Todays biotechnology is one of the most demanded areas, with some of the modern directions of the science portrayed in unflattering view. To find out where originate the myths about the "bad" in biotechnology, as well as what the specialists in this field are now in demand, STRF.ru spoke to Deputy Director for Research of the Institute of Bioengineering RAS, Ph.D. Anastasia Kamionskii.
Today, genetic engineering involves a lot of prejudice. What do you think, where do they come from, and how to deal them?
- Any development in the society, any progress in technology leads to the appearance of the gap between science and society, I mean lack of understanding of complex new technology. Every single person must understand for himself what science offers, how he will use the new technology, and what to do with the old? You can find the following analogy:
Science is a stone that we throw into the pond, and the ripples appears on the water, and the society perceive these circles.
I think a significant role in the emergence of all sorts of superstitions is not that of scientists who have no time to understand what sort of ripples are on the water. This is usually the work of journalists, who give estimates to what is happening, and not just state the facts. For example, the LHC (Large Hadron Collider): we believe that the Higgs boson is something quite incomprehensible. And if journalists presented this discovery as the "mystery of matter," we immediately became interested. More interestingly, when the discovery is positioned as associated with the "apocalypse". So there are superstitions - because of the fact that people get "interpreted" information with imposed, to some extent, formerly known associations. For example, "Frankenstein food", "scorpion venom".
This pair of "science-people" mutually and strongly influence each other.
Currently, rejection by society of all that is related to GMOs has led, for example, in China to implement a strong, government-funded program for proper coverage of this issue. The Chinese government evaluated the safety of genetic engineering, weighed the need, estimated profitability, and managed to get a result by large investments in the media.
In our country a scientist cannot even say that he is doing transgenic plants - once there is a barrier between the interlocutors, and it is very difficult to debate. So we switched to the biotechnology, diagnostics of plant diseases, basic research of the genome of cultivated plants, even though we know a lot using genetic engineering methods for fundamental research.
That is, we have failed to reduce tensions in the society related to GMOs? To the extent that the question of the prohibition of genetically modified organisms was considered at the legislative level?
- In Russia, genetically modified organisms are not banned at the legislative level. There was a draft amendment to the legislation related to the use of GMOs in agriculture, he passed the first reading in the State Duma, but has not been approved. The federal law on genetic engineering works, it has not been canceled.
Another thing is that
in accordance with the law, you must register with the state. But we do not have a federal executive body that would carry out the procedure and authorize the cultivation of GM crops in the open field. It turns out that there is no prohibition, but also no permit.
But for the feeding of farm animals or for human consumption there is a procedure of registration of plant originated GMOs. Our country imports a large number of biotech feed and products. What is now grown in the world? The four main biotech crops a cotton, which we do not eat, canola, soybeans and corn.
As I have said in China, the government has responded to the mood of the population, but even more interesting how the scientists responded to the negative perception of transgenic plants. Scientists have developed a trend in biotechnology when to create new varieties genes from other organisms are not taken but researchers simply amend the plant genome. This is similar to the molecular surgery, when a genome-level "treatment" is performed. In the world it is now just a boom of this trend, the most striking article in Nature of the last 3-4 years are associated with it.
Which areas related to biotechnology could be of interest to today's students?
- "Biotechnology"is a very generalized concept. We have a federal research center with the title "Fundamentals of Biotechnology", where three institutions were merged. In addition to biotechnology as such, we have the molecular biology, bioinformatics, biochemistry and microbiology. And we involve young people, including school children, to get acquainted with these directions: conducting excursions, you can find information about this on our website.
If we talk about where to go to learn, there is another division of biotechnology: on the "red" (Medical Biotechnology), "green" (agro-biotechnology), "white" (industrial biotechnology). There are even "blue": this is when people are engaged in obtaining all kinds of substances from algae. All this, one way or another, fit the definition of "biotechnology".
In general, the standard definition of biotechnology is the use of living organisms, their metabolic products and systems in our purposes. In this manner one can define production of beer and wine, cheese, bread, and yogurt.
Bioinformatics as being fashion should be noted. The development of molecular biology - tools of genetic engineering, has allowed to make a major breakthrough in the study of the genomes of all living creatures. Step by step, it looks approximately as follows: the development of technology of DNA sequencing - the accumulation of big data - the emergence of the possibility of the calculation of a large amount of data - the possibility of reading and decoding the genomes of living organisms - and - boom of bioinformatics.
Interestingly, the new data have driven the synthesis of knowledge, systemic biology appeared, which, incidentally is very much based on mathematics.
If we look at the labor market, which experts are now in demand?
- In my opinion, this is an age-old question: it is impossible for people to find a normal job, and on the other hand, it is impossible to find an adequate professional. This is similar to the eternal question: what was in the beginning - the chicken or the egg? In our circles bioinformatics is now very popular. Almost any scientific group sooner or later needs help of bioinformatics, or the mastery of these methods. To do this, there are many Master's programs, programs of additional education and other forms of training.