Gene revolution in India

Monday, 28 February, 2005


It's the news they have all been waiting for. After years of living under the threat of another devastating epidemic of downy mildew, a disease similar to that which caused the Irish potato famine, India's poorest farmers have been offered a lifeline in the form of a new disease-resistant hybrid. The hybrid has been produced in record time using modern biotechnology techniques.

In February 2005, India released its first hybrid using modern DNA techniques. "This is something new and something very big" stated Professor Witcombe, from the University of Wales, Bangor who manages the research program "it has taken an international team of scientists more than a decade of hard work to produce this new hybrid and I believe it marks the beginning of a revolution in pearl millet breeding."

The fact that revolutionary DNA techniques have been used to improve a crop that is grown only by the poorest farmers in India and Africa is nothing short of remarkable. Until now agricultural biotechnology has been driven almost exclusively by the private sector for farmers in the developed world. "We want to change all that and give the poorest farmers a real chance of benefiting from the first products of this new Gene Revolution" says Tom Hash, a plant breeder from ICRISAT, a member of the research team.

The crop in question is pearl millet; know as the poor man's crop because it grows in the hottest, driest places where no other crop can survive. Tens of millions of poor people depend on its grain to eat and its leaves and stems to feed to their animals. More than half of the world's pearl millet is grown in India where it seems to survive almost anything " anything that is, except downy mildew. This devastating disease can destroy up to one third of the crop and worryingly the most popular pearl millet hybrid grown in India is now showing signs of susceptibility to the disease. If the disease hits the crop in epidemic proportions then farmers are looking at losses in grain yield worth at least US$ 8 million.

A solution was needed and needed quick. Traditional plant breeding for resistant hybrids can be a cumbersome and slow process so scientists turned to biotechnology for answers. The UK Department for International Development funded an international team of scientists to develop the tools to read the genetic sequence of pearl millet. With the help of the genetic map, scientists were able to identify the genes required for resistance to downy mildew. Resistant genes were taken from pearl millet grown in Africa and India and introduced into one of the parents of the new hybrid. No foreign genes were introduced and the hybrid was produced naturally so the product was the same as that of traditional breeding " not a GMO.

"The application of biotechnology has produced this new hybrid in a third of the time usually required and so has given us a head-start in the fight against the disease" says Witcombe. "Downy mildew is a slippery customer that eventually manages to get past our defences. It's the battle we've won but not the war."

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