Amazing genetics | Dr Atta ur Rehman

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With the world population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and with limited cultivable area on our planet, there is an increasing probability of droughts and mass famines in many countries.

Pakistan will be among those countries that will be most seriously affected by global warming. The spectacular advances in genomics in the last few decades offer some beacon of hope. The development of genetically-engineered crops will give increased yields, offer better nutrition and be resistant to diseases.

All the hereditary information in plants or animals is contained in their genes. Think of a tiny microscopic necklace (DNA) with many millions or billions of four different types of molecules known as nucleic acids arranged in it. It is the sequence in which these nucleic acids are arranged that determines everything about living organisms, such as the types and qualities of fruits that plants bear, the colour of our eyes, the structure of our hearts or brains, etc. The order in which these molecular beads are arranged is known as the genetic code. The first such code in humans to be unravelled was that of Prof Jim Watson in 2007. It cost about a million dollars and took years to accomplish. With faster sequencing machines now available, this can be done within a week at a cost of about $1,500 today.

A remarkable breakthrough has now been made by scientists at Imperial College, London. They have developed a microchip that can allow the sequencing to be done at an incredible speed – the entire genome of 3.16 billion nucleic acids in human beings can be read and deciphered within minutes. The device in which the chip is incorporated reads the small changes in current as the molecular necklace passes through it. It is being scaled up so that it can read the sequence of molecules at a speed of 10 million molecules per second (compared to the present machines that can read the sequence at 10 molecules per second).

Another amazing development has been the identification of ‘crime genes’ in hardened criminals. The presence of the gene restricts the formation of serotonin B2 receptor, and so affects the part of the brain that is responsible for restraint and foresight of the consequences of one’s actions. The presence of the gene increases the predisposition to violence. However, all the people carrying the gene are not necessarily violent. Other psychological causes may also be responsible for violent behaviour.

A few years ago, researchers at Kings College London had identified certain genes that are responsible for the ageing process in human beings. They found that these genes are switched off and on by certain external factors, such as diet and the environment, and may hold the keys for living a longer and healthier life. The four key genes that affected the rate of healthy ageing and potential longevity were related to cholesterol, lung function and maternal longevity.

A research group at ETH Zurich discovered that when certain ‘ageing genes’ are altered, the healthy lifespan of laboratory animals can be extended significantly. Efforts to achieve something similar in human beings are under way and many scientists believe that our children may be able to live up to the age of 120 years. In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an anti-ageing drug trial. This was the first time the FDA recognised ageing as a new drug target

Over 200 million people are afflicted with malaria each year and nearly 800,000 deaths are recorded due to it every year. Over 90 percent of these deaths – mostly of chidren – occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. An exciting approach to tackle this disease is to develop genetically modified mosquitoes that can bring down the population of the harmful female variety. Anthony James, working at the University of California Irvine, has developed a genetically-modified variety of these female mosquitoes only. The genetic deformation prevents them from flying. The larvae hatch on water but the females cannot fly, and therefore die.

This approach of ‘genetic genocide’ may ultimately help to reduce the populations of malaria-causing mosquitoes and save millions of lives. The advances made in the rapid sequencing of the human genome are leading to a greater understanding of the genetic causes of many human diseases. A whole new area of ‘personalised medicine’ is also under rapid development. This will allow drugs to be tailored according to individual genetic make-up of different groups of populations.

An excellent centre for genetic engineering has now been established in Pakistan. The Jamil-ur-Rahman Centre for Genome Research – built from my personal donation and named after my father – is located in the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) in Karachi and is emerging as a centre of excellence. It is equipped with the state-of-the-art gene sequencing facilities – the best in the country – and is now deeply involved in health and agricultural research under the able leadership of the dynamic director of the ICCBS, Prof Iqbal Choudhary.

The rapid advances in genome sequencing technologies are opening up a whole new era of medicine. We need to develop our own research base to develop new genetically engineered varieties of food crops rather than relying on seeds imported from the West. This will also reduce the danger of us becoming completely dependent on foreign masters. Control the food chain within a country and you can control that country. This must not be allowed to happen in Pakistan. We need to invest massively in developing salt-tolerant and drought-resistant varieties of different crops through natural selection or through genetic engineering before we are engulfed by the challenges of famine and drought that surely lie ahead. Science must come to the rescue.

Countries that are investing in such advances are earning billions of dollars. For Pakistan to emerge from the shackles of poverty, we need to invest in science, technology, innovation. We also need to establish strong linkages between research and industry/agriculture. But the development budget of the Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan (about Rs1.8 billion only) is extremely low. Our investment in education is also low – a little over two percent of our GDP – ranking us among the bottom nine countries of the world.

We must realise that in order to develop, we must invest in top quality schools, colleges and universities so that we can transition to a strong knowledge-based economy. It is time to change directions and invest in our real wealth – our children – so that we too can stand with dignity in the comity of nations.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC.