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Biotech For a Better Life

Bill Gates’s said, while he was addressing the graduates of Harvard University (world’s no. 1 ranked university) back in 2007- “Yes, inequity has been with us forever. But the new tools we have to cut through complexity have not been with us forever. They are new — they can help us make the most of our caring — and that’s why the future can be different from the past. The defining and ongoing innovations of this age — biotechnology, the personal computer, and the Internet — give us a chance we’ve never had before to end extreme poverty and end death from preventable disease.”  The word “Biotechnology” used by him six years ago played a remarkable role in changing the paradigm of researches in health, agriculture, environment and almost all life related areas, and also helped many to get acquainted with the very term.
Biotechnology was the science of future when structure of DNA (the functional basis of life) was first discovered in 1953.

But now it has become science for today. Everything, from the toilet papers we use, to the fabrics we wear, is now becoming the product of this technology. Biotechnology has given answers to a lot of impossibilities. It has been practiced from old days, though, the terminology is coined lately. From making of gundruk (a dried fermented product from green vegetable) to cloning a human is all Biotechnology. This is a multi-disciplinary field. One has to be jack of all to become a real biotechnologist.

Thousands of soldiers got their life back during World War II just because Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (first ever discovered antibiotic). The technology in practice to produce antibiotics, Monoclonal antibodies (usually used to treat cancer and other fatal diseases), and vaccines against fatal viruses like bird flu, swine flu is also Biotechnology. When Africa was in food crisis, and the population was growing at an alarming rate, scientists discovered a solution to maintain the food supply and nutrient deficiency, and the product developed was the contribution of Biotechnology, which at present is popularly known as, Golden Rice. Biotechnology has no boundaries because this technology directly deals with life.

Introduced back in 2003 at Kathmandu University, Department of Biotechnology, in the name B.Tech Biotechnology, this subject now is taught in seven colleges with affiliations from four different universities. Biotechnology courses offered by Kathmandu University and Purbanchal University in undergraduate level are 4 years degree but the course that is offered by Sikkim Manipal Univeristy is 3 years course. In Masters program, three different institutes offer courses with affiliation from Kathmandu University and Tribhuvan University.

The meaning of Biotechnology can be derived from the word itself; Bio- Relating to life and Technology- the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. Therefore, Biotechnology is the practical application of knowledge about the life forms in this world for the betterment of mankind. It is a multi-disciplinary area of study which includes life, technology, production, management, marketing ethics and law. For transforming an idea into some tangible form, i.e. a product or service, the basic requirement is the infrastructure. Though we have tremendous knowledge and expertise, we are still lacking the infrastructure. Therefore research and innovations in the field are not quite substantial at present. In the case of Biotechnology it is more important to concentrate on priority based research and development since, we cannot generate large sum of money to bolster every single area of biotechnology at a single time. If we prioritize the sectors then investment can be more result oriented and people can take utmost benefit out of that. For instance, availability of seeds to the farmers at the time of need is a gross problem in the agriculture sector of Nepal, and if we can use bio-technology to generate seeds in larger volumes and of good quality then this problem can be addressed. This example suggests that R&D in seed development can be one area of prioritization. Similarly, in natural conservation sector, Nepal does not have genetic data of any of its endemic plant or animal species, even of those already enlisted in IUCN red list. Therefore, another area of priority can be constructing the genetic map of those rare and endanger species. Or constructing the DNA barcode of important crop, plant or livestock varieties of the country. A lot of things need to be done, and can be done in this particular field. The only thing we require, is the courage to take a new step towards challenging the stereotypes, and living our dream to change.

What Graduates think
Anuja Paudyal, a biotechnology graduate from SANN International college shared her feeling this way-“I feel responsibilities are added being a graduate. Mixed thoughts are coming into mind about, whether to stay inside the country or pursue further education abroad. I don’t think there are lot tangible opportunities inside the country at this time but I am very hopeful about growth of this field to a new height in near future and the responsibility for that transformation is in our shoulders.” Those graduates who are into their own business or have started their own companies are now in place of doing competitive businesses. One of the best examples is Praramva Biotech Pvt. Ltd., a company owned by few graduates from Kathmandu Univerisity, Department of biotechnology. They say-“ There are difficulties and a crisis of identity at the time of start but when you are determined and have clear vision then every hurdles seem feeble and you can succeed.” Praramva Biotech is now into the mass cultivation of different varieties of mushroom and production of Vermi-compost and the earthworms required for the typical composting.

What trend setters say
Dr. Sameer Mani Dixit, Country Director of Centre for Molecular Diagnosis Nepal, seems very optimistic about the scope and growth of Biotechnology in Nepal’s near future. According to him the charm towards biotechnology is gradually decreasing due to oversupply and lower demand of the biotechnologists inside the country, this could be a huge loss to control. He also requests government and university officials to stay wary regarding this concern. His centre is currently involved in research and development of technology in sectors like conservation biology, public health, Molecular mapping of different plant varieties and many more and he feels proud to be among the trend setters in this field with challenges but immense possibilities. He also emphasised on the initiative of government towards establishing a National Biotechnology Centre. He believes once the centre is established there will be no turn back of this entire sector, since the centre will mainly focus on establishing biotechnology industries through generating demand based technologies.

Deputy-Secretary, Chief of Biotechnology Section, Department of Plant Resources, Government of Nepal, Keshari Maiya Rajkarnikar says-“ We are confined to tissue culture from two decades. We have already established the culture protocols for about 145 plant varieties which include trees, horticulture plants, medicinal plants, ornamental plants, orchids, bamboo etc. But moving ahead from that is a challenge. The government has no policy of recruiting experts in biotechnology fields and the experts do not want to volunteer, they prefer to go abroad for better opportunity. We have been trying to establish new molecular biology laboratory but power and budget problem has always been a huge problem in research in Nepal.”
Where can career starters go for information about the subject?

Every college offering the course has their own counseling section. Interested people can visit respective colleges for the information. To know more in detail about what biotechnology is and where the biotechnology research, development and industry is going one can also visit www.ncbi.nlm.gov which is the official website of National Centre for Biotechnology Information, USA.

Globalization even in the biotechnology field means that we do not have to stay confined to our borders if your country does not provide proper education, research or development chances. Life and Science is all about exploring and nobody knows what s/he get out of anything; therefore, try to be global regarding the subjects like biotechnology because there are more global scopes compared to what is present in Nepal currebtly. Once you get how this science can be used for the development of our country then everybody can use their expertise for the development of the country.

There are several student and professionals associations, forums, groups which has been actively working for Biotechnology development inside the country. These places can be a good source of information and guidance for the new comers into the field. One of the oldest societies of Biotechnologist formed by biotechnology graduates is Biotechnology Society of Nepal (BSN). One can find more information about them on their website www.bsn.org.np. BSN provides research counseling, post undergraduate counseling for university search; organize seminars, trainings, conferences, workshops related to biotechnology and life sciences. Others are Team up and talk about Biotechnology, Nepal Biotech Society etc.