Russia's hybrid mission
With 30 gene-edited plants and animals, the country aims to create 10 new varieties of such crops and animals by 2020, and another 20 by 2027
Russia has forayed into gene-editing technology with a 111-billion-rouble (more than Rs 12 crore) federal programme that aims to develop 30 gene-edited plant and animal varieties in the next eight years. The programme, announced in April, 2019 will focus on developing 10 new varieties of gene-edited crops — such as barley, sugar beet, wheat and potatoes and animals by 2020; and another 20 by 2027, according to a report in Nature, a science journal.
The programme marks a welcome step for Russian researchers who were exempted from cultivating genetically modified (GM) organisms in the country by a 2016 law. While the 2016 law calls GM organisms as something "that cannot result from natural processes", the new programme "describes gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR–Cas9 — which do not necessarily insert foreign DNA — as equivalent to conventional breeding methods". The move would also help researchers get funding from private companies.
Russia lags behind other major powers of the world in genetic research. In 2017, the country spent 1.11 per cent of its gross domestic product on research, compared with 2.13 per cent in China and 2.79 per cent in the United States.
The programme is "a significant move" both for Russia and the world, and would encourage China to invest more in gene-editing technologies, and the United States to boost enthusiasm for such technologies, Yi Li, a plant scientist at the University of Connecticut, was quoted in Nature report.
"For European countries, this can be a very interesting development in the light of the European court of justice ruling on genome editing," he added. However, some researchers are sceptical of achieving the ambitious goals in the given deadline, and worry about excessive bureaucracy.
"I am sure [the government] will spend the money and call the programme a huge success. I am less confident there will actually be any new varieties by next year — perhaps later," Nature quoted a scientist, who wished to remain anonymous.
The report also states that the projects to develop gene-edited versions of crops have already begun.
"Scientists at Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) institutes in Moscow are developing pathogen-resistant varieties of potatoes and sugar beet. And gene-editing research aiming to make barley and wheat both easier to process and more nutritious is in progress at the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg, and at the RAS Institute of Cytology and Genetics," the report said.
(The views expressed are of Down To Earth)
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