Friday, February 27, 2009

Public Research vs Private Research

Commercialization is the end product of research. Every research organization and individual scientist wishes to bring their products to the market one day. This would mean that their product has market value; years of their research could be converted to dollars and cents; all their sloughing hours at the laboratory bench would benefit mankind, improve lives and quality of life; they were working on a well-thought project and it wasn’t a waste of time, fund and efforts; it brings fame and credibility to them and their institutes. These are just some simple reasons for commercialization. Of course, the efforts of those involved in basic research are equally appreciated (provided they are of quality). I, for one have always supported basic research because it is the fundamental and prerequisite for commercialisation. I even said in one of my previous article the need for basic research.

In spite of commercialization being a buzzword now, many might wonder how many products have come out from our local universities and research institutes. Certainly our rubber and palm oil industry flourished due to the hard work of the Malaysian Rubber Board and Malaysian Palm Oil Board. What else could we quote?

Some statistics to share with you for the period of 2003-2006:

* The number of patents from public universities in Malaysia: 279
* The number of patents from all research institutes in Malaysia: 171
* The number of patents from National University of Singapore: 121
* The number of patents from Nanyang Technological University: 43

I don’t want to elaborate on these figures. They speak for themselves.

The other issue is that – the number of patents does not say much about chances for commercialization. Though there a number of patents from local scientists, why aren’t they commercialised? With the ranking system, every university wants to hold the highest number of patents. This causes a rush in patenting their work with no consideration on the applicability of the patent.

I have few answers for this:

1. At private sector, they work backwards. In other words, they start a project with the end in mind. All projects are commenced based on the need of the market. They study the market first before investing the money and time. Whereas, at the public sector, the scientists or institutes try to create a market for the product that they are or have developed.

2. At the private sector, the best brain leads the research and team members are assigned based on their expertise. No politics rears its head. Profit is the main factor. Anyone who can’t agree with the team, its objectives, or unable to perform are led to the door. At the public sector, collaboration is not a favourite word. It is difficult to form team comprising of scientists from different institutes. Everyone has their own agenda and interest. Funding committees are not nonpartisan.

3. Continuity and perseverance is the rule of the day at private sector. Board of directors, share holders, top management can change but not the project, unless it is deemed to fail. This is a rare case at the public sector. Projects, policies, direction changes every time a new minister, director and top management takes office.

4. At the end of the day, private sectors have no choice but to produce results and are held accountable for the funds allocated. Failure is certainly not an option. At the public sector, we hear about launches but hardly hear about the outcome of it.

To succeed public sectors must be run like corporate. Quality, productivity, effectiveness, and end results must be the rule of the day. As I always say, the only option we have is to succeed. Failure is never an option!

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

GM Brinjal anyone?

Brinjal is one of the most important vegetables in Asia. Statistics in India shows that brinjal is the second highest consumed vegetable and a total of 1.4 million small, marginal and resource-poor farmers grow brinjal on 550,000 hectares annually. Brinjal provides a steady income to Indian farmers throughout the year and India produces one quarter of the global production which translates to 8 – 9 million tonnes.

One major challenge for Indian and other brinjal farmers is the attack by insects and the most potent one is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). FSB causes losses of up to 60 -70% in commercial plantings. Damage starts in the nursery, prior to transplating, and continues to the time of harvesting. This is then carried over to the next planting season. FSB damages brinjal in two ways – first, it infests young shoots which limits the ability of plants to produce healthy fruit bearing shoots, thereby reducing potential yield; second, it bores into fruits making them unmarketable. Due to the fact that FSB larvae remain concealed within shoots and fruits, insecticide applications are ineffective, despite 15-40 sprays, or more in one season. Farmers usually spray till the fruits are harvested, leaving no time for the fruits to be free of chemicals.

The good news – Mahyco, a local company, partly owned by Monsanto has successfully developed Bt Brinjal after eight years of research. The crop has undergone rigorous science-based regulatory approval processes in India and is currently at an advanced stage of consideration of deregulation by the Indian regulatory authorities. When approved, Bt brinjal will be the first GM food crop to be approved for human consumption in India. Bt brinjal has the gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, a common soil bacterium that is widely used to develop GM crops. This technology was donated by its private sector developer, Mahyco, to public sector institutes in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines to benefit small resource-poor farmers. It is an excellent example of technology transfer from the private to the public sector.

I would like to share some scientific facts on Bt brinjal here. Studies on food and feed safety, including toxicity and allergenicity tests that were conducted on rats, rabbits, fish, chickens, goats and cows have confirmed that Bt brinjal is as safe as its non-Bt counterparts. Environmental impact assessments to study germination, pollen flow, invasiveness, aggressiveness and weediness too proved to be similar to non-Bt brinjal. Number of larvae on Bt brinjal were significantly reduced from 3.5-80 to 0-20 larvea. Furthermore, multi-location research trials confirmed that insecticide use were reduced by 80%.

With this success, one question is starting to linger on my mind. Will this make the opponents of GM more receptive towards this technology? Bt brinjal will certainly reduce the number of insecticide sprays, thus, reducing the amount of chemical residues from reaching our dinner plates. It will also lower the environmental footprint caused by the agriculture sector. It will reduce the exposure of farmers and their families to chemicals. It has proven that collaboration between private and public sectors is possible. It has proven that GM technology actually benefits resource poor farmers in developing countries.

It will be interesting (frustrating as well...) to watch the opponents of GM technology taking to the streets in space suits trying to deprive poor farmers of this technology for various unscientific reasons.

For those who want to read further, please visit,

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Plant Disease Diagnostics

In Malaysia, we often hear that the agricultural sector will be transformed using biotechnology applications. However, not many understand or are aware of what biotechnology really entails and how its applications can be used in the agricultural sector. We have not heard concrete recommendations on how and which applications will be applied in this field. The main hurdle seems to be the level of knowledge on biotechnology among those who are responsible in developing agriculture. What is important is for officers at all levels and politicians to be exposed to basic biotechnology applications and its potential. Two and a half years have passed since the National Biotechnology Policy was launched with agriculture as the first thrust but we hardly hear of any breakthrough technology introduced to the farmers.

One area of research that is crucial to develop the agriculture sector is plant disease diagnostics. All our crops are threatened by a wide variety of plant diseases and pests. This causes huge loss to farmers and the industry due to damage to crops, lower fruit and vegetable quality, and even can wipe out entire harvest. About 42% of the world’s total agricultural crop is destroyed yearly by diseases and pests. Most of the time, farmers experience the attack of more than one pest or disease on their crops. The other problem is that some pests and pathogens (disease-causing agent) become resistant to the pesticides that are being used currently. However, crop losses can be minimised, and specific treatments can be tailored to combat specific pathogens if plant diseases are correctly diagnosed and identified early.

The traditional method of identifying plant pathogens is through visual examination. This is often possible only after major damage has already been done to the crop, so treatment will be of limited or no use. To save plants from irreparable damage by pathogens, farmers have to be able to identify an infection even before it becomes visible.

How is this possible? An attack by disease-causing organisms generates a complex immune response in a plant, resulting in the production of disease-specific proteins involved in plant defense and in limiting the spread of infection. For their part, pathogens also produce proteins and toxins to facilitate their infection. All this occurs even before the disease symptoms appear, so these molecules can be used for the development of plant diagnostic kits.

Advances in molecular biology, plant pathology, and biotechnology have made the development of such kits possible. These kits are designed to detect plant diseases early, either by identifying the presence of the pathogen in the plant (by testing for the presence of pathogen DNA) or the molecules (proteins) produced by either the pathogen or the plant during infection. These techniques require minimal processing time and are more accurate in identifying pathogens. And while some require laboratory equipment and training, other procedures can be performed on site by a person with no special training.

So far, diagnostic kits have been designed to detect diseases in crops such as rice, potatoes, papaya, tomatoes, and banana. Many pests and diseases are specific to Malaysia, thus there is a need for us to develop our own kits. Moreover, although there are many common pests and pathogens, different countries are plagued by different strains. This area of research will help farmers to reduce loss due to pests and diseases and increase productivity. This is one area that biotechnology can play a crucial role to transform our agricultural sector. Of course, there are many other areas as well that long for urgent attention that could create huge wealth and rebrand the agricultural sector. We should harness the full potential of the biological era instead of being complacent with our old ways of doing things and only create noise when there is a crisis. Agriculture is not about making snacks. That has been perfected by our forefathers. Let us move forward. My usual question: Do we want to be a leader or keep lagging behind in the biology revolution?

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Backyard Science and the Kitchen Lab

Having blogged so much on students' perspectives and related issues in biotechnology, I've decided to move on further into the field of biotechnology by talking about my pet projects and hobbies that I hope to have that is biotech-related. Biotech-related hobby sounds slightly oxymoronic, in fact, how could someone take something that requires large amounts of funding and high-end equipment and bring it into a backroom some where at home to do on a casual basis. But that is just what I've been thinking of minus the amount of money that I would have to bleed.

This thought came about from a short discussion with Dr. Kodiswaran from FRIM during one of his tissue culture workshops where he spoke on the potentials of tissue culture, and emphasizing that the technology is not as hard as most people perceive. In fact, he mentioned that there are specific groups in the Western world where hobbyists actually come together to make up ways that it would be possible to do tissue culture at home, away from the sterile rooms and laminar flow.

How is this possible? Searching Google with keywords "Tissue Culture At Home", it was not hard to find a good website which talks about doing tissue culture at home. Many of them were very well organized and the terminology was not difficult to be understood by laymen. One of the more comprehensive site would be this one by Rick Walker of Agilent Labs ( While there is another one which is more image intensive by Carol M. Stiff of Kitchen Culture Kits a company selling equipment for home tissue culture like media etc. ( )

However, I should also add that it would be possible to do tissue culture with items that one can buy from hardware stores and pharmacies, without having to buy specific items like Murashige-Skoog (MS) media, plant hormones etc. from specialized stores. Some of them can be substituted, other left out. On the other hand, instead of having a sterile laminar flow cabinet to ensure sterility of the workspace, home tissue culture can be conducted by using a fish tank left on the side and which is sterilized by bleach, and instead of an autoclave, a pressure cooker is used to sterilize all equipment used.

Home tissue culture is the art of adapting to circumstances in the real world. Instead of being cooped up in the laboratories of the ivory towers, one is allowed to let one's imagination run free. Breaking out of the boxes that years of academic learning has forced upon us. Instead of perfect, spotless lab settings, one is forced to adapt to less than perfect circumstances with one's understanding of the basic theories in science.

To be frank, it is a lot more interesting and a lot more amusing when one is forced to use whatever limited resources that one may find at home to do frontline scientific work. Remember back in high school when one is required to extract DNA from onions using table salt and rubbing alcohol. The items are what we use on a daily basis for various implements, but yet by combining them, we are able to delve into the heart and core of science research. This keeps the various scientific theories alive.

I do hope the DIY trend would continue to grow strong. With soaring oil prices in 2008, DIY biodiesel manuals were hot items in bookstores, and many a house had backyard biodiesel manufacturing apparatus installed. Would we begin to see an advent in which backyard tissue culture or molecular diagnostics at home would come to fore? I know there are online groups devoted to such work. (Root beer-flavoured gel electrophoresis anyone? just check out I shall delve into this in a little more depth when I start to do my own backyard science. :)

Maybe one day, the scientist who would ultimately win the Nobel Prize in any of the science disciplines would discover the invention in their own backyard.

As a last note, I'll append the link to a charming poem by Kari-Lynn Winters called "A Scientist Lives in Our Kitchen". This reminds me of my own childhood where I used to terrorise the household with my curiousity, with experiments like "the effects of granny's hairdye on our albino siamese cat", "physical machinations of toothpaste in granny's sewing machine" and "the chemistry of various shampoos and its effect on hair", "fake plastic fish in the freezer: an experimentation on human psyche in relation to the discernment of the identity of frozen food". ;)