Third world power

  • 14/07/2002

Third world power
The publication of two rice genome sequences could not have come at a better time. With the human genome project meeting its targets ahead of time, genomics in general is looming large on the horizon, waiting to dominate the scene completely. The rice genome project is to agriculture research what the human genome project is to medicinal biotechnology. Biological science has, indeed, come a long way from the discovery of Escherichia coli (E Coli) in 1885 to the rice genome sequences published today.

A look at population figures over the past decade or two will place the significance of genomics in perspective. It is simply impossible for traditional agricultural and production methods to keep pace with the tremendous upward curve that population figures demonstrate. And what better place to start the exercise of bridging this gap than rice!

Of the two rice genome sequences published recently, the Chinese research group's effort is particularly commendable. Yang Huanming at the Beijing Genomics Institute, and his colleagues from 10 other Chinese institutions and the University of Washington in the us, worked on sequencing the complete genome of the indica subspecies (466 million bases). The Chinese project arrived at its results in a remarkably short period of time. It also has one of the lowest cost factors among comparable projects. The key to the Chinese group's success, both in terms of speed and cost, is the involvement of a large number of people.

The fact that China, a developing country, came out with a successful rice genome sequencing at such an early stage is an indication that developing countries are capable of working on increasing rice production. The Chinese Academy of Sciences was able to devise a structure where they could channelise the talents of a large number of persons towards one common goal. It is also interesting to note that every single author is Chinese. Any major scientific research of this magnitude will involve the networking of both skill and infrastructure. Such research will also invariably be a race against time. The Chinese research group had the advantage of highly focussed funding. Both human resources and infrastructure were brought together in a short time. The whole research from scratch to finish, in fact, took only about two years.

The next big challenge is to accurately predict the genes in the rice genome. Rice has an unusual nucleotoide composition. There is a change in the nucleotoide composition along the genome, making it difficult to identify genes using conventional methods. This is where India should focus, for this would be the next big breakthrough.

Genomics was once the forte of the developed countries. China was able to use this technology and harness it to the needs of the developing countries. There is also a treasure trove of knowledge base in traditional farmer practices. We must combine traditional knowledge with ultramodern science. Genetic manipulation is now possible, and we should converge this with traditional knowledge.

The department of biotechnology has rightfully taken a decision to support this area of research quite early. However, we are not doing enough. When China can invest us $20 million a year and put 500 researchers together, why does India lag behind? We have entered the knowledge era. China has been able to attract many of its scientists back to the country with this project. There is a sense of national pride. We need to have symbolic victory. We need to build a sense of nationalism. If there is a void in research, there is no doubt about the fact that multinational corporations (mncs) will step in to exploit our talent. We need to interact with industry to protect the interest of the people. Industry participation could, in fact, bring with it the methods of professionalism into the scientific community.

I would go so far as to say that it is important to work with China in the area of genomics. We have opened up trade and business, and flights to China. The next field that ought to open up is science. Together we are half the world, and we share a number of problems. It seems to make logistical sense that we should work together to alleviate the problems of half of humanity.

Sameer K Brahmachari is director, Centre for Biochemical Technology

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