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The BBSRC Themes

Agriculture and Food Security

Perhaps the single most important challenge today is to produce sufficient food for the world’s growing population that is not just safe, nutritious and affordable, but also in a sustainable manner. Moreover, as agriculture increasingly provides feedstocks for bioenergy and other chemicals for the bioeconomy, to avoid competition with food production will require use of marginal land, and ways to utilise agricultural waste. As well as crop science, animal health and livestock production, it therefore encompasses land use, as well as understanding of the links between diet and health, and food safety. 

Agriculture and Food Security is thus a strategic research priority of BBSRC, and Cambridge is at the forefront of tackling many of the challenges in this area, with Global Food Security as one of the University’s strategic research initiatives.

There are many fundamental research projects, for example understanding the molecular basis of plant epigenetics and its influence on characters of hybrids, studies of the molecular basis of the immune response in animals, or evolution of pathogen genomes.

These are complemented by more applied research into animal disease, welfare and productivity, strategies to deal with spread of crop pathogens, and breeding of new plant varieties, as well as how to balance agricultural production with conservation of natural habitats, and the role of nutrition in developmental programming and life-long maintenance of health.

For examples of previous projects offered in the AFS Theme, please click here.

Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy

Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is essential to allow the UK to establish a low carbon economy, and meet international targets for reducing emissions. Industrial biotechnology (IB) uses biological processes and resources for non-food applications, such as generation of high value chemicals and biopharmaceuticals, or new materials for medical applications.

In Cambridge, multidisciplinary research teams across the University are pioneering novel methods that will underpin the development of the bio-based economy. These include projects on metabolic modelling to enhance production of antimicrobials, reprogramming of plant development and morphogenesis by synthetic biology, and enzyme evolution for optimisation of biocatalysis. Other examples involve biophysical and mathematical approaches to understand behaviour of individual microbial cells in order to reduce energy inputs into industrial cultivation, or novel ways of harvesting and processing.

Bioenergy will make a major contribution to renewable energy production in the future, but research is needed to reduce the costs of these processes and to increase the scale of production. The Bioenergy Initiative at Cambridge encompasses research groups not just in biosciences but also physical sciences, engineering and mathematics, and is also part of a larger Energy@Cam strategic initiative. Projects include those addressing the study of plant cell walls for lignocellulosic ethanol production, algae for bioenergy and remediation of waste-water and CO2 emissions, as well as artificial photosynthesis.

For examples of previous projects offered in the IBBE Theme, please click here

Bioscience for Health

Basic bioscience is vital to reveal the biological mechanisms underlying normal physiology and homeostatic control during early development and through life, and is one of the BBSRC’s strategic research priorities. Research in this theme aims to achieve a deep, integrated understanding of the healthy system at multiple levels and the factors maintaining health under stress and biological or environmental challenge. A wide variety of projects are offered encompassing basic bioscience research topics where the goal is to help sustain lifelong health and wellbeing—through prevention strategies or new treatments—in the modern environment.

Projects range from structural biology to experimental psychology, as well as those with multidisciplinary or systems approaches. Specific topics include studies on protein folding, chromosome structure and stability, gene regulation and epigenetics, DNA replication and repair, cell division mechanisms and cell cycle control, cell signalling networks, homeostasis, stem cells, development, the processes of cell growth, degeneration and regeneration, apoptosis, neuronal growth and plasticity, the processes of ageing and longevity, host-pathogen interactions, disease transmission, antibiotic resistance, vaccines, metabolic biology and the genetics/physiology/psychology of obesity, processes of learning/attention and decision making, genetic variation and evolutionary adaptation, and the development and use of new tools in areas such as structural analysis, bioimaging, high throughput and comparative genomics and modelling. Projects encompassing biophysical, materials chemistry and engineering approaches are also available.

Please note, if you have a background in medicine or an interest in medical translation, you may be interested in the MRC DTP Programme or the Wellcome Trust-Medical Research Council partnered with Cambridge Stem Cell Institute.

For examples of previous projects offered in the Health Theme, please click here

World-Class Underpinning Bioscience

The basic disciplines of Bioscience at the molecular, cellular and physiological levels are at the forefront of work in Cambridge, and the breadth of expertise is matched by the opportunities to interact with researchers in other disciplines including physical sciences, mathematics and engineering.

This has resulted in the award of Nobel Prizes to Cambridge scientists for discoveries ranging from nerve function, to the cell cycle, to stem cells. BBSRC recognises that continuing to support world-class bioscience research is essential to maintain the UK’s position as a global leader, as well as to underpin the bioeconomy, and it is important to ensure that a highly-skilled research base is developed and retained. One third of the BBSRC-funded DTP students will be in this theme.

Projects will be aimed at improved understanding of basic biological mechanisms, from the study of biological molecules, to cellular and physiological processes, including genetic and genomic studies, integration with modelling and mathematical approaches, and interfacing with novel chemical and physical methods for the study of biological systems.

For examples of previous projects offered in the World Theme, please click here.

Exploiting New Ways of Working

As well as the four themes from which projects can be selected, the DTP has an enabling theme Exploiting New Ways of Working (ENWW). In the past decade new technology has led to a fundamental change in the nature and volume of data that biologists generate and must analyse. Training in modern computational and statistical techniques to deal with “big data”, together with other mathematical techniques to allow the complexities of biological interactions to be modelled, is a very important component of the DTP Programme.