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Hype and the reality of biotechnology

Subhash Chandra Lakhotia

Birth of Biotechnology

The understanding of structure of DNA and its control of protein synthesis in living cells stimulated intensive research in the 1960s giving birth to the exciting field of molecular biology. Further basic research elicited some of the basic pathways used by the genetic information, inherited from parents as DNA molecules, to control specific biological functions. Such studies also provided insights into the specific class of enzymes, the restriction enzymes, which bacteria use as their defense mechanism. A good understanding of these and other enzymes that help DNA molecules to copy themselves, available by the early 1970s, made it possible to manipulate or modify DNA molecules or the genetic information in a test tube. This gave rise to the exciting field of genetic engineering. The power to manipulate our genetic blue-print in a desired manner fueled an altruistic wish of scientists to apply the power of genetic engineering for the benefit of common man. Such possibilities gave rise to the current version of Biotechnology’ in 1970s. The initial altruism was, however, soon overtaken by the desire to exploit the unprecedented opportunity to convert intellectual property into material wealth. This has contributed to the unusually rapid establishment and a much wider appeal of biotechnology as a profession and an industry. This has affected not only the conventional paradigms of the industry, but has also changed the academic establishments. After the more than three decades of the current excitement about Biotechnology, it is appropriate to take stock of the expectations and achievements.

What is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology has become a very common, but also most mis-understood, term due to the hype created about its potential so that the sky seems to be the limit for the hopes and visions generated by biotechnology. In simplest terms, Biotechnology is a technology that allows engineering of biological systems for benefit of mankind. In this respect, biotechnology is not a new science, since it has been practiced by mankind ever since the human race started agriculture and domestication of wild animals. However, the current excitement is based on the power of genetic engineering which allows a very rapid and precisely defined manipulation of the genetic information that shapes any individual. Since genetic engineering allows introduction of the desired DNA into genomes of any other individual, leading to production of transgenic organisms, it opens unprecedented possibilities for gene therapy, designer organisms (including humans), better food products from genetically modified plants, novel useful products from factories’ based on microorganisms or animals/​plants, freedom from disease and hunger, and so on. Everything appears within the human reach. Such hopes have stimulated a very high scale of industrial investment and rapid changes in the academic programmes across the globe. However, the sustainability of this euphoria is now in doubt.

Hype of Biotechnology

The current state of biotechnology is like that of an industry that started without understanding the fundamental processes required to make the product. Biotechnology continues to be projected as the panacea for most, if not all problems faced by humans in most countries. However, compared to high expectations and consequent investment of billions of dollars in the biotechnology industry across the world, there have been few success stories. Even the ones that appear successful today may not remain so in times to come. For example, it remains to be seen if the pest-resistance of BT-plants’, would survive evolutionary forces: just as bacteria and mosquitoes (and other pests) quickly become resistant to ever-new generations of antibiotics and pesticides, it is likely that the pests which are currently avoiding BT-plants’ may soon evolve novel metabolic pathways to survive the BT-toxin. Further, although we claim to have deciphered the entire human genome, and genomes of a large number of other organisms, we still do not fully know the rules of grammar and syntax that the language of genetic information (DNA) follows. Our understanding of even the genes that actually produce the proteins or enzymes, that presumably control functions of a living cell and provide its unique properties, is far from complete. Our ignorance becomes much more glaring when we realize that the protein-coding part of the genetic information accounts for no more than 1.5– 2% of the DNA that we inherit from parents. Recent studies are revealing that the remaining 98% or more of the DNA in our cells, which till now was denigrated as junk’ or selfish’ DNA, is really not so. However, how the bulk of this 98% DNA functions and how it interacts with the environment to make what an organism is, remain almost completely unknown.

It is surprising that with such little knowledge, we feel confident that biotechnology can be harnessed to solve many of our woes! Allured by the high hopes and hype, most countries have invested enormous resources, both private and public, in the biotechnology industry. The inertia of the massive investments and the consequent vested interests do not let us admit that the simplistic and reductionist approaches, based on severely limited understanding of biology, that are being practiced in the name of biotechnology may collapse like an overinflated balloon.

Teaching and training in Biotechnology in India

I would like to draw attention to another seriously damaging aspect of the biotechnology’ revolution in our country. This relates to our present state of education, especially biology or life sciences. Beginning in the mid-1980s, teaching programmes in biotechnology, initially at the Master’s level, were started in India with great hopes of preparing adequately trained human resource which can effectively make use of the newly emerging power of molecular biology and genetic engineering. Anticipating a significant expansion of biotech industry, there has been an unrestrained rush to learn/​teach biotechnology, even at under-graduate and school levels. This has diverted both the younger minds and resources to the newly established departments of biotechnology in various universities and colleges across the country at the expense of the existing departments of zoology/​botany/​microbiology/​biochemistry, etc. Innumerable private and public institutions joined the band-wagon, resulting in mushrooming of biotechnology courses in every city and small town of the country. Given the very high population pressure and scant job opportunities, the young generation and their parents have been easy prey to the belief that, like the information technology, biotechnology will provide a highly remunerative and challenging career. In this mad rush, a large number of young students pay whooping amounts as fees to receive, in return, a worthless certificate giving them B.Sc./B. tech. or M.Sc./M.Tech. degree in Biotechnology. In the wake of popularity of biotechnology and information technology, another field, bioinformatics, has also gained enormous popularity among aspiring students and teaching institutions that are out to make hay while the sun shines’. Unfortunately, neither the highly remunerative and satisfying jobs are in sight nor are employable graduates who know their biology and technology well to become useful biotechnologists”.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are essentially laboratory based subjects and thus require extensive laboratory facilities for the students to learn and have hands-on training in different techniques. A majority of the innumerable colleges and university departments offering such courses have no laboratory facilities worth the name. Most of them have invented’ a clever strategy which requires the hapless students to seek a place in other institution somewhere in the country (or even outside) to undertake a research project’ lasting for 2 – 6 months. The institutions where the students are enrolled do not provide any laboratory training, notwithstanding the fact that they collect substantial amounts as fees. On the other hand, the laboratory where the student undertakes the project is expected to foot the bill for the student’s research training’. The plight of students who are required to undertake research projects outside the parent institution is no better than a beggar’ on the street. Given the enormously large numbers of students begging’ for projects across the country, quality of the research projects and their reports remains as bad as the quality of teaching in general. However, such self-financing’ or special courses’ continue to be very lucrative business propositions for earning money on part of those who make education a business.

How can we gainfully exploit the power of biotechnology?

The above rather pessimistic view, however, needs to be qualified. Applications of methods of genetic engineering and biotechnology, have indeed enormously helped our understanding of the nature of genetic information and its operational details, etc. This area of research needs to be continued more vigorously to allow really sustainable applications in future. Since the remarkable homeostasis exhibited by living organisms is primarily due to the complex network of information transfer and signal transduction, any isolated perturbation through genetic engineering/​biotechnology can have unexpected consequences. Therefore, unless we comprehensively understand the genome and its functioning in different organisms, including human, it is not advisable to tinker it piecemeal. The following aspects need concerted in depth basic studies for eventual biotechnological applications in a well planned manner. 

Genome Studies: A deeper, integrative and holistic understanding of the non-coding component or the dark matter” of our genome, which till recently was generally ignored as the junk” or selfish”, is essential to really understand how the higher organisms have achieved the biological complexity during evolution. Without understanding this, we cannot effectively apply the power of genetic engineering and other biotechnological methods to improve” the living systems. An increasing number of human disorders are now being understood to be due to changes in the non-coding DNA. Therefore, planning gene therapy, without fully knowing the significance and mechanisms of actions of the non-coding DNA and the networking systems in cells, is fraught with serious consequences: little knowledge is dangerous knowledge indeed. Intensive and rigorous research, using the wide variety of the available methods for gene manipulation and for studying gene expression, should be undertaken to understand in depth the working of, not only the protein-coding genes, but also of the bulk of genomic sequences which do not produce protein.

Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling: Another area that has immensely benefitted from biotechnology is the identification of genetic factors responsible for a large variety of human diseases. This not only opens ways for novel therapeutic applications but also provides for early diagnosis. This in turn can prevent birth of children with genetic disorders or permits early treatment. However, information on genetic factors responsible for a large majority of inherited diseases in Indian populations is extremely limited. Most of our information about genetic factors associated with different diseases are based on data from western populations. Given the enormous diversity of Indian populations, identification of genetic variations that are associated with specific genetic disorders is urgently required. Such studies, therefore, need to be undertaken with high priority. Likewise, the genetic, physiological and social factors that prevent or promote spread of different infectious diseases need intensive studies utilizing molecular methods in conjunction with other approaches.

Biodiversity & Conservation: Molecular biological and biotechnological methods are now essential for studies on biotic diversity and its conservation. This can also have extensions in precise identification of biological materials for medicinal uses. 

Plant Tissue Culture: Biotechnology is not limited to gene manipulation methods only. Any technological application of biological systems is part of biotechnology. Tissue culture for faster propagation of better varieties of plants is of great economic importance in agriculture as well as horticulture.

Bionics and Biomechanics: Development of newer industrial processes and machines based on biological processes and biological machines” is also an important aspect of biotechnology. However, this has received much less attention in India. Investment in this field has a great potential. Development of new materials for implants and new kinds of prosthetics would go a long way in making India not only self-reliant but also a leader in the field.

Stem Cells: Like Biotechnology, the stem cell biology is also suffering from excessive hype. Without a full basic knowledge about what makes a stem cell a stem cell, attempts to claim all kinds of therapeutic values and applications of stem cells are unfounded. In order to develop a rational strategy to exploit the potential usefulness and advantages of stem cells in therapy, it is necessary to learn much more about their nature through comprehensive basic research

Need for a holistic and integrative learning of Biology

Biotechnology requires very good understanding of Biology as well as Technology. Therefore, we must ensure that our teaching programmes provide good understanding of Biology and at the same time, prepare them for making use of this knowledge for technological applications. In order to achieve this, it is essential, and urgently so, that our under-graduate and post-graduate teaching programmes are integrative and holistic, rather than compartmentalized and unduly specialized. In this context, there is no justification for continuing with or staring new programmes of Bachelor’s courses in narrow disciplines like Biotechnology, Bioinformatics, Nanotechnology etc. Even at the Master’s level, it is desired that a wholesome understanding of the biological principles in the chosen area is provided to the students rather than the fragmented and incoherent mix of topics under the garb of biotechnology. At the same time, those studying physical and chemical sciences and technology/​engineering must also be aware of basic biological processes and principles so that the biologists, chemists, physicists and technologists/​engineers can effectively communicate with each other and thereby develop strong collaborative activities. Then only the real power of biotechnology would be available. The fragmented learning of Biology and the desire to reap quick benefits of the power of Biotechnology have done more damage and maligned the otherwise very useful field of human activity.

Technological applications can be made only after the basic processes on which the technology is based are well understood. With our existing understanding of living systems and their processes, the hype about Biotechnology is indeed dangerous. The human hurry to reap quick economic, social and political benefits has resulted in the unrealistic claims about Biotechnology. Much more basic and integrative studies are required before we can have sustainable benefits of biotechnology. Dr. Adam Wilkins, Cambridge, UK, writing an Editorial in the December 2007 issue of Bioessays, compared the state of biotechnology with that of an industry that did not bother to get its fundamentals right”. He further stated Biotechnology is, after all, a special form of engineering – one that involves living things rather than inanimate materials – and all engineering should be based on a proper scientific understanding of the materials that are being engineered. Imagine how far the Apollo programme, to land a man on the moon, would have got without a full understanding of the relationships between mass, force and gravity, the basics of electronic circuitry, the principles of rocketry, the basics of materials science, and much more. Yet, it would seem that much of the biotechnology industry attempted the equivalent of a moon shot without the necessary scientific foundations”. Obviously, we need to complete much more of our homework before we can claim that Biotechnology can solve all human suffering!

This article was based upon a State of the Art” lecture delivered by Dr. Lakhotia on 22nd March 2010 at the National Seminar on Applications of Biotechnology and the Development of Bihar” which was jointly organized by Central University of Bihar and the Birla Institute of Technology (Patna Campus) and was held at Patna (Bihar).