By Ishmael Mutanda
Molecular Biology is a branch of biology that deals with the molecular basis of biological activity. Otherwise, it includes study of the structure and function of biologically important molecules including DNA, RNA and proteins and the molecular events that govern cell function. Whilst most analysts are more concerned about growth of business, infrastructure and information technology in the near future in Africa, I am confident that we are also going to witness a scientific “boom” from Cape to Cairo.
To begin with, let me emphasize that science, just like any other academic field, does not exist in isolation. There is a growing interdisciplinary approach to many academic fields so much that in the future it will be difficult to define the boundaries of one discipline from the other. With the birth of globalization, a new field of study called 'the Omics' evolved in the scientific world. This is a real paradigm shift where molecular studies are difined in fields ending with the suffix –omits. Genomics (gene), transcriptomics (transcription-the copying of information from gene to manufacture important molecules like proteins), proteomics (interaction of all proteins in an organism) and metabolomics are the principal omics. Many other fields like foodomics, nutrigenomics etc now exist and include high throughput methods which generate loads and loads of data which is stored in databases for easy access. Talking of scientific databases brings me to the core of this scientific revolution- the need for computers and to be specific, a field known as bioinformatics. Bioinformatics will be key in the growth of Africa, not only in in the science but in various other fields. On molecular biology, there are unimaginable amounts of applications but here, are a few potential applications which are essential for shaping the future of the this our `cradle of mankind`;
Industrial applications- Bacteria, yeast and algae can be used to grow and produce very essential industrial chemicals. Citric acid, malic acid, maltose, dextrose, and a whole range of fine chemicals can be synthesized from bacteria and can be used in pharmaceuticals, pesticides, detergents, cosmetics, food additives etc.
Medical – This is a full subject on its own, known as molecular medicine. Molecular biology is an indispensable technique in medical sciences. In fact, the success of molecular biology over the years was mainly driven, in part, by the need to revolutionize medical approaches. The core techniques of molecular biology like PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) and Western Blot/ immunoblot (where a specific protein is determined in a crude homegenate) are used in clinical diagnostics of bacterial and viral diseas like tuberclosis/TB, and AIDS. Apart from disease diagnosis, pathways of killer diseases like cancer and diabetes are studied using molecular biology techniques thereby helping in developing drugs for these diseases. Development of novel drugs can be achieved by utilizing molecular biology. For example the Methylerythritol pathway (MEP) which I am working on is present in many pathogenic microorganisms but absent in humans so is of interest as a target to treat certain diseases caused by bacteria which rely on that pathway for survival. I foresee Africa stepping up fights against diseases which have been terrorizing the continent for centuries such as Malaria, Tuberclosis, AIDS, Ibola, Kwashiorkor, and Cholera among others using molecular biology techniques. Our survival and continuity partly depends on our ability to develop our own vaccines from the vast bioresources like plants, fungi, animals et cetera which Africa is endowed with in greater proportions. As someone with a background in Food sciences and Nutrition, I should however stress that I am a strong believer in using diet and lifestyle in preventing certain diseases rather than focusing mostly on curing the disease.
Agriculture & Food Security. Molecular biology can be exploited in development of highly productive crop varieties, increase resistance to pests, develop new and effective pesticides specifically for African crops etc. A lot of efforts have been done on African tubers like Yams, cassava etc but I foresee even genetic engineering (Locally driven and scientifically proven) being needed as our population grow and climate change bites in. Plant and animal genes can be modified to increase yields of crops and animal products. Drought resistance and disease tolerance are some of the areas which molecular biologists can concentrate on to help Africa in the future. Climate change is at a faster pace than natural evolution mainly due to human activities like farming and industrialization, so there is a need to develop crop varieties which can give higher yield even in harsh conditions. However, Africa needs a clear, sound policy developed by scientific methods on genetically modified organisms, especially if they are to be used in food and medicinal applications.
Energy and climate change: Molecular biology can be exploited in studies on renewable energy and what we term `Green Chemistry`. Changes in land use and the eradication of natural forests call for innovative scientific solutions to generate `green energy` whilst maintaining a fine balance with food production. Energy is one of the major challenges confronting Africa and it is likely to grow significantly in the near future. Therefore it is not an exclusive duty of politicians, industrialists and economists to tackle this problem, rather, it will take a collective effort of everyone including academics, farmers and the general publics to invent solutions. Besides ethanol used in bio-fuel, many other potential sources can be investigated. Molecular biologists can help in engineering microorganisms for the different reactions involved in the catalytic processes so as to increase yields and tolerance of the microorganisms to their `own waste`.
I am very optimistic that Africa is going to rise up to be a giant in the near future. Everyone has a very important role to play, if we are to achieve this. Here I have just highlighted some but a few of the roles molecular biologists can play, otherwise the list is endless. With so many sub-fields in molecular biology, it is not surprising if we can even end up with our own tailored molecular biology field uniquily applicable to Africa – it is very much possible.
Ishmael Mutanda is a passionate scientist currently pursuing a Doctoral degree in Agriculture at the University of the Ryukyus in Japan. He dreams of a beautiful Africa where the people develop their own medicines, spearhead research, fight and eradicate diseases and develop homegrown solutions to food insecurity, energy, and water sanitation issues. He is from humble beginnings in the southern parts of Zimbabwe where his parents toiled in the sugarcane plantations to support his high school and undergraduate studies.