World’s first synthetic life
Rice is our staple food and the grain quenches the nutritional needs of the bulk of the humanity on earth. As an indigenous plant of Asia, growing rice in Asia perhaps has a history of 5,000 years. While in consuming the sustenance of life is expected, there is the possibility of specific traits or potential from different varieties.
It was the green revolution of mass-scale agriculture which did demonstrate the increase of yield to provide food for the masses that also brought in uniformity to selection of species for planting against multitude of diverse native varieties. Over time indigenous varieties have disappeared and hybrid high yielding strains have taken a firm foot hold.
There is much discussion today about the hidden potential of various indigenous rice varieties beyond the usual carbohydrates and proteins. Modern day science has the potential to provide the answer. This is through genomics research.
When Watson and Crick worked hard to unravel the mystery of the double helix structure of DNA, earning themselves the Nobel Prize in the process, it was a singular achievement in the last century. DNA is a biomolecule that encodes the genetic information used in the development and functioning of all living organisms.
The road to the answer was not paved in gold and lots of efforts and sacrifices were involved. The work was also built on the hard work of others and in this regard Rosalind Franklin whose X-ray images provided clues and
whose presentations Watson and Crick attended to listen travelling from Cambridge to London played an important role. Science is not a lonely enterprise though many a time scientists have to identify their own paths against many odds.
Identifying the double helix structure of DNA was the start. There still left was the epic task of unravelling the code from three billion genetic letters of the human genome. A genome consists of all DNA. That story of genome sequencing – a laboratory process that determines the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome at a single time- too is interesting and much to learn from. In the Colombo Medical Faculty the process happened with a local rice variety.
A wonderful development
Why study rice varieties in a small laboratory within a medical faculty? That is what a team of researchers from University of Colombo’s Human Genetics Unit (HGU) of the Faculty of Medicine did. Their research collaborator was John Keells Research (JKR), a newly-established unit of John Keells Holdings.
The fact that a corporate has established a research unit targeting ‘opportunities to the future’ is a wonderful development. Then to see those units are interacting and supporting programs at national universities – the ever-discussed but much less seen university industry partnership – is even more sweeter as these steps which should have happened in the 20th century Sri Lanka are at least is now happening in the next century. It is up to the researchers to ensure that a century of neglect and ignorance at the top is usurped by innovation.
The HGU has come up with grant money from the State. However, to make some real progress additional money is always required and that is why inputs from the private sector is significant. HGU with a small footprint provided a location for a big step forward. When knowledge capital is deployed, the physical footprint is not what counts. Our economy is yet to understand this concept.
The Human Genome Project
The Human Genome Project (HGP) of United States is considered to be one of the most successful science programs supported by the United States Government. HGP was an international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes – together known as the genome – of us, the human beings.
The effort which was completed in April 2003 provided us the ability, for the first time, to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being. It is akin to having a page by page manual to build a human being.
The United States spent 3.8 billion dollars on the program. By 2011 the returns of the investment had been calculated. The numbers are interesting. For each of the dollar invested, it had yielded 141 dollars. Now such numbers in terms of return on investment are what the private sector is keen to listen to – when such ROIs are possible, science is secondary.
While the present situation excites the investor and the private entrepreneur, the initial step of investment is unlikely to come from private funds as initial infrastructure costs are quite high. That is where state leadership matters and in any economy the role for visionary state leadership. The beauty is these returns is still likely to improve rather than decrease and those who risked entry are reaping the rewards of being pioneers.
The Synthetic Biology group of the HGU announced the successful sequencing of the entire genome of ‘Goda Wee’ – an indigenous rice variety. This is a first for the nation.
Prof. Vajira Dissanayake who led the group had stated: “This is a unique milestone in the annals of science and technology in Sri Lanka. We have proved that Sri Lanka now has the capability to protect and preserve our biodiversity within the country. Recently there was another news alleging the biopiracy of ‘rathu kekulu’ (ST, 22 Feb. 2015). This will also open up the opportunity for Sri Lanka to build a new wave of scientific enterprise based on local knowledge and innovation creating wealth for the country. That would in turn create new job opportunities for Sri Lankan science graduates, most of whom now leave the country or leave science and join other fields due to lack of scientific jobs.” (Daily FT, 18 March)
One significant event and solutions for several ills of the country are mooted. Interesting indeed. In this process the Rice Research and Development Institute at Batalagoda had extended support, as they are one of the guardians of our rice sector.
What the group has carried out is genome sequencing of an organism. In this instance the information generated reveal how the plant works. Once the information is carefully deciphered, numerous opportunities can arise. It is this process that was enabled by the US spending on the human genome project.
The conclusion of the project was announced on 26 June 2000 and President Clinton stood by two scientists – Craig Venter and Francis Collins – who announced the landmark event. It was Craig Venter who creatively increased the speed of the genome project through the introduction of information technology there by revolutionising the process.
Today at the heart of genome sequencing lie powerful computing workhorses and University of Colombo had the investment on high end sequencing machine which paved the way. For Craig Venter, who started with the Human Genome project in 1990, a decade of time, effort and intellect had to be invested before this announcement in 2000. Many a member of the team spent time and effort over this decade in deciphering the correct sequence of three billion letters.
Venter, dissatisfied with the speed of the program, unleashed pure computing power, fusing biochemistry with information technology. Venter’s breakup with state bureaucracy too is instructive. When his ideas were not tolerated he moved ahead by setting up his own Celera Genomics and using his own DNA and with someone else’s money!
After the sequencing and the success of the program, he was sacked by Celera due to disagreements with his funders and moved onto establish Synthetic Genomics and J Craig Venter Institute. This is also fluidity that we do not see in our space.
Venter since then had made further news. Synthetic biology is the research domain of the team from HGU. Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and is one of the most exciting emerging areas of today with boundless opportunities.
In 2010, Venter grabbed the attention of scientists around the world by announcing what he calls the “world’s first synthetic life”. To some this is not happy news as one is dabbling with life differently. Venter’s novelty had been a synthetic bacterial genome constructed from chemicals in the laboratory. He had then inserted it into a living bacterium. The cell replicated itself into a colony of organisms containing only the synthetic DNA.
The replication process gave him the opportunity claim of creating ‘world’s first synthetic life’. This final step was a culmination of another 15 years of work according to him. That too deserved to be noted.
Researchers need to be nurtured
Researchers need to be nurtured. A hot-blooded approach to research while screaming for returns every step of the way will not do any good. The opportunities from this most recent Craig adventure appear to be quite enormous. One area is production of fuels by specially engineered organisms and Craig has prophesied on this possibility.
‘Goda Wee’ sequencing was a success story of a team’s foray into ‘life unravelling’. We did something for the first time in Sri Lanka. May be the man will move from genomics to proteomes and another journey may begin. We must move onto emulating the spirit of Venter. That is when the fun begins.
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]