Studying Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Bangladesh: A crisis of identity?

It has been six years since I am in Dhaka University. But I often ask myself: have I made the proper use of time during these six years? Undergratude stage is very important for career because our activities during this period determine the rest of our life in many ways. But I can not say I have laid the foundation for future in the last six years.

Everyone should have a clear goal at the end of university. A well-planned career is the only thing that guarantees success in future. When you do not have such a plan you will fail to direct yourself towards something big - perhaps, you will take random paths eventually finding yourself nowhere.

Six years ago I had the plan to train myself as a geneticist. I found in the prospectus of Dhaka University that there is a subject named Genetics. Later, I found out a BSc degree of similar kind is offered but with different title. The title of the degree is BSc in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. When I talked to some of the faculty members of the Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, I came to know the department was mainly teaching Molecular Biology to make students Biotechnologist!

I didn’t know what biotechnology meant and what should be taught in a Biotechnology course. I was dumbfounded by three big-terms: Genetics, Genetic Engineering, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.

So, I started researching what those disciplines actually meant and what we should expect to learn in those disciplines if we were studying them in any of the world famous universities. I found we were no way close to the graduates of any of those universities.

I found that Biotechnology should be concerned with application of biological knowledge in industry. In other words, biotechnologists use the techniques and methods invented by biologists to develop a product or service. Example of such product may be drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines or even food like cheese and yogurt. We should rarely expect biotechnologists to engage in basic research of biological disciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, zoology, botany and so on.

Molecular Biology, on the other hand, is the biology of biomolecules such as DNA, RNA, Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Lipid. A molecular biologist is expected to uncover cellular events in terms of those molecules. Molecular biology techniques are mainly confined to isolation, detection, identification and tracking of biomolecules in cell and outside cell.

Genetics, in earlier days meant the study of the relation of genes with traits. But with the advent of DNA sequencing technology, genetics is now concerned with analysis of DNA sequence of an individual to know how the sequence of nucleotides affects the traits of the individual. By traits I mean both the cellular level characteristics and the organism level characteristics. Techniques used by a geneticist are very similar to the ones used by a molecular biologists. A geneticists is expected to study the regulation of gene expression, transcription and translation to find out the cellular and molecular events that give rise to the function of the gene.

Finally, genetic engineering is not a discipline, rather, it is a technique to engineer the genes or DNA of an organism to make it express desirable traits. Through the use of genetic engineering it is possible to develop recombinant microorganisms, genetically modified plants and transgenic animals.

So, the title genetic engineering and biotechnology should imply the use of recombinant DNA technology in large scale production of foods, industrials products, or treatment options. This is cool! But is this realistic? Is it possible for a person to have a sensible career by only having the knowledge of engineering various organisms? May be it is possible but only if you are in a research career. It requires for a team of researchers ten to twenty years developing a single marketable transgenic animal or plant. Because the job can be done by any molecular biologists there is little reason to have a separate discipline for genetic engineers who only know the techniques of recombinant DNA.

It is high time we, the genetic engineers and biotechnologists in Bangladesh, decided what we really are. Whether we wanted to be biotechnologists or molecular biologists or something else.

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