The work of the University of York based Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in helping to combat malaria has been recognised by the prestigious Times Higher Education Awards.
CNAP was shortlisted in the International Collaboration of the Year category for its Artemisia Research Project which aims to make vital medicines more accessible to malaria victims.
The Artemisia Research Project is developing improved varieties of the medicinal plant Artemisia annua. This plant is currently the sole source of the leading anti malaria drug artemisinin but it only produces the drug in very low amounts. CNAP’s aim is to use the latest genetic techniques to accelerate and enhance traditional plant breeding and create new, non-GM varieties of Artemisia with increased artemisinin yields. High-performing Artemisia hybrids are now being field-trialled in the major commercial growing regions of Africa and Asia.
Plants are the ultimate non-polluting, green factory. Using energy from the sun, nutrients from the soil, carbon dioxide and water, they produce oxygen, food, clothing and shelter, plus valuable chemicals ranging from medicines to industrial oils, flavours and fragrances.
CNAP researchers are also identifying small molecules from plants that directly affect the immune system. Working in collaboration with the University of York based Centre for Immunology and Infection. CNAP is developing new insight and tools to address the increase in immune-related disorders.
CNAP operates as a strategic research centre in specialised laboratories clustered around the CNAP Plant Genome Facility and the Biology Department’s Technology Facility. It is dedicated to realising the potential of plants and microbes as green factories, developing new, renewable resources through gene discovery and germplasm development.
Other novel, plant-derived products under development at CNAP include optimised plant oils for skin care, perennial grasses that detoxify contaminated land and biorefining plant-based feedstocks.
Plant biomass offers huge potential as a renewable source of liquid fuel, but needs cost effective conversion of woody material to sugar. CNAP researchers have discovered a suite of genes from the gribble, a small crustacean wood borer that lives in the sea, which converts woody material to sugar. This organism has a sterile gut but can survive on a diet of wood, which means it produces all the enzymes to break down the wood itself. A CNAP team is now focusing on characterisation of the gribble genes and their biotechnological development.
The explosives RDX and TNT are widespread contaminants at military training ranges. Both these compounds are highly toxic, accumulate in the soil and contaminate water. A CNAP team funded by the United States Department of Defense is developing plants such as perennial grasses and poplar trees that grow on contaminated soils. These take up the RDX and TNT and convert them to harmless molecules that can be used to support plant growth.
Crops that can grow larger during the lower temperatures of autumn, winter and spring have the potential to yield more biomass and larger numbers of seeds. CNAP research has led to the discovery of a gene that regulates plant growth at lower temperatures. The discovery was made using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The aim now is to partner with industry to establish if this same gene can be used to increase the growth and yield of crops grown at lower temperatures.
Renewable oils and specialty chemicals have a significant role to play as bio-based feedstocks in a sustainable chemical and fuel industry. The raw material for biorefining can be obtained from growing dedicated biorefinery crops or sourcing ‘waste’ materials from other industries, such as food and biofuels. Scientists from CNAP are working on the development of hemp as a dedicated biorefinery crop for the UK. Funding from the Technology Strategy Board enabled a very successful programme with Boots the Chemist which focused around hemp seed oil and resulted in the development of new skin care products. The aim now is to develop hemp varieties as a source not just of oil, but also of fibre, fuel and high value chemicals.
- CNAP was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2006. The award recognises its role as a centre of excellence for strategic research on plants and microbes.
- Research in CNAP is funded by UK Government Research Councils, charitable organisations, EU Framework programmes, and industry. The annual spend in CNAP is £5.2m with total competitive open funding in 2009-2010 of £22m. More than 50 per cent of CNAP’s income is from overseas organisations, demonstrating its global competitiveness and the demand for its activities.