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    Volume 9 Issue 26| June 25, 2010|

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Decoding the Golden Fibre

Reaz Ahmad

It couldn't have been better timing when Bangladeshi scientist Dr Maqsudul Alam approached Professor Ahmed Shamsul Islam, Coordinator of Global Network of Bangladeshi Biotechnologists (GNOB), to discuss the possibility of sequencing the jute genome. The Bangladeshi scientist community that had already been exploring such a possibility instantly welcomed the offer, setting the ball rolling.

The whole process kicked off with many long conference calls between Dr Alam and plant molecular biologists Prof Haseena Khan and Prof Zeba I Seraj of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Dhaka University. By that time Dr Alam's success in decoding the papaya genome had already earned him fame in the global scientific fraternity. Hawaii, where the scientist teaches, started reaping benefits from his research, by getting rid of ringspot virus a killer that had nearly halved the island's 18 million dollar papaya trade.

Malaysia, too decided to get the best out of the expatriate Bangladeshi genius. The Malaysian government invited Dr Alam, a professor of the University of Hawaii, to decode the country's most important economic plant, rubber, providing him state-of-the-art lab facilities.

This time too, the Faridpur-born scientist succeeded in this venture. But despite all the accolades earned abroad, Dr Alam craved to do something that would benefit the economy of his own country. He believed if the jute genome could be sequenced, Bangladesh could reap the maximum benefits out of it.

Dr Alam was well aware that there were brilliant molecular scientists and bioinformatics (the application of statistics and computer science to the field of molecular biology) experts in Bangladesh but they were ill equipped with poor and outdated lab apparatus. So he used his name to tag along some of the best lab facilities available in the world and formed a consortium Swapnajaatra (dream journey) to take forward Bangladesh's golden fibre to a golden age. The rest is history.

On June 16, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the achievement in the parliament opening up a new vista in developing varieties of jute resistant to stress conditions, diseases and fungi.

Experts have said this gene sequencing can help improve the length and quality, including colours and strength; and develop high yielding, saline soil- and pest-tolerant jute varieties through genetic engineering.

Shapnajatra's dream team of scientists and experts.

With the successful sequencing of the jute genome, Bangladesh becomes the second country after Malaysia, among the developing nations, to achieve such a feat. Researchers from Dhaka University, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute and Software Company DataSoft, in collaboration with Centre for Chemical Biology, University of Science, Malaysia and University of Hawaii, USA have decoded the genome.

The beauty of genome sequencing is that it provides a valuable shortcut for scientists to find genes easily and quickly. A genome sequence allows scientists to identify and understand how genes work together contributing to the plant's various features such as growth, development and maintenance as an entire organism. Thus genes can be manipulated to enhance, reduce or add certain features of the plant.

Although an impressive number of scientists, academics, technicians and young graduates joined hands with Dr Alam, his dream journey was far from smooth sailing. The biggest challenge proved to be raising funds to pursue the task.

In November 2009 Professors Haseena and Zeba, through the Dhaka University Vice Chancellor Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique, invited Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and briefed her on the prospects of jute and rice biotechnology. When the minister learnt about Dr Alam from the scientists and then from subsequent media reports she called Dr Alam who was in Malaysia at the time, probably celebrating his success in decoding the rubber plant genome. The call by the agricultural minister was to invite him to Bangladesh.

When Alam arrived he met the minister several times. Matia persuaded the government to provide a grant of Tk. 10 crore. But even before the funds were released, DataSoft with its own funds, set up a state-of-the-art bioinformatics laboratory with all the necessary computing facilities under very tight surveillance.

Prof Haseena and her team provided Dr Alam with pure jute seed and DNA, Dr Zeba provided very capable manpower support from her lab at DU while the state-run Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI) provided an excellent bridge between the academia (DU) and the private enterprise (DataSoft).

Physical work on genome sequencing took place in different laboratories at home and abroad including Dhaka University, Data Soft, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI), University Sains, Malaysia, and University of Hawaii.

Dr Alam notes that government investments in research and development can help stop brain drain from Bangladesh and refers to the inclusion of young graduates in the Swapnojaatra team.

Talking to The Daily Star at her laboratory Prof Zeba I Seraj of DU's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology says, “Knowing the sequence is just the beginning. A lot more needs to be done.”

Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury with Dr Maqsudul Alam (2nd from right).

“We need a lot more support from the government in order to harness the talented student force that have been behind the success. At the same time we need to make conditions conducive for collaboration with talented Bangladeshi expatriate scientists like Dr. Maksudul Alam, who as you know was the first to sequence the papaya and rubber genomes. Maybe the government could go as far as creating a genome institute,” says Dr Zeba.

Dr Zeba, who has been pursuing precision breeding in rice for long years and contributed in the development of stress-tolerant rice varieties, spoke of many possibilities that the jute's genome sequencing has opened up.

She adds, “ by manipulating lignin (a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants) content, we can diversify the use of jute; I can imagine a future where all wrapping and packaging material will be made of this jute material and which will decompose on its own; we could become nearly garbage-free and increase the fertility of the dumping ground at the same time; we can have jute resistant to pests and diseases; we can have jute resistant to flood and salinity; and we can have jute that can be grown in the winter.”

Dr Zeba is very appreciative of government support in this effort and talents shown by the country's budding researchers. “We all (who were involved in Swapnajaatra) had to sign an oath for maintaining utmost secrecy and divulge nothing during the genome sequencing period. It paid off we succeeded in keeping it secret till the day our prime minister made the announcement.”

As Dr Alam says though the Swapnajaatra venture is ahead by at least three months from others, there were other countries, scientists groups who have been also trying to decode jute, the world's second largest fibre crop in terms of cultivation next to cotton.

He thinks the ultimate success would come the day Bangladesh secures patent on jute genome sequencing. At a press briefing at the ministry of agriculture on June 17 he has expressed the hope that the benefits of genome decoding could be reached out to jute growers' fields in the next five years. That indeed would be a dream come true for us.

Left: Sequencing the jute genome could help develop disease-resistant plants in the future. Right: Jute plants -- the potentials are huge.


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