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Decoding jute plant genome – an eye opener

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Decoding jute plant genome is a breakthrough in the field of genomics research and biotechnology. It is a great achievement on the part of a Bangladeshi research scientist Dr Maqsudul Alam assisted by a dedicated team of researchers from the University of Dhaka and the Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, with technical support from the University of Science Malaysia and the University of Hawaii.

The financial assistance from the Government of Bangladesh was a catalyst for undertaking the research project in jute genome sequencing by Dr Alam and his team. The success of the research project was acknowledged by the government. The prime minister Sheikh Hasina accorded a reception to Dr Alam and other researchers at Ganobhaban on 24 June 2010.

Sheikh Hasina is reported to have committed to provide financial and other support to the scientists and the research community in Bangladesh for strengthening scientific and technological research in the country. This is a step in the right direction and may encourage young and bright scientists and researchers to remain in the country doing innovative and rewarding research projects.

The relatively nascent research sector in Bangladesh cannot progress much without the support and patronage of the government as the private sector assistance to technological research is minimal at this point in time. An important point made by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina is that researchers must have ‘specific projects’ to access the government support. This means that given limited resources of the government, those research projects will be supported that are well targeted and designed to achieve real outcomes for the benefit of the country.

The potential commercial value of successful decoding of jute plant genome is enormous. Bangladesh is currently the second largest producer of jute fibre after India and is the largest exporter of this agricultural product. China accounts for the third largest production of jute. The key to restore the past glory of jute production and exports lies in improving the quality of  jute fibre and the productivity of jute cultivation. Both of these are now a step closer to achievement with the new found knowledge associated with the successful sequencing of jute genome.

Jute has diverse use and is 100 per cent bio-degradable and is one of the most environmentally friendly crops that are sustainable for longer term production.  An ancient Chinese proverb says: “One type of rice nourishes one hundred types of people.” This reflects the importance of plants in sustaining life and livelihood. Similarly, one type of jute has now the potential to support the livelihood of many farming communities in Bangladesh.

This author in an opinion piece published in the Daily Star in January 2006 entitled “Investing in science and technology for sustainable economic growth” (reproduced below) emphasised the need for investment in science education and technological research to strengthen innovation, economic growth and social wellbeing in Bangladesh.  This has been vindicated by Dr Maqsudul Alam when he said,”If government does not invest, we may forget the rest. The brain drain will continue” (The Daily Star, June25, 2010). The government has an important role in creating a facilitating environment for technological research and development.

In the above mentioned write-up, the author held the view that the government should establish a right incentive structure ranging from tax benefits to financial grants to encourage private sector participation in research and development, and commercialisation of research results. Scientific research results could be used in producing new products, services or processes that lead to income and employment generation to the benefit of the society as a whole.

Bangladesh competes with other jute producing countries such as India and China in the world market for exporting raw jute and manufactured jute products. So any innovation that comes out of the successful decoding of jute genome needs to be quick to take the first mover advantage. This has relevance to international patenting of the invention with major international patent registration organisations -  the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), European Patent Office (EPO) and Japan Patent Office (JPO). It is perhaps desirable to register the invention for triadic patent which usually has high commercial potential. Triadic patents are a series of corresponding patents filed at the USPTO, the EPO and the JPO, by the same applicant or inventor. Of course, patent attorneys can provide better advice on the timing and other issues relating to application for the protection of intellectual property.

“Research is money turned into knowledge and innovation is knowledge turned into money”. Now that we got ‘knowledge’, we need to turn this into ‘money’ that can come from breeding improved jute varieties, more productive jute cultivation, production of better quality fibre, and manufacture of new or improved products by using jute fibre for domestic use and exports.

If cotton is ‘white gold’ for some countries, jute could be ‘fibre gold’ for Bangladesh in the near future. A high value and quality product is what ultimately matters.  I believe this will realise a key objective of jute research by the Bangladesh Jute Research Institute - to develop improved varieties of jute with wider adaptability having high quality, finer and stronger fibre.

Abdul Quader ......................................................................................................................

Flash back: Investing in science and technology for sustainable economic growth

Committed to PEOPLE'S RIGHT TO KNOW | Vol. 5 Num 583  Wed. January 18, 2006 | Point-Counterpoint

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