The Plant and Agricultural Biosciences Centre comprises a range of inter-linked and synergistic research themes, where research projects and initiatives are currently underway:
- Future Crop: Plants (and other photosynthetic organisms) are the ultimate solar-powered biological systems selected by evolution. Humans are wholly dependent on terrestrial plants for our survival, as plants are the basis of our food, feed (e.g. for animals & aquaculture), nutrition, fibre (for textiles), fuel (energy), building materials, medicines, "green chemicals" and ecosystem services such as oxygen levels in the athmosphere and carbon management. Research in this theme focuses on plant/crop science and agronomy approaches to leverage plant and crop biosciences for "bio-based" sustainable development.
- Algal Biosciences: Algae are predominantly photosynthetic organisms that can be unicellular (microalgae) or multicellular (macroalgae; seaweeds). They occupy marine, freshwater and terrestrial habitats and are involved in many biotic (e.g. symbiotic) interactions. Both seaweeds and microalgae have wide and growing range of applications for provision of human food, animal feed, pharmaceuticals, industrial products including bioactives, and the provision of other bio-derived products including biofuels. From a biotechnological perspective, research on the harnessing of algae for provision of useful products and services for humanity is in its infancy, with major opportunities for algal biosciences innovations.
- Tree & Forestry: Forests directly support livelihoods through provision of fuelwood, sawtimber, paper, pulp. More than half of the wood biomass consumed globally, well over 80 percent in developing countries, is burned as fuel. Pulping waste can be used as a bio-derived source of industrial solvents, livestock feed, lubricants, consumer products (such as artificial vanillin) and medicines. Forests can be separated into planted and natural forest systems. While only 7 percent (271 million hectares) of the world’s forests are planted these forests are responsible for 66% of total global roundwood production.
- AgriGlycosciences: Glycobiology involves the investigation of sugar chains (glycans) and their functional properties in biological organisms. Agri-glycobiology research underway in NUI Galway and with partner institutions involves increasing understanding of functional and biotechnological properties of sugar chains in livestock products (dairy, meat, eggs), in crops, algae and in plant-derived foods and products.
- Food, Feed and Nutrition: Humans and livestock are in need of more nutritious and sustainable food and feed. The development of improved food and feed will be critical to improving the health and nutritional status of ~1000 million people who are undernourished and the other ~1000 million overweight people who are prone to chronic diseases associated with obesity. The doubling of demand for animal products (meat, dairy) between 2000 and 2030 is a key driver for more sustainable feed and protein supply systems, where feed conversion ratios are increased while reducing the environmental footprint associated with livestock (especially cattle) production.
- Food Science & Technology: Food science and technology harnesses a range of disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, and biochemistry to better understand food processes and ultimately improve food products for consumers. Food scientists study the physical, microbiological, and chemical makeup of foods, and apply their research to develop the safe, nutritious and sustainable foods for consumers. The St Angela’s Food Technology Hub within the PABC is committed to the development of the very highest standards in all areas of food production and supply, catering to the needs of the food industry including food production and processing, hotels, restaurants, catering and retailers. The Food Technology Team have expertise in New Product Development, Sensory Analysis, Nutritional Analysis, Labelling, Food Industry Training and in Food Safety Management.
- PlantBioProducts, Agri-Microbial & Enzyme Biosciences: The global chemical manufacturing industry has a demand requirement for 400 million tonnes of petrochemicals each year to generate the chemical feedstocks for chemistry-based manufacturing processes. In Ireland, the chemicals industry contributes 30,000 jobs, €35 billion exports and about 35% of Irelands total exports. The PABC vision is to foster agrifood competitiveness while also advancing the plant-based bioeconomy. To generate the low-carbon bio-based economies of the future, there is a need to foster research and innovation to harness advances in chemical (e.g. thermochemistry, catalysis, green chemistry) and biological conversions (e.g. enzymology, metabolic engineering, metabolic compartmentalisation, synthetic biology) to generate different streams of value added products from plant/crop materials that can generate jobs and export earnings. Industrial or white biotechnology uses enzymes and micro-organisms to make bio-based products in sectors such as chemicals, food and feed, detergents, paper and pulp, textiles and bioenergy (such as biofuels or biogas).
- Closed-Loop AgriBio: Recent analyses of planetary boundary conditions highlight that agriculture (due to human demand for food and other agri-products) is a major driver of environmental pollution (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorous, greenhouse gases). In the move to design circular sustainable economies (to meet the Sustainable Development Goals - SDGs), there is a need for agricultural production systems and agricultural value-chains to reduce their overall environmental footprint and move towards a more sustainable closed loop nutrient and energy recycling system. For example, phosphate reserves are finite and depleting towards a “peak phosphorous” scenario, yet are essential components of fertilisers for crop productivity. Examples of such activities in NUI Galway include the DairyWater Project led by Dr. Xinmin Zhan which conducts research on waste streams from dairy processing. There is an urgent need to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrient loss from farming systems and agrifood value chains, while reducing energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
- Smart Farm, AgriEngineering & AgriInformatics: Farmers and agrifood value chain stakeholders are poised to be empowered towards improved profitability and sustainability by the development of a suite of smart farm technologies that will emerge from a technological convergence that is underway. The development of smart-farm, precision-agriculture and smart-agriculture technologies and tools is already occurring through fast-paced advances and innovations. The PABC is working in partnership with others to develop the next generation of smart farm innovations.
- Climate Change, Agriculture & Food Security (CCAFS): The planet's climate is rapidly changing due to global warming, and will continue to do so for the decades and centuries ahead. This poses major challenges for future agricultural systems to provide food and other bioresources for the 9 billion people that will occupy the planet by 2050. The PABC is working in partnership with the global Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) initiative, on research and training activities in Ireland and in Africa. This partnership has developed the new MSc in Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) to provide students with the skills and tools for developing agricultural practices, policies and measures addressing the challenge that global warming poses for agriculture and food security worldwide. Follow the MSc CCAFS news on Twitter!
- Agricultural Research for Development (AG4D): The PABC has a range of AG4D research projects and programmes underway with partners in developing countries, and with international organisations involved in agricultural research fro development (e.g. CGIAR, FAO, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation etc).
- AgriBio-Economic Systems Modelling: AgriBio-Economic Systems models are used to assess the economic impact in a business, whether farm, forest, aquaculture, bio-energy business etc of changes in biological processes. The modelling approach combines the modelling of biological processes with an economic assessment. A significant modelling infrastructure has and is being developed by jointly by researchers in Teagasc and NUI Galway to support the needs of agribio-based industries in Ireland. Working closely and in collaboration with Teagasc’s Rural Economy and Development Programme, this theme is focussed on (1) Promoting synergies in research and model development; and (2) Increase the use and applicability of the modelling infrastructure across the agribio-based industries and value chains in Ireland and internationally.
- Agri-Economics, Policy, Impacts, and Evaluation: Plant and agricultural research which is undertaken in close partnership with the needs of stakeholders (e.g. consumers, farmers, policymakers etc) can have higher odds of economic, commercial and social impacts. The identification of evidence gaps at the macro and field levels is critical to informing more effective policies, programmes and impacts from agricultural research activities. Agronomic, economic, social, marketing and participatory research approaches can inform and facilitate stronger linkages between upstream researchers and intended end-users. End-users of agricultural research can range from food and energy consumers, farmers, patients, and institutional partners (e.g. NGOs, private companies, extension services, government agencies etc).