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Mission with a vision

education Updated: Jul 24, 2012 17:46 IST

Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Sathyabhama Das Biju, PhD (animal science), PhD (plant science)
Area of interest: Systematics, conservation, molecular phylogeny and evolution, molecular biogeography

Discovering new life

He is credited with discovering many new amphibian species — including the smallest Indian frog

With more than 30 years of research experience in biodiversity, systematics and conservation, which includes extensive field expeditions for studying plants and amphibians in India and other tropical countries, Biju Sathyabhama Das is a name worth Googling if you are interested in systematics, conservation biology, molecular phylogeny and evolution.

Biju is credited with discovering many new species of frogs, which include the smallest Indian frog, Nyctibatrachus minimus (just about 10 mm long), the first Asian canopy frog and the famed purple frog. He has been studying the amphibians for the last two decades and has described more than 100 species.

He also discovered two entirely new amphibian families from India. The Indian purple frog (family Nasikabatrachidae) was published in 2003 and which he says,
“according to experts is a once-in-a-century find.” Recently in 2011 Biju and his team discovered a second new family called Chikilidae from Northeast India.

He started his amphibian research in 1990 in the Western Ghats of India and gradually extended fieldwork to Northeastern India in early 2000. After establishing Systematics Lab http://www.frogindia.org/ in the University of Delhi in 2005, his team has done extensive field explorations throughout India to discover and conserve amphibians.

“I am interested in biodiversity and conservation and my primary aim is to discover and describe the amphibians of India and propose conservation measures,” says Biju, who leads the project Western Ghats Network of Threatened Amphibians (WNPATA) as its project director http://www.wnpata.org/. He is also the coordinator of In search of Lost! Amphibians of India (LAI) a nationwide initiative http://www.lostspeciesindia.org/LAI2/, in association with IUCN/ASG, Conservation International, USA, Global Wildlife Conservation, USA and the Natural History Museum, London. This ambitious project aims to rediscover the lost amphibian species of India with involvement of both scientific and non scientific community.

Biju’s work has been recognised internationally and he has received awards for his research and conservation initiatives. This includes the IUCN Sabin award for amphibian conservation in 2008 and Sanctuary Asia Wildlife service award in 2011.

CR Babu, PhD
Area of interest: Restoration ecology, plant biology

Reclaiming biodiversity

CR Babu’s key contribution to the city through these two projects has been reclamation of diminished as well as eliminated life forms. The 457-acre Yamuna Biodiversity Park’s wetlands attract 5,000-6000 migratory birds. “All species of fishes - 70 - found in the Yamuna now exist in the water bodies of the park as well,” says Babu, professor emeritus at Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE), Delhi University and the project in-charge of DDA’s Yamuna and Aravalli biodiversity parks. Wild boars which inhabited this place 100 years ago have returned, he adds. The 692-acre Aravalli Biodiversity Park boasts 200 species of birds. It has 25 different biotic communities which harbour 1,000 native plant species characteristic of the Aravalli range, says Babu.

The citation of the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar 2009 he received reads: “He established a CEMDE at the University of Delhi to undertake action research in the area of environment and ecology, particularly with respect to development and implementation of eco-technologies for sustainable development. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the botanic garden of Indian republic at NCR-Delhi under the aegis of ministry of environment and forests and in the development of Yamuna and Aravali biodiversity parks under the aegis of Delhi Development Authority. He has been a member and chairman to several national and international committees on environment,”

In collaboration with another DU professor, geologist DM Banerjee, he has also contributed a design, using ecological principles, to prevent landslides in Sikkim.

RC Kuhad, PhD (microbiology)
Area of interest: Lignocellulose bioconversion to ethanol and animal feed; enzymatic bleaching of paper pulp and enzymatic retting of plant fibre

Turning straw into healthy feed

RC Kuhad, professor of microbiology, University of Delhi, has developed processes for production of industrially important enzymes such as xylanase, laccase and pectinase. These enzymes have been investigated for various applications such as bleaching of paper pulp, degumming of plant fibres, de-inking of newspaper waste, increasing the sugar concentration in the fermentation medium for producing more ethanol (filed the patent for it), decolourisation of recalcitrant dyes, in green chemistry applications and production of oligosaccharides (dietary supplements or food additives) etc. The use of xylanase has established the improvement in brightness (2% ISO) of the paper and laccase has been demonstrated in reduction of chlorine (30%) usage. A novel process for bio-bleaching of paper pulps using laccase and xylanase enzymes (production of which is “economically viable”) with oxygen as mediator has been developed by Kuhad’s group. The evaluation for bleaching paper pulp was carried out jointly with Central Pulp & Paper Research Institute, Saharanpur and they have together filed for a patent. “The enzymatic bleaching process has the potential of reducing chlorine demand and eventually reducing environmental pollution,” says Kuhad.

The team has also developed a process for producing ethanol from plant biomass and efforts are on to economise it. “The bioethanol will supplement the energy demands of our country and eventually will support national security by reducing the dependence on oil import,” he says.

Also, Kuhad’s group has demonstrated the use of two weeds — Prosopis juliflora and Lantana camara — as raw material for ethanol production which can also control weeds. It has also been working to address the scarcity of nutritive feed for livestock. A process for bioconversion of wheat straw into nutritionally-enriched and digestible feed following solid-state fungal fermentation has been developed in his lab. “The fermented feed has been tested on cattle and found energy rich, more digestible and it had more crude protein. When fed to the calves, it has shown being capable of replacing 50% concentrate mix from the conventional diet of animals without affecting animal performance. The growing calves fed on a fermented diet, acquired 50g per day more weight and possessed significantly reduced cholesterol level than the calves fed with raw wheat straw,” he explains. The feed has been evaluated by their industry partner and the National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal.

At present, the team is concentrating on improving the processes for production of ethanol and animal feed. “It would be a breakthrough, especially for countries with a strong agricultural base, producing million tons of secondary agriculture and forest residues.”

DM Banerjee, PhD (geology)
Area of interest: Sedimentology, sedimentary geochemistry, precambrian geology, environmental geochemistry

The rock of the community

In addition to his purely academic publication, DM Banerjee has been involved in major community-oriented projects, among many other activities in India and abroad. He was one of the Delhi University experts invited by the chief secretary of the Andaman & Nicobar islands administration to the Nicobar groups of islands where they carried a “unique experiment” on Chowra island.

“I was the first person to carry out extensive researches on rock phosphate, a major fertiliser mineral, the key element of the green revolution. My collaborative investigation with Prof CR Babu and the Government of Sikkim on landslide prevention using geobotanical measures was directly related to human welfare. Similarly, designing drinking water ponds through unique water harvesting technique in the Tsunami-affected island villages in Andaman-Nicobar Island was a thumping success.

Extensive geological studies on arsenic pollution in parts of Ganga Delta plains of West Bengal and implementing mitigation techniques are the most important humanistic researches of my research group,” elaborates Banerjee, emeritus INSA (Indian National Science Academy) senior scientist/professor .

Deepak Pental, PhD (botany)
Plant biotechnology - development of transgenic crop plants for insect resistance using Bt genes and male sterile lines in mustard using Barnase and Barstar system

Master of seed tech

One of Deepak Pental’s key contributions to society has been in improving the yield of mustard seeds. “In 2002, we produced two hybrids which yield 20 to 30% more than the best available. Out of them, one of the hybrids is non-genetically engineered and is now used in the fields,” says Pental, professor of genetics, University of Delhi. He has also worked on improving the quality of oil. “We are working to bring technological development of how to use molecular methods to improve the quality of mustard and cotton,” adds Pental.

He has patents, in India as well as abroad, for regulation of lethal gene expression in plants; method for producing insulator construct; an insulator construct for controlling leaky expression of a lethal gene; a method for obtaining improved fertility restorer lines for male sterile crop plants developed using transgenic approaches for hybrid seed production and a DNA construct for use in the said method; and a new cytoplasmic male sterility for Brassica species and its use for hybrid seed production in Indian oilseed mustard Brassica juncea.

Pental has been the coordinator of three major national network programmes:
* Development of transgenics in four major crops - cotton, rice, mung bean and tomato for resistance to biotic stresses, funded by Department of Biotechnology (DBT), completed
* Functional genomics in plants: Development and use of the technologies for gene discovery and expression modulation, funded by the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR), completed
* Novel approaches for production of (a) hybrid seed with characteristics of improved insect resistance and higher yield — (1) rice component, (2) cotton component, funded by NMITLI, CSIR, ongoing

RK Shivpuri
Founder director, DU Centre for Detector and Software Technology; chairperson, MTech Panel on NScience/Tech

Hunting for the God particle

Delhi University had a key role to play in the discovery of the imprint of the ‘God-like particle,’ Higgs Boson, thanks to Dr RK Shivpuri, the founder director of Delhi Unviersity’s Centre for Detector and Software Technology and chairperson of the MTech Committee on Nuclear Science and Technology. Currently working as principal investigator of the project on search for new particles at the Hadron Collider, Geneva, CERN (Switzerland) and the Grid Computing Project, India, Dr Shivpuri has been principal investigator of several international research projects, including the Fermilab Dzero Collider Experiment, USA. He has a part of two major discoveries in the last 50 years - Top quark in 1995 and Higgs Boson in 2012.

Dr Shivpuri and his team, comprising teachers and students made 1000 silicon microstrip detectors and helped develop the software for grid computing. The team had joined the experiment in 1996. The detectors were developed in collaboration with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and were taken to CERN and installed as part of CMS Detector. These detectors are taking data and being maintained and operated by the Indian team.

The Delhi University group has also contributed significantly to the software development of the experiment. Since billions of interactions are produced in a day, the amount of data is huge and in order to make sense out of this data, the software effort needed is enormous. “We also started a grid computing facility, a novel concept emerged out of CERN. As a result of this facility, we have access to the computing facility at CERN. Our technical competence was perfectly evaluated and found in compliance with the requirements of CERN,” says Dr Shivpuri.