December 9: We’ve heard of gene therapy for humans. But for seeds? And yet, this is exactly what seeds in India will be treated for in the future. Thanks to gene therapy, the seeds will have made-to-order properties.
Some scientists are introducing a gene (the element that gives hereditary characteristic to a living thing) from a weed into the Indian mustard seed to make the crop consume less water. This is to help farmers survive droughts in India. The idea is to cut down irrigation by almost half; from the usual four-five times a field has to be flooded to two-three floodings per season.
The scientists work at New Delhi’s National Research Institute on Plant Biotechnology
(NRIPB). They expect to take two more years to make the seeds water-resistant, reports The Indian Express.
It’s not the first NRIPB attempt at playing god with seeds. The research institute also began cloning or making replicas of Indian crop species that are hardy and can resist periods of drought.
So how exactly is the project going to work? A gene is going to be taken out from the pearl millet (or bajra as we know it) plant, which can grow in drought conditions. This will be inserted into popular crops like wheat and rice, which guzzle gallons of water. After this is done, it is expected that the wheat and rice plants too will acquire the waterproof properties of bajra.
The scientists do not intend to stop at one gene transplant, either. More than one gene is being transplanted in plants to provide multiple benefits. Besides requiring less water, the plant will also be resistant to high temperature, cold and the lack of salt in the soil.
Recent developments in genealogy (the study of genes) have reached a stage where scientists can alter a patients’ genetic material. This helps him fight or prevent diseases. One major goal of this type of cure is to supply cells (in which the genes exist) with healthy copies of missing or flawed genes. This approach is revolutionary: instead of the patient taking a medicine to treat or control the symptoms of a genetic disorder, physicians try to correct the basic problem by altering the genetic makeup of some of the patient’s cells.
This is the principle that NRIPB is following in the gene therapy treatment for plants.
This technique is also being used to develop more nutritious varieties of tropical maize, rice and potato.
This is a first time such a project is happening in India. Till now, most such projects in India used genes “borrowed” from labs abroad. If this project succeeds, it could well signal the beginning of bountiful surpluses in food in the land of scarcity.