The series of disease outbreaks the country experienced in 2009 such as the A(H1N1) influenza virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and dengue has turned out to have a silver lining as they led to the establishment of a state-of-the art facility devoted to genomics and biotechnology on the University of the Philippines (UP) campus in Diliman, Quezon City.

Philippine Genome Center (PGC) executive director Carmencita Padilla emphasized this Tuesday in her welcome remarks at the launch of the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) Sequencing Core Facility.

She recalled that in July 2009, the center received a grant so that it could work on finding a way to control the A(H1N1) outbreak. It was during this time that the government realized the need to invest in research and innovations, particularly in genomics as a transformative technology, resulting in the opening of the DNA facility with funding coming from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and other attached agencies.

At the same time, she thanked UP officials who share the vision of researchers and scientists for a facility that would serve as their “home,” saying “they (researchers) train here but work overseas. We need a home to keep them here.”

According to Padilla, “the problems of the country can be solved by genomics,” one of the DOST’s priority programs.

Genomics refers to the study of an organism’s DNA and how it influences the environment and organism’s behavior. It can be used in disease mechanisms, crop improvement, food quality, biodiversity and bio-energy.

Target: New kind of sugar cane

Among the projects the PGC has been working on is discovering a new kind of sugar cane by identifying its genetic markers. “Until 2010, we were the leading exporter of sugar but Brazil overtook us because of genomics,” she said.

The center has been given a grant of P47 million by the DOST’s Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development to come up with a new variety before 2016.

On top of this, the PGC is also working on finding DNA markers for coconuts because “pretty soon, we will have a country without coconuts,” Padilla said.

She added that it was urgent for the center to find the “good” kind of genetic markers which would bear fruit the soonest.

Padilla stressed: “It will be the correct coconut for the next generation.”

For his part, UP president Alfredo Pascual said the establishment of the facility was in line with the thrust to transform UP into a research-intensive university.

He pointed out that “[investing] in science, technology and innovations is important to the country’s development … UP must lead the country toward development through academic excellence and operational excellence.”

A good investment

The PGC, Pascual said, would “keep the young researchers in the country to contribute to move the country forward” and help convince the national leaders that UP was a good investment toward national development.

In his keynote speech, Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo stressed that “the problems of the country [could] be solved by genomes. Transformative technology does changes the way we do things. The country needs this. It (genomics) can benefit the country.”

The DNA facility is a research and services laboratory that will provide DNA sequencing and bioinformatics services, give advice on technology platforms and outsource services whenever necessary in the most cost-effective, reliable and efficient way possible.

It will initially service the analytical needs of the PGC’s different research programs on health, biodiversity, agriculture, ethnicity and forensics and later on, that of the wider scientific community from students, project investigators, government researcher and other genomics clients from the public and private sectors.

By Jeannette I. Andrade
Philippine Daily Inquirer

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