News,Views & Insights on Biotechnology

Browsing Posts published in January, 2010

The New Year has begun and this year, 2010 is to be celebrated as the year of Biodiversity. I am enjoying the delicious irony of this situation, as one of the most hotly debated topics today in India is that of the first- ever genetically modified food to be approved for direct human consumption in the world, namely the Bt-Brinjal. Also known as Aubergine, this humble vegetable is consumed across the length and breadth of India; we are home to about 2500 varieties of this plant.  I can think of no better mascot for Biodiversity than the Brinjal. One of the key aspects that is worrying people in India is the probable loss of indigenously cultivated varieties of this plant because of its GM cousin. The debate over the approval of the Commercialization of Bt-Brinjal by the GEAC in India continues to rage in all circles. Like all great issues, this one has united people in India across all sections of Society.

In October 2009, the GEAC in India cleared the commercialization of the genetically modified Brinjal, the Bt-Brinjal. The vegetable has been modified to contain genes from the Soil Bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. These genes encode resistance to certain pests of the Lepidoptera family of pests. However, immediately after this decision, there was furious opposition to it by farmers groups, NGOs and Environmental activists such as Dr. Vandana Shiva. The reasons? Well there were many. The failure of a similar non-crop plant, Bt-Cotton to deliver on its promises of pest resistance, the criminal pricing policy of the company involved in the marketing of both the crops in question, namely, the international biotechnology giant Monsanto, the increase in the cases of suicides of small and Marginal farmers in areas where Bt-cotton was being cultivated, to name just a few.

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Plant tissue culture (PTC) is a term most biotechnologists are well-acquainted with. This technology exploits what is known as the totipotency of Plant cells. Totipotency is the inherent capacity of each and every living plant cell, whether it originates from a leaf or stem or root of a plant to be able to give rise to an entire plant on its own. In short, I don’t need a seed to grow a plant. If I can  extract a set of totipotent cells from a plant and give it the right set of nutrients, the right temperature and day-night cycle and of course an optimal cocktail of hormones (Plant growth promoting), I can grow a complete plant out of those few cells. So I excise a small portion of the plant (leaf, stem, node, root etc) which is called the explant and then after carefully treating it with the proper set of disinfectants (to get rid of contaminating microbes) I inoculate it into media (liquid or solid) and provide it with all optimal growth parameters. Within a reasonable period of time I should be able to obtain plantlets out of my original explant. This is a very simplistic explanation of plant tissue culture.

From the time Gautheret worked with encouraging results in the young field of PTC in 1934 and the problem of tissue culture of plant cells was definitely solved in 1939, independently by Gautheret, Nobécourt and White, the field has come a long way. With more than ten thousand researchers actively engaged in this field of research1 the technique has undergone massive changes in method and application. From the more academic applications of trying to demonstrate totipotency and wound healing effects to generation of entirely new plants with the view to transplanting them in fields, we have witnessed the growth of an important tool of biotechnology.

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