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Bred: protein-rich corn as good as milk

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By G.S. MUDUR in Delhi
  • Published 21.01.08

New Delhi, Jan. 21: A variety of corn with extra protein developed by scientists in Uttarakhand may be the first of a series of designer crops that India plans to develop without genetic modification involving alien genes.

Scientists at the Vivekananda Paravtiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan in Almora last week announced that a variety of corn they had produced through a combination of modern biology and traditional breeding had a protein quality that approached that of milk.

Standard corn, maize, is the third-largest cereal crop grown in India, but is deficient in lysine and tryptophan, two key amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins. Now, the Vivekananda scientists have created a hybrid with 30 per cent higher lysine and 40 per cent higher tryptophan than in ordinary maize.

This was achieved through marker-assisted breeding, a technique in which scientists painstakingly screen segments of the genome in genetically distinct varieties of corn to find the right combination of two corn varieties to cross.

“This technique does not involve insertion of a gene from any other organism into the crops. So, it won’t draw any concerns about environment or health,” said Pawan Agrawal, a scientist at the biotechnology division of the institute.

The high-protein corn was created by repeated breeding experiments aimed at inserting traits of a variety called QPM, discovered in the 1960s by an international maize research institute in Mexico, into an indigenous variety called Vivek 9.

The increase in the levels of these amino acids makes the protein in this corn approach the quality of milk protein, Agrawal said. The yield of this variety is about 10 per cent higher than that of its indigenous parent.

The marker-assisted breeding technique also speeded up the creation of a new variety. Traditional breeding would have taken about 10 years, while the genetic screening methodology made the feat possible in about three years, Agrawal said.

“This is significant. Although we have already commercialised a few varieties of high-protein corn, this work combines QPM with an attractive variety,” said Samar Bahadur Singh at the Directorate of Maize Research in Delhi.

The Centre’s department of biotechnology will launch a programme to create more such designer crops with beneficial agricultural traits, without genetic engineering, said biotechnology secretary M.K. Bhan. “We’ll use the transgenic route when there is no other route, otherwise we’ll proceed with marker-assisted breeding wherever possible.”

A panel of experts has been asked to draw up a list of crops of interest, Bhan said. Among the candidate crops are rice, wheat, chickpea, oil seeds, uradbean and mungbean, said R.R. Sinha, adviser in the biotechnology department.

In genetic modification involving alien genes, crops are given new properties through the insertion of genes from other species — either bacteria or from other plants.