The century of biology - The New Indian Express

The century of biology

Published: 16th September 2013 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 17th September 2013 08:28 AM

The 20th century was shaped by spectacular breakthroughs in physics and chemistry, but the stars of the 21st century will be biological sciences, and those deciphering the genetic code of life. “Biology has become a big data science like climate modelling or astrophysics. Most visible is the branch of biology known as genetics. As genetics has transformed into genomics it has clearly become an information science. The advances in measurement technology for genome sequencing have been astounding,” says Vijay Chandru, founder, Strand Life Sciences. After thousands of years of fusing, melting, soldering and forging, we are now splicing, recombining, inserting, and stitching living material. However, it is too early to say if the opportunities in this field are on par with the IT sector, as India needs to revamp its curriculum and research facilities to have its share of the pie.

Genetic commerce

In the sixties, Thomas J Watson Jr foresaw the role computers would play in business. In less than 20 years, he led IBM’s transformation from a medium-sized maker of tabulating equipment and typewriters into the world’s leading computer company. Similar is the scenario in biosciences. Chandru says, “It took 13 years and almost $4 billion in government and private funding for researchers in the Human Genome Project to make the first complete map of a person’s genome. Today, just nine years after that breakthrough, a genome can be mapped in a matter of weeks for about $2,000 and a genome map for half that is within sight.” Just like IT, we are on the path to a much more profound business, namely, genetic commerce. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairman and managing director, Biocon, says, “The cost of gene sequencing is following Moore’s law and can very soon compete effectively with present-day biometrics.”

Understanding the field

Shyamal Desai, associate professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, LSU Health Sciences Center-School of Medicine, New Orleans, USA, describes genetics as “an integral part of all branches of biological sciences including plant, animal, and human biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology and medicine.”

The expected

Genetic engineering deals with the study of chromosome structures. A qualified genetic engineer must have a graduate/postgraduate degree in genetics or related fields such as biotechnology, molecular biology, microbiology or biochemistry. The basic eligibility criterion for a graduate degree (BE / BTech) is 10+2 or equivalent examination, with biology, chemistry and mathematics or a bachelor’s degree in science or molecular biology. Pervin Malhotra, career counsellor, CARING, says, “Most institutes do not offer courses in genetic engineering as a special discipline but as a subsidiary in biotechnology, microbiology and biochemistry streams. Undergraduate and postgraduate courses in biotechnology offer specialisation in genetic engineering.”

Different fields

You can focus on animal, plant or human genetics. Animal genetics usually concentrates on livestock and would be a part of animal science programmes. Human genetics usually has a medical focus. Typically, you learn about the immune system and genetic factors that cause diseases. You also study gene therapy. Keep in mind that in-depth study usually takes place at the postgraduate level. “Because of the huge challenges in health and agriculture that India faces, genetics will have a great future. Marker-assisted breeding of crops and a range of rapidly developing technologies will have a great effect on agriculture. Understanding plant-pathogen interaction and unravelling their cellular basis requires genetics. Similarly, dealing with a range of diseases that affect our population and identifying drugs and vaccines and other ways to treat them also requires molecular genetics,” says K Vijayraghavan, secretary of Department of Biotechnology. “A knowledge of molecular genetics, combined with an understanding of the underlying biology is invaluable for a wide range of basic and applied studies. This foundation is key to all else, and molecular genetics has a great future here. Basic studies impact applications, these include how our immune system works, how our brain works, how cancer and diabetes hit us, etc.”

Most students who receive PhD in genetics want to add more credentials. They continue to learn as a postdoctoral fellow for an additional two to four years. A fellowship or part-time teaching usually supports them while they do their research. BARC and TIFR are the best places for research in this field.

Interdisciplinary programmes

In times of synergies, the trend is towards interdisciplinary courses. Louisiana State University School of Medicine (LSUSM) in New Orleans, USA, offers an Interdisciplinary Course, wherein PhD students learn all the biological sciences including genetics, and after two years they decide on their major for PhD research. They also have an MD/ PhD programme. In this, students learn about basic biological sciences, do research, and then join the medical college for clinical studies. This is perfect for medicos as they eventually have to judge the biochemical and genetic problem in their patients before treating them.

Prof S Mahadevan, microbial genetics, physiology and evolution, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, was a student of physics. “Genetics is a logical subject that requires a quantitative outlook. Therefore, it is easy to enter the field from any area that trains you to deal with numbers such as engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics and statistics. In addition, all that requires is a passion for the subject,” he says. “A model curriculum that I envisage includes the physical sciences and mathematics, as well as a good grounding in basic biology on topics such as biochemistry, microbiology and classical/molecular genetics.”

Scope

Students of genetics can join pharmaceuticals, agricultural business, biotechnology firms, forensic science, veterinary diagnostics, clinics, patent firms and, of course, academics. Prof Mahadevan says, “The major job outlet will be in the research/academic area in pursuit of understanding how living organisms process information. I do not know if the opportunities in this field can compete with traditional IT in terms of salaries, but the job satisfaction will be far superior.”

Dr Desai adds, “This depends on what field of genetics you want to make your career into. For example, if you want to work for pharma companies, a combination of molecular biology, biotechnology and genetics is the best choice. If you want to go into the agricultural field, a combination of plant biology and genetics is the best choice. For medicine, knowledge of pharmacology, biochemistry, microbiology and genetics is a must. Although technical skills are always important for jobs and earning, as a research scientist I believe that knowledge of basic principles behind every technique is absolutely essential. Therefore skills and academic excellence should always go hand-in-hand.”

Shaw suggests, “Today, synthetic biology is gaining considerable prominence in developing new diagnostics, novel vaccines and drugs and a number of value-added nutritional and food ingredients. Another interesting field of study is the area of bio-markers and companion diagnostics, which will enable patients to optimise the benefits of biotech drugs. Our IT prowess can be leveraged to broaden the application of bioinformatics. Telemedicine and M-health are two other areas where we can combine our expertise in life sciences and IT to improve healthcare delivery in the country.”

A decade ago, the projection of 10,000 recruitments per year was not in sync with the industry demand. The hype created around the industry and the herd mentality ended up in students taking up such courses anywhere and everywhere, paying large tuition fees. This landed them either with no jobs, finding alternate careers or settling in for a more mundane job, which is not what the student aimed for. The numbers needed are still not that large, but the analytical and analysis abilities needed are intense. However, since genetics has been integrated with healthcare, it is surely opening new avenues, though, positions may not be attractive in terms of monetary benefits. “At Ocimum and Mapmygenome the main focus is on R&D. We look for specialist personnel from biotechnology, MSc in bioinformatics as well as PhDs in molecular biology, biostatistics and genetics,” says its founder and CEO, Anuradha Acharya.

The future of genetics is very bright “as there are many unresolved questions that will keep us busy for many decades. Finding the answers will be challenging and intellectually demanding. Career opportunities are there for those who are up to the challenge. There is always room at the top,” says Prof Mahadevan.

(pallavichetan@gmail.com)

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