By Emmanuel Edukugho
Basic issues involved in the technique of Genetic Engineering were raised at the First College Day and sixth Annual College lecture, Bells University of Technology, Ota, College of Food Sciences.
Titled – “The Place of Genetic Engineering in Food Industry: The Nigerian Experience,” the lecture was delivered by Engr. (Professor) Azikiwe Peter Onwualu, Director-General/CEO, Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Abuja.
In the presentation, he explored the world of Genetic Engineering, its meaning, applications in food industry and food security, discussing the advantages and disadvantages as well as the challenges and way forward.
Making the introduction, he said the Science of the exploitation of biological components for the production of useful products is generally referred to as biotechnology, it involves all the processes by which biological materials are manipulated to produce goods and services. The development of biotechnology can be described from its growth which has occurred in two phases namely; (1) the traditional (old) biotechnology and (2) the new (modern) biotechnology.
The traditional biotechnology involves what was described by the Indians as “Kitchen” technology in that it involves activities that were developed ever since human civilisation. These processes are mainly based on fermentation (using the fermenting bacteria) and breeding (natural or artificial fusion of male and female gametes) techniques as well as creating enabling environment for maximal reproduction of organisms.
“Through fermentation techniques, products such as alcoholic beverages, yoghurt, cheese, sour pickles, etc are produced. In Nigeria, common foods like garri, fufu, various condiments like ogiri (from fermentation of melon or castor oil seeds) and ugba or ukpaka (from fermentation of oil bean seeds, all in the South East.”
In the South West, and parts of the North, dawadawa (from the fermentation of locust bean seeds), etc, are produced. Breeding on the other hand has led to the production of different vegetables and animal species with desired traits or characteristics. Breeding is also used for domestication and increased production of plant, animal, fish and other aquatic species.
On the other hand, new or modern biotechnology involves all the technologies that deal with the modification of the genetic material. The genetic material of all biological systems is the biochemical macro molecule residing in the nucleus of the cell known as Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).
Prof. Onwualu defined genetic engineering as a collection of experimental techniques that enables scientists to identify, isolate, manipulate and propagate fragments of DNA in their pure forms. Genetic Engineering is also know as recombinant DNA (rDNA). The manipulations of rDNA are carried out outside the body of the organism, in the test tube (referred to as in-vitro) using the cells of the organism (plant or animal) by the use of biological materials enzymes, bacteria, viruses, etc, which often function in the same way (analogously) as when inside the organism (in vivo). “Genetic Engineering or recombinant DNA technology is in many ways an extension of the natural process of adaptation and evolution. This is because the ability of organisms to adapt to changes in the environment is their ability to form heterogeneous populations because they develop new genes or possess altered genes in response to environmental pressures.”
On DNA cloning, he said the basic technique in genetic engineering (rDNA) technology) is DNA cloning which involves the isolation and propagation of identical molecules of DNA. This is done in three stages. The challenges faced by rDNA technology development in Nigeria include infrastructural problems, lack of manpower and collaboration, lack of legislative backing, heavy reliance on foreign input and inadequate funds.
On the way forward, to ensure the advancement f biotechnology, specifically genetic engineering in the food industry in Nigeria, he called for continuous advocacy to enlighten Nigerians on the new technology, its benefits and possible threats.
“Researchers in the tertiary institutions and research institutes themselves have a role to play in building linkages with established laboratories to attract funds and projects in the country.” He said also that production of biotech crops from our common food crops with appreciable levels of essential vitamins and minerals is required to fight the incidence of malnutrition that now faces our populace.
“The challenge is therefor, not simply to provide a steady supply of food, but a nutritious and safe food supply that improves the health and productivity of the Nigerian population.”
Concluding, Onwualu said the application of rDNA technology is very broad, and the advantages very compelling, that virtually every industry needs the technology.
Present were the Vice Chancellor, Professor Isaac A. Adeyemi, the Registrar, Mrs. Gbadebo, Dean of College, Prof. O.A.BN. Ogunmoyela, Head of Department of Biotechnology, Prof. O. Omididji, Acting Head, Department of Food Science and Technology, other senior academic staff and students.