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[NEW DELHI] A new algorithm for rapid screening of transgenic content could help  cheaper and easier detection of genetic contamination of traditional crop varieties, food and feed, researchers say.  

The algorithm, developed by scientists from India and Slovenia, is capable of detecting all 106 transgenic elements currently in use in India.  Under a January 2013 law India requires labelling of genetically modified (GM) crop products, but enforcement has been hampered by a lack of testing laboratories, says Gurinder Jit Randhawa, principal scientist at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR).
The method, developed by Randhawa and his colleagues at NBPGR, and Slovenia’s National Institute of Biology, drastically cuts the number of tests required to see whether a crop, food or feed is contaminated with GM material, from over 100 to between one and ten.

The matrix-based method also cuts screening costs to one-tenth. Its design ensures that newer genes or gene pieces being tested in later tests can be added to the screening matrix.

Instead of having to screen samples for all 106 genetic elements, the matrix uses a software 'GMOseek' to check whether a sample contains one or more foreign genes or gene pieces commonly used for genetic modification in India. These include genetic material used both in crops approved for commercial cultivation (only GM cotton so far), and in field trials or research studies a report in the April 2014 issue of journal Food Control, says.

Twenty one GM crops, including brinjal (eggplant), cabbage, cauliflower, chickpea, corn, cotton, groundnut, mustard, okra, papaya, potato, rapeseed, rice, rubber, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, tobacco, tomato, watermelon and wheat are in various stages of development in India.

Pushpa Mitra Bhargava, founder and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), says the bigger problem faced by India is absence of an independent organisation to test for GM contamination. “Whatever testing is done is done by companies. Nobody trusts companies,” Bhargava tells SciDev.Net.

Rajesh Krishnan from non-governmental Coalition for GM Free India comments that development of  technology must serve its purpose. Tests are needed to detect contamination in fields adjoining those where GM crops are under field trial, but tests are currently being carried out, he says.

In India, the main threat of GM contamination comes from “field trials and unchecked imported food,” Krishnan says.

> Link to the paper in Food Control

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.

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