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Of unexplored avenues: Microbiology and Pakistan

by Mahrukh Sarwar

Dr Shahida Hasnain is the founder and chairperson of the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Punjab (PU) in Lahore. In 2017, she was awarded the Carlos J. Finlay Prize by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for her contributions to microbiology.

She has worked on heavy metal detoxification mechanisms, salt stress tolerance mechanisms, and bacterial morphogenesis. During her time at the PU, she has set up a Microbial and Molecular Research Lab that now serves as a center of excellence in the country for research in the field.

She has a PhD in Microbial and Molecular Genetics from Birmingham University in the United Kingdom. She completed her post-doctorate research in Molecular Microbiology from the same university in 1995.

MIT Technology Review Pakistan sat down with Dr. Hasnain to discuss her research and its significance to the field of microbiology.

Read more: Pakistani Professor Wins UNESCO Prize for Microbiology

You have made significant contributions to advances in research in environmental, agricultural and medical microbiology. What have been some useful applications of microbiology in Pakistan?
Let me answer your question with the help of an example from my research. The city of Kasur has a flourishing tanning industry. When you’re driving towards the city, you can see large ponds and mostly barren land with little vegetation on it on both sides of the road. This is because waste-water dumped by the tanneries contains a lot of chromium (Cr) which doesn’t allow any vegetation growth in the soil.

There are many mechanisms to recover such a soil. Nature has made a beautiful system where the process of detoxification already exists but you can enhance it further using bacteria.

Some types of bacteria can convert Cr (VI) into another less toxic form called Cr (III). Cr (VI) is soluble under normal pH and temperatures, while Cr (III) has less solubility under the same conditions so it will precipitate and can be removed from the soil surface. By treating wastewater from tanneries with this bacteria culture before throwing it out, you can reduce the contamination of water bodies and land in Kasur.

This detoxification process can also be used to remove other heavy metals if you can just identify the correct bacteria that will work on it. Lack of aeration in oil-contaminated soil means that no plants are able to grow there. Oil-degrading bacteria can reduce the concentration of oil in the ground by using it as a carbon food source. Slowly add bacteria to the soil, then mix the soil so the bottom layer comes up and the top one goes down.

Bacterial microorganisms can also convert arsenic (IV) in water to a less toxic type – arsenic (V). Using bacteria inoculum, we can also improve the anatomy of plants and this can result in an increase in plant growth.

You have done extensive work on salt stress tolerance mechanisms. How can microbiology be used to combat salinity in our soil?
Salinity can affect agricultural productivity and have a large impact on the economy of a country. Plants absorb water from the soil and transport it to the stem. However, if there is a high concentration of salt in the soil, then it would hamper uptake of water by the plant. As a result, plant growth is going to be stunted and yield will be reduced. Some plants have an internal mechanism that allows them to survive in adverse environments such as saline soil. Using bacteria, you can enhance this mechanism that would help in detoxification. For example, if a particular plant that is able to grow in saline soil takes up salt during its growth phase, then the concentration of salt in the ground will decrease. Plant a crop that takes up as much salt from the ground as it can and then harvest that crop. The concentration of salt in the soil will decrease and soil conditions will become a little better for the next crop. Then plant a crop with relatively less salt tolerance, meaning a crop that is more useful for humans. If you go on doing this process for a long time, then eventually you will be able to reclaim your saline soil.

Samples of locally developed biodegradable plastics made by Dr Nazia Jamil and the team.

The issue of plastic pollution in Pakistan is a major concern and is worsening by the day. Recently, researchers discovered a plastic-eating fungus in a garbage dump in Pakistan that can potentially alleviate this problem. What are some other ways of dealing with this problem?
Plastic is a leading cause of pollution in the environment. These fossil fuel plastics are derived from petroleum, and they take decades to decay. People are working on projects focused on breaking down plastics but not around making plastics that are biodegradable to begin with. Dr Nazia Jamil, an assistant professor and molecular geneticist at the department, is working on an interesting project about this. She is using indigenous bacteria to make natural biopolymers or bioplastics that decay naturally. She is creating organic plastics by making use of wastewater, molasses, and peels of potatoes — basically anything considered waste.

Read more: Popularizing Science: One Mela at a Time

The rate of decay of the bioplastic depends on the degradable additive in it but, on average, it would take only a week. If we take this commercially, we can add other substances to determine its shelf life as well. For products like shampoo bottles that have to be stored for a longer period and even transported, we could give the bioplastics a longer shelf life, while items like paper cups could be given a shorter shelf life.

Dr Jamil is working on cost-effective production of these organic plastics and her paper on this project is about to be published. This project will provide the dual advantage of conservation of fossil resources and reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. If the industry decides to get involved, then it will prove to be an excellent opportunity.

It seems there is a great benefit to be had by local industries from the work being done in microbiology. What is the relationship between research institutions and the industry at this time?
There exists a gap between educational institutions and the industry. Industrialists would be more willing to import something from abroad, but they won’t tell me (academics) that they need this particular product. If they were willing to tell me what they require, then of course we would sit down in collaboration with them to figure out the product. And we would be able to do it at significantly less cost.

Many years ago, I tried to have a collaboration with people within an industry. The first thing they asked me was about the chances of getting desired result. Since I couldn’t answer them with complete certainty anything before the research had actually been carried out, they did not proceed with the investment.

To overcome this gap, industrialists should be required to invest in research and development (R&D) funds that will have the added benefit of being income tax exempt. Once that happens, the industries will be forced to consult universities for their problems.

In the past, my department worked on a bacteria that promotes plant growth and increases yield and we wanted to take this work to the field. One of my former students, who now has a biotech company, expressed interest in using the bacteria strain albeit with a lot of conditions: the strain or other similar strains will not be shared with anyone else; if any changes are made, those won’t be shared with anyone else either; making the culture will be the responsibility of the university, only the company will disseminate it, and so on. So I asked her what the university would be getting out of the deal since all the research was ours. She was willing to give us no more than five to 10 percent. However, I suggested we should split it 50/50 at the least. Her company would get 50 percent of the proceeds, while 25 percent would be given to the university, and the remaining 25 percent would be shared with researchers who actually worked on the project. She disagreed. The memorandum of understanding (MOU), which was so close to being signed, now lies covered in dust.

How can we improve the quality of research being carried out in the country?
I think there are two or three issues nowadays. The first issue I have found has to do with ethics of research. Students add names of other people in their research papers, even though their contribution might be negligible. This way they can all get credit. I refer to this as academic corruption. If you haven’t done the work, why is your name on the paper? Many times I have seen a paper for evaluation where the amount of research in it is such that one person could easily have done it on their own, but the paper would mention at least five or six other authors, many of whom are from other universities.

Dr Hasnain showcases an experiment involving plant growth stimulation with bacteria on a PU research farm.

The second issue is that sometimes people at the helm of affairs in academic institutions don’t understand the requirements on the ground. As a result, there are no proper labs or facilities available to students. This happens especially if the administration is more concerned with saving money. For example, I was the first vice chancellor of a new university in Multan. Nobody asked me to do it but I established the lab there because I already knew, due to my personal experiences, what kind of facilities and resources would be needed by students of biological sciences. The people in charge insisted that more papers should be published. However, that is not possible without the right facilities and labs.

Thirdly, I feel that young people need to put more effort into their research. The problem is that if they have had two or three papers published, they think that they have accomplished a lot. I don’t think that’s nearly enough. I used to spend a lot from my own pocket and utilize every resource I had to establish labs and carry out research. Now the trend is just the opposite. Students want incentives, high salaries, promotions and all the facilities to be already provided to them. Not just in biological sciences but everywhere, students are not that motivated to work. So I have found that the motivation to work and sincerity is lacking in many instances. I think that the trend in my department is good because the traditions I set years ago are still being followed. The majority of people here were my students.

Apart from issues that can be resolved within educational institutions, we need to establish more labs and gave recurring grants to fund research. All our political parties should make spending on education their priority. Instead of thinking of education sector projects as their flagships, they need to think of them as national projects.

Lastly, research requires independence. Scientists should be given a free hand to prepare their research agenda, they should not be dictated from above. Unless you ask for independent ideas, people will not be motivated to work on them. Throughout the world, universities are a source of knowledge and innovative research. If I bring something from the United States instead and implant it over here, without considering factors like its impact on the environment, then it will only bring more problems. It might have worked for that particular country but is it going to work properly over here? No one bothers to find that out. If they do decide to bother about it, then politics is brought into it. There is no place for politics in education.

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