Gene editing, a new breeding technique (NBT), is at the core of new-age agricultural innovations available to breeders today enabling very efficient and precise trait generation and selection without any adverse impact on the native phenotypes. These tools will also facilitate the speed of genetic gains and advance research in the delivery of products that enable “disruptive reduction” in the input costs to the farmer and “exponential gains” in nutrition and yield. Gene editing technologies have thus revolutionized the process of making DNA-level changes and the implication of this technology reaches far beyond standard molecular biology applications.
This training program on “CRISPR/Cas9 Gene Editing technologies in plants” is a comprehensive training program ideal for researchers who are looking for a balanced theoretical and hands-on introduction to gene editing. The program will cover both theory and hands-on practicals for a better understanding of the various components and stages of gene editing.
Agriculture Biotechnology (agbio) start-ups in India can potentially contribute to achieving the national goal of a bioeconomy that would be worth US $150 B by 2025, said experts at a webinar hosted by ICRISAT in partnership with the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC). The easing of bio-regulations in India and the start-up boom is expected to spur the growth of the agbio start-up domain in India.
Experts from seed industries, public research organizations, incubators, start-ups, and investors along with ICRISAT scientists participated in the webinar, which is among a series of 75 online events planned as part of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations. The events are being coordinated by the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) to highlight advancements in science and technology, and provide opportunities for collaboration amongst academia, industry, and start-ups for delivering technologies to the market.
Incubators to facilitate market entry
In his inaugural address, Dr Manish Diwan, Head-Strategic Partnership & Entrepreneurship Development, BIRAC, talked of agbio potential to resolve productivity and production challenges faced by the agriculture sector and the role of start-up incubators in facilitating market entry of technologies.
The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and BIRAC have been developing the much-needed ecosystem through platforms like the BioNEST centers and various schemes to support start-ups. BIRAC has established an extensive network of 74 BioNEST incubators across 21 states in India, including 15 incubators dedicated to the agriculture sector. BIRAC has also supported the establishment of BioNcube of ICRISAT through the Agri-Business Incubator of ICRISAT (ABI-ICRISAT) and the Platform for Translational Research on Transgenic Crops (PTTC).
Dr K Srinivas, Assistant Director General (Intellectual Property & Technology Management), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), shared details of the agribusiness incubator network in ICAR institutions. These incubators cover a wide range of sub-sectors, ranging from agriculture and horticulture to animal husbandry and access to farmer networks.
Challenges and solutions
One of the earliest active investors in agbio start-ups, Mark Kahn of Omnivore, shared his experience with the problematic regulatory domain. He spoke of challenges such as limited qualified life science talent pool, lack of exposure to bio-entrepreneurship, limited infrastructure and facilities for bio start-ups, and poor understanding of life science start-up segment amongst the investor community due to limited in-house experience and expertise.
Dr Paresh Verma, Director of Research at Bioseed Research India, briefed on transgenic research, and the need for genome editing techniques for promoting sustainable agriculture to increase nutritional security and mitigate the impact of climate change. Dr Verma emphasized the need to strengthen public-private partnerships and develop a policy framework that encourages investments in high-risk and high-value research.
The panelists also agreed upon the need for more market-driven research and an understanding of industry needs to identify potential commercial opportunities in the ag-biotech sector.
Dr Sudhakar Reddy, Principal Investigator of BioNcube of ICRISAT, said the incubator has been supporting start-ups right from developing the proof-of-concept to product development and commercialization. With the technical capacities and facilities at ICRISAT, the team is ready to support more ventures working on transgenics, ag-biologicals, and secondary agriculture.
Other key panelists included Dr Bharat Char, Chief Scientist, Mahyco; Ram Kaundinya, Director General of the Federation of Seed Industry of India; Dr Senthil Vinayagam, CEO at a-IDEA of NAARM; Dr Mrutyunjay Suar, CEO, Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT)-Technology Business Incubator (TBI); Dr Siva Reddy Vanga, Former Group Leader with the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology; Dr Malathi Lakshmikumaran, Executive Director & Practice head with Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys; and Dr Renuka Diwan, Founder of BioPrime Agrisolutions Pvt Ltd.
Twenty crop scientists from Asia and Africa were trained for two weeks at ICRISAT on gene-editing tools, including the increasingly popular CRISPR/Cas technology.
From trait selection to validation of edited plants, specific sessions were conducted on designing strategies for gene editing, basic gene-editing workflows, cloning of the guideRNA (gRNA) and their delivery in plant cells. The trainees also had an exposure visit to National Institute of Animal Biotechnology (NIAB), Hyderabad, to acquaint themselves with applications of gene editing in livestock improvement. During the two-week training program, a number of national and international experts served as resource persons discussing various tools, methodologies and applications of emerging gene-editing technologies in agriculture.
This international training program was organized by the BioNcube of ICRISAT, a BIRAC-BIONEST incubator in collaboration with APCoAB program of Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI) during October 14-25, 2019. The NARS participants hailed from India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt, Senegal, Kenya and Rwanda.
Keynote speaker Prof Arjula R Reddy and lead speaker Prof RP Sharma from Hyderabad Central University gave the opening presentations on evolution of the technology and the status of regulatory policies across the globe. Dr Peter Carberry, Director General, ICRISAT, underscored the importance of gene editing in crop improvement during the inaugural session. Dr Rishi Kumar Tyagi, Coordinator of APCoAB, shared the expectations from the training program. Dr Pooja Bhatnagar-Mathur, the course coordinator, briefed the participants on the tools and technologies for genome editing in agriculture.
Several ICRISAT scientists including Dr Rajeev Varshney, Director, Genetic Gains Research Program; Dr Rajeev Gupta, FP-5 leader of CRP Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals; and Dr Jan Debaene, Global Head, Breeding, ICRISAT, addressed the workshop participants. Dr Sudhakar Reddy, Scientist, ICRISAT, with the help of staff and students of Cell, Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering, provided participants with the requisite support in all aspects of gene editing.
By the end of the training course, the participants had understood workflows with bioinformatics, cloning and genetic transformation, and screening skill sets which would help them prepare to run successful gene-editing applications in their respective programs.