The world’s first genetically modified (GM) rubber plant was planted on Tuesday on the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam. It is developed by the Kerala-based Rubber Research Institute of India (RRII), under the Rubber Board through long years of research in its Biotechnology laboratory. The sapling was planted by Rubber Board Chairman and Executive Director KN Raghavan at the board’s farm in Sarutari near Guwahati.
The GM rubber plant, which is the first of its kind developed specifically for the northeast and is expected to flourish in the region’s climatic conditions.
The plant has additional copies of gene MnSOD (manganese-containing superoxide dismutase) in it and is expected to revolutionize natural rubber production in India. It can protect plant cells and can also survive in severe environmental stresses such as cold and drought.
Commercial planting would be taken up later, depending on the results of the experiments conducted at the farm.
About GM rubber plant
Addressing the media after inaugurating the field planting, KN Raghavan explained how the latest innovation can be a game-changer in natural rubber cultivation in the country. With additional copies of the gene MnSOD (manganese-containing superoxide dismutase) inserted in it, the GM rubber plant is expected to tide over the severe cold conditions during winter which is a major factor affecting the growth of young rubber plants.
Natural rubber is a native of warm humid Amazon forests and it is not naturally suited for the cold conditions in this part of the nation. RRII has earlier developed two high-yielding hybrid clones of rubber that are adapted to the climatic conditions of the North -East region through breeding and selection. This is the first time any GM crop is developed exclusively.
The growth of young rubber is halted during the winter months, which are also characterized by progressive drying of the soil. This is the reason for the long immaturity period of this crop in the region. The MnSOD gene has the ability to protect plants from the adverse effects of extreme environmental stresses such as cold and drought etc.
Laboratory studies conducted at RRII showed that GM rubber plants over-expressed the MnSOD gene as expected and offered protection to the cells. Therefore it is expected that the GM rubber plants will grow fast in the region. Dr. Raghavan also explained that what is planted now is not on a commercial basis, but on an experimental level following all mandatory biosafety measures applicable to field trials involving GM crops.
MnSOD gene used in the GM rubber was taken from the rubber plant itself. Its copies were multiplied in the laboratory and reinserted into a cell of the rubber plant. Later, it regenerated into a full plant that is now planted in the field. In India, there are no plant species that can breed with natural rubber. Therefore, there is no risk of genes flowing from the GM rubber into any other native species, a concern often raised by environmental groups against GM plants in general.
Dr. Raghavan stated that the Rubber Board attached great importance to its activities in the North East where rubber farming is a viable tool for rural development and empowerment of the farmers, including the indigenous communities. The Board is actively encouraging rubber cultivation in the region by giving financial support to the Indian tyre industry. The choice of Assam to plant the first GM rubber also demonstrates the importance it attaches to the region.
The event was conducted strictly adhering to Covid-19 protocols, it was witnessed by a handful of officials of the Rubber Board, soil conservation department, and local rubber growers.
Production of Natural Rubber in India
The total production of Natural Rubber (NR) in 2018-19 was provisionally estimated at 6,48,000 tonnes. Union Minister Piyush Goyal at FICCI’s Annual Convention said- “The tyre & rubber industry ecosystem can become a great business leader in the years to come. We will be encouraging rubber plantations through the support of private investment so that they can grow & flourish.”