Cutting-edge areas of bio-sciences

FUTURE SCOPE India is yet to gear itself up for an advanced academia in bio-sciences, writes Dr Rob Aitken

Cutting-edge areas of bio-sciences

Biotechnology is a booming sector around the world and especially in India, where it is one of the fastest growing fields. Already worth over $4 billion to the Indian economy, it plays a part in many industries, from medicine and pharmaceuticals to agriculture, food industries and more.

Bioinformatics is another growth area within biology. This discipline combines ideas from biology, from statistics and from computing science to draw novel inferences from DNA, RNA, and protein-based data. In India, bioinformatics is predicted to be worth $140m to the Indian economy by the end of 2015.

Masters degrees are designed to prepare students for careers in biotechnology and in bioinformatics, by incorporating the latest cutting-edge research in the field.

Ideally, MSc in Biotechnology programme should provide students with an advanced practical knowledge of biotechnology and the molecular genetic technologies underpinning modern biotechnology and how they can be applied to solve real-world problems. Students should be trained by leading researchers in the field, for effective and wholesome learning.

The programme should also have comprehensive and in-depth industry links with representatives from biotech and pharmaceutical companies coming in regularly to talk to students and provide placement opportunities and careers advice.

Biotechnology has applications in a wide range of industries, and career opportunities abound, whether it’s developing new drugs to treat diseases in humans or animals, to improving textile or cosmetic manufacturing processes or improving crop yields, developing biofuels or treating waste water.

Another course in the field is MSc in Bioinformatics, Polyomics and Systems Biology. It focuses on using computers to store data, mine information, analyse and display data from experiments in the ‘omics’ area (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics etc.), which have become a core part of modern biology. However such a course is usually offered only by universities that undertake extensive and ground-breaking reasearch in the field.

Several world-renowned research centres across the globe carry out research, employing bioinformatic approaches in the study of diseases. Many of  these centres generate and analyse ‘omics’ datasets from next generation sequencing, microarray, proteomics and metabolomics experiments. Some of them specialise particularly in the emerging area of ‘integrative omics’, combining insights from experiments at each level to generate new insights about the operation of entire biological systems. Owing to this, a part of such programmes is conducted in conjunction with Information Technology classes.

Such an MSc is good preparation for a variety of career paths. The graduates may go on to do a PhD or may go directly into bioinformatics or other research assistant/technician positions in research laboratories. A postgraduate degree in bioinformatics is valued by many employers, from research groups in basic biological or medical sciences who need staff with computing expertise to help them develop or use computing tools, through medical and neuroinformatics applications, to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

The two disciplines of biotechnology and bioinformatics are linked, with biotech developments relying on good bioinformatic analysis of the data that lead to such developments and bioinformatics being informed by new technologies and data types emerging from biotech.

While these are two most sought-after courses in the field, they are prevalent mainly abroad. India is yet to gear itself up for an advanced academia in bio-sciences. An investment in these two areas of bioscience is a prerequisite for India to meet the huge challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century. The signs are good - the Indian biotechnology sector is recognized internationally and is expected to grow to around $11.6 billion by 2017, according to a report by the India Brand Equity Foundation.
Dr Krishnaswamy Vijay Raghavan, Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, goes even further, believing the sector can generate $100 billion, by 2025.

A briefing by the UK Trade & Investment Department notes that India has a large pool of scientific talent, a wealth of research and development institutions, a flourishing pharmaceutical industry and strong IT skills.

A few years ago India had only about 30 biotech companies, but today there are more than 380 firms active in the sector – with Bangalore being the country’s clear Biotech capital.

Opportunities therefore abound in these bioscience sectors and the academia must do its best to provide training for the next generation of Indian bioscience professionals.

( The author is Head of School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK)

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