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Browsing Posts tagged Dr. Pushpa Bhargava

The debate on the modified Brinjal seemed to have ended when Indian Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh abruptly calling off the battle and settling for a 2 year moratorium on the commercial release of the Bt-Brinjal in India. However, he made it clear that this decision was for Brinjal alone and as of now did not apply to all the other modified foods in the pipeline. So, we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable controversies that might arise once these other modified veggies are forced into the limelight. Of course the Government is now seriously looking at a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (not approval, mind you, but regulatory) for assessing the safety and putative efficacy of these crops. The idea, while supported in principle by most sections, nevertheless has incurred some negative comments. Many scientists and activists regard the move with suspicion as it has been mooted by the Department of Biotechnology, which has a vested interest in promoting transgenic Crops in India.

The war is not over even as far as the various Ministers and Departments of the Government of India (GOI) are concerned. Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar wants the moratorium reversed as he feels the current data provided by the Company (Monsanto –Mahyco) and the tests carried out by them are sufficient to warrant commercialization of the crop. Similarly, though not directly opposing the Moratorium, Minister Prithviraj Chauhan says that he is “satisfied with the tests carried out by the scientists but not opposed to further tests for evaluating safety.” With all this strong posturing and severely divided scientific opinion, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been forced to step in and prevent a full-blown face-off between his ministers. He will meet with the ministers today and try to sort out the differences in opinion that have arisen. He will also try and clear the scene as far as the approval authority is concerned. Considering that the GEAC has come under flack for its controversial decision, the big question is if not the GEAC, who will be the next body that will decide the fate of the crops.

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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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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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