Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Time to get serious about rice

Hi guys, it's been a real long time since my last posting. There is so much happening in the world today that relates to rice and, seeing as it is the staple food in Malaysia, it's time to get serious about what's cooking in your rice pot. If you notice, I decided to take out all those fun widgets I had put in by sidebar earlier, and taking a cue from a fellow blogger who invited me to visit his blog http://fermentationtechnology.blogspot.com/ I think maybe there is hope for scitech blogs in this country after all. I have decided not to clutter the blog with too much unrelated stuff and focus more on anything biotechnology, especially issues affecting Malaysia. I don't claim to be an expert and, as a highly opinionated observer, I will try to gather as much credible information for discussion. I hope that works for you and please do leave your comments.

Rice became a big issue around the globe recently and I had blogged about this here and here. However, I wanted to focus on rice hybrids and whats going on in the biotech world. While biotech rice strains have been developed, the genetically engineered vitamin A fortified Golden Rice have met with resistence, Malaysian scientists have also researched disease resistent transgenic rice strains here but not sure whether this is in commercial production. Recent news shows that there is search for a Super-Rice as reported here as the University of Washington pursues the “super hybrids.”
to hasten the pace of modern rice genetics, which since the 1960s has delivered a series of new strains, starting with higher-yielding semidwarf varieties, a breakthrough that was hailed as the Green Revolution.
While researchers use computational tools to study of 30,000 to 60,000 protein structures and the selection of rice strains to breed, Malaysia is looking into planting the Hubei hybrid rice variant from China. Tested by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) since 2006, officials are optimistic that this hybrid variant can generate up to 7.7 metric tonnes of rice per hectare compared to the home-grown M232 variant, which can generate an average of 5.8 metric tonnes per hectare. In matters of supply and distribution of rice in Malaysia, BERNAS is the agency responsible while recent short supplies have resulted in a policy of barter trading, rice for palm oil, and plans for opening more land for paddy fields in Sabah and Sarawak. I won't go into the politics of it but rice is serious business and it's good to know what goes on your dinner table. The Hybrid Rice Blog was set up to track the global push towards hybrid rice and Malaysia's hybrid plans here and here. The blog explains:

Hybrids are produced by crossing two inbred- genetically fixed - varieties of a particular crop. Hybrids are special because they express what is called "heterosis" or hybrid vigor. The idea is that if you cross two parents which are genetically distant from each other, the offspring will be "superior", particularly in terms of yield. However, the so-called heterosis effect disappears after the first (F1) generation, so it is pointless for farmers to save seeds produced from a hybrid crop. This makes it very profitable to go into the seed business, since farmers need to purchase new F1 seeds every season to get the heterosis effect (high yield) each time. Rice is a mainly self-pollinated crop.(i) Each rice plant produces its own pollen which gets into an ovary and through fertilisation produces seed - what we eat as the rice grain. Rice has been a poor candidate for commercial hybridisation because you would have to find a way to sterilize some of the plants and then force them to cross with fertile plants.

Whatever said and done, genetically modified, hybrid or even wild rice still needs to be planted in paddy fields. Depending on the type of rice, paddy planting requires large tracts of land, good irrigation systems, abundant rainfall and back breaking labour unless highly mechanised farming techniques are involved. Rice is a member of the grass family. With food supplies dwindling, the spectre of hunger and starvation a possible reality in many parts of the world, in Asia people will literally have to resort to eating grass!!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Wishing you a Jatropha year ahead.....


For those who came and took a peek at this blog while I was away at http://www.tembam.wordpress.com/, I thank you for visiting. I will come back to blog on this beloved blogsite (my firstborn so to speak) more often but am finding out that blogging takes quite a bit of time, if you intend to do a credible job that is. As tomorrow is Christmas, I thought a nice pix of the Jatropha with its red and green festive hues would be appropriate. So with this story on the Jatropha plant and its glorius future in biodiesel, I wish you happy holidays and a wonderful year ahead for 2008. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

There is so much happening in the world of biotechnology today that I often find myself itching to blog about some of the interesting discoveries that I have read about or viewed on TV. You better believe it, biotechnology is here to stay. We got a lot of catching up to do and Malaysia is just beginning to make our impact in this sector. I was watching an interesting programme on RTM1 a few weeks ago about plans for Malaysia to ramp up the biodiesel sector with the launch of a pilot project in Kota Marudu in Sabah to cultivate the jatropha plant. An oilseed touted as a viable non-food alternative to first generation biodiesel feedstocks here, it seems jatropha holds potential as an alternative crop that contributes to the production of biodiesel in Malaysia on a commercial scale, particularly for small landholders. Tasked with this mammoth undertaking, Biogreen Energy Sdn Bhd here aims to become a global, socially responsible, sustainable, main producer and supplier of Jatropha Biofuel used in the production of biodiesel.
The plant referred to as "Jarak Pagar" in Bahasa Malaysia has even been hailed as a "Wonder Shrub" and even has a news network here, is of great interest to the Green Car Congress here, the biofuel marketplace here, an upcoming conference JatrophaWorld 2008 here and a Wikipedia spot here. Indian agribusinessman Gurumurti Natarajan here says "Jatropha curcas produces oil-bearing seeds within six months of planting and can last over 30 years without replacement. Its seeds contain 30 per cent or more oil, which can be easily expelled and extracted. The crude oil lends itself to transesterification and the resulting product is blendable with petroleum diesel in all proportions to produce biodiesel. Besides reducing the consumption of fossil diesel and the resultant savings on its import, the use of biodiesel also ensures significant reduction of pollution from the burnt exhaust fumes from traditional diesel engines." The Indian author laments the lack of a clear governmental policy in promoting jatropha and biodiesel, no major biodiesel processing units, incentives for farmers to take up jatropha cultivation through buy-back guarantees by the oil processors and other government subsidies.
I am presuming these concerns have been addressed by Malaysia as the industry seems to be going full speed ahead as this once ornamental plant that exudes a poisonous sap as the Times Online report here says "The jatropha bush seems an unlikely prize in the hunt for alternative energy, being an ugly, fast-growing and poisonous weed. Hitherto, its use to humanity has principally been as a remedy for constipation. Very soon, however, it may be powering your car. Almost overnight, the unloved Jatropha curcushas become an agricultural and economic celebrity, with the discovery that it may be the ideal biofuel crop, an alternative to fossil fuels for a world dangerously dependent on oil supplies and deeply alarmed by the effects of global warming". It must be good because the African continent here as well as India here, Indonesia here and China here are already racing ahead with this wonder crop. Naturally there are concerns about deforestation here and what the public should know here. With fossil fuels in short supply and prices going higher and higher, from now on I am looking at this Jatropha plant from a whole new perspective when I see it growing wild on the roadside or in someone's garden. (Source of pix here)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thorny issues about durians and the gene pool....

I'm middle aged and I am still confused! About all this talk on racial origins I mean! About which race is better than which race that seems to fuel a lot of internet chatter among Malaysians, the young & the old, at home & abroad, the patriotic & the dis-enfranchised and other assorted what have yous. On the eve of 50 years of blessed independence here we are back to the same old same old - trading insults about race just because of an asinine hip hop video posted on youtube purely to offend. I wish that young man great happiness in the country he prefers to Malaysia and wish him well after the infamy stirred up by his video. Possibly there are underlying reasons for his frustrations and making the video was one way of getting back at whoever his enemies are, real or imagined.

But despite me not understanding the language and the obviously "meant to provoke" hip hop rhyming slang stuff, he can really sing the Negara Ku in his full identifiable glory for all to see! Personally, the comments anonymous people stealthily posted were even worse. Being a mixed breed of uncertain geneology myself, an offspring of several generations of by now hard to trace inter-marriage from both of the hotly disputed races, I am languishing in blissful ignorance in my polluted gene pool. Does race matter I wonder? I confess I have a great love for people of whatever race, religion, nationality, or denomination as long as they are good, kind and respect me in return. I guess maybe that is why I stay away from issues about race that often pollute the media to cause confusion as the really thorny issues are too prickly for ordinary citizens like me to handle. Ouch!
Blogging about thorny matters only serves to remind me of durians (source of picture). Now there's a fruit that young video star is unlikely to find growing in the land he currently admires. Unsuitable climates does not stop people from all parts of the world from coming to Malaysia purely to indulge in this thorny and, to some, stinky fruit. Whatever people's opinion of this "King of Fruits", when a scientist from Thailand was recently reported to have bred odourless durians, it brought an unbelievable onslaught of opinions the world over in every imaginable medium of international communication known to man via newspapers, television, radio and, of course, the internet. Funny thing is people did not get as emotional about thornless durians as they do about the smell. Hhmm!!

For those who may not know this, you can't pluck durians from the tree. You need to wait till the fruits are ripe and they fall to the ground all on their own, ready to be picked up. I suppose, if you brave the thorns and overcome the smell, you truly deserve to savour the delights of the custard-like pulp that is so simply divine that many a timid soul has succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh of this fruit that "stinks like hell but tastes like heaven".

The internet has yielded massive information resources dedicated to the aristocratic and exotic durian that my faith in the World Wide Web has been reaffirmed. One particular website Durian on Line (source of picture) is a true labour of love. Equally passionate, in a detailed study on the fruit that some claim to have aphrodisiac properties, is the authoritative and properly academic Bibliographic Review by Michael J Brown. Awesome mind boggling stuff!

What's all this got to do with biotech? Well, I'm not sure really because the scientist, Songpol Songsri, has thus far only developed a hybrid by cross breeding varieties of the durian selected for specific qualities. The article states that he is currently "mapping out durian DNA, and hoping to pinpoint the malodorous gene one day". Phew, huge sigh of relief! So, I have not been consuming any genetically modified durians that I didn't know about then? Durian clones are hybrids really, as I explained in an earlier blog, more like a selective muddying of the durian gene pool in search of superior genes, in a modern-day Mendelian genetics kind of way I suppose. The difference is that it is a fusion of assorted sources of durian plant gametes not by the gene "splice and fuse" biotech methods.

The durian gene-pool has been muddied by time and cross-breeding to come up with a superior combination? You don't say! Much like me I suppose, a hybrid of generations of inter-racial marriages of vague ancestors who sailed to Ptolemy's aptly named Golden Chersonese in sailboats to escape poverty and natural disasters from islands of the Malay archipelago and from mainland China. I am not even sure if the gene pool really matters anymore but I can tell you that from my various sojourns abroad to further my education and for the sake of my career, I can't describe how good it feels each time the plane lands in KLIA and I am back home where I belong. Where the colour of my skin and my faith does not prevent me from truly relishing a good and smelly durian feast along with my Malaysian neighbours and friends.
In conjunction with the 5oth Merdeka celebration, as a flag waving Malaysian I give you the real Negara ku!
Negara ku,
Tanah tumpahnya darah ku
Rakyat hidup bersatu dan maju
Rahmat bahagia Tuhan kurniakan
Raja kita selamat bertakhta

My motherland
The land where my life began
Where people live in harmony and prosperity
With God given blessings of happiness
Our King reign in peace

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Will the dawning of the biotech age be the season to let the sunshine in???

Finally had time to filter the hundreds of email news alerts that I sign up for to keep tabs on the latest happenings in biotech and the health sciences. I came across an interesting article about a company that is planning to produce a new kind of insulin from the safflower (source of picture) plant that is "physically, structurally, and physiologically indistinguishable from pharmaceutical-grade human recombinant insulin." The aim is to meet the projected need for more and cheaper insulin for use such as to be administered through non-injected means ie. inhaling through the nose (where else?) and by other means. Mind boggling? Just picture this. The global market for insulin is projected to grow to US$11.8 billion by 2010 and demand for insulin to 16,000 kilograms by 2012 as more people around the globe become prone to diabetes. This will give you an idea of the value of this possibility. Imagine harveting safflower seeds for the oil and extracting insulin all in one process. It boggles the mind!

The transgenic safflower has been genetically modified to produce pro-insulin, the precursor to insulin, produced by beta cell of the islets of Langerhans of the human pancreas. The pro-insulin sequence of DNA in human pancreatic cells was fused to the gene of safflower together with sequences from the common bean to express an oleosin-human pro-insulin protein exclusively in the safflower seed. The recombinant DNA technology used to modify plant genetic material to create a new gene that could produce insulin does not employ bacterial plasmids but the gene sequences from the bean does the trick.

How do we harvest the insulin? From the oil I suppose. Well, it does seem like it is a great idea but there has been and will still be arguments and counter arguments on the potentially adverse impact on health and environment wrought by genetically modified food crops. Yet the list of genetically engineered plants and animals grows ever longer beyond the earlier attempts to genetically modify soya beans (source of picture), corn (source of picture), potatoes (source of picture), tomatoes (source of picture), rice (source of picture) and now the safflower. Possibly the list is even longer than we realise. The photos used here are not of GM foods. I just thought some
photos of the familiar might jolt us into realising the times they are a changing. What is familiar today might not be the same tomorrow.
Personally, the only transgenic plants I have ever come across were the rubber trees (source of picture) that I saw when I visited the Rubber Research Insititute of Malaysia (RRIM) research station years ago (now merged with the Malaysian Rubber Board). The transgenic rubber plants were modified to produce a human protein - human serum albumin - in its latex as a cost-effective means for high volume production of less expensive useful proteins. Just imagine tapping the rubber tree for the milky latex (source of picture) for purposes beyond turning it into rubber tyres, shoes, gloves, insulation etc but it's been a while since I heard about the latest progress in this landmark research. I wonder what's happening with that research now?

Blogging about genetically engineered flower power has made me think of The Fifth Dimension, the group that sang the anthem of the hippie generation "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in" in celebration of the dawning of the age of Aquarius - an age of love, light and humanity. Will the dawning of the age of biotech be the beginning of a new "let the sunshine in" era that will be a blessing for humanity?? Let's hope it will not be otherwise.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Biotech gets colour coded and turns orange.....

As a Malaysian, it is my patriotic duty to blog about, no not politics, but about our own biotech golden crop, the oil palm! Get this right, the tree is the "oil palm" whereas the gold we're talking about here is the "palm oil" extracted from the bunches of oil palm fruit. You'll be forgiven if, like some Middle Eastern tourists have been known to, you mistake the oil palm for date palms. From a distance, especially from an airplane, the feathery fronds and bunches of fruit look very much like the date palm. (source of picture)

Once you land and get a chance to drive around the countryside, take a closer look and you'll find the bunches of fruit are distinctively different (source of picture). The most obvious being the orange-coloured fleshy pericarp or outer husk (source of picture), when harvested, milled and processed yields liquid gold that has a multitude of uses. Used mostly as cooking oil and sold in sundry shops in my childhood, I remember having to buy this for my mum. Being the cheapest cooking oil available back then and probably all that many households could afford, the oil was not popular as it tended to be semi-solid and food fried in it usually turned orange. My favourite banana fritters never tasted as good cooked in the orange oil as when mum fried them in the more expensive and lighter hued coconut oil. In my child's mind then, orange coloured oil meant inferior and funny tasting stuff.

I recently read an article about Carotech Bhd winning an award for finding out how to get the best out of, get this, virgin crude palm oil! In other words, they made the oil better tasting, longer lasting and loaded with the tocotrienol complex or Supervitamin E. By the way, the stuff that gives it the orange colour is the carotene, same as in carrots, that is rich in Vitamin A!!! My how things do change with better knowledge! To think we used to turn our noses up at the humble orange-coloured liquid gold!
Blogging about the colour orange brings me back to the topic of biotechnology, in this case industrial biotechnology or what some say is "white" technology ie. the use of biotechnology in industrial processes. There is some argument as to the colour coding in industrial biotech with "Red" for things related to healthcare products and medical processes, "Green" for agriculture-related processes, and "Blue" for marine and aquatic applications. Depending on which way you look at it or what you read, white can also be grey! Mind boggling stuff this!

Industrial biotech is huge right now as it offers untold opportunities in converting stuff we grow such as sugars, vegetable oils, and other raw materials into pharmaceuticals, bio-colorants, solvents, bio-plastics, vitamins, food additives, bio-pesticides and liquid bio-fuels such as bio-ethanol and bio-diesel. Using sophisticated knowledge in biochemistry, microbiology, molecular genetics and process technology, white biotech uses microbial, animal or plant cells, their organelles or enzymes as biocatalysts. Considering that oil palm falls under "green" agro-based biotech, use of recombinant DNA (RDNA) technologies have been extensively explored to improve the efficiency of producing commercially attractive value added products. Said to produce an estimated 5,000 kilogrammes of oil per hectare, palm oil yields make it highly attractive, aside from other edible uses, for large scale production of biofuel.
So big is the potential for this sector that there is even a National Biofuel Policy. The oil palm has many ways of producing biofuel in solid, liquid or gaseous form. Examples include blending liquid palm oil with diesel you get biodiesel, using anaerobic digestion on oil palm biomass residues from palm oil processing to produce biogas and using enzymatic digestion to produce bioethanol. The R&D on biofuels has been stepped up in recent years due to rising petroleum prices and depleting reserves of fossil fuels worldwide.

If you're thinking that the use of biofuels is still light years away, think again! In some countries there are already companies selling cars (source of picture) that run on biodiesel and, just to make sure you can fill 'er up, there are gas stations (source of picture) selling biodiesel. I have yet to see any in Malaysia but I'm sure it won't be long before this happens, or has it already? Not being much of a car enthusiast, my car care regimen has been a subject of jokes like "If your car was a horse, it would be dead by now" because, like them cowboys of old, I just fill her up, jump on the saddle and giddy up!!!

If anyone is missing the biotech in all this, just think! Every aspect of the oil palm has been studied from finding ways to increase palm oil yield through genetic engineering to using biotech methods on oil palm biomass to produce biogas and bioethanol as well as using biotech to extract every usable product imaginable from every inch of the tree and fruit. Being city born and bred, I remember in school we were taught that the coconut tree was a "tree of a thousand uses". Well, these days it would seems the oil palm has caught up fast and earned an even bigger reputation for a multitude of previously unheard of uses.

The moral of the oil palm story? In answer, I give you Peter Frampton's fabulous song "Baby I love your way" with his signature refrain "Don't hesitate....". With his awesome good looks, long hair and cool guitar licks, Frampton's song welcomed me to the United States as a nervous and homesick foreign student in 1976. There will never be any substitute for the great music they made in that amazing techno-coloured and care free year!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Zapped by lighting and chimeras

It's been a while since I blogged for the simple reason that my home computer got zapped by lightning! (source of picture). After the usual round of calling up the TM and Streamyx customer service helplines, and they were very helpful by the way, it was diagnosed that my Ethernet card had been fried to a crisp. So, now that the glitch has been rectified, I can blog as often as I want to. What a relief! Being cut off from blogosphere and the cyberworld can be painful and I am humbled by the might of technology. How did I, and possibly the rest of the civilised world, become so dependent on it?

For a writer, when the urge to write strikes you it feels much like being zapped by lightning. The nicest thing about blogging is
that I can jot down my brainwaves as it comes and save the ideas until I can come back to refine my thoughts at a more convenient time. Blogging puts me in touch with my inner self and, like all writers, artistes, performers and like-minded creatures, we bloggers crave fans. So when a few of my workmates asked how come I hadn't updated my blog for some time, my humble heart swelled with a feeling akin to pride. I was touched that they actually did visit my blog, even if it is because I sent them emails inviting them to feed my fish and frog and to play with my spider.

Now that I added an amazingly brilliant baby widget, visitors can get to see a real time simulation of how a fetus grows as it floats in mummy's amniotic fluid, wrapped in the safe, warm and dark placenta attached to the womb lining by a gazillion blood capillaries. I am counting the days to see how baby grows. I'm not worried about blog traffic and should anyone stumble across my blog I hope they find it a fun place to visit. Who knows maybe we will learn a thing or two about biotech and the life sciences. I may not get a zillion hits nor make trillions in profits, it doesn't matter. The internet and blogosphere has given me an outlet for my creative instincts and has given me good reason to brush up my rusty science. The research I need to do to verify details and backup my observations reminds me what a fascinating world we live in if we care to take a closer look. Indeed, good scientists have incredible powers of observation

Just the other night, because I was unable to blog, I decided to watch Crime Scene Investigation aka CSI on TV and, as luck would have it I caught the episode "Bloodlines". I was totally intrigued because it was about a man with two different sets of DNA, by definition he was a chimera. Apparently, at the zygote or blastocyst stage he was on the way to become a twin. However, the brother's zygote didn't develop further. Instead the DNA was reabsorbed into his own and although he developed from a single zygote, parts of him developed from remnants of his twin. He became one person but some of his organs and tissues had different DNAs. In this specific episode I would infer that his testes developed from his brother's cells so the DNA in his sperm did not match those from his own cheek cells. Thus, despite the rape victim having positively identified him, the CSI team had to release him as they had used his cheek DNA to fingerprint him against the perpetrator's semen. The giveaway that alerted the very observant and scientific Grissom, my all time favourite CSI agent who by the way in the show is an entomologist or more endearingly termed a bugologist, was that there were v-patterned striations down the guys back. Needless to say the scumbag was caught but he certainly did not look like the creature from Greek mythology. (source of picture)

Biology also abounds with stories of chimeras in both the plant and animal world, some naturally occurring and some a result of scientific experimentation but none as bizarre as those creatures of myths. Chimeras are often confused with hybrids that result from a fusion of gametes or reproductive cells that develop into organisms with only one distinct set of DNA that show traits from the original source or parent as chimeras are organisms that have two or more genetically different tissues. So what is the implication of chimeras in biotechnology? Now things are just about to get even more complicated!

In genetic engineering, chimeras are artificially designed proteins that result from the splicing together genes from different species used to study disease development. When cloned into a bacterial plasmid (a molecule of bacterial DNA capable of autonomous replication) the chimera is able to replicate the selected proteins expressed by the gene in large amounts within the cellular environment of the bacteria. This then can be used by scientists to study gene expression of selected portions of DNA. In biotechnology, plasmids (source of picture) can be used in the manufacture of large amounts of proteins such as insulin by growing bacteria containing the plasmid that expresses the gene for producing human insulin protein. By replicating, the plasmids also copy the insulin genes, essentially cloning the genes. The bacteria then manufacture the human insulin protein molecules that can then be gathered and purified (source of picture) for use by millions of people suffering from diabetes. In fact this was the technology adopted by Genentech to produce human insulin.

I remember when I was doing my Master of Science in Biological Sciences, plasmid biology was the newest "in thing" in my Molecular Biology course. Although I later dropped the course because of an unmanageably packed semester schedule, I sensed a huge interest in recombinant DNA technology and genetic engineering even way back then. Now there is even a society for people who work with plasmids. Amazing stuff these chimeras! As to my claim of being a chimera of sorts, I'm afraid no zygotic fusion took place during my conception as both my parents were neither scientists nor journalists!

Blogging about being zapped by lightning has made me recall the most electrifying and eye opening trip I ever had as a journalist invited to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel-ISEF) in 1999 when it was hosted by Philadelphia, home of Ben Franklin, the electric lightning man himself! This truly awesome science event is a gathering of the best and brightest high school kids from all over the world to compete in what is considered the Olympics of science fairs but more on that later. Till then I leave you with this classic song by Chicago, "If you leave me now". This song just has a way of zapping my heart with aching nostalgia every time l listen to it. They made great music in the 70s!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

My "if only" wishlist stops here - To write "the" book that says it all!!!

The final episode of the Harry Potter saga has just been released. Considering that this series has sold 325 million, predictably, the eagerly anticipated final volume was all snapped up on the first day. Much of that was pre-ordered of course. Last night's news on the telly showed endless lines of people waiting to buy the book in bookshops all over the world and today a slew of editorials and book reviews are splashed in newspaper pages here, both digital and print (source of picture). I find myself feeling oddly elated. Why? No, I haven't read the entire series but my two children are avid fans of both the movies and the books.

First of all, I'm elated because this lady, JK Rowling has given "Girl Power" another sock-it-to-ya punch in the face to whoever turned her down eight times. Second of all, I'm just glad so many kids and adults around the world still read books. Guiltily, I used to be a real bookworm in my younger days, devouring Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind", (another Girl Power writer) in one day, like the wind was going to wisk it away if I ever put the book down! Amazing the power books had before the internet, TV and DVD's invaded our homes and sucked up all of our free time. I rather miss losing myself in a good book like I used to but my literary pursuits these days are rare because of two very expensive commodities - peace and quiet.

What does a book about a fledgling wizard prince have anything to do with biotech? For sure you can't compare the inherent power of magic with the painful, time consuming, labour and capital intensive and, at times frustrating, work that biotech demands. If only there was a magic wand that could just wave away the heavy toll on time, effort and cost that biotech takes, butI digress! So, here I am blogging on the Harry Potter frenzy only because I am reminded that in biotechnology there was once a book that caused just as much feverish excitement, the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

The grandson of famous biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, and with a pedigree and and elitist upbringing to boot, Aldous (source of picture) wrote and published a work of fiction that took the world, both scientific and otherwise, by storm as early as, I kid you not, 1932! Set in London in the fictional year of 2540, the novel is said to anticipate developments in reproductive technology, biological engineering, and sleep-learning that combine to change society. Today, we read these words without flinching but can you imagine how anyone reading this 75 years ago must have reacted? Strains of the Twilight Zone theme song flitters through my mind.....

If you were to examine the times he lived in when he wrote his "Brave New World", you will find that he gave us an upper crust view of a Utopian world where warfare and poverty had ideally been eliminated and everyone was permanently happy. Yet he also painted a dark picture of being lost in the eternal pursuit of happiness at the expense of values society holds near and dear. In response to the explosive interest in the ideas he put forth in the book, an older and more cautious Huxley later disputed many of his own views in his 1958 non-fiction work, "Brave New World Revisited".

Realistically, his portrayal of a futuristic world in which, once all moral values are dispensed with, hedonism rules. This was long before the hippie generation chanted their "Make love not war" mantra. Huxley's amazing intuition gave us a view of the harmful effects of his fictional "soma", an escapist drug that eventually leads to ruination for its user and for society. Having read this book in the 70s during my college years, I find that revisting Huxley in these biotechno-coloured era of the new millennium fills me with a deep sense of admiration.

What could have possibly moved the man to write such amazing stuff long before his time? If he had said he had a crystal ball like Harry Potter's or a magic ring like Frodo in "Lord of the Rings" or other assorted oracles, I'd be tempted to believe him. Yet, what he had to go on was an inquisitive mind that questioned what he observed, a vivid imagination and sensitivity to the plight of society in turmoil due to war. Blessed with foresight and a gifted intellect, the junior Huxley wielded the mighty pen possibly more skilfully than his grandfather did a scalpel and with it changed the world's perception of biology and the sciences forever.

Like JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book, Huxley's one pivotal book launched a frenzy like none other as he delved into the future to make us believe in the impossible. The future he fantasised is here today, many years ahead of his simplistic Utopian 2540! Have we learnt anything from the past since he wrote this book? Have we not yet been able to overcome all acts of aggression and eliminate poverty? I think that history speaks for itself.

This reminds me of my trip to Ghana where an old man sold me a carved wooden bird that I really didn't need. Despite my reluctance to listen when, like all good salesmen, he told me an interesting story about the sculpture and I was sold, hook, line and sinker! The bird that now hangs proudly on my front porch had inscribed on its base the African word "Sankofa" which, according to the man, is to remind us that we need to learn from the past before we can go safely into the future. Remember George Santayana's quotation for all brave new biotechies - "Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it".

So, in learning from the past I give you Matt Monro's classic rendition of "Impossible Dream" from the broadway musical "Man of La Mancha - adapted from the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha"(source of picture). Talking about Girl Power, I am still going to dream my own impossible dream and maybe one day write "the" book that says it all. Just maybe! Cheers!