Robert Plak and Rakesh Kapila
Biotechnology is gaining increased recognition internationally as an important tool for innovative research.
It holds great promise for addressing key challenges in agriculture, human health and environment.
When applied appropriately, biotechnology improves the welfare of people.
Broadly, biotechnology is a technique that uses living organisms or substances from these organisms to make or modify a product for a definite and/or defined purpose.
Biotechnology can be applied to all classes of organisms – from viruses and bacteria to plants and animals – and is becoming a major feature of modern medicine, agriculture and industry.
There are three broad categories of biotechnology covering its main uses and applications.
These include agricultural biotechnology, which encompasses a range of tissue culture and genetic engineering techniques.
Tissue culture consists mainly of culturing plant cells/tissues and/or organs under highly sterile or aseptic conditions.
Commonly used techniques are embryo culture, meristem culture, callus culture and anther/microspore culture.
These techniques have important uses in crop improvement like eliminating pathogens, mass cloning of plants, germplasm conservation, shortening of breeding cycles, overcoming incompatibility, creation of genetic variants and in vitro selection.
All these lead to production of desirable crop species/cultivars with advantageous qualities and characteristics for distribution to farmers, and nurseries all year round.
Genetic engineering involves identification of important genes and their manipulation to improve crop plants.
It also includes the transformation of crops and crop species through genetic engineering techniques, leading to what are known as “genetically modified organisms (GMO)”, and mapping and tracking of the important economic traits using molecular markers to achieve fast and efficient genetic manipulations – a technique also termed as “marker assisted selection”.
In addition, agricultural biotechnology also applies to techniques used in livestock husbandry and improvement (reproduction).
The second category is medical biotechnology which encompasses the genetic engineering techniques that have been used to produce drugs and vaccines in micro-organisms, animal cells, and more recently in plants.
For example, insulin, human and bovine growth hormones, interferons, cell-growth factors, anti-hepatitis B vaccine and others.
A wide range of diagnostic techniques and vaccines are produced using medical biotechnology.
The third category is environmental biotechnology which refers to a wide range of processes resulting in fermented products and chemicals (eg enzymes and biofuels such as ethanol and bioplastics) as well as the technologies used in recycling wastewater, industrial effluent and solid wastes.
These “bioremediation” processes contribute to the abatement of pollution.
The extraction of metals from ores with the help of micro-organisms (bio-mining) is also part of environmental biotechnology.
Biotechnology has been employed for centuries in the production of fermented foods such as gari, bread, yogurt, cheese and beverages like wine and beer.
Many countries have made substantial investments through science and technology and are enjoying the outcomes.
Over the last 20 years, improved crop varieties through biotechnology have accounted for an estimated half of the improvements in agricultural productivity.
The PNG agriculture sector can benefit a lot from biotechnology when appropriate innovations are developed and made accessible to farmers.
Economic growth and increased income-earning opportunities, especially for the rural poor, depend on the performance of this sector in PNG.
Biotechnology should form part of an integrated and comprehensive agricultural research and development programme.
The technology can complement research in other areas such as plant breeding, integrated pest and nutrient management, livestock breeding and disease management systems.
Biotic and abiotic stresses are main constraint to the cultivation of many of our crop plants which a majority of our smallholder farmers depends on.
Agricultural biotechnology offers a mechanism for increasing crop productivity, especially when conventional methods fail to deliver on breeding targets.
NARI is presently promoting the accessibility of biotechnology to scientists and smallholder farmers around the country to improve agricultural productivity and, at the same time, reduce economic and social risks associated with pest and diseases.
Some crop varieties derived through biotechnology will help improve the environmental quality of agriculture by reducing dependence on chemical pesticides.
NARI supports crop improvement initiatives at all stages, from laboratory research to field trials to commercialisation and the delivery of technology, thereby, ensuring that research investment leads to new crop species in the farmers’ fields.
Science and technology are key elements for the PNG agricultural systems.
The difficulty in managing agricultural development in PNG is not merely a question of science but also of economy, infrastructure and a critical mass of researchers.
A positive side of increased biotechnology in developing countries like PNG is the reduced spread and impact of diseases, improved nutritional status, enhanced crop yields, farm productivity and household profitability.
This nation is yet to harness such benefits.
Investment is urgently needed in research, product development and innovation to exploit the fruits of biotechnological research for sustainable socio-economic development and wealth creation. The
country must act now to avoid being left behind in yet another technological revolution.
l Next week, we will focus on “Agricultural biotechnology and its potential uses and applications in agricultural development”.