Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pior Science

It has been very long since I posted my last article. November was an extremely hectic month with three consecutive major conferences. I was also travelling within the country to conduct a seminar and a workshop. Though this month is expected to be a little quite, we are still going to be busy with all the reports and planning for next year. Come 2010, MABIC will be ten years old, and that will make us busier.

Something else is also making me very busy this month – hiring an additional staff to take care of our publications. By the way, anyone interested can look out for our advertisement at It is certainly tough to come across someone with excellent writing skills and proficiency in English language.

So, that brings me to the title of this article. I know I have written not long ago on the quality of our graduates and the blunders they make in their CVs. Today, I received an application for the Publication Officer position from a University Malaya graduate who majored in “Pior Science”. Since I know many lecturers at UM, I wanted to call them to find out if they are offering a new field in life science. Can someone enlighten me please? Is there a new science field called “pior science”. I need to know and keep myself updated being a science communicator and the head for an Information Centre. So, please help me here.

It is frustrating to see the standard of English today in Malaysia. I am not really for teaching science and mathematics in English, though I do not oppose it either. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. These two important subjects should be taught in a language that the students feel most comfortable. A student can lose interest in these subjects if he or she does not understand the language. And this does not mean the student is not good in these subjects. The rural students will certainly be affected most. The other key issue is – are all our teachers equipped with the language skills to teach these subjects in English? This approach is not the only option we have to improve our standard of English.

The English language syllabus in school is of very low standard to start with. Good students can just stroll through it. It is way below compared to many countries. I always have another unanswered question – why is the Bahasa Malaysia and English language syllabus different for the Chinese and Tamil schools? It is mind boggling why the Chinese and Indian parents, teachers and NGOs have never asked the government to streamline these syllabuses. Most students enter Year One with the same level of English and Malay proficiency, no matter they go to SK or SJK schools, so what drives the need for different syllabuses.

We really have to beef up our efforts now to improve the standard of English language among the younger generation. It is not too late to do this. It is good to hear that the government is increasing the time for this subject. The syllabus has to be revamped and more activities need to be conducted in this language.

What has this got to do with biotechnology? English is the lingua franca for science and technology and the corporate world.

And just a reminder – I am looking forward to more applications for the vacancy at MABIC. But apologies – I do not need those who majored in “pior science”. I feel threatened by a subordinate who knows a field that I don’t.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, October 9, 2009

Resume and Interview Blunders

I receive at least five resumes every week seeking jobs and placement for internship. However, finding one good candidate among them is the most difficult task. Increasingly, I feel graduates these days have the slightest idea about resume writing and applying for a job.

These are some of the things that get to my nerve when reading their emails:

1. Almost all emails are written using SMS lingo with no proper salutations. You can hardly find one full sentence.

2. Some take the liberty to write on behalf of their fiancés and friends. I interpret it as the person is not serious and takes no initiative in looking for a job.

3. Hardly any candidate sends a cover letter. It is difficult to judge a person with just all those bullet points. Whoever told these graduates that cover letter is a thing of the past.

4. Most don’t do their homework before preparing their resumes. I had an application from a top student from a local university who said his skills in laboratory techniques and equipments will help him to serve MABIC well. Didn’t he check MABIC website before sending the application? We don’t do research!

5. Once I called a candidate to fix an interview appointment. Two days before the interview, she called to say she will not be able to make it. And guess what the reason is: she has to meet her friend! She asked for another appointment and obviously I did not entertain that request.

6. There was another time when I called a candidate who has sent his application to MABIC to fix an appointment and the conversation went like this:

MABIC: Hello.

Candidate: Ah?

MABIC: Good morning. Is the XXXX?

Candidate: Ah.

MABIC: I am calling from MABIC and I received your application for the position of XXXX.
Candidate: Ah.

MABIC: Are you still interested in the position?

Candidate: Ahhhhh..... Taklah kot... tapi.... (ahhhhh.... maybe not.... but....)

MABIC: Oh, it is okay. Thank you.

His telephone etiquette simply beats me. I remember when I was applying for jobs, every phone call is attended to with full of anticipation, thinking it could be from one of my potential employers.

7. Finally need I say the level of the graduates’ English proficiency? You can hardly find someone who can write and speak well in the language. The standard of English among graduates really worries me.

These are just a few points. I have yet to discuss their general knowledge, attitude towards work, knowledge on current issues, etc. Where are we leading to? What is wrong with our education system? I rest my case.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Big stores counting the cost of ban on GM food

Supermarkets in talks on how to educate public about benefits of science

By Martin Hickman, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, EuropaBio

Britain's food giants have privately warned that they are struggling to maintain their decade-long ban on genetic modification and called for the public to be educated about the increasing cost of avoiding GM, The Independent reveals today.

As major producers such as the US and Brazil switch to GM, supermarkets are now paying 10 to 20 per cent more for the dwindling supplies of conventional soya and maize, according to a report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Somerfield, Aldi and Co-op met civil servants to explain their problems in finding non-GM supplies.

Warning of the price hikes, the report – quietly published online last month – said: "Retailers were concerned that they may not be able to maintain their current non-GM sources of supply as producers increasingly adopt GM technology around the world."

Despite legislation requiring GM food to be labelled in the UK's cafes, restaurants and takeaways, customers were already eating food saturated with GM fat without knowing, added the report.

Although fierce public opposition to so-called "Frankenstein foods" has fallen from its peak at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, when retailers vowed not to stock anything with GM ingredients, changing genes in human food remains highly controversial.

Campaigners such as Friends of the Earth fear GM crops could damage human health and the environment and place control of the food supply in the hands of a few multinational chemical companies, warning of a "corporate takeover of agriculture".

Despite the potential public backlash, ministers believe it may now be the right time to consider its introduction as a way of meeting a UN target to raise global food production by 2050. Asked whether GM was the answer to his call last month for a new green revolution, Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, whose new food security strategy this autumn is expected to move closer to backing GM, praised "science".

Supermarkets and manufacturers can sell food made from GM ingredients grown elsewhere, but must state that products contain GM ingredients.

After meeting industry stakeholders, the joint FSA and Defra document – GM Crops and Foods: Follow-up to the Food Matters Report – reported that there "is some use of GM food ingredients in the UK, particularly in the catering sector where oil from GM crops is often supplied to customers who are working to lower prices, and bulk packs are suitably labelled. It was considered unlikely that relevant information regarding food produced using such oils is provided to the final consumer, as required in EC legislation."

The FSA noted that spontaneous concern about GM voiced by consumers had fallen steadily from a peak in December 2003, when 20 per cent of shoppers were worried, to 6 per cent last September.

Supermarket bosses are rethinking their approach. After delivering the City Food Lecture in February, Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Tesco, said that giving in to concern about GM could have been a mistake: "It may have been a failure of us all to stand by the science.

"Maybe there is an opportunity to discuss again these issues and a growing appreciation by people that GM could play a vital role in feeding the world's growing population."

At the time, International Supermarket News quoted an industry source as saying: "I am pretty certain that several parties involved are actively looking for the way out of their Canute-like positions. Maybe the reality of the costs of GM-avoidance is finally striking home."

The FSA/Defra document reported that many stakeholders noted "it may be timely to inform consumers of the issues surrounding GM and non-GM supply chains so that they have a clear understanding of current science, the status of non-GM market being reliant on only a few exporting countries, and the steady increase in GM production".

Tesco was unavailable for comment yesterday, but the British Retail Consortium, which speaks for the major grocery retailers, denied British shops would change their approach. "Retailers are not stocking GM products and there are no plans to change that – it's a response to customers' views," said spokesman Richard Dodd.

Pete Riley, director of GM Freeze, the anti-GM campaign, accused the Government of being "desperate" to back GM, adding that it had pressurised Defra and the FSA into producing a "scaremongering" report. Supermarkets could work with growers to produce a long-term, non-GM supply, he said, adding any store that broke ranks by introducing GM would be "brave".

Article courtesy of EuropaBio

Blogger’s note:

Perhaps we should rethink our positions on GM food and labelling as well. Either we quickly learn from the mistakes of the others around the world, or pay heftily after making mistakes ourselves.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, September 25, 2009

Tell me a story

Communication is an important aspect of science which has been constantly overlooked. A well-thought out argument, a intricately crafted presentation is somewhat of a rare offering among science researchers as verbosity and technical jargon seems to be the order of the day.

TED is a brilliant platform, by which leaders in various fields are invited to give a 20 minute talk, with time limits strictly applied, on the various areas including science, arts, politics, education, culture, business, global issues, technology and development. I have always enjoyed the science talks which includes big names like Jane Goodall, Craig Venter, James Watson to name a few.

More importantly, the short time limit adhered to ensured a compact and engaging talk, devoid of the information fog we are so used to in the science field. This allows the talks to not only engage people within the field, but also out of the field to begin to appreciate the innovation and imagination involved.

As the motto of the talks imply, these talks are “ideas worth spreading".

David Bolinsky - Fantastic voyage inside a cell

Hans Rosling - No more boring data

Stewart Brand - Four environmental 'heresies'

Dame Evelyn Glennie – How to listen to music with your whole body

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Tribute to the Man who Fed the World: Dr. Norman Borlaug

Norman Ernest Borlaug
(March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)

The Father of Green Revolution has died at his home in Dallas, Texas on 12th Sept, last Saturday at the age of 95. If not for this legend, most of us would not have been here today. His efforts in increasing crop yields have saved hundreds of millions of lives around the world. It has been said the Borlaug saved more lives than any other person in history. For this he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. And he is the only person to have won a Nobel in agriculture so far. Borlaug was also one of five people to have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest US civilian medal.

In 1944, when many parts of developing countries were facing the threat of mass starvation due to rapid increase in population, Borlaug began his work at a project funded by Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico to increase wheat production. He successfully developed wheat with a sturdy, short stalk that could hold the high-yielding grain on top. He was also able to build in fungal resistance trait in this wheat against wheat stem rust. There wasn’t a short-cut in developing these varieties. Borlaug collected wheat strains from the around the world and started cross-breeding them. He worked with two crops a year, a summer crop in the low-quality, high-altitude soils near Mexico City, and a winter crop hundreds of miles to the north in the low-lying Yaqui Valley. This was done to speed up his research.

In five years, Borlaug was able to develop a variety that was resistant to rust , with higher yield and that was able to grow in both climate when given enough fertiliser and water. But because evolution favoured wheat strains with longer and slender stalks, the stalks tended to collapse when irrigated and this reduced the yield. After thousands of unsuccessful attempts to produce a dwarf variety, Borlaug encountered a Japanese dwarf variety. And finally after another thousands of attempts, in 1954 he successfully developed a short-stalked variety that was rust-resistant and high-yielding.

Due to this variety, Mexico was able to become a wheat exporter in the 1960s. In late 1960s, Borlaug, began his work in India and Pakistan. India was importing 10 million tonnes of wheat at that time. Thanks to Borlaug again, with the introduction of the dwarf variety of wheat, India too emerged as a wheat exporter and became self-sufficient. In Pakistan, wheat production increased from 4.6 million tonnes in 1965 to 8.4 million tonnes in 1970. In 1960, the world production of wheat was 692 million tonnes for a population of 2.2 billion. With the introduction of Borlaug’s techniques and varieties, in 1992, the world wheat production rose to 1.9 million tonnes for a population of 5.6 billion. This was achieved in spite of using only 1% more land.

Borlaug strongly felt that food scientists should be recognised with Nobel Prize, but this suggestion struck down by Nobel Prize which led him to establish the annual World Food Prize. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was the first recipient of this. Most part of his lives was also spent on the argument over the social and environmental consequences of the Green Revolution.

Borlaug also became was a strong advocate of GM crops and often said that the critics of GM are elitists who are rich enough not to worry about where their next meal was coming from.

I am proud to mention here that Dr. Norman Borlaug was a Patron of ISAAA. His contribution and memories will never fade away and he will be truly missed.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, September 7, 2009

Blue Rose: The Impossible

Roses are loved by everyone. It signifies love. But to be precise each colour brings a different meaning and feelings. Red is said to mean love and romance; pink for grace and elegance; yellow for warmth and happiness; white for purity and innocence; orange for desire and enthusiasm; and lavender for enchantment.

So what about blue? Since blue roses do not occur naturally and it was almost impossible to inject a blue gene into a flower, it was synonym to impossible. For a long time breeders have been trying to develop blue rose by crossing rose varieties around the world with no success. So, I would think the most appropriate meaning for blue rose would be ‘impossible and unattainable’.

But thanks to Suntory Limited and Florigene, blue rose was finally developed through genetic engineering. Suntory is based on Osaka and owns 98.5% of Florigene which is based in Melbourne. Just this year the Australia’s Gene Technology Regulator has granted a licence to Florigene for the commercial release of this rose.

It was a challenge to develop blue rose as blue gene is a rarity in the flora kingdom. The enzymes responsible for the blue pigment in the rose are flavonoid 3’5’-hydroxylase from Viola tricolor and anthocyanin 5-acyltransferase from Torenia hybrida. Viola tricolor is a common European wild flower, while Torenia bybrida is commonly known as wishbone flower. These two enzymes give rise to the blue pigment in the flower petals called delphinidin.

Although the rose is not of navy blue colour but is blue enough to be called blue rose. Suntory is currently conducting more research to make blue roses “bluer”. This also serves as a starting point to create blue pigment in various other flowers as well as more varieties in rose colour.

The flower industry is a blooming industry. In the 1950s, the global flower trade was less than US$3 billion and had grown to US$100 billion in 1992. Holland is the number producer of flowers but the emergence of new producers is now transforming Holland from a producer to a trader. Colombia is the second largest exporter of flowers in the world and others are Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya and India.

Malaysia, with her varieties of orchids can certainly set her eye in capturing a small share in the floriculture business. Research has been going on in enhancing orchid colours and lengthening shelf life. Hope to see some commercialization in this area which will create a good job market and contribute towards our GDP.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, August 28, 2009

Where will the Dengue Fever Vaccine come from?

Dengue has been killing hundreds of people each year and the numbers is not going down. We have all been advised to spend 10 minutes every week to clean the pots and other mosquito breeding places around our houses. What else can we do? Is this enough to curtail the problem? Is cleaning around the house enough to deprive these creatures from breeding? Months ago we heard about the sterile male mosquitoes developed through GM technology which was supposed to be released to Pulau Ketam for a field trial. But thanks to the opponents of the technology, it did not materialise.

How about developing vaccines? What is the progress in this area? As a tropical country plagued with various tropical diseases, perhaps we should have a Centre for Research on Tropical Diseases. But again, will this answer the question and provide a solution? Who will head the centre? Who will set its direction and ensure it objectives and mandates are met? How will the funding be channelled? Do we have enough researchers to run it?

To save us all these troubles, Acuvax, a South-Australian based vaccine development company has announced that the dengue fever vaccine is set to begin phase I safety trials in the US through its affiliate company, Hawaii Biotech. This is the first recombinant subunit vaccine for dengue to enter clinical studies. The phase I study will lead to the initial clinical testing of Hawaii Biotech’s tetravalent dengue fever vaccine.

Isn’t that good news? Once the vaccine is approved for use, we can all say good-bye to dengue fever. But do not complain when we have to pay these multinationals premium prices for the vaccine. And do not also sing the same old song that multinationals are monopolising the industry. And for those who are against GM technology, please keep away from this vaccine. You might never know the risk... It is just easier and safer to clean around the house... just 10 minutes every week!

So to answer my question on where the dengue vaccine will come from, probably not from a country that is plagued by dengue. The developed countries know which tree to bark. There is huge potential in this vaccine with a huge marketplace.

If we are serious about our commitment to advance biotechnology and look into the priority areas that will benefit the nation and the people, we need to quickly sit down and analyse what is stopping us from moving forward. What are the stumbling blocks? Human capital? Brain drain? Politics? Getting the right people? Fund management? Perseverance?

Millions of dollars have been pumped into this research. Terra Rossa Capital has injected up to US$1.25 million in equity capital in the ACU subsidiary Acuvax Immunology Services. This is just part of the investment. The total investment to develop this vaccine is certainly much bigger. Could we have afforded this? Perhaps, yes. Looking at the amount spent on Antarctic and Space programmes, we can safely say we have the money. It is again barking the right tree!

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, August 21, 2009

Into the industry: the leap of faith

Of late MABIC has been getting some enquiries by Monashians who want to know about their prospects in the biotechnology industry. I have to apologise on behalf of all of us, as we were in the midst of a few major projects and we could not provide too much time for them to answer all their queries. They have been very concerned that when they come out, they graduate with a degree that leads them nowhere, and leaves them hanging in other less than ideal jobs in contrast to other industries like finance, IT etc. One of the major reasons is that, biotechnology being "non-traditional" doesn't really allow one to fall back on the usual strategies like sifting through newspapers or asking elders for advice. Many students realise after a year or two of studying biotech, that research is not their cup of tea. And they feel their future is doomed as they are not aware of the various opportunities that lie ahead of them with a degree in biotech. It is pure ignorance to think biotech graduates all end up as researchers. This is where they need to be exposed more to the biotech industry and the whole spectrum of career available in there.

Of course, lately, there has been much improvement in this sense, with graduates being offered training programmes like that of the BeST programme by BiotechCorp, and internships, as I noted in my last post, as well as bio-career fair during 25 Apr 09 to 26 Apr 09. It makes you wonder why students are still jittery over where they would end up, and what job prospects they would have in the long run.

Primarily, I think universities should take a more proactive role, by organising career talks not only general ones on how to write resumes and go for interviews, but real industry dialogues where students are allow greater interaction with industry players on their expectations, hopes and fears. At MABIC, we are planning a talk soon to address this issue at Monash, in hopes that students would get a better idea on what they should be expecting when they leave the hallowed confines of the ivory tower. On the other hand, it would also be shock therapy to them for them to find that some of their expectations might fall flat. For example, I remember some planning to earn RM3000-4000 per month as a fresh grad, when a more realistic range would be RM1,600-2,500.

I also am concerned on whether the students know enough to search for further information if they are in doubt. Bio-career was a big event organised by BiotechCorp, and graduating students should be attending to have a good gauge of what is waiting for them out there, instead of sitting in the darkened lecturer theater waiting for people to spoonfeed them with such information. If all else fails, google is just a click away and with their capabilities in searching through wikipedia to help them with their homework, why not use it to help them with their jobs.

To try and limit the scope of what careers in biotech is about is pretty silly, as biotech is vast that it would be plain impossible to try to define a single category of jobs. Graduates can apply jobs ranging from marketing to sales, research, science writing, and regulatory, just to name a few. I also know several close friends who end up out of the biotech field, and they are very happy with what they do. The scope is limitless and it only boils down to what one has a stronger preference for. I for one cannot envision myself sitting in a research lab analysing samples, while others may find my line of interviewing and writing on science issues intimidating. All I can say is, keep your eyes and ears open. If all fails, google is your friend. :) I will update on the bio-career dialogue soon. Until then.

- KC, Liew

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Brief 40: Communicating Crop Biotechnology: Stories from Stakeholders

The human race has always been a storytelling species. From cave paintings outlining a successful hunt, to fairytales and the Brothers Grimm on our bedside. We have always been captivated by the spell of word weaving, conjuring up nitty gritty stories which bring us tales, fact or fiction, which are beyond our experiences in life. We love reading and hearing of stories which bring up experiences of others vividly, capturing us spell-bound, and bringing us knowledge from afar, enabling us to think and imagine out of the box of our daily grind and accept new knowledge from the experiences of others. The most recent ISAAA Brief captures this sentiment, on the communication of crop biotechnology by divulging and intimating the stories of various stakeholders and how it came to pass their involvement with crop biotechnology.

The Brief was written in a global cooperation between various knowledge centers under ISAAA, including MABIC, whereby Maha and I interviewed 9 individuals from various stakeholder groups to give a comprehensive overview of the effects of biotechnology in Malaysia. When we set out to write the articles for the brief, it was determined that the first priority is to vet the language used so that it would not be too academese for lay people, and not too simple that it would lose the information that would be conveyed.

The work ended up being a delicate tightrope where the outcome was a series of articles which should be considered as another part of the factual storytelling that we have as a culture.

The brief is downloadable from the ISAAA website, here.

Please also enjoy the short Youtube clip that we have created for the brief below. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Finding a Common Language between Ulama and Scientists on Agribiotech

MABIC just organised an international workshop for Islamic scholars “Islam and Agribiotechnology: Finding a Common Language between Ulama and Scientists”. The workshop proved the existence of a wide communication and information gap between the two groups. More so, among the religious scholars and officers where there is lack of understanding of biotechnology. Scientists remained guided by their knowledge on religion and ethics, however, as technical knowledge is only gained through formal education, the religious group requires assistance and basic training in this area.

The workshop was an eye-opener for many religious scholars and officers on basic molecular biology such as “what is a gene and DNA; and how GM crops are developed”. Foreign delegates mostly, both scientists and scholars seemed to be more at ease with the technology compared to the Malaysian counterparts. Many were also amazed to see the progress of GM technology in Iran and the advancement of their home-grown technology. The progress in Pakistan, India and Egypt were equally impressive.

The workshop indicated a number of issues:

  1. Malaysia is clearly lacking behind many other Muslim countries in terms of GM technology – both in research and commercialisation
  2. There is a crucial need for Malaysian religious scholars, especially at the officer level to be exposed to biotechnology
  3. Personal views, sentiments and emotions cloud the process of decision making, especially among the middle management, where there is a lack of proper understanding of both Islam and biotechnology. This proved that little knowledge can be really disastrous
  4. Biotechnology does not seem to be priority for religious agencies
As I always preach for a sector to be developed, all areas should be given importance, not just the key areas such as research, development and commercialisation. The peripheral areas are even more important as it can take us off guard just as the technology is ready to be launched. For example, what is point of having successfully developed a GM crop, when the market is not ready to accept it, or when our religious authority is not fully equipped with the right knowledge to assess it halal-ness?

The peripheral areas such as public communication, awareness, science literacy and trust among the public and other stakeholders has to be developed. This does not just rely on one ministry or agencies, but the effort should be a coherent one from various parties. Are we ready to take up the challenge to work together and forgo the territorial behaviour rampant among our institutes?

As GM crops are gaining more acreage and Malaysian is a big food importer, better understanding of biotechnology among religious scholars must be given a priority if Malaysia wants to ensure informed decisions are made on the halal-ness of GM food.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, July 6, 2009

Enzymes and the pseudoscience heresy

A previous post of mine spoke about how one could conduct scientific research in the kitchen, with everything from tissue culture to molecular biology. However, one must always remember that these suggestions and comments actually come with a pre-condition of a good knowledge in science and a sensible head on ones shoulders.

One of my favourite phrases, “detox” is one of the most commonly used term among pseudoscience junkies. Somehow, the idea of the body being so full of bad chemicals and harmful elements due to our daily consumption, from the sound of if, probably as dangerous as a Chernobyl, that one needs expensive, “organic” (another 'favourite' pseudoscience term of mine) foodstuff to keep our bodies “clean”. Of course, most of them forget the most basic of their biology classes, the part where our kidneys and liver cleans out all waste products in the body.

However, recent developments in the country has caused me quite some concern on my previous suggestions, especially with the current “enzyme-making” fad and other related pseudoscience claims. Phrases like “natural live enzymatic components”, “enzyme drink for health and well-being”, etc. When none of the claims have any factual basis in science.

Hence, the recent fad of “creating” enzymes in the kitchen, 100% home-made, despite the fact that all recipes provided require you to buy certain overpriced products from direct-selling companies, are just nothing more than a less informed attempt to DIY. Let's all face it, one would not be able to DIY and make an antique-stained, chestnut wood cupboard without knowing how to wield a hammer and saw, despite what certain furniture companies would like you to think. Buying ready-made furniture, and putting them together with an allen key and crowing about how you DIY-ed your kitchen sink is just plain pure misguided.

I shudder to think what is currently brewing in the kitchens of most people “making enzymes”, primarily the literature being provided does not give much prominence to the necessity of sterile conditions. What is being sought out is a monoculture, may end up with a whole rainforest of bacteria, fungi and yeast. Similarly, the literature does not provide explanations on the necessity of various procedures and equipment, but instead just provided a recipe-book manner of instruction. Let's not forget how most home cooks have a tendency to substitute certain items should they find lacking. The whole exercise may be a living, ticking pathogen time bomb!

Hence I cite the example of a family friend who was “making enzymes”. She ended up having the cola bottle exploding in the kitchen coating the ceiling with gunk because no one bothered to inform her in the manual that it is important to allow gas to be expelled during the fermentation process. Instead, generic instructions on the importance of using glass/ceramic bottles/jars were provided without a science-backed explaination.

I am disgusted by how retailers actually prey on the gullibility of the public, and how uninformed the public are, and even more disgusted at consumer associations and related NGOs actually following such fads without a basis in science. I'm interested to see how many more explosions in the kitchen one can have before the public begins to wisen up.

-KC Liew

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Quotes on GM Crops and Technology and Technology - Taking a cue from top scientists and leaders

In this article I would like to share some of the views of eminent personalities and organizations on GM crops and technology. Surely, for the cream of the crop to accept this technology, it cannot be junk science. Let these views erase the horror stories of GM crops created by naysayers. Enjoy reading. 

"Research is international. Restrictions here in Germany do not prevent worldwide progress; they just shut German researchers and plant breeders out of the international competition." 

Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Nobel Laureate and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen.  

"It is paradoxical that field trials connected with biosafety research, of all things, are being destroyed and the scientists responsible are being publicly vilified." 
Prof. Mathias Kleiner
President of the DFG (German Research Foundation) 

"Shortages on the global markets are foreseeable, so we have a clear responsibility to use progress and innovation, and to promote research. Plant breeders rely on the whole range of tools, from classic breeding to crop biotechnology." 
Carl-Albrecht Bartmer
President of the DLG (German Agricultural Society) 

"Crop biotechnology is a complex science and the background cannot easily be explained to a broad public. In the public debate, objective, rational arguments are frequently countered with statements that are charged with emotions and designed to fuel fears."
Dr Arend Oetker
President of Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, Germany's science innovation agency 


"Refusing GM technology will hold back efforts to alleviate poverty and hunger, to save biodiversity and protect the environment."
Baron Marc Van Montagu
President of the European Federation of Biotechnology 

“The anti-GMO movement is an imperialism of rich tastes imposed on the poor." 
Robert Paarlberg
Wellesley College 

“The debate should not be whether to adopt biotechnology, but how to adopt it. African countries need to discuss issues of biosafety and intellectual property rights, which are the main points of contention”.
Margaret Karembu, Director of ISAAA AfriCentre 

“To solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM”

Premier Wen Jiabao
Chairman of the State Council/Cabinet of China 

“Using GM rice is the only way to meet the growing food demand”.

Dr. Dafang Huang
Former Director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) 

“It is important to apply biotechnology in agriculture. What has been done in Bt cotton must be done with food grains”.

Dr. P. Chidambaram
India’s former Finance Minister

“Accelerate research and development and increase access to new agricultural technologies to boost agriculture production; we will promote science-based risk analysis, including on the contribution of seed varieties developed through biotechnology”.

G8 members meeting in Hokkaido in July 2008 

“GM crops can play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food crisis”.

The European Commission 

The World Health Organization (WHO), has emphasised the importance of GM crops because of their potential to benefit the public health sector by providing more nutritious food, decreasing its allergenic potential and also improving the efficiency of production systems. 

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Art of Gene Silencing

In this post, I thought of discussing something a little technical but in simple, layman terms. I hope this will be informational and enhance the understanding of biotech for those who are not in this field.

We all know DNA is the hereditary material that makes the protein and gives the individualistic traits to all living organisms. Most traits are wanted and useful, but there are traits that are undesirable and create problems. For example, it would be good to have edible oils with higher ratio of good fatty acids to bad fatty acids. How about eliminating the genes that cause cancer and other deadly diseases? And how about timber trees that don’t flower early, instead grow bigger girth and produce better timber? These are possible if we can knock-out or silence the unwanted genes to prevent them from expressing themselves and producing the unwanted proteins and traits. This is what is known as gene silencing.

Gene silencing is part of genetic modification and is a very useful technique in developing new crop varieties, and has tremendous potential in controlling diseases in humans and animals. Gene silencing simply means switching off or turning down the activity of any undesired gene. Just like DNA, RNA is also made of nucleic acids and is like a courier that delivers the gene’s instruction to make a protein. To silence or turn off a gene’s activity, a mechanism is activated to interfere with the RNA, so the gene’s instruction is never transmitted and the protein is never made. Thus, the gene has been silenced. Because gene silencing involves in the interfering with the RNA activity, it is also known as RNA interference (RNAi).

Scientists are consistently proving that diseases start at gene level and is caused because of malfunctioning of gene expression. With gene silencing, it is possible to shut down a gene and make mutant genes to behave normally. So, turning off the gene that causes cancer is a possibility. Gene silencing too offers tremendous help in drug development. Since this mechanism switches off the activity of only a targeted gene, it is possible to determine the precise function of that gene. This helps in the identification of a target in human cells and is poised to revolutionize drug development.

In the agriculture sector too, gene silencing is an important step in the quest to develop better plants – plants that are able to resist diseases and pests, and plants with improved nutritional qualities.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Launch of ISAAA’s Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008 in MARDI

Last week, for the second time MARDI hosted the launch of the ISAAA’s Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops. The first one was in 2007. This time round the publication was launched by the Dato’ Mohd Mokhtar Ismail, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry in the presence of Datuk Dr. Abd. Shukor Abd. Rahman, the DG of MARDI and Dr. Umi Kalsom Abu Bakar, the Director of Biotechnology Research Centre, MARDI. Both MABIC and ISAAA are pleased with the continued support rendered by MARDI towards promoting public awareness on biotechnology.

ISAAA has been tracking the trends of the adoption of GM crops since 1996 and this is one of the most cited literatures in agribiotechnology. The report is entirely funded by two European philanthropic organizations: a philanthropic unit within Ibercaja, one of the largest Spanish banks headquartered in the maize growing region of Spain; and the Bussolera-Branca Foundation from Italy, which supports the open-sharing of knowledge on biotech crops to aid decision-making by global society.

In 2008, ISAAA found that 13.3 million farmers in 25 countries were able to experience the benefits associated with biotech crops. Additionally, total planted area grew 10.7 million hectares. Most notably, in 2008 biotech farming began in the African nations of Egypt and Burkina Faso. Africa is considered the “final frontier” for biotech crops as it has perhaps the greatest need and most to gain. In 2008, Egypt planted 700 hectares of Bt maize and Burkina Faso planted 8,500 hectares of Bt cotton. They join South Africa, which since 1998 has benefited from biotech cotton, maize and soybean.

Political leaders globally are increasingly viewing biotech enhanced crops as a key part of the solution to critical social issues of food security and sustainability. For example, G-8 leaders in 2008 for the first time recognized the significance of biotech crops and called to “accelerate research and development and increase access to new agricultural technologies to boost agriculture production; we will promote science-based risk analysis, including on the contribution of seed varieties developed through biotechnology.”

The European Union also has acknowledged that biotech crops “can play an important role in mitigating the effects of the food crises.” In China, Premier Wen Jiabao has said “to solve the food problem, we have to rely on big science and technology measures, rely on biotechnology, rely on GM.” As a result, China has committed an additional US $3.5 billion over 12 years for continued research and development. Biotech rice alone, already developed and field tested in China, has the potential to increase food availability and net income by about US$100 per hectare for approximately 440 million people in the country.

“Biotech crops make two important contributions to global food security,” Dr. Clive James, the author of the report said. “First, they increase yields, which increase food availability and supply. Second, they reduce production costs, which will also ultimately help reduce food prices. With 9.2 billion people to be fed by 2050, biotechnology plays a crucial role in helping satisfy the growing demand.”

Further, biotechnology is beginning to identify solutions to the growing challenges with drought being seen in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Drought is the single largest constraint to increased productivity. For example, Argentina currently faces a drought so severe that farmers have made a loss on their wheat crop. Drought-tolerant crops, maize in particular, are an emerging reality with seeds expected to be commercialized in the United States by 2012 or sooner and by 2017 for Africa.

In his speech during the launch, Datuk Dr. Shukor highlighted the various GM researches that are ongoing at MARDI and his hope to commercialize them. Whereas, the Secretary General stressed the importance of GM crops and their positive impact on the environment. He further envisaged its potential to the rural communities. He also urged all government agencies involved in agriculture to embrace this technology or face the reality of lagging behind countries like India, China, Philippines, Brazil and Argentina.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

No Two Patents Are The Same (Part 2)

Example 2

Say a researcher has been conducting research on palm oil. Yet similar results can be obtained using other vegetable oils, say corn oil, coconut oil, canola oil etc. Unless there is support for the use of the other vegetable oils, it is very likely the patent examiner will object to a set of broad claims covering all vegetable oils. Therefore to claim full benefit of the invention, the researcher may have to repeat the research on other vegetable oils.

Similar analytical approach must be adopted in all other fields of technology. Unless such a detailed analysis is undertaken in drafting patent specification and claims, the effort and expenses in obtaining a patent may be wasted. The patent draftsman must have substantial knowledge in the field of technology to pose the right questions or issues to the researcher / or inventor. For example, if the invention is in the filed of chemistry, then naturally the patent draftsman must have at least a degree in Chemistry. If the invention is in the field of electronics, then the draftsman must have at least a degree in Electronics. That is why it is common to find patent draftsman with double degree in a scientific field and in law, in industrialised countries.

In addition to conducting an analysis of the various parameters and set members, it is also prudent to carry out a search what published information on the claimed features of the invention is “out there”. Typically, at least a detailed search on patent database and indexed non-patent literature should be conducted. This exercise will incur additional costs. But costs expended will have the same potential costs during the patent examination stage. A strong patent application which has considered almost all prior art technology will be difficult to invalidate for lack of novelty or inventiveness. Thus one would be confident that a granted patent cannot be easily invalidated. A comprehensive search report also enables the patentee to negotiate higher royalty or licensing fees, or assignment values.

Many say getting a patent is the easiest. To defend a patent when attacked for validity or have a patent with broad claims to prevent others taking advantage of the inventive concept are challenging tasks even for an experienced patent draftsman. No two patents are the same – can aim for a simple “paper patent” or a patent with real value. Researchers and inventors need to know the objective of obtaining patent.

Article by P. Kandiah (B.Sc (Hons)) (LLB (Hons))
Member of Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys U.K (CIPA)

Distinguished fellow of MABIC
KASS International Sdn Bhd
© 2009 All rights reserved

Any feedback on this article is welcomed and appreciated.

(Apart from the issues discussed, there are other issues to be considered in the drafting of a good patent specification).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Giving True Meaning to “Malaysia Boleh”

I attended an MoU signing ceremony between a private research organization and an European based multinational company recently. It was an honour for me to act as a witness for the signing of this MoU, as well as present a talk at that event.  Since the launch of the National Biotechnology Policy in 2005, we see a mushrooming of ‘biotech’ companies in Malaysia where many label their business as ‘biotech’. This is due to the enormous support provided by the government in terms of funds, financial schemes, tax incentives and special status of deserving biotech companies. Thus, there is a rush to share the ‘biotech’ pie. Sometimes, I feel we need to redefine ‘biotechnology’ to be able include all these companies and cluster them under the biotech industry. We often see wide spectrum of companies ranging from manufacturers of herbal concoctions to the ones producing ‘real biotech’ stuff. However, what I saw during this event gave new hope to the biotech industry in Malaysia. It was a testament that the industry is poised to grow and flourish on Malaysian soil.  
What brought a Belgium based company with a marketing network reaching to 70 nations in the field of animal healthcare, and employing over 700 staff who speak 20 different languages to Malaysia? The pull factor here is a private entity based in Tawau, Sabah which has created its footprint in aquaculture products and research. INVE, the Belgium based company saw great potential in an antiviral drug called RetroMAD1 produced by BioSatria Sdn Bhd for use in aquaculture and livestock industry. BioSatria is a spin-off company of Global Satria Group. The product developed by this company is no ordinary anti-viral. It involves genetic transformation which incorporates 3 different genes into recombinant bacteria to produce an oral-delivery multifunctional fusion protein that hits viral entry, fusion, integration and replication! Of course, the protein refolding is the difficult bit and this will become BioSatria’s drug pipeline platform producing ChAMPs or Chimeric AntiMicrobial Peptides. 

One can only imagine the amount of time, funds, and effort BioSatria spent to be able to develop this anti-viral to its ‘Proof of Concept’ phase…. I understand that more research is being carried out on RetroMAD1 to study its efficacy, safety, and other aspects. A number of trials will be carried out on different animal models to prove viral elimination in mammals as well as poultry. Research is also being carried out to upscale its production in bigger bioreactors. BioSatria’s sister company Defensia S/B will be studying human applications for these new drugs with the University of Malaya. 

RetroMAD1 is a product of a paradigm shift - I would say. It has all the elements that I always preach – research in priority area; private-public collaboration; long-term vision and continuity; market-driven research; and strong fundamental research. RetroMAD1 would not have been a reality if not for all these elements. What is more heartening is that such high-tech product and quality coming from a private laboratory. BioSatria has clearly understood the need of the market and the growing aquaculture industry and its challenges and has stepped into the right direction. Its innovation will not only be available to the Malaysian market but also globally which will be made possible by INVE’s global market reach. BioSatria is now planning to set up a pilot-manufacturing plant in Peninsula Malaysia to produce this oral vaccine. This is certainly a new dawn for the Malaysian biotechnology sector. BioSatria will have its share of contribution towards achieving our national biotechnology agenda in terms of creating more jobs for aspiring biotechnologists and increasing the percentage of GDP from the biotech sector. 

Thumbs up to BioSatria and hope its success, innovation and spirit will be emulated by other biotechnology companies. 

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, April 20, 2009

April Fools

How many of you were actually fooled on April 1st? What is the nature of the prank? April Fools is a day whereby pranks and jokes are played on the gullible to varying degrees. Elaborate and well-known pranks include BBC's spaghetti trees documentary in 1957, the changing of Big Ben to analogue, BMW yearly pranks etc.

This sounds odd for a topic on a biotechnology website, but then I would like to focus on a prank I pulled on that particular day on many people in an online forum I regularly haunt. Behind the frivolity of the prank, there is a more serious underlying issue at stake whereby it would be important for us as thinking human beings to look at. Look at the following:

Dihydrogen monoxide:
* is called "hydroxyl acid", the substance is the major component of acid rain.
* contributes to the "greenhouse effect".
* may cause severe burns.
* contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
* accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
* may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
* has been found in excised tumor

Yes, I pulled a fast one with dihydrogen monoxide, aka water. It was very amusing to look at how people who actually supported a blanket ban on the substance without further research in the first place. Similarly, the wording that was shown above, being used in the online poll I set up, was sufficiently alarmist but yet not untrue about water. Looking at the statements, from your knowledge about water, how can one say the above as being untrue? However, despite so, it would also be ludicrous to suppose that water is a dangerous substance that needs to be banned, on the contrary to what is being assumed, water is a life-giving substance which is important to every living being.

It is important to note that there are organisations out there who are thriving on such inherent alarmist tactics to create fear and generate revenue in turn. These are organisation breeding on the inherent good intentions of people who yet are gullible and able to believe things without further verification. Especially with current media trends, where people are being bombarded by information which may or may not be biased, it would be very hard to verify on a first glance. If was an organisation, with the level of support for the bans, I would think that the human race would have to move to a desert planet.

The prank which was perpetrated by Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen and Matthew Kaufman of UC Santa Cruz in 1989 signifying a greater issue at stake, where science facts are being overlooked and replaced by alarmist accounts which are probably true but worded in a way to give a false negative. As such as the above box. Referring to the Wikipedia article on the subject, the hoax is still alive and well, with people from all walks of life, including MPs being duped.

My contention is this. Google! Anyone with a computer can Google up DHMO or dihydrogen monoxide and find out it was a prank. But how many actually did take the effort to verify that the cause was worthy? How many actually would take the time to check whether petitions are for a worthy cause, instead of something frivolous, or worse, simply pure alarmist? All I am trying to convey right now is the importance of verification and understanding both sides of the debates, and that information being provided for consideration on issues should be factual and science-based. Probably only then will the DHMO issue be able to lay to rest, and my cup of water is not being threatened by organisations with vested interests.

Monday, April 6, 2009

No Two Patents Are The Same

“The research has been completed. These are the results. I want you to obtain a patent for me” – a typical instruction we receive from a research institution or a university. “I have made a proto-type of my invention. I want you to file a patent application for this product” – another typical instruction from an inventor from the industry. How to handle such type of instructions? There are two options available to a patent draftsman – either to draft a patent description and claims based solely on the information provided, OR to treat the information provided as just a working solution of a bigger concept of the invention.

Before we look at which option to adopt, one has to understand the function of a patent. Without knowing the specific reason of the university or the company to obtain a patent, it is not possible to draft a patent specification that meets the objectives of the university / company. The main reason to obtain a patent is to obtain exclusive rights to the invention, so that no one can exploit the claimed invention. Another reason is to licence or assign the invention to a third party for monetary or other valuable consideration.

A patent application will face serious critical examination from patent examiners and is likely to face oppositions from third parties, often competitors. After grant of a patent, if the product or process covered by the patent is successful in the market, the patent will likely be attacked for invalidity for any number of reasons by competitors. Alternatively a competitor may adopt the teachings of the patent and yet argue that it is not infringing the patent.

Therefore if a patent application is to survive objections by the patent examiner and/or a patent is to survive an attack on the validity, or if the patent is to cover a broader scope of patent claims that are attractive to a potential licence or investor, then proper care and attention must be paid at the drafting stage of the patent application. Failure to observe these basic rules may result in no patent or a worthless “paper patent”.

A researcher in a university or an inventor in the industry often sets out to solve a technical problem which is usually narrowly defined. The inventor is said to have a “tunnel vision”. Let’s look at some examples.
Example 1

Say in a novel chemical process, the following ingredients and parameters are used by the researcher.

H2 S04 – 2M  
 NaOH – 1M
 Temperature – 27°C
 Pressure – 1 atm  
 Catalyst – Mg

A patent claim can be drafted to cover the above ingredients and parameters. But the granted patent will be extremely narrow and it is very easy not to infringe the patent and yet follow the teachings of the patent. To obtain a patent with broad scope of claims all the ingredients and parameters must be challenged.

 Why H² S04? Can other acids such HNO3, HCL etc can be used?
 Why NaOH? Can other alkali be used?
 Why 2M H2 S04? Any other concentration? 
  Why 27°C? Can other temperature give acceptable results? Similarly pressure and nature of catalyst must be challenged.

Remember many processes are not discrete, yes/no process but are continuous process.

It is a fundamental principle of Patent Law; all claims must have support in the body of the patent description. It is not generally possible to have a broad claim if there is no support for the claim in the description. Therefore if the researcher wants to obtain a patent with broad scope of claims, then he may have to do further research to find support for the claims.

Example of a narrow claim: A process to make product X by the addition of A to a solution of B where the operating temperature is between 27°C.
Example of a broad claim: A process to make product X by the addition of A to a solution of B where the operating temperature is between 24°C - 30°C  

Of course, it may be possible to obtain a patent with narrow set of claims claiming the exact parameters shown in Example 1. But a third party can easily use the technology and yet not infringe if he just changes any of the claimed ingredients or operates outside the quantified parameters!

Would a potential licensee or investor be interested in such a narrow patent? (In a crowded or matured field of technology, there is no choice but to accept narrow set of claims to overcome objections on novelty and/or obviousness).

To be continued...

Article by P. Kandiah (B.Sc (Hons)) (LLB (Hons))
Member of Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys U.K (CIPA)

Distinguished fellow of MABIC
KASS International Sdn Bhd
 © 2009 All rights reserved

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bt Corn in “No-man’s Land”

During my recent visit to Manila, I was on a field tour to a corn farm in Anoa, a village in Mexico City, Pampanga. Pampanga is a province in the central Luzon region of the Philippines. Called the rice granary of the Philippines, the region (Pampanga, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, Bulacan and the nearby provinces some 40 km North of Manila) is known throughout the country for its rice and corn production. Agriculture is the number one source of income for its residents. But the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 rendered the fields in Pampanga useless. The lava from the volcano fell over most of the South China Sea and the ashfall was recorded as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. Global temperature even dropped by 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit because of accumulated ash in the atmosphere. Residents had to irrigate the fields with wastewater for ten years to prepare it for agriculture again. This area became a no-man land as no crops could be planted here for ten years.

It was only ten years later that farmers started planting again and the first crop planted was Bt corn. Farmers experienced good harvests and higher income and now regard the planting of biotech corn (stacked trait corn) as a “hobby” since it requires less work (no insecticide spraying and weeding). An innovative farmer took the risk of using a new technology and he was able to inspire other farmers in the community to try it as well. The community is now benefiting from the technology. The variety used here is MON 818. Though the cost of the Bt seed is double the conventional one, the production cost is reduced. This is because the farmers do not spray pesticides at all. Immediately I thought this must be what the environmentalists will love... Can you imagine how much less time now they are exposed to deadly chemicals? And also how much less chemical residues land on the consumers’ plates? Oh yes, how about all the mycotoxins that are absent because the corns are not injured by borers which leaves no space for fungi infections. And what more, no weeding. All these helped to cut their cost and labour time. The maximum yield with Bt corn is 10 tonnes per hectare vs 3 tonnes per hectare with conventional variety.

The farmers are not going to look back as they are part of the millions of famers globally who are enjoying the benefits of GM technology. The growing number of biotech farmers is a yardstick to gauge the success of GM technology and its benefits to the world. You can cheat a farmer once but never twice!

As part of this tour, I then visited a church nearby where the destruction of the volcanic eruption was felt which left the church half-buried. The community rebuilt the structures to make it usable again. The original second floor of the church is now its ground floor. Some photos are testimony to what I saw.

Thanks to Bt corn which gave a second lease of life to the farming community here!

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Highlights of the Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008

Every year, this time we are furnished with the latest statistics of the global status of GM crops, comprehensively reviewed by ISAAA. This is the most cited publication in agribiotechnology and at any major agribiotech conference, you will not miss the famous world map that depicts countries that grow GM crops.  

I would like to share the summary of the Brief 39 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008 by Clive James. 

  * As a result of consistent and substantial economic, environmental and welfare benefits, a record 13.3 million large, small and resource-poor farmers continued to plant significantly more hectares of biotech crops in 2008. This is an increase of 1.3 million farmers compared to 2007. Notably, 90%, or 12.3 million were small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Biotech crops have improved the income and quality of life of small and resource-poor farmers and their families, and contributed to the alleviation of their poverty – case studies are cited in Brief 39 for India, China, South Africa, and the Philippines.
  * The number of countries planting biotech crops soared to 25.

  * Notably, of the 25 countries planting biotech crops, 15 were developing countries versus only 10 industrial countries.

  * Progress in Africa – number of countries increased from one (South Africa) in 2007, to three in 2008, with Burkina Faso (cotton) and Egypt (maize) planting biotech crops, for the first time. These are very important developments given that biotech crops contribute to some of the major challenges facing global society including: food, feed and fiber security; lower price of food; sustainability; alleviation of poverty and hunger; and mitigation of some of the challenges associated with climate change.

  * Global hectarage of biotech crops continued its strong growth in 2008 for the thirteenth consecutive year – a 9.4%, or 10.7 million hectare increase, reaching 125 million hectares. 

 * Stacked traits are an increasingly important feature of biotech crops. Ten countries planted approximately 27 million hectares of stacked traits in 2008 and at 23% growth, they grew faster than single traits.

  * Five principal developing countries: China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, with a combined population of 2.6 billion, are exerting leadership with biotech crops, and driving global adoption – benefits from biotech crops are spurring strong political will and substantial new investments in biotech crops in several of these lead countries. 

  * Notably, all seven EU countries planting Bt maize increased their hectarage in 2008, resulting in an overall increase of 21%, to reach over 107,000 hectares.  

  * In 2007, biotech crops saved 14.2 billion kg of CO2 equivalent to 6.3 million less cars.  

  * The global value of the biotech crop market in 2008 was US$7.5 billion with an accumulated historical milestone value of US$50 billion for the period 1996 to 2008.

  * Economic gains due to the adoption of GM crops during the period of 1996-2007 was US$44 billion.

  * An additional 43 million hectares would have been required to gain the same production had GM crops not been deployed – a land-saving technology.

The impressive contribution of biotech crops to sustainability is reviewed: 1) Contributing to food, feed and fiber security including more affordable food (lower prices); 2) Conserving biodiversity; 3) Contributing to the alleviation of poverty and hunger; 4) Reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint; 5) Helping mitigate climate change and reducing greenhouse gases; 6) Contributing to more cost-effective production of biofuels; and 7) Contributing to sustainable economic benefits worth US$44 billion from 1996 to 2007. In summary, collectively these seven thrusts are a significant contribution to sustainability and the potential for the future is enormous.  

In agricultural-based and transforming developing countries, biotech crops are an engine of rural economic growth, which in turn can contribute substantially to national economic growth.  

With the success and potential of GM crops, there is an urgent need for appropriate cost/time-effective regulatory systems for biotech crops that are responsible, but not onerous, and affordable for developing countries.  
For further information, please visit  

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan (adapted from Clive James’ summary)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Public Research vs Private Research

Commercialization is the end product of research. Every research organization and individual scientist wishes to bring their products to the market one day. This would mean that their product has market value; years of their research could be converted to dollars and cents; all their sloughing hours at the laboratory bench would benefit mankind, improve lives and quality of life; they were working on a well-thought project and it wasn’t a waste of time, fund and efforts; it brings fame and credibility to them and their institutes. These are just some simple reasons for commercialization. Of course, the efforts of those involved in basic research are equally appreciated (provided they are of quality). I, for one have always supported basic research because it is the fundamental and prerequisite for commercialisation. I even said in one of my previous article the need for basic research.

In spite of commercialization being a buzzword now, many might wonder how many products have come out from our local universities and research institutes. Certainly our rubber and palm oil industry flourished due to the hard work of the Malaysian Rubber Board and Malaysian Palm Oil Board. What else could we quote?

Some statistics to share with you for the period of 2003-2006:

* The number of patents from public universities in Malaysia: 279
* The number of patents from all research institutes in Malaysia: 171
* The number of patents from National University of Singapore: 121
* The number of patents from Nanyang Technological University: 43

I don’t want to elaborate on these figures. They speak for themselves.

The other issue is that – the number of patents does not say much about chances for commercialization. Though there a number of patents from local scientists, why aren’t they commercialised? With the ranking system, every university wants to hold the highest number of patents. This causes a rush in patenting their work with no consideration on the applicability of the patent.

I have few answers for this:

1. At private sector, they work backwards. In other words, they start a project with the end in mind. All projects are commenced based on the need of the market. They study the market first before investing the money and time. Whereas, at the public sector, the scientists or institutes try to create a market for the product that they are or have developed.

2. At the private sector, the best brain leads the research and team members are assigned based on their expertise. No politics rears its head. Profit is the main factor. Anyone who can’t agree with the team, its objectives, or unable to perform are led to the door. At the public sector, collaboration is not a favourite word. It is difficult to form team comprising of scientists from different institutes. Everyone has their own agenda and interest. Funding committees are not nonpartisan.

3. Continuity and perseverance is the rule of the day at private sector. Board of directors, share holders, top management can change but not the project, unless it is deemed to fail. This is a rare case at the public sector. Projects, policies, direction changes every time a new minister, director and top management takes office.

4. At the end of the day, private sectors have no choice but to produce results and are held accountable for the funds allocated. Failure is certainly not an option. At the public sector, we hear about launches but hardly hear about the outcome of it.

To succeed public sectors must be run like corporate. Quality, productivity, effectiveness, and end results must be the rule of the day. As I always say, the only option we have is to succeed. Failure is never an option!

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan