June 10, 2006
By Ijaz Ahmad Rao, freelance contributor
Biotechnology in Pakistan stands at a crossroads, as we boast
huge natural resources but equally huge political, social and
economic problems. Pakistan is among those developing countries
which have a long history of lack of political will when it
comes to issues in science and technology.
Although the present government has initiated a number of
worthwhile programmes in natural sciences, health, education and
economic development, progress continues to be constrained by
limited financial resources and an inefficient and cumbersome
administrative structure. The distribution of financial
resources and even foreign aid among scientific institutions is
uneven at best.
As a consequence, some institutions have the latest equipment
and hardware, while many others don't even have funds for
stationery. In such an environment, biotechnology and genetic
engineering face seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
Pakistan today has achieved a unique status in agricultural,
health, industrial and environmental biotechnology. It is
appropriate therefore that it should support research efforts in
There are various funding mechanisms now in place to support
research and development in different biotech disciplines in the
country and incentives have been provided to enhance
performance. Currently there are hundreds of scientists, working
for more than 29 centres, who conduct biotech research in
A large number of scientists are being trained through
indigenous PhD programmes and through training at foreign
Although most biotech research institutes claim that they have
the capacity to conduct biotech research and development in many
fields, only a few have made noteworthy achievements. The major
centres in the country, having adequate infrastructure, are:
- Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC);
- National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
- National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB),
University of the Punjab, Lahore;
- Nuclear Institute of
Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad;
- The Centre for Molecular Genetics (CMG), University of
- Biomedical and Genetic Engineering Division, Dr A.Q. Khan
Research Laboratories, Islamabad;
- Centre of Agriculture, Biochemistry and Biotechnology (CABB),
University of Agriculture,
- Agriculture Biotechnology Institute,
Research Centre (NARC), Islamabad;
- University of Arid
Agriculture, Rawalpindi, and
- Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Peshawar .
In the early 1980s, the government launched a programme under
which expatriates visited different research laboratories and
participated in short-term courses and training workshops. In
1981 the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB),
Faisalabad, organised a course on recombinant DNA methodology
and genetic engineering which marked the beginning of
initiatives in biotechnology in the country.
Major achievements of NIAB, established in 1972 by the Pakistan
Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), include the introduction new
crop varieties and studies related to the control of salinity
and pests. Our best-known cotton variety, NIAB-78, which was
formulated at this institution, now covers about 50 per cent of
the area under cotton cultivation in the country.
Similarly, NIAB Karishma, which enjoys a higher yield, has shown
tolerance to cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV) disease. Research
activities at NIAB are carried out in different divisions,
including those that deal with mutation breeding, entomology,
biological chemistry, biochemistry and natural products.
The institution has well-equipped laboratories with facilities
such as cobalt-60 irradiation sources, radiation measuring
instruments, growth chamber, UDV and amino acid analysers. It
collaborates with a number of international research
institutions like the International Atomic Energy Agency,
International Foundation for Science, Third World Academy of
Sciences and International Crop Research Institute for Semi Arid
The National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB),
University of the Punjab, was founded in 1985 and now comprises
state-of-the-art laboratories for carrying out cutting-edge
research in molecular biology and biotechnology. Apart from its
research and library facilities, NCEMB has land as well as
infrastructure for testing genetically modified crop varieties.
One hundred and 60 persons, including 31 senior scientists, 10
post-doctoral fellows, 53 MPhil and PhD scholars, nine
technicians and 66 administrative and para-scientific staff are
employed there. It has a total annual budget of about $500,000.
The institution has to its credit a number of major achievements
in modern biotechnology. It developed plant expression vectors
for the introduction of foreign genes and synthesised four Bt
pesticidal genes used in cotton and rice against American
bollworm and rice leaf-folder.
The genetically modified pest resistant varieties produced there
include Bt rice Indica Basmati 370, while three novel Bt genes
are being patented through a US company. Confined field trials
of Bt basmati rice were successfully carried out last season. In
addition, studies are being carried out to evaluate virus and
insect resistance in genetically modified crops of mango,
potato, tomato, chickpea, sugarcane, tobacco and cucurbits.
The centre has discovered 45 new restriction enzymes. It has
also developed procedures for the diagnosis of genetic and
infectious diseases and is known as a pioneer in DNA-based
methods for pre-natal diagnosis of beta thalassaemia.
On the international scene, NCEMB collaborates with the
University of Washington, New England Biolabs, University of
Cincinnati and National Institute of Health, USA.
The National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
(Nibge), Faisalabad, is a federal research institute that was
established in 1992. Within a short span of five years, this
centre earned a place among institutions of excellence in the
country. It has been awarded the status of an affiliate centre
for the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and
There are seven research centres of Nibge, including plant
biotechnology division, biofertilisers technology division,
health biotechnology division, industrial biotechnology division
and environmental biotechnology division. In the plant research
sector, the relationship of Gemini viruses with cotton leaf curl
disease has been understood at the molecular level and Burewala
strains-linked disease has been tackled by developing ways to
differentiate between different viral genomes.
As cotton is the backbone of our economy, the plant
biotechnology division focuses on it. The centre is involved in
a project with the John Innes Centre, Norwich, United Kingdom,
and the University of Arizona, USA, through the International
Cotton Advisory Committee, Washington DC.
A biofertiliser, with the trade name of BioPower, has been
launched for various crops by Nibge. It is the first Pakistani
institute that has developed diagnostic tools for various
diseases based on the Polymerase Chain Reaction. Biomining of
low-grade Pakistani ores is another process that's ready for
The Nibge laboratories have state-of-the-art equipment,
including a capillary electrophoresis-based automated DNA
sequencer (Perkin Elmer), fermenters, a DNA synthesiser, FPLC,
HPLC, high speed centrifuges and gel system.
Pakistan until recently has been focussing on first generation
applications in biotechnology, especially in agriculture and
textile, leather and chemical industries, besides health,
bioinformatics and environment. The government has invested
about $17 million (Rs952 million) in research and development in
various biotech projects, like vaccine production and
The ministry of science and technology has allocated Rs720
million for 29 projects and the Pakistan Agricultural Research
Council has set aside Rs25.8 million for 12 projects. The Higher
Education Commission and Pakistan Science Foundation sponsored
16 and 13 projects - costing Rs197.4 million and Rs9.55 million,
respectively, between 2000 and 2004.
Similarly, a Rs600 million grant was made available by the
Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited. The Pakistan Council
for Science and Technology is also funding small research
Many international institutions also provide financial
assistance in various biotech projects. Such organisations
include the Asian Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank,
World Bank, USAID, Rockefeller Foundation and Australian Centre
for International Agriculture Research.
More than 70 projects have been approved in various disciplines
of biotechnology and genetic engineering at different
institutes. However, the status of the projects is unknown.
Many cooperative programmes have been launched in biotech and
advanced molecular technology in the country with collaboration
from other countries. Noteworthy developments are:
Pakistan-US Science and Technology Cooperative Programme -
Projects selected for joint funding under this programme
include: Gene pyramiding through genetic engineering for
increased salt tolerance in wheat (Pakistani funding $47,880 and
US funding $350,000); Understanding and control of plant viral
disease complexes in Pakistan (Pakistani funding $142,000 and US
funding $175,000); Intensification of forensic services and
research at the Centre for Applied Molecular Biology (Pakistani
funding $118,650 and US funding $160,000).
Similarly, a project titled Control of Gemini virus diseases of
cotton and tomato in Pakistan and Australia has been launched
which is funded by the ACIAR. Its budgeted cost is $907,750 and
the project is supposed to be completed by the end of this
Meeting between Pakistan, India and the US - In May of 2005 a
meeting was held in Lahore at which an "umbrella agreement" on
biotech science was initialled which is the first one with any
country in the region. This will serve as an oversight panel for
the tripartite collaborative project on pro-poor and pro-nature
Its main objectives include breeding crops for
tolerance/resistance to abiotic stresses with particular
reference to drought and salinity, risk and safety assessment,
human resource development in advanced technologies with
particular reference to techniques relevant to the collaborative
research programme, and technology sharing in areas of mutual
benefit. For this purpose projects have already been identified,
which would be launched by the end of this month.
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Science and Technology,
whose meeting was chaired recently by Gen Pervez Musharraf, has
declared biotechnology as one of the high priority areas in
research. Last year pre-commercial planting of indigenously
developed Bt cotton seed supplied by PAEC was carried out in
Punjab and Sindh.
Because of the encouraging outcomes of these events, Prime
Minister Shaukat Aziz said the government would allow farmers to
grow Bt cotton in 2006-07. However these varieties are currently
undergoing biosafety assessment under the Biosafety Rules of
The biosafety regulatory legislation for research and
development is in its infancy in Pakistan. The government has
ratified or signed many international agreements, like the
Convention on Biological Diversity, Trade Related Aspects of
Intellectual Property Rights, and Cartagena Protocol of
Biosafety, to exhibit its growing interest in the genetically
modified organisms trade under WTO rules and regulations.
That's why legal protection for intellectual property is being
strengthened and biosafety rules and guidelines have been
approved. Pakistani research institutes do follow international
biosafety regulations, such as those approved by the US National
Institutes of Health.
Regulations to govern and supervise DNA research and products
(Biosafety Guidelines 2005), involving genetically modified
organisms, have been approved by the ministry of environment.
Pakistan's National Biosafety Committee is in charge of ensuring
that risk assessment is carried out in accordance with biosafety
India and China
Several developing countries now have well-developed
biotechnology programmes and they are approaching the cutting
edge of applications. In our region, China has taken the lead
vis-a-vis research for genetically modified plants.
It has been investing $100 million per year in the discipline
since the beginning of this century. There are thousands of
Biotech National Research Laboratories, employing hundreds of
scientists. At present, more than 60 versions of GM plants have
been approved for field trials. The leading GM plant in China is
Bt cotton, covering 66 per cent of the area under cultivation.
India too has embarked upon a very ambitious programme in
biotechnology, with a view to harnessing its available human and
biodiversity resources. The biotechnology sector in India has in
recent years witnessed accelerated growth. With approximately
200 industrial organisations producing biotech products, the
sector is expanding rapidly.
Currently the bio-pharma sector has the largest market share
(over 75 per cent), followed by bio-agriculture (8.5 per cent),
bio-services (8 per cent), industrial products (5.5 per cent),
and bio-informatics (3.5 per cent). India, the world's
third-largest cotton-grower, planted Bt cotton crops over 136
million acres in 2005-06, which was an increase of 460 per cent
as compared to the previous year.
According to some reports, India will be the largest
manufacturer of biotech vaccines in the world by 2010.
Since biotechnology is a very sensitive discipline, the
government's role is of vital importance so that
biotechnological tools could be used safely and effectively for
the benefit of the masses. It must provide adequate funding and
formulate clear polices to ensure that it can contribute
effectively and safely towards poverty reduction and food
The authorities should enhance cooperation with the private as
well as public sector in the development of biotech products and
services so that the economy gets a boost. They must set up
effective, transparent and workable biosafety regulatory and
enforcement systems to ensure that the risks are minimised.
The government must formulate and enforce intellectual property
rights. We must develop our own rules and regulations on
bio-information and/or sharing of genetic data with others.
Similarly, we must develop our own bioethics and standards.
It is also important that all biotech institutions and
scientists are given equal status. Equally important is the
issue of utilisation of available resources. These need to be
effectively marshalled and championed and synergies need to be
created to bring about productive enterprise.
It is important for government bodies to facilitate researchers
by providing them with world class and relevant information on
time. Lastly, the government must encourage true research. After
all, this is what Pakistan needs at the moment. Otherwise, all
the money and efforts spent in this sector will go to waste.