Biotech capital

There is a great potential for biotechnological research in Bangalore, opine experts

By Keya Acharya
Published: Wednesday 15 January 1997

the garden city of India, Bangalore, is fast earning another name, that of being the biotechnology capital of south Asia. At the sixth international exposition and conference on biotechnology held here recently, C S Prakash, professor and director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research at the University of Alabama, us, said the potential for biotechnological research here is 'mindboggling', both in academic and corporate institutions.

Transgenic culture, being experimented in the University of Agricultural Sciences has allowed a rice gene to be transferred into groundnut cells to eventually become pest-and disease-resistant groundnut crops which will require less pesticides thereby providing for a stronger agricultural economy. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science are developing virus-resistant tomatoes and capsicum and arresting brighter colours in cut flowers. Plant tissue culture in local crops like tamarind and jackfruit is underway in the Institute of Horticultural Research.

However, there seems to be little practical interaction between the academics and industry. Biochemists from the us and the University of Baroda at Vadodara, have invented an eco-friendly and cheap alternative to phosphatic fertilisers by isolating four micro-organisms which could release phosphate from alkaline soil with both ammonium and nitrate as the nitrogen source, and with a combination of carbon sources like fructose, lactose and glactose.

However, they are yet to find an agro-unit willing to come forward to test this in field trials. At the Biotechnology Research Centre in Mumbai, scientists have come up with another 'first' -- that of treating abattoir wastes first with enzymes, then conducting vermiculture treatment and finally treating the wastes with a microbial culture to produce rich biofertiliser.

Bio-units, however, are more preoccupied with the 'gross inequalities' in government incentives: 73 per cent import duty for molecular bits and high excise duties, as Kiran Mazumdar, a pioneer in industrial enzymes, puts it. Subba Rao, director of the Vittal Mallya Research Foundation in Bangalore, admits to a lack of interaction between industry and the academia, with a poor understanding of the intellectual property rights -- a crucial issue in the context of erstwhile General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization.

That we have practically no r&d in this field is apparent from the number of foreign firms (mainly Danish, German and Swedish) selling biotechnological equipment through Indian agents, without proper collaboration. In this context, Huw Morgan of the Danish lap equipment firm, Heto Holten, said it is mostly bureaucratic hassles and high import duties that discourage collaborations, ultimately harming our environment.

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