A new network aims to bring the power of interdisciplinary innovation to bear on global food issues. Laura Barter, Stuart Dunbar, Angela Karp and Rudiger Woscholski explain

A new network aims to bring the power of interdisciplinary innovation to bear on global food issues. Laura Barter, Stuart Dunbar, Angela Karp and Rudiger Woscholski explain



The food, fibre and fuel requirements of an ever-increasing population are some of the most significant challenges currently facing society. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation predicts that the demand for food will grow by 50% by 2030 and is likely to double by 2050. In parallel, energy demands are projected to increase by up to 50% in the next 20 years. This means that there is a clear need for innovation and technology to increase crop productivity in a sustainable way. 

Key targets in this area include: increasing photosynthetic efficiency, reducing losses caused by pests and diseases, enhancing food safety and quality for better nutrition, minimising waste throughout the food supply chain, and improving the processing of biomass materials for fuels and other plant-derived chemicals. It will be vital that existing and new technologies are applied across the agri-sciences, which in this context is defined as plant, fungal and insect sciences. Multidisciplinary approaches will be the key to enabling this. Chemical biology - through physical science innovation (eg in chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering) - is expected to be able to tackle these biological problems on a molecular level and in so doing will lead to the development of novel technologies that will address future agri-science needs. 

Green shoots 

Chemical biology is a relatively young scientific field that initially focused upon the application of synthetic chemistry to probe biological systems. It has since evolved and expanded into a new discipline that encompasses the application of all physical sciences to solving biological problems at a molecular level. Chemical biology has proven to be highly successful in tackling scientific bottlenecks within biomedicine, driven, in part, by a strong push from the pharmaceutical industry eg in developing new approaches to drug discovery programmes. This success has resulted in an increased interest in the use of chemical biology tools and technologies within the agri-sciences, but engagement has yet to reach a volume comparable with the biomedical sciences.
As with any new venture that crosses disciplines, it is important to have mechanisms in place that can facilitate this process. To meet this need, a new agri-science chemical biology network, AGRI-net, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), has been launched. This network aims to foster collaborations between the agri-science and chemical biology communities, and crucially its membership will include end users eg industry and policy makers. This is expected to provide a problem-led pull for newer technologies, while driving the use of established technologies.  

The agrichemical industry sells biological effects, be they through the interaction with chemicals and proteins in crop protection chemistry, or through genes in both genetically modified and conventional breeding of new plant varieties. The interaction of chemistry and biology is therefore central to all agri-business and chemical biology has a key role to play as it sits at the intersection of a range of new sciences such as systems and synthetic biology, next-generation sequencing and genomics. Bringing the chemical biology and agri-science communities together with AGRI-net will facilitate the continued integration of chemical biology into industry, which is vital to progress in this area. 

Food security  

The BBSRC has identified food security as one of its three strategic research priorities and is working with the EPSRC and the UK’s other main public funders of food-related research, through a joint global food security programme. The BBSRC provides funding to eight institutes that collectively address different aspects of food security, from fundamental biology and novel approaches in genomics to environmental studies and genetic improvement of crops and farm animals. The development of AGRI-net highlights the need for multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches to meet the enormous global challenge of providing the world’s growing population with a sustainable, secure supply of good quality food from less land and with lower inputs. 

There are a number of networks in the field of chemical biology, which are already showing particular success within biomedicine. AGRI-net’s timely creation will support the translation of achievements made within chemical biology communities to the agri-science communities by bringing cohesion between academia, industry and policy makers within the agri-science and chemical biology landscape. It will lead to exciting opportunities to develop high impact multidisciplinary research targeted at some of the world’s grand challenges: food and energy security. 

The authors are members of AGRI-net and represent Imperial College London, Syngenta and Rothamsted Research 

AGRI-net is funded by the EPSRC and BBSRC (contact James Phillips, james.phillips@bbsrc.uk)