The United States and Europe are the two largest regions where the revolution in life sciences and biotechnology is taking place. That is why a forum for scientific discussions and exchange of ideas between both sides of the Atlantic was set up fifteen years ago. The EC/US Task Force on biotechnology research is a long-standing relationship between equal partners, that plays a major role in determining the direction and promotes scientific progress in all the most promising fields.
The EC-US Biotechnology Research Task Force was set up in 1990 on the initiative of the European Commission and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Next September, the fifteenth anniversary of this active transatlantic discussion and cooperation forum between political and scientific decision-makers, will provide an opportunity to review the important role that it has played and continues to play in guiding and exploiting the ongoing revolution in biotechnology and the life sciences.
The bio revolution Looking back, where was biotechnology at the time this initiative was launched? While there was an awareness that biological knowledge and its uses for technical purposes held the promise of a major revolution, 15 years ago it was very much in its infancy and few imagined that it would develop so quickly.
It is indeed the rate of change that is most striking when viewing these 15 years of progress in the biosciences and biotechnologies through the prism of the Task Force. Today, everybody is familiar with terms such as 'DNA' genome, or ‘cloning’, but back then these words were of interest purely to scientists. The first transgenic plants became commercially available in 1994, the first mammal (Dolly the sheep) was cloned in 1997, and the human genome was sequenced in June 2001, although much remains to be done in analysing its some 3 billion nucleotides. In such a fast changing world, it is hardly surprising that scientific leaders in the two world centres for biological research should feel the need to meet regularly.
Dialogue and co-operation Attended by the heads of the US Federal biotechnology funding agencies(1) and their Commission counterparts, the annual Task Force meetings are the occasion to exchange views on present and future issues. During its 15 years of existence, the Task Force has covered some very innovative fields, such as early developments in bioinformatics (in 1992) and the concept of nanobiotechnologies (a new term coined by the Task Force itself in 1997). Other major subjects of discussion can be mentioned, such as neonatal immunology, mapping of the human brain, marine biotechnology, biodiversity research, transkingdom molecular biology and, genomics.
The Task Force activities are not limited to exchanges of opinions between delegations. Through sponsoring workshops, and other activities, the Task Force also brings together scientific leaders and early career researchers to forecast research challenges and to promote better links between scientific communities.
Standards for a ‘Big Science’ In fact, biology is now well established as a ‘Big Science’, a field in which projects require international co-operation on a large scale. These initiatives are aimed in particular at stimulating the scientific communities on both sides of the Atlantic to overcome the barriers between disciplines.(2)
One such example is the Task Force’s discussions, beginning in the early 1990s, on ‘standards in bioinformatics’. Each of the life science disciplines has developed its own databases according to its own technical standards. This has resulted in wasted resources due to duplication of databases and loss of time because of the need for information to be cross-referenced. A microbiologist, for example, may need to know whether a bacterium on which he is working has already been taken from the environment (biodiversity), if it has been linked to a human disease (medicine), and if its genome has already been sequenced already (genetics). The Task Force therefore chose to concentrate on the organisation and structure of databases rather than their content. This encouraged progress to be made in defining universal standards by other organisations (3).
Plant potential Today’s pressing issues include emerging infectious diseases, biotechnologies applied to environmental clean up, green biotechnology, and also issues of concern to society such as bioethics. The central theme of an April 2004 joint workshop was the development of plants that can be used as feedstocks to produce plastics or fuel.
"The plant world is a sustainable resource that is potentially able to reduce our dependence on petrochemical products while offering the prospect of new markets for agriculture,” stresses Christian Patermann, head of Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food Research at the European Commission, and EC Co-Chairperson of the Task Force. “But to realise this potential we must develop our knowledge and fundamental tools and assess the relative risks and benefits. These complex subjects require international scientific co-operation to promote the contribution of the biotechnologies to new ‘eco’ innovations.”
Sharing research and researchers The bilateral exchange of information, the joint identification of emerging issues, and the defining of common standards are indeed important. Yet no description of the Task Force activities would be complete without including the continuous efforts to promote training and researcher exchanges. One notable example is in the field of molecular biology for environmental applications, in which around 100 international grants have been awarded to postdoctoral students, in particular for research on the use of biotechnology and molecular biology to clean up environmental pollution such as the Prestige oil spill on the coast of north-west Spain.
“What makes the Task Force unique,” says Mary E. Clutter, Assistant Director, Biological Sciences, National Science Foundation (NSF) and US Co-Chairperson of the Task Force, is that is remains focussed on the future of science. This year’s workshop, ‘The Future of Plant Biology,” held in June 2005 at NSF headquarters in Arlington, VA, is an excellent example. The workshop addressed many exciting new concepts in plant biology including interactome networks, “the virtual plant”, and re-domestification of wild plant species, as well as sharing and adapting this new knowledge with developing countries.” The next meeting of the Task Force is planned for September 2005 in Arlington, VA.
(1) National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Energy, the State Department and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, etc. (2) This multidisciplinarity was recently extended by also including in the workshops representatives of social sciences who study developments in biology. (3) Global Biodiversity Information Facility
The Biotechnology Research Task Force was set up in the wake of the implementation of the first "Transatlantic Declaration”, signed in 1990. This enshrined the shared determination to strengthen cooperation and consultation between the Union and the American government in the fields of the economy, ...
The Biotechnology Research Task Force was set up in the wake of the implementation of the first "Transatlantic Declaration”, signed in 1990. This enshrined the shared determination to strengthen cooperation and consultation between the Union and the American government in the fields of the economy, education, science and culture.
From the scientific viewpoint, the rapprochement which had already been tried for eight years in the field of life sciences (as well as in relation to information technologies) was broadened in 1998, under the first Scientific and Technological Cooperation Agreement, which aimed particularly at developing coordinated or joint research projects.
The Agreement was renewed in October 2004, and includes fields such as metrology, new materials and nanotechnologies, the environment and climate research, biomedicine (for example, in relation to AIDS, infectious diseases and drug addition), non-nuclear(1) and renewable energy sources (particularly the hydrogen chain), telematics and the mobility and training of researchers. Because of the specific nature of the work undertaken by the Biotechnology Research Task Force, it has continued to operate independently of this Agreement.
(1) A separate EU-USA agreement, signed in the context of the Euratom Treaty, which came into effect in 1996, concerns civil nuclear energy and, in particular, the research aspect.