Sixty years of molecular genetics

Tags: Op-ed
Sixty years of molecular genetics
BEHIND IT: James Watson and Francis Crick (right), co-originators of the double-helix model of the DNA molecule which is the chemical substance of heredity, with Maclyn McCarty (left)
It was in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick along with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin announced the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, which is the chemical substance of heredity. This opened up the science of molecular genetics or what is also referred to as the new genetics. Since then, many Nobel Prizes have gone to scientists, who have been working in the field of molecular genetics as applied to physiology, medicine and health. Recombinant DNA technology has become the most important contribution of modern biotechnology.

Biotechnology extends the frontiers of human capability with reference to the transfer of genes across sexual barriers. The need for novel genetic combinations is growing day by day because agriculture is confronted with new challenges arising from climate change and habitat loss. We will have to produce more and more food, feed, fodder, fibre and medicinal and industrial crops from diminishing per capita land and water availability, and expanding biotic and abiotic stresses. This challenge can be met only by an intelligent integration of the tools of Mendelian and molecular genetics. While the hard core of biotechnology is recombinant DNA technology, tissue culture techniques and marker assisted selection also provide opportunities for achieving many of the desired breeding objectives. Both agriculture and industry need for their progress continuous improvements in technology since technology is the prime mover of change. The growing environmental pollution necessitates more research in the field of bio-remediation.

The Norin dwarfing genes in wheat and the Dee-gee-woo-gen dwarfing gene in rice proved to be transformational genes, since they revolutionised the yield potential of these important staple grains. Biodiversity is the feedstock for the biotechnology industry. Therefore the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are essential requirements for breeding new varieties of crops. The loss of every gene and species limits our options for the future. Biotechnologists should play an active role in genetic resources conservation. In the field of agricultural biotechnology, an urgent need is for genetic strains, which can help to foster an evergreen revolution leading to improvement in productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. This would call for the mainstreaming of ecological principles in technology development and dissemination. Examples are: Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Integrated Nutrient Supply (INS). Breeding for high yield has to be associated with the standardisation of methods for feeding for high yield.

Due to lack of a regulatory system which inspires public, professional, political and media confidence, we are not able to derive full benefit from advances in molecular genetics. It is important that we attend to this missing link in the field of biotechnology and get the biosafety regulatory authority established with the approval of Parliament, as recommended by the Basudeb Acharya led parliamentary committee on agriculture. 2013 also marks the transition in the area of providing social protection against hunger from a patronage to a rights’ approach. Chhattisgarh has already enacted a Food Security Bill based on a rights approach. Therefore, there is need for harnessing all the tools of modern science for the purpose of helping farmers to feed the country.

The 60th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA provides an excellent opportunity for assessing the progress made in agricultural, industrial, medical, and environmental biotechnology. Knowledge is a continuum, and therefore, more speedy progress takes place when traditional wisdom and modern science are integrated in a mutually reinforcing manner. This is the best tribute we can pay to such dedicated and innovative scientists like Watson and Crick, who have helped to shape the transformational technology of new genetics.

The National Food Security Bill, once passed by Parliament, will make it essential for accelerating progress in agricultural production. This will call for the effective implementation of the national policy for farmers placed in Parliament in October 2007. To achieve the objectives of the national policy, we should launch a Panchsheel for farmers. The five components of this new deal for small farmers are the following: First, soil health care and enhancement need much greater attention. It is also important to conserve prime farmland for farming. Since the fertiliser subsidy policy is shifting from a product to a nutrient based-approach, it is necessary that all farmers are given soil health passbooks, which will contain information on the chemistry, physics and microbiology of their soils. This will help them make effective use of the nutrient-based subsidy programme of the government. Second, water harvesting and watershed management should receive more attention. Rainwater harvesting should become mandatory. Along with supply augmentation, demand management must also be attended to. The on-going ‘more crop and income per drop of water’ programme of the Union ministry of water resources should be expanded. Pani panchayats should be promoted to ensure cooperation in water harvesting and equity in water sharing.

Third, we should give adequate attention to the choice of technology and the inputs needed for enabling small and marginal farmers to take to new technologies. If technologies like Bt Cotton are recommended to farmers, they must also be trained in cultivating the earlier variety in “a refuge”, in order to minimise the chances for the breakdown of resistance.

Fourth, the credit and insurance mechanisms must be improved and the concept of financial inclusion should be promoted. Also, women farmers should have entitlement to kisan credit cards. They should be given join pattas to their land. The interest rate for farmers should be 4 per cent as recommended by NCF.

Finally, assured and remunerative marketing holds the key to sustaining farmers’ interest in farming. The government should continue to operate a minimum support price policy accompanied by procurement for the public distribution system. A majority of farmers have no holding capacity, and therefore, they have to sell their produce soon after harvest. This is the reason why the operation of MSP and public procurement becomes important, if we are to sustain a rights-based food security system. The 60th anniversary of the Watson and Crick discovery is best commemorated by spreading genetic literacy in schools and colleges. Genetic literacy is essential not only for applied work in the field of agriculture and medicine, but also for promoting an understanding that the human genome is similar, irrespective of race, colour, religion, caste and gender. Thus, the new genetics affords an opportunity for the emergence of a society where irrational prejudices are replaced by an understanding that we are all members of a human family, subject to the same genetic code.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution.)


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