Face to face: Dr B C Bansal, Director, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) or India’s national gene bank
“We got some excellent material which has got resistance to terminal heat stress, a problem with rising temperature particularly in northern plains where most of wheat is grown,”
The secret behind India’s rising food production in the last many years has been attributed to huge genetic resources of the country. Dr B C Bansal, Director, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) or India’s national gene bank also considered as one of the world’s biggest gene bank speaks to www.indianagribusiness.com on range of activities undertaken by premier institute. NBPGR is constituent institute of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).
Q: Explain us about some of the key activities of NBPGR?
National gene bank or NPBGR was established in 1996 while we have been storing some of the germplasm right from 1995 onwards but in 1996, with the help of USA, we are able to constitute this kind of gene bank at NBPGR where we have stored a large number of lines or accessions of different agriculture horticulture crops. Today our gene bank is the third largest gene bank after USA and China in the world with over 4 lakh accessions which belong to different crop species. We have large number of germplasm of rice which constitute about 1 lakh accessions, 55000 lines of different pulses which are important source of protein and nutrition in Indian vegetable diet. We have equal number about 55000 accessions belonging to oilseed group as mustard, groundnut and equally have fruit and vegetables as 24,000 of vegetables which have been stored in the form of seed.
Apart from this conservation here in the form of seed, we do have conservation facilities created at NBPGR, in the form of pollens, buds for many horticulture crops in liquid nitrogen cryotanks, where temperature is maintained as low as -196 C. in addition to this, we have stored or conserved many of the plant genetic resources as horticulture crops in the form of tissue culture plantlets. About 40,000 such samples have been maintained in the form of plantlets in NBPGR.
Q: Explain about the process of these germplasm collection over the year and which are the agencies are associated your institutions?
All here is an outcome of collective efforts by our scientists as we have a separate division of germplasm exploration and collection. So our scientists from this division and other divisions, with the help of other specialists of a particular crop move along the country and collect this germplasm, bring to this institute where it is processed as per international standards of FAO before conserved in form of seed or cryopreservation or in vitro.
All these conservations are taken into account after this material has been collected from diverse locations within the country by our experts again in collaboration with the specialists of that particular crop. Also we have collected or introduced germplasm in India from various other countries in the world.
For example, NBPGR is instrumental in bringing kiwi fruit in India as a crop which is now grown in temperate regions of our country at our research station located at Shimla. This was established first and is now going around the whole and getting popular as a good commercial product. This is the way we collect within India or outside from different institutions.
We have got international agriculture centres like we have international centre on wheat in Mexico, on rice in Philippines, for crops of dry areas in Syria and other parts of the world. From there as well, we have collected the material and got here for the benefit of Indian agriculture so that we could provide better varieties through our breeders to our farmers for increased crop production.
Q: There are lot of concerns on losing biodiversity. What you will say on the issue?
A: We are losing biodiversity in the sense that it is not further grown by the farmers as land races, primitive cultivars are replaced by the high yielding varieties. Nevertheless, those land races or obsolete cultivars which were grown at times by farmers have been collected from their fields and brought to national gene bank here means biodiversity has been conserved safely. Now the farmers are also able to grow high yielding varieties which are more remunerative, get better price and are able to grow more and more for the nation. So today we are able to produce 260 million tonnes of foodgrains in the country. So we will not say that biodiversity has been lost.
Yes, you can say that there are cases where because of urbanisation or other natural factors or calamities, some kind of biodiversity in some particular region is getting lost. But at the same time, we must appreciate that those agro-biodiversity from that region has already been collected and that is the advantage of having national gene bank of this kind. And that what bureau under bigger umbrella of ICAR is doing excellent job for many years. This bureau was established in 1976. Since then, we have been instrumental and even before that when institute come into full fledged institution, the activity was carried out by Harbhajan Singh, also called as Vavilov of India. Vavilov was the world renowned scientist who was able to start collection of germplasm from Russia or different parts of the world.
Q: What is the advantage of conserving biodiversity like land races, obsolete cultivars as farmers are even not using them?
Basically we collect germplasm within India or outside, bring it and conserve here, is that we don’t lose it altogether from our planet earth or whole India. At the same time, it is important to identify the worth of these genetic resources. For this, we study in the field conditions, characterise it , evaluate it and identify which is a good trait, like to be introduced in high yielding varieties. We have high yielding varieties of wheat but are susceptible to rust. For this, I will go back to the gene bank and try to bring out different accessions of wheat, grow them in the field, hot spots where rust disease appears most, from there will select the required material and then screen. If finds some useful as resistance to rust, then I will call my wheat breeder to the field. They will select right there which is resistance to rust andto incorporate, will use as a donor parent in their breeding program for that particular gene into high yielding varieties which otherwise susceptible.
So there is a concept that we continue with characterisation and evaluation of this germplasm under field conditions in collaboration with our national partners as ICAR and institutes working in different crops as rice, wheat, cotton, horticulture crops located at different locations. When donor is identified, is shared with breeders for developing high yielding varieties resistance to diseases/pests, climatic factors as drought, high temperature etc.
For the first time particularly for identification of accessions of wheat which can tolerate terminal heat stress, we conducted a mega experiment where we took all accessions available, running 22,000 accessions and planted them on a single location.
We are happy to share with you that we got some excellent material which has got resistance to terminal heat stress, a problem with rising temperature particularly in northern plains where most of wheat is grown. Not only to this, but also able to identify lines showing resistance to multiple rust diseases, which we are further characterising. We have developed a code in a sense that out of the total number of accessions, we have been able to capture 80%-90% of genetic variability into small number around 2000-3000 accessions ,which is now available for research in our country for different purposes as for developing high yielding varieties, resistance to diseases, insect pests, climate change etc.
Q : Tell us about the guidelines for conservation of germplasm?
We are developing guidelines in fact and ICAR in the last two years has taken some concrete steps towards this. We have one national advisory board on management of genetic resources under chairmanship of Dr R S Baroda and co-chairmanship of Dr S Ayappan who is the Director General of ICAR. Under this national advisory board, we are trying to develop guidelines or protocols with guidance from the board where we have other important personalities dealing with PGR or other genetic resources as members and working towards that.
Q: Your institution has been focussing on 15 crops. What are the reasons?
In ICAR, we have got a system called as prioritisation, monitoring and evaluation. While we have been able to store and conserve accessions of about 1500 species but when talk of prioritisation, out of these 1500 species, primarily for meeting our daily needs of food and energy, we have done an elaborate exercise and identified 15 crops as prioritised crops which include wheat, rice, maize, pearl millet, sorghum, sugarcane, chickpea, pigeon pea, mustard, brinjal, okra, banana, melon, mango, citrus fruits. These 15 crops will constitute about 60% of our total capacity of number of accessions (40,0000 ) we have in our gene banks. Therefore, we have prioritised these 15 crops so that we can undertake complete characterisation in evaluation studies and develop a code that become available to all our breeders for utilization in breeding program.
Utilization of material stored in our gene bank is becoming more important because of various reasons. You know that we would like to continue increasing our agriculture production particularly when there are so many challenges faced by agriculture as climate change is the biggest problem faced today in the world and of course in India.
Land resources are degrading and water availability is shrinking. Now it becomes more important to go back to gene bank and try to utilise this material for developing climate change adoptable varieties and for helping small farmers to grow varieties with high production and in a sustainable manner with minimum input of these national resources. So we are trying to increase the efficiency of agriculture production as such, with input from these genetic resources by using those genes which are available in plenty in material conserved in our national gene bank.
Q: Tell us about the focus area of the gene bank in the next two to three years?
In fact, we are now in next 2-3 years means we are in middle of our 12th five year plan period. So NBPGR is taking a lead in developing agri-biodiversity platform at national level, where the focus would be on the collaboration with our national partners as I mentioned earlier. The number today reached is about 80 depending upon crops as horticulture, cereals, vegetables, oilseeds etc. In collaboration with those 80 partners, we try to characterise entire germplasm, evaluate, and make a kind of value chain that down the lane we are able to make this material available to the breeder and encourage them to use in breeding programme to broaden the genetic base. If there is a disease and genetic base is narrow then whole crop will get devastated, so we want to increase genetic variability at farmer level by broadening genetic base.
Some of these varieties which are otherwise high yielding but produce more in a sustainable manner with more effective utilisation of natural resources, that would be our major focus in next 2-3 years. Not only this, with a technology now available on genomics, we are able to create DNA banks and identification of those genes and lanes. So by combining power of genetic resources on one hand and the genomics tool on other hand, really in a shortest possible time, we can try to identify. There is a whole focus at NBPGR in division of genomic resource to take this type of work. So we can move on, using these latest tools of biotechnology to improve upon crop plants through our breeders and molecular scientists. .