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Friday, July 08, 2005

Nigeria's fate in biotechnology

Features of the week:

The science of biotechnology is a must for any nation wishing to be self sufficient, reports REMMY NWEKE.

It is estimated that 15 years from now, 50 per cent of the global economy will be bioeconomy-based, according to the Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Turner Isoun. Prof Isoun stated this in an address to the 8th international conference of the Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), which held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State a fortnight ago.

What this means is that in 2020, any nation which does not align itself economically with biotechnology, will be unsung in yet another revolution.

Biotechnology, according to Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, is the manipulation of biological organisms to make products that benefit human beings.


Thus, biotechnology contributes to such various areas
as food production, waste disposal, mining and medicine.


Although biotechnology has been in existence for over 5,000 years Before Christ (B.C.), it is known as assorted breeds of plants or animals hybridized in scientific parlance as 'crossed' to produce greater genetic variety.

Then, the offspring of these crosses are selectively bred to produce the greatest available number of desired traits. According to Encarta, repeated cycles of selective breeding produced several present-day food staples, and have been deployed in the modern day food production programmes.


Locally, this kind of technology could be described as
advanced 'fertilizer' science programme, which is a substance that is put in the land to make crops grow optimally.

However, some achievements of biotechnology include the transfer of a certain gene from one organism to another by way of what experts say is applying a set of genetic engineering techniques, known as transgenics which is the maintenance and growth of genetically uniformed plant and animal-cell cultures, called clones today.


Also, the fusing of different types of cells to produce beneficial medical products such as monoclonal antibodies, Prof. Louis Levine of City College of New York, noted is often designed to attack a particular type of foreign substance.


Generally, genes, Commonwealth Biotechnologies Incorporated (CBI) said, are bits of biochemical instructions found inside the cells of every organism from bacteria of humans. As such, Prof. Levine noted, the offsprings receive a mixture of genetic information from both parents.

This information, he explained, is encoded and transmitted from generation to generation in Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), which is a coiled molecule organized into structures called chromosomes within cells. This segments along with the length of a DNA molecule form genes.


Therefore, in agriculture, genetic advances enable scientists to alter a plant or animal to make it more
useful, according to Encarta. Hence, this has evolutionized the way industries produce certain substances, many of which formerly required costly and arduous manufacturing methods.


Historically, the modern era of biotechnology originated in 1953 when American biochemist, Mr. James Watson and British biophysicist, Mr. Francis Crick presented their double-helix model of DNA to the public.

Seven years later, it was followed by the discovery in 1960 of special enzymes known as restriction enzymes in bacteria by renowned Swiss microbiologist, Mr. Werner Arber, and in 1973, geneticist Stanley Cohen and biochemist, Mr. Herbert Boyer, both Americans, removed a specific gene from one bacterium and inserted it into another using restriction enzymes. This marked the beginning of recombinant DNA technology, commonly known as genetic engineering.

Prof. Levine also noted that in the 1960s, an important project used hybridization followed by selective breeding to increase food production and quality of wheat and rice crops. The American agriculturalist Norman Borlaug, head of the programme then, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of the important contribution that increased the world's food supply made to the case of peace.

For Prof. Levine, biotechnology is applied in various fields such as in using it to create new biodegradable materials, made possible from the lactic acid produced during the bacterial fermentation of discarded corn stalks.



This example indicates that when individual lactic acid
molecules are joined chemically, they form a material that has the properties of plastics but is biodegradable, even as this has since spread into the mining industry.

All these must have added to the import of what Prof. Isoun enthused at the NCS conference, where he noted that Nigeria as a nation is endowed with enormous bioresources across all its six main ecological zones, namely mangrove/swamp, rainforests, derived savannah, montane/plateau, savannah and semi-arid.

He said that what matters most is how we as a nation use the new Information Technology (IT) domain of bioinformatics to drive the growth and development of modern biotechnology in the country.

Piqued, the Bayelsa State governor, Chief Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, lamented recent technological-economic survey of the chemicals and pharmaceutical sector of the nation's economy by the Raw Materials Research and Development Council of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, which he described as revealing.

According to him, out of 476 indispensable raw materials currently needed by the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, in the country only 16 are locally sourced.


"What a pity! IT capacity building could bridge this huge gap by using data mining in knowledge-based economy," he
asserted.
Just last weekend, news report had it that founder of Microsoft, Mr. Bill Gates, announced a grant of over $400 million to Pioneer Hybrid for use in improving health in developing countries.

It also stated that Pioneer is expected to spend the next two years using their technology to fight hunger half way around the world and will soon commence work on the next generation of crops to feed people in Africa, otherwise known as 'sorgum' which experts said looks like corn grown in Iowa, United States.

According to the report, sorgum could grow anywhere including the desert which is known to have limited farming in parts of Africa, but the only problem associated with them, is that when cooked these tiny pieces of grain, sorgum, lose their nutritional value.

Though scientists at Pioneer said they have the solution by way of replacing a gene in the sorgum that will double the nutritional value, making it better for the people who eat it, even after it’s cooked.

Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda were fingered as the nations where this experiment would soon take place, even as Pioneer scientists intend to work with African scientists to bring the new technology back home with them.

For Mr. Eric Idehen, who left Nigeria over five years ago, "this kind of research could help lift the large majority of my country men living in poverty."

He stressed that Nigerians have the land to farm and want to work but most often do not have a crop worth growing. Even as experts from Pioneer hope to market the first generation of the enhanced Sorgum within a year, thus bridging the gap between the science of those who have and those who need it most.

For the immediate past president of Information Technology Industry Association of Nigeria (ITAN), Mr. Chris Uwaje, he agrees that biotechnology is important at this stage of our economic development and to humanity in entirety.

"Sure Bio-Technology is very, very important to mankind essentially due to the global population surge that has hit 6.4billion.

This challenges mankind to come up with accelerated techniques to establish and guarantee food security and enhance the life expectancy index," he asserted in exclusive chat with Champion Infotel.

No matter the attendant opinion this has generated among professionals since it was proclaimed, the fact is that this situation seems to prevent the incessant shortage of food in developing nations, most of which are in Africa.

So, the earlier the continent and Nigeria particularly
realize this essence, and embrace bio-technology in all ramification, the better for the proposed exportation of stable food crops by the government and the plan to diversify cassava for the making of bread in the country, a realty.


This has become very important, mostly if the dream to be self-sustained in food production and to take care of the 150 million Nigerians would materialize in the near future, at least, before 2020.

Published in Daily Champion, July 7, 2005

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