal, microbial and plant systems for a wide range of applications. A supportive and collaborative environment, Norwich Research Park is the ideal location for innovative businesses to thrive.
A genome is all of an organism’s DNA, which contains all the genes an organism needs to survive and thrive. Genomics is a discipline of biology that focuses on everything to do with genomes; their structure, evolution and function as well as how to map and edit them. Genomics is a huge part of the research that goes on across the park because its fundamental to understanding how all living organism’s work. Genomics research often involves sequencing genomes, and the term sequencing refers to recording the code of the DNA.
Two huge projects that the Earlham Institute are part of are the Darwin Tree of Life project and the Earth Biogenomes project. The objective of these initiatives is to attempt to sequence the genomes of all the species in the British and Irish isles and all the species on Earth respectively. Recording all these genomes will create a huge database allowing researchers to access all the genomes they would need for comparing organisms and studying the functions of different genes and the opportunities and consequences that arise from editing them.
Other genomics projects at the Earlham Institute and the UEA look at pollinator genomics. Of 270 bee species in the UK, 35 are under threat, while we have lost 13 species already in the past few decades. Pollinators are critical to the ecosystem as they help in the reproductive process of crops and wildflowers, and this makes them essential to a future with plenty of food and biodiversity. The value of pollinators in the UK is around £6-700 million per year and globally up to $577 billion per year. Earlham Institute uses bumblebee genomics to better understand current threats to UK pollinator populations. This can provide options to support pollinator populations that are in decline.
The Evolutionary Genomics Group at EI is working on species that are currently flourishing in the UK, with the aim of generating similar datasets for species in decline. This important comparative approach has the power to identify genetic changes that could be associated with population health in our native bee populations. At UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, looked at new ways to gather essential genetic and ecological information on bumblebees, which are key wild pollinators in the UK and other temperate regions, some species of which are in severe decline.
Genomics is central to the plant science work of the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and Earlham Institute. The need for sustainable agriculture to feed our growing population in the future is clear, the world can’t afford to keep losing an estimated 40% of its crops every year. To really understand how plants work we must study their genes. For example, there are a set of genes responsible for giving plants better resistance to diseases, and there is a different set of genes involved in how plants form and grow. You can’t approach a challenge like this in just one way, we need to make sure plants are more reliable in a number of different ways including:
- More resistant to weather and conditions like drought and flooding
- More resistant to pests and diseases
- Bigger plants giving more food per plant
- Supported by abundant and thriving pollinator populations to reproduce
- More nutritional value in the crops being grown
- Healthy soils for the plants to grow in
As understanding develops for each of these variables at research sites like Norwich Research Park, we will be able to increasingly ensure less crop losses each year and be far better equipped to try and feed everyone in the future. To make crops more resilient, researchers use gene editing technologies. Gene editing technologies involve editing the genetic material of an organism, by disabling a gene or introducing a new natural gene from another plant species.
A great example of using genetic editing to try and solve a crop problem is the work being done by Dr Peter Emmrich at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development. Grass Pea has a lot of potential as a crop, its high in protein and really hardy, meaning it will grow in some pretty rubbish conditions because its tolerant to things like drought and salinity. The problem with Grass Pea is that it contains a neurotoxin that paralyses human lower limbs. If the researchers identify and knock out the genes that produce the neurotoxin, a variation of Grass Pea could be made that won’t cause paralysis and it could become a viable crop.