African Biotechnology: A Call for Capacity Building - Professor Olawole Obembe

African Biotechnology: A Call for Capacity Building - Professor Olawole Obembe

African Biotechnology: A Call for Capacity Building - Professor Olawole Obembe

Professor Obembe in the Biotechnology Lab

Professor Olawole Odun Obembe is an avid researcher with a passion for plant biotechnological development in Africa.

According to Professor Obembe, the development of plant biotechnologies in the developed countries has created a new branch of biotechnology known as molecular farming, in which plants are engineered to produce pharmaceutical and technical proteins in large quantities. An evaluation of the status of plant biotechnology development in Africa revealed that majority of the countries that are involved in biotech activities are still at the level of tissue culture applications. This calls for urgent and sincere commitments to the development of biotechnology capacity on the part of various stakeholders in Africa, especially the governments.

While speaking in his office on an aspect of Plant Biotechnology, called ‘Plant Genetic Transformation,’ the Covenant University Don stated, “Since the first report of plant genetic transformation in the 80s, the technology has been deployed to produce the first-generation genetically modified (GM) plants - the herbicide-tolerant (Ht) and insect-resistant (Bacillus thuringiensis [Bt]) crops; that were engineered basically to increase farmers productivity. The first-generation GM crops have proven to be of tremendous benefits to the countries that have adopted them.”

Citing examples of countries that have benefitted from genetically modified plants, thereby reducing the side effects of the use of pesticides and herbicides, Professor Obembe noted, “As high as 70 to 85% reduction in the application of herbicides and pesticides were reported for India and China, therefore, impacting positively on the cost of these chemicals and overall production costs. The introduction of the ‘Bt’ crops has led to a reduction in insect damage and has reduced the labor costs by about half in South Africa and by 66% in Australia. It was estimated that Bt-cotton in the US led to 860,000 kg reduction in pesticide use and increased farmers’ net income by $100million. Additionally, these first generation GM crops have increased the yield at an unprecedented level; for example, a striking 87% yield increase was recorded in the field trial of Bt-cotton in India and additional 1.6million Metric tons maize production was achieved with Bt-maize in the US.”

Professor Obembe also stated that plant biotechnology (plant biotech) has since moved on to engineer second-generation GM crops, which incorporate traits that lead to enhanced nutritional contents of the farm products. An example is the engineering of the carotene biosynthetic pathway in rice for enhanced pro-vitamin ‘A’ content and the engineering of tomatoes for increased folate production.

He said the new wave of Biotechnological feats has actually pushed some third-generation GM crops that are engineered as bio-factories for the production of different kinds of recombinant proteins, for pharmaceutical and industrial applications. He said that this plant-based production of biopharmaceuticals and technical proteins is known as molecular farming.

“Interestingly,” Professor Obembe said, “there appears to be somewhat more favorable public perception about the plant molecular farming (PMF) crops than the first and second generation GM crops, possibly because of the need and potential benefits of the products and also probably because most of these crops are not intended for consumption, but are only being used as production platforms.

Plants have been used right from the dawn of ages, as sources of natural medicaments for treating various ailments. In addition to being the major resource for drug exploration, plants are still being used hugely in complementary and alternative medicine in many developing countries and nowadays, in the developed countries. Up till early 1970s, bioactive compounds of drugs were being extracted, purified and synthesized solely from plants.”

He decried the wide spread inadequacy in infrastructural capacity for biotech generally in Africa, but said, “Solution to the prevailing dearth of plant biotech research and development activities, in particular, in most parts of the African continent, is not beyond reach.

“It remains to be seen whether the various stakeholders in Africa have the strong will, (like other developing countries in Asia and Latin America) to drive this and not be further discouraged by recent external negative attitudes against GM crops, which is keeping the technology out of Africa. The impacts of biotech on the economic growth of these emerging economies are glaring for all. I believe biotech can also work in Africa if it is working elsewhere,” he opined.

He appreciated the Management of Covenant University for providing a robust platform for continuous research activities for its students and faculty, stating that it has been a great encouragement in his research efforts.

Professor Obembe has 20 years of professional experience in his field and has published several articles in academic journals. He has also presented several papers in conferences around the world. He has several local and international academic linkages and collaborations, he is an active member of many scientific bodies and has won various grants and awards. He has also served as a member of the editorial board and reviewer of several reputable journals.

His latest research areas include, ‘In Vitro Conservation Of Endangered (Medicinal) Plants,’ ‘Identification And Isolation Of Lead Compounds In Plants For New Drugs Discovery’ and ‘Production Of Bio-Pharmaceutics And Industrial Proteins In Plants.’

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