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How molecular biology can revolutionise food production, health, by FIIRO

By Femi Ibirogba
15 July 2021   |   4:04 am
Scientists have harped on application of molecular biology techniques not only in life science research, but also in practical solutions to human challenges such as food scarcity, medicine and security.

Dr Tope Fadipe (left); Prof Matthew Ilori; FIIRO Acting DG, Dr Yemisi Asagbra and Dr Adekunle Lawal

Genetic engineering capable of ending hunger, don says

Scientists have harped on application of molecular biology techniques not only in life science research, but also in practical solutions to human challenges such as food scarcity, medicine and security.

Professor Matthew Olusoji Ilori of the University of Lagos gave the charge at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) while delivering a keynote address during a hands-on training course on molecular biology techniques for some selected scientists.

Ilori said: “Life sciences comprise all sciences that deal with living organisms, including human beings, animals and plants.

“DNA is the chemical name for the molecule that carries genetic instructions in all living things.”The don added that DNA molecule includes two strands that wind around one another to form a shape known as a double helix, and each strand has a backbone made of alternating sugar (deoxyribose) and phosphate groups.

Explaining the process to the participants, Prof. Ilori said DNA extraction is a routine procedure used to isolate DNA from cells.

“The DNA is released into the buffer and must be precipitated to retrieve it. When an ice-cold alcohol is added to a solution of DNA, the DNA precipitates out of solution. If there is enough DNA in the solution, you will see a stringy white mass.”

On the DNA extraction steps, Ilori explained that “DNA is loaded into pre-cast wells in the gel and a current is applied. The phosphate backbone of the DNA (and RNA) molecule is negatively charged, and when placed in an electric field, DNA fragments will migrate to the positively charged anode.”

Uses of DNA in agriculture, others
Prof. Ilori said DNA extraction could be helpful for genetic engineering in both plants and animals.

For plants, DNA can be useful in identifying, isolating and extracting the wanted gene to replicate in successive generations of plants.

This is applied in developing improved, high-yielding and disease-resistant varieties of grains, root, tubers, pulses and cereals that are capable of increasing farmer’s productivity, food availability and help achieve hunger eradication and food security.

“For animals, DNA extraction is helpful for anything from cloning animals to transferring one animal’s DNA to another,” he explained.

Vaccines and vaccination programmes in humans, livestock and poultry are possible through molecular sciences, protecting humans from zoonotic diseases and animals from infectious diseases and boosting protein supply to humans.

In human health, Ilori said: “DNA vaccines are often used in various animal vaccines. DNA extraction helps with the Hepatitis B vaccine, specifically through recombinant DNA.”

Molecular biology techniques are also applied in forensics, paternity tests and ancestry tracking. With modern DNA kits, crime and paternity riddles are resolved, and ancestral or racial ambiguities are sorted out.

“Medical tests: DNA extraction is helpful in identifying if a person is a carrier of a disease. Common examples include cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, or Down syndrome,” he said.

Director, Biotechnology Department, FIIRO, Dr Adekunle Lawal, while speaking on objectives of the five-day training course, said a molecular biology laboratory was established at FIIRO for two main reasons, including bringing Nigeria into limelight of molecular biology research and equipping Nigerian scientists with expertise in molecular biology techniques to solve societal problems.

“There are techniques that are involved in molecular works. At least, through rigorous training, each person will do his work by himself. Although there is theory, the keynote person has given us some theoretical aspects.

“But at the end of this training, the expectation is that each participant will be able to carry out his own DNA extraction and Western blotting. These are techniques, which, at the end of the five-day training, each participant would be able to do their work because one thing about science is that doing it yourself is the best and the practical knowledge to solve a problem,” Lawal said.

Ilori concluded that through genetic engineering in agriculture, increased crop yields, reduced costs of food production, minimal use of pesticides, enhanced nutrient composition and food quality, resistance to pests and diseases, transfer of nitrogen fixing genes (nif genes) from leguminous plants into cereals, transfer of resistance against pathogens and pests from wild plants to crop plants, disease- drought-resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources (such as water and fertiliser) and increased supply of food with reduced cost and longer shelf life could be achieved.

A PhD student at University of Lagos and participant at the training, Kemi Adesanya, said: “We are doing DNA extraction, and so we are going to extract DNA and view it. So, today’s work is going to be amazing because I am doing my PhD in genetics at the University of Lagos. I need the experience to know more about the laboratory techniques involved in molecular biology, which is also part of my work.”

“DNA extraction would help us know the particular genes in each bacteria or the bacteria we are going to use. And that information can help in generating certain things that you need from that bacteria.

“Apart from that, we would do PCR, so all those techniques would help in drug discovery, will help in understanding certain ailments, like cancer. We are hoping to get drugs that can be easily accessible in Africa.”