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by Patricia Calzo Vega
18-May-2011 GMA News
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Earlier this May, New York University’s Dr. Michael Purugganan and a team of scientists from various universities published the results of a study into the ancient origins of rice.

What, you may well ask, is so important about learning where rice came from when there are so many people in the world dying of starvation —right here, right now?

To begin with, the problem of addressing world hunger is as difficult as slaying the proverbial chimera: it is a battle waged on many fronts —one of the most important being the need to understand the genetics of rice in order to understand how it can be improved.

In particular, Dr. Purugganan’s team’s investigations into rice’s genetic evolution have laid the groundwork for the identification of plant genes that favour high harvest yields in unfavourable conditions.

“Evolutionary plant genomics" is a highly specialized area of systems biology that goes a long way to putting more food on the table for the world’s growing population, assures Dr. Purugganan.

Here are his own thoughts on rice and research:

On rice production and importation

1) Why does the Philippines have to import rice, and do how research projects such as yours help boost the country's rice productivity?

The Philippines actually has one of the highest levels of rice productivity in the world - the amount of rice we produce per hectare is about 20% higher than, for example, Thailand, which is a rice exporter. We are doing very well with what we have - the problem is we just have too large a population and too little land that we can use for rice production.

There are a few things we can still do, which is try to increase productivity in farmland with bad soil conditions, or to allow rice to grow with less water requirements. Our work is really focused on trying to identify the genes that may help rice to grow under the stressful conditions of poor soils, or drought.

2) Are your Philippine-based projects done in collaboration with government agencies or with knowledge institutions, like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna?

Yes, several of my projects are in collaboration with IRRI. We have been working with them for some time on looking at the evolution and genetic diversity of rice, which helps breeders design new gene mapping strategies. Our study on the origin of rice was the first step - and a necessary step - in this direction.

I am working with IRRI scientists on finding rice genes that allow different varieties to adapt to changes in temperature or water conditions using a combination of genomics and systems biology approaches. We are also developing a new way to map genes that we hope will allow us to find genes for salt tolerance.

Aside from IRRI, I also have several collaborations with UP Diliman. The one we are working on is helping UP establish the Philippine Genome Center to apply genomics to work on problems in agriculture, health and environmental conservation. One of the projects we are doing now is sequencing the genome of several endangered plant species found only in the Philippines.

3) Observers also seem concerned about whether research knowledge becomes implemented into practical programs that yield results that we non-science people can quantify —such as, say, increased harvest or resistance to disease. In your experience, how long does this process take, which organizations or institutions are more inclined to utilize research to create new programs or policies, and is there anything we can do to encourage this locally?

This is a major issue in all research. A healthy research community needs both basic scientists to make discoveries just for the sake of advancing knowledge and applied scientists to help translate those into practical products. Government research institutions and universities have a big role to play in this - in the US, for example, most universities have patent offices that help scientists move their discoveries to practical uses.

But really, the big engine for this has always been the private sector - businesses willing to invest in ideas to develop new practical products. This is somewhat weak in the Philippines, but there are in fact groups that have shown an eagerness to develop ideas into practical uses.

On Research Culture and Careers in Science

4) Being home to the IRRI, the Philippines has many foreign scientists coming over to pursue research on rice. With the knowledge and facilities at hand, how are our local rice researchers and scientists holding up? Are they producing research projects at par with their foreign peers. More to the point, what are local scientific agencies doing with this research?

I actually know of several scientific research teams in the Philippines that are world-class —researches at the Philippine General Hospital, for example, looking at malaria and dengue; or the marine scientists and engineers at UP Diliman. Not to mention groups at UP Los Baños, Ateneo, and other top universities.

What I think we need is strategic investing in scientific research, identifying those research groups that are good and world-class, and seeing to it that they are funded well. Now that may mean funding research that we donlt think of as practical, but trust me this will lead to new innovations that will translate into economic benefits down the road. After all, it took over 20 years from getting the structure of DNA to the beginnings of genetic biotechnology. But now, biotech is a global industry.

5) Your research career has obviously benefited from your pursuit of further studies and teaching tenure in the United States. Is this a trend in the local scientific community? Would you encourage young Filipino science professionals to take the same career path?

I actually see both ways, and I am seeing scientists beginning to think about staying in the Philippines to do their research. The problem is that we have such a weak level of funding for research that you have to be fairly strong-willed to make sure you get funding if you stay in the Philippines. The ones that I know who do are ones I really respect, and as I say they do great work. But we need to value what they do.

We Filipinos are now part of a global nation, and we need to play at the world stage. I really believe there is a place for Filipino scientists everywhere - those who live in the Philippines and work at home, as well as those abroad who plant our flag in other places. And this can be a strength, if scientists at home and abroad are always in contact. If you look at how China is doing it, part of the spectacular growth in its science in the last 10 years has been using both local scientists and Chinese-born scientists in the US and Europe.

One thing I have always told everyone is we have to think like Mexico and Brazil - also developing countries, but ones that have vibrant scientific community]ies. Mexico has been investing in research in for some time, and they are now beginning to move to industrialized status. When I take a plane in the US, about 1/3 of the time it is in a Brazilian Embraer jet. They are doing something right.

If you really love science, then yes I would encourage young people to think of sceince a career. Like any other profession, it has its problems but you are always surrounded by very smart, very interesting people who always are learning something new.

6) Much has been said about the supposed lack of a scientific culture in the Philippines, and indeed, careers in science are not high among the priorities of college students. Do you have any suggestions on how we can improve the local educational system, that would encourage students’ further interest in science, and possibly lead to pursuing a career in science.

I think we need to have more role models - local scientists that young people can look to and say "That seems like a great job!" One thing I think we need to do a better job at —and this includes the media — is turn the spotlight on really good local scientists.

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