New Delhi: India is working on a “national crop designing strategy” to improve nutrition, yield and insect resistance levels of a wide range of key crops. It plans to do this not through the use of genetically modified, or GM crops, but by identifying the right parents for future generations of the crop.
Over the next four months, a committee headed by Deepak Pental, a geneticist and vice-chancellor, University of Delhi, will prepare a report on this, which will also identify experts who can create better crops. This will be done by picking parents with the required genetic make up, a process called marker assisted selection (or MAS).
MAS doesn’t involve isolating and inserting genes from other organisms into crops and thus obviates the need for time-consuming ethical clearances and “fears surrounding inserting genes into crops,” said M.K. Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology.
“Of course, in situations where there’s no way out but to insert a gene, we will use it,” he added.
India is concerned about the slow growth of agriculture and wants to double agricultural growth which was 2% in the 9th Plan and early years of the 10th Plan to 4% in the 11th Plan (2007-12), during which the projected allocation for agriculture and irrigation is pegged at Rs121,550 crore, more than double of what was actually spent between 2002 and 2007.
The national crop designing strategy covers rice, wheat, chickpea, pigeon-pea, black gram and cotton.
MAS presents a better option to the technique of “crossing” where specific traits in plants are amplified by repeatedly crossing individual plants that show some of these traits.
But it’s time-consuming, and in some cases, a trait can be suitably expressed only after hundreds of crossings.
Through a technique called gene sequencing, scientists have been able to identify all the genes that make up certain crops and importantly markers—stray pieces of DNA—that tag along with certain genes.
It’s much easier looking for a marker than a gene. “We just look for the markers and with that we can achieve desired traits within 10 crossings at times,” said R.R. Sinha, an adviser at the department of biotechnology.
On Wednesday, the government announced the creation of the first indigenously developed seed variety using MAS: a hybrid variety of maize called FQH 4567 that has 40% higher protein content than current maize varieties.
Sangeeta Singh contributed to this story.