Growing an Interest in Biotech At Home & Afar

Wednesday, November 13, 2013
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UNH Professor of Plant Biology Subhash Minocha recently traveled to the Republic of Kazakhstan to speak with students interested in the STEM fields during a visit sponsored by the Ministry of Education and Science. Hosted by the Al Farabi National Kazakh University in Almaty and one of its professors, Saule Atabayeva, Minocha augmented the students’ increasing passion for biotechnology with a series of relevant lectures. Topics included plant biotechnology and genetic engineering, plant abiotic stress, bioremediation and phytoremediation, genetic improvement of plants, the regulation of polyamine metabolism, and more. Minocha further discussed the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), giving a balanced perspective to help alleviate some of the audiences’ shared concerns.

Kazakhstan’s landscape is rich in minerals, but also suffers from contamination due to its former location as a military testing ground. “Current agricultural concerns surround developing crops that are tolerant to heavy metals and salt,” says Minocha of the country’s production of wheat, rice, and animal products to satisfy a diet that includes horsemeat and milk.

As the largest city in a country that achieved independence in 1991 from the Soviet Republic, Almaty boasts a population of one and a half million in this commercial and cultural center. Kazakhstan’s fall climate, similar to that of New Hampshire, brings a golden-hued change of seasons due to an abundance of poplars and beech trees, and provides just the right conditions for growing apples. “They have apples bigger than I have ever seen,” says Minocha who visited the country in October and was impressed by the genetic diversity among wild apples in the region surrounding Almaty. “The wild Malus sieversii is considered a likely candidate for the ancestor of the modern domestic apple, which could explain the name ‘Alma Ata,’ which is the former name of Almaty” says Minocha who enjoyed learning more about Kazakhstan and its people while developing alliances with faculty and students at the National University.

In addition to spending about two weeks at the Al Farabi National Kazakh University, Minocha also visited the Almaty Kazakh-Turkish High School for Boys to deliver a lecture on “Biotechnology – Opportunities and Challenges” to the juniors and seniors classes, and discussed the possibility of inviting a few students to participate in Project SMART Summer Institute – 2014 at UNH.

Back in Durham, Minocha is the co-advisor to two Ph.D. students from National Kazakh University, Akmaral Nurmakhanova and Elshat Ablayhanov. While Nurmakhanova had visited UNH last March to learn biochemical and physiological techniques in the Minocha lab, Ablayhanov will become a visiting student at UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) to conduct research in the Minocha lab next spring.