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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 1 A Vision for the Twenty-First Century: Carbon-Neutral Food and Fuel As the second decade of the twenty-first century begins, the challenge of how to feed a growing world population and provide sustainable, affordable energy to fulfill daily needs, while also improving human health and protecting the environment, is clear and urgent. Media headlines daily report on the impacts of climate change, economic instability, and political and social upheavals related to struggles over scarce resources. Increasing demand for food and energy is projected at the same time as the supply of land and other resources decreases. Increasing levels of greenhouse gasses alter climate, which, in turn, has life-changing implications for a broad range of plant and animal species (National Research Council, 2010a). However, promising developments are on the horizon—scientific discoveries and technologies that have the potential to contribute practical solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. As described in the 2009 National Research Council (NRC) report A New Biology for the 21st Century (Box 1-1), biological research has experienced extraordinary scientific and technological advances in recent years that have allowed biologists to collect and make sense of ever more detailed observations at ever smaller time intervals. With these advances have come increasingly fruitful collaborations of biologists with scientists and engineers from other disciplines. Despite this potential, the challenge of advancing from identifying parts to defining complex systems to systems design, manipulation, and prediction is still well beyond current capabilities, and the barriers to advancement are similar at all levels from cells to ecosystems.
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 BOX 1-1 A New Biology for the 21st Century A New Biology for the 21st Century is the expert consensus report authored by a committee organized by the Board on Life Sciences of the National Research Council and cosponsored by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Energy. The report notes how new technologies and tools are allowing biologists to move beyond the study of a single cell, genome, or organism to look broadly at whole systems and, in collaboration with other branches of science and engineering, to solve societal problems. Through the New Biology, integration across the subdisciplines of biology, across all of science, and across agencies and institutions leads to a better understanding of biological systems in order to create biology-driven solutions to societal problems related to food, energy, the environment, and health. The knowledge and experience gained through developing and testing solutions, in turn, informs science for many purposes to predict and respond to new challenges. To bring this new potential to fruition, biologists, in collaboration with other scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, need to fully integrate tools, concepts, and information that were previously discipline-specific to enhance understanding and to propose new ways to tackle societal challenges. IMAGINE A WORLD… Imagine a world, members of the Committee on New Biology for the 21st Century suggested in their consensus report, in which food is abundant; the environment is resilient and flourishing; energy comes from clean, renewable sources; and good health is the norm (NRC, 2009). To reach this point, the committee called for a “New Biology” initiative that it defined as a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to biological research to address goals that no one discipline in isolation can achieve: for example, to adapt any food plant to any growing conditions and to expand sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. In addition, the report called for the initiative to be “an interagency effort, that it have a timeline of at least 10 years, and that its funding be in addition to current research budgets” (p. 7). Since the report’s release in August 2009, committee members have presented their findings and recommendations
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 on Capitol Hill, to federal science agencies, at the White House, and at professional meetings. The report stressed that the New Biology requires integration not only across disciplines, but also across university departments, federal agencies, and professional societies and interest groups. The committee intended its report to serve as the first step, rather than an endpoint, in a process to determine the potential benefits and implications of the New Biology. As next steps, it envisioned a series of workshops to provide concrete examples of what New Biology research programs could look like. The first of these workshops “Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment,” was held June 3-4, 2010, and is the subject of this summary. The Statement of Task for the Workshop is as follows: … an ad hoc committee will organize a public workshop on meeting the intertwined challenges of increasing food and energy resources in a context of environmental stress, in which participants will: Identify a small number of concrete problems for the New Biology to solve—problems that are important and urgent (and therefore inspirational), intractable with current knowledge and technology, but perhaps solvable in a decade. Identify the knowledge gaps that would need to be filled to achieve those goals. Identify conceptual and technological advances essential to achieve those goals. A GOAL AND A PATH TO GET THERE The time was limited—less than two days. The group was diverse—about 30 researchers from different disciplines and from different institutions around the country, many of whom did not know each other previously. Yet, the workshop charge, issued by steering committee chair Keith Yamamoto, was ambitious—identify high-level, decadal-scale problems to which to direct New Biology approaches in order to increase food and energy resources in a context of environmental stress. Steven Koonin, Under Secretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy, one of the workshop’s four cosponsors, challenged the group to frame urgent national problems that New Biology could address. He urged that discussions aim for high level-goals that would Be concrete; Have a material impact on social problems; Require basic science, but not as an end in itself; Draw on other sciences, as well as engineering, economics, and other fields;
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 Be plausible, but beyond the reach of current knowledge and technology; and Be quantifiable or have clear metrics to determine success. The participants took up the challenge. In a series of breakout and plenary sessions, they grasped the need for and potential impact of a large goal to energize the public, stimulate new scientific discovery, and motivate a new generation of students. The workshop’s focus on food, energy, and the environment led to the identification of a goal that, when solved, could meet the world’s growing demand for food; reduce the environmental impacts of fertilizers, pesticides, and water to produce food in sufficient quantity and quality; and lessen dependence on greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels. Overarching vision: Achieve carbon neutrality in the agriculture and biofuel sectors. This broad goal was enunciated in various ways throughout the workshop: “Carbon-neutral food and fuel”; “Carbon-neutral nation”; “Get carbon from the air rather than from the ground”; “Build a carbon-neutral healthy food supply while doubling food production, providing the national liquid fuel supply, and engineering crop plants to adapt to climate change.” Participants noted that carbon neutrality—that is, balancing the level of carbon released and sequestered as a result of food and fuel production and utilization—is a goal that meets each of the criteria proposed by Dr. Koonin. It is concrete, is measurable, and would have great significance (Box 1-2). Participants emphasized that reaching carbon neutrality in food and biofuel production will demand fundamental research, technology development, and engagement of diverse stakeholders (Figure 1-1) to make advances that, at this time, can barely be described, much less executed. Workshop participants stressed that the urgency and importance of this goal will engage policy makers and the public. Three reasons to adopt an ambitious goal were identified: It is essential and urgent, now and for future generations, to take on these challenges, given projections about population and resource availability. The New Biology provides a route to new scientific discoveries and technological advances that address these major societal challenges.
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 BOX 1-2 Carbon Neutrality: Why Aim for It? Greenhouse gases (GHGs)—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other chemical compounds—are natural components of the Earth’s atmosphere, but since large-scale industrialization began about 150 years ago, atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases have increased 25 percent. Moreover, the last few decades have seen the largest rise, with carbon dioxide emissions projected to increase 1.8 percent each year between 2004 and 2030. Rising concentrations of GHGs have already increased the Earth’s average temperature about 0.8 degree celsius in the last 30 years. Climate change affects not only temperatures at the Earth’s surface, but also precipitation patterns, storm severity, and sea level. Effects on growing seasons, public health, animal survival, and many additional impacts will follow. Carbon dioxide is by far the most abundant greenhouse gas. In the United States, fossil fuels supply 85 percent of our energy and produce 98 percent of our CO2 emissions. Human activities also produce other GHGs, including methane and nitrous oxide, in excess of pre-industrial levels. Conversely, biological systems can sequester greenhouse gasses in biomass and soils, reducing the amount released into the atmosphere. The challenge: find ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by increasing the amounts that are sequestered while also fulfilling transportation, food, and other needs. SOURCE: U.S. Energy Information Administration (http://www.eia.doe.gov/environment.html). A bio-economy, based on renewable and alternative energy sources rather than fossil fuels, is ambitious, but attainable with coordinated public and private sector commitment. Workshop participants noted that the magnitude of the problem and the challenges to solve it will inspire the scientific community, especially if the federal government commits to long-term support. Three themes emerged from the workshop discussions: Five broad scientific deliverables, each of which would be achievable through a coordinated New Biology approach: Measure carbon flow quantitatively, defining fully its movement through production and use systems;
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 FIGURE 1-1 Achieving carbon-neutral food and biofuel through the New Biology will require public outreach, coordinated scientific and technological investment, and a commitment to innovative educational approaches. Optimize plant productivity to improve yield; Improve both the efficiency of animal production and the management of animal waste; Develop biofuel feedstocks that prosper in diverse, local environments, especially on land not currently suitable for food production; and Understand and exploit complex biological systems, from microbes through ecosystems, to improve the sustainability of food and energy crop production. New Biology approaches to pursue these deliverables are summarized in the next section. New fundamental knowledge about plants, microbial communities, and larger complex biological systems is needed to fulfill these deliverables, but acquiring this knowledge is not an end in itself. Maintaining focus on achieving carbon neutrality will provide direction and target technological and basic knowledge breakthroughs to enable the research to contribute directly to societal needs. Breakthroughs achieved in pursuit of carbon neutrality can be expected to yield other benefits, as did other ambitious, future-directed goals such as landing a man on the moon and sequencing the human genome. Concrete plans and organizational structures across agencies and institutions could provide long-term coordinated support to leverage the scientific effort.
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Implementing the New Biology: Decadal Challenges Linking Food, Energy, and the Environment - Summary of a Workshop June 3-4, 2010 Workshop participants noted that a goal linked to compelling scientific challenges will inspire the nation’s top students to pursue scientific careers. Three imperatives emerged: Biologists, physical scientists, computational scientists, engineers, and their students will want to pursue the exciting possibilities of New Biology. The educational system, K-12 through graduate school and beyond, will need to prepare aspiring “New Biologists” of the future to engage in hands-on discovery, equipping them with the math and computational skills that scientific research increasingly demands, and teaching them to collaborate with peers. No one person will be an expert in all that the New Biology encompasses to achieve carbon neutrality or any other goal. Rather, New Biology programs will require a diverse collection of experts who define and work toward ambitious goals in multidisciplinary teams. Workshop steering committee Chair Keith Yamamoto captured the spirit and potential benefits of setting an inspiring goal such as achieving carbon-neutral food and fuel by reminding participants that no one knew how to land a man on the moon or sequence the human genome when those goals were first stated. Similarly, although no one had drawn out specific battle lines when the war on cancer was declared and although we have not yet “won” that war, we have made remarkable discoveries and progress toward cures during its pursuit. In each of these cases, enunciation of the challenge itself provided focus and inspiration, and provided impetus to drive the development of new technologies that produced profound advances. He predicted that a similar level of scientific dedication and commitment can, with the appropriate investments, provide food and biofuel in an environmentally sound manner in the twenty-first century.
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