Potentials of biotechnology | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 01, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 01, 2016

Silver jubilee special

Potentials of biotechnology

Biotechnology is the application of any technology to biological systems and living organisms or derivatives to develop or make useful products for specific use. Biotechnology and human civilisation are rolling together side by side undoubtedly from the very beginning of history but the story of modern biotechnology is not more than four dacades old. Traditional Biotechnology, which led to the development of processes for producing various products like bread, yogurt, or vinegar, was entirely pragmatic and lacked any understanding of the mechanisms that led to the product. There was no deliberate design to produce a desired new product. In contrast, modern biotechnology uses the in-depth understandings that have been gained little by little. In the case of an established product, the new biotechnological process is cost effective and better in various aspects than the earlier processes. Whatever is the technology, traditional or modern, we are in a place of being blessed with the fruits of biotechnology from dawn to dusk. 

Unraveling the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 was the most important discovery in 20th century. This discovery has initiated a new era in science that has achieved enormous speed in research and discovery with the genetic engineering in its belt since 1970. Modern biotechnology is overpowering fictions one after another through amazing discoveries such as Insulin-producing bacteria for the treatment of Diabetes, making 'Dolly', the first clone of a sheep or creating artificial life 'Synthia' introducing artificially synthesised genetic material from raw materials into an organism without genetic material. Stem cells from which scientists are now producing heart cell-like beating cells, and differentiating them into other cell types is an emerging discipline that takes biotechnology a step further.

Biotechnology has applications in four major industrial areas, including health care, agriculture, industrial uses of crops and other products like biofuels, biodegradable plastics etc., and environmental uses. Moreover, biotechnology is not just a technological matter; its development involves cutting-edge science, political, legal, and economic variables, and external and internal negotiations and also to address the social and ethical challenges. A series of derived terms have been coined to identify several branches of biotechnology namely Green, Red, White, Gold etc.

During the last four decades biotechnology has been changing the world through considerable progress in agriculture, health, environment, industrial sectors and so on. Within this short span of time, recombinant DNA technology, which was hitherto considered primarily a fundamental subject, has proved beyond doubt its applicability in several areas of human welfare. In a world specially developing world with changing climate, increased population and heavy industrialisation are now concentrating on the exploitation of the golden pit of biotechnology. Many Asian countries, namely India, China, Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Vietnam have recognised the potential of these techniques in contributing economic growth in an environmentally safe manner. They have made significant strides in the development and commercialisation of biotechnology over more than two decades. Our neighboring country, India, for example has taken the advantages of this technology in a wide variety of areas, including crop management, forestry, biopesticides, and biofertlisers. Through international collaboration, Kenya has taken national policy in developing transgenic plants resistant to pathogens or environmental stress as well as vaccines for livestock. While other countries including our neighbours have made or are making impressive progress in biotechnology, Bangladesh very recently showed that they are also in the race with the whole genome sequence of Jute, or introducing genetically modified variety of Bt-brinjal. 

Mass propagation of Aloe vera through tissue culture. Courtesy: Plant Biotechnology Division, NIB, PHOTO: COURTESY

Bangladesh is an agroeconomoy based country with a large population compared to its land area and resources. With the country's population projected to reach 192.9 million by 2025 and economic growth transforming the lives of millions, our food demand is expected to be much higher than its current growth of production. Such crop production would have to be achieved in an adverse climatic condition. Therefore, there is a growing need to develop stress tolerant crop varieties to combat climate change induced disasters like flood, drought and intrusion of salinity. Improvement of fisheries & livestock, biodiversity conservation, biological and industrial waste management, health care systems, forestry and environment sectors deserve much attention. Biotechnology can play important roles to address the above issues.

Significant initiatives has been taken by the Government of Bangladesh to promote biotechnological research and infrastructure development in the country for enhanced productivity, quality and value of products, stability of production systems and environmental conservation leading to sustained food security, poverty alleviation and livelihood security. With an aim to accelerate the research activities in the field of biotechnology, the government has established the National Institute of Biotechnology (NIB) under the auspices of Ministry of Science & Technology, as a specialised Institute in Biotechnology. Soon after its establishment, NIB has been accepted by the national and international community.

As a consequence, NIB is working as a focal point to coordinate biotechnological activities in the country, also an affiliated center of International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Trieste, Italy and is the nodal agency in Bangladesh for the Biotechnological issues of the SAARC countries. The Institute has the potential to become the core centre for biotechnology research in Bangladesh as well as a national resource centre for technology transfer and human resource development in new and emerging areas of biotechnology.

In Bangladesh, a biotechnology program on plant was initiated in the late 1970s in the Department of Botany, University of Dhaka with tissue culture of jute. Thereafter within a span of 10-12 years tissue culture research laboratories had been developed in different universities, R&D organisations, and private entrepreneurs. Some NGOs (BRAC, PROSHIKA, Square Agric-tech, DEBTECH, Swiss organisation for Development and Cooperation and others, Institute of Integrated Rural Development, Rural Development Academy, Aman Agro Industries) are also working on plant tissue culture; BRAC & Proshika have already marketed tissue cultured plantlets such as potato, banana and ornamental plants in Bangladesh and neighboring countries. As a result of intensive works on plant tissue culture protocols, plant regeneration and micro-propagation have been developed on different crops, forest, fruit, ornamental, medicinal and commonly important plants as well as vegetables. Currently, several research organisations, public and private universities, private companies (Biotech seeds, Genetic seed, Grameen Krishi Foundation, Rantic Ltd., Lal teer seed company, Matex BD Ltd., Safe Agriculture BD, East West Seed Company) are involved in promoting environmentally safer agricultural and industrial biotech products. In Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, two new mutant lines with high yielding, early mature, relatively fine grain, dwarf and photoperiod insensitive have been developed by using carbon ion beam radiation. Also projects are undertaken for mass in vitro propagation of fast growing, timber yielding plant Paulownia and multipurpose use plant alovera. Although golden rice can meet the requirement of vitamin A to avoid blindness, it is now confined to field trials. Our poor people also suffer from other nutrient deficiencies and hence some plants and vegetables could be modified genetically to serve as a source of multiple nutrients.

Besides developing better varieties, different organisations are also working on varieties capable of fighting natural calamities. Thus, research on transgenic plant development is going on in many laboratories country-wide, which include developing pest/insect resistant varieties, salt-tolerant varieties etc. Commendable progress has been made at the University of Dhaka in producing salt-tolerant rice and cold-tolerant jute varieties using molecular markers. Another impressive headway has been made to evolve disease and insect resistant pulse varieties. Also, private venture on plant tissue culture development and commercialisation has been taken at the University of Rajshahi, where they worked on strawberries and some exotic flowers that went on to successful commercialisation. NIB has within its many achievements micropropagation of different fruits and ornamental plants, and the institute is working on transformation of stress tolerant genes into egg plant.

It has been identified that in brinjal, tomato and country bean, pesticide applications are excessive and indiscriminate. To get relief from the pesticide residue problem and to minimise the production loss, The National Committee on Biosafety (NCB), the highest regulatory body for genetically modified (GM) crops in Bangladesh on December 31, 2013 officially approved limited field release of Bt-brinjal developed by researchers of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) through the technical support of Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MaHyCo), India. Through this decision, Bangladesh became the first country in south Asia to cultivate the GM food crop. The varieties are genetically modified for an additional gene Cry1Ac from soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is resistant to destructive insect pest brinjal, shoot borer. Bt-brinjals are expected to make a significant contribution to pesticide residue problem and to minimise the production loss.

After a decade of research, a team at the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology department of University of Dhaka led by Professor Zeba Islam Seraj made four transgenic rice varieties capable of production in high soil salinity, far better than the ones derived from conventional breeding. A particular pea gene 'helicase' was infused into four high yielding rice varieties (HYVs) that helped rice plants have higher salt tolerance and higher yield potential. The team is currently readying these varieties for confined trials in greenhouse and then on controlled field trials.

The future potential of plant biotechnology includes working on genetic modification of herbal plants by modern technology to develop effective drugs, beautyceuticals and neutraceuticals, development of rapid diagnostic tools and development of post-harvest technology to minimise the loss of agricultural produce and to produce stress tolerant crop varieties.

Computer-generated image of insulin hexamers, PHOTO: COURTESY

Biotechnology in health care and diagnostic services has been started and is rising day by day. There are several organisations such as International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research 'Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), Bangladesh Institute of Research in Diabetic, Endocrine and Metabolic disorders (BIRDEM), and Institute of Public Health (IPH), Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) are prominent among others. These organisations are providing molecular diagnostics such as PCR, microsatellite marker based diagnosis of tuberculosis, diarrhoea, cholera and hepatitis viruses etc. Development of Shigella vaccine is being carried out at ICDDR,B. BIRDEM is providing molecular diagnostic services like PCR of infectious diseases (tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, HIV etc.), karyotyping etc. Recently, some private company has also been started to provide molecular diagnostic services. The IPH is engaged in the production of vaccines and anti-sera. Intensive effort of scientists of IPH has made small pox eradication program successful by producing sufficient quantity of highly potent small pox vaccines. Since 1992, the IPH has also been engaged in the production of high quality tetanus vaccines. Incepta, a leading pharmaceutical company in the country has signed an agreement with International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi Unit, for commercially manufacturing hepatitis B vaccine. The establishment of National Forensic DNA Profiling Laboratory at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) made it possible the forensic tests of international standard in Bangladesh since 2005 with the technique termed DNA fingerprinting to perform paternity tests, criminal dispute in cases of rape and murder etc.

Animal biotechnology encompasses a broad range of techniques for the genetic improvement of animal species, animal vaccines and development of rapid test kits to diagnose the disease of livestock, poultry and companion animals. National Institute of Biotechnology (NIB), Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute (BLRI) and Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), Chittagong Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (CVASU), etc. are working to adopt modern biotechnological tools to develop livestock and poultry. Techniques of traditional biotechnology like artificial insemination and selective breeding are being practiced extensively in the country. In vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer have been carried out successfully in the laboratories and in field trial, and are being used in some selective areas. A number of vaccines have been developed against cattle, poultry and goat, e.g. Goat Plague (PPR), goat pox at BLRI. Vaccines against anthrax, Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), fowl cholera, Salmonella, Newcastle disease, etc. are producing by Department of Livestock Services (DLS) under the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock (MoFL). Besides, work is going on the development of multivalent FMD vaccine at BLRI. Since 2007, poultry industries of the country are facing avian influenza epizootics; National Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza at BLRI has been engaged to detect avian influenza virus subtype and molecular characterisation of the pathogen. Research on DNA fingerprinting and microsatellite genotyping methods for parentage verification and molecular characterisation of indigenous goat, sheep, cattle and buffaloes are being varied out at NIB, BAU and BLRI. Karyotyping and blood protein polymorphism of goat, sheep, cattle and buffalo are also under research in BLRI and BAU. 

Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute (BFRI) conducts some basic Biotechnological research on seed production of endangered fish species through in vitro fertilisation, production of carps, catfishes and genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) through selective breeding, production of monosex tilapia, development of hydrid variety of magur and punti, and freshwater pearl production. Besides, the faculty of science of the University of Dhaka and faculty of fisheries of the Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), Mymensingh, develops the techniques for characterisation of different commercially important fish species including Hilsa through RAPD, mt DNA and RFLP techniques. No transgenic strain of fish has been produced in the country yet.

In the field of industrial biotechnology, Bangladesh is yet to make real breakthroughs. Modern biotechnological programmes involving gene transfer technology have yet to be started in real earnest. However, the results are quite encouraging and a good number of projects are in advanced stage, which can be taken up for commercialisation. Mass scale production of spirulina, biofertiliser, bakers yeast, citric acid has been reached  at the commercial stage. A few distilleries in the country are already utilising >50,000 MT of molasses for the production of ethyl alcohol. Research is also going on enzymes, single cell protein, etc. A five year (2011-2015) action plan on Industrial Biotechnology has been drafted in the light of National Biotechnology Policy, 2012. A significant achievement has been made in the field of 'Biogas' production from animal excreta (cow dung) and agricultural residues. The Institute of Fuel Research and Development (IFRD) have been working since long in this field. As a result of research findings and its subsequent development in collaboration with Department of Energy (DOE) at present more than 20,000 biogas plants have been installed in rural areas. An extended programme to set up about 100,000 biogas plants throughout the country has also been taken up by the government, which is now under implementation. Institute of Fuel Research and Development (IFRD), BCSIR has installed more than 25,000 domestic biogas plants across the country under three projects. As on 31 December 2012, a total of around 65,317 biogas plants have already been installed in Bangladesh. Last year, three new bacterial species (Rhizobium bangladeshense, Rhizobium binae, Rhizobium lentis) were discovered at the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear  Agriculture (BINA), which create nodule in the lentil crops and increases productivity of it.

These newly discovered species are promising for the productions of biofertilisers not only for lentil but also for pea and lathyrus cultivations. Earlier Rhizobium biofertiliser production in a pilot scale at BINA had been successful and its use in pulse crops has been found to be effective in the farmer's field. Rhizobium biofertiliser developed for grain legumes such as lentil, chickpea, groundnut, mungbean and soybean have significant demand in the country. The grain legumes are the protein meat substitute of the poor and an integral part of the daily diet. The production of grain legumes increased about 20% by using Rhizobium biofertiliser. Bangladeshi farmers can earn more by using the biofertiliser in the growing season improving the quality of the individual farmer, and society as a whole. Development of rice biofertiliser is in progress at BINA, NIB, and BAU.

In Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission low dose of gamma radiation to the silkworm has been employed for the enhanced production of silk. Significant progress has been achieved on sterile insect technique (SIT) by utilising gamma radiation. Besides, hormonal and pheromonal control of insects and also the integrated pest management (IPM) programme are now being adopted for insect management. Isolation and characterisation of Bacillus Thuringiensis strains for the control of Lepidopteran insects has been initiated at the University of Dhaka.

Sericulture Research Institute has been working for a long time for the improvement of sericulture production in Bangladesh. Recently, Zoology Section, Biological Research Division, BCSIR Laboratories, Dhaka has been engaged in DNA bar-coding research for taxonomic identification and documentation of various endemic species of insects, plants and animals including other organisms of economic importance and detection of adulteration in processed and unprocessed food products.

Development of protocols for pathogen detection (e.g. virus and bacteria) through modern molecular techniques like DAS-ELISA, Real Time PCR, hybridisation etc. from different crops, forest, fruit, ornamental, medicinal and commonly important plants as well as vegetables are being done at BCSIR. Additionally, identification of new pathogens both from plants and animals are also being studied.

Bangladesh observed a real breakthrough in molecular biotechnology in 2010, when with the funding of the government, collaboration within the University of Dhaka, DataSoft IT firm and Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, and under the leadership of Dr. Maqsudul Alam successfully sequenced the genome of jute. Through this, Bangladesh became the second country after Malaysia, among the developing nations, to have successfully sequenced a plant genome. In 2012, the same group of scientists decoded the genome of Macrophomina phaseolina, a Botryosphaeriaceae fungus, which is responsible for causing seedling blight, root rot, and charcoal rot of more than 500 crop and non-crop species throughout the world. The sequencing took place at the laboratory of Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, and was done as part of the The Basic and applied Research on Jute (BARJ) project. Last but not least, Lat Teer Seed Company in Januray 24, 2014 announced the completion of whole genome sequencing of Buffalo with the help of Beijing Genome Institute (BGI), China.

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field which addresses biological problems using computational techniques, and makes the rapid analysis as well as annotation of biological data possible. Bioinformatics plays a key role in various areas, such as functional genomics and proteomics, and forms a key component in the biotechnology. Bangladesh is yet to explore and secure its place in this exciting field of biotechnology. Now, that we have whole genome sequence of few organisms, it is time to explore them for the desired outcome. In this regard, genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics should come into play. Modern research activities on these fields have been taken on some institutes and universities. National Institute of Biotechnology is going to take initiatives to start research on the field of functional genomics and to establish a core bioinformatics facility.

Besides biotechnological research, trained manpower is equally important to the proper utilisation of the results of the biotechnology research. NIB instituted a funding mechanism for long and short-term hands on theoretical and practical biotechnology training programs (BTP). Graduate students in turn compete for acceptance into a BTP. Biotechnology lectures are also on offer at school and college levels and in the community. 

As biotechnology is being used widely, questions and concerns have also been rising. The most vocal opposition has come from European countries. One of the main areas of concern is the safety of GM food. Also, in Bangladesh, different organisations including NGOs are in active opposition of the genetically modified organismas (GMOs) or products such as the release of the Bt-brinjal varieties for cultivation. NIB is attempting to establish a wing to certify the GMOs in Bangladesh as it has been assigned as the authority for these tasks.    

There are a series of issues to be addressed in assessing the benefits and risks involved in the use of modern biotechnology. In order to judge about the risks and benefits, it is important to distinguish between technology-inherent risks and technology-transcending risks. The former includes assessing any risks associated with food safety and the behavior of a GM product in the environment. The latter involves the political and social context in which the technology is used. The foods grown from GMOs may have either beneficial or occasional harmful effects on human health depending on the the food itself. For example, a biotech-derived food with a higher content of vitamin is likely to have a positive effect if consumed by vitamin-deficient individuals. Alternatively, the transfer of genes from one species to another may also transfer the risk for exposure to allergens. These risks should be systematically evaluated by governing authorities and identified prior to commercialisation. A potential ecological risk identified is increased weediness due to cross-pollination from GM crops spreads to other nearby plants. Other potential ecological risks stem from the use of GM brinjal, corn and cotton with insecticidal Bt-genes. This might develop resistance to Bt in exposed insect populations. The monitoring of these effects of new crops in the environment and implementation of effective risk management approaches is an essential component of future research. A technology-transcending risk would be reduced biodiversity. Reduction of biological diversity due to shrinking arable land, destruction of tropical forests, overfishing etc. is a significant loss far more than any potential loss of biodiversity due to biotech-derived crop varieties. Improved governance and international support are necessary to limit loss of biodiversity. However, our understanding of science and long experiences with biotech-derived plants is that no evidence is in sight that genetic transfers between unrelated organisms pose human health concerns that are different from those encountered with any new plant or animal variety. The risks associated with biotechnology are the same as those associated with plants and microbes developed by conven tional methods.

Different governing bodies, policies and guidelines are in shape in our country to adress, manage and co-ordinate biotechnological research and issues. In April, 2012, The National Taskforce on Biotechnology of Bangladesh (NTBB), headed by the Honorable Prime Minister, has approved the national biotechnology policy for application of the latest innovations towards risk-free and health-proof development of agriculture, food, industry, environment and health sectors. The policy will also address some of the core issues involving intellectual property rights, bio-safety, bio-surveillance and bio-ethics with due emphasis on knowledge, innovation, and indigenous practices. The NTBB also approved National Crops and Forest Biotechnology Policy Guidelines, National Biotechnology Policy Action Plan and National Database on Biotechnology Research and Personnel.

In a changing climate, our prime need is to introduce ecofriendly biotechnological approaches to address food security and safety, biodiversity conservation and management of sustainable environment for the development of a healthier, cleaner and greener nation.

Dr. Md. Salimullah, is the Director General, NIB and Dr. Md. Saidul Islam is Ex Member (Bioscience), Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.

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