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October 17, 2003

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How it all Began


Ever wonder why people always compare certain traits you have to your parents or other people in your family? What exactly do people mean when they say that you have your mother's eyes or your father's nose? How exactly does the gene pool affect your life? The answers to all these questions came in the form of a discovery made fifty years ago. In April of 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick, both scientists at Cambridge, England, discovered the chemical structure for genes, Deoxyribonucleic Acid or DNA. They won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. On October 6-13, British Council, Bangladesh commemorated the 50th year of Crick and Watson's discovery by holding an exhibition in Dhaka.

SCORES of school children in white school uniforms laughed out loud as a graduate student from Dhaka University concluded her two and a half hour presentation on DNA structure with “What do you think of that?", breaking the ice with her informal tone. The student then invited Professor Haseena Khan of Dhaka University to take the audience on a tour around the Exhibition explaining the basic advantages of DNA technology. The journey proved to be quite fascinating.

DNA is a chemical structure that forms chromosomes. It is a double helix structure, consisting of two strands entwined around each other. Each strand has a sequence of chemical “bases” or nucleotides These bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine, are known in coding language as A, C, G and T. The bases are paired as such: A bonds with T and C bonds with GP Watson and Crick discovered the actual structure of DNA with the help of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. The four scientists studied X-Ray reflections and found that the structure was helical.

The discovery of DNA gave scientists countless opportunities. There are many uses to DNA technology, especially in the field of medical research.

DNA technology enables us to identify people with samples taken from blood, hair or skin cells. This is known as DNA “fingerprinting.” Everybody's DNA chemical structure is the same, but a person can be identified according to the sequence of their base pairs. Scientists determine identity by studying the repeating base patterns within the sample Although these patterns cannot give an individual "fingerprint," they can determine whether two DNA samples are from the same person or a relation. The technique is also used to help solve crimes. Genetic evidence identifies an individual, determining whether they were at the scene of a crime and providing evidence. Sir Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University first derived this procedure in 1984 and it was put to use in 1986 during a rape investigation in Leicestershire, finding the rapist after testing about four thousand men.

The DNA50 Exhibition, co-organised by the Department of Genetic Engineering at Dhaka University, was an idea passed on from the British Council in Malaysia. An exhibition will also take place in Chittagong on October 25-31.

“The main objective is to develop a partnership between scientists from the UK and Bangladesh,” says Laila Khaled, Culture and Science Programme Officer at BC. “Also, we want to incorporate and promote interest among the mass population. Right now only the National Museum of Science and Technology wanted to collaborate to help us raise awareness. We think it is really important to educate and inform people of what is going on especially if we can encourage students to get into this field.”

The British Council held an inauguration ceremony on October 6th in which Dr. Khandakar Mosharraf Hossain, Minister of Health and Family Welfare was the Chief Guest and Dr. David Carter, the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh is the Special Guest. On the 7th and 8th, apart from having a general public viewing of the exhibition, Dhaka University's Department of Genetic Engineering also prepared and gave a presentation “Celebrating the miracle of the DNA molecules in our lives.” The British Council organised Science Fairs for young students in both Bangla and English Medium schools.

“We invited different schools, science clubs, including one from Naraynganj, and just want to raise awareness on scientific discoveries, inventions and experiments,” says Khaled. “The students who have shown the most interest and participated the most are obviously the Dhaka University students from the Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, because this is their field and they understand it more than others, but they have also put a lot of effort into making this information more accessible to someone who is not very knowledgeable in science or familiar with scientific terms. We are just trying to provide information on what DNA is -- just the basics.”

Genetic engineering, however, has not been welcomed with open arms from everybody. In February of 1997 for example, when the genetically engineered sheep clone “Dolly” was born, it brought on severe criticism from religious and other groups who considered such cloning to be unethical. In cloning, DNA from the somatic cells is taken and the nucleus of the egg is sucked out and the extracted DNA is injected into it. Electrical impulses are then applied resulting in cell division eventually developing into an embryo which is implanted into the uterus of the mother. The problem lies in the fact that not enough is known about this procedure.

Professors Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell of the Roslin Institude in Scotland conducted this “miracle of science” by taking a mammary cell from Dolly's “mother,” resulting in the two sheep being genetically identical. Dolly was followed by the production of twenty-two mice, seven of them being clones of an original clone in 1998 at the University of Hawaii.

Unfortunately the failure rate of this kind of cloning is a shocking 97% with a high number of deformed features. The process also causes the wastage of hundreds of eggs and embryos, difficult pregnancies and miscarriages. Cells in the clone may mutate, as 90% of the cells in our DNA are dormant with only 10% active. In the case of Dolly it was found that the dormant genes could become active. Such mutations could result in a severely damaged clone. In December 2002 a little known company called Clonaid announced the successful birth of a cloned human causing an uproar all over the world. Detractors of cloning pointed out that everything that went wrong with Dolly could be applied to human cloning and so was morally an unacceptable process. The issue however, was soon forgotten as the media hype died down when the company failed to produce the cloned person in public citing 'security reasons'.

Scientists and Pharmaceutical companies also experiment with DNA to produce (among other things) "tailor-made medicines" by a system called Pharming. The DNA is used so that the medicine does not act as a cure but instead focuses directly on the cause of the particular disorder. Scientists are conducting research for a tailor made drug, Abacavir which helps fight HIV/AIDS by interfering with viral reproduction. They are also studying a gene that prevents diseases such as asthma, heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis. DNA allows the drug to be delivered directly to the area which has the problem A patient with cancer in the liver can take medication that only affects the liver. DNA technologies enable the drug to be delivered directly to the liver without affecting the other parts of the body. This is better known as the 'drug delivery system'. “The initial notion is one gene, one disease, one drug,” says Nadeem Ashraf, of Dhaka University's Department of Genetic Engineering. “Genetic diseases like Alzheimer's Disease, Huntington's Disease and Cancer can be cured by studying alteration in DNA structure of sequence that causes or gives rise to the disease. If we can identify the genes responsible for the disease(s) we will be able to find a cure eventually.”

One of the more immediate uses in DNA technology is the research about the production of human spare parts to be grown and replaced in human beings.

Aside from medical and scientific purposes, however, DNA plays an important role in our everyday lives in Bangladesh.

“DNA is the secret of life,” says Ashraf. “It answers questions we have about hereditary traits, mutilations, replications. DNA modification in particular is something that will greatly affect Bangladesh. It can affect all aspects of our life: medical, agricultural, industrial, even with the smallest things that you take for granted, like beverages.”

“DNA technology helps us prevent and fix problems caused by or in industries. In the Hazaribagh tanning industry for example, it is a complete mess there. There is a bad stench everywhere, and the water in nearby ponds are completely polluted. We find lots of mutated fish, etc and need to treat them for their mutations. What we do is that we degrade them biologically and create micro-organisms to treat them. These micro-organisms are made efficient for treating bi-products.”

Crops in Bangladesh are vulnerable to a variety of problems ranging from insects, fungi and viruses. The idea is now to produce a plant that will be resistant to the above by taking out the gene in the crop that is susceptible to these outside factors and genetically modifying so that the crop will be impervious to any kind of danger. As a result, farmers do not have to use pesticide, which is not only bad for the environment but also bad for the farmers. Many farmers do not take necessary precautionary measures when spraying pesti cide exposing both themselves and the people around them to illness. Also, pesticide is expensive and not all farmers can afford it. DNA technology is also used to increase the yield population in the environmental affects in coastal areas. Since there is a high quantity of salt in the soil farmers can only irrigate once a year. However, if a hybrid is made of the crops, they can have two sets of crops which in turn increases yield.

Another agricultural aspect that DNA technology affects is the production of jute. “It is very unfortunate that jute mills in Bangladesh were closed and India's opened because it is one of our greatest natural resources,” says Ashraf. “The thing about jute is that it is cold sensitive -- meaning it is not cold tolerant. Work is being done in Dhaka University to genetically engineer jute in order for it to become cold tolerant.”

However, there is controversy surrounding the issue of DNA technology influencing and manipulating agricultural growth. The process is as such: DNA strands of a variety of agro-products are taken and crossed with other products. There are social, ethical and religious issues with this kind of modification that Bangladesh still has to decide on. There are no laws determining whether genetic modification is illegal, legal or needs regulation. It is a difficult decision for companies that are attempting to get into the field of DNA modification for agro products. They cannot do much more than research because if they start it and a law is implemented making it illegal, these companies will have invested huge amounts of money for nothing and will have to start all over again, working around the laws.

As is the case in every situation, the issue of DNA and its effects on our society has its pros and cons. On one hand we are dealing with a question of morality: do we have a right to clone living beings, or even genetically modify plants and crops? On the other hand we are dealing with possible breakthroughs for scientific discoveries, things that can save our lives. Many agonise over the question: Are religion and science contradictory?

“I think that we need to break the stereotype that science and religion conflict,” says Khaled. “Education is really the only way to move past these stereotypes and millstones. We feel that by exposing people to new things, they will learn more, read more and discover things on their own. We are not only raising awareness about the advantages of DNA but we are also promoting learning and education and knowledge. We believe that knowledge is powerful.”

It is to spread some of this power among young people that British Council decided to hold this exhibition that was different in its innovative style of imparting knowledge. Through colourful videos, lively lectures and huge life-size posters, children as well as interested adults were given a unique tour into the world of DNA technology. The idea was to make children aware of the importance of this discovery that has changed the way we think and live.

Milestones in DNA Research

Students may be familiar with three major landmarks of DNA researchdiscovery of the double-helix structure, recombination techniques for DNA, and now the deciphering of the human genome. But students may not realize how young the field of DNA research is, with the first milestone occurring only 48 years ago.

1953James Watson and Francis Crick discover the double-helix structure of DNA.

By the early 1950s, scientists had established that DNA contains the genetic code that is passed from generation to generation of living beings, but they still did not know how the genetic information was passed from parent to child. British scientist Rosalind Franklin worked with X-rays of DNA to try to find a structural pattern in DNA samples. When James Watson saw Franklin's work, it gave him an important clue. Then he and Crick combined their separate lines of research. They literally built models of possible DNA structures until they came up with the one that fit the data: a double helix.

1972Paul Berg and his co-workers create the first recombinant DNA molecule.

While studying isolated genes, Berg developed a method for splitting DNA molecules at selected sites, attaching segments of the molecule to the DNA of a virus, and then introducing it into bacterial or animal cells. The foreign DNA was incorporated by the host, which then produced proteins not ordinarily found in the host. This joining of two pieces of DNA from different species is called recombinant DNA. The process is a cornerstone of genetic engineering.

2001The Human Genome Project (HGP, a government-backed group) publishes its working draft in Nature magazine and Celeraa private company also mapping the human genomepublishes its draft in Science.

The publication of the human genome culminates over 10 years of research. One of the surprises uncovered by the HGP and Celera is how few genes humans actually have, something in the neighborhood of 35,000. By comparison, an insect as simple as a fruit fly has 20,000 genes.

Scientists believe that the project will enable them to develop a new approach to drugs that target disease at the molecular level.

Source: The Internet



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