Keeping living things healthy hero
Our impact

Impact story: keeping living things healthy.

Our diverse projects covering the breadth of life on earth are helping us to improve human, animal and plant health, while aiding in researching healthier living systems.

The next few decades could redefine the way we live. Amongst a rapidly changing world suffering the effects of climate change and man-made pollution, we must attempt to maintain the health of living systems that are suffering losses at mass extinction rates. Similarly, a burgeoning population of humans, farmed animals and monocultures of crop plants leaves our world prone to a suite of diseases and malnutrition. We are helping to find a solution to these problems through tackling issues from within the smallest cell through to entire ecosystems.

The threats to living systems.

Our living systems are under threat. From our forests and seas to our soils, grasslands, rivers and lakes - human influence has had a devastating effect on ecosystems and the individual organisms that are intrinsic to their, and our, survival. Oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic, bleaching our coral reefs and starving our seas of life through eutrophication. Algal blooms are on the increase, and along with them come potent toxins. Over-intensification of agriculture and soils has rendered much of our land infertile or desertified. The introduction of foreign species and infections has wiped out native flora and fauna from islands, driving species to extinction or leaving them inbred and prone to disease.

In terms of our health, overuse of antibiotics in humans and farmed animals has rendered most of our drugs useless in fighting important diseases. Less than 100 years since the discovery of penicillin, we might have to start again when it comes to battling against bacterial pathogens. Furthermore, our ageing population will suffer more disease, including influenza, while our huge populations of pigs and chickens pose a serious hazard in terms of zoonotic epidemics and pandemics of this deadly virus.

How can we ensure a secure future in terms of health for both humans and the living systems with which we co-inhabit earth? It is an increasingly difficult question to answer when posed with such an alarming rate of environmental decline and population increase. However, modern genomics techniques, tied with the sophisticated use of big data, together enable us to delve deeper than ever before into the mechanisms guiding these changes.

With a wealth of genetic and phenotypic information available to us, as well as frequent breakthroughs and advances in our technological capacity, we have the toolkit to help probe, dissect and provide solutions in order to keep living things healthy.

From our forests and seas to our soils, grasslands, rivers and lakes - human influence has had a devastating effect on ecosystems and the individual organisms that are intrinsic to their, and our, survival.

A universal approach to maintaining healthy living systems.

As an institute we have a relatively unique and ubiquitous approach to helping solve such a multi-faceted problem. Our broad research interests allow us to investigate all forms of life, from swine flu, salmonella and ash dieback disease to the metagenomics of 250 species of mammal, including humans.

We delve into the genomics of a range of cancers, including leukaemia and prostate cancer. Our expertise in metagenomics is aiding us in monitoring the health of our gut microbiome, as well as the pathogenicity of bacteria such as salmonella. We explore projects relating to human nutrition, from improving marker assisted breeding of brassica species to promoting diet intervention using beneficial plant flavonoids and researching the health benefits of gut microbiota such as Bifidobacterium.

Through research into the health of other animals and model systems, we are also unravelling previously unknown mechanisms. From annotating microRNAs in the dog genome to sequencing the spotted gar and investigating functional diversification in cichlid fish, we can discover new aspects of how certain traits are regulated. By probing into how relatively underdeveloped marsupial joeys manage to survive in a damp, bacteria-laden pouch, we could discover new peptides that can assist immunocompromised patients.

Not limited to humans, we are helping to monitor the health of our environment and ecosystems - from our soils and air through to individual species and our oceans. Our scientists are carrying out vital research in the field of conservation genomics, saving species such as the black footed ferret and the pink pigeon from extinction. We play a significant role in detecting and monitoring a suite of plant diseases, from ash dieback through to infections of important crop species. Analysis of red clover genomics can help us to better preserve and nourish our agricultural land. Development of more efficient and environmentally-tolerant grasses can reduce the arable land usage of biofuels while enabling the planting of better forage for grazing animals. Our research into metagenomics can also reveal how our oceans are changing as they face pollution and climate change, through monitoring algae and protozoan species vital to the survival of all life on earth.

With our leading and ever-expanding technological and scientific capacity we are helping to forge a positive global impact on the health of individual species and living systems, from human, animal and plant health through to our soils, farms, fields, forests and oceans.

Since 1990 there have been no new classes of antibiotics discovered

15% of all deaths worldwide each year are from cancer

Global ocean temperatures are warming twice as fast as they were in the 19th century

Extinction rates are 1000 times higher due to human activity

Global impact.

We are already having a global impact in improving various factors affecting the health of living systems. The reach of our international collaborations and research extends from the UK to the European continent, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Indian Ocean. A standout example of our work is the GROW Colombia project, which aims to conserve Colombia's abundant biodiversity while also aiding socioeconomic development in the country.

Our efforts in conservation genomics are benefiting wildlife in the USA, Australia and Mauritius, through helping to improve the health of black footed ferrets and the pink pigeon - organisms that were on the brink of extinction but have seen recent upturns in population sizes. Our work into increasing the genetic variability within these largely inbred populations will help re-established populations to better withstand disease and maintain sufficient heterogeneity in order to thrive. A greater knowledge of the genetic basis of recovering populations, and associated genetic bottlenecks, can help us to identify better ways to inform captive breeding programmes for similarly-affected species worldwide.

Our other projects will have effects on a global scale. Antibiotics are present at trace level amounts in almost every part of the environment, causing antibiotic resistance to be established in all bacterial populations. Research into reducing the use of antibiotics can have a beneficial effect on the health of all of us. Furthermore, analysis of 250 mammal species, including domestic farm animals, as well as research into important diseases such as swine flu, will positively inform scientific endeavour and agricultural practices worldwide.

We have been working jointly with the Quadram Institute to research Salmonella and its impact on human health. Understanding how an invading pathogen like Salmonella works could help us to identify host proteins targeted by these pathogens, and lead to the development of treatments to counteract the pathogen. If successful, an independent analysis estimates the impact globally could be £1.1bn over the next 25 years.

Scientific impact.

We have already had a great scientific impact on a range of issues relating to the health of living systems. As part of the NORNEX consortium, we helped to lead research into ash dieback disease, the fungal infection that has decimated ash tree populations throughout Europe. There is strong public interest in protecting ash woodlands, worth up to £655 million per year for the UK economy. Independent research estimates the value of EIs contribution at £16m over the next 25 years.

Our work into cancer research will also have a substantial impact on the health of ageing populations worldwide. As a key participant in the 100 000 genomes project, using data from 40 000 cancer patients and people with rare genetic diseases, we can help to identify susceptibility to a range of pathogens and illnesses based on genetic traits. With cancer diagnoses totalling 330 000 per year in the UK, and genetic diseases affecting 3 million people, this work is of vital importance in fighting against illnesses that touch the lives of everyone.

Other research highlights include the identification of novel plant pathogen receptors that will enable us to better screen for potential host targets, as well as the pathogen effectors which target them. Our analysis of the recovering pink pigeon population of Mauritius has identified how their effective population size, despite having a population of over 400, is only seven, which could help to reclassify them as a critically endangered species. Furthermore, our development of bioinformatics tools - from the Brassica Information Portal to NanoOK - will help researchers worldwide to access, analyse and assemble genomic datasets.

As part of the NORNEX consortium, we helped to lead research into ash dieback disease, the fungal infection that has decimated ash tree populations throughout Europe.

Technology impact.

Our technical capacity using the latest in cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology enables us to perform research across the breadth of life on earth. Our projects are often focused on non-model organisms with little or no reference genomic data, therefore our ever-expanding deNovo sequencing capacity using the most up-to-date Illumina HiSeq machinery enables us to rapidly, accurately and successfully assemble novel and diverse genomes.

An especially exciting step forwards in terms of our ability to perform rapid DNA sequencing with abundant applications is our work in helping to develop methods of utilising the Nanopore MinION. This compact and cheap sequencing platform allows for portable, real-time sequencing of a range of samples and could be applied to in-field monitoring projects, sequencing soil, water and air, as well as in clinical situations. As a member of the MinION Analysis and Reference Consortium (MARC), we are playing an enthusiastic and integral role into the development of this platform - including NanoOK, an algorithm for the assembly of MinION-derived genetic data.

Another important project, to help overcome the current limitations in our understanding of Salmonella, has led to the creation of, an open access dedicated resource for Salmonella data. This allows strain comparisons, detailed modelling, host-pathogen interaction studies, novel drug discovery approaches, and experimental testing to uncover thus far hidden mechanisms, which could lead to developing new treatments for Salmonella infections.

Our ever-expanding repertoire of cutting-edge equipment and techniques, along with our recruitment of specialist technical experts and bioinformaticians, will allow us to delve ever deeper into exploring the health of all living systems. Beginning with single cell sequencing through to our development of a new synthetic biology laboratory, we are growing a technical toolkit that can take us forward in monitoring, evaluating and helping to maintain the health of all living systems.