NSF PR 03-72 - June 27, 2003
US-EC Biotech Task Force Keys on Research, Collaboration
'Transkingdom biology' joins health, food, biosafety, and environment on agenda
ARLINGTON, Va.—On topics ranging from mutant mice for biomedicine to pathogens without passports, the U.S.-European Commission (EC) Task Force on Biotechnology Research this week heard the latest on research bridging the Atlantic.
At the meetings, held at the National Science Foundation (NSF) yesterday and Wednesday, a new potential for trans-Atlantic scientific collaboration arose—"transkingdom" biology, the comparative molecular analysis of diverse organisms from the microbial, plant and animal kingdoms.
As biologists discover increasing commonalities within the molecular machinery of diverse life forms, research results from divergent disciplines are converging with a new, broader relevance.
"Now," said Martha Steinbock, a representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service on the 24-member task force, "because of genomics, botanists, zoologists, microbiologists and others have a common language. That insight has opened up an entirely new field of research that could have profound impacts."
The task force has met annually since 1990. It is composed of biotechnology representatives of the EC, which is the executive branch of the European Union, and participants from U.S. federal agencies, including NSF, National Institutes of Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, the State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
NSF Director Rita Colwell told the group, "In an era of international uncertainty and frequent global misunderstanding, scientific activity offers—more than ever—the potential to create ties of mutual benefit.... It is worth reminding ourselves that new ideas and new discoveries emerge regularly around the world."
International collaboration, she said, was of "critical importance" because of the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science, the value of exchanging research results and diverse perspectives, and the "potential to catalyze partnerships among nations."
"No science today can thrive in isolation," Colwell said. "...Pathogens themselves do not carry passports, and microbiologists work, as much as any scientists, around the globe."
The U.S.-EC task force's mandate extends beyond microbes. It also fosters international biotechnical collaboration in realms such as marine biology, instrumentation and facilities, plant and animal genomes, molecular tools, biosafety, advanced information systems and the environment.
Researchers in Europe and the U.S., for example, are testing ways to improve the ability of some microbes to break down - and hence detoxify - toxic substances. To help develop better-connected, more capable environmental biotechnologists, the task force supports post-doctoral international-exchange fellowships and training sessions. One session, held in February in Spain, focused on "molecular biology in the environment" and included field research at the site of a major oil spill of the northern coast of Spain.
Each year preceding its general meeting, the task force holds a workshop on a specific area fertile for discovery. This year's spawned "transkingdom" biology.
"All of our workshops point toward the future," said Mary Clutter, who heads NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences and co-chairs the trans-Atlantic task force. "We identify areas of cutting-edge research on important topics. We bring together scientists working at the interfaces between disciplines in key areas. Down the line, this can lead to new areas of inquiry. It also leads to research that can support sound science policy on emerging issues."
For example, the term nanobiotechnology was coined at a 1996 workshop, and biodiversity informatics arose as a priority out of a 1992 session.
"Looking back, we've been looking ahead for a long time," Clutter said.
According to the task forces' other co-chair, Etienne Magnien, acting director of the EC's directorate for agriculture and biotechnology, "programs catalyzed by the task force have challenged the scientific communities on both sides of the Atlantic to expand their thinking beyond specific disciplines. We are now broadening that challenge by including social scientists in all activities we sponsor."
The U.S.-EC Task Force on Biotechnology Research next meets June 23-24, 2004, in Brussels, Belgium, home of the EC, preceded by a workshop on emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
U.S. task force co-chair: Mary E. Clutter, Assistant Director, Directorate for Biological Sciences, NSF, (703) 292-8400, firstname.lastname@example.org.
EC task force co-chair: Etienne Magnien, Acting Director; Research Directorate-General, Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food Research; 32(02)29 59347, Etienne.Magnien@cec.eu.int
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