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Biopolicy International
African Centre for Technology Studies

Num. 9, 1993, pp. 1-35
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN MEXICO : Opportunities and Constraints in the 
Agroindustrial Sector 

Rosalba Casas

Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales
Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México (UNAM)


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African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)
Biopolicy International Series no. 9

Series Editors

     Calestous Juma
     African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), Nairobi

     John Mugabe
     ACTS Biopolicy Institute, Maastricht, The Netherlands

     Norman Clark
     Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, uk

     Walter Reid
     World Resources Institute, Washington, dc, usa
       Biopolicy International Series
1.     Bio-pesticides in Developing Countries: Prospects and
       Research Priorities 
       by R. Gerrits and E.B.J. van Latum.

2.     Genetic Resources and Sustainable Agriculture: Creating
       Incentives for Local Innovation and Adaptation 
       by Walter V. Reid.

3.     Conservation and Use of Agro-ecological Diversity 
       by Joel I. Cohen.

4.     Intellectual Property, Biotechnology and Trade: The
       Impact of the Uruguay Round on Biodiversity 
       by Rohini Acharya.

5.     Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources: Grassroots
       Efforts in North America 
       by Kevin Dahl and Gary Paul Nabhan.
6.     Biodiversity Conservation in Chile: Policies and
       by Jubel R. Moraga-Rojel.

7.     Property Rights, Biotechnology and Genetic Resources 
       by Mohamed H. Khalil, Walter V. Reid and Calestous Juma.

8.     Tree Rights in Kenya: The Case of Turkana 
       by Edmund G.C. Barrow.

Acts Press
African Centre for Technology Studies
Nairobi, Kenya

ACTS Biopolicy Institute
Maastricht, The Netherlands
Rosalba Casas, 1993

Published in Kenya in 1993 by Acts Press,
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Printed by English Press Limited, P.O. Box 30127, Nairobi

Cataloguing in Publication Data

Biotechnology in Mexico: opportunities and constraints in
the agroindustrial sector/Rosalba Casas.- Nairobi, Kenya,
Acts Press: African Centre for Technology Studies, 1993.

(African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS)
Biopolicy International Series; no. 9)

ISBN 9966-41-057-0

List of tables                                                 


1.         Historical developments                             

2.         Plant and agroindustrial biotechnology research     

3.         Plant biotechnology: Species searched               

4.         Trends: By-products and final products              

5.         Human resources                                     

6.         Funding sources                                     

7.         Links with the productive sector                    

8.         Broad trends in biotechnology research              

9.         Mexican policy for biotechnology development        

10.        Constraints to research                             

11.        Potential socio-economic impact                     




List of tables

1.         Plant biotechnology research units                  

2.         Agroindustrial biotechnology research units         
3.         Number of institutions by administrative assignment 
           and field of research                               

4.         Plant biotechnology research fields and species 

5.         Wastes, by-products and final products              

6.         Researcher qualifications in plant and agroindustrial

7.         National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT)
           support to plant biotechnology                      

8.         National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT)
           support to agroindustrial biotechnology             

9.         Plant biotechnology: Connections with the productive 

10.        Agroindustrial biotechnology: Connections with the 
           productive sector                                   



This study analyses the principal fields of biotechnology
research that are being promoted by universities and
government institutes and centres in Mexico related to
agriculture and food (1). Biotechnology research in Mexico is 
conduct by numerous research units developing projects devoted
to health, chemical and environmental sectors, agriculture and
agroindustry. Mexico is presently embarking on the development
of a wide spectrum of biotechnology research as a result of
several decades of efforts invested in the development of
biotechnology as well as the lack of a previous well-defined
policy for the enhancement of this field of research. The
development of a research base in biotechnology has not been
produced as a response to the demands or needs of the health,
food and environment sectors. The pattern of development is
characterized by a vague connection to national socio-economic
     Mexico's agricultural and food sectors currently suffer a 
crisis due to several factors, including the loss of dynamism
in agricultural production. An extensive traditional campesino
sector limits domestic supply of foodstuffs because of very
low productivity, and basic grain production is stagnating.
The agricultural sector grows very slowly, faces difficulties
in demographic growth and is unable to provide the necessary
foreign currency to support industrialization. Worsening
adverse conditions affect most of the campesino sector; net
transfers of capital to the industrial sector result in loss
of opportunities to capitalize the agricultural and livestock
     Several scholars have argued that it is necessary to
apply an alternative strategy for the development of the
agricultural sector which would reorient its production
towards basic products and the domestic market, congruent to
the basic needs of the population. Within this strategy it is
necessary to redefine the role of agricultural technology and
to orient it towards regions which have not received
technological stimulus and to lands in which agricultural
activities have been difficult.
     Considering the importance biotechnology is acquiring in
the international scene, the potentials it offers to overcome
agricultural and food problems and given the existence of an
important research base in this field in Mexico, it becomes
relevant to analyse the orientations of food-related
biotechnology research and to determine its importance for the
agricultural and food problems the  country faces. This study
analyses the nature of current biotechnology research in order
to determine whether the activities involved have a potential
relationship to present agricultural and food problems in
Mexico. It does not analyse or evaluate the social impact of
     Biotechnology research activities related to agriculture
and food are divided into two large areas. The first of these
areas is generally referred to as plant biotechnology and
deals with seed improvement through in vitro manipulation, and
it has repercussions on agricultural production. The second
area is agroindustrial biotechnology and is based on the use
of natural resources such as agricultural and agroindustrial
residues and by-products for recycling and enrichment.
Products of interest for the food and non-food agroindustry
are derived from this area of research.
     Analysis for the evaluation of these two areas of
research was based on the application of four criteria:
scientific and technical viability; economic feasibility;
characteristics of existing political opportunities for the
development and fostering of research areas; potential
application, utilization and social relevance of research with
respect to the impact of biotechnology on solving agricultural
and food problems (2).

1.     Historical developments

Research in the field of plant biotechnology began in Mexico
in 1969, when an agreement for scientific collaboration was
signed between Mexico and Japan covering a period of five
years. As a result, the first laboratory devoted to plant
tissue culture (PTC) was established at the Genetics Centre
in the Postgraduate College of Chapingo. Before this, only one
isolated project for the in vitro culture of maize, at the
Mexican Social Security Institute, had been established.
Around 1972, the Japanese company, Matsumoto, which produced
ornamental plants, installed a laboratory to investigate PTC,
thereby opening Mexico's second laboratory in this field (3).
     The laboratory of the Genetics Centre of Chapingo, later
known as the Biotechnology Laboratory, trained various
professionals in PTC techniques. Prior to 1975, it was visited
by several Japanese researchers who encouraged basic research
and channelled some equipment into the laboratory, which has
been a training centre for researchers now working in other
Mexican institutions. By 1975 an academic relationship had
been established between Chapingo and the International
Association of Plant Tissue Culture (IAPTC), and in 1980 the
Mexican Association of Plant Tissue Culture was established
as a branch of the IAPTC (4).
     In 1981 the Research Centre on Nitrogen Fixation (CEFINI)
was created at UNAM. It is mainly devoted to basic research
in molecular biology. The creation of this centre was made
possible by donations from various institutions: the
Autonomous University of Morelos; the government of the State
of Morelos; National Council of Science and Technology
(CONACYT); the Ricardo J. Zevada Fund; and the state-run
fertilizer agency, Fertilizantes Mexicanos (FERTIMEX). Because
of its own research, the need to produce fertilizers  based
on national technology and the need to offer alternatives to
substitute chemical with biological fertilizers, FERTIMEX was
very interested in the creation of CEFINI, and collaboration
was manifest from the start. Several joint seminars were held
on symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Nevertheless, in the most
recent report of activities (1986), no contact with FERTIMEX
was mentioned despite the fact that both organizations
continue to develop research projects on the symbiotic
association between Rhizobium and leguminous plants, and
FERTIMEX continues to form part of the Coordinating Committee
of Support Activities of CEFINI.
     Mexico has been involved in research related to
agroindustrial biotechnology for several decades. This phase
of biotechnology, known as traditional biotechnology, refers
to the use of micro-organisms for the production of fermented
drinks. The earliest use of fermentation techniques in Mexico
was in pre-Columbian times. However, this study refers only
to the start of institutional research in centres of higher
education, between 1940 and 1960.
     One of the first introductions to general biotechnology
in Mexico occurred at the National School of Biological
Sciences (ENCB) of the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN)
where industrial microbiology produced research dedicated
specifically to the use of industrial wastes. Research into
micro-organisms and their uses in different substrates for the
production of single-cell proteins (SCP) began in the 1960s.
This concentrated on the use of oil by-products as sources of
carbon and energy for protein biosynthesis, although
researchers in the 1940s had already studied amylases and
other microbial enzymes that could be used industrially (5).
     Later on, and in an institutionalized form, the
development of biotechnology initiated at the ENCB-IPN was
continued in the Department of Biotechnology and
Bioengineering (DBB) of the Research and Advanced Studies
Centre (CINVESTAV). The DBB was established in 1972, and there
special importance was given to applications to food and the
environment. Special emphasis was placed on the development
of bioengineering to provide the infrastructure on which
biotechnological developments could rest.
     In the case of UNAM, the present Department of
Biotechnology of the Institute of Biomedical Research started
in 1972 as a section of the Department of Molecular Biology;
in 1977 it became a separate department. By 1975 there were
six biotechnology laboratories conducting research into the
production of livestock foodstuff from manure, the im-
mobilization of enzymes using glucose isomerase, the genetic
improvement of strains for the  production of amino acids and
process scaling (6). During this period, many of the
researchers who initiated biotechnology research at the UNAM
received their postdoctoral training abroad. On their return
to Mexico they were incorporated into this Institute.
     In 1982 the Centre of Research on Genetic Engineering and
Biotechnology (CIIGEBI) was established at UNAM; it is known
as the Institute of Biotechnology. Soon the Department of
Biotechnology there began to absorb research workers from the
IIB. As far as its biotechnological orientation is concerned,
CIIGEBI concentrates on genetic engineering, and the
Department of Biotechnology represents a small part of it.
With respect to CIIGEBI, UNAM‘s interest in its creation fused
with certain factors of an international nature. At the
beginning of the 1980s, the convenience of creating an
international genetic engineering and biotechnology centre in
the Third World was discussed at the United Nations Industrial
Development Organization (UNIDO); this would allow developing
countries to be linked to the improvements occurring in these
areas of research in the developed world. At the beginning of
1982, CIIGEBI was seen by its constituents as one of the
possible headquarters for this international centre, and in
fact, according to its directors, it became a serious
candidate (7).Nevertheless, by the end of 1982, amidst an
economic crisis, the Mexican government withdrew its candidacy
for the headquarters.
     In 1979 the Department of Biotechnology was opened at the
Autonomous Metropolitan University located in Ixtapalapa (UAM-
I). Some of the researchers from the IIB of UNAM joined this
department and focused their research on food. This department
is oriented towards the food sector and environmental
problems. At present, a group of French researchers from the
Office of Overseas Scientific and Technological Research
(ORSTOM) form part of this Department and direct a line of re-
search on solid fermentation.
     This account merely sketches the origins of biotechnology
institutions in Mexico. This research area has already made
important progress in Mexico and has an institutional
development consisting of trained personnel, installations and
equipment. Present developments in plant and agroindustrial
biotechnology in Mexico are the product of efforts over
several decades.

2. Plant and agroindustrial biotechnology research

At present, Mexico has a large number of institutions where
research activities in plant and agroindustrial biotechnology
are being pursued. In plant biotechnology 38 research units
were studied (Table 1), while in agroindustrial biotechnology
24 research units were interviewed (Table 2). In total, 62
research units were considered for the purposes of this
     Research projects being conducted in the field of plant 
biotechnology have been grouped according to their areas of
application. These areas are micropropagation, genetic
improvement, industrial plant tissue culture, basic studies
and biological nitrogen fixation. In the field of
agroindustrial biotechnology, research projects being
conducted have been classified into fermentations, enzymatic
technology, bioengineering and genetic improvement of micro-
     Table 3 classifies the research units interviewed with
relation to their administrative assignment, that is the kind
of sector to which the institution belongs, and to their
fields of research. From this table it follows that the
research fields of greater importance to biotechnologists are
micropropagation, biological nitrogen fixation and
fermentations. From this table one can conclude that there is
a concentration of research in the area of micropropagation;
21 institutions out of 38 in plant biotechnology work exclu-
sively in this field. Indeed, micropropagation is one of the
fields of biotechnology that has already been commercially
     As to basic research, the main foci of research units are
centred in plant biochemistry, physiology, genetics and
molecular biology, since these attempt to give a scientific
foundation to the work of in vitro culture and to generate
knowledge for the application of genetic engineering. Table
3 shows that eight research units are working in these areas.
     In the field of fermentations various techniques and
processes are used. They rely as much on imported and adapted
technology as on technological developments designed and
generated by Mexican research centres. The majority of these
institutions work with submerged batch fermentations, i.e.
non-continuous processes. Nevertheless, some institutions,
such as CIQA and the CINVESTAV-DF have started  to work with
continuous processes. Others, such as the IMCyP-UGuad. are
working on the design of a reactor for continuous multi-
purpose processes.

Table 1 Plant biotechnology research units

Administrative    Research Units                         
        * Dept. of Biochemistry, Fac. of Chemistry, UNAM  
        * PTC Lab., Institute of Biology, UNAM            
        * Dept. of Plant Molecular Biology, 
              Centre for Nitrogen Fixation, UNAM          
        * Division of Chemical-Biological Sciences, 
              ENEP-Zaragoza, UNAM                         
        * PTC Lab., Fac of Biological Sciences, 
              Aut. Univ. of Nuevo León                    
        * School of Biological Sciences, 
              Aut. Univ. of Baja California               

Agricultural Autonomous
        * Lab. of Biotechnology, Genetics Centre,         
              Postgraduate College of Chapingo
        * Lab. of Embryogenesis, Centre of Fruiticulture 
              Postgraduate College of Chapino             
        * Lab. of Micropropagation, Centre of 
              Fruiticulture, Postgraduate College of      
        * Section of Biochemistry, Botanics Centre,       
              Postgraduate College of Chapingo
        * PTC Lab., Dept. of Phytotechnia, Aut. Univ.
              of Chapingo                                 
        * PTC Lab., Fito-INIA Project, Aut. Univ 
              of Chapingo                                 
        * PTC Lab., Mexican Institute of Maize,  
              Agr. Aut. Univ. Antonio Narro               

Federal and State Centres
and Universities
        * PTC Lab., Tissue Culture Research Centre, 
              Univ. of Sonora                              CICTUS
        * PTC Lab., Dept. of Biophysics, Nat. 
              School of Biological Sciences, IPN          
        * PTC Lab., Dept. of Botanics, Nat. School 
              of Biological Sciences, IPN                 
        * Interdisciplinary Research Centre for 
              Integral Rural Development, IPN             
        * Dept. of Biotechnology and Bioengineering,      
              Research and Advanced Studies Centre-DF
        * Research and Advanced Studies Centre-Irapuato   
        * PTC Lab., Agricultural Experimental Centre-
              Zacatepec, National Forestry, Agriculture   
              and Cattle Research Institute
        * PTC Lab., Agricultural Experimental Centre-
              Gral. Terán, National Forestry, Agriculture 
              and Cattle Research Institute
        * PTC Lab., Agricultural Experimental Centre
              Pabellón, National Forestry, Agriculture    
              and Cattle Research Institute
        * PTC Lab., Agricultural Experimental Centre-
              Laguna, National Forestry, Agriculture      
              and Cattle Reseach Institute
        * PTC Lab., National Potato Programme,            
              National Forestry, Agriculture and Cattle 
              Research Institute                               
        * PTC Lab., Dept. of Phytoproduction, 
              National Commission of Fruiticulture        
        * Lab. of Micropropagation, Institute of 
              Agricultural Technological Education         ISETA
Decentralized Institutions
        * Dept. of Experimental and Applied Biology,       CIB
              Centre of Biological Research
        * Division of Plant Biology, Centre of Scientific 
              Research of Yucatán                          CICY
        * Centre of Research and Technical Assistance 
              of Jalisco                                   CIATEJ

International Centres
        * Lab. of Cross Fertilization, Wheat Programme, 
              Maize and Wheat Improvement Research        
        * Lab. of Cross Fertilization, Maize Programme, 
              Maize and Wheat Improvement Research        

Public Production Units
        * PTC Lab., Genetics Dept., Mexican Institute 
              of Coffee                                   
        * PTC Lab., Dept. of Floriculture, National 
              Commission of Fruiticulture                 
        * PTC Lab., PROTINBOS                             
        * Centre of Micropropagation of the State of 
              Oaxaca                                       CM-OAX
Private Production Units
        * Tequila Cuervo                                   CUERVO
        * Mexican Biogenetics                             
        * Mexican Micropropagation Company                

Source:CONACYT. Ciencia y Desarrollo, Nos. 61, 62, 68, 69, 74 and

75, Mexico, 1985, 1986, 1987; COSNET. 1984. Potencial para el 
desarrollo de la ingeniería genética: Catálogo 1984, SEP, Mexico;

Robert, M. and V.M. Loyola, 1985. El cultivo de tejidos vegetales
México, CICY-CONACYT, Mexico.

       It is interesting to note that amongst the institutions
working on solid fermentation there are, apart from the UAM
and the CINVESTAV-DF, various rural units. They develop
different techniques, ranging from solid fermentation systems
in a stationary state to solid fermentation for agitated
systems. Although the research units working with these
techniques are few, they use various substrates and several
kinds of micro-organisms. Thus, of the seven institutions
working in solid fermentation, only two work on the same
substrate. The others work with numerous substrates, including
maize starches, amaranth, wheat, coffee pulp, henequen pulp
(Agave fourcroydes ), broccoli and cauliflower waste. In these
solid fermentation processes, very different micro-organisms
are used where strains are isolated from fungi, yeasts and

      In the area of enzymatic technology, and more
specifically in research projects concerning the production
and separation of enzymes, the main focus is on pectinases
from fruit waste, cellulases for the food industry, proteases
and chitinases, as well as the production and immobilization
of the enzyme B-galactosidase for the production of lactose-
free milks.
     The development of bioengineering in Mexico followed the
institutionalization of biotechnology, and a significant
number of institutions (14 units out of 24 in agroindustrial
biotechnology) are working on this area. These units are
focused on equipment design and the adaptation of imported
technologies, as well as on the installation of pilot plants
which include all the stages in the productive process,
including recovery of the product. With respect to this last
aspect, it is important to emphasize that only the CINVESTAV-
DF, the ITS and LANFI have the necessary equipment to carry
out the recovery of final products.

Table 2 Agroindustrial biotechnology research units

Administrative       Research Units                       
Autonomous Universities
        * Food Department, Faculty of Chemistry, UNAM     
        * Dept. of Biotechnology, Institute of Biomedical 
               Research, UNAM                             
        * Dept. of Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering 
               and Biotechnology Research Centre, UNAM    
        * Dept. of Design, Centre of Instruments, UNAM    
        * Unit of Biotechnology, Centre of Nitrogen 
               Fixation, UNAM                             
        * Dept. of Biotechnology, Autonomous Metropolitan 
               University-Ixtapalapa                       UAM-I
        * Faculty of Chemistry, Autonomous University of 
               the State of Mexico                        
        * Faculty of Biological Sciences, Autonomous 
               University of Nuevo Leon                   

Federal and State Centres
and Universities
        * Dept. of Biochemical Engineering, National      
               School of Biological Sciences, IPN
        * Dept. of Graduates and Research, National       
               School of Biological Sciences, IPN
        * Dept. of Microbiology, National School of       
               Biological Sciences, IPN
        * Dept. of Biotechnology and Bioengineering,      
               Research and Adavnced Studies Centre
        * Dept. of Bioengineering, Institute of Wood,     
               Cellulose and Paper, University of 
        * Centre of Research and Teaching on Agriculture  
               and Food, University of Guanajuato

Regional Technological Institutes
        * Centre of Graduates, Technological Institute 
               of Veracruz                                 ITV
        * Centre of Graduates, Technological Institute 
               of Merida                                   ITM
        * Centre of Graduates, Technological Institute 
               of Durango                                  ITD
        * Direction of Research, Technological Institute 
               of Sonora                                   ITS

Decentralized Institutions
        * Dept. of Biotechnology, National Laboratories    LANFI
               for Industrial Development
        * Dept. of Biotechnology and Bioengineering, 
               Mexican Oil Institute                       IMP
        * Laboratory of Mycology, National Institute of 
               Research on Biotic Resources                INIREB
Private Institutions
        * Unit of Microbiology, Centre of Research on 
               Applied Chemistry                            CIQA
        * Centre of Research and Technical Assistance of 
        * Mexican Institute on Appropriate Technologies     IMETA

Source:CONACYT. 1985-1987. Ciencia y Desarrollo, Nos. 61, 62, 
68, 69, 74 and 75, Mexico; COSNET. 1984. La investigación en 
biotecnología y bioingeniería: Catálogo, SEP, Mexico.

       Genetic improvement of micro-organisms employed in the
fermentative processes is being developed in six research
units. This is an important activity if the processes are to
be optimized and made economically feasible. The majority of 
these institutions work on genetic improvement through
mutagenesis, but only four of them study genetic improvement
through techniques of r-DNA. CINVESTAV-DF is the only
institution that has integrated this activity into an overall
project of research on cane bagasse for the production of SCP.

Table 3 Plant and agroindustrial biotechnology: Number of 
institutions by administrative assignment and field of research
        see graphics file

3. Plant biotechnology: Species searched

The majority of the research units working on micropropagation
and germ plasm preservation investigate with ornamental
plants, especially orchids, gladiolas, chrysanthemums,
carnations and ornamental cactii (Table 4). Another important
feature in this area of research is the investigation of fruit
species, mainly those destined for export such as strawberry,
pineapple, citrus, coffee and others. With reference to
horticultural species, there are fewer projects when compared
with ornamental and fruit  species, and research is
concentrated on onion, garlic, cassava and potato (with the
object of preserving the germ plasm), as well as celery and
nopal for vegetative micropropagation. In the course of this
study only one research project on the micropropagation of
fodder species was detected, namely alfalfa; this research is
carried out at the ENCB-IPN.

Table 4 Plant biotechnology research fields and species searched 
(Number of research units doing research in each field)

Fields of Research                   Species (*)
                        No. of    Cr  Or  Hc  Lg  Fr  Tb  Ft  In 
Micropropagation and    31         -  15   8   1  13   5   4  14 
Germ Plasm

Plant Genetic            9         6   -   3   1   2   1   -  
3   1

Industrial Plant         5         -   -   -   -   -   -   -  
-   -

Basic Studies            8         8   -   1   5   -   1   -  
2   1

Biological Nitrogen     28         -   -   -  12   -   -   -  
-   -

Cr: Cereals  Or: Ornamental  Hc: Horticultural  Lg: Legumes  Fr:
Tb: Tubers   Ft: Forest      In: Industrial

(*) Species classification is based on Loubet, E. 1980. "
Investigaciones agrícolas en México, Ciencia y Desarrollo, num.
México, p. 9.

Source: Data classified from personal interviews and
sent to biotechnology researchers, October 1986 to June 1987.

        There are two other relevant areas in research on
micropropagation. One is micropropagation of the agave, being
developed simultaneously in five research units. Another is
micropropagation of forest species which, in spite of their
importance to Mexico, is only pursued in one research unit;
there, work is done on the reproduction of three kinds of
pines, red cedar and other tropical species.
     The majority of the research on micropropagation could
be described as applied research, since it is work which looks
for the optimum conditions to micropropagate plants of a
determined species by varying the culture medium, the relation
of growth hormones and light. This work could most
appropriately be characterized as a kind of craft work
attempting to describe the recipes for micropropagation for
the species under study. Consequently, much of this work is
repetitive since the scientists experiment with species whose
reproduction in vitro has already been reported in the
scientific literature. In some cases the objective is to
improve on the results reported or to try to achieve these by
other means. The majority of these researchers work with
easily regenerated species, and little research is
concentrated on recalcitrant species such as pine, agave and
     In general there are few studies attempting to give a
scientific basis to micropropagation work, that is, which 
attempt to understand more fundamentally and control the
mechanisms involved in the phenomenon of in vitro regeneration
of plants. This is demonstrated by the lack of links between
the micropropagation works and the basic studies. The latter,
although in some cases developed in the same research units,
are pursued independently of the micropropagation studies.
     As for genetic improvement, the majority of the
researchers are working with somaclonal variation and in vitro
selection. Nevertheless, there are also some projects that use
embryo rescue, anthers culture and protoplast fusion, while
just one institution works with plant genetic engineering.
Most projects are, however, very much in the initial stages.
Scientists are working on the regeneration phase of plants
from cells in suspension, which is only a prior condition for
a programme in genetic engineering. Genetic improvement of
plants is a very long-term job. It involves the combination
of new biotechnological techniques as well as the traditional
techniques of plant breeding, which are those that allow for
field level demonstrations. However successful the application
of techniques of r-DNA may be at the laboratory level, the
validity of the new biotechnology has to be proved in the
     As to the cultures being researched, there are at present
six research units working with basic grains (maize, wheat,
beans and rice); two working with fruit trees (papaya and
avocado); two with tomatoes; one with potato, tobacco and
amaranth; one with wild plants; one with Agave tequilana and
Canavalia ensiformis; and one working with sugar cane.
Projects in genetic improvement are very diverse, and there
are only a few cases where two or more units are working on
the same species, namely basic grains and fruit and
horticultural plants.
     Projects on the improvement of basic grains are, in
general, in their initial stages. Research on basic crops such
as rice and kidney beans, developed by CINVESTAV-Irapuato with
long-term objectives, still have to solve scientific and
technical limitations in order to utilize genetic engineering
     Genetic improvement is a research area where the
fundamental objective is to obtain virus-free plants and
varieties which are resistant to illnesses, pests and specific
adverse environmental conditions. In the developed countries
the predominant line of research, as far as basic grains are
concerned, is to obtain varieties resistant to insecticides
and herbicides and to create self-fertilizing varieties (8).
The concern in producing these varieties is based on the
strong interests of transnational companies to improve and
monopolize the market of agricultural inputs. With these
varieties such companies will assure the success of
insecticides and herbicides.
     The orientations of research in the developed world are
not necessarily attractive to Mexican agriculturalists who are
more interested, in the first place, in varieties that will
guarantee a good harvest due to their resistance to pests
without having to rely on pesticides. Secondly, they need
varieties that are less dependent on agricultural  inputs and
more adaptable to varying environmental conditions. This
explains the importance of such self-fertilizing varieties.
The interests of Mexican agriculturalists imply the de-
velopment of different research lines to those being pursued
in the advanced countries. Mexico would benefit from efforts
to diminish the delay in obtaining varieties resistant to
illnesses, pests and severe environmental conditions and
varieties capable of fixing nitrogen themselves.
     Industrial plant biotechnology is an area of research in
its early stages in Mexico, and in 1987 only three research
projects were being developed. Three of these projects have
as their goal the production of substances for medical and
pharmacological use: firstly, the production of Digoxine which
is used as a cardiotonic in the pharmaceutical industry;
secondly, the production of Vincristine and Vinblastine which
are dimeric alkaloids used in cancer treatments, and thirdly
the production of Capsaicina.
     The three research projects in this area are being
developed at the laboratory level. The Catharantus project is
concentrating on basic biochemistry of the metabolic
production routes of the Vincristine and Vinblastine
alkaloids: the nitrogenate metabolism, the plant enzymes and
their way of handling nitrogen have been studied. Research
also focuses on the uses of the secondary metabolites by
plants, as scientists have discovered that these compounds are
produced by the plant in response to stress. Until 1987, no
attention was paid to the problems of scaling and
bioengineering. The Digoxine, Vincristine and Vinblastine
projects are intended to provide substitutes for expensive
imported compounds which are needed, although in minute
     It is very unlikely, however, that some of these projects
will be completely successful. Some research workers have
already expressed doubts. World-wide competition in research
on these metabolites as well as prevailing competition in the
world market allow little chance for Third World technological
developments in this field. The projects currently being de-
veloped in Mexico can provide a contribution to knowledge in
this area and even succeed technically, but it is unlikely
that they will become industrialized given their high
production costs. Such high costs hinder these processes from
becoming economically feasible. The investments implied by
these processes can only be provided by the large
transnational companies. Consequently, the developing
countries have so far exported secondary metabolites extracted
by chemical methods to the developed countries, and they are
faced with the threat of  these products being substituted,
a threat to which they cannot reply because of the high pro-
duction costs implied.
     ENCB-IPN carries out basic research to improve
understanding of the phenomenon of in vitro culture. At
present they are working on alfalfa. CINVESTAV-I is pursuing
basic research in biochemistry and molecular biology in close
contact with research on genetic engineering. This is intended
to improve the species studied‘potato, kidney beans, rice,
amaranth, tomato and tobacco. In 1987, this centre began to
utilize the restriction fragment length polimorfisms (RFLP)
method to detect desirable agricultural characteristics in the
plant's genome.
     With relation to biological nitrogen fixation, two
approaches prevail. The first one studies the natural
phenomenon of nitrogen fixation produced by means of the
symbiosis between Rhizobium and legumes and the search of
native strains of micro-organisms to be used as the biological
source of nitrogen fixation in plants. The other approach,
being developed at CEFINI-UNAM, is that of basic molecular
biology; it studies the genetic characteristics of micro-
organisms capable of fixing nitrogen, mainly Rhizobium. In the
long term, the understanding, manipulation and transfer of
nitrogen-fixing genes may lead to the creation of new crops,
probably cereals, capable of fixing nitrogen by themselves.
     To a great extent the research work of CEFINI is
concentrated on the study of the molecular biology of the
symbiotic association between Rhizobium and leguminous plants.
This is intended to be a basic research programme; the
objective is to increase biological nitrogen fixation and to
understand the mechanisms regulating the interaction between
bacteria and plants. These basic studies intend to generate
mutants and introduce genes by means of genetic engineering
     CINVESTAV-I and the CEFINI are the two units pursuing
research in molecular biology, but they each have very
different orientations. Field-work interviews indicated that
some other research institutions are interested in entering
this area of research, for example, the Department of
Biochemistry of UNAM and the Botany Centre of the Postgraduate
College of Chapingo.

4. Trends: By-products and final products

Due to the great variety of substrates being investigated,
research projects were classified by groups of substrates
according to their characteristics and composition. This
approach suggests the following classification: carbohydrates,
lignocellulose residues and other substrates.  Amongst
carbohydrates those substrates that constitute carbon and
energy sources to develop different biotechnological processes
are included. Lignocellulose residues mainly include those
substrates made up of a lignin-hemicellulose-cellulose complex
which cannot be readily hydrolysed by enzymes or acids to
liberate fermentable sugars (9). Other substrates are those
with very specific compositions. Table 5 specifies by-products
and waste materials by groups of substrates being investigated
and final products to be obtained at the time of the field
    Regarding research on the use of carbohydrate substrates,
that is substrates that represent a source of carbon and
energy, the most frequently investigated are molasses,
cassava, milk whey and some fruit and vegetable residues.
Molasses is the by-product of sugar crystallization and is one
of the most attractive by-products because of abundance,
location, chemical characteristics and easy use as a source
for various products. At present eight research units are
working with molasses, all of them using techniques of
submerged fermentation, both through batch processes and
through continuous processes. CINVESTAV-DF stands out as the
most advanced institution using this substrate. The objectives
are optimization of the fermenter, improving profitability and
diversification to such uses as fodder yeast and flavourings
for the food industry. Other institutions are employing sub-
merged fermentation to develop alternative uses of this by-
product, such as the production of bioinsecticides,
metabolites and microbial oils. In the last two uses the
production of SCP is considered a secondary product.
     Seven research projects are being developed on the use
of cassava. They work mainly with solid fermentation
techniques, using various systems and different micro-
organisms. The objective as far as the final use of cassava
is concerned, is to enrich cassava for use as a complement to
animal feeds.
     Research into the use of milk whey is being conducted at
seven research units. Whey is a residue which drains from curd
in cheese manufacture. In Mexico it represents annually a
total of 1,000,000 tons which otherwise result in waste and
contamination. Since the objectives as regards the final
products are quite varied, different lines of research with
this by-product have been followed: production and
immobilization of ‘-galactosidase enzyme (lactases)
hydrolysing milk to produce lactose-free milks; production of
SCP through the cultivation of yeasts mixed with whey and
maize liquor; production of biomass using the fungus Ustilago
in the fermentation; production of amino acids through lactose
and mineral salts; production of culture means through
powdered whey; animal protein supplement or SCP enriched with
methionine; continuous production of yoghurt; and production
of lipases, which are enzymes used by the food industry as
     Regarding the use of whey as a substrate for the
production of SCP, there are three institutions seeking to 
obtain it or to obtain an enriched biomass. The research
workers at CIIGEBI-UNAM proposed, in 1987, a strategy
promoting an integrated production system with two objectives:
the production of the B-galactosidase enzyme with the
consequent reduction of imports, and the utilization of the
by-product of this process, which is SCP and its use as a
protein supplement in animal feeds.
     Research using other carbohydrates such as residues of
fruits, vegetable tubers, maize starch, amaranth and wheat is
conducted with almost the whole range of biotechnological
techniques. Researchers are using submerged fermentation by
means of batch and continuous processes, solid stationary and
agitated fermentation and enzyme production, as well as ge-
netic improvement of micro-organisms for the fermentative
processes. Most institutions dealing with the use of other
carbohydrates are concerned with the development of processes
that allow for the production of SCP to generate enriched
animal food and produce enzymes.
     The research units working with these by-products are
located as much in Mexico City as in other regions throughout
the country, mainly in the States of Guanajuato, Mexico and
Coahuila. This fact reveals a preoccupation on the part of
researchers to use typical waste materials or by-products from
different regions, despite the fact that research at an
international level does not place much emphasis on their use.
This choice of lines of research gives biotechnology in Mexico
a specific character determined by the preoccupation to adapt
known technologies to the use and exploitation of various
national natural resources.
     The lignocellulose residues are composed of a large
variety of agricultural crop residues and agroindustrial by-
products including cane bagasse, wheat, rice and barley
straws, maize stubble, cotton and rice husks, forest residues,
guayule and pineapple bagasses and henequen pulp (Table 5).
Their presence in different regions of the country, as well
as the disposal problems which they pose, has given an impetus
to various lines of research amongst Mexican biotechnologists.
They are attempting to find relevant uses with systems of
bioconversion. These uses are directed to different sectors
including agriculture, food, energy production, the
construction sector and the paper industry.

Table 5 Wastes, by-productrs and final products (number of
units searching in each field)

Final Products                      An  Ad  Ez  Or  Mb  Ed  Al
Wastes and By-products
Carbohydrate Sources                                           
Molasses                             4   1   -   2   1   -   -
Cassava                              4   1   1   -   -   -   1
Milk whey                            4   -   3   -   -   -   1
Fruit, potato and amaranth and       5   -   6   -   -   -   -
corn starches

Lignocellulosic residues
Sugar cane and guayule bagasse       8   -   2   1   -   1   -
Wheat straw and rice husk            2   1   4   -   -   -   -
Henequen pulp                        1   -   2   -   -   -   1
Forest residues                      1   -   -   -   -   1   1

Other substrates
Chitinosic and fishing residues      1   -   1   -   -   -   -
Methanol                             1   -   -   -   -   -   -
Animal manure                        3   -   -   1   -   -   1
Residual waters                      5   2   2   2   -   -   4

An: Animal foodstuff and SCP for animal feeding
Ad: Food additives
Ez: Enzymes, amino acids and vitamins
Or: Organic fertilizers and bioinsecticides
Mb: Secondary metabolites
Ed: Edible mushrooms
Al: Alcohol and methanol

Source: Data classified from personal interviews, October 1986
to June 

     Regarding the use of sugar cane bagasse and bagacillo, in
1987 eight lines of research were being developed with this
by-product. Research projects aim at the design and operation
of processes for the production of SCP and the increase in
digestability of these residues by cattle. The advances in re-
search on sugar cane bagasse of DA-FQ-UNAM, CINVESTAV-DF and
the IMCyP-UGuad are the most relevant. There are still
problems of economic feasibility with the use of cane bagasse
and bagacillo mainly due to the pre-treatment required for
these by-products before the fermentative phase.
     When considering other agroindustrial crop residues of
a lignocellulose type, the work being developed in the ITS
with wheat straw stands out. This institution has integrated
a line of research consisting of various projects which enrich
knowledge on this substrate and diversify the kinds of final
products generating from each stage of the process. As far as
products are concerned, the focus is on SCP for animals (fish
and cattle), SCP for human consumption, vitamin supplements
for human and animal consumption, bread yeasts, xanthan gum
and cellulases for the food, textile and pharmaceutical
     Research on henequen pulp being done at the DB-IIB-UNAM
and ITM is oriented towards the production of enzymes and
proteins for food, enriched pulp for dairy cattle fodder,
flour for the production of hecogenine and tigogenine for the
steroid industry and also the production of ethanol as fuel.
     Other institutions are developing processes for the use
of guayule bagasse and rice husk. CIQA works on the
optimization of a process for the production of proteic
enriched guayule bagasse. CINVESTAV-DF has a long experience
with utilization of rice husk. Initially, rice husk was in-
tended to be used for animal food; however, given the problems
in degrading the lignine, researchers decided to change their
objectives to obtain other products (10). Since it has a high
silicate content, it is possible to extract silica gel which
is used as an abrasive in toothpastes and for the vulcaniza-
tion of rubber. It can also be used for the production of
haemoderivatives needed in laboratory analyses. Lignine and
cellulose can also be obtained from it.
     The biotechnological research in this area of
lignocellulose residues still has to overcome the strong
limitations imposed by the very composition of these residues.
The lignine is bound to both cellulose and haemicellulose,
which makes it difficult to use efficiently. Lignine‘s
constitution is very complex and under-researched. Only by the
degradation of lignine can access be gained to all the
materials that could be transformed by micro-organisms into
proteins; if this is accomplished, then the process might be-
come economically viable (11).
     The degradation of lignine is not conceived in the same
way by all researchers working with these residues.
Consequently, various options for their use are put forward.
The first consists of giving a pre-treatment to the residues,
either using a chemical (caustic soda or ammonia) or a thermal
steam treatment, the effect of which is degradation of the
lignine prior to fermentation. Another option is to inoculate
the substrate with white rot fungi to develop a process
through which the lignine in the residue is degraded. The
residue can thereby become enriched with protein from the
remaining fungi mycelium. Mushrooms may also be produced which
provide an important human food.
     Table 5 lists other by-products, some of them related to
agriculture, some to cattle activities and others to different
industries. Research on this set of by-products applies all
of the techniques included in the area of agroindustrial
biotechnology. Techniques of anaerobic fermentation are also
applied by means of the use of digestors. Concerning the uses
of these substrates, some of them, such as animal manure and
residual waters, are used as sources of energy in the form of
methane gas. Other by-products, such as methanol and coffee
pulp, are used as sources of protein-enriched bacterial
biomass for animal feed. The use of these substrates for the
production of enzymes (proteases, chitinases, alpha- amylases)
is quite common as is the production of some metabolites, such
as lactic acid, for the food industry.

5. Human resources

One relevant indicator in analysing Mexican research on
biotechnology includes the quantitative and qualitative
characteristics of human resources in this field of research.
In 1987 Mexico had approximately 160 research workers in plant
biotechnology and 170 in agroindustrial biotechnology. They
were distributed throughout 62 research units as a wide
dispersion of human resources. There are institutions with
only one researcher in biotechnology, while others have large
groups. Most of the research projects are generally integrated
by a senior researcher and in some cases by an associated
researcher or research assistant, with some technicians and,
at times, large numbers of students working on their degree
thesis, which may be at undergraduate, master, or
occasionally, doctoral level. These students may be vital to
the research, but they are not contracted by the university.
There is no attitude of collaboration among the highly-
educated and experienced researchers; rather, the few holders
of doctorate degrees only exhibit an attitude of competition.
This is the result of several factors, including a strong
tendency towards individualism in research and a severe
shortage of posts which hinders new personnel from entering
the institutions. This phenomenon is not only visible in
biotechnological research but also extensively affects the
entire scientific and technological system in the country.
     The distribution of researcher qualifications is shown
in Table 6. Researchers in plant biotechnology have doctoral
degrees, while researchers in agroindustrial biotechnology 
have master‘s degrees. Half of the research units in
agroindustrial biotechnology do not have personnel qualified
to the doctorate level so there is no doctor coordinating
research. Many of the researchers in 1987 were quite young.
A large percentage of the personnel in this area still have
not completed the formative stages of their academic training.
In the majority of the cases, this training develops parallel
to their teaching and research activities; only when the
researcher decides to study for a doctorate abroad can
facilities and funding be obtained.

Table 6 Researcher qualifications in plant and agroindustrial 

Qualifications     Plant biotechnology      Agroindustrial 
Doctors             51      (46.0%)          22    (17.9%)     
Masters             25      (22.5%)          56    (45.5%)
Graduates           35      (31.5%)          45    (36.6%)
TOTAL              111     (100.0%)         123   (100.0%)

Source:  Data classified from personal interviews and postal 
questionnaires to biotechnology researchers from October 1986 
to June 1987

6.     Funding sources

Another important indicator in the evaluation of research
activities is the funding available. During the field work,
two kinds of financial resources were identified: those coming
from budgets within the institutions themselves, and those
from external sources. In general, funding from the insti-
tutions‘ budgets covers only the researchers' salaries, and
in some cases it is insufficient to provide contract research
assistants. As a result, external financial sources have an
increasingly important role, since they represent the only
means of initiating new research projects and of acquiring
equipment and laboratory materials.
     The two largest external sources are the National Council
of Science and Technology (CONACYT), a public decentralized
organization responsible for scientific and technological
policies in the country, and COSNET, a branch of the Ministry
of Education (SEP). In principle, CONACYT can finance all
research centres, while COSNET only finances institutions be-
longing to the National Technological Education System. There
are some other complementary sources of funding. Some are
public, such as the Direction of Graduates and Research (DGI),
which exclusively funds research in the IPN, and the Mexico
Programme established by the Ministry of Trade and Industry
(SECOFI) in 1985. There are several other private sources such
as the Ricardo L. Zevada Fund, a national foundation.
     It was extremely difficult to discover the amount of
funding targeted for this area of research. It was not
possible to obtain detailed information about funding to
particular researchers. Institutions and their administrators
were unable or unwilling to provide data on specific projects.
Nevertheless, information was available on funding from
CONACYT going to plant biotechnology, covering 1984-1987 (12).
Tables 7 and 8 give the data on financial support channelled
through CONACYT into research centres in plant and
agroindustrial biotechnology with amounts in  constant
thousands of pesos.
     It is evident that this organization concentrates its
support on a limited number of research units including those
well as support to several institutions in the States, notably
to CICY, INIREB, ITS, ITD and IMCyP-Guad. It is possible to
discern a distinctive pattern in the support from CONACYT. The
year 1985 witnessed the largest grants, but these were reduced
in 1986 and practically non-existent by 1987. This is partly
explained by the fact that in some cases the budget was
authorized in 1985 to cover activities over a period of two
years. But this can also be explained by the economic crisis
which deepened in 1986 and coincided with the final years of
the De la Madrid presidential period, years when there was
less financing available for any science-related activities.
     There is an increasing number of foreign funding sources
for research units working in plant and agroindustrial
biotechnology. These provide alternative sources for
continuing the support of research activities, given limited
national funds. Once again it is the largest research units
that have access to this funding. To give a few examples, in
1987 CEFINI-UNAM received financing from four external
sources, two of these international, namely the National
Academy of Sciences (American) and the European Community. On
the other hand, CINVESTAV-I is the institution receiving the
most external funding, and it has managed most successfully
to diversify its funding sources. Between 1986-1987 it
received funds from the Ricardo Zevada Fund, COSNET, the
Mexico Programme, as well as the National Academy of Sciences,
the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),
UNIDO and the Rockefeller Foundation. This diversification in
funding sources is a deliberate policy on their part, and
given the uncertainty in the continuity of government funding,
this centre has begun to turn to external sources to ensure
the continuity of the projects already begun.

Table 7 CONACYT Support to plant biotechnology, 1984-1987
                    (thousands of pesos) (1982 = 100)

Research Units            1984      1985        1986      1987

FQ-UNAM                  2,015      4,608      3,588       494
IB-UNAM                    -        1,898        357       178
CEFINI-UNAM                -        2,258        357     1,495
ENEP-Z-UNAM              2,877      2,351        139        -

CG-CPCH                  1,058      8,523      2,967     2,274
LE-CF-CPCH               1,257         27         67        -
LM-CF-CPCH                 -          -          506        -
CB-CPCH                  1,018      2,159        284       667
F-INIA-UACH                195         24        -          -

CICTUS                      39        -          -          -
CINVESTAV-Irapuato       9,177     49,564     18,166     5,437
 CICY                   10,179      8,612      3,322     1,711
CIATEJ                     -        1,067        179        36

Total                   27,815     81,091     29,932    12,256

Source: Data classified from personal interviews and from
statistics on CONACYT's financial support to science and
technology, Ciencia y Desarrollo, Nos. 61, 62, 68, 69, 74, 75,
79, 81, CONACYT, Mexico.

Table 8 CONACYT support to agroindustrial biotechnology,
(thousands of pesos) (1982 = 100)

Research Units            1984      1985      1986      1987

FQ-UNAM                  1,994      8,415      506      1,611
CIIGEBI-UNAM               281     12,610      674        127
UAM-Ixtapalapa             999      8,380    4,482      1,259
FCB-UANL                    -       1,078      795      1,302

DIB-ENCB-IPN                -         174    1,763         11
DGI-ENCB-IPN                -          -        -         293
DBB-CINVESTAV            6,781      8,653    1,607        874
IMCP-U. Guad.            2,257      1,889      246         -

ITM                         -          -     2,625         -
ITD                      4,169      1,451      527        864
ITS                      2,293      2,241       -          -

IMP                         -         890       -          -
INIREB                   5,409      4,790    2,136        219

CIATEJ                  19,078      1,079       71         -
IMETA                       -         611    1,626        440

Total                   43,261     52,261   17,058      7,000

Source:     Data classified from personal interviews and from
Ciencia y
Desarrollo, CONACYT, Mexico, Num. 61, 62, 68, 69, 74 and 75.

     Other foreign funding sources include the Ministry of
Research and Technology of the German Federal Republic, UNIDO,
ORSTOM, OAS and the World Health Organization (WHO). All these
international organizations channel their funds to
biotechnological research units located in Mexico City, more
particularly to UNAM and UAM-I.
     Parallel to these funding sources, the research units 
have obtained funding from collaboration agreements
established with private and public companies.The institutions
which maintain these kinds of agreement are CINVESTAV-I, CICY
and the Institute of Biology of UNAM. This latter source of
funding means that for some researchers there is a possibility
of continuing to develop basic research, since it is difficult
to gain external funding for this kind of investigation,
particularly from industry, as it is only interested in short-
term, concrete results. Some research workers have explained,
however, that through contracts with industry, it is possible
to obtain equipment and laboratory materials as well as
funding residuals which can be used in subsequent basic
research projects.

7. Links with the productive sector

Plant and agroindustrial biotechnology are characterized by
various types of links with the productive sector, ranging
from informal collaborations with companies for the
development of products, to the productive application of
processes developed in research units. There are research
agreements with firms, both State and private, agreements
which nevertheless do not guarantee the industrialization of
the processes. In total, 17 cases of collaboration between
research units and industry were found (Tables 9 and 10).
     The field of micropropagation is doubtless one which
presents the most frequent examples of productive
applications, given the degree of development of the
techniques and their economic attractiveness. In the field of
genetic improvement three studies were developed by means of
an agreement with industry; however, links with the productive
sector have not been detected for industrial plant
biotechnology. Regarding agroindustrial biotechnology, five
agreements have as their final objective the installation of
pilot plants; only one agreement has been signed for
industrialization of the process when profitability is

Table 9 Plant biotechnology: Connections with the productive

Research Units  Public Sector   Private     Biotechnological
                                Enterprises            Processes
*  IB-UNAM      *  SEDUE                    * Micropropagation
of cactus
                                              and orchids to
                                              their extinction

*  LB-CG-CPCH   *  FAPATUX                  * Microprpagation of

*  IB-UNAM                      *  VITRIUM  * Micropropagation
of Toloache
                                              (Datura inoxia)

*  CICY                         *  Tequila  * Micropropagation
of Agave 
                                   Cuervo     tequilana

*  LB-CG-CPCH   *  CMO                      * Micropropagation
of Agave

* CINVESTAV-Ira *  TABAMEX                  * Tobacco resistance
to virus

*  CAE-Z        *INIFAP                     * genetic improvement

Source: Data classified from personal interviews and postal 
questionnaires to biotechnology researchers from October 1986 to 
June 1987.

     There is some interest on the part of public companies
in making use of the capacities of biotechnological research
developed in the research centres. The majority of the links
with public firms have originated from a preoccupation on the
part of these firms with solving problems of contamination
caused by waste.
     To a great extent the links between academic research and
the productive sector are established once the process has
been developed in the research centres. This assumes that the
product or process was not created in response to a demand
from the productive sector but originated from a preoccupation
of a scientific and socio-economical kind. Research costs were
initially borne by laboratories and higher education centres
rather than industries. This factor constitutes one of the
largest obstacles to a link with the productive sector. It
could be suggested that a strategy aiming to ensure these
links should stress the development of scientific and
technological capacities responding to specific demands
generated in the productive sector.

Table 10 Agroindustrial biotechnology: Connections with the 
productive sector

Research Units  Public Enterprise   Private     Biotechnological
FQ-UNAM         MICONSA                         * Pilot plant for
                (Industrialized                   treatment of
                maize)                            water from
maize industry       
                                    INTECALF(*) * Champignon
                                                  on cane bagasse
CIIGEBI-UNAM                        KEMFUDS     * Pilot plant for
                                                  production of
SCP from 
                                                * Production of

DBB-CINVESTAV   Sugar Cane                      * Pilot plant for
                Workers' Trade                    production of
                Union                             yeast from

                LICONSA                         * Production of
                (Industrialized                   free milk by
means of
                milk)                             a continuous

                Azúcar S.A.                     * Organic
                (Sugar)                           from cane
                                                  cachaza and

INIREB                              A coffee    * Production of
                                    entrepreneur  Pleurotus
                                    from          from coffee
                                    Coatepec,     (Pilot plant)

ITD                                 HIRAMEX(*)  * Continuous
                                                  of yoghurt

FCB-UANL                            CERVECERIAS * Production of
                                    CUAUHTEMOC    amylase enzyme

(*) Enterprises created by university researchers by means of a 
shared-risk investment programme from CONACYT.

Source: Data classified from personal interviews with researchers

in biotechnology from October 1986 to June 1987.

*This paper has been produced without formal editing.

8. Broad trends in biotechnology research

Research in plant biotechnology is currently oriented towards
the consideration of ornamental, horticultural, fruit and
industrial crops (Table 4), and the central objective is to
obtain vegetative material or crops for direct export. Because
tissue culture techniques tend to be technically suitable for
the species already mentioned but not for species that
reproduce through seeds, namely cereals, the orientation of
current plant biotechnology research in Mexico is based both
on the commercial importance of the species searched and in
the already existing techniques that allow faster regeneration
of identical plants.
     Plant biotechnology in Mexico is still not researching
into basic grains, nor is there much consideration given to
the problems of less favourable lands or towards generating
more suitable agricultural inputs for low-income campesinos.
For example, research on rain-fed lands and arid zones is
practically non existent. The only exception is the research
team on plant genetic engineering at CINVESTAV-Irapuato, where
the explicit policy is to confront problems of local
agriculture. This institution plans to research bean varieties
which are appropriate for the conditions in the Bajio region.
     Trends in plant biotechnology research in Mexico, to a
certain extent, reproduce research trends observed in the
developed world, given that the crops of interest have
industrial and commercial potentials. Nevertheless, research 
has not yet been situated on the frontier of knowledge, since
molecular biology and genetic engineering techniques,
applicable to plants, are still barely developed in Mexico.
     Plant biotechnology research in Mexico is, however, not
being focused on the substitution of export crops by other
crops or by substances produced by biosynthetic methods, as
is happening in developed countries. Given this fact, the
consideration of basic grains and the attainment of self-
sufficiency in them remains a great challenge to
biotechnology, although research efforts have yet to be made
in this area.
     Agroindustrial biotechnology research in Mexico has been
based on the use of a large number of natural resources
available in the form of agricultural wastes and
agroindustrial by-products. Interest is mainly in the pro-
duction of alternatives for animal fodder, in both proteic
concentrates as well as SCP (Table 5). Once such resources are
biotechnologically revaluated by means of increasing their
protein content, they could be used to intensify poultry and
hog production in rural zones where up to now these activities
have been only slightly developed. Such activities could
create an increase in animal protein production and benefit
both rural and urban populations.
     Regarding other orientations of this area of research
related to the food industry, there is some evidence that
final applications of biotechnological processes will be
oriented toward the production of additives for the food
industry, with the consequent intensification of products of
slight relevance for human nutrition.
     The substitution of imports by means of domestic
production of substances required by the food industry is
being supported by research on xanthan gum, which is used to
give consistency and viscosity to foodstuffs, as well as by
research on the lactase enzyme, which is used to produce lac-
tose-free milks for people with lactose intolerance. In these
two cases two different trends can be detected: the first is
oriented towards food production of limited nutritional value,
and the second is aimed at resolving a problem of social
     The use of fermentation processes, their optimization,
the adaptation of technologies and the use of a large variety
of natural resources give agroindustrial biotechnology in
Mexico its own character and situates it in what has been
defined as appropriate, conventional or second-generation
biotechnology. For some scholars, this fact represents a
backwardness with respect to developed countries. From another
point of view, it can be seen as a comparative advantage
derived from the interest of Mexican  researchers to improve
and adapt those processes which are significant for national
conditions, available materials or resources in the country.
Agroindustrial biotechnology research implies new food options
for Mexico, through the reappraisal of agricultural wastes and
agroindustrial by-products.

9. Mexican policy for biotechnology development

Mexico is lacking a national policy in biotechnology, despite
the fact that at the beginning of the presidential term of
Miguel De la Madrid (1982-1988) various efforts were made to
draw up a programme in this field (13). The most significant
elements comprising a national biotechnology policy remained
in effect from 1984 to 1988.
     Presently, there are contrary elements in the policy
related to biotechnology. These have produced a disintegrating
and ineffective policy. Various public agencies intervene in
the explicit and implicit policy of biotechnology development
on a national sphere. Different government offices support
this area of research, but their objectives vary according to
field of interest. A set of policy mechanisms should be
synchronized to attain an integrated development of
biotechnology relevant to basic needs and broad social
     On an international sphere, programmes and agreements
have been originated and implemented by various agencies
interested in supporting biotechnology development in Latin
America. These programmes emerge from the idea that
biotechnology could contribute to solving the agricultural and
food crises affecting underdeveloped countries. To this end,
funds have been collected to support various research areas
and to help build up a scientific technical capability in this
field. Nevertheless, the measures for this institutional
support are not very well known by many researchers, and these
resources tend to be monopolized by a small group of
institutions and individuals.
     The resources earmarked at a national level are always
scarce, and there is severe competition for them. Nationally
a fierce struggle is going on for power in decision-making in
biotechnology, which is reflected in the activities undertaken
by the different State ministries. Experience in the field of
biotechnology over the last few years has not yet been very
positive, although some research groups have become stronger.
Coordination, agreement on institutional research programmes
and channeling of already developed processes for industrial
application are still far away. These continue to represent
the great challenges to Mexico's science and technology
policy, a fact of which CONACYT officials are well aware.
     The ways in which the contacts and cooperation measures
are presently implemented on an international sphere, as well
as the measures which the government puts to work to fund new
research centres in Mexico, are elements which are making
Mexican biotechnology policy more and more heterogeneous and
oriented towards very diverse objectives. This should be a
subject of reflection, since the results can be harmful,
converting Mexico into a financier of highly  specialized
labour and directing research development towards aspects not
necessarily of importance to the country.
     Coordinating biotechnology development and defining
priority research programmes should not remain exclusively in
the governmental sphere. As this case study has shown,
universities, institutes and higher education centres
currently play a leading role in the development of
biotechnology. Because of this, such institutions should
participate in defining a coordinated policy for this field
of research and for the applications to be derived from it.
Such a policy should lead to activities which increase the
available human resources for research and the measures which
would permit the establishment of inter-institutional research
programmes. This would allow for swifter progress in the
solution of scientific and technological problems researched
in Mexico.
     The formulation of a biotechnology policy requires
consideration of the mechanisms which could couple research
centres to the productive sector. This implies the adoption
of policies which go beyond the national level. It requires
the coordination of regional activities to establish
biotechnology firms which could benefit from the support being
channelled through various international organizations.

10. Constraints to research

The limitations confronted by biotechnology research are not
simply reducible to the scarcity of finance and other
resources. The limitations are many and diverse in nature;
some are primarily scientific and technical, while others are
political and economic in character. These limitations to-
gether impede the proper development of biotechnology in
     The principal limitations on biotechnology development
in Mexico can be summarized. The scientific and technical
limitations are different for plant and agroindustrial
biotechnology. These two fields confront several constraints
which prevent their development and consequently their rele-
vance to the present agricultural and food concerns of Mexico.
     One of the main limitations of plant biotechnology is
related to the scarce development of genetic improvement
techniques regarding basic crops such as maize and beans.
Regarding nitrogen fixation, it is feasible to modify and to
improve symbiosis, but it is still not yet possible to geneti-
cally modify the plant to produce the characteristic of fixing
nitrogen by itself. Concerning agroindustrial biotechnology,
many of the substrates used are of lignocellulosic origin.
This causes important technical problems because it is
essential to find mechanisms to break down the lignines effi-
ciently if they are to be used as food. There are as well
serious limitations to the infrastructural support necessary
for scaling up the processes which have proved to be feasible
at a laboratory level. There is a limited number of projects
on the genetic improvement of micro-organisms, as much in
classical breeding techniques as in genetic engineering.
      There are limitations related to economic feasibility
of biotechnological processes that consequently prevent the
demonstration of the profitability of such processes. This is
one of the factors explaining the lack of industrial
application of those processes that have completed the
laboratory experimental phase. This element, combined with
industrial sector lack of interest in investing in
biotechnological enterprises or in using processes generated
domestically, explains to some extent the weakness of the na-
tional biotechnology industry.
     There are institutional limitations because of the
organizational structure of the research institutions and
because of the lack of definition of research policies within
them. The dispersion of efforts is a characteristic of plant
and agroindustrial biotechnology research. This has originated
the creation of new institutions, departments and
laboratories, the majority of which do not have the necessary
human, financial and material resources.
     Some other limitations are inherent in the attitudes of
researchers with respect to their research work as well as to
the norms and values governing them. There still prevails a
lack of social consciousness, definition and clarity with
respect to the role of science and technology in society and,
in particular, their importance and potential in an
underdeveloped country.
     There are limitations fostered by a lack of an explicit
and coherent State scientific, economic and technological
policy. This element, combined with the lack of an effective
governmental political strategy for the development of
biotechnology, prevents the use of the already existing
scientific and technological base in order to confront
specific socio-economic problems. The economic development
strategy is currently based on foreign investments and
contradicts the explicit proposals made by the government to
foster national technological development in order to support
economic development efficiently.

11. Potential socio-economic impact

In relation to the problems currently faced by the
agricultural and food sectors in Mexico, which may be improved
with the application of biotechnologies, the foreseeable
socio-economic possibilities following the analysis of Mexican
research orientations can be highlighted. The principal prob-
lem experienced by the agricultural and food sector is
insufficient production of basic grains, principally maize and
beans, to satisfy population demand. Given the current
structure of this sector, it is necessary to stimulate basic
grain production in regions which are under-exploited, among
them, rainfed zones, arid zones and humid tropical lands.
Therefore, this would require adequate technology to make
agricultural production in these regions technically feasible
and economically viable - technology requiring low capital
investment and modest use of agricultural inputs. Technology
currently available is mainly oriented towards irrigated lands
and is highly dependent on costly agricultural inputs. Given
the potential of biotechnology, it could contribute to  the
exploitation of the zones mentioned, generating species which
would increase non-irrigated land productivity and which could
be less dependent on costly agricultural inputs. Genetic engi-
neering techniques could generate species more resistant to
drought, excessive humidity, plagues and pests; species which
fix their own nitrogen. These would assure an increase in
production and an adequate supply of basic grains to satisfy
the domestic market.
     However, biotechnology research in Mexico does not yet
offer short term potential to improve basic grain production
in the regions mentioned above. There are some indications on
an international level that such objectives could be attained
over the longer term. One example is the case of research on
rice which has generated varieties capable of growing in
saline soil (14). This implies that it is necessary for Mexico
to follow the advances which occur in the international
context in relation to basic crops, and these should be
developed and applied to those crops relevant to the tradi-
tional Mexican diet such as maize and beans.
     The existing deficit of priority foodstuffs could also
be diminished by improving the nutritional quality of those
foods traditionally consumed by the population, such as
tortillas and atoles (a maize starch-based beverage). The
intensification of the industrial production of amino acids
of synthetic and biosynthetic origin could be a means for
improving those foods and increasing their nutritional
content. Likewise, the production of non-conventional sources
of protein, such as single cell proteins produced from
agroindustrial wastes, or from petroleum, or proteins derived
from green plants, could contribute to improve the nutritional
content of priority foods. Here again, fermentation and
bioengineering techniques could be relevant for fostering the
national industrial production of amino acids and single cell
proteins for human consumption.
     However, the nutritional improvement of traditional
foodstuffs does not seem feasible over the short term. This
could be achieved by optimization of processes for the
production of SCP from various by-products and the elaboration
of necessary evidence to demonstrate that such a product is
not harmful to health. The production of Torula yeasts, which
could be used for this purpose, seems not to have provoked
interest in Mexico. The optimization of economic profitability
of the biotechnological process for the production of Torula
yeast from sugar cane molasses has led to the proposal to use
it as an additive in the food industry, since this represents
a product of greater added value, and consequently, of greater
profitability, assuming comparable costs.
     The intensification of livestock production has led to
strong competition between the production of human food crops
and that of animal food crops. Therefore, the rationalization
of agricultural exploitation and the introduction of
alternative foods of high nutritional fodder value for beef,
poultry, pig and fish production is necessary in order to
allow the recovery of basic grain production for human
consumption and to save foreign exchange.
      An interesting alternative for animal feeds is
represented by agricultural by-products and residues, such as
sugar cane bagasse and molasses, maize, wheat and rice
stubble, as well as animal manure, which could be used as
fodder or for the elaboration of proteic concentrates for
animal consumption. These agricultural by-products and
residues currently represent a problem for the rural zones of
the country, economically and ecologically, since they have
become polluters of lands and water, representing a high cost
of elimination. The valuation of these by-products and
residues consisting principally of cellulosic material, is
potentially feasible through the use of fermentation
technology, enzymatic technology, bioengineering and genetic
engineering of micro-organisms which seek productive forms of
     The current trends in research on agricultural wastes and
agroindustrial by-products are the most promising areas to
help Mexico solve some of its agriculture and livestock
problems. The use of these resources to produce enriched
animal fodder or SCP for animal consumption could offer new
sources for animal feeding. Animal fodder originating from
wastes and by-products could substitute for mixtures prepared
from oil seeds, sorghum and soybeans. This could decrease
importation of soybeans and help free lands which have been
used for sorghum, in order to use them for relevant crops for
human consumption.
     Mexico's agricultural sector has begun to face the fact
that developed countries use substitutes for some agricultural
export products, principally sugar, coffee and cacao. This
problem implies the need to design new strategies for the use
of these crops, that is, uses different than those presently
adopted. In the case of sugar, with the application of
biotechnology, a new sucrochemical industry might be created
to contribute to  fermentation industries (15). A determination
confront this situation has not yet arisen in Mexico, nor are
alternative uses for sugar being researched. No governmental
strategy has been proposed to restructure the sugar sector and
to generate new products from this crop.
     The perspectives remain discouraging for the possibility
of biotechnology research helping to modify the prevailing
agriculture and food patterns. However, current orientations
in agroindustrial biotechnology indicate the possibility of
generating a new animal feeding pattern based on a large
variety of domestic natural resources. This would help
generate a more diversified pattern of protein sources for
human consumption, despite the fact that a model based on
animal protein would persist‘a pattern which has substituted
the existing traditional model in Mexico, which was originally
based on maize and vegetable proteins.
     The possibility of achieving self-sufficiency in basic
crops and improving the agriculture and food situation in
Mexico by means of biotechnology is discouraging. Such goals
remain only as the great promises of biotechnology. The
adoption of adequate orientations for achieving these goals
remain uncertain given the strong limitations that need to be


This study has considered a large set of elements relevant to
the definition of a biotechnology policy for Mexico. It
presents a picture of this field of research and the problems
it is confronting. However, during the course of this
investigation it became evident that science and technology
policy research should not only be circumscribed to
scientific, technological or political topics. Science and
technology policy studies confront an important challenge,
especially for countries which are seeking to integrate
science and technology to social development goals. This
challenge implies the identification of the specific
technological demands of the different social groups of those
     Mexico is demanding attention from the campesino sector,
and the development of agricultural technologies should
consider the problems related to that social sector. However,
very little is known about the structure of technological
needs of campesino agriculture. It was not the objective of
this investigation to pursue empirical work dealing with the
need to clarify that structure and needs. Therefore, further
research should be conducted to appreciate traditional
agricultural practices and the specific technological needs
of campesinos. Through this knowledge and the biotechnological
research base Mexico has accumulated it would be possible to
define a detailed technological agricultural strategy to
enhance campesino agriculture. On that basis, traditional,
conventional and other agricultural technologies might be 
integrated and evaluated. And then appropriate steps could be
taken for further biotechnology development.
     The aforementioned considerations imply the need for new
research on campesino agricultural practices and needs. This
task might only be achieved by means of interdisciplinary
research, involving campesinos, agricultural scientists,
economists, sociologists, biotechnologists and science policy
makers. The scope of that interdisciplinary work should move
beyond research and lead to the application of results to the
sector involved. This might imply the integration of research
within the activities of campesino organizations and
governmental programmes oriented to this sector.
     The problems faced by Mexico‘s agriculture and food
sector, even when they pose important scientific and technical
demands, will not necessarily be resolved only by means of
conventional technologies nor even with biotechnological
developments. The fundamental difficulties preventing this
sector from producing relevant and sufficient foodstuffs for
the populations rest in political and administrative
structures which fundamentally impede a positive impact of
acquired technological expertise.


1.     This paper presents some of the results of research
       pursued to complete the doctoral thesis, University of 
       Sussex, U.K. See Casas, 1989.
2.     The investigation was supported by field work carried
       out on the basis of direct research with participants in
       biotechnology, both researchers and policy-makers. The
       technique employed for collecting the information was
       on direct, open interviews. When a direct interview was
       possible (which happened in the case of a group of rural
       research institutions), questionnaires were sent by mail.
       In total 80 interviews were held with researchers, six
       public officials and five with public and private company
       officials. In addition, questionnaires were sent to
       approximately 20 research institutes throughout Mexico,
       of which were returned answered. Field-work was carried
       between October 1986 and June 1987. Hence, the analysis
       reflects the situation prevailing in those years; despite
       that, some updating was introduced in this paper.
3.     Villalobos, 1986.
4.     Robert and Loyola, 1985.
5.     Perez Miravete, 1984.
6.     Sánchez, 1986.
7.     Soberón, 1986.
8.     Sasson, 1986.
9.     Litchfield, 1984.
10.    De La Torre, 1986.
11.    Leal Lara, 1985.
12.    CONACYT, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988.
13.    A new presidential period started on December 1988.
       The policy for scientific and technological development
       the presidential period 1988-1994 was published in 1990
       the new Programa Nacional de Ciencia y Modernización 
       Tecnológica. The analysis in this section refers both to
       the period 1983-1988 and to the prevailing government
       policy regarding biotechnology.
14.    Arroyo and Waissbluth, 1987.
15.    Arroyo and Arias, 1986.


Arroyo, G. and M. Waissbluth. 1987. Bases para una política
      de desarrollo biotecnológico en la producción agropecuaria,
      forestal y alimentaria de México. México: ECLA.
Arroyo, G. and S. Arias. 1986. Biotecnología: Perspectivas
      de la industria azucarera en México.México : UAM-
Casas, R. 1989. Biotechnology research in Mexico: Relevance
      for the agricultural and food sector. PhD. diss.,
      University of Sussex, UK.
CONACYT (National Council of Science and Technology). 1985.
      Apoyos brindados en el marco del Programa Nacional de
      Desarrollo Tecnológico y Científico en 1984. Ciencia y
      Desarrollo, nos. 61 and 62, pp. 129-169 and 105-127.
CONACYT. 1986. Apoyos brindados en el marco del Programa
      Nacional de Desarrollo Tecnológico y Científico en 1985.
      Ciencia y Desarrollo, nos. 68 and 69, pg. 89-122.
CONACYT. 1987. Apoyos brindados en el marco del Programa
      Nacional de Desarrollo Tecnológico y Científico. Ciencia
      y Desarrollo, nos. 74 and 75, pp. 135-172 and 133-164.
CONACYT. 1988. Apoyos brindados en el marco del Programa
      Nacional de Desarrollo Tecnológico y Científico. Ciencia
      y Desarrollo, nos. 79 and 81, pp. 122-152 and 125-147.
De La Torre, M. 1986. Personal interview. Department of
      Biotechnology and Bioengineering, CINVESTAV. November 11,
Leal Lara, H. 1985. "La utilización microbiológica de
      desperdicios lignocelulósicos." In Prospectiva de la
      biotecnología en México, edited by R. Quintero. México:
      Fundación Javier Barros Sierra/CONACYT.
Litchfield, J.H. 1984, "Single-Cell Proteins." In
      Biotechnology and Biotechnological Frontiers, Special
      Number of Science, edited by P.H. Abelson. USA: American
      Association for the Advancement of Science.
Perez Miravete, A. 1984. 50 Años de investigación en la
      Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biologicas 1934-1984. Una
      valoración crítica a la luz de su evolución histórica.
      México: Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas- IPN.
Robert, M. and V.M. Loyola, eds. 1985. El cultivo de
      tejidos vegetales en México. México: CICY/CONACYT.
Sánchez, S.E. 1986. Personal interview. Institute of
      Biomedical Research, UNAM, October 13, México.
Sasson, A. 1986. Quelles biotechnologies pour les pays en
      developpement? Paris: Biofutur/UNESCO.
Soberón, X. 1986. Personal interview. Centre of Genetic
      Engineering and Biotechnology, UNAM, October 22, México.
Villalobos, V. 1986. Personal interview. Chapingo
      Postgraduate College. November 12, Chapingo, México.

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