Indian buffalo at crossroads of science

May 5th, 2009 - 3:38 pm ICT by IANS  

By K.S. Jayaraman
Bangalore, May 5 (IANS) India’s ambitious project to sequence the genome of a buffalo - the mainstay of the country’s dairy industry - has become a victim of inter-agency rivalry and ego problems, an investigation reveals.

Apart from enhancing India’s image in the competitive field of genome research, the project aimed at using the knowledge for genetic improvement of this economically important animal that contributes to 55 percent of milk produced in India besides meat, hides and draught power.

When mooted about three years ago by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, it was expected to be a single national programme with the institutions concerned holding hands.

But it appears that instead of pooling the scarce financial and other resources for this prestigious project, two groups in the country are gearing to work independently on it.

While the CCMB proposal is still being evaluated by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR) in Karnal, Haryana, has already “initiated” its own project.

“We have a full-fledged project approved by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and I am its principal investigator,” Madhu Sudan Tantia of NBAGR told IANS.

Tantia said the money sanctioned by the ICAR is Rs.8 crore/Rs.80 million ($1.6 million) for sequencing the genome - or the entire DNA - of a male buffalo. The actual sequencing work will not be done at NBAGR but will be outsourced to a company abroad, he said.

The ICAR scientists will be involved only in analysing and interpreting the data for practical applications. “Outsourcing is cheaper compared to doing it on your own because you do not have to buy the costly sequencing equipment,” explained NBAGR director B.K. Joshi.

Asked why the NBAGR decided to go ahead on its own while the CCMB proposal was awaiting approval from the DBT, Joshi said he was “not aware of the CCMB proposal”. He also said his institute is teaming up with the Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes - another ICAR institute in Hissar, Haryana - but has “no collaboration” with the CCMB.

CCMB scientist Satish Kumar who authored the proposal said the final plan submitted to the DBT seven months ago was actually the outcome of a series of discussions that the CCMB had with potential partners including the NBAGR. The last such interactive meeting was held on May 5, 2007, when it was decided that the CCMB would write the final proposal for the DBT’s approval. Tantia of the NBAGR said he had been a participant in one of the meetings.

Sources who do not want to be named told IANS that the project originally conceived by the CCMB was “hijacked” by the ICAR, much to the disappointment of the CCMB and discomfiture of the DBT.

DBT secretary Maharaj Kishan Bhan said he is aware of the ICAR having “its own project” for sequencing buffalo genome. “That is also a problem,” he added without elaborating.

He however gave the assurance that before approving the CCMB proposal “we will discuss with the ICAR and also with some groups from the United States that have approached us for partnership”.

Bhan said the CCMB proposal is being evaluated by a DBT committee and a decision (on funding this project) will be taken in about a month’s time.

“All genome sequencing projects need a lot of money and we have to decide which one is priority,” Bhan said, adding that sequencing alone is not the end. There must be enough scientists to do “functional genomics” to put the data to use, he said. The CCMB proposal seeks Rs.347 million from the DBT and expects to complete the project in three years.

CCMB director Lalji Singh said the proposal is for sequencing the entire genome of domestic buffalo (Bubalus babalis) that contributes immensely to the agricultural economy through milk, meat, hides and draught power.

“This would be the first species of farm livestock to be sequenced from the tropical environment,” Singh said, adding that the information gained would lead to genetic improvement of the buffalo, the mainstay of the dairy industry in India. “I earnestly hope and believe that this proposal will have strong support from the DBT,” Singh said in a letter to Bhan.

According to the CCMB’s plan, most sequencing would be done in-house using sophisticated equipment it already has. “Outsourcing is always possible but we must learn to do things on our own to create skilled manpower,” Singh said.

A senior animal geneticist who did not want to be named said the buffalo genome project is a victim of science politics and personality clash. “We do not know what is happening to this project at the NBAGR. There is no national effort to bring institutions together. It is a sad story.”

The scientist said that buffalo genome sequencing provided to India a fresh opportunity to establish lost leadership in this field.

India missed a chance to contribute to global effort to sequence the human genome and, recently, the cow genome. A project to sequence chick pea launched by the DBT six years ago never took off and so was another project to sequence the genome of Mycobacterium-W, claimed to be a candidate for a vaccine against tuberculosis.

“Now technology is so advanced that sequencing the genome of a bacteria is child’s play - it can be done in one week,” says microbiologist K.P. Gopinathan, professor emeritus at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. “I do not know why we have been unable to sequence a single genome while China has sequenced rice, silkworm, and partly the human genome.”

Needless to say several international groups are waiting for the DBT’s formal launching of the buffalo genome sequencing programme.

“We do not have any plan and funding right now to sequence the buffalo genome, but if India’s DBT initiates this activity that will be great,” Zhihua Jiang, Associate Professor of Animal Genomics at the Washington State University in the US, told IANS over e-mail. “I will be more than happy to get involved. Certainly I (will) provide my newest strategy for doing this.”

Pushpa Bhargava, founder director of the CCMB, says the DBT should not stop with sequencing buffalo genome. “I think we should go ahead and sequence the genome of our unique pashmina goat.”

(K. S. Jayaraman can be contacted at

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