Delhi University geneticists, in a publicly funded research, have found that Cry genes, the engine of GM crops, harm plant health — a finding that could influence government decisions, such as how quickly India should clear a genetically modified crop.
The Cry1Ac gene has been widely promoted as one that harms only targeted pests. This is the first time research has shown that this may not be correct.
The findings also suggest that even proven GM technologies, far from being perfect, could essentially be work in progress. The study, however, suggests the problem could be fixed by relocating the gene within the plant.
The study evoked a thoughtful query from Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh on what implications the findings might have on the government policy.
The minister recently posed this to Deepak Pantel, one of the authors and director of the Delhi University’s Centre for Genetic Manuipulation of Crop Plants.
The paper, published in the June edition of Journal of Biosciences, found that since the Cry1Ac gene “which — enables Bt cotton to fight pests-— harms the plant’s health, higher levels of the gene cannot be used to overcome or delay resistance, described as decreasing ability of the plant to fight pests.
Resistance is familiar in the medical world, when more of the same medicine is required to keep it as effective as it initially is.
“A majority of transgenic plants had very low or undetectable levels of Cry1Ac and that all plants having appreciable levels of Cry1Ac showed developmental abnormalities,” the study found.
Pantel, formerly the vice-chancellor of the Delhi University, is of the view that for the policy, the big message is to “strengthen our own research to deploy genes more effectively”.
But in a country sharply divided over the GM crops, the latest study could only stoke more opposition, rather than appreciation of science.