USB’s ‘Biotech U’ winner (pictured below) updates U.S. soybean farmers on what she’s learning at a Turkish biotechnology conference.
Editor’s Note: The soybean checkoff works to support the acceptance of biotechnology globally, in order to ensure U.S. soybean exports can be sold in every country in the world. As part of that effort, the checkoff’s Biotech Initiative organizes Biotech U, a two-day seminar on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia in which journalism students – tomorrow’s reporters on this issue – learn about biotech soybeans and ultimately put their new knowledge to work in a reporting competition. This year’s winner is Lydia Mulvany, who as part of her prize won a trip to a biotechnology conference in Cesme, Turkey, called the ‘Novel Approaches in Food Industry International Food Congress.’ This update is Lydia’s way of sharing with U.S. soybean farmers what she’s learning there.
Hello from the Altin Yunus Hotel in Çeşme, Turkey! I’m a journalism graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and I’m blogging from the Novel Approaches in Food Industry International Food Congress (NAFI2011).
The conference started off with a speaker from the University of Illinois, Jozef Kokini, Ph.D., an expert in nanotechnology and food engineering. He says food science and agriculture are beginning to benefit from advances in nanotechnology, which is associated with advances in information technology and medicine. This merging of nanotechnology and food science is a field in its infancy, and Kokini gave an overview.
First, a quick explanation of nanotechnology. In terms of scale, let’s go from large to small: The head of a pin is a few millimeters; a dust mite is a about 200 microns; a blood cell is 2-5 micrometers; and 1 micrometer is 1000 nanometers (nm). A DNA molecule is 2-10 nm. Kokini says that the range where we see value and impact is between 50-200 nanometers, and there are unique properties that emerge from being at those scales.
There are several possible ways this technology can impact food science. Nanotechnology might be able to help with food safety and efficiency in the creation of more sensitive devices and sensors. For instance, there has been work on “nanocantilevers” that have a characteristic resonant frequency that change when E.coli sit on them. Nanotechnology can also have an impact with functional foods, enabling the delivery of bioactive compounds with health benefits. It could also be used to enhance packaging materials.
Kokini drew a parallel to this emerging field with that of biotechnology, especially regarding advances in functional foods. He said the food science community needs to remain transparent and thorough about the way information is deduced, and to steer the public in the right direction so that people don’t become cynical about the value of the results.
I went to several other sessions, but the other one I’d like to share is a talk about knowledge-based bioeconomies by Artemis Karaali, Ph.D., from Yeditepe University in Istanbul. The bioeconomy is any sector that derives its products from biomass, and is often described with the “Four F’s,” namely food, feed, fiber and fuel. It’s a 1.5 trillion-dollar market in the EU.
Karaali said the European bioeconomy can’t compete globally by delivering basic commodities, but rather needs to deliver innovations. It needs a “knowledge-based” bioeconomy, with knowledge-based defined as “advances in life-sciences and biotechnologies in convergence with other technologies such as nanotechnology, chemistry and information technology.”
Karaali said a major reason for Europe’s lag is a lack of world-class research infrastructure, the costs of which are usually too much for a single country. Another reason is fragmentation. In other words, different European countries are working on a lot of similar initiatives, which can be seen as a waste of resources and duplication of efforts.
An indicator of the gap between the EU and the United States involving biotechnology: U.S. biotechnology companies grow faster and generate six times the revenue of European companies. The new arrivals in the bioeconomy scene – Brazil, Russia, India and China – are behind Europe, but closing the gap.
The future for Europe regarding biotechnology therefore lies in reducing fragmentation and strengthening its knowledge base. How? Give money to drivers of change. There are the so-called ‘yollies,’ or ‘young leading innovators.’ Apparently, there are a lot more ‘yollies’ hanging around in U.S. cities than in the EU.
Other goals are to focus funding on innovation, translational research, and to make research less bureaucratic. Karaali is an advisor for the EU’s Framework Program 7 (FP7), which is a research and innovation framework. One of the thematic priorities is food and biotechnology, and a main objective is to “build a European knowledge-based bioeconomy” that will be the basis for “new eco-efficient and competitive biobased products.”
The concept of frontier research was key in Karaali’s talk. This is a new initiative that aims to up the EU’s innovation game, so it’s focused on “high-risk/high-gain” and identifying (and funding) excellent individual researchers of any age, nationality or career stage. Turkish citizens are eligible for this funding as well, so there will be some additional sessions about this at the conference.
Some of the research priorities in Karaali’s presentation relate to the use of biotechnoloy for biocontrol and bioremediation. Check my post tomorrow for more information—I’m going to try and track some Turkish scientists down for conversations about biotech in Turkey/EU.
Finally, a note about life in Turkey: One of the best things about being in Turkey is Turkish breakfasts. As one of my new Turkish friends, Elef, said to me, “You mean, you don’t eat olives for breakfast in America?” I’ve started off each day with at least an hour-long breakfast, sometimes two, just sipping tea and eating fresh-cut bread with salty white cheese, jam, honey, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and oddly enough, bits of hot dog. Sometimes you get a tomato-ey, cheesy scrambled egg as well. The Altin Yunus (the conference hotel) is no different, except that everything is served at an enormous buffet. And you can eat your breakfast looking out over the Aegean.
About Lydia Mulvany
Lydia is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism majoring in print and radio. She has a bachelor’s in liberal arts/music from the University of Chicago and a master’s in philosophy and literature from Boston University’s University Professors Program. Before coming to graduate school, she has written for newspapers in North Carolina and Massachusetts and currently contributes reports to Columbia’s NPR affiliate, KBIA. She won two journalistic awards in 2008 and 2009 from the New England Press Association. Finally, she plays piano and violin, performing solo and in ensembles.