Delhi Uni­ver­sity's gene mys­tery

Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy has no idea where GM lines in a high-pro­file case came from and who gave per­mis­sion for re­search

Down to Earth - - RESEARCH ETHICS - LATHA JISHNU

AT THE heart of a high-pro­file pla­gia­rism case that has shaken up In­dian academia is a gene. Called codA, the gene was ob­tained from No­rio Mu­rata, pro­fes­sor at Ja­pan’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Ba­sic Bi­ol­ogy, for a joint project with the Cen­tre for Bio­sciences in Delhi’s Jamia Mil­lia Is­lamia (jmi) 20 years ago.

Un­der the Indo-Ja­panese re­search project ini­ti­ated in 1996, codA, a bac­te­rial gene, was used to de­velop In­dia’s first trans­genic lines of mus­tard ( bras­sica juncea) to en­hance tol­er­ance to salin­ity stress.It was a ma­jor break­through even if the out­come of the re­search, pro­duc­tion of trans­genic mus­tard re­sis­tant to abi­otic stress, was not used in the field. The re­sults ob­tained with ex­pres­sion of codA in a lo­cal mus­tard va­ri­ety ( Pusa Jai Kisan), earned its lead re­searcher KVSK Prasad his doc­toral de­gree (PhD) un­der the su­per­vi­sion of his pro­fes­sor P Pardha Saradhi, then a reader with jmi. To­gether they pub­lished two pa­pers in Molec­u­lar Bi­ol­ogy and Plant Science in 2000.

But within a few years of that land­mark pub­li­ca­tion, codA has opened a Pan­dora’s Box of scan­dal in the Uni­ver­sity of Delhi (DU), with a high-pro­file court case in­volv­ing its for­mer vice-chan­cel­lor Deepak Pen­tal.The crux of the case filed in 2009 by Saradhi, who had moved to DU as pro­fes­sor in its Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, is that Prasad pla­gia­rised huge chunks of the re­search done at jmi and passed it off as his new re­search af­ter he joined Pen­tal in DU at its South Cam­pus Cen­tre.

De­spite re­peated com­plaints made by Saradhi, the gov­ern­ment’s Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy (dst) has re­fused to act, although the project was funded by it. In­stead, it has re­fused to pro­vide the doc­u­ments sought by Saradhi un­der an rti (right to in­for­ma­tion) ap­pli­ca­tion.

As the case wound its way through the courts be­fore it reached Delhi High Court, Saradhi was suspended on grounds of ad­min­is­tra­tive and aca­demic lapses and charges of sex­ual mis­con­duct filed against

him. “Th­ese were all cooked up cases launched just to per­se­cute me.Even my PhD stu­dents were con­stantly ha­rassed,”says the man who has for long been cam­paign­ing against pla­gia­rism and lax reg­u­la­tions in DU (see ‘They asked me to with­draw my court case’). His sus­pen­sion was re­voked by the High Court in De­cem­ber 2014.

The court case hit the head­lines in late Novem­ber 2014 be­cause a Delhi mag­is­trate or­dered the ar­rest of Pen­tal, not be­cause of the al­leged pla­gia­rism but on the more se­ri­ous charge of al­low­ing the use of GM (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied) ma­te­rial with­out reg­u­la­tory ap­proval. GM ma­te­rial comes un­der the haz­ardous cat­e­gory be­cause any un­con­trolled re­lease could cause se­ri­ous dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment. Pen­tal was briefly in the Tees Hazari Court lock-up be­fore he was re­leased on bail. How did this come about? In 2000, Prasad was awarded a Young Sci­en­tist project by dst—this was to eval­u­ate the po­ten­tial of codA gene to en­hance abi­otic stress in mus­tard—when he was part of Pen­tal’s team in the Depart­ment of Ge­net­ics, DU-South Cam­pus. Saradhi says he accidentally came across a progress re­port on the project sub­mit­ted by Prasad and was “shocked to find that the progress listed by Pen­tal’s re­search team was part of what had been achieved by my team at jmi”. In a de­tailed anal­y­sis of Prasad’s project re­port, Saradhi claims to have found at least 30 ver­ba­tim lifts from the jmi the­sis. Sus­pect­ing that the gene and the GM seeds were also taken from his lab­o­ra­tory and used with­out autho­ri­sa­tion by Pen­tal’s team,Saradhi ap­proached dst seek­ing rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion on the Prasad project for which public funds had been used (`11.22 lakh).More im­por­tant,he wanted to know whether reg­u­la­tory ap­provals had been sought for the re­search.

Un­der the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Act, it is manda­tory to get per­mis­sion for gen­er­at­ing and han­dling GM or­gan­isms and plants, start­ing with ap­proval from the In­sti­tu­tional Bio-safety Com­mit­tee (isbc). dst has ad­mit­ted that it has no doc­u­ment of ap­proval by isbc. “As a learned and dis­tin­guished mem­ber of sci­en­tific com­mu­nity di­rectly deal­ing with trans­genic plants, Prof Deepak Pen­tal must be fully aware of the con­se­quences of this and must be asked to ex­plain,”he points out in a let­ter writ­ten to dst.No ac­tion has been taken.

Talk­ing to Down To Earth (dte), Saradhi says:“Pen­tal should also have sought per­mis­sion of rcgm (Re­view Com­mit­tee on Ge­netic Ma­nip­u­la­tion) for get­ting seed of codA trans­genic lines trans­ferred from my lab to his.That au­to­mat­i­cally means that he or his team has to sign a mem­o­ran­dum with me.This did not hap­pen.”

Pen­tal has not re­sponded to queries from dte on this is­sue.

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