Centre will harness data analytics to develop genetics and health innovations 

The joint power of world-leading research and technology will be used to improve the output of agriculture and enhance food security, following announcement of a £74m investment in a new Agritech Hub, via the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.  

The Hub will be based at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus in Midlothian, and will bring together researchers with commercial, public and third-sector organisations. Its work will engage with a diversity of farmed and companion animal species, delving into such areas of innovation as data-driven breeding and aquaculture. This will improve health outcomes for both humans and animals – a ‘one health’ approach.  

“This is a very exciting time for agriscience, with transformative technology and data-sharing opening up new approaches for fair and inclusive growth,” says Professor Bruce Whitelaw, Interim Director of the Roslin Institute. The Hub will harness data analytics to develop genetics and health innovations in agriscience and agribusiness and help transform agritech to a net zero carbon sector.   

In addition to its global ambitions, Professor Whitelaw explains why the Hub will have a regional focus. He added: “We aim at Easter Bush to make our Agritech Hub the destination of choice – for the citizen who wants to upskill; the student who wants to learn; commercial players seeking innovative academic partners to develop solutions to industry challenges; and budding entrepreneurs eager to grow their dreams into tomorrow’s commercial leading activities. All of this is based on providing leadership in the generation, curation, analysis and meaningful representation of agritech data. The City Region Deal will drive an innovation pipeline from Easter Bush in Midlothian across our country and internationally, built on novel research and fuelling a step change in upskilling, talent development and enterprise activities.”  

The Agritech Hub is part of the City Region Deal’s wider investment into data-driven innovation – a core strategic theme for the University of Edinburgh – and includes substantial capital investment from the UK and Scottish governments (£27m and £1.3m respectively).  

Case Study: BeeBytes

BeeBytes is a start-up based at the Roslin Innovation Centre at the University of Edinburgh’s Easter Bush Campus. Its founders are Mark Barnett and David Wragg of the Roslin Institute, and Matthew Richardson from the School of Engineering. Barnett and Wragg are honey bee researchers, and both Barnett and Richardson are Scottish Expert Beemasters. BeeBytes is a community interest company specialising in the analysis of honey bee genetics and DNA analysis. Its mission is to help beekeepers and bee farmers select and breed honey bees in the UK. The company will help conserve the native honey bee subspecies, offering a low-cost genotyping and analysis service so beekeepers and breeders can increase colony numbers by selecting from their best stock. This will involve beekeepers posting samples of bee antennae to the scientists, who in turn perform a DNA test to quantify the native ancestry proportion of their honey bee colony as many beekeepers prefer to keep the native subspecies.

That information will then be used to build a real-time data map of native bee populations across the UK, which will help inform beekeepers of the viability of the subspecies in their areas. Over the longer term the company also hopes to commercialise a pollen meta-barcoding service – a DNA analysis used to understand honey bee, bumblebee and solitary bee nutrition by sequencing samples of pollen brought back to the hive or nest. This product will be able to determine what flowers bees are feeding on, giving beekeepers valuable information about what to plant locally to ensure their colonies thrive on the best available nutrients. In time, the company may also develop a “bee MOT” to perform individual health checks for beekeepers’ colonies. The low-cost genotyping to identify native honey bees and the meta-barcoding of pollen are just the first steps in developing genetic testing, and will provide a valuable early income generator. Both of the products will initially be focused on UK markets, but the techniques can be applied internationally. There are estimated to be 274,000 honey bee hives in the UK, approximately 44,000 amateur beekeepers and 200 professional bee farmers.

Honey bee colonies in Europe and the United States are in decline. This is not thought to be due to a single factor, but instead to be the result of changes in forage availability, new pests and diseases, pesticides, climate change and beekeeping practices. BeeBytes wants to illuminate the bigger picture on pollinator decline, to assist in the breeding of honey bees that are bettersuited to modern ecosystems. Barnett said: “BeeBytes aims to help UK beekeepers select and breed their preferred type of honey bee and will increase the available knowledge on honey bee genetics by working in partnership with the beekeepers themselves. We will support the conservation of the native UK honey bee and help to monitor honey bee health.”