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
Please 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.
What 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.
“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.”
How 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.
Why 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.
What 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.”