Biosafety guidelines for genome edited plants

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has recently issued ‘Guidelines for Safety Assessment of Genome Edited Plants, 2022’.

What are the guidelines about?

As per the guidelines, researchers who use gene-editing technologies for plants are exempted from seeking approvals from the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC). All other requirements that researchers must adhere to develop transgenic seeds will apply to gene-edited seeds except clauses that require permission from the GEAC.

In March, the Union environment ministry exempted site-directed nuclease (SDN) 1 and 2 genomes from rules 7-11 of the Environment Protection Act (EPA).

GEAC is an expert body under the Union Environment Ministry that evaluates research into genetically modified (GM) crops and approves or rejects them. However, the final decision-making power is with the Union Environment Minister and State governments.

What is transgenic technology and gene-editing technology?

Transgenic technology involves introducing a gene from a different species into a plant. Bt cotton is a transgenic crop where a gene from a soil bacterium is introduced into the cotton plant to protect it from pest attack. The main concern with this technology is that these genes may spread to other plants and give rise to unintended consequences.

Genome editing is the process of adding, removing, or altering the genetic material at specific locations in the genome. Gene editing can be used to add desirable properties to plants not native to them. CRISPR-Cas9 is the popular genome editing approach.

What are the concerns regarding recent guidelines?

Several experts opposed the exception for gene-edited crops. They say that gene editing techniques involve altering the function of genes and can give rise to unintended consequences. They also say that there are many similarities in the techniques used in transgenic technology and gene-editing technology.

Does India allow the commercial cultivation of GM crops for food use?

No. Bt-cotton is the only GM crop allowed for cultivation in India.

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