Technical Competencies Crucial Factor in Agriculture Biotechnology: Prof Rajinder Singh Chauhan

Prof Rajinder Singh Chauhan

“In a professional field, especially in agriculture biotechnology technical competencies are a crucial factor,” says Prof Rajinder Singh Chauhan, Professor, and Dean at Mahindra University in an interview with Education Post’s Prabhav Anand. Discussing the dynamic field of Agriculture Biotechnology, Prof Chauhan shares valuable perspectives on the field’s evolution and the essential skills f or aspiring professionals. Emphasizing technical competencies, he mentions the importance of attributes like critical thinking and effective communication in today’s competitive landscape.

Question QWith over 30 years of post-PhD academic experience in spearheading educational and research programs in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, please share some of the most significant changes you’ve observed in these fields over the years? How have these changes influenced the direction of your research and teaching methodologies?

Well, over the past 30 years in academics, particularly in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, many significant transformations have been unfolded, notably in the last 10 to 15 years. The advent of CRISPR technology stands out—a game-changer for gene editing across organisms. Analogous to word processing, this technology enables precise genetic alterations, opening diverse avenues in biotechnology sectors like healthcare and agriculture. Another pivotal milestone was the swift development of mRNA-based vaccines, exemplified by Moderna and Pfizer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a year, these vaccines emerged as a breakthrough, earning both technologies the pinnacle recognition in Science and Technology—the Nobel Prize.

In the world of biometrics, its inception in the mid-nineties was spurred by the burgeoning genome sequencing efforts—from bacteria to humans, plants, and animals. As genetic data proliferated, the need to efficiently store and extract valuable information arose. With DNA comprised of only four letters (ADGC) and human genomes boasting 3.2 billion nucleotides, computational tools were crafted, giving birth to the biometrics discipline. These advancements in biotechnology and biometrics have indelibly impacted research and education across life sciences.

Earlier, vaccine development spanned a decade or more, but the swift sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome within days of the pandemic allowed rapid global response. This expeditious process facilitated the prompt creation of diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutic drugs. The transformative effect extends to education, where these technologies have catalysed advancements in diverse sectors. The conventional timeline for bringing a vaccine to market has been dramatically compressed, exemplifying the global impact of these innovations on both education and research.

Question QHow do you perceive the role of technology, particularly Biotechnology and Bioinformatics, in transforming the agriculture sector in India? In your opinion, what are the most promising advancements in these fields that have the potential to revolutionize agricultural practices and ensure food security for the growing population?

Agriculture holds immense importance for a country like India, where 60 percent of the population relies on it. Centuries back, we started with plant diversification and selecting genetically superior ones. In the 1960s, during a food crisis, Dr. MS Swaminathan introduced dwarf wheat varieties, addressing the issue. Now, biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs), plays a crucial role.

GMOs, created through genetic engineering, have transformed Indian agriculture. Government approval is limited to GM cotton, providing resistance to pests, especially the bollworm. This not only saves money for farmers but also promotes a healthier environment by reducing pesticide use. Worldwide, developments like herbicide-tolerant transgenics and golden rice, enriched with vitamin A, showcase the potential of GMOs.

Biometrics, particularly genome sequencing of food crops like rice, has been impactful. In the late 1990s, India participated in sequencing the rice genome. Biometrics aids in identifying genes responsible for traits and nutritional value in crops like rice. Molecular markers extracted from genomes assist in marker-assisted selection and breeding, widely employed by agricultural institutes. This approach is not limited to crops but extends to animals, with institutions like the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources using it for improving animal breeds.

Both biotechnology and biometrics have made significant strides. However, further impact awaits as the government approves more GMOs and additional food crops. These technologies, with their practical applications, are poised to shape the future of agriculture in India, addressing challenges and ensuring sustainable practices for the growing population.

Question QThe agriculture sector in India is currently facing various challenges, ranging from climate change impacts to sustainable agricultural practices. How do you think these challenges can be effectively addressed through education and research initiatives? 

In today’s scenario, climate stands out as the crucial limiting factor for crop productivity in India, impacting families whose livelihood depends on agriculture. Climate change, through factors like rising temperatures, floods, excessive rainfall, and glacier melting, affects growing seasons. I’m from Himachal Pradesh, and we witness shifts in where crops like apples can be grown due to these changes.

Climate shifts also introduce new diseases, pathogens, and pests, affecting crop productivity. Unlike humans who can adapt, crops need to endure changing conditions. Breeding technology is key to developing crop varieties resilient to high temperatures and crucially, drought—the latter being significant for India’s rain-fed agriculture. The Indian Council of Agriculture Research focuses on breeding drought-tolerant crops. Biotechnology, whether through genetic engineering or molecular markers, plays a role. Molecular markers are extensively used for traits like drought and high-temperature tolerance, as well as resistance to new diseases.

However, this remains a substantial challenge. Until we address factors contributing to global warming, especially carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, the challenge persists. Biotechnology is crucial in developing crop varieties resilient to climate effects, but if the situation worsens, drastic decisions may become necessary. The role of biotechnology in addressing climate-related challenges is clear, but it’s contingent on managing the root causes of global warming. This is a significant challenge that demands attention and action in the years to come.

Question QCould you share your insights on the importance of collaboration between academia and industry, especially in the field of Agriculture Biotechnology? How can collaborative efforts between educational institutions and agricultural corporations lead to innovative solutions and sustainable practices that benefit both sectors and society at large?

Agriculture education in India, from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and state agricultural universities, is well-established. Numerous universities across states and private institutions offer robust programs. Collaboration with industry traces back to the US land grant system, forming a strong foundation. Many professors, including myself, completed degrees in this system, often collaborating with foreign universities.

Historically, senior professors engaged in inter-academic programs, earning PhDs in the US. Industry plays a pivotal role. Hybrid crops, especially vegetables, often emerge from collaborations between agricultural universities and multinationals. After my PhD, I received a fellowship from the Department of Biotechnology to conduct advanced research in genomics and rice in the US.

Government efforts, past and present, aim to integrate agriculture education with foreign institutions and industry. Initiatives like my collaboration with Absolute, a Delhi-based startup focusing on agriculture, exemplify the current government’s commitment. This signifies a positive shift, with Indian industries actively participating in collaborative ventures.

The landscape has evolved, with an increasing number of private universities joining the agricultural education sphere. This collaborative approach, integrating academia with foreign institutions and industry, strengthens the agricultural education system in India. The government’s initiatives and partnerships with startups like Absolute demonstrate a progressive direction, aligning education with practical industry needs. This synergy between academia and industry is vital for fostering innovation and sustainable practices, ultimately benefiting both sectors and society at large.

Question QHow do you envision the future of Agriculture Biotechnology in India? Are there any transformative developments or breakthroughs that you anticipate in the coming years? What steps, in your view, are necessary to realize this vision and ensure that India remains at the forefront of agricultural innovation globally?

Agriculture biotechnology is already impacting India with BT cotton in farmer fields. CRISPR technology, a gene-editing breakthrough, will play a major role. Unlike traditional GMOs, CRISPR doesn’t involve taking genes from other sources. For instance, modifying rice for resistance or climate tolerance doesn’t require foreign genes. Using biometrics and computational tools, we identify target genes for enhancement. This eliminates concerns about GMOs affecting health or the environment.

CRISPR’s global impact is evident with frequent research outcomes. It addresses the limitations of traditional genetic engineering and assures safer, more precise modifications. The genomics era is another transformative aspect. Understanding why Basmati Rice is exceptional through genomics allows us to identify controlling genes. Developing markers for genetic improvement replaces traditional breeding methods.

The future of agriculture biotechnology in India looks promising. CRISPR’s precision and safety in gene editing address previous concerns, making it a significant advancement. In the next 5 to 10 years, we anticipate visible impacts on agriculture, with increased crop quality and traits like aroma, resistance, and climate tolerance. The genomics era further contributes to understanding and enhancing crops without relying solely on traditional breeding methods. These developments position India at the forefront of agricultural innovation, ensuring a bright future in the field of agriculture biotechnology.

Question QRecently, UGC came up with new guidelines for mandating internships for research students. How do you see that?

Yes, definitely I know very well about this internship program, what UGC has recently come up with as internships for research students, as mandated by the recent UGC guidelines, are crucial. In the biotech and biometric education profession, internships have been integral for about two decades. Initially, a mandatory six- to eight-week internship was part of the four-year degree program. However, exceptional students and faculty often encouraged yearly internships.

Internship sectors varied based on the field, like medical biotechnology in hospitals or biotech industries, biomedical in pharma, or agriculture in commercial farms or food processing industries. Practical exposure is vital, bridging the gap between theoretical learning and real-world application. It’s not just about being a smart student; practical exposure is essential for understanding the gravity of problems and valuing potential solutions and technologies.

Practical learning’s importance has grown over time. While theoretical knowledge is manageable, grasping practical applications requires hands-on experience. For instance, discussing a crop problem’s solution is one thing, but experiencing it during an internship helps students truly comprehend the challenges and appreciate the needed solutions and technologies.

Institutions must sincerely implement internships to benefit students in their careers. Practical learning enhances understanding, making students more adept in problem solving. It’s not just an academic requirement; it’s a crucial step toward fulfilling students’ ambitions and ensuring their future success. The sincerity of implementation determines the effectiveness of internships, impacting students’ careers and fulfilling the aspirations of both students and parents.

Watch the full interview here:

Question QFor students who are interested in pursuing a career in Agriculture Biotechnology, could you offer some valuable advice? What skills, knowledge, and mind-set do you believe are essential for aspiring professionals in this field, and how can they prepare themselves for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead?

In any professional field, especially in Agriculture Biotechnology technical competencies are a crucial factor. For a bachelor’s, understanding biology, botany, and animal physiology is vital. Intensive lab exposure during programs further enhances technical knowledge. Unlike some other fields, agriculture biotech demands a strong infrastructure and well-trained faculty.

The Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science and Tech, plays a very important role. Master’s programs funded by the government have been initiated in state agriculture universities, selected through a national entrance exam. This ensures quality education with well-established institutions, qualified faculty, and a robust academic ecosystem.

In my experience, Agriculture Biotechnology education began over 30 years ago and has grown significantly. However, besides technical competencies, certain attributes are now crucial for professionals. Problem-solving skills, critical and analytical thinking, teamwork, work ethic, and effective communication are sought by employers worldwide. Even with high academic achievement, lacking these attributes can be a disadvantage.

To address this, we’ve implemented research-enabled project-based learning over the past 20 years. This approach exposes students to real agricultural problems and requires them to work on projects to find solutions. This method instils critical thinking, teamwork, and effective communication skills. For instance, in agriculture biotech, students engage with farmers to understand and solve real-world issues.

This approach has proven effective, producing professionals capable of facing today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. It’s a comprehensive strategy, ensuring students not only possess technical competencies but also essential attributes for success in their careers. As education evolves, this holistic approach becomes increasingly important, preparing students to meet the demands of the ever-changing professional landscape.

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