IET Global grand challenges summit

A while back I had the pleasure of receiving a call from Dr. Ian Nussey OBE a long standing leader of IBM’s university relations programme, Ian was extending an invite to attend the IET Global grand challenges summit being held on the 12th and 13th of March at the IET building Savoy place in London.

Opportunities like this don’t come along every day and i was excited to see that the list of guest speakers contained some of the most eminent academics and industry leaders in the fields of engineering and science.

The theme of the summit was around the grand challenges that exist in todays world and how they can be tackled by some of the staggering advances that are being made in fields such as synthetic biology.

The grand challenges jointly propose by the Royal Academy and the IET had been summarise in a list of 14. The list consisted of…

* Make solar energy economical
* Provide energy from fusion
* Develop carbon sequestration methods
* Manage the nitrogen cycle
* Provide access to clean water
* Advance health informatics
* Engineer better medicines
* Restore and improve urban infrastructure
* Reverse engineer the brain
* Secure cyberspace
* Prevent nuclear terror
* Advance personal learning
* Enhance virtual reality
* Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Attendees were drawn from a mixture of Academia and various industries.

The summit was arranged around a set of major topics – sustainability, health, education, enriching life, resilience, technology and growth.

Day one started with an introduction by Professor Dame Ann Dowling. Shortly followed by the keynote speech given by Dr J Craig Venter founder of the Venter institute.

Dr. Venter began with an some stats to highlight the challenges we face in a world that is projected to reach a population of 9 billion by 2050 (Something later commmented upon by Bill Gates*) and pointed out that rates of growth are different according to culture, for example the population of India will be greater than China by 2030 at the current rate of increase.
He pointed out that food, fuel and water are the 3 resources that we need to survive and they are of equal importance, all need to be managed as scarce resources.
We use 4-5 billion tons of coal a year and as a result the carbon sinks of this world the oceans and forests are saturated.China the US and Europe together contribute the biggest proportion of CO2 emissions only Europe is currently taking (mostly ineffective- think carbon credits) action to combat this.

Water is a very mismanaged resource, in food production terms the average amount of water needed to produce the food consumed by a single person is 5000 litres a day.70% of water used is in agriculture and farming, for example 1kg of beef takes 15,000 litres of water to produce.

To combat the issues of water scarcity disruptive change is required.

Synthetic life: Control over nature has long been a human goal, “DNA is the software of life” and the Venter institute have compiled a large database of DNA samples collected from oceans around the world. The challenge they undertook was to see if they can create a synthetic chromosone and ‘boot it up’ The process they have developed is to effectively program with DNA, they have developed software to help design and develop ‘biological software’ and inject it into brewers yeast resulting in an altered cell structure. The potential of this technique and flexibility afforded by programming with DNA opens uo the possibilities of designing food or even fuel.
One topical subject at te moment at least in the UK is antibiotic resistance, in the US more people die from bacterial infections than from car accidents.

The Venter institute have now had the first genome based vaccine approved by the FDA for meningitis.
Using the software and hardware created by the institute they can receive samples of a bacteria and create a custom cell based vaccine in 12 hours.

The software and hardware they have developed is known as a Digital Biological Convertor (DBC) and can take a digital representation of the vacine ‘software’ and produce it in an automated manner, essentially it prints it.

Using the digital representation and DBC vaccines could be created and shipped all around the world to be produced in extremely short time scales.

The DBC opens exciting possibilities for developing synthetic life which has implications beyond vaccines, but also raises issues such as Intellectual property management, security, trust and regulatory issues.
After the keynote was the first panel on sustainability consisting of …
Professor Jeffrey Sachs
Alfred Castelan
Angela Belcher
John Longhead
Calestous Juma

Jeffrey Sachs highlighted the fact that conflict centers around the world are largely centered on dry zones and highlighted the increasing numbers of droughts that are occuring. In particular the US drought in 2012  destroyed 20% of the annual crop yield. He also talked about what the developing world needed to do to catch up with the developed world tackling issues of gender and discrimination, environmental degradation, population control and youth jobs.

you can find  more details and videos of the event here