Editorial: Doing science in a new way

Published in The Hindu on April 17, 2010

The recent successful mapping of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) genome by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Team India Consortium with Global Partnership has shown a novel way to do science in the Internet era. The mammoth project of global significance tapped the latent talent and potential of nearly 400 students spread across India and made the result available in an internationally accepted format. Although the TB genome was sequenced in 1998, complete mapping was not possible as only about 60 per cent of the genome was annotated. A sequenced genome is like a book containing a string of million alphabets that makes no sense; mapping arranges these alphabets into words, sentences, and chapters. The CSIR’s Connect 2 Decode (C2D) project was to map the complete TB genome by extracting information on individual genes contained in hundreds of published papers and using computational extrapolation for the missing ones. The C2D project, involving students — undergraduates to start with — enlisted on a voluntary basis, was completed in just four months. Doing it the traditional way would have taken years. The message is: there is abundant young talent in India and much of it goes waste for want of opportunities and due to systemic inadequacy.

Here India can learn from China. The BGI, which used to be known as the Beijing Genomics Institute before it moved its headquarters to Shenzhen in 2007, offers a possible answer to the question of harnessing the large talent pool that may otherwise go waste. A recent editorial and a news feature in Nature looked at the possibility of China becoming the world leader in genome sequencing, thanks to the BGI model. In fact, the BGI, which depends primarily on graduates, has contributed a lot to the sequencing of many genomes, the human genome included. Tuberculosis, which mainly afflicts the poor in developing countries, is a neglected disease. Drug companies have no incentive to invest in relevant research; Rifampicin, the latest TB medicine, was discovered in the 1960s. This neglect sits ill with the fact that 1.7 million people die from TB globally every year (there are two deaths every three minutes in India alone), and the number of people with multidrug-resistant TB is increasing. It is to provide a fillip to research and drug development that the TB gene map is made freely available online under the Open Source Drug Discovery initiative of the CSIR. Anyone, including drug companies, could use the data and add to or modify them; it works on the same principle as Wikipedia.