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Saudi Arabia maps genome and educational future

Mapping camel genome is step toward new knowledge-based education system in the kingdom.

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?”