World leaders at the Earth summit in Johannesburg heard yesterday from a trustee of Future Harvest UK, a charity that aims to understand how to feed the world while preserving its fragile environment.
Chris Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council's clinical sciences centre and head of clinical sciences at Imperial College London appealed for the establishment of a global fund to support gene banks. He hopes that quiet behind-the-scenes manoeuvring could bring about crucial changes to the way gene banks operate in the future and help preserve crop biodiversity.
Professor Higgins describes his work with Future Harvest UK as "spare-time" work. His research is on the fundamental molecular mechanisms of cellular processes and the interaction of organisms and their environment. In 1982, he discovered the ABC superfamily of transporters, one of the largest of all protein families. It is present in all cell types and all species, from bacteria to humans. These proteins are of major importance to understanding how cancers resist chemotherapy, as well as to research into cystic fibrosis and antibiotic resistance.
Professor Higgins was originally a musician. He graduated from the Royal College of Music and describes his career as that of a failed violinist. He then trained in botany, obtaining his degree and PhD from the University of Durham. In 1979, he became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to the UK to take up a job at the University of Dundee. He has also been professor and head of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Oxford University, the first time a non-clinician was appointed to a clinical chair there.
Professor Higgins appointed the first artist-in-residence at the clinical sciences centre, and he led the "MRC Orchestra" in the first performance of a newly commissioned work at the Royal College of Music last year.