Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Future is green in
Sunit Dhawan

Biotechnology, which has universal implications pertaining to various aspects of life, is one of the most exciting sciences of this century. The discovery that DNA, which carries the genetic code for any form of life, can be transferred onto any other form of life opens the door to a multitude of possibilities for genetically modified plants, animals and microbes.

Products emanating from modern biotechnology such as genetically modified or transgenic crops offer abundant opportunities to achieve sustainable productivity gains in agriculture. Today global coverage under transgenic crops has increased from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 90 million hectares in 2005. The engineered traits include herbicide tolerance, resistance to insects, pests and viruses, besides better nutritional quality.

As of now, 19 genetically modified (GM) crops have been approved for commercial cultivation in the world. In India, Bt cotton has been approved for commercial cultivation in different states by the Union Government.

Subject significance

Biotechnologists are trying to develop genetically engineered crops that will grow well in the poorest food-producing areas of the world where these conditions are often present. In simple terms, biotechnology may be defined as the commercial application of bio-resources (living organisms and their products), which involves a deliberate manipulation of their DNA molecules.

All life is composed of cells that contain genes, and genes are made of DNA molecules. DNA contains information used by cells as a "blueprint" or plan for the organism. All characteristics, or traits, of any living thing are determined by the information in the DNA plan.

Theoretically, almost any trait found in nature can be transferred into any chosen organism, even if it has never had this trait before. This process, called genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technology, is an important aspect of biotechnology. It can be used to produce modified crop plants, livestock, proteins, vaccines and drugs.

Plant biotechnology includes techniques such as micro-propagation using tissue culture to produce quality planting materials at large scale and plant transformation or genetic engineering to modify plants. Scientists are exploring the genetic modification of food crops to achieve desirable characteristics like high yield, increased protein or oil production, disease resistance, or pest resistance.

Universal implications

The field of plant biotechnology has universal implications as it is being used to tackle the problems before mankind. These include adverse impact of global warming upon agriculture, improving crop quality through genetic engineering, removing pesticides residues from soil, development of bio-pesticides, plastic-eating and oil-controlling bacteria and so on.

Thrust areas

Plant biotechnology is an integration of several sciences including genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, agriculture, plant breeding, medicine, pharmacology, environmental sciences and so on. So it is an interdisciplinary science encompassing not only biology, but also other subjects, including physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering. The tools of biotechnology can be applied to any living system such as plants, animals or micro-organisms to obtain products or processes useful to mankind. Some of the major thrust areas in biotechnology include plant tissue culture, embryo-culture, anther culture, synthetic seeds, micro-propagation, transgenics, crop improvement, DNA fingerprinting, gene isolation and cloning, value-addition and use of microbes in crop production.

Entry and eligibility

Admission into biotechnology courses, including plant biotechnology, is generally at the postgraduate level. Some of the undergraduate courses have also been designed for students willing to make an early entry in the field. Science students having a background of chemistry, physics, biology and agriculture as subject combinations are expected to do well in the discipline.

A science background at the plus-two level is mandatory for admission in the B.Sc. and B.Tech. degree courses in biotechnology. The IITs also runs courses in the discipline. Different state agricultural universities (SAUs) offer postgraduate and doctoral programmes in plant biotechnology. The entrance is usually on the basis of an admission test.

Course curriculum

The syllabus of plant biotechnology and molecular biology is broadly categorised under three sub-disciplines. These are genetic biotechnology, molecular biology and plant tissue culture. It may be pertinent to mention here that tissue culture, which was the basic foundation of plant biotechnology, is regarded as its backbone.