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Norms Eased for Research Into Genetically Modified (GM) Crop

Context:

Recently, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has issued guidelines easing norms for research into Genetically Modified (GM) crops and circumventing challenges of using foreign genes to change crops profile.

Relevance:

GS III- Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Highlights of the Guidelines
  2. What is genome editing?
  3. How is gene editing different from GMO development?
  4. Regulatory issues which have prevented wider adoption of this technique

Highlights of the Guidelines

  • It exempts researchers who use gene-editing technology to modify the genome of the plant from seeking approvals from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC).
    • The GEAC evaluates research into GM plants and recommends, or disapproves, their release into farmer fields.
  • The final call, however, is taken by the Environment Minister as well as States where such plants could be cultivated. The Environment Ministry too has sanctioned this exemption.
  • Conventional breeding technique takes 8- 10 years for development of new crop varieties; genome-editing can do this faster.
  • Most often, GM plants that have drawn such scrutiny are those that use transgenic technology or introduce a gene from another species into a plant, such as BT-cotton, which uses a soil bacterium gene to protect against pest attack.
  • The worry around this method is that these genes may spread to neighbouring plants, where such effects are not intended and so their applications have been controversial.

What is genome editing?

  • A decade ago, scientists in Germany and the US discovered a technique which allowed them to ‘cut’ DNA strands and edit genes.
  • For agriculture scientists this process allowed them to bring about desired changes in the genome by using site directed nuclease (SDN) or sequence specific nuclease (SSN).
    •  Nuclease is an enzyme which cleaves through nucleic acid — the building block of genetic material.
  • Advanced research has allowed scientists to develop the highly effective clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeat (CRISPR) -associated proteins based systems.
  • This system allows for targeted intervention at the genome sequence.
  • This tool has opened up various possibilities in plant breeding.
  • Using this tool, agricultural scientists can now edit genome to insert specific traits in the gene sequence.

Depending on the nature of the edit that is carried out, the process is divided into three categories —

  • SDN 1:  It introduces changes in the host genome’s DNA through small insertions/deletions without introduction of foreign genetic material.
  • SDN 2 :  In this case, the edit involves using a small DNA template to generate specific changes.

* Both these processes do not involve alien genetic material and the end result is indistinguishable from conventionally bred crop varieties.

  • SDN 3: The process involves larger DNA elements or full length genes of foreign origin which makes it similar to Genetically modified organisms (GMO) development.

How is gene editing different from GMO development?

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMO) involves modification of the genetic material of the host by introduction of a foreign genetic material.
  • In the case of agriculture, soil bacteria is the best mining source for such genes which are then inserted into the host genome using genetic engineering.
    • For example, in case of cotton, introduction of genes cry1Ac and cry2Ab mined from the soil bacterium Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) allow the native cotton plant to generate endotoxins to fight pink bollworm naturally.
    • BT Cotton uses this advantage to help farmers naturally fight pink bollworm which is the most common pest for cotton farmers.
  • The basic difference between genome editing and genetic engineering is that while the former does not involve the introduction of foreign genetic material, the latter does.
  • Before the advent of genetic engineering, such variety improvement was done through selective breeding which involved carefully crossing plants with specific traits to produce the desired trait in the offspring. Genetic engineering has not only made this work more accurate but has also allowed scientists to have greater control on trait development.

Regulatory issues which have prevented wider adoption of this technique

  • Across the world, GM crop has been a topic of debate, with many environmentalists opposing it on the grounds of bio safety and incomplete data.
  • In India, the introduction of GM crops is a laborious process which involves multiple levels of checks.
    • The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), a high power committee under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, is the regulator for introduction of any GM material and in case of agriculture multiple field trials, data about biosafety and other information is necessary for getting the nod before commercial release of any GM crop.
    • Till date the only crop which has crossed the regulatory red tape is Bt cotton.
  • Scientists both in India and across the world have been quick to draw the line between GM crops and genome edited crops.
    • The latter, they have pointed out, has no foreign genetic material in them which makes them indistinguishable from traditional hybrids.
  • Globally, European Union countries have bracketed genome edited crops with GM crops. Countries like Argentina, Israel, US, Canada, etc have liberal regulations for genome edited crops.

-Source: The Hindu

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