Building expertise

Print edition : August 29, 2003

India has over the last two decades emerged as a strong player in biotechnology with broad-based institutional infrastructure not only to promote research and development but also to meet the requirement for skilled manpower.

BIOLOGY has traditionally attracted students as a means to a career in medicine or agriculture, but the second half of the 20th century witnessed a new dimension to the study of the science as a technological tool for a wide range of applications towards betterment of society. India has the distinction of being one of the few developing countries to have recognised the importance of biotechnology as early as 1980. This is reflected in the policies enunciated even in the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85) to strengthen capabilities in such areas as immunology and genetics and in the setting up of the National Biotechnology Board (NBTB) in 1982 to promote large-scale use of biotechnology products and processes.

If this was regarded as a landmark in the history of biotechnology in India, the establishment of a full-fledged Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science and Technology in 1986 was considered a decisive step to harness the potential of biotechnology. From all accounts, India has over the last two decades emerged a strong player in this frontier technology with broad-based institutional infrastructure not only to promote research and development but also to meet the requirement for skilled manpower and encourage manufacture of a number of bio-products.

With significant achievements to its credit, the DBT has set its sights on attaining new heights in biotechnology research, which would shape biotechnology into a premier precision tool of the future for creation of wealth and ensuring social justice. Fulfilment of this vision calls for wide-ranging initiatives in different areas. Of these, the most important are human resource development (HRD) and bioinformatics, the former to generate adequate trained personnel in this multi-disciplinary and knowledge-intensive field and the latter to make effective use of the deluge of information generated world-wide by research in biotechnology.

As far as HRD is concerned, there has been a carefully planned expansion of facilities to turn out manpower at different levels. One of the first tasks undertaken by the NBTB was to launch an integrated training programme. In the first phase it chose five universities in 1984-85 to initiate the M.Sc./M.Tech. programme in this multi-disciplinary area. When the DBT came into being it started adding more universities and institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to the list to start both regular courses and short-term programmes. It also evolved the curriculum for biotechnology courses and launched post-graduate courses, post-doctoral fellowships, short-term hands-on training courses for scientists from R&D institutions and industries and biotechnology industrial training programmes. The post-graduate teaching and the post-M.D./M.S. training programme seek to generate trained manpower at the post-graduate level in general biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology, marine biotechnology, neurosciences, biochemical engineering and biotechnology.

Currently there are 27 M.Sc. courses in general biotechnology, seven M.Sc. courses in agriculture biotechnology, six M.Tech. courses in biochemical engineering, bioprocess technology and biotechnology, two M.Sc. courses in marine biotechnology, one M.Sc. course in medical biotechnology, one M.Sc. course in neurosciences, two post-M.D./M.S. certificate courses in medical biotechnology, one post-graduate diploma course in molecular and biochemical technology and one post-graduate diploma course in genetic engineering and bioprocess development. The intake of students in the post-graduate courses is around 800. The students are admitted to different universities running these courses through an all-India combined entrance examination conducted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University and to the IITs through the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) in the two-year courses and through Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) in the five-year integrated M.Tech. courses in biochemical engineering and biotechnology.

The post-doctoral fellowship programme is implemented through the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. It has recently been restructured and expanded to cover more universities and R&D institutions. Fifty-nine students were selected during 2001-02 and 69 during 2002-03 for the fellowship. They have been given placement in more than 50 universities and R&D institutions of their choice.

The short-term training courses are meant to provide hands-on training to mid-career scientists from academic and research institutions and to technologists from industrial R&D laboratories in advanced and emerging research techniques in biotechnology. Universities and R&D institutions having adequate facilities and expertise organise these courses for a period of two to four weeks. In each course there are 15 participants. Apart from this, practical training is provided in biotech companies to post-graduate students for a period of six months. This is intended to help the trainees enhance their career opportunities in biotech industries. This is being implemented through the Biotech Consortium India Limited and 60 trainees were provided placement in 27 leading biotech firms.

In order to provide exposure for Indian scientists to newer trends in R&D a programme of Biotechnology Overseas Associateship has been launched. This envisages the award of long-term (one year) and short-term (three to six months) associateship to Indian scientists to work in foreign research laboratories and upgrade their knowledge. In addition to this, a scheme has been started to promote visits of eminent foreign scientists to Indian academic and research institutions engaged in this field. This is expected to help Indian scientists share the current state of knowledge in this area of research. Dr. Manju Sharma, Secretary to the DBT, rightly considers the HRD programme a great success. Those who had gone through the various courses supported by the DBT are in great demand in the industry. The department has now introduced a fellowship scheme for doctoral study. "I want to get more and more Ph.Ds in biotechnology," says Manju Sharma. At the same time the number of biology scholarships for schoolchildren has been increased from 10 to 25 and the proposal is to take the number to 50 during the Tenth Plan period.

The Vision Document of the DBT envisages a major expansion of the HRD programme to cover all the universities and in some cases even colleges to introduce biotechnology education and training. It also envisages development of mechanisms for the training of the faculty, with the provision of 50 teachers a year for a period of five years. At least 100 students a year would be trained to generate a workforce of 15,000 to 20,000 in the next 10 years.

KEEPING the trained manpower abreast of the rapid advances being made in biotechnology is equally important. For this purpose the DBT has started a national bioinformatics network, which seeks to bring together the vast scientific expertise in biotechnology and computational sciences. A fast-growing discipline, bioinformatics is causing a paradigm shift in how scientists approach molecular biology. The Biotechnology Information System (BTIS) launched by the DBT provides a common platform for the exchange of information among the scientific community and in the process speeds up scientific discoveries. It is regarded as a unique tool to (a) handle and manage biological data, (b) promote communication among people, projects and institutions, (c) enable access, search and retrieval of biological information and (d) analyse and interpret biological data through computational approaches. This offers a single-window information resource in the country covering inter-disciplinary areas of biotechnology and molecular biology. The network comprises 10 Distributed Information Centres (DICs), 50 Sub-Distributed Information Centres (Sub-DICs), an apex Biotechnology Information Centre (BTIC), six interactive graphic facilities and a super computing facility for genomic research.

In order to turn out trained bioinformatics professionals, long-term courses are being run in five universities. About 60 short-term courses are being held every year to train researchers and scholars in bioinformatics. In order to integrate national resources and promote tandem research, the DBT has established a high-speed and large bandwidth network in the form of a virtual private network, called BIOGRID INDIA. According to Manju Sharma, the grid is designed to act as a knowledge pathway for discoveries in biotechnology. As many as 11 institutions have been networked under this project in the first phase. These nodes are actively pursuing HRD and R&D in bioinformatics, besides the dissemination of biotechnology information to researchers.

One of the major goals of BTIS is HRD, as it has been found that trained professionals in this field are not available. According to Dr. Madhan Mohan, Director, BTIC, each BTIS centre is mandated to organise at least one training course every year in order to provide up-to-date awareness and technical skills on bioinformatics. During 2003-04, over 90 training courses will be organised. The BTIS has introduced advanced diploma courses and post-graduate courses in bioinformatics.

From all accounts, the DICs and Sub-DICs have been catalysts not only for the growth of bioinfomatics but also for HRD. They are also used for intensive research by the host and neighbouring institutions. Several R&D programmes have been supported and this has resulted in a significant increase in R&D proposals in bioinformatics. Besides this, the BTIS centres are constantly developing electronic versions of information resources relevant to biotechnology. These are expected to facilitate transfer of technology to the people.

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