A perfect team leader, mentor and of course the man of the moment. Dr. P.K. Singh is presently very busy making the world understand his recent successes. In his early research days, he developed a noble method for artificial synthesis of double stranded DNA and became the first Indian to synthesize an agronomical, useful gene artificially. He developed transgenic cotton lines, resistant to a polyphagous insect Spodoptera. He is also the proud recipient of the CSIR Technology Award, 2005. He is currently known for his research on identifying good proteins for the control of sap sucking pests, and the development of sucking pest resistant crops through genetic engineering. He has generated whitefly resistant GM cotton lines, using rightful gene isolation from a fern. He has also successfully demonstrated insect control, employing RNAi technology through transgenic plants. We had a chance to understand a little in depth about the path breaking work from the man himself. Anurima Das, in conversation with Dr. P. K. Singh.
Tell us a little more about this new whitefly resistant cotton variety.
We have developed whitefly resistant cotton through genetic modification. Thus it is GM cotton or transgenic cotton. We have identified the trait of whitefly defence in a fern and cloned its gene (designated as Tma12). We have introduced the fern gene in cotton through a process of cotton cell transformation and then developed complete plant from the engineered cells. In this way, every cell of the GM cotton has the fern gene. The gene produces a protein that provides remarkable protection to cotton from whitefly attack, which is otherwise highly sensitive to whitefly. The gene is inherited to subsequent generations through seeds. The GM cotton developed by us will be used in cotton variety development employing molecular breeding program.
Is it possible to discuss about the gene, which has been used to genetically modify the cotton seeds?
The gene for whitefly defence is taken from a plant (fern). Due to Intellectual Property related issues, it would not be appropriate to disclose the fern's name at present. This fern is used as a vegetable in Nepal and as a medicinal plant in several parts of India. The gene (Tma12) is novel and not yet reported to be present in any other plant or any living organism to best of our knowledge.
How soon will the 'success of the lab' be transferred to the farms?
We have started negotiation with a Maharashtra based hybrid seed company (namely MAHYCO) in July, 2010, just after cloning the gene, so as to make its use at the earliest. We developed whitefly resistant GM cotton lines in year 2012 and tested them in our polyhouses in 2013. We presented our work in the 1st International Whitefly Symposium, held in Greece, in May 2013. In September 2015, MAHYCO refused to license our technology in view of their observations that the socio-political environment for GM crops in India is not favourable. We were consistently in touch with the Central Cotton Research Institute, Nagpur also. Nonetheless, we could not transfer our technology for agriculture purposes till now. I contacted vice-chancellor, Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, in October this year. PAU team visited NBRI to examine the potential of GM cotton and found it very promising. I hope we will be able to hand over GM cotton seeds in January, 2016 after completing the formalities. PAU will take another 2-3 years in transferring the whitefly defence gene from GM develop to a high yielding cotton variety and another 3 years for field trials, safety assessment etc, bulk seed production etc.
Tell us a little in depth about the positivity of this modification.
Unlike Bt technology where gene source is a bacteria, we have used a plant (fern) gene for insect defence. This plant is consumed as vegetable and used in making concoction to treat a few diseases in India. The fern gene provides defence against whitefly in GM cotton by producing a protein. Unlike Bt protein, this protein does not kill whitefly but arrests its reproduction and thereby controls insect's population. Implantation of fern gene in cotton does not cause any problem to the productivity of cotton. We have tested this up to 6 generations. Tma12 protein appears very safe as its high and repeated doses do not cause any problem in experimental animals. The protein is easily digested in stomach and is not allergenic.
Is this breakthrough a commercially viable option for the farmers?
We will know this only after the field trials. At present, we can say that it is a very promising technology based on our research outcomes and only viable option for whitefly control in the world.
If so, then how soon it will be commercially cultivated?
New GM cotton will reach to farmer's field in 2021, subject to two back-crossings (assisted with molecular breeding) in a year and timely conducted safety studies. GM regulators (RCGM and GEAC), Honourable Supreme Court, social and political workers and leaders are very important in creating favourable environment in country and giving directives for new GM technology, developed in India, indigenously. Most of other GM technologies (cultivated or in regulatory pipeline) were introduced in India by western world after safety assessments.
Bt cotton is resistant to bollworms, but has created other problems. What would you say about these new modified cotton seeds?
I am not aware of any scientific study where Bt-cotton has been reported to create any problem. I would like to read such facts if any, and evaluate before making any comment. As far as the new GM cotton technology is concerned, we will know its off-target (undesired) impacts only after field trials. As of now I don't see any scientific problem associated with our GM cotton.
There is a belief that Bt has been suitable in irrigated farming. How do the new seeds compare?
Bt technology provides resistance to cotton from Bollworm complex. Scientifically Bt cotton should show similar tolerance to a group of insects irrespective of irrigation. And the same should hold true for our technology. In other words, both the technologies are independent of irrigation or water use efficiency; there should not be any direct co-relation between insect resistance and mode of farming. Having said the above, there are factors like temperature, humidity, crop density and difference in genetic make-up of insect pests in various agro-climatic zones which can marginally influence insect attack and defense in GM cotton against insect attack. We will understand the performance of our technology only after field trials in various agro-climatic zones.
We understand that whitefly attacks were so virulent this time because of the wrong use of wrong recipe of chemicals on the crops. What is a long term solution for ending malpractices of chemical pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers and suppliers?
Insects are one of the smartest creatures on this planet. Their adaption is remarkable. We can't develop invincible solution against them. We should constantly aim to develop new methods of insect control. This can be achieved by developing series of GM cotton resistant to spectrum of insects. This will leverage cotton farmers to select most suitable variety for their agro-climatic zone. Even with the best possible efforts of cotton genetic engineering, cotton variety resistant to all insect pests is seemingly not possible to develop. Farmers will still need effective and specific synthetic/bio-pesticides to control the remaining insects. In ideal situation, a GM cotton variety resistant to a few insect pests should be cultivated in a farmer's field and should be protected with judicious use of pesticides. If cotton is left on synthetic pesticides or Bt technology, incidents like that happened in Punjab will be repeated. It is needless to discuss the hazards of synthetic pesticides. As far as ending the malpractices of chemical pesticide and fertilizer is concerned, the farmers should be very cautious and practice scientific advices seriously, rather than applying any random recipe of chemicals on the crops. There were news reports that in a small pocket of Haryana, farmers are able to protect their crops.I am not very sure whether, the pesticides used in Punjab were spurious unless and until it is tested in an accredited laboratory. In our laboratory field, we have seen that if an insect pest is not controlled in time, its outbreak becomes uncontrollable even by authentic pesticides. There are scientific methods available to confirm the quality of fertilizers and pesticides and there are several accredited laboratories across the country. There is a need to devise a mechanism that the samples are randomly taken, examined and reported immediately, if they are spurious, for administrative action. The practice must be mandatory.
What role should agricultural universities and institutes like NBRI play in educating the cotton farming community about best practices?
Agriculture Universities should take lead in educating farmers about Integrated Pest Management in cotton. IPM involves use of GM cotton varieties having insect resistance traits developed though genetic modification (by introduction of Bt genes, fern gene, other anti-insect genes in pipe line) along with pesticides (both synthetic and natural). Farmers must know all the preventive measures well in advance before any damage occurs. NBRI is not an agricultural institute and can't have major role in agriculture extension. Yet, we can educate farmers about new traits that are introduced in cotton through genetic modification and associated safety. Scientist must also learn the insight of cotton cultivation from the most experienced cotton farmers.