“Our chemical genetics process is far reliable than the GM approach”

Mentioned Dr Ram Sagar Misra, Professor of Chemistry, Shiv Nadar University who claims to have discovered a new non genetically modified process to increase crop yields in wheat by up to 50 percent

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In a collaborative research paper published in the scientific journal, Nature’s December 2016 edition, Dr Ram Sagar Misra, Professor of Chemistry, Shiv Nadar University, claimed to have discovered a new process to increase crop yields in wheat by up to 50 percent. In an exclusive detailed conversation, Dr Misra answered questions on the need, novelty, and future of the discovery based on a signalling molecule that leads to higher starch production


BV_icon-150x150Please explain to our readers the process developed by you and the whole idea behind it?

Our process radically increases crop yields in wheat by up to 50 percent. This will result in an increase in biomass as well as starch while simultaneously making the crop more resilient against drought, excessive rainfall and excessive cold. This biotechnology enabled process is called ‘chemical intervention in plant signalling process’ and is also replicable in other crops such as rice, potatoes etc.

Our idea was to identify the biochemicals responsible for triggering this process. Therefore, a lot of research was going on with my collaborators, Dr Matthew Paul and Dr Benjamin Davis. We identified the Trehalose-6-Phosphate (T6P) as a molecule that triggers this starch production process. Then we started thinking on increasing the concentration of starch by feeding the plant with certain biocompatible and biosafe compounds, which could increase the starch production. Attempt was to affect Trehalose-6-Phosphate (T6P), the signaling molecule. If that was more, it will trigger more starch production. That was the idea.

BV_icon-150x150What has been the role of your UK based collaborators?

My collaborators include Dr Benjamin Davis, a professor at the University of Oxford, and Dr Matthew Paul, a scientist from Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK. Apart from that we have lot many junior colleagues on our team who too contributed as well.

When we started, Dr Paul was a plant biologist at the laboratory funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRC). We actually started the experiment in Dr Davis’s laboratory under his supervision and the research continued until I joined Shiv Nadar University. Finally, we finished it in 2016 and subsequently, the paper got published in the Nature Journal during December 2016.

Mug shot Ram Sagar Misra Image 1“What is noteworthy is that this method does not rely on genetic modifications to create super-yields or combat climate change and therefore offers a viable alternative to GM technology.”

BV_icon-150x150How long did you work on developing the process and what makes it different from the genetically modified crops?

Having started in early 2008, we have been working on this invention for close to 9 years now. There were lot of failures in this journey. The success didn’t come early. We made molecule and failed because those were not well taken by the plant. Since, we were making something outside the plant, it all depended on whether plants were happy to take it or not.

What is noteworthy is that this method does not rely on genetic modifications to create super-yields or combat climate change and therefore offers a viable alternative to GM technology. The process ensures that there is no adverse impact on either plant or animal health or on the environment, making it more acceptable to countries such as India that have been mindful of genetic modification technology being introduced in agriculture. This is also a marked improvement over current hybrid technology used by agri-scientists.

The genetic engineering is the process where scientists permanently delete few genes. And then they introduce few more genes to get desired features. While they delete the so called unwanted genes which are claimed to be no feature, those could be found to be useful after twenty. It is irreversible.

However, as compared to it, we can reverse back here in our case. Since, you insist on a name of the process, we may give it a fancy name, we can call it chemical genetics approach. Our process is far reliable than the genetic modification approach.

BV_icon-150x150Why did you choose wheat as a crop for carrying out research? Why is it important?

You know in India as well as the globe, wheat is the primary food item. Also, the wheat is having more starch and we were trying the starch synthesis process. Although the Arabidopsis thaliana was used initially as it is followed as a standard in laboratory, we later shifted to wheat after validation.

The discovery is also important, given the fact that average yields for wheat in India is below that of average yields seen in other countries. For example, India’s average yield is 39 percent lower than China’s. Except Punjab and Haryana, most Indian states have yield levels below that of Bangladesh. India’s average yield in 2013 of 3075 kg/ha is lower than the world average of 3257 kg/ha, leaving significant room for improvement.

What is more worrying for India is the threat posed by rising temperatures that is expected to adversely affect the production of wheat, a crop that is extremely sensitive to weather change. According to some estimates, global wheat production is estimated to fall by 6 percent for each °C of temperature increase. The effect on warmer regions such as India is projected to be even greater of around 8 percent.

BV_icon-150x150What prompted you to work in this area of plant genetics despite a background in chemistry?

Chemists generally have a multi-disciplinary area. They work in multiple areas of molecules which can be used anywhere, either in agriculture or medicines. So, we thought that this molecule if it enhances starch production and that too in what would lead to the food security in India. So, we were interested in this. We thought we will produce more starch.

“Our paper in Nature got peer revived by eight referees. It took almost one year as the paper was sent back for revision and finally they got convince that we had done something novel. Few said it was workable in only Arabidopsis Thaliana but might not be workable in wheat.”

BV_icon-150x150What has been the response to the findings by the critics? How has the scientific community reacted?

Because the research is quite new and novel not only in India and globally, people were not very convinced in the beginning. Our paper in Nature got peer revived by eight referees. It took almost one year as the paper was sent back for revision and finally they got convince that we had done something novel. Few said it was workable in only Arabidopsis Thaliana but might not be workable in wheat. I am thankful to those referees who gave us constructive suggestions that helped us improve our research and outcomes.

BV_icon-150x150So, what is the next step forward for this technology?

 Myself in India and my collaborators in UK have been talking to many agro-chemical companies for wider applications such as mass production of the wheat. We are in touch with few agro chemical companies in India. Also, most important thing is that we have already filed the patent.

BV_icon-150x150Are you targeting the use of technology in India or abroad?

Being Indian, my first preference, of course, is India. However, my collaborators are from UK and there is a need in other developing nations as well.

BV_icon-150x150At what scale has been the experiment been tried? So, you are confident of its success in field?

We did it at the field scale but not the mass scale. As an academician, we develop and validate. Now, it is for industry to take it up.

Laboratory research generally uses controlled conditions. However, we have used it in uncontrolled conditions as well. But sometimes, there are variations while testing at mass scale. The soil aspect on how the plant will perform in various types, as you are asking, needs to be looked at.

BV_icon-150x150Should Indian government agencies collaborate with you to benefit masses?

Surely there is a way as we have developed a simple method without involving chemical toxins. Generally, the reagents are used to do that are hazardous. But in this case, there is no such thing. To benefit masses, we need to produce our molecule at the large scale and the field testing would be massive. For that we need funding. It may come from agro-companies as we have initiated talks with them. Once the product is ready, it will automatically go to masses. Also, we are also exploring opportunities to convey our discovery to the government funding agencies as to understand how they could collaborate with us.

BV_icon-150x150Can we become a nation of exporters from the current importer of wheat?

India has bought more than five million tons of wheat since mid-2016, already its biggest annual purchase in a decade, after it began an import campaign to meet a supply shortfall left by two years of lower production.

By using these molecules, there is straight forward increase by 50 percent.

Given that wheat is one of India’s most important and staple food crops, this process brings the possibility of enabling food security, addressing the threat of climate change and in the process, enable the country’s vision of an evergreen revolution.

BV_icon-150x150You call your method as the ever-green revolution? Is the second green revolution possible?

When the first green revolution happened, we had a different population. As compared to that, we have a different scenario now.  And while the demand increases, the supply isn’t getting bigger. Hence, the gap is becoming broader. We are trying to fill it by our process. We are calling it evergreen revolution.

BV_icon-150x150Can this process replace the need for GM crops entirely? What are your views on GM crops?

In the case of GM crops, we don’t know about the long-term impact. That is why people are concerned. Comparatively this method that has been tested on wheat and we must try on rice and maize. Is more superior on them. There is no environmental or health concerns.

In case of GM crops, we are increasing the size of grain, that not only includes starch but the protein as well. In GM crops, protein content gets drastically changed. And protein is a very useful molecule as well as notorious too.

While in GM, we cut the codon that are thought to be unimportant. Then protein synthesis happens after insertion. After deletion, the protein produced may not be safe due to the.

BV_icon-150x150Are all GM crops bad? As a matter of fact, in the Bangladesh, nobody died after eating GM?

I feel in case of edible crops, they are going to affect human health. Bt cotton was ok only in the non-edible form. Even the oil produced from it can’t be called safe. These GM crops don’t show impact in 2-3 years. Sometimes they may slow effect after 25 years. Other concerns are related to environment as the cross pollination with other varieties of the same plant are a big issue here. There will be only a single race eventually and that goes against nature.

BV_icon-150x150But modifications happen in nature too?

The one you are talking about is slow. It is the natural selection based on many factors. It is not controlled. But GM is just the opposite as it is sudden and done using tools.

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