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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Harnessing biotech brainpower

Harnessing biotech brainpower

DONNA Roberts can't wait for the day when she can buy a loaf of bread or a carton of milk at her corner shop that naturally contains the healthy fatty acid omega-3.

At present it's a dream, but the day may not be that far away when it becomes a reality.

The omega-3 fatty acids are essential to life and can be readily absorbed into the body by eating fish or a fish supplement.

"The kids of today don't eat nearly enough fish and are not getting enough good oil for their skin and their health," Dr Roberts said.

"It would improve their health significantly if they were taking in omega-3 every time they sat down and had toast for breakfast."

Methods of getting the omega-3 found naturally in fish into harvested, land-based plants is being researched at the CSIRO in Hobart and is one of many exciting biotechnology projects being undertaken in Tasmania.

It's Dr Roberts' job to research the research, identify impediments and make recommendations on ways the State Government can help.

More formally, Dr Roberts, a microbiologist, was appointed in September as manager of the Department of Economic Development's biotechnology program.

Dr Roberts' Innovation, Science and Technology Unit defines biotechnology as "the innovative use of living organisms to solve problems or make new and useful products".

She concedes that the word biotechnology may appear somewhat frightening to non-scientists and several people have told her they don't like the term.

"We don't want people to be afraid of the word as what's going on in Tasmania is good biotechnology," Dr Roberts said.

"It's creating natural products, helping solve environmental problems and assisting good health.

"We are not talking about Frankenstein foods or anything like that.

"Tasmania's strengths are clean, marine and healthy, and we wouldn't want to tamper with our natural strengths.

"Perhaps we will end up calling it the bioscience strategy as I think the term `biotechnology' can be a bit frightening."

An audit of Tasmania's growing biotechnology industry carried out in early 2005 found that Tasmania has globally competitive strengths in niche areas of marine and agricultural biotechnology and in human health through research at the Menzies Centre.

The report also highlighted the advantages to Tasmania in retaining its "clean green" image.

Dr Roberts' appointment was the result of consensus among industry and researchers that Tasmania needed a scientist to develop a 10-year strategy plan if the state's potential in this field was to be fully realised.

Since September she has been compiling an inventory of industry and research and listening to what stakeholders need.

"There is some world-class work going on here, much more than people are aware of," Dr Roberts said.

"In the clean category we have the House of Herbs, a small company producing natural cosmetics at the Technopark, and Botanical Resources Australia which is one of the world's biggest producers of the natural insecticide pyrethrum.

"In the marine sector we have any number of first-class researchers as well as the successful company Marinova, which has been pioneering the manufacture of products from seaweed.

"And in health we have world-renowned research going on at the Menzies Institute and at the School of Medicine and Clinical Research."

The Department of Economic Development's role is to facilitate the transformation of good ideas into commercial outcomes.

During the next few months Dr Roberts will identify the issues holding people back and what can be done about them.

One of the issues already flagged by industry is the shortage of local post-doctoral research.

"We have a brain drain in that we are losing the great training and ideas we have by not having the next step fully supported," Dr Roberts said.

"Doing a doctorate, you are working on one idea. But as a post-doctorate you are free to do what you want and can work on five or six different things.

"We don't want to lose the talent we've got, so it would be good if there was collaborative research with industry at the post-doctorate level so the ideas are turned into something useful."

Dr Roberts' strategy will be released in September.


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