Saudi Arabia maps genome and educational future

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Photo caption: Saudi students sit for their final high school exams in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on June 19, 2010. (Amer Hilabi/AFP/Getty Images)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saleel doesn't know it, but he's on the cutting edge of science in this oil-rich desert kingdom.

Saleel is the most beloved Saudi animal — a camel. And it was his DNA that Saudi scientists used to produce the first mapped camel genome, an accomplishment they hope will help lead to advances in human health, as well as more “beautiful” camels, according to Abdulaziz Mohamed Al Swailem, who directed the research.

“We had very encouraging international reaction” offering both congratulations and collaboration after the results were announced in June, said Al Swailem, a specialist in genetic engineering. Now, he added, “our goal is to establish an international web-based database for all scientists so if they discover new genes, mutations or sequences in the camel, they can just add it.”

It was the first time that a mammal’s genome was sequenced in the Middle East, the result of a collaboration between Riyadh’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and the Beijing Genomics Institute Shenzhen (BGI).

The project is an example of Saudi Arabia’s new emphasis on research and fact-based learning, including in its education system, in order to catch up with the global scientific community and build what it calls “a knowledge-based society.”

Reversing decades of giving short shrift to the sciences in favor of religious studies in the nation's schools and universities, the kingdom is pouring billions into improving science curricula, endowing new research-oriented universities and establishing scientific agencies.

“They certainly are trying to move into knowledge-based industries, and investments in science and technology are a big part of that,” said David Cheney of SRI International, which is doing consulting work with Saudi universities and science-oriented agencies.

Cheney noted that the long-term goal of KACST, which serves as the government’s science ministry, “is to be one of the leaders in the world in science, technology and innovation in the next 20 years.”

Many Saudis attribute the new stress on science to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who even before becoming king in 2005 was urging more attention to science and math in school curricula. As king, he has strongly encouraged scientific endeavors, the most visible being King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST).

The graduate-level research university, built on a coastal plain about an hour’s drive north of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, opened in September 2009 with an endowment somewhere between $10 and $20 billion, instantly making it one of the world’s richest universities.

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Eventually, KAUST hopes to rival renowned institutions like MIT and Stanford. But for now, it will focus on “where it can make intellectual and societal impact," KAUST President Chong Fong Shih has said. "I can see KAUST researchers improving water desalination technology to make irrigation of deserts possible and economical; undertaking genome research to enable plants to grow in arid conditions; and making solar power cheap and widespread, bringing electricity to the millions who still live without.”

In another major development, Saudi Arabia announced earlier this year the establishment of the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy. Its mandate is to develop nuclear technology in order to help the kingdom diversify its oil-dominated energy industry.

And during a recent visit here by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA and KACST formally agreed to increase scientific cooperation.

Needless to say, huge obstacles hamper Saudi’s scientific ambitions. Number one is a national school system plagued by poor teachers, an emphasis on rote learning and a long-standing lack of attention to science and math.

In recent years, the government has initiated reforms to address these shortcomings. It has begun introducing new science and math curriculums in grades 1-12, accompanied by colorful, picture-filled textbooks based on ones published by McGraw-Hill.

Another big obstacle is the lack of unfettered academic freedom in higher education, and related to that, society’s strong deference to clerical authority. For decades, the dominant scientific thrust among the kingdom’s conservative clergy was to show that all modern scientific discoveries were already described in Islam’s holy book, the Quran.

This perspective heavily influenced education, hindering the pursuit of knowledge acquired through human reason and scientific observation, and dampening the intellectual curiosity on which scientific inquiry is based. Changing such attitudes will take many years.

One way to help that transformation along, said Al Swailem, who is coordinator of KACST’s live sciences and environment sector, is to draw citizens into science by showing how it can directly benefit them.

In mapping the genome of the one-humped Arabian dromedary, Al Swailem’s team chose a mammal integral not only to their country’s history, but also to the daily life of many Saudis, who drink camel milk, eat camel meat and cheer at camel races.

The mapped genome revealed that around 57 percent of it is shared with the human genome, which means that future research may lead to health breakthroughs not only for the camel, but also for humans, Al Swailem said.

But it’s the potential for genetic information that could assist breeders to produce more beautiful camels that has sparked the most curiosity so far, the scientist said. A camel’s beauty, he noted, depends on many things, including “the nose, the shape of the hump itself, the way that hump stands straight, or to left or to the right … the legs, the color, the eyes.”

When camel lovers see that the genome project might help them acquire prettier camels, he added, “they will start discussing scientific issues, [like] what do you mean by genes ... how do genes affect our lives?

“And in fact, it works,” he said. “I received many calls from camel breeders asking how can we get benefit from the [genome] project? How can we support this project?”

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