Biotechnology is having an increasingly important impact on various sectors and disciplines. Combined with genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, biotechnology can greatly aid our ability to confront the challenges of production, management, and sustainability of agriculture and economic development.

It can enhance crops yield and quality, develop stress-tolerant crop varieties, improve nutritional content of foods and neutralise effect of food contaminants, and find new ways to face threats to bio-security.

These issues were discussed at a recent international symposium on “Genomics, Proteomics, Metabolomics: Recent Trends in Biotechnology” held by the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG), University of The Punjab, in collaboration with the Higher Education Commission, National Biotechnology Commission, Core Group in Biological Sciences.

More than 190 delegates, some from Europe, participated in the symposium whose main objective was to provide new ways to use animal, plants and microbes, in order to improve quality of environment and economic sustainability of a country, to commercialise indigenous technologies and to help bridge the gap between global scientific communities in terms of existing and expanding frontiers of genomics, proteomics and metabolomics.

Environmental and political considerations have created a growing demand for plants-derived bio-fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel. It is appropriate that Pakistan should support research efforts in genomics and proteomics. It has enormous potential in agricultural both in cropping and livestock sectors. There is a need to fill actual productivity and potential productivity gap by adopting appropriate strategies and modern technologies to meet such problems as low resource use efficiency in agriculture, land degradation, water-logging and salinity, low organic matter, and low level of technology.

Despite continued progress in genetic improvement, optimal levels of crop productivity or desirable nutritional balance has not yet been achieved. Seed metabolism must be modified substantially to produce food-feed as well as industrial and medical products to satisfy future evolving societal demands. Such modifications need integration seamlessly into the complex but poorly understood processes of seed metabolism and development. Genomics offer new opportunities to address seed performance and productivity, to develop nutritionally desirable seeds, and to achieve industrial and pharmaceutical applications.

Collaborations between genomic researchers and plant breeders are crucial to enhance crops yield. With the help of tools of modern biotechnology and methods of genomics and proteomics, our future challenges of food, feed and energy sectors can be addressed. This new knowledge will change the future of breeding for improved strains of all domesticated species of crops, livestock, fish, and trees either through transgenomics or genomics-based conventional breeding.

“The first plant genome that has been completely sequenced is a small model species, Arabidopsis thaliana. The genomic sequencing of economically important crops is also being undertaken”. The most advanced are the several public and private gene sequencing projects on rice, all of which are now in the public domain. A maize genome-sequencing project is also in progress. Rice, maize and other cereals share a large number of common genes.

Several other genome sequencing projects of at least 130 different plant species are in progress. The plant genetic resources are the vital components of plant biodiversity, precious heritage of mankind, therefore they need to be collected and conserved before they are lost for ever.

There are about 6,000 plant species in Pakistan; out of these only 1,010 species are identified as having medicinal value. Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) established a “gene bank” at the Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources (IABGR) and the National Agricultural Research Center (NARC), which contains more than 30,000 genes and DNA of different plant species. The germplasm of major cereals, minor cereals, food legumes, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits, fiber crops, fodder and forages and medicinal plants are available from this ‘gene bank” for scientists and researcher for the development of new varieties. More recently PARC has established with NARC a new institute the National Institute for Genomics and Advance Biotechnology (NIGAB); which will conduct research on structural and functional genomic of both plants and animals.

In Pakistan, there are hundreds of scientists working at more than 29 centres conducting biotech research in different areas. These institutions have, to their credit, a number of major achievements in modern biotechnology. A few of them have developed plant expression vectors for the introduction of foreign genes into crops like Bt pesticidal genes used in cotton and rice against bollworm, rice leaf-folder, top leaf bore in sugarcane.

The use of new techniques for understanding and modifying the genetically modified organisms (GMO) has led to understanding the role of proteins through proteomics and metabolomics in order to have better knowledge of multi proteins expressed in a particular plant in specific environmental condition. These developments have been accompanied by public concerns as to the power of the new technologies and the safety and ethics of their use for improving human health, agriculture and the environment.

Scientists are trying to explore how genetics and environmental factors work together to cause human diseases which can be helpful in the prevention and treatment of many illnesses and as well as individualise the therapeutical strategies. There are extensive efforts under way to identify the genetic and environmental basis of common diseases like cancer, asthma and diabetes. The present challenge is how emerging scientific discoveries, such as those in the rapidly evolving fields of genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, amongst others, can be translated into safe applications leading to new varieties of crops, drugs and products.

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