Random Thoughts
The Science of the 21st Century

By Dr A Q Khan
Islamabad, Pakistan

Almost a decade ago I was invited as chief guest to an International Conference on Ophthalmology in Lahore. Beside me was seated the president of the Royal Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom. Before the conference started he asked me, in a rather amused tone, how it had come about that a nuclear scientist was attending an ophthalmological conference as chief guest. To my smiling reply of, "Sir, I have also got two eyes," he responded: "How right you are – that says it all!"
This anecdote serves to illustrate that, though not an agriculturist, I am a human being like everyone else, have the pleasure of eating all kinds of food, vegetables and fruits and have good reason to take a keen interest in the availability of these items. In two of my previous articles on the importance of agriculture to our country I pointed out the looming danger of possible starvation due to uncontrolled population growth, loss of fertile lands to rapid urbanization, water shortage and salinity and the importance of biotechnology. I also stressed that the government should act now before it is too late and that they should fully utilize the services of good experts within the country.
The inclusion of Dr Zafar Altaf in President Asif Ali Zardari's team in his recent visit to China is a good omen in this direction. We can definitely learn from China on the best use of land and available water resources. When one visits China, especially the rural areas, one notices that not a single acre of land is left uncultivated. In some areas three different crops are being cultivated at the same time – i.e., tea on higher ground, maize on the slopes and wheat, rice and vegetables on the planes. In our country we find thousands of acres left unutilized for agriculture.
As a scientist I have always been interested in all important, applied scientific disciplines. A Department of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering was established at KRL in realization of the importance to the country of this discipline. Dr Syed Qasim Mehdi, a scientist of world repute, was appointed as DG. Within a short span of time it ranked among the best laboratories in the world on human genetics and was receiving research grants from international agencies. Furthermore, realizing that this was a discipline of the 21st century, I was instrumental in the establishment of the state-of-the-art Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering on the premises of Karachi University about 10 years ago. This Institute has been doing excellent work, both on agricultural and human genetics.
In Pakistan we have many excellent scientists in this field. Dr S. Qasim Mehdi and Dr Anwar Nasim are world-renowned in human genetics, while Dr Mujtaba Naqvi, Dr Khushnood Ali Khan, Dr Zafar Altaf and Dr Abdullah Kausar Malik, Dr Khalid Mahmood Khan, Dr Amir Mohammad Khan, Mr Sahfi Niaz are all well-known leading scientists in the field of agricultural sciences. The National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Faisalabad, the Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at Jamshoro, PARC under Dr Zafar Altaf and the Agriculture Universities at Rawalpind and Faisalabad, have all been doing excellent work in the development of various useful high-yield crops.
Now a few words about the various disciplines involved in this important field. Biology is the science that has most to tell us about the plant, animal and human kingdoms. It seeks to illuminate and answer the most challenging problems facing modern life, focus on the consequences of climate change and on the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by the unraveling of the human genome. The unprecedented rate of recent advances in biological knowledge has, in large part, been driven by the realization that all organisms, whether microbe, fungus, plant or animal, share a common evolutionary origin.
The biological world is dynamic, complex and fascinating. The drive to understand it stems from our basic curiosity as well as from the needs of society for improved healthcare and quality of life, the presence of technological progress and from concern about the conservation of our environment. Genomics and bio-informatics, new areas of enquiry, are exciting approaches to the characterization of individual differences during development and to their revelation of biological diversity.
Biology, being the science of living organisms, ranges from the molecular level through to populations and ecosystems. Many of the most exciting and pressing questions in the biological sciences, in molecular and cell biology, behavior, ecology, evolution, biodiversity and conservation fall under biological sciences.
Biological science is an exciting and rapidly expanding subject, with many applications in areas as diverse as conservation biology and molecular genetics. The study of living things has undergone a tremendous expansion during the past few years and relatively new fields, such as molecular biology, neuroscience and ecology, continue to advance very rapidly. These developments will have an important and profound impact on society in areas such as medicine, the environment and agriculture. This rapid advancement and expansion has resulted in the blurring of distinctions between disciplines - e.g., a biologist with an interest in tropical plants may well use many of the tools and techniques that are most essential and indispensable to a medical researcher. Highly trained specialists in the biological sciences can, therefore, play an essential and increasingly important role in a technological society and will continue to do so in the future.

Biotechnology is broadly defined as a multi-disciplinary field which utilizes a myriad of techniques and approaches to exploit biological systems for a variety of commercial and industrial purposes. The scientific and conceptual foundations of biotechnology are derived from molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, microbiology and chemical and process engineering. Some well-known biotechnology products are insulin, interferon, human growth hormone, somatostatin and antibiotics. The list also includes recombinant vaccines and commercially available diagnostic and research kits.

The history of biotechnology dates back to at least 5,000 years when the first loaf of bread was baked from fermented dough, the first alcoholic drink was brewed and the first pots of cheese and yoghurt were made. The modern era of biotechnology began in 1868 with the discovery of DNA by the German scientist, F Meischer. DNA carries the hereditary information that determines the structure of proteins which are the essential structural and functional components of cells. Much of the transforming power of biotechnology relies on enzymes, which are catalytic proteins. DNA also controls things like cell division, differentiation and whether it will live or die, remain normal or become cancerous.
Biotechnology has become increasingly important for the sustainable development of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, as well as the food industry. When used in conjunction with other appropriate technologies, it plays a pivotal role in meeting the challenges arising from an ever-increasing population with concomitant urbanization. This is of particular relevance to our country. It is also destined to have a profound impact on human and animal health and environment. In the very near future a major focus of biotechnology will be the strategic use of genetic information.
Genetics is of fundamental importance to all branches of modern biology. Its aim is to provide a sound understanding of the principles of genetics and their scientific, social and economic significance. Scientists working in genetics are interested in the widely varying aspects of biology, ranging from biological molecules (molecular evolution, the structure of genes and genomes, gene regulation and molecular cell biology) to biological communities (population and ecological genetics, the evolution of species) to the relatively new discipline of bio-informatics (a fusion of molecular genetics and computing).

While genetics in general offers a wide range of specialization in molecular, developmental, population, evolution and ecological genetics, human genetics is more focused on patterns of human inheritance and emphasizes topics such as clinical genetics, genetics and cancer, genetic counseling and the structure of the human genome.

In short, our government must invest generously for research in the field of biotechnology and genetic engineering for the benefit of the population. It must engage young PhDs coming from abroad with knowledge of the latest technologies in the agricultural sciences. This will pay rich dividends in the near future, both in terms of better crops yielding higher harvest and better health care. In no way must it be considered a mere cosmetic discipline. It is the science of the 21st century. (Courtesy The News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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