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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.7 n.2 Valparaíso ago. 2004 




Taking a lead in applied mining biotechnology

The Chilean press, as well as the world’s specialized news agencies, recently gave prominent place to the news that BioSigma - a Chilean-based joint venture between Codelco, the world’s largest copper mining company, and Nippon Mining and Metals Co. - has successfully isolated two bacteria with properties that make them very suitable for leaching low-grade copper ore.

The obvious importance of this discovery is that it opens up the possibility of converting large quantities of currently non-viable resources into reserves, when it will be scale-up into a new bioleaching technology in the next five years. However, it also serves to highlight a number of key lessons for the development of science and technology in emerging countries.

As Juan Villarzú, Codelco’s executive president, enthusiastically pointed out, the identification of these first two microorganisms, the knowledge derived from the genome, and what it tells us about the functional genomics of mineral oxidation, are an achievement in themselves. “This gives Chile a considerable strategic advantage over other copper producers; in the medium term, it will allow us to tap into low-grade resources that we didn’t previously take into account,” he said.

However, BioSigma’s news is also important because it constitutes an exception in the world of biotechnology in which, as we are daily made aware, news is normally generated by the industrialized countries, eight of which account for around 84% of high-impact science. By comparison, the other 193 countries - of which Chile is one - account for less than 2.3% of the world’s new high-impact knowledge (King, 2004).

As United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently underlined, “today, no nation that wants to shape informed policies and take effective action in such issues as beneficial new technologies, social development and to respond quickly to the rapid spread of new diseases, can afford to be without its own independent capacity in Science and Technology” (Annan, 2004).

The sustainable development of countries requires, as Secretary-General Annan indicated, direct participation in the creation of knowledge. However, in the emerging world, problems in economic development, in the low quality of scientific education, and in international cooperation, as well as slow progress on economic reforms and the implementation of effective policies, make it difficult to build independent scientific and technological capacity.

Chile has grasped the nature of this challenge. And BioSigma - which manages the applied mining biotechnology program of the government’s GENOMA CHILE initiative supported by the International Development Bank-, is the concrete result of a policy of fostering the application of biotechnology to the country’s natural resources, implemented by the government of President Ricardo Lagos (Nature Biotechnology, 2004). This policy has four main objectives: to update Chile’s regulatory framework as it affects longstanding biotechnology products; to bring its regulatory capacity into line with the latest international standards; to develop its scientific and technological potential in the field of biotechnology applied to the natural resources of the country to enhance their competitiveness; and to encourage the creation of biotechnology business consortia, attracting private and international investment. In addition to BioSigma’s biomining program, GENOMA CHILE includes biotechnology initiatives for grapes, pitted fruits, forestry, and salmon vaccines. And these initiatives promise to be just the first of many.

In emerging countries, the self-sustained development of science will only be possible with strong backing from local firms. Until this happens, the State will continue to give the maximum possible support to basic science. However, although this is necessary, it is not enough.

Due to the imagination, teamwork, and expertise of its researchers, working in a network with other research groups in the University of Chile and in Japan, BioSigma has, within a very short space of time, achieved its first results. Its objective is to generate new knowledge and technology for the biotechnology-based treatment of minerals as part of a bid to increase the sustainability of the mining resources that are so essential to the economic growth of a country like Chile. In this task, we had support and we had luck, and we are fortunate to have a small critical mass of researchers, trained over the years with dedication by scientific research institutes and the mining industry.

Drawing attention to the pioneering experience that Codelco, together with BHP Billiton, has also acquired in the commercial bioleaching of copper concentrates, President Ricardo Lagos pointed out that BioSigma “is building a significant scientific capacity that puts Codelco and Chile in the international vanguard of this discipline - applied mining biotechnology - thanks to the formation of multidisciplinary teams that bring together biologists, chemists, mathematicians, experts in bioinformatics, engineers, metallurgists, and businesspeople.”

BioSigma’s experience shows that emerging countries should not be daunted by the challenges of biotechnology. In today’s globalized world, biotechnology is a road to progress and increased competitiveness. It offers an opportunity to make better use of a country’s human, natural, and business resources, to reduce the impact on the environment, and to protect public health.

However, it requires a non-traditional model of management, focusing on issues and markets that are important to the country in question, and on productive processes that add value. It also means creating the conditions in which local biotechnology firms, geared to these objectives, can emerge and in which consortia of local and multinational firms can develop these more sustainable technologies.

Within this framework, networks must be established anchored in long-term commercial agreements between these firms and the public sector (ministries, universities, research institutes, and international financing institutions). It is also useful to develop local capacities, both with regard to human resources and infrastructure; to create scholarship and exchange programs, especially for young scientists; to invest in laboratories and equipment, and to build links with specialized research centers abroad.

To some extent, the attitudes of scientists also need to change, overcoming resistance to the commercial use of scientific knowledge and abandoning an approach that can be bureaucratic. In this way, they will be able to participate fully in the task of creating knowledge in a way that is competitive internationally and adds value to local industry.

Finally, the public funds available for the promotion of science, education, and technology should be channeled through public-private partnerships for co-financing mechanisms, subsidizing high-risk investment while insisting on full business accountability.

Similarly, international cooperation, especially when it involves multilateral organizations, should promote this new management model, rather than supporting weak and bureaucratic projects that bear little relation to the challenges of globalization and offer no prospect of a tie-in with industry.

In one way or another, what BioSigma has achieved in its short life is largely the result of the fact that the authorities of Chile, along with the management of Codelco and of Nippon Mining and Metals, have unhesitatingly supported this alternative model.

A worthwhile and challenging task lies ahead of us.


KING, David A. The scientific impact of nations. Nature, 2004, vol. 430, no. 6997, p. 311-316.         [ Links ]

ANNAN, Kofi. Science for All Nations (editorial). Science, 2004, vol. 303, no. 5660, p. 925.        [ Links ]

Chile launches policy to boost biotech. Nature Biotechnology, 2004, vol. 22, no. 1, p. 7.        [ Links ]

Ricardo Badilla-Ohlbaum, PhD
General Manager and CEO
BioSigma S.A.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network

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