News,Views & Insights on Biotechnology

Browsing Posts published in December, 2009

Bt- MagicIn a significant move, the Ministry of Agriculture in China has granted safety certificates to three genetically modified crop plants;two strains of GM rice and one strain of GM maize. This green signal will enable the commencement of small-scale field trials of these crops in China. This is interesting to those who have been following the intense debate raging over the GEAC’s approval to Bt  Brinjal in India. Though these approvals are only to start field trials and the actual cultivation of GM crops in China is still a far-cry, it will be interesting to see whether this move will have an impact in Asia as a whole with respect to GM technology. The two rice strains have been engineered to carry pest-resistant genes and the maize strain carries a gene that will improve phosphate digestion in animals resulting in better growth and reduction of Phosphate pollution. The former has been developed by Huazhong Agricultural University, and the latter by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The approval had been granted in the month of August but it has become public only lately after recieving local media attention.

The move has drawn criticism from Greenpeace and other environmental groups that are strongly opposed to the use of GM technology. This also happens to be the first time that such a certificate has been granted to a staple food in China. The chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Clive James, wrote in Crop Biotech Update that this is a move that will have a huge impact in Asia. Deeming the move as Global Leadership, he has envisaged an increase in adoption of feed crops as well as food crops in the region as other countries could be expected to follow China. Once again this reminds us that there are relatively few GM crops in the world that are produced for direct human consumption.

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dnaAs far as achievements go, this one is huge! Well maybe I am a bit biased towards progress in the life sciences vis-a-vis other fields. Be that as it may, even the severest critics will surely agree that this was probably the most quietly efficient achievements by our researchers. Two thirty-something researchers working with a team of researchers in Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, over a period of close to 2 years, have furnished us with India’s first-ever complete Human Genome Sequence. Using a miniscule 10 ml of blood, scientists mapped out 99% of the genome sequence of a healthy man, 55 years old and a resident of Jharkhand in Northern India. The reason he was chosen for this endeavour, was that though healthy, he was very close to the onset age of certain critical diseases.

The complete sequence is expected to be out in the next two weeks. The two young scientists leading this effort were Dr. S Sridhar and Dr. Vinod Scaria. While the actual sequencing took only an unbelievable 45 days, the setting up of all facilities including software and analysis systems took all of two years. I am all the more elated about this achievement because ironically, India was not a part of the global effort of the HGP (Human Genome Sequencing Project) a few years ago. In an eye-opening article in the Hindu, the ex-director of CCMB, Dr. Pushpa Bhargava, holds the apathy of India’s apex Biotechnology body, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), solely responsible for what she calls India’s missed opportunity. Citing hard facts and numbers, she builds a case for how India could have played an active role in the sequencing process and today would have been reaping benefits not only in terms of  the prestige in the scientific community, but also in terms of financial gains by patenting STRs (Short Tandem repeats) in the genome. This is exactly what has been done by Celera Genomics, the company that won the sequencing race.

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Try your hand at Puzzle Over This! #4

Some Facts: Pill_opens

  • Spurious or fake pharmaceutical drugs (Medicines) are becoming a rising concern in the World.
  • WHO (World Health Organisation) defines a spurious drug as “a medicine, which is deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source. Counterfeiting can apply to both branded and generic products and counterfeit products may include products with the correct ingredients or with the wrong ingredients, without active ingredients, with insufficient active ingredients or with fake packaging.” 1
  • 35% of the world’s spurious medicines come from India 2
  • Drugs with insufficient active ingredients such as Antibiotics are leading to the rise of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes, known as superbugs. Some organisms such as MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus are today the leading cause of hospital acquired infections.
  • A study estimated that in 2005, there were more than 18,000 deaths due to invasive MRSA in the United States 3
  • The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has called for all Pharmaceutical drugs, Biological products like blood ,etc. To be barcoded. 4
  • Japan calls for similar measures 5
  • India has no such policy provisions in the near future
  • Bar coding and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) are being considered to prevent counterfeiting in the US and EU.

I was randomly scanning the news one afternoon when I came across some disturbing Statistics. The newspaper claimed that around 35% of the world’s fake pharmaceutical drugs came from India. The European Union, the US and Japan are seriously concerned about the increasing numbers of fake drugs entering organized set-ups such as Hospitals. Now, why should a biotechnologist be concerned about fake drugs? Well, there is a humanitarian concern, of course. Fake drugs are not like pirated movies or books. These drugs can cause serious harm to patients who depend on life-saving drugs for existence; these medicines can kill! Apart from this there is one area that is troubling epidemiologists, drug developers, Medical fraternity and researchers alike. That is, the emergence of Antibiotic resistant strains of deadly bacteria. These organisms, now known as Superbugs, are the cause of some of the most deadly Hospital acquired (Nosocomial) infections. One well-cited example is that of Staphylococcus aureus a gram positive coccus that appears like a bunch of grapes, it is a common cause of Skin ailments, suppurative infections of burns and wounds and Toxic shock syndrome (TSS). There was a time when antibiotics of the penicillin family could be used to cure these infections. However, in recent time, to our growing horror we have seen emergence of a strain of S. aureus that is resistant to the most strong of all drugs and that is methicillin. This organism that is now known as MRSA, (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is responsible for around 18,000 deaths in the US, (Statistics 2005). There are many such organisms that have emerged in the recent past.

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Some Facts :

  • Bt-Brinjals approved for Cultivation in India by GEAC.
  • No GM food for direct consumption Is available in any supermarket in the EU
  • GM soya and GM corn are used as animal feed or in processed form only
  • The Cartagena Protocol has provisions that prevent Modification of Indigenous varieties of Crops
  • There is really no data available on the effects of the Bt-Toxin on Human beings
  • Eminent scientist and Chairperson of Moleular Biology at University of Caen in France, Gilles-Eric Seralini, pronounced the data submitted by Monsanto-MAHYCO as insufficient and misleading on several counts and the GEAC wanting in diligence.
  • He further hoped we would not turn our people into “lab Rats”

When I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I was in school. I was fascinated by the world of genetics and genetic engineering and the prospect of solving major problems related to health and food security with a switch of a gene. Well yeah that was my concept of genetic engineering as a clear-eyed 13-year old. Brave New World hooked me because of what I deemed the author’s fertile imagination. Of course we would be manipulating genes, but that would be for curing cancer or Alzheimer’s, not for creating Alpha or beta babies, carefully selected by an authoritarian government in a high tech avatar of caste or race discrimination. What really hit home was this; in the real world, one may belong to a “lower” caste, or an “inferior” race, but what Nature gave you in a universal draw of lots was still yours, nothing or no one could take that away from you. But in the Brave New World, a nameless group of people with ulterior motives, picked and chose genetic traits and created a whole class of people who could or could not do certain levels of work. So, we had the Intellectuals and the Menials with a seemingly irreversible set of traits “given” not by nature but by man. This was what I believed would never really happen. What the hell are laws for? And are people of Democratic States not aware that “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Democracy”? Then how would such people allow the creation of A Brave New World?  I guess I could be forgiven for such Utopian fantasies, I was just a kid.

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