cry1c gene from Metahelix Life Sciences recieved the approval from
GEAC for its use in two Bt cotton hybrids, MH5125 Bt and MH5174 Bt, in
June 2009. This first commercial gene developed solely by a private
Indian company offers the cotton plant double protection against two
pests - bollworms and spodoptera
What is cry1C gene?
“When we ventured into this area, we wanted to bring out something
different, with additional properties. One of the common strains of Bt
that are used is Bt aizawai. A major crystalline (cry) protein involved
in this strain is the cry1C”, says Dr KK Narayanan, co founder and
managing director, Metahelix Life Sciences.
The cry1C was used first in cabbage and cauliflower; which are highly
affected by the diamond-back moth. In addition to this, it has high
activity against bollworms; and is also very active against the army
worm, Spodoptera. When Bt cotton was commercialized initially, the
incidence of Spodoptera increased drastically. Metahelix took this as
an advantage, and began looking at using cry1C gene, which had activity
against these leaf-eating worms.
In Bt technology the first gene used, developed by Monsanto India
(Monsanto) - a subsidiary of Monsanto Company, USA - was cry1Ac gene.
The gene, first commercialized in 2002; mainly addresses the issue of
bollworms which are of three kinds: American Bollworm (Helicoverpa
armigera), spotted Bollworm (Earias vitella), pink bollworm
(Pectinophora gossypiella). cry1Acaddresses American and spotted
bollworms; but the pink bollworm is known to have field-resistance to
There are two more players in this area: one is Nath Seeds (Nath),
Ahmedabad (Gujarat), which has the technology from China. Nath has a
variation of cry1Ac gene, which is based on a fusion technology. The
other company is JK Agri Genetics (JK), Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh),
that had a truncated version of cry1Ac gene, called Xgene,
commercialized around 2004-2005. The active part of the protein in JK's
gene was similar to the active part of Monsanto's cry1Ac gene. And all
of these address the three species of bollworms.
The journey from development to approval
The development of the cry1C gene was a long process, that began in
2001. The first step in developing the cry1C gene in the cotton plant,
was choosing the best pattern of gene sequence for the protein, in
order to have optimum activity. The nucleotide sequence has to be
modified, to express the same protein; but with better activity and
compatibility to the plant. The second is to decide whether to express
the entire protein or the active portion of the protein. Metahelix
decided to express only the active toxin. This was done for two reasons
- one, the plant does not have to spend extra metabolic energy in
expressing the whole protein; and also activity of the toxin is based
on its concentration in the tissue that is, lower levels of the protein
are expressed for higher activity.
“The gene has been found to
be effective against Bollworm. Though it is
not yet commercialized, it has been approved by the GEAC. This approval
in a way, proves its efficacy and effectiveness because to get a GEAC
approval, one needs to go through rigorous evaluation stages.”
Chairman, Nath Seeds
“One of the breakthroughs that we made, was cracking this procedure
using a technique called agrobacterium-mediated transformation, using
Agrobacterium tumefaciens as a vector. Once the transgenic plant was
developed, a number of such transgenic yields were developed because
the process of integration of this gene into the genome is in some ways
random” explains Dr Narayanan. Depending on where the gene gets
integrated, the activity varies accordingly - it could be very high to
moderate, to low. It could also affect the agronomic performance of the
gene leading to sterility, and so on. Hence, several transgenic yields
were required to select the optimum event.
In 2004, the hybrids were ready for field trials. Several
demonstrations were set up all over the country in Maharashtra,
Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh. First station trials are done in one of
the five research breeding stations - Bangalore, Attur, Aurangabad,
Ghaziabad, Ahmedabad. After station trials, multi-locational trials are
conducted in more than 20 stations, all over India. These locations are
all managed and run by Metahelix. Then a system called Hybrid
Advancement Trials (HATs) is done for both conventional and Bt hyrbids.
HATs are done in collaboration with farmers. For these trials, the
farmer receives only the input; and the company monitors the fields
These trials took nearly three years. The hybrids needed a combination
of the right amount of rainfall, temperature, and pests to get the
required results. During these trials, a Supreme Court case came up,
against transgenic crop. The Court put on hold all transgenic crop
trials and this caused a delay of nearly two years in the product's
development. The company went through several hurdles; and finally the
government allowed the completion of the large scale trial in 2008,
with very good results. They submitted their dossier the same year.
Again, there were many issues with the biosafety trial. Finally, in
2009, GEAC gave its approval.
Dr KK Narayanan, co-founder & managing director,
Metahelix Life Sciences
Q What is next on the table for the cry1C gene?
As we are testing stacks with the cry1C gene, we aim to make a breeding
stack. For a breeding stack, we have events which have already been
approved. The stacked cry1C gene would widen the spectrum, increase the
number of modes of action, so that the insect-resistance management
strategy can be addressed; and it is a unique stack combination. We are
already in the final stages of testing these combinations, so that, we
bring out our product as a stack, rather than a standalone gene.
Q How do you plan to place the product in the market?
There is a new term in the West called, 'technology stewardship', which
is as important as developing the product itself. Without this, the
product cannot survive in the market; and several major companies spend
as much or even more on this, than product development itself. The
market today for Bt cotton is close to 350 lakh packets; and the total
cotton cultivated area is about 10.5 million hectares. Metahelix will
focus on the States of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, areas of
Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, northern Rajasthan, southern Punjab and some
areas of Dharwad (Karnataka). We want to start small with maybe 50,000
Q What plans do you have for the Indian market?
In India, our future aspirations would be to reach sales of about 100
lakh packets. By 2014-2015, we should be among the leaders in India, in
Q Any global plans for the cry1C technology?
The cry1C gene has not been commercialized anywhere else. It opens up
the possibility to publicly license out the technology to the rest of
the world. We will have a realistic approach, keeping in mind the
regulatory procedures of various countries. The regulation is not just
restricted to the cultivation; it also has to be deregulated in the
countries which import the product. We would need a large resource pool
to be able to do this; and we could possibly initiate some tie-ups, if
the need arises.
Some countries we might look at for expanding into are: South Africa,
Australia and USA. We are also looking at Bangladesh for opportunities.
We have received approvals for rice and maize hybrids in Indonesia and
Martina Andrea D'Couto