GM mustard is tolerant of herbicides, says geneticist

Dr Deepak Pental, who led the effort to develop the variety, says India has a lot of catching up to do

September 13, 2016 02:00 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:48 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Former vice chancellor of Delhi University and geneticist Deepak Kumar Pental, who spearheaded the effort to develop transgenic mustard called DMH-11 that contains three genes sourced from soil bacterium, confirmed to The Hindu that one of the DMH-11 genes, called the bar gene, made the plant resistant to a herbicide (or weed killer) brand-named Basta, a product sold by multinational company Bayer Cropscience.

If cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, a regulator that reports to the Ministry of Environment and Forests — it will be the first time a herbicide tolerant crop would be cleared for commercial use in India.

Activists objections

In 2002, India’s biotech regulators had refused to clear a herbicide tolerant plant developed by Bayer Crop Science. Activist organisations from Greenpeace to the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture have protested over decades that using herbicide tolerant genes in plants locks farmers into using select brands of agrochemicals.

Dr Pental, however, said such an argument was bizarre. “Germany uses four times more herbicide than India…There is no agriculture without herbicide in Western countries — even in countries that swear by organic farming,” he told The Hindu .

Enables hybridisation

Dr Pental, a former vice chancellor of Delhi University, perfected a system over two decades that allows seed companies to more easily develop hybrid mustard varieties. This is done using a system already perfected in the 1990s and employed in Canada to make hybrid versions of rapeseed, he said. Two genes — that weren’t patented in India — called barnase and barstar — are used to make mustard varieties more amenable to becoming hybrids. Crossing Indian and East European varieties of mustard improves their yield.

“We’ve perfected this system…and I’ve only applied for an Indian patent,” said Dr Pental.

With these Indian seed companies can take wild mustard varieties, those that have generally been hard to make into hybrids, and tweak them to develop new kinds of mustard that could be made to yield more oil, or more seeds. The third gene, called the bar gene, was necessary because when seeds varieties are crossed to make hybrids, only a fixed proportion of the next generation of seeds carry all the desirable genes.

Spraying these seeds with the herbicide Basta would ensure only the right kind of seed remained.

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