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Nigeria and the Biotechnology Revolution

May 2, 2010
‘ With Biotechnology, the possibilities are infinite’, Professor Andi Brisibe of the university of Calabar would sound out before an audience of about two hundred students, his dapper and lithe ensemble lending credence to his smooth talking. ‘The science of biotechnology is still at its infancy’, he would continue, a smirk on his face, ‘Nigeria must join the rest of the world now if we do not want to lose out completely’.

The highlight of my stay at the University of Calabar was having Prof Brisibe deliver lectures on biotechnology like few will ever do. His classes were engaging. It also helped that Prof had had a foretaste of Biotechnology as practised in the West. His lectures were replete with an analytical and practical overview of the subject. I haven’t been in touch with the Prof since I left University, but his words about Nigeria exploring the opportunities that biotechnology has to offer, still ring in my ears. Like we did back then in class, it was about time the country’s leadership elite listened to the Prof.

Biotechnology is a science which involves the deliberate manipulation of living organisms—plants, animals or micro-organisms like bacteria—to yield new products. It has become the science of the age and is finding useful and varied application in Industry, Medicine and Agriculture. Nigeria needs improvements in these sectors as well.

The misconception has always been that biotechnology aims to circumvent natural biological processes while giving biotechnologists the freedom to play God. The larger society has raised eyebrows with a plethora of ethical posers ranging from the mundane to the downright ridiculous concerning biotechnology at different levels. The truth however is that man is naturally averse to change. In the last couple of years however, with a growing need to meet food demand of its teeming population and with biotechnology holding the cure to malignant ailments and what were before now considered incurable diseases, the governments of the developed world have begun appropriating huge sums of their budget to further research in biotechnology. One of the first acts of the Obama administration was to reverse his predecessor’s legislation on the use of stem cells whose pluripotency would shape the world of medicine in the years ahead.

The signs in Nigeria are ominous now: conventional farming processes are proving inadequate in meeting local food demand. One of the downsides of global warming is the fact that most food crops, especially staples like Rice and cassava would perform poorly in the field. Droughts and a change in weather conditions is a pointer to the fact that if we hope to keep a greater percentage of the population from starving, then we have to invest in Biotechnology in the agricultural sector. Our local farmers should be brought up to speed on the latest trends in the science. Tissue culture and meristematic cell division for instance, are biotechnology processes which ensure that plant cells are allowed to multiply in the laboratory in vitro and then transferred to the field, by which time they would have had the extra advantage of resisting adverse weather conditions. Contrary to popular beliefs, these crops upon harvest do not have a ‘funny taste’ when compared to those grown conventionally.

Our cities generate tons and tons of waste. Modern waste management systems have deployed biotechnology to deal with waste. A drive through Ojota and Orile (both in Lagos) would reveal how pre-historic we still are in terms of waste management in this country. We still burn waste to decompose same, sending out fumes laden with stench and carbon into the environment; depleting the ozone layer further and endangering the lives of human beings. And this is 2010! Molecular biotechnology would achieve the same aim with relative ease and at minimal cost to the environment. Certain microbes have the natural ability to decompose waste. Those microbes are identified and introduced to the waste dump where they belong and in no time, the waste is history!

In the industry, biotechnology is also been used in producing new drugs and ensuring a greener planet using green technology. By the time I left Calabar, Prof Brisibe was in the process of using the plant artemesia to produce a particular drug for a certain ailment. As is common with our peculiar environment, he was finding it doubly difficult to do so.

The benefits of Medical Biotechnology are numerous. Forget the uproar generated about the science’s ability to clone humans having already cloned Dolly the sheep and mice. Medical biotechnology is the unsung hero of the 21st century! Disregard also the ethical questions been thrown the way of the burgeoning science as the use of embryonic stem cells in finally holding the key to unlocking doors cancer and Parkinsons disease have shut in the faces of many, gathers momentum. Let us for a moment look at the many lives that would be saved as scientists in the US finally begin piecing all the parts of the jigsaw together that would be the nail on the coffin of these and other ailments. While embryonic stem cells are been frowned upon by conservatives, groundbreaking discoveries indicate that some adult stem cells of same patient can as a matter of fact do the same job with genetic engineering.

Another interesting area we can deploy biotechnology in this country is in DNA fingerprinting. The West has for long deployed this technology to good effect in tracking criminals. It is based on the premise that no two human beings in the entire world have the same DNA fingerprint. At the scene of a crime, DNA samples of the rapist, robber or miscreant is collected from the hair, nail or any trace of the body that may have fallen inadvertently and entered into the DNA library which must have been gathered over time. The culprit is identified and the manhunt for him begins. It removes the guess work and attendant torture that is the imprimatur of our police force in this part of the world. DNA fingerprinting is also used in paternity testing and identifying victims of a plane crash or soldiers Missing In Action (MIAs).

To catch up with the rest of the world, we have to begin from the basics. Our tissue culture laboratory in the university was only fully operational at the time I was packing my bags and leaving school, so I never really used one. Most of our undergraduates studying Genetics and Biotechnology or Molecular biotechnology in our Tertiary Institutions lack the basic tools needed in this exciting field. Several have had to divert to other fields of study thus abandoning their dreams mid-way. I could be one of those. I have had to work in a Public Relations firm as there were no Biotechnology related Institutions on the ground to absorb me upon my completion of study. A lot of my colleagues who are lucky enough to get a job now work as Bankers, Insurance Brokers, and Receptionists etc. It is a sad commentary on the Nigerian educational system that only few persons find gainful employment in their area of study. As it is with Biotechnology so is it with Engineering, Law, Medicine, you name it!

If the government at all levels is serious about its vision 20: 2020 agenda and if we intend to diversify the economy away from oil which has become a source of pain and misery for the country, it was about time we invested in Biotechnology. The
Prof and I are surely on the same page on this one.

                                                             Egbas is a company Executive based in Lagos.

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