Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

  1.  The BBSRC funds a significant amount of basic and enabling research in the biosciences that is of relevance to combating terrorism. This memorandum outlines the scope of that research and touches on the relevant safeguards. It should be read in conjunction with the associated memorandum from Research Councils UK, February 2003.


  2.  BBSRC has a wide remit that spans the microbial, plant and animal kingdoms (including human biology). The Council funds high quality basic research to improve the fundamental understanding of biological systems from molecules to cells to whole organisms and populations. Research funding is mainly through Responsive Mode grants, primarily to Universities, or through Core Strategic Grants (CSG) to BBSRC-sponsored institutes[29]. The current research budget is approximately £200 million per annum.

  3.  Much of the basic bioscience funded by BBSRC could contribute indirectly to combating bioterrorism by virtue of the fact that it increases our understanding of biological systems; particularly in the fields of microbiology and plant and animal diseases. However, there are four broad areas of activity in which the research is of more direct relevance:

    i.  Diagnostics—detection and identification of biological agents and chemicals

  4.  Although most infectious diseases of agricultural plants and livestock rarely pose a direct threat to people (with some notable exceptions—eg anthrax, TB) they do provide an opportunity for "economic terrorism" by groups intent on the deliberate introduction and dissemination of disease agents in the environment.

  5.  BBSRC-sponsored institutes, such as the Institute for Animal Health (IAH), Rothamsted Research (RR) and Horticulture Research International (HRI), have research programmes and associated expertise in the identification of plant and animal pathogens. In particular the IAH Pirbright Laboratory is an international reference laboratory for several important infection diseases of livestock, including Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and African Swine Fever. In 2001 the reference laboratory function at Pirbright, and the expertise of BBSRC scientists, gave Defra (Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs) valuable immediacy in isolating, diagnosing and typing the FMD virus strain. The research programme at IAH aims to understand the fundamental biology of many pathogens of farm animals (including zoonotic infections) and to develop methods for detection and surveillance. This includes highly sensitive laboratory assays and "low tech" approaches to give rapid diagnosis of infectious agents in the field.

  6.  Diagnostics (and the underpinning science) is covered by the remits of a number of BBSRC's responsive mode grant-awarding Committees. Detection of microbes is a part of the "Analytical Biotechnology" theme of the Engineering and Biological Systems (EBS) Committee[30]; and both the Agri-Food Committee (AF) and the Animal Sciences (AS) Committee fund grants on diagnostics—eg current grants include "Development of immuno-diagnostic techniques for light leaf spot (Pyrenopeziza brassicae) on winter oilseed rape"[31] (AF) and "Improved diagnosis of swine vesicular disease"[32] (AS). In January 2002 EBS, AF and the Plant and Microbial Sciences (PMS) Committee organised a workshop of 40 delegates from UK academia, and industry on "Microbial detection and inactivation".

  7.  The detection of foodborne pathogens is another important element of BBSRC funded research through the Committees and at sponsored institutes. For example, combating/detecting foodborne pathogens is a strong theme of the AF Committee, and the Institute of Food Research (IFR) is conducting research on Clostridium botulinum, the neurotoxins of which are a serious concern with respect to bioterrorism. The work mainly addresses aspects of bacterial physiology but effective diagnosis of the bacterium and its toxin is a part of the research effort.

  8.  BBSRC's wide remit has an active interface with the physical sciences and engineering. Research on the "hardware" at the biology/engineering interface includes work on biosensors and biological sensing systems (visual, acoustic, vapour and liquid phase biosensors) which may find applications in monitoring and detecting biological or chemical agents. The new BBSRC Strategic Plan 2003-08[33] has identified such tools and technologies as a major strategic priority for the Council over the next five years.

    ii.  Dispersal and persistence of biological and chemical agents

  9.  BBSRC funded research on the natural spread and persistence of plant and animal pathogens in the environment has direct relevance to the response to bioterrorism. Rothamsted Research has for some years worked on the understanding of airborne dispersal of fungal pathogens, and much of the institute's work is about improving the understanding and forecasting of pests and diseases; work also includes the fate of pesticides in the environment.

  10.  Work at IAH and elsewhere on the epidemiology of the infectious diseases of livestock is also relevant to responding to bioterrorism. Another BBSRC-sponsored institute—Silsoe Research Institute (SRI)—has a strong programme on biophysics and modelling of airflows and the behaviour of aerosols, which is applicable to airborne dispersion of, and surface contamination by, chemicals or microorganisms.

    iii.  Basic biology of disease mechanisms

  11.  A significant proportion of BBSRC funded research aids the response to terrorism indirectly by increasing the "knowledge pool" in basic biology. However, some research programmes and grants through the responsive mode Committees and CSG are specifically targeted at understanding more about disease processes in plants and animals (including basic biology of human systems), immunology or investigating new targets for antimicrobials.

  12.  The Animal Science Committee in particular has a current theme on Mechanisms of immune function and disease pathogenesis[34] and a priority area on Control of infectious diseases[35] which encourages studies aimed at the control of infectious diseases of livestock. Novel approaches and the use of genomics technologies are central here. Other Committee themes and priorities also build our understanding of the basic biology behind disease processes, for example the Biochemistry and Cell Biology Committee (BCB) has a priority area in Intracellular trafficking of viruses and other pathogens[36]

  13.  BBSRC's Strategic Plan 2003-08 identifies the development of new drug targets and pharmaceuticals (including animal vaccines) as key goals. Current research across the Committees underpins this and a recent cross-Committee priority on Drug resistance and alternatives to chemotherapeutics will encourage further grant applications. Basic research in this last area is particularly important in the context of responding to terrorism because it will give access to new antimicrobial agents that would not have been widely available to terrorist groups seeking to make strains that are resistant to the known classes of antibiotics.

    iv.  Decontamination—bioremediation

  14.  Biotechnology has the potential to provide clean-up solutions for environmental contamination whether that be the result of industrial activity, accident or terrorism. BBSRC funds multidisciplinary projects (principally through the EBS Committee[37]) in the areas of bioavailability of pollutants, environmental pollution sensing and monitoring.

  15.  Bioremediation—the use of plants and microbes to decontaminate land, water or air—is a key theme. Current grants include: Phytoremediation: an integrated biological approach to the decontamination of polluted soils[38]; Bioremediation of nuclear wastes by biomineralisation processes[39] and The use of bacterial chemotaxis and engineered chemoreceptors to detect pollutants[40].


  16.  In terms of research grants to HEIs, responsibility for compliance with legal requirements is the responsibility of the host organisation (see main body of RCUK memorandum). BBSRC requires applicants for grants to indicate, for work requiring prior licence or approval from regulatory agencies or an Ethical Committee, that they have obtained this. This requirement would generally cover work with dangerous chemicals and pathogens that require high levels of containment. BBSRC research Committees also screen proposed projects for issues that might trigger public concern and refer them to a BBSRC Committee that considers such issues[41].

  17.  Management at BBSRC-sponsored institutes, acting on the advice of their Safety Advisers, ensure that all work involving the storage of dangerous chemicals and pathogens conforms to the requirements of the regulatory framework for work with dangerous substances. BBSRC Office supports them by producing policy and guidance documents, and by monitoring local arrangements as part of a regular cycle of health and safety inspections.

  18.  The cornerstone of current health and safety legislation is the requirement for risk assessment, and action taken following properly performed and documented risk assessments should ensure that work with dangerous substances presents no significant risk to human health or to the environment. While in the past the risk of malicious use of dangerous substances has not been specifically evaluated, control measures in place to ensure safety in normal use (including storage) should be robust enough to cover this additional risk. For example, security measures, including restricted access, would normally be in place for such substances in order to conform to the legal requirement to minimise the number of individuals at risk of exposure.

  19.  Dangerous pathogens and genetically modified organisms are covered by specific legal requirements based on the need to ensure containment. BBSRC-sponsored Institutes have taken great care to ensure that their use of such substances conforms to the legal requirements as a minimum. The involvement of BBSRC personnel in Government advisory committees such as the Advisory Committee of Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP), the Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification (ACGM) and the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) testifies to the level of expertise available within BBSRC.

  20.  BBSRC has fully implemented the requirements of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 at its sponsored Institutes, as well as contributing to Government-level consultations during the framing of the legislation.

27 February 2003

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