Thursday, July 31, 2008

Conventional Breeding Vs Genetic Modification

Have a look at the pictures below. These are pictures of the wild parents of some of the vegetables we consume almost every day. Try identifying them and guess their offspring. The wild varieties have undergone tremendous evolution due to conventional breeding. The answers are at the end of the article.
Genetic Modification or GM technology has been singled out by activists to create alarm and fear among the public. The scaremongering of this technology is often not based on solid scientific principles but based on emotions, personal beliefs and sentiments. However, the scaremongers and naysayers should realise that their actions are causing huge economic loss to Malaysia. With the current global food crisis and price hike, we certainly cannot afford to overlook the potential of the technology which has been proven to be safe and in use for more than a decade. We import most of our food causing our food bill to skyrocket. Our poultry industry is entirely dependent on important soy and corn – almost all are GM.

Crops have been modified by human since time immemorial. None of the cultivated crops today exist in its original wild form. If they do, we will not be able to feed the world. In fact, the wild varieties will not even flourish under cultivated conditions. Modifying the genetic makeup of crops to develop better varieties was initially carried out through conventional breeding. Various methods are used, one of it using gamma radiation to produce mutants with beneficial traits. However, with conventional breeding, there is little or no guarantee of obtaining any particular gene combination from the millions of crosses generated. Undesirable genes can be transferred along with desirable genes; or, while one desirable gene is gained, another is lost because genes of both parents are mixed together and re-assorted more or less randomly in the offspring. These problems limit the improvements that plant breeders can achieve. Another limitation to this technique is that hybrids can only be produced with the same species or between closely related species.

It is mind-boggling that the use of gamma radiation and its safety is never questioned. We are all aware of the serious implications of radioactive rays to human, animal and the environment. Moreover, the resulting variety may carry some toxic or allergen producing genes as the breeder has no clue of how the genes have recombined. Nevertheless, conventionally bred crops do not require any testing and approvals, unlike GM crops which are the most tested products in the history of mankind. Yet, they also invite the most public scrutiny and debate – thanks to opponents of GM technology and environmental activists!

In contrast to conventional breeding, genetic engineering allows the direct transfer of one or just a few genes of interest, between either closely or distantly related organisms to obtain the desired traits. Plants may also be modified by removing or switching off their own particular genes. Scientists who develop GM crops know exactly the sequence of the inserted gene, the exact location where the gene is inserted, the function of the gene, and the way it will be expressed.

Having had a look at the pictures above, we need to ask these questions:

1. Will we be able to feed the world with these wild varieties?

2. If plants have been modified in the past beyond recognition using conventional techniques and we have been consuming them without questioning the safety, why so much of uproar on a technology that has been rigorously tested, monitored, regulated and approved?

I am often perplexed by stand taken by environmentalists and other groups that oppose GM technology – they want to champion conservation of biodiversity, and healthy and safe food but at the same time reject a technology that can help produce more food on smaller land area, use less chemicals, and produce healthier food.

One thing is sure – we once had the luxury to reject GM food but we will not be able to continue this in the wake of the current global food crisis. There will come a time when we have the money to buy food, but there will be no sellers. Before this happens, the Malaysian agriculture sector need to adapt itself, evolve and embrace the latest technology to stay competitive and self-sufficient. Even Europe is reviewing their positions on GM crops and farmers and livestock producers are demanding for these crops to be approved.

Food for thought: Products and NOT processes should be regulated.
Picture 1: Parent stock of corn
Picture 2: Parent stock of lettuce
Picture 3: Parent stock of carrot

- Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, July 28, 2008

Story of the Egg: Human Capital of Biotechnology and its challenges (Part 1)

The launch of the National Biotech Policy has been promising the country's graduate population of the various job prospects in the biotech industry. I, myself, hopped on the bandwagon of enrolling in a BSc in Biotechnology back in 2004. At the end of my course, I have been faced with questions by friends, family and fellow graduates alike, as to whether the industry has been developed as hoped, and if so, why is it so hard to find a satisfactory job in biotech?However, I was also asked similar questions when I am in contact with various personalities in the position of employers in the industry. Why are fresh grads from universities feel so under-trained, that it is so hard to find competent employees among the bunch of interviewees? What are the schools teaching?

Throughout the duration of my course, I can say I've been lucky to gain exposure to the industry through my involvement with MABIC. Comparative to that of my peers, I have been fortunate to be in touch with industry players, policy makers, academicians and various stakeholders alike. My involvement has allowed myself at an undergraduate level to see the various duties and tasks that are required by industry of the human capital that are the future graduates. Several issues came to fore.

Do biotech students know what is in store for them? Are we lacking in jobs for biotech students? Are they not being taught enough? Is a 3 year course, which seems to be the norm for a degree in biotech these days sufficient? Are the students who graduate competent enough for the industry? Are employers asking for too much and being too choosy? All these questions and more constantly pop up among my daily conversation with various people as well as industry personalities.

In short, there are two issues in play here. Namely, the students and their education, the employers and their expectations. It became clearer to me that in most cases, both parties are not meeting each other in the middle, resulting in the described "troubles" of the industry and its human capital.

I remember speaking to a particular CEO of a forefront biotech company during an interview, and through the course of the Q&A, he turned the tables and asked me what do they teach at my university in the biotech course. Satisfied with my answer, he then mentioned that some graduates that he had interviewed recently were very unprepared for the industry, naming a few institutions offering the course. I, in turn, suggested it was due to pre-interview nerves. However, he looked me in the eye, and with a disappointed tone he mentioned that they were stumped when asked for something as basic as a definition of "GM" or "GMO" (genetically modified organisms).

It was shocking that graduates from supposedly some of our best institutions don't even understand the basics terminology of the field. One wonders how much of the coursework which is constantly drummed into the students throughout the duration of the course has been absorbed. We should first begin by questioning the interests of the students themselves. Why did they enroll in the course in the first place, and whether they have any passion in it.

Since being enrolled in the course, I have been quizzed by several juniors from high school who had no idea what the course entailed. They were interested in the course due to the potential and promises of strong development, however what such a course entails, their knowledge was pretty much zilch. Who is to blame? The school, for not exposing them to biotech-related knowledge? Themselves, for not utilising their Google search bar? The various biotech institutions, for not being more visible?

Here, I shall leave you with this thought. How many of our students actually enter the field with a full-hearted interest in biotechnology? I know I did. But how many others? Those who said they are interested, do they know what they are getting themselves into? Would they regret involving themselves in the course? I know several classmates of mine ended up in a completely different field after graduation, because they couldn't stand the environment of the lab. But would this have happened if they knew what they wanted at the start?

(to be continued)

- K. C. Liew

Monday, July 21, 2008

Malaysian Made Nobel Laureate: The Way to Stockholm

Malaysia has set a target to produce a Nobel Laureate by 2020. And I heard a number of research institutes and universities have their own targets as well on the same issue. Great! I love ambitious idea, more so if it brings pride and benefits to the nation for her to prosper further.

The first step to success is dream. We need dreams, big dreams. But a dream can only be realised if it is followed by efforts, strategies, and actions. So, how far are we in realising this dream? I trust the target was set some years ago. Has anyone done any review on the progress made? Has anyone come out with a roadmap to achieve this? Has priority areas in research identified? Which area of research that is currently carried out throughout Malaysia is most likely to stand an excellent chance to win a Nobel Price? How much fund has been spent in this area?

This is my take on the issue. The buzzword in research in Malaysia these days is ‘commercialization’. This is not wrong, as research need to be translated into dollars and cents. But commercialization can never be achieved if there is lack of fundamental science. Every applications or products that are in the market today were developed only after acquiring a strong understanding in basic science. Pesticides can only be invented if we know the biochemical pathways of the pest. We must understand which biochemical process to inhibit in order to kill the pest. Vaccines can only be developed if we understand the physiology of the pathogen (the way disease-causing agent works). Tremendous amount of basic research findings in genetics paved and is still paving the way for huge number of commercial products – GM crops, drugs, industrial enzymes, etc. Where would GM technology be if not for the discovery of restriction enzymes? Research on cloning and stem cell which is still at its infancy will not see any commercial products if fundamental aspects in these areas are neglected.

However, there is a craze for research which has commercial potential in Malaysia to the extent that interest and funds in basic research is diminishing. We must understand our priorities and needs are different from Westerners, where the bulk of research is carried out. We need products that meet our needs, e.g. local improved crops, vaccines or antibiotics for tropical diseases such as dengue and malaria, drugs for the type of cancers that occurs most in our population, suitable local feedstock to produce biofuel, cloning techniques to conserve our endangered wild species, etc. No one else will invest their money into these. Our politicians should stop asking scientists when the products can hit the market before providing the fund. We must first understand that no Nobel Prize has been awarded to commercial aspects of any research so far!

An excellent research culture need to be nurtured; collaborations between various institutes must be encouraged; strong research teams with clear-cut mission and priority should be established; funds for basic research must be increased; and training more experts in basic science such as microbiology, biochemistry, taxonomy, botany, genetics, pathology, etc. One good example I would like to quote is the direction and focus of our herbal industry and research. Just because Malaysia is blessed with abundance of biodiversity, we feel this resource will create wealth for us. But how many herbal companies in Malaysia are based upon strong scientific research and findings? How much of the herbal products out in the market have undergone scientific processes or technology? What is the global value of our herbal industry? I will talk more about the status and direction of herbal industry in another article. Suffice to say to create value, strong foundation need to be laid out. And we need to relook our priorities in research and a change of mind-set.

- Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why blog on biotechnology?

The 21st century is hailed as the century of biological sciences, particularly biotechnology which is revolutionizing all aspects of our lifestyles from food to agriculture, environment, industry, and healthcare and medicine. Biotechnology is changing the terrains and landscapes of these fields to enhance the quality of life and environment. Countries are racing to embrace this powerful tool to create wealth though innovation. Malaysia is not spared as the government has pledged it strong commitments to develop this sector.

However, we are lagging behind many nations which seriously points out that the current efforts put into this area are insufficient or ineffective. Many constraints and hurdles are faced by those involved in the biotechnology sector. Lack of funding, grants, expertise, pool of skilled workers, experience in commercialization, collaboration between scientists and the industry, and commitments from venture capital and bankers are some of the glaring constraints and hurdles faced. This is coupled with the anti-technology movement spearheaded by activists, environmentalists and consumer groups. Sentiments such as anti-technology, globalization, and monopolization by certain multinational companies have been planted into the minds of the general public.

This phenomenon is further magnified by the resistance of the media to publish or air more news on science and technology. Often negative news on biotechnology captures the headlines, which is further sensationalized by the media to gain the attention of readers. This certainly does not augur well with our aspiration to make Malaysia a global biotechnology player.

This blog aims at providing a platform for all stakeholders, including general public to read and discuss the issues plaguing the biotechnology sector in this country and counter the negative and unfounded accusations hurled at this powerful technology. It is hoped through this blog, the public will have better understanding of the technology and raise valid concerns over the implication of the technology.
- Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Why Malaysia4Biotech?

When I first heard about blogs, I never thought I would be blogging one day. Certainly not a blog on politics which is spreading like wildfire. But I was on a constant search for a platform to communicate with the public and sharing my thoughts on biotechnology – an emerging technology which is rapidly changing the landscape and terrains of various aspects of our lives from food to agriculture, livestock, environment, industry, and healthcare and medicine. The 21st century is being hailed as the century of life sciences with biotechnology being at the forefront. This technology offers solutions to many crisis affecting the world today – food shortage, rising food and fuel prices, emerging new diseases, climate change, and the endless requirements of the industry to meet the needs of the modernized population.

So, why did I choose to blog? I was in San Diego recently attending the Bio Convention 2008 and for the first time, I heard speakers mentioning blogs as a new media to communicate biotechnology to the public. And just before leaving to the US, my former boss sent me a mass email depicting a negative perception of Genetically Modified (GM) food (though he is not an opponent of GM technology). As a science communicator, I felt I should put things in right perspective and I wrote a long reply and sent it to all on the email list, expecting most of them to delete or ignore my response. To my surprise, I received many emails from strangers congratulating me on my very factual and pragmatic response. The email exchanges went on for a while, with some even forwarding my emails to their friends. That encouraged me. I hope my former boss is reading my blog, thanks to him. And I have a third reason – the mainstream media is often biased towards those who oppose GM technology and proponents are seen as traitors who are eager to sweep away all the biodiversity we have, give away all our bioresources to a handful of multinationals, and make our farmers dependant on these multinationals. Hence, my blog on Malaysia4Biotech! This is not something new that I am doing. I have been involved in science communication for the past six years and have organized dozens of seminars, workshops, forum, and conferences. I have also written articles and presented talks at various events both local and international. And here is my new attempt to further enhance public understanding of biotechnology.

As many nations are racing to be a biotech player, Malaysia is not spared from this infectious fever to be on the bandwagon. Biotechnology has been given prominent attention and emphasis by the Malaysian Government, as it recognizes the importance and potential of this sector to the nation’s economy. As a result, the National Biotechnology Policy was launched in April 2005. The policy aims to build a conducive environment for R&D and industry development while leveraging on the country’s existing areas of strength. The policy addresses vital aspects of biotechnology development such as the priority areas, legal, safety, and financial among others. The policy spells out nine thrusts, which include transforming and enhancing the value creation of the agricultural sector through biotechnology. The other area of priority is healthcare and industrial biotechnology. The support given by the government was further boosted under the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006 – 2010). The government’s aspiration is to make Malaysia a preferred destination for foreign biotechnology players and investors.

All these sound well and good. However, the success of the biotech sector not only relies on the research and commercialization but also on public acceptance. My organization, the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) is the first and only NGO in Malaysia that is dedicated to promote this industry and support the government’s efforts. However, the path to success is never sweet. Like any new, emerging field, biotechnology is clouded with various controversies and public concerns. Research on stem cells, cloning, gene therapy, and genetically modified crops raises various concerns among the stakeholders. The debates on these areas are further enhanced by issues related to intellectual property rights, ownership, patents, religious and ethical implications and trade monopoly. This puts modern biotechnology under public scrutiny and is currently the focus of intense public and politic debate. Though there are some valid concerns which must be addressed, there are also fictitious concerns raised by certain parties with vested interest, mainly the scaremongers and naysayers. When public perception is shaped by these parties, it spells trouble for the nation which is eager to race forward.

Besides public acceptance, a number of hurdles must be crossed for Malaysia to be a biotech hub. Funding is the biggest issue among industry and scientists. Setting the priority right, excellent implementation and execution regime, collaboration among public research institutes, joint ventures with the industries, the ability of public research to attract investments and venture capital funds, the entrepreneurship skills of our scientists, the ability to leap frog from traditional biotech to modern biotech among scientists and industry, creating an enabling regulatory framework, and creating an excellent research culture are some of the challenges staring at our face before we jumpstart this industry.

My co-bloggers and I had a deliberation on whether the blog should be Malaysia4Biotech or Biotech4Malaysia. And we decided on Malaysia4Biotech because, Malaysia needs to change her perception, attitude, priorities and mindset in order to embrace biotechnology. No matter which area in biotech we choose to excel in, the ingredients are the same. Our biodiversity is certainly not going to be driving scientists, industry, and investors in droves into our country, if we lack all other ingredients. Most, if not all big biotech players are not rich in bioresources. So, it is not about choosing the right biotech for Malaysia, but how we prepare ourselves to excel in this sector. Hence, Malaysia4Biotech!

We need to be pragmatic in our approach, and forgo the myopic vision we are known to have. Without this approach, we will forever be talking about biotech in the future tense whereas all other countries will be far ahead of us.

Expect more thoughts on various areas in biotech, with a special focus on Malaysia. It is our commitment to keep this blog the first active blog on biotech in Malaysia and create a platform for the public to discuss and say their two cents worth.

A warm welcome to everyone!

by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Saturday, July 5, 2008

About the Bloggers

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Mahaletchumy Arujanan is the Executive Director of Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) who is a trained scientist with a Bachelors degree in microbiology and biochemistry and Masters in biotechnology. She realized she is not cut out to be a scientist as she likes to meet and talk to people instead of sitting at the laboratory bench. She likes to think of herself as a science communicator. In other words, she has a soul of a communicator trapped in the body of a scientist – hybrid produced through conventional breeding! In her free time, she practices her communication skills with her two young daughters, ‘corrupting’ their minds with biotechnology.

Maha, as she likes to be addressed is a strong biotechnology advocate and inaccurate information on this technology often gets her worked up and raises her blood pressure. Her favourite aspect of biotechnology is Genetic Modification (GM) and strongly believes it will be the mainstream in food and agriculture in the next 10 years or less. She stays healthy and young by taking lots of GM soybean and is ‘allergic’ to organically grown food as her scientist mind tells her it is not tested enough for safety. To meet her, just attend any biotech events, you might bump into her.