Fostering a biotech revolution

ENDOWED WITH a rich biodiversity and traditional knowledge base, Kerala is poised for a major role in the global race to create new products and processes in industrial, agriculture and health sectors. As the State prepares to plug into the biotechnology revolution, research in cutting-edge areas of modern science has become crucial.

The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology is a premier research institution with the potential to spearhead the State's effort to join the elite biotechnology (BT) club. Devoted to research in modern biology and biotechnology, the institute has successfully blended classical knowledge with modern research tools to mark its progress.

The Centre has attracted global attention through its investigations into the detection of diseases like Hepatitis C, tuberculosis, cholera and cancer. An autonomous research institute under the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment, it has carried out extensive research in seven major areas, namely infectious diseases, plant molecular biology, environmental biotechnology, molecular human genetics, neurobiology, cancer, biology and molecular endocrinology.

The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology.

The Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology.  

Set up in 1990 as the Centre for Development of Education, Science and Technology (C- DEST, it was restructured as an R&D Centre of Excellence in biotechnology in 1994 and the name changed to Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology). The Centre was dedicated to the nation on November 18, 2002, by the President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam.

The basic objectives of the Centre are to carry out and coordinate advanced research in the frontier areas of biotechnology, environmental science, molecular biology, bioinformatics and related inter disciplinary areas of physical sciences. The academic activities are oriented towards identifying and developing technologies, formulating projects and providing consultancy services. The centre regularly organises workshops, seminars, symposia and training programmes in selected areas of health care, life sciences, agriculture and environment protection.

The most notable research activities taken up with the support of the Department of Biotechnology are in the areas of cancer biology, plant biology and environmental biotechnology. The Centre is equipped with a range of sophisticated equipment, including automated DNA sequencer, amino acid sequencer, Elisa readers, mass spectrometer, peptide synthesizer, ultra centrifuges and a liquid nitrogen plant.

A Distributed Information Sub-Centre comprising a network of 17 computers was established in 2002. A software package has been developed for research scholars working in the area of DNA fingerprinting and protein sequence analysis.

The Centre maintains a website. In-house training sessions and seminars on a range of topics are held periodically.

The Centre also boasts of a well-stocked library with specialised services like current awareness service and selective dissemination of information.

The main building complex at the Poojapura campus houses research labs of molecular endocrinology, molecular reproduction, neurobiology, plant molecular biology, molecular ethnopharmacology, protein and peptide chemistry, cancer biology, library, instrumentation division and an administration wing. The three-storeyed start-up lab adjacent to the main complex accommodates research facilities for infectious diseases, animal biotechnology, genome research and environmental biotechnology.

According to the director, Raghava Varman Thampan, the Centre has evolved an action plan to improve the quality of research. "We have set up a core team of scientists from varied disciplines and grouped them under six areas, namely genetic basis of infectious diseases, plant biology, cancer biology, neurobiology, peptide chemistry and molecular endocrinology of reproduction. The core team will help us to focus our research activities."

The Centre offers referral diagnostic services for important human, animal and plant diseases. It has a collaboration with the State Police Department, forensic lab and the State Women's Commission for DNA fingerprinting cases.

The sophisticated equipment at the Centre is capable of using DNA fingerprints from blood samples, dried blood stains or semen smears.

Diagnostic services offered by the Centre include PCR/ ELISA test for Hepatitis B and C infection and culture and sensitivity for M. Tuberculosis.

The Centre also maintains a repository of human genome collections of psychiatric disorders and a database of fingerprinting profiles, pharmacogenomic profiles and immunogenetic profiles.

Ph.D. students represent the backbone of the research hierarchy at the Centre. The students are selected from a national stream of CSIR/ UGC (NET) qualified candidates who hold Junior Research Fellowships. The Centre has made efforts to provide a proper work-environment for the students and encourage their creative instincts. The construction of a hostel-auditorium complex will enable the students to stay within the campus and provide them with 24- hour access to the laboratories.

The Centre has been a favoured destination for biotechnology/ biochemistry students seeking opportunities for short-term project work. In view of the excessive number of candidates who knock at the Centre's doors every year, a decision has been taken to select a small number of project candidates through an open entrance test. The current decision is to select the first 10 candidates who occupy the top slots in the merit list after the written test.

The Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, has supported the research activities at the Centre ever since its inception. The three-year programme support that was awarded to the Centre in 1999 ended in June 2002. Phase II of the programme support from the department was initiated in January 2003 and has been granted for a period of two years.

"The Centre is working closely with the Government to promote the State as a major destination for BT research and development. With a strong research base and infrastructural facilities, we will be a core element in the State's endeavour to attract investments in this sector," says Mr.Thampan. The Centre is also working on a programme for industrial collaboration.


Photo: S. Mahinsha

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