The National, Wednesday July 24th, 2013
By JAMES LARAKI
BIOTECHNOLOGY is a complex science many people would not understand or have much knowledge of.
Fair enough. But without having to worry about the complex processes involved, it may be useful to have some understanding of its functions and some of the products of this fast-developing field which integrates traditional science fields such as biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology and chemical engineering.
Biotechnology, in a broader sense, involves the use sophisticated modern technology to manipulate living organisms or cell processes to make useful products we need in our everyday lives.
Major efforts to date are in the area of pharmaceuticals, human and animal nutrition, agricultural chemicals and protection of the environment.
In PNG, biotechnology and its applications are relatively new.
We do not have the necessary equipment and trained personnel.
Some of our needs in the past have been and continue to be outsourced.
So you may ask: “Do we need such technologies?”
For a research organisation such as NARI, we certainly do.
With a growing population as well as the effects of climate change to contend with, we will face new challenges in food production.
Biotechnology will certainly help us accelerate the development of improved crop varieties and livestock species that will adapt to new environments.
This is achieved by using molecular information and tissue culture.
Such technology allows marker-assisted selection in crop improvement, DNA finger printing for genetic identification and so on.
It can respond to public concerns over the safety of its products against environmental and health risks, collectively known as biosafety.
Biosafety refers to the protection of the environment against uncontrolled introduction of genetically modified organisms.
Simply, it is the prevention of pest and disease problems by appropriate quarantine measures.
The other aspect of biotechnology is its use in postharvest processing and preservation of primary agricultural products such as root crops, fruits, nuts, vegetables, export crops and livestock products.
These are required to reduce losses during transportation and storage and enhance shelf life so as to preserve and add value to the product.
But we should also note that biotechnology requires modern infrastructure – facilities, equipment, material, methods and technically-trained human talent.
NARI has always had a desire to have a modern biotechnology facility to support its research needs.
This is because modern agriculture utilises advanced technologies for pest and disease diagnosis, germplasm conservation and breeding.
The institute has been developing such capacity over the past seven years and has modest facilities at four locations around the country.
But it did not have adequate facilities and the capacity to make an effective contribution to biotechnology applications.
This desire is now a reality with the commissioning of the National Biotechnology Laboratory last month.
NARI’s principal scientist, Dr Toshiro Shigaki, who leads the biotechnology and tissue culture facility, says PNG will now has the tools to utilise biotechnology effectively.
The laboratory has state-of-the-art technology that NARI will utilise to do things that have been outsourced in the past.
Shigaki said the changing climate scenario was causing the appearance of new pests and diseases that required prompt identification and development of control measures.
“The advanced technologies will offer us accurate methods to identify the organisms concerned and develop appropriate control measures,” he said.
“Most of the methods we will be using are new in PNG and most other Pacific countries.
“Therefore, one of our primary goals will be to train local scientist so they have the necessary skills.”
PNG is a centre of biological diversity but its genetic resources are fast disappearing.
If not saved now, it will be gone forever.
“One of the key tasks of the biotechnology centre is to preserve our crop diversity for future breeding programmes.
“NARI has been working on this using morphological information, but now it is possible to utilise DNA information to describe unique crop lines that may be useful in adverse climatic conditions or for enhanced crop performance and quality,” Shigaki said.
The Dr Ghodake National Biotechnology Centre was officially commissioned by Deputy Prime Minister Leo Dion.
The facility is named after Director-General Dr Raghunath Ghodake, in recognition of his dedicated and distinguished service to NARI and the agriculture sector.
Dr Ghodake has been instrumental in establishing, developing, nurturing, and leading the institute over the past 16 years.
Dr Ghodake who has headed NARI since 2007 has made enormous contributions to innovative agriculture over the last 28 years.
The facility located at Bubia, outside Lae houses specialised laboratories in the areas of pest and disease management and diagnostics, applied molecular biology, tissue culture and
postharvest and food processing.
The Government-funded facility will greatly enhance NARI’s research for development capacity and provide support services to agriculture as well as other sectors in the country.
The centre will also be used by NARI’s collaborators and partners, both local and regional. – NARI.