New Delhi: Even as genetically modified brinjal—the first transgenic food crop to be available in India—has reached the final stage of field trials, scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), a prominent Hyderabad-based research institution, have taken the first steps to steer genetically modified (GM) fish—now confined to their labs—to Indian plates.
Size does matter: A genetically modified rohu (top) alongside the normal, average-sized version. Kshitish Majumdar
They have begun the process of demonstrating the superiority of these fish, chiefly in yield and quality, over regular ones, as well as evolving a blueprint to test their bio-safety.
Though the genetic engineering approval committee has detailed guidelines and protocol for testing the safety of genetically engineered crops, none exists for genetically modified animals.
The fish in question is the popular variety of carp, known as rohu—the most farmed, and among the most widely consumed fish in India. With genetic manipulation, the scientists say they can increase production “manifold” and in half the time that it usually takes for these fish grow to consumable size. “Each pair of fish lays lakhs of eggs. These modified fish can now lay as many eggs in one-and-a-half years, as the normal fish do in three years,” said Lalji Singh, director, CCMB. However, the exact numbers and yield potential would be determined only after the trials were done, he added.
“There’s no protocol defined. So, we’ve asked CCMB itself to design a protocol. We will review it and based on that, we may move ahead with allowing further tests,” said a scientist with the department of biotechnology (DBT), who didn’t want to be identified as he’s not authorized to speak to the media. The CCMB project has been funded by the department, which plays a pivotal role in approving GM organisms.
A protocol is a set of guidelines that detail how field trials must be conducted. They elaborate on which tests must be conducted, and what bio-safety aspects must be accounted for.
Transgenic or GM organisms are usually understood to mean living beings that contain genes from a foreign, unrelated species. This alien attribute is the reason why extensive trials are conducted to check the bio-safety and ecological impact of GM plants.
But the CCMB fish are auto-transgenic, meaning the genes inserted into a fish’s genome are a mashed-up cocktail of its own genome.
In this fish, the synthesized gene stimulates production of a growth hormone that makes the fish bigger and grow faster, said the lead researcher associated with the project.
“Not only are we not importing genes from an alien species, we are not using DNA from even a related species. Several fish that we consume are products of interbreeding between species, and they are perfectly safe,” said Kshitish Majumdar, who’s been associated with the project for at least a decade.
Because there are no such genes involved, scientists at the institute say there’s no real requirement for bio-safety tests, just as fish grown via aquaculture don’t need to go through bio-safety tests. “The thrust of this programme is to produce genetically superior fish without using genes from foreign organism. So, there’s no real scientific need for conducting bio-safety tests,” said Singh.
But DBT thinks otherwise. “Though the modified gene is a natural product, it has nevertheless been artificially altered outside the fish’s body and re-inserted back into the organism. So, we really need to be sure that such fish are safe,” said the DBT scientist quoted in the first instance.
An expert said India’s first GM fish are unlikely to face too many regulatory obstacles, but advised caution.
“There are no foreign genes involved. Therefore, it’s unlikely that mere genetic modification could produce a toxic protein,” said S. Sridhar, a scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research body. “But on the other hand, these fish shouldn’t escape into the wild and tamper with the native gene pool.”
If and when the trials proceed successfully, CCMB plans to tie up with the Andhra Pradesh fisheries department to scale up production. However, if bio-safety tests need to be carried out, the wait could get longer.
GM cotton had a nine-year incubation period in trials, before it was released in Indian fields in 2002. Whether crop or animal, genetic modification has always invited controversy.
Activists as well as industry lobby groups say the long-term effects of genetically engineered crops and organisms are unknown.
“There’s way too much haste to get GM crops and organisms into our fields,” said Pushpa Bhargava, a former CCMB director who’s critical of the biotechnology regulatory process in India. “Not enough tests have been done and we really don’t know what we are getting into.”
Carps constitute 87% of the total aquaculture production in India, said S. Ayappan, an aquaculture expert with the Indian Council of Agriculture. “We are only second to Japan in inland fish production. So, any new, safe method of becoming No. 1 is welcome,” he added.
India produces about 6.57 million tonnes of fish every year. The inland sector, which has a growth rate of 6%, contributes around 55% of it.
GM fish aren’t new. Since the 1980s, scientists in the US have reared GM fish using genes from related species. Some of these are pet fish that glow in the dark and the others, such as GM salmon, are programmed to grow up fast. But none has yet been released for human consumption.
“These salmon still use a foreign gene. The thrust of our research has been to avoid any foreign element. DBT should understand that,” said Majumdar.