Jumping on the biotechnology bandwagon

BIOTECHNOLOGY means a lot of things to different people. The new and the traditional coexist and reinforce each other within biotechnology -- now an established and highly interdisciplinary applied field. However, it symbolises big money, in terms of new industries, agricultural practices, patents and research grants. For scientists and academics, biotechnology is in -- everybody wants to jump on this bandwagon, everybody wants a piece of the action.

As a result, biotechnology -- now about two decades old -- has never been free from controversy, some of which is rather emotional and not even rational. Recombinant-DNA technology, in particular, invariably raises the spectre of a Frankenstein or of eugenics and associated Nazi monstrosities. Some people even fear that because there are bacteria that can eat up oil spills, it may be necessary to store gas and lubricant oils in the refrigerator. Some of these apprehensions might be genuine, most stem from "DNA illiteracy".

What are the implications of biotechnology, frequently termed the second industrial revolution? To answer such a practical question it is necessary to understand how technology diffuses, through science and society, the problems of technological innovation and the capacities of different countries to mobilise science and technology for economic and social purposes.

A balanced view
The book is a compilation of 14 essays that deal with topics ranging from gene transfers to bio-gas plants to international trade to acceptability of new foods. All are lucidly written and liberally peppered with charts, diagrams, tables and photographs. Particularly interesting are the ones on bioinformatics and joint-ventures. Bioinformatics is a key element in modern biotechnology, but is often neglected in scientific literature.

The editors have done a good job in gathering contributions from both developed and developing countries thus providing a "balanced view", but they have played down or ignored some problem areas. Today, any social and economic discussion on biotechnology cannot ignore the debates on patents and intellectual property rights because genetic resources are said to be the fourth resource after soil, water and air. The issue definitely merits detailed discussion because now even a part of the human genome has been patented by the US National Institute of Health. There is no mention either of transboundary pollution, sea resources or biological weapons. There are a few errors too: Kerala is confused with Karnataka (p 290) and Trombay is spelt as Tromay (p 371).

In spite of all this, it is a good book and should be read by biotechnologists and social scientists. The editors state their hope that the book will help them know the thinking in the other half. I share their optimism.

Bhanusingha Ghosh is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Life Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.