India in Focus
Breakthrough in the Indian Agriculture Industry in the form of Genetically Modified Mustard
—Somesh Thapliyal and Krittika Sengupta
Mustard plants in a growth chamber at the Department of Genetics, University of Delhi
Image credits: Dr Deepak Pental
The characteristics of all living organisms are a result of their genetic makeup. But through genetic engineering technology, scientists possess the power to alter these characteristics or introduce new ones by creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The most common examples of GMOs are found in agricultural plants—they are genetically modified to have increased crop yield, enhanced nutrient composition, or even resistance to adverse environmental conditions. New DNA is added to the existing genetic makeup of a plant, and the seeds of these genetically modified (GM) plants continue to possess the new DNA as part of their genes.
So far, cotton is the only GM crop grown in India. According to a report published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), India has the 5th largest area under cultivation of GM crops globally, and all of it is used for cotton cultivation. However, with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)—which oversees the approval for the environmental release of GMO varieties in India—approving the field trials for Dhara Mustard Hybrid 11 (DMH-11), the country now has its first indigenous GM food crop poised for commercial cultivation.
Developed at the Department of Genetics, University of Delhi, by Dr Deepak Pental and his colleagues, DMH-11 is a high-yield, herbicide-resistant variety of mustard. To develop this variety, the “bar” gene from a non-pathogenic soil bacterium has been introduced into the mustard genome using the barnase-barstar system of genetic modification. According to Dr Pental, “It is a very clean system, and the two proteins involved have been shown to be non-toxic.” The introduction of the “bar” gene allows the variety to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate.
Dr Deepak Pental, Prof Akshay Pradhan, and Dr Vibha Gupta: Scientists involved in the development of DMH-11
Image credits: Dr Pental
Before being commercially cultivated, GM crops need to undergo a rigorous assessment of their food and environmental safety. This is to ensure that there are no unintended negative consequences of introducing certain genes into the crop. While the GEAC has reported that DMH-11 is safe for human consumption, it has ordered further testing of its effect on insect pollinators and soil microbial diversity and has approved field trials for the same. The trials will be conducted at two locations—Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. The data gathered through these trials will allow scientists to better evaluate the readiness of DMH-11 for commercial release. Speaking about the importance of field trials, Dr Pental says, “The real performance of a hybrid can only be measured when it is environmentally released. So far, we have only data from six to eight locations spread over a period of three years.”
Today, India is one of the world's largest importers of vegetable oil. The GEAC approval for field trials for DMH-11 is a progressive step towards reducing India’s dependence on imports to meet its domestic demand. While a better domestic yield of mustard would benefit the country, environmental concerns also need to be addressed. Ultimately, the commercial release of GM crops developed in India using Indian cultivars could facilitate the progress towards an Aatmanirbhar Bharat and serve as a gateway for producing more hybrids, thus strengthening the agricultural prowess of India.
About the authors
Somesh Thapliyal is a passionate storyteller who enjoys writing about science and its myriad mysteries.
Krittika Sengupta is a part-time content writer and editor, and a full-time content consumer