The Genome India Project, which got the government’s go-ahead last week, aims to map the diversity of India’s genetic pool, and “lay the bedrock of personalised medicine.” The Rs 238-crore project, which will be a collaboration between 20 Indian research institutions, with the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Brain Research serving as its nodal point, will, in its first stage, develop a reference Indian genome using genetic samples from 10,000 persons across India. This will enable greater medicinal efficiency in terms of preventive interventions and customised treatments. Existing global genetic studies in the aftermath of the Human Genome Project are based mainly (95%) on Caucasian, urban samples; add to this the diversity, both horizontal (caused by migration and intermixing of races) and vertical (caused due to endogamy or exogamy resulting in specific patterns of trait inheritance), obtained in India, and the disease burden of complex disorders, and the importance of the project to advanced healthcare becomes amply evident.
Nor would healthcare be the only field to which the benefits of the project would accrue. The budget for FY21 spoke of expanding genome mapping to agriculture—greater understanding of the genetic basis for susceptibility to diseases like blights, rusts, etc, would aid genetic engineering efforts to reduce chemical dependence in agriculture. And, mapping the genetic diversity of India would further scientific understanding of evolution both from a biological (intra- and inter-species interaction, species-ecology interactions, etc) and sociological (migration patterns, rituals, etc) point of view. However, while the potential gains from the project warrant making it a top research priority, caution must be exercised that the effort to map India’s genetic diversity doesn’t devolve into the politically-motivated and discriminatory effort to root indogeneity in misguided notions of biological essentialism.