Business is booming.

Positioning Biotechnology as a tool for national development

By Alex Abutu

Biotechnology and its tool have continued to serve as a saving grace for human, the environment, and animals. One of the latest being its potential to improve crops and animal productivity with record time turnaround.

The technology has been there since creation but in modern times, its application has been captured as one of the wonders of our time. In food and agriculture, biotechnology offers a variety of options for improving food quality, such as nutritional content and shelf life, as well as raising agricultural production.

These tools include genetic engineering, the use of microbes for specialized purposes, and the mass manufacture of enzymes for food manufacturing, such as catalase enzymes for mayonnaise, chymosin for cheese, and alpha amylase for baking.

The most publicized use of biotechnology in history of food biotechnology and agriculture is the development of Bt Corn and Bt Cotton respectively which are genetically modified species. They are exceptionally effective against certain insect species due to their ability to express a unique bacterial protein from Bacillus thuringiensis called as ‘Cry’. These proteins are toxic against certain pest insects but are harmless to mammals and birds. Since then, biotechnology has continually proven its prowess in improving food quality and agricultural yields.

In Nigeria, our scientists have joined the league of learned fellows using this cutting-edge technology to proffer solutions to various crop productivity challenges such as developing and releasing a beans variety that is resistant to the deadly MarucaVitrata which is responsible for the low productivity of beans on the field.

Our scientists also used the technology to develop a cotton variety that is resistant to bollworm which inflict damage to the extent of 55 percent and can reduce seed cotton yield by up to 90 percent. They also succeeded in addressing the triple challenge of drought, Fall Army Worm and Stem Borers with the development of the Tela maize variety that is presently undergoing national performance trials.

This new variety of maize currently undergoing National Performance Trials as required by the varietal release laws of Nigeria has the potential to withstand mild drought, resist fall army worm and stem borers that are responsible for Nigeria’s low maize productivity. With these three challenges out of the way, Nigeria can at least be sure of closing the demand and supply gap which is current at about 4 million metric tonnes annually.

Researchers at the National Root Crop Research Institute, Umudike have also taken on the challenges faced by potato farmers in Nigeria and are seriously working on releasing a potato variety that is resistant to late blight disease, which is the major impediment to potato farming in the country.

Potato is the 4th most popular food crop in the world and Nigeria is regarded as the eighth largest producer in Africa with a yield per annum at 843,000 tonnes meanwhile consumption demand is nearly 2 million metric tonnes per year.

Rice, a very popular staple in the country is not left of out of the scientific exploit by our researchers who are working to ensure that rice varieties that can be planted anywhere in Nigeria is developed and made available to reduce Nigeria’s continuous dependent on importation. Researchers at the National Cereal Research Institute, Badeggi have advanced with this as a proof of concept is already available.

Investment in Food Biotechnology raised 8.37 billion USD in 2020 alone and experts estimate that the market will remain headstrong in this evergreen industrial sector.

In the area of precision medicines, regarded as one of the biotechnology megatrends, the development of advanced tools like CRISPR gene editing and enhanced gene sequencing techniques are known to have a front role in advancing the course of biotechnology. Precision medicines, as opposed to conventional medicines, allow for individualized treatment based on a person’s genetics. Furthermore, researchers can improve or generate future precision medicines by analyzing the influence of past precision medicines on highly specific gene pools, which aids in the development of newer precision medications.

In 2020, the pharmaceutical industry received a total investment of $200 billion USD for the research and development of new precision pharmaceuticals around the world.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) allows biotechnology businesses to automate a wide range of activities, allowing them to scale up their operations. For example, biopharmaceutical entrepreneurs use AI to speed up the drug discovery process, while researchers in domains like proteomics, genomics, and glycomics use AI to decipher the structures and sequencing of these varied sets of proteins.

The fact that humans alone have over 25,000 genes and 1,000,000 proteins is a prime example of Big Data’s existence in biology. Human minds will find it difficult to analyze and make good use of this unstructured data, therefore we will once again turn to AI to extract relevant combinations, models, and other information from this massive data set.

The global total corporate investment in AI reached over 68 billion dollars in 2020, and it is expected to reach 126 billion dollars by 2025.

More than 17 research institutions and over 30 universities across the country are already offering various training programmes to a critical mass of our future leaders, it is high time therefore, for government to devote more resources and attention to this area as it may hold the needed keys to liberate us from aids and the shackles of poverty.

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