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Biotechnology


Biotechnology the application of biological systems and organisms to technical and industrial processes. The practice of manipulation of biological materials for greater productivity and the creation of desirable types dates back to ancient times. The manipulations practised at that time had many of the characteristics of technology- that is, these involved the acquisition of skills and techniques, the large-scale application of which became an economic activity. For example, the production of hybrid plants by artificial crossing of different varieties was in practice as early as 7000 BC. This could certainly be regarded as agricultural technology, and this type of manipulation became more common during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and paralleled the growth of man's scientific understanding of the various biological processes at a basic level, such as at the level of the structure and function of cells and of the cellular basis of biological functions. Although one could legitimately apply the term biotechnology to all those manipulations, the word biotechnology is of relatively recent origin.

In many developing countries including Bangladesh, the term biotechnology is applied at times in a fairly wide context. There is the area of conventional yield improvement methods for agricultural crops by applying new knowledge of breeding and application of a new type of fertiliser such as biofertiliser, yield enhancement by new type of pesticides such as biopesticide, plant tissue culture, etc. Micro-propagation techniques, isolation of microorganisms that make useful products or possess special biochemical capabilities etc., are among the areas of what may be called conventional biotechnology where no DNA manipulations are involved. Recombinant DNA- based biotechnology such as producing transgenic plants, development of livestock and poultry vaccines, DNA-based diagnostic reagents for biomedical applications etc fall under the category biotechnology where DNA manipulations are involved.

Biotechnology research in Bangladesh at the present time is largely concentrated on the conventional type, restricted to a small number of institutions and encompassing a small number of research areas. Tissue culture techniques for mass production of seedlings are being used by many institutions because of its commercial potential. It involves important cash crops such as potato, banana, papaya, jute, mulberry and some medicinal or ornamental plants such as neem and orchids. To a lesser extent, facilities exist in a small number of institutions, notably in the Biochemistry and Botany departments of the university of dhaka, for the transfer of foreign genes to important crop plants in order to create transgenic organisms. Introduction of osmolyte genes into rice for developing salt-tolerant varieties and the Bt gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis which confers resistance to lepidopteran insect pests, is being studied. In these laboratories, techniques for the transfer of some genes such as antibiotic resistance genes used for selection purposes, have been developed in some plants, but no transgenic crop plants with agronomically useful genes have yet been developed. One difficulty it appears is that in Bangladesh it has not yet adopted a guideline for regulating the use of transgenic plants in the field. This is an important need since transgenic plants will become increasingly available for field use, both at a basic experimental level and pre-commercial trial level, either developed by local scientists here or obtained from abroad. A national bio-safety guideline for the use of transgenic plants in the field is in the process of being developed. A draft has already been made and is under consideration by the government.

With microbes, mass production of some species such as baker's yeast, Spirullina (an algae with high nutritive and medicinal value that can be used as food supplement), and Rhizobium, bacteria that can fix atmospheric nitrogen and thus can be used as biofertiliser, is being pursued in some laboratories. Screening microorganisms for antibacterial substances and extra-cellular enzymes of industrial value is a laboratory stage activity at present, carried out largely by the university departments and a small number of R and D laboratories.

On the practical front, however, there is little information on the total market value of biotechnology products currently being made in Bangladesh. Indeed, the amount may be quite small. Production of Spirullina has been undertaken by the Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) and small quantities are being marketed as tablets by private manufacturers. Production of baker's yeast using molasses, a by-product of the cane-sugar manufacturing units located in the northern part of the country, has been explored by the BCSIR. The country's total production of molasses amounts to about 1,00,000 m tons, about half of which goes to the distilleries for the production of ethanol.

The remaining molasses, 50,000 m tons can be used for yeast production. Approximately 5 m tons of molasses will be required to produce 1 ton of dry yeast, which means that the country has enough molasses for producing 10,000 m tons of dried baker's yeast annually against our annual domestic requirement of just 400 m tons. Thus, we have sufficient scope for exporting the product but a strong international market competition is a significant deterrent. Lower international price of baker's yeast obtained from more preferred sources such as beet molasses makes the prospect of cane molasses-based yeast production a commercially unattractive venture. An alternative use of the molasses may be made in the production of yeast for use as feed supplement for fish, poultry and livestock provided that it is cost effective. Big industrial units may not be interested in such ventures but methods of small-scale production that can be adapted to household level may be useful.

Production of Rhizobium also has commercial potential as biofertiliser in legume cultivation because of its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and its specific association with the roots of legume crops. The area under legume cultivation in the country is about 5,00,000 acres which will require 20 million packets of this biofertiliser, each containing a certain number of the bacteria mixed with powdered peat soil, a formulation that has been made by the bangladesh institute of nuclear agriculture (BINA). But the process has still not attracted entrepreneurs for commercial production. Production of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis for using the cells directly as biopesticide is still a laboratory-stage exercise. Industrial units with fermentation facilities that could be used for cultivation of both Rhizobium and Bacillus thuringiensis may prove cost-effective, but these need commercial viability studies.

Potentials for tissue culture-derived potato seeds is bright in Bangladesh and is an important area of plant biotechnology. Potato is a staple food item used in curries and produced throughout the country. The annual production is about 1.5 million m tons for which 175,000 m tons of potato seeds are needed yearly. Of this, only 6000 m tons of good quality certified seeds available in the country are produced through the normal methods of seed multiplication, the rest of the required 'seed' potato is just the cooking potato used as seeds. Since good seeds are critical for a good yield of potato, it is estimated that with tissue culture-derived healthy disease-free seeds, the yield can be doubled. Because of this enhanced production potential, potato seed production by tissue culture methods has recently drawn the interest of the private sector such as non-governmental organisations (NGO), which with time may also involve formal private sectors, and the practical benefit of this is likely to be seen in the near future.

In general, tissue culture-derived plant propagating units or propagules offer the advantage that the seedlings produced by them are healthy, often free from viral diseases, and as such give a better yield. For this reason, there will be a great demand for tissue culture products in selected plant crops. Presently many plants are the subject of tissue culture studies in about a dozen university and R&D institutions. Some of these centres may be able to address the future needs of the country. Simultaneously, several private sector companies have also been established recently with modest facilities for plant tissue culture biotechnology, which significantly adds to the chances for a bright commercial future for this sector in Bangladesh.

In the biomedical area, biotechnological activity is relatively weak. Most of the R&D institutions in this sector are oriented towards the provision of service, with little opportunity for research. Biomedical research essentially is carried out at only a small number of institutions, of which one is an international centre - the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) - which carries out significant research on biomedical product development such as molecular diagnostics, vaccines, drugs etc. The work of icddr,b is greatly facilitated by its extensive field research facilities supported by modern laboratories and skilled manpower. The centre's activities are supported by international and UN bodies and also by western pharmaceutical companies. The high value biotechnology products that are developed in the centre, however, cannot be included in the inventory of national biotechnology products but the contribution of the centre in the development of these products is highly acclaimed both nationally and internationally.

Mammalian cell culture-derived viral vaccines are important but no significant attempt has yet been made in Bangladesh for developing such products. Livestock products are restricted to a small number of cattle and poultry vaccines produced through conventional routes.

In essence, these represent the range of biotechnological work in Bangladesh at the present time. Recently the government has established a National Institute of Biotechnology (NBI). [Zia Uddin Ahmed]