Agri-biotechnology

Genome-Editing Guidelines Ambiguous Says Deepak Pental; No, Says K V Prabhu of Drafting Committee

Deepak Pental in his laboratory at Delhi University South Campus. Photo June 2015 by Vivian Fernandes

In an interview to Vivian Fernandes, geneticist Deepak Pental says the genome editing guidelines are ambiguous. But K V Prabhu, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee disagrees. His terse response is at the end of this article. 

Geneticist and former Delhi University Vice-Chancellor, Deepak Pental finds the new genome editing guidelines released on 17 May, 2022 restrictive and not facilitative. In a Zoom interview with Vivian Fernandes, and published on thefederal.com, he called them “ambiguous,’ and not “crisp and clear.” Consequently, the bio-safety committee of an institution — a seed company, university or research organisation — will not be able to decide when they should allow a developer working with genome-editing tools to move their plants from containment to the open fields. The committees might become too cautious and keep seeking more and more data from the developer, tiring them in the process and retarding the work of crop improvement. The scientific experts who prepared the guidelines have gone against the spirit of the Ministry’s of Environment’s office memorandum issued at 30 March, Pental says. That memo had exempted genome-edited plants free of exogenous DNA from biosafety assessment applicable to genetically engineered organisms. The guidelines should have been aligned with those of major food producing nations like the United States, Canada and Argentina. Even Japan, which has a restrictive regime for GM crops, has released genome-edited material, Pental says. The guidelines will bog down the developer and will not help in improving cropa quickly for higher yields, better resilience to climate-related stresses and enhanced nutrition.

Genome-editing is a technique where DNA is snipped using enzymes delivered by bacteria to silence undesirable genes or insert genes to imbue plants with new traits. Genes with new traits can come from the same species or from other species. The technique is more precise in creating mutations in plants than inducing the mutations with chemicals or radiation (X-rays and Gamma rays).

To give an example, in 2019, a team of scientists from Texas A&M University silenced the gene that produces gossypol in cotton. Gossypol makes cottonseed inedible for humans and animals but wards of insects. The gene was silenced only in the seed and not in the rest of the plant. As the result, the seed could be eaten like chickpea (chana), news wire Reuters reported. The US Food and Drug Administration approved it in October 2019.

Products of equivalent risk profile must be treated equally. The regulation and risk assessment as per this principle for genome edited changes in plants should be the same as for naturally occurring changes. In March 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture said it would not regulate plants developed with new breeding techniques including genome editing that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques so long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests. Argentina has similar guidelines. Canada says it regulates products and not processes because there are many ways, including genome editing, to arrive at the same result. India as a large food producer should have aligned its regulations with those of these countries.

Pental has vast experience in the fields of plant genetics. He had led a team of Delhi University scientists that produced the mustard hybrid, DMH 11, using genetic modification or GM technology. The hybrid has higher yield than conventional mustards. Mustard is not easily amenable to hybridisation because it is self-pollinating. Pental used GM technology to make male sterile plants and was able to cross Indian and European mustards to produce plants with hybrid vigour. This is a more efficient technique than cytoplasmic male sterility technique. Though GEAC, the apex regulator for GM crops, recommended DMH 11 for commercial cultivation in May 2017, the government has not accepted its advice and has not allowed farmers to cultivate it

Over-caution in regulating genetic modification technology has resulted in most research-based agribusinesses in India shutting down their agribiotechnology departments. No GM crop has been approved for cultivation other than Bt cotton in 2002. New variants of Bt cotton have not been permitted resulting in a resurgence of bollworm infestation.

K V Prabhu, Chairman, Drafting Committee. Photo by Vivian Fernandes

In a WhatsApp message to this correspondent, K V Prabhu, Chairman of the Guidelines’ Drafting Committee said that off target mutations cannot be independent of guidelines. He said the guidelines are for experts and not for non-experts, who can decide when a genome-edited plant in containment can be moved to the open field. Dr Prabhu said Dr Pental may come to know about the correctness only after he makes an application to the IBSC.

To watch Dr Pental’s interview click here.

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