Completion of genome mappings of both tossa and deshi (white) genera of jute and that of the plant’s enemy — a deadly fungus — by Bangladeshi geneticists in consecutive three years is a great feat in itself.
However, that’s only a part of a huge scientific success story of Bangladesh, and its band of famed and young enthusiast scientists.
The other parts of the success story are building of a state-of-the-art genomics research facility in the country and development of capacity in dealing with intellectual property rights (IPR) and patent laws.
These successes — which even many developed countries envy — indeed, come by default while globally famed Bangladeshi geneticist Dr Maqsudul Alam and his team persistently pursued jute genomics.
While genome sequencing of jute and fungus rekindled hope for better yields of the world’s second most important natural fibre after cotton, the research and development (R&D) facilities and team of IPR experts — built up centring on this genomics project — come as a bonus.
Maqsudul, who is also credited with sequencing genome of papaya in the United States and that of rubber in Malaysia, yesterday invited journalists for the first time to visit the modern and hi-tech lab facility built under the Basic & Applied Research on Jute (BARJ) Project at Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI) in the capital.
Addressing the media, a day after the prime minister had formally announced the success in decoding the genome of white jute, Maqsudul proudly claimed that the government’s right investment in genomics study helped develop such a world class R&D laboratory facility.
“We also did not have the expertise on patenting laws. Thanks to this project (BARJ) that we have been able to develop human capacity in dealing with IPR and patenting issues,” he said.
To stop brain drain in the form of scientists leaving the local research stations and pursuing science in foreign labs, Maqsudul said they needed patronisation not only by the government but also by the private research organisations.
“And the private sector will only be attracted to frontier researches when we’ll be able to exploit the patenting benefits,” he said, adding that five patents have already been filed on jute genome.
He pointed out that any research on development of jute anywhere in the world would now require jute science know-how from Bangladesh.
Asked how long it would take to apply the scientific advancement in farmers’ fields, the famed scientist and his team members said it would take two to five years. But they also said confidently that once finer and stress-resistant varieties are developed, Bangladesh would be able to use more jute in clothing and lessen import dependency for cotton.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of jute, after India, and the world’s largest exporter of the fibre.
Genome sequence represents a valuable shortcut, helping scientists find genes much more easily and quickly. A genome sequence allows scientists to identify and understand how genes work together for the plant’s different features like growth, development and maintenance as an entire organism. This allows them to manipulate the genes and enhance, reduce or add certain features of the plant.
Maqsudul’s colleagues in the lab showed the journalists some of the latest machinery like ultra-centrifuge DNA separator, gene pulsar – capable of infusing foreign genes, and 3rd generation sequencing machine. Samiul Haque, programme manager, and Md Shahidul Islam, a senior biotechnologist, both of whom worked with Maqsudul, told The Daily Star that the lab’s machinery is as good and as latest as in any advanced genomics lab in Europe and America.
For the sake of not divulging secrets to Bangladesh’s competitors in jute sector, Maqsudul and his team refrained from mentioning the amount of money spent on BARJ. “I can tell you this much that we spent only two percent of the fund that would have been required for such research in the EU and US.”
Flanked by BJRI Director General Dr Kamal Uddin, Dr Alam introduced his team of scientists and patent lawyers to journalists, and they all honoured Bangladesh’s first generation torch bearer in jute research Prof Ahmed Shamsul Islam by presenting him a bouquet.
Maqsudul acknowledged the inspiration instilled in him by Ahmed Shamsul, now 89, who started his jute research career back in 1955 and was consulted by Maqsudul when he had first moved to do the jute genome job in 2008.