A pioneer of biotechnology and jute genomics in Bangladesh
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh and 100 years since the establishment of Dhaka University. On this occasion, it is important to highlight the stories of our achievements, successes and progress as a nation. One such success story is the sequencing of the jute genome, which was published in 2017. This is a landmark achievement in Bangladesh's science history, and probably the most significant scientific breakthrough for the country since its independence in 1971.
This major achievement was possible thanks to the support of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who needs to be applauded for seizing the opportunity in a timely manner. The fruits of this great achievement are already being seen, including the granting of an international patent and triggering of further research exploiting the jute plant. It stands as an example of how government support can accelerate scientific progress by bringing together the best scientific minds to work synergistically and tackle complex scientific challenges. A notable aspect of the jute genome project was recruiting and harnessing the talent and skills of an exceptionally brilliant non-resident Bangladeshi scientist, Maqsudul Alam (who, sadly, passed away in December 2014) from the University of Hawaii in the USA. He effectively worked with researchers from several Bangladeshi organisations including Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, Dhaka University, and DataSoft Systems Bangladesh Limited.
To understand how this success came into being, one has to delve into the history of genetics research in Bangladesh and those who played key roles in different spheres of activities that eventually led to the establishment of the field of biotechnology in Bangladesh, and thereafter the decoding of the jute genome. In this context, the name of Prof Ahmad Shamsul Islam is prominent for several reasons, although many others have contributed in different ways.
Prof Islam was born on August 6, 1924. As we celebrate his 97th birthday, it is an opportune moment to highlight some of his roles in the development of biotechnology in Bangladesh. He studied Botany and gained BSc (1945) and MSc (1947) degrees from Presidency College, Kolkata. The training received by Islam at Dhaka University and subsequently in the UK, the USA and Japan played an important role in his development as a pioneering scientist.
While working at Dhaka University, he published one of his first scientific articles in 1949, on the cytogenetics of some common fruit trees. He was extremely fortunate to have Prof Panchanan Maheswari—one of the most eminent Indian scientists, famous for his invention of test-tube fertilisation of angiosperms—as his guide and mentor. Prof Maheswari was the head of Biology Department at Dhaka University. In one of his articles, Prof Islam acknowledged Maheswari's contributions in the following manner: "I offer my heartfelt gratitude to Prof. P. Maheshwari who supplied most of the slides and under whose guidance I carried out the present investigation". Maheswari returned to India in 1949 which was a great loss for Dhaka University. He passed away in 1966.
Prof Ahmad Shamsul Islam went to the UK and obtained a PhD degree from the University of Manchester in 1954. There, he received the Currie Memorial Prize for his outstanding contribution to the cytogenetics of strawberry. His PhD supervisor was a renowned scientist, Prof Sydney Cross Harland FRS, who was a pioneer in the genomic analysis of the cotton plant. During his PhD, he was also guided by another scientist, Dr Philip Frank Wareing, an expert in tree physiology, who later co-discovered abscisic acid.
One can cite several important papers of Prof Islam to justify his pioneering role in the foundation of biotechnology in Bangladesh, including the early work on jute genomics and breeding. In a paper published in 1960 in the Nature journal, he and his colleague were the first in the world to successfully produce a hybrid between two jute-yielding species, which continues to make impact in current research. Between 1952 and 1964, he produced three more papers in Nature on cytogenetics and embryo culture by use of plant hormones.
In 1971, after the independence of Bangladesh, Prof Islam became the head of the Department of Botany. This was an opportunity for him to demonstrate his leadership skills and create an ideal research environment for the use of latest techniques in the field of biotechnology with a view to improving Bangladeshi crops, including jute. It is, therefore, not surprising that in 1984, he and his colleagues published the first paper from Bangladesh on plant tissue culture focusing on sugarcane. Subsequently, he published a paper with Prof Zeba Seraj and others on tissue culture and micro propagation of jute. This set the scene for wider use of this technique in Bangladesh and was important for proliferation of biotechnology in different institutions across the country. He not only arranged funds for establishing a tissue culture laboratory but also for numerous international conferences and workshops with experts to train scientists in tissue culture techniques at the Botany Department.
Many scientists from agricultural institutes from all over Bangladesh attended these and in turn started tissue culture activities themselves. Through his plant tissue culture research, Prof Islam was recognised as a pioneer in biotechnology research in Bangladesh. For example, Prof Naiyyum Choudhury, who was responsible for producing the National Biotechnology Policy of Bangladesh, noted that "the programme on plant biotechnology in Bangladesh was initiated in late 1970s in the Department of Botany, Dhaka University with tissue culture of jute." Furthermore, the history section in the website of the Botany Department of DU notes the following: "Dr. Ahmad Shamsul Islam initiated Plant Tissue Culture and Biotechnological research in Bangladesh."
He retired from DU in 1990 but his ceaseless passion for science and education continued and he remained active in research. In 2005, while working at the University of Texas, Austin, Professor Islam published a paper reporting preliminary work on the jute genome analysis, and this provided the momentum that ultimately led to the sequencing of the full genome. He has been active in research for over 55 years, publishing over 100 scientific articles and two text books on genetics, one of which is in Bangla. Many students completed their PhD degrees under his supervision. He was also active as the founding editor of several journals, including Bangladesh Journal of Botany and Journal of Plant Tissue Culture and Biotechnology, the latter now in its 31st year of publication.
His leadership skills and visionary thinking led him to work with others to establish the Global Network of Bangladeshi Biotechnologists (GNOBB) in 2004. The author of this article was invited by Prof Islam to join GNOBB as one of the founding members along with Dr Abidur Rahman (Japan), Prof Hemayet Ullah (USA), Prof Zeba Islam Seraj, Prof Haseena Khan, Prof Ahmad Abdullah Azad (Australia) and Prof Enamul Huq (USA). Prof Islam's leadership was pivotal in bringing together Maqsudul Alam from the USA and Bangladeshi jute genetics researchers like Prof Haseena Khan and others to fully unravel the jute genome. Although Prof Islam was not listed as an author in the Nature Plants paper published in 2017, the acknowledgement section rightly dedicated the paper to his memory. This work completed his dream of seeing what he initiated finally accomplished. There is no doubt that he is not only an exceptionally brilliant scientist but also a great scientific leader, enabler and above all a great human being. I wish him a long, happy and healthy life.
Parvez Haris is a Professor of Biomedical Science at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.