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Microbiology in India


M ost developing countries have recognized the need to harness science and technology for socioeconomic development. In her contribution to our feature, Vibha Dhawan, director of India?s Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) in New Delhi describes how high-tech approaches can help developing countries tackle issues such as food, vitamin, and energy supply; deforestation; and environment-friendly agriculture.

Impact of Globalization

During the last century, technological advancements in various spheres of science have been very encouraging and have made our lives more comfortable. In the last decade, the world has witnessed a revolution in communication and information technology. Liberalization of economic policies world-over, and various intergovernmental negotiations to open trades between different countries, have resulted in globalization, which, in my opinion, offers both tremendous opportunities, but also a few threats.

The technologies are available not only in the country where they are developed, but can be utilised in any part of the world under licence. The problem then becomes one of affordability. The industrialized countries are typically technology-rich and have sophisticated equipment and funds for doing research. To a large extent, the research in these countries is supported by the private sector, with an expectation that technologies will earn enough revenue for further research and development.

In many cases, these technologies are far too expensive to replicate in developing countries with limited production capacities. Unfortunately, if these countries continue with comparatively inefficient technologies, the production costs remain high and it becomes very difficult for entrepreneurs and industries from the developing world to compete in the international market.

Thus, with globalization, there is a potential threat that if imports become cheaper than local production, it may kill industry in the developing world. It is therefore important for the governments of developing countries to provide their farmers and entrepreneurs access to new technologies, so that they can compete in the global market. For developed nations, it is important to reduce subsidies on agriculture so as to put a realistic price on food production. While in developed nations a small percentage of the total population is involved in agriculture, the livelihoods of much larger populations in developing countries are dependent on agriculture-related activities, and thus agriculture becomes the major driver for economic development.

Addressing Local Issues

The Government of India has taken numerous steps to ensure that research results are taken from laboratories and applied in the field. One such example was the establishment of Micropropagation Technology Park (MTP) by the Department of Biotechnology at TERI in 1991 for production of superior quality planting material.

TERI is a not-for-profit research organization with over 300 professionals working toward achieving its mission of sustainable development. Its major thrusts are related to energy, environment, policy research, and regulatory issues.

Putting Technologies Into Practice

In India, rural populations largely depend on fuel wood for their energy requirements. But forest productivity, in spite of favourable temperatures and sunlight, is far below the world average. This results in overexploitation of existing forests and reduction in forest cover. While it has been realised that for ecological security 33% of the land should be under forest cover, in most developing countries it is below 20%. The world is witnessing implications of reduced forest cover in the form of vicious cycles of droughts and floods in different regions. At MTP, important forestry species such as bamboos, eucalyptus, poplar, Paulownia, etc., are being produced on a large-scale using tissue culture technology. To date, we have dispatched 9.7 million forest, horticultural, and cash crop plant species for field plantation.

Although India is among the top nations in fruit and vegetable production, the per unit productivity remains very low compared to the world average. Globalization offers enormous potential, as we have large areas in different agro-climatic zones that enable a wide variety of crops to be grown. But if this potential is to be realised, both qualitative and quantitative improvements are required. The old varieties need to be replaced by high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties. One is also conscious of the fact that organic food is becoming more acceptable, and therefore, use of biofertilizers and biopesticides, as well as use of safer pesticides, is urgently needed.

To this end, scientists at TERI have begun research on biochemical prospecting of plant species for pesticidal and medicinal properties. The technology for mass production of mycorrhizae has been developed and successfully transferred to two entrepreneurs, who have already brought the commercial product of this research to market. We have also succeeded in developing a complete package of practices for reclamation of ash ponds through the use of mycorrhizae.

Combining conventional techniques of plant breeding with the latest tools of biotechnology can potentially solve many of the problems that the human race is facing today. One of the common oils used in India is mustard oil, which is extracted from tropical Brassica species and is closely related to canola oil from temperate Brassica species. Simple techniques of embryo rescue have made it possible to achieve a cross that produces oil the quality of which is on a par with canola oil. Scientists in our institute are also working on inserting pro-vitamin A genes into mustard via genetic transformation, so as to combat the serious vitamin A deficiency problem among the economically weaker sections of society. Because vitamin A is fat soluble, the expectation is that its bioavailability in the transgenic oil will be very high.

The GM Debate

At present, there is a debate going on as to whether genetically modified (GM) crops are safe enough and what the long-term implications to the environment might be if they become widely planted. I personally feel that we are getting so involved in the potential risks of GM crops that we are forgetting the risk associated with traditional practices. For example, cotton accounts for over 50% of the pesticide consumption in India. Most of our farmers are illiterate and are unaware of the harmful effects of these pesticides, some of which enter the human gut through food and water run-off/percolation to ground water. Because many villages do not have access to clean water, water for consumption potentially contains pesticides with carcinogenic properties. From this perspective, it is heartening that the Government of India has recently given approval for the test planting of Bt cotton, which hopefully will reduce dependence on chemical pesticides in years to come.

There is no doubt that evaluations of these technologies must take place before their commercial release. We also have to keep in mind that the time and other financial resources that are required for such studies do not end up preventing the technology from reaching the poor. Our goal should be: ?Make food available to all at an affordable price.?

Biotechnology in India--The Future

The biotech scene in India is rapidly changing; there is more awareness about its potential application in agriculture, health care, the environment, and industry. The large number of R&D leads, technology-transfer activities, and the creation of sophisticated infrastructure facilities have motivated Indian industries to form new partnerships with the international scientific community. The various state governments are promoting applications of biotechnology by setting up biotechnology parks and incubators and are taking initiatives that will help bridge the gap between the laboratory and the field.

Most importantly, the funding in biotechnology research, both through government?s initiatives and the private sector, is increasing. This in itself reflects the faith of the people in this technology.