Biotechnology an engine of growth

SWINBURNE University of Technology Sarawak Campus (SUTS) and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC) are collaborating in biotechnology under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), to develop discoveries with potential commercial value from Sarawak’s rich biodiversity.

DILIGENT: Ng checking on her research of fungus culture in a 10-litre scale bioreactor.

DILIGENT: Ng checking on her research of fungus culture in a 10-litre scale bioreactor.

Sarawak is located in one of the world’s mega-biodiversity regions. So it comes as no surprise that the diverse biological resources in the state are being researched in a modern and technologically advanced manner.

Biotechnology makes use of knowledge of the biological system to generate useful bio-products and applications for everyday life such as medicines, food and the environment.

The Sarawak Campus of Swinburne University began biotechnology operations in 2008 with the establishment of dedicated modern lab facilities for undergraduate teaching and research.

According to SUTS pro vice chancellor and chief executive Professor Helmut Lueckenhausen, Swinburne sees the biotechnology collaboration between the university and SBC as a first, and hopes others will follow.

“Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, one of the newer technology universities in Australia, is pursuing significant research of various kinds. When we opened the campus here, what seemed attractive to the university were opportunities in biotechnology,” he said.

“Swinburne Sarawak believes it has the capacity to make a significant contribution to industrial sustainability in Sarawak and elsewhere as it has the research expertise and the technology for endeavors of this kind.

“This project is also in line with our goal to extend Swinburne Melbourne’s status as a research-intensive university to our Sarawak campus,” he added.

The collaboration between Swinburne Sarawak and SBC is a timely development in the university’s plan to expand its activities into science and technology and grow its research profile, especially in collaboration with the local industry.

Bio-prospecting of the biodiversity to discover potential and useful applications in healthcare, agriculture and industries very much depends on implementing a highly-robust research and development (R&D) programme, involving various scientific tools, including biotechnology earmarked as an engine of growth for the state and country.

Since the Sarawak government set up SBC in 1997, the centre has initiated programmes for the conservation, utilisation, protection and sustainable development of biodiversity in the state.

Its R&D programme focuses on making discoveries in biological resources that would lead to the development of herbal therapies, nutraceuticals, cosmaceuticals for healthcare and pharmaceutical drugs for countering diseases such as cancer and infectious agents.

The programme also aims to discover chemicals and enzymes from biological resources that would be useful over a broad range of applications as industrial related products such as essential oils, bio-pesticides and commercial dyes.

One of its R&D programmes focuses on making discoveries in biological resources that might lead to the development of pharmaceutical drugs. Towards this end, SBC screens plants and soils for microbial compounds that may have industrial potential.

SBC chief executive officer Dr Rita Manurung told thesundaypost as biodiversity could contribute much to the various industries, the centre’s research officers needed constant training to further develop their expertise.

“Most of our scientists are new and very young — they, therefore, need a lot of training and guidance. We believe this is the perfect opportunity to team up with Swinburne so that our officers will benefit from the training they’ve achieved at the university.

“We work together to achieve what we plan to do at SBC,” she said.

Manurung pointed out that under the SBC-SUTS MoU signed in 2007, SUTS would provide research training relevant to the state for SBC research officers.

According to her, the collaboration has also brought much advantage to both parties.

“Prior to this, the SBC has been sending research officers for overseas postgraduate studies. In fact, three officers just came back last year from Adelaide, Australia, and are now working full time at SBC,” Manurung said, adding “we, however, cannot afford to send too many of our staff at any one time.

“Currently we have two research officers — Ng Lee Tze and Noreha Mahidi — who are doing their in-service training as full time PhD candidates at SUTS. This is made possible by the Chief Minister’s Department that provides us grants to support the operational costs,” she added.

In 2007, SBC, in collaboration with Nimura Genetic Solutions (NGS), a company based in KL specialising in bio-resource exploration, discovered a fungus near Kuching which, from preliminary tests, was shown to produce substance(s) with high inhibitory activity against the enzyme prolyl oligopetidase (POP), believed to be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.

This fungus is a good candidate for further studies. It has the potential for deeper research and development.

Substance(s) it produces could be developed into a drug for treating Alzheimer’s Disease — if all the right properties are present.

Such substances are of obvious interest to the pharmaceutical world. So the SBC needs to conduct more studies on this micro-organism so that the physiology of the synthesis of the compound, PEOP-inhibitor, can be elucidated.

In light of this, SBC has entrusted SUTS, under Associate Professor Clem Kuek and the university’s biotechnology programme, to help SBC take the next step in investigating this fungus.

Working under the PhD supervision of Kuek and SBC senior research officer Dr Charlie Yeo, Ng Lee Tze will utilise fermentation approaches to understand the physiology of the optimal synthesis of the enzyme inhibitor(s).

“The study will encompass determining the physio-chemical cultural conditions for fungal biomass and its desired metabolites in submerged aerobic culture firstly in shake flasks, then in a bioreactor,” Ng said of her project which is the first step in developing the commercial potential of the fungus.

The fungus that can produce this compound was discovered in the SBC’s R&D programme in collaboration with Nimura Genetic Solutions, to       isolate useful micro-organisms from Sarawak’s biodiversity.

“Early results are extremely promising and processing via repeat batch culture with immobilised biomass of the fungus has been shown to be possible,” Ng explained.

The other PhD project, under the SUTS-SBC MoU and also supervised by Kuek and Yeo, is done by Noreha.

Its main objective is to search Sarawak’s biodiversity for microorganisms that can produce antimicrobial volatile organic compounds (VOC).

“The VOC mixture includes alcohols and esters, and can kill pathogens like fungi and bacteria such as listeria and salmonella and many plant pathogens,” Noreha said.

“This work is largely inspired by the discovery of Dr Gary Strobel at Montana State University, USA, of a novel endophytic fungus Muscodor albus that produces volatile antimicrobial compounds VOCs and has since been developed in various applications for the control of fungal problems in horticulture and agriculture.

“The idea is that the micro-organisms we may find from Sarawak’s biodiversity can also be developed as biological control agents in the amelioration of diseases that afflict agriculture and horticulture, or in the extension of the shelf-life of packaged fruits and vegetables,” she added.

Using the Muscador albus gifted by Dr Strobel, Noreha will screen fungi she will isolate from Sarawak’s flora in targeted jungle locations.

“Those fungi that are able to grow in the presence of the VOCs, produced by Muscador albus, will likely possess an equivalent ability to produce VOCs.

“The fungi will then be subjected to further tests and developed into applications for Sarawak’s agriculture, using oil palm and pepper diseases as the models.

“The Muscodor albus has the ability to produce a mixture of volatile compounds, including alcohols and esters, that can kill pathogens like molds and bacteria such as listeria and salmonella and many plant pathogens,” Noreha said, adding that the fungus also acts as an insecticide.

According to Lueckenhausen, the PhD programmes undertaken by Ng and Noreha are examples of what the university offers — an opportunity to develop human resources through post graduate programmes run by Swinburne.

The projects are a positive step towards the university’s biotechnology programme that also includes bachelor of science in biotechnology.

The new biotechnology programme in teaching and research is the seed from which a school of science offering other science degrees will sprout to take its place with the other established schools on campus.

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