July 11, 2006

Czech birthplace of genetics seeks biotech future

By Ben Hirschler

BRNO, Czech Republic (Reuters) - The walled garden of
Brno's 14th-century Abbey of St. Thomas seems an unlikely
birthplace for the gene revolution, which gave the world
biotech drugs and genetically modified crops.

Yet it was here, 150 years ago, that the Augustinian monk
Gregor Mendel worked out the basic laws of inheritance by
painstakingly cross-breeding thousands of pea plants.

His breakthrough was to show how many characteristics, such
as the height of plants or the wrinkles in their seeds, were
inherited in an all-or-nothing way as discrete particles or, in
modern parlance, genes.

Mendel's ideas form the bedrock of modern biology. But his
work went unrecognized in his own lifetime and Mendelian
genetics was suppressed under Communism as a bourgeois heresy
at odds with the idea that all people are created equal.

A statue erected in Mendel's honor in one of Brno's main
squares was taken down by the Communists in 1950. It now stands
in a shady corner of the abbey garden.

These days, however, the Czech Republic's second-largest
city is lionizing the man known as the father of genetics.

A museum which opened at the abbey in 2002 has attracted
more than 25,000 visitors and Professor Jan Slovak, head of
strategic development at Masaryk University, believes Mendel's
heritage can help make the region a hub of biotech research.

"Mendel's way of blending the sciences of mathematics and
botany together is still alive in Brno and is reflected in our
approach to clinical research," he told Reuters.

"We feel Brno is becoming a hotbed of development. It is
not yet a very big one but it is dynamic."

To encourage the creation of new biotech businesses, Brno
is building a new "Medipark" life science campus at Masaryk
University, which is due for completion in 2008 at a cost of
200 million euros ($254 million).

The Czech Republic already has some 65 biotech firms,
mainly around Brno and Prague, and the country has attracted a
number of big drugmakers, who see it as a cheap, efficient
place to do clinical trials and to manufacture biotech drugs
and vaccines.

In March this year, the renowned U.S. Mayo Clinic also
selected Brno's International Clinical Research Center for a
unique U.S.-EU medical collaboration project.

A few years ago, biotechnology was virtually non-existent
in eastern Europe. Today international business consultants
Ernst & Young predict a promising biotech future for countries
like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, given their
skilled workforces and relatively low costs.


For the abbey -- which only reopened in 1989 following the
fall of Communism and has just three elderly monks in residence
-- embracing science makes good business sense.

Many of its buildings are now rented out commercially and
the Mendel Museum is an important link with the institution's
long tradition of scientific learning.

Mendel was not the only monk interested in combining
science with religion and his contemporaries included experts
in mathematics, meteorology, agronomy and astronomy.

The museum named after him has a tiny budget and a staff of
just four but deputy director Radek Vogel is pushing ahead with
plans to restore Mendel's garden to some of its former glory.

Visitors can already view demonstration beds of plants
displaying specific genetic traits outside the abbey refectory,
constructed in the 18th century, where Mendel -- a farmer's son
-- conducted his pea hybrid tests.

Those experiments started in 1856 and Mendel finally
presented his seminal findings to Brno's local scientific
society in 1865 -- although the importance of his discovery was
not recognized by the wider world for another 35 years.

Later this year, Vogel aims to restore Mendel's beehives in
a wooded, and still overgrown, section of the garden behind the

The abbey's main walled garden -- a pleasing green space of
lawns, trees and a few modest flowerbeds a short walk from the
center of old Brno -- may seem, at first sight, a very long way
from cutting-edge science.

But for Professor John Parker, director of Cambridge
University Botanic Garden in England, who helped with the
restoration plans, its ties to modern research are very strong.

"Everything, right through to the human genome project,
really depended on the model of scientific investigation that
Mendel laid down all that time ago," he said. "He was the
founding father of our modern understanding of genetics."