“Biotechnology can offer effective technological solutions for crops, farm animals and environmental productivity”
Associate Professor Addis Simachew (Ph.D)
Associate Professor Addis Simachew (Ph.D) is the Director of Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Biotechnology that is the leading publicly funded biotech research establishment in Ethiopia. Receiving his BSc and MSc degrees from the Department of Biology of the Addis Ababa University (AAU) in Biology, he has established solid biology backgrounds. He also holds his PhD in Applied Microbiology from the AAU. Apart from his teaching career, Dr. Addis has done several researches along his fellow Ethiopian scientists.
Currently, he is also serving as Associate Professor of Microbial Biotechnology and Microbial Molecular Ecology for the Institute of Biotechnology at the Industrial Biotechnology Unit (College of Natural and Computational Sciences) of the AAU. Dr. Addis has exciting stories to tell about the accomplishments and ambitious plans of the Institute. Editor of African Demystifier Mekonnen Teshome Tollera approached him for this exclusive interview. Enjoy Your Reading:
Can you tell us about your background and role in the Institute?
First and foremost, I want to thank you for the opportunity. I am currently serving as an Associate Professor of Microbial Biotechnology and Microbial Molecular Ecology for the Institute of Biotechnology, Industrial Biotechnology Unit (College of Natural and Computational Sciences) of the Addis Ababa University (AAU). I am the Director of the institute.
I am glad to serve this pioneer university in Ethiopia as a lecturer and researcher. Earlier, I was also a staff member at the Department of Biology Education, College of Education. I also served for the Jimma University as a lecturer and researcher at its department of biology, faculty of education.
Regarding my educational background, I got a PhD in Applied Microbiology from the AAU, College of Natural Sciences Department of Cellular, Microbial and Molecular Biology and my Master of Science (M.Sc.) dgree in Biology (Ecological and Systematic Zoology), Science Faculty, Department of Biology and my B.Sc in Biology from this university. Besides, I am a PhD Fellow at the department of biology, University of Bergen, and Bergen, Norway.
Can you explain about how the institute was established and what its missions are?
The Institute of Biotechnology was established in 2007 as a program unit by few faculty members of the then department of biology of the faculty of science. Then, in 2007, the biotechnology program launched MSc program in general biotechnology. Later in 2012, the biotechnology department upgraded to the present “Institute of Biotechnology” launching a PhD program in addition to the MSc programs it already started.
The institute was created with a mission of producing high caliber biotechnologists and contributes to the development and advancement of science, technology and innovation in Ethiopia. Its endeavors and aspires to be one of the pre-eminent biotech institutes in Africa by 2030. The institute now is engaged in teaching, research, community services and practical trainings for researchers and graduate students of other institutes.
Why do you think that the science of biotech is important for Ethiopia?
This time around, Ethiopia is exerting an all-out efforts to exhaust every available resources at its disposal. By far, the largest and most abundant resource that has yet to be harnessed in Ethiopia is its vast genetic resources. However, still, the country faces major challenges associated with the human conditions including food insecurity, low primary health care coverage, declining environmental situation, rapidly growing population, etc. These internal pressures and the fast evolving global conditions necessitate effective and sustainable solutions that can quickly turn the challenges into opportunities and meet the country’s development targets.
Firstly, biotechnology is the best tool to tackle the challenges that we need to overcome, or in some cases totally circumvent the problems. Mostly the potential applications of biotechnology in the Ethiopian implemented are in the agricultural sector.
Our primary focus is agriculture. The conventional route for increased and efficient productivity has been through utilizing improved agricultural inputs such as introducing improved crop/farm animal varieties, fertilizers/animal feeds, pesticides, herbicides/antibiotics and the like. These improved inputs either have indirect negative consequences on both the environment and human health or take up an extensive time to come to fruition.
Therefore, biotechnology can offer effective technological solutions for crops, farm animals and environmental productivity. It can help us finding solutions through employing the tools that can overcome biotic and abiotic stress conditions that limit the productivity of crops and farm animals. It can greatly speed up breeding crops and farm animals through the identification of important traits for disease and pest resistance, high yield, stress tolerance, etc. through marker assisted selection.
Through plant tissue culture, it is possible to produce disease free plant materials in large quantities, rapidly propagate plant varieties that have important agronomic qualities, and generate superior varieties through cell fusion and other techniques. Likewise, embryo transfer and cloning can be used to propagate farm animals with highly desirable traits in numbers that would otherwise be impossible through natural breeding process.
Moreover, biotechnology is the only way in which genes can cross the species barrier and desirable genetic material are introduced into target crops or farm animals. A classic example is the Bt gene whose origin is bacterial but is now found in crops conferring them with insect/pest resistant attributes. These advancements can greatly benefit both small holder and large scale commercial farms by providing them with superior quality crops varieties or farm animals that can perform best under local conditions.
Genome editing is now also an emerging and effective approach to make specific changes to the DNA of a cell in an organism. It can be used to add, remove or alter DNA in the genome. Considering that agriculture is still the backbone of Ethiopia’s economy and the country predominantly confined with the supply of raw agriculture products to the global market, the use of biotechnology play an important role both in increasing the volume and value of agricultural products.
Secondly, we want to contribute to the industrial sector of the economy, which is still heavily dependent on agricultural inputs. Industrial Biotechnology has the potential to introduce enzymes and microorganisms that can facilitate production systems that are efficient and environmentally friendly.
The majority of industrial enzyme production is concentrated around North America and Europe, however, Ethiopia is endowed with a huge potential of microbial genetic resources for the discovery of novel enzymes and other biotechnological products that are highly beneficial to various industrial processes. In the past few years alone, some enzymes with great promise for industrial application were discovered in Ethiopia.
Thirdly, environment is at the center of our educational and research endeavors. At present, the Ethiopian government is implementing a plan for the rapid industrialization in the country. However, as witnessed from the industrialized countries, Ethiopia is expected to face serious environmental challenges from industrial effluents leading to deterioration in the quality of life.
Thus, unless appropriate and early measures are taken, industrialization could also lead to pollution of air, water and soil. Recent developments in the industrial biotechnology offer an alternative approach for the reduction (or in some cases total elimination) of pollutants from many industrial sectors without affecting production efficiency and product quality.
Furthermore, once waste is generated, progress in environmental biotechnology allows development of cheap and efficient biological waste treatment processes. In this regard environmental biotechnology has important applications in avoiding environmental deterioration and help to reduce associated health risks.
Fourthly, health is our core domain where biotechnology can offer a lot in developing cheap, rapid, and reliable diagnostic tools for human and animal diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent phenomenon that we have done much on with low infrastructure of biotech facilities. Therefore, we aim to develop biotech drugs, vaccines, and therapeutics. Improved and accessible health care products will play a great role in alleviating the human condition and indirectly contribute to the entire development endeavor of the country.
What does the Institute’s organizational structure and its sections looks like?
Our institute is headed by its own Council, a Director, a Deputy Director, and 5 unit heads as well as a graduate program coordinator. It has five units each of them having specific thematic focus for research. An additional unit was set-up with an objective of translating our research findings to commercialization.
The Agricultural Biotechnology Unit has its own sub-units or laboratories. Its Plant tissue culture lab works on rapid propagation of important plants like coffee, apple, banana, sweet potato, cassava, etc. Generating disease free plant materials (as has already been developed for sweet potato and cassava in the last three years) and distribute it to farmers is its major undertaking. Its other applications of plant tissue culture include rapid propagation of selected plant varieties with important traits, generation of haploids, etc and thus facilitate breeding efforts.
The Plant Molecular Biology laboratory carries out genetic characterization of important crops, identification of markers, and use such knowledge to assist plant breeding as its core research activities.
It also undertakes other laboratory research activities including marker assisted breeding programs that are expected to substantially reduce the breeding timeframe by years. It can also help to reduce the volume of work and space required for breeding programs as well as the development of rapid and efficient methods for the identification of important plant pathogens and promote plant disease resistance through breeding.
The other laboratory, Plant Transformation, develops plant transformation capability with all appropriate precautionary and safety measures. As this is related to genetically modified organisms, one can simply mention its potential of negative impacts on the environment and human health. However, it is a very helpful science globally practiced and used as one of the means of national development. As the experiences from China, India and Brazil show, the potential of this technology to transform agricultural practices in developing countries, especially for the benefit of small scale farmers like ours, is very enormous.
It is therefore, important that the Institute of Biotechnology strengthen this scientific effort with the already engaged senior staff on biosafety working making sure that we operate with the bio-saftey regulations on plant transformation and related issues.
The other is our Genome Editing sub-unit. Genome editing is a method that let scientists change the DNA of organisms, including plants, bacteria, and animals. Editing DNA can lead to changes in physical traits. As the science is a just emerging one, the establishment of the Genome Editing laboratory facility is in progress.
Our Industrial Biotechnology Unit is engaged in developing new products and processes for industrial use.
The Microbial Biotechnology lab on the other hand, works on the development of products from our microbial resources. Here, microbial strains from different habitats are studied for the production of industrial products and processes. Those products with potential importance for industrial application will be further studied at the incubation centre and developed to a commercial product and recently the Biotechnology Program Unit won a major research grant from the
The Enzyme technology section works for industrial processing enzymes because of its potential to reduce or eliminate pollution from traditional industrial processes. The Institute of Biotechnology developed expertise in this field and currently plays a leading role in the country. Given the enormous microbial diversity in the country and the infrastructure and knowledge already developed, the Institute of Biotechnology is developing new enzyme products that will be competitive in local and international markets.
Moreover, the Environmental Biotechnology Unit is working on water resources and drinking water quality analysis, wastewater treatment solutions and on bio-fertilizer research. The environmental biotechnology unit will have at least three to four laboratories and will work on developing methods for the treatment of industrial, agricultural, and domestic wastes. Some industrial wastes are highly toxic with the potential of polluting the environment and cause serious damage to humans, domestic animals, and wild life.For example, cyanide containing waste released by mining industries cause serious harm to plants and animals. Other industrial wastes with huge environmental risk include textile, leather tanning, and food processing wastes.
Similarly, releasing domestic waste into receiving water bodies is known to cause eutrophication thus killing fish and other aquatic life. Thus, the Environmental Biotechnology Unit is working to address these problems by developing technologies, scale up these technologies, and implement/commercialize.
The Health Biotechnology Unit of the institute is engaged in diagnostic kit development, developing therapeutic drugs, vaccines and the like. While Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology Unit is established recently to train higly capable professions with MSc degree in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics.
Can you tell us about its academic programs, research undertakings and community services?
With regard to our academic programs, we run three MSc programs and a PhD one with 5 specializations/specializations. Under our MSc programs, we have Biotechnology with sub-specialization in Plant Biotechnology, Animal Biotechnology), Health Biotechnology, Industrial Biotechnology, Environmental Biotechnology , Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics.
We also offer PhD programs with five specializations/tracks – Plant Biotechnology, Animal Biotechnology, Health Biotechnology, Industrial Biotechnology and Environmental Biotechnology.
Pertaining to research undertakings, our able and well-versed staff and our graduate students securing international and national research grants (including from AAU, EBTi, MoST, national, SIDA, and other adaptive and thematic research grants), are now doing about 31 international and nationally funded projects.
As you know, community services as part of discharging social responsibilities, is one of the core missions of academic institutions. What can you tell us about your institute’s activities in this regard ?
As part of our institutional mission, our institute is engaged in various community services. To mention few of them, we provide hands-on training services to graduate students of other institutions as well as technical support to other Universities like the Bonga University.
In addition, the institute is working with a mixture of industries to substitute some of their imported inputs and solve the problems they faced, for instance, leather industries, textile industries, sugar cooperation, brewing industries and many more.
What are the major achievements of the institute gained since its inception in 2012?
If we have to talk about our achievements, it should be in line with our institutional mandates, which are teaching, research and community service. Therefore, our institute is proud to produce capable graduates and contribute to the field of biotechnology in a relatively short time so far, since its caption in 2012 , with 99 MSc and 20 PhD degree graduates who are now Serving their beloved county in various higher learning and research institutions.
Our various effective research outputs can be attributed to our achievements made over the years since our establishment. We have contributed our share with our research out puts, related to enzymes with possible industrial applications, microbial isolates and consortium for various environment pollutant remediation, endophytes with potential plant promoting traits and crop varieties with potential environmental stress tolerance and high productivity.
Regarding research papers publication, more than 216 papers are published on reputable national and international peer reviewed journals over the last 5 years alone.
What can you say about the institute’s “University-Industry” linkage activities? Its work relations with other national and international partners?
One of the core missions of the institute is working closely with industries and product oriented companies. Therefore, we are collaborating with some industries including leather processing, textile industries and diagnostic material producing companies.
What are its challenges and constraints that hinder its academic and research activities?
With regard to our challenges and constraints, lack of funding for our projects and adequate working and laboratory spaces and facilities can be mentioned as major problems. Moreover, difficult procurement procedures, substandard quality of equipment and reagents, unavailability of reagents in local markets and lack of local suppliers, foreign currency issues, custom clearance , special handling unavailable as well as lack adequate lab engineers and technicians are some of our challenges in this sector.
What do you want to accomplish as biotech Institute in the short term and long term?
Our institute is undertaking its activities in line the plan designed to realize its visions. As part of its short/medium term activities, it envisions to carry out product development of some of its research outputs, strengthening its research and development infrastructure, formation of consortium of training in biotechnology, enlist local sister organizations to support PhD training/research, acquisition of laboratory reagents and consumable laboratory plasticware/glassware and acquisition of small lab equipment available on local market (such as freezers, fridges, Bunsen burners, etc)
Furthermore, our long-term plans include increasing admission to its postgraduate programs, acquisition of state of the sciences laboratory equipment and furnishings, construction of full-fledged premises equipped with state-of-the-science facility and grounds that will house our institute and to realize our vision of becoming a leader institute in biotech training (teaching-learning) and research in Africa.