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Panchanan Maheshwari: A giant of plant biology

Updated on Dec 15, 2021 10:43 AM IST

Professor Panchanan Maheshwari established a flourishing school of research and teaching in plant biology at Delhi University, where he arrived in 1949

Maheshwari’s combination of big ambition in choice of problems and the development of intellectual and technical tools to address them is the hallmark of the best of science (Royal Society)
ByK Vijay Raghavan

Professor Panchanan Maheshwari established a flourishing school of research and teaching in plant biology at Delhi University, where he arrived in 1949. Under his leadership, the botany department at Delhi University became “a centre of world-wide influence in plant morphology, known both for its graduates and the many foreign investigators attracted to Delhi by its fame”, according to his biographer at the Royal Society RC Steward. Maheshwari passed away in 1966 at the peak of his career. He was 62.

Before he came to Delhi, Maheshwari was at Dacca University from 1939. He worked on his landmark book, The embryology of angiosperms, between 1945 and 1947. Published in 1950, this book put Maheshwari and Delhi University on the global map. This treasure is available in Indian bookstores for a princely 300.

To appreciate Maheshwari’s contributions, their relevance, and their salience, we need to understand the context of his work on seed plants, particularly flowering ones. Flowering plants are relatively recent arrivals (~250 million years old) compared to other plants which evolved over 800 million years ago.

A pollen grain contains two sperm cells. One fertilises the egg cell to start the development of the embryo whose cells will divide and make the parts of the plant, just as a fertilised human egg makes a human. In plants, a second sperm cell fuses with another cell to form a structure which serves as the embryo’s food supply, the seed. In parallel, the ovary develops into a fruit. Sounds simple, but nature accomplishes this in diverse ways. The comparative study of developing embryos of flowering plants was an area of intense study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing about Maheshwari, V Raghavan (no relative) says: “Maheshwari’s bibliography from 1929 to until his death included about 150 publications, many of them in the field of descriptive and comparative embryology; in addition, more than 300 publications have been credited to his student(s)”.

Maheshwari and his colleagues addressed important, diverse, and difficult questions. He was an expert in micro-technique as was his wife, Shanti. This combination of big ambition in choice of problems and the development of intellectual and technical tools to address them is the hallmark of the best of science. One without the other is of no use.

One problem was fertilisation and embryo development in the laboratory, as distinct from the field. They established in vitro (in a dish) fertilisation of flowering plants using bread seed poppy (papaver somniferum). In the 1970s, after Maheshwari’s demise, the method became well-established and is an important tool in plant breeding.

It is possible to take a single cell from a mature plant and culture an entire plant, bypassing the requirement for fertilisation and embryo formation. Maheshwari and his colleagues explored this method and made fundamental discoveries such as the making of embryos from mature cells, again creating an important route for research.

Shipra Guha (later Guha-Mukherjee) and Satish Maheshwari (Panchanan’s son) developed techniques to culture embryos from pollen alone – a pioneering method in plant breeding. The school of botany Maheshwari seeded in Delhi University produced several leaders, some sadly no more, but many still with us. Some of the notables from the early days were BM Johri, Satish Maheshwari, HY Mohan Ram, Shipra Guha-Mukherjee, KR Shivanna, Sudhir Sopory, Akhilesh Tyagi. Much of plant science in India can trace its origins to this school whose contributions are widely recognised and have had a real impact on agriculture. We owe much to it.

Yet, we must also acknowledge and see how we can remedy a big slippage in its contribution in recent decades measured by lowered global recognition and national impact.

The reasons are internal and external. After Maheshwari, the next generation saw both great science and great infighting. This was when advances in molecular biology swept the world, when the opposite of insularity and hubris were needed. Delhi University did somewhat grasp these external changes such as through the development of the South Campus and its Biochemistry and Genetics and Plant Molecular Biology departments. But the North Campus missed the opportunity to use these new tools to move from a solely descriptive to an integrated mechanistic approach, and the connect between the two campuses intellectually was modest.

Delhi University also grew to amplify the anchoring of undergraduates in affiliated colleges — without substantial undergraduate research. Bright undergraduates power the national and global supply chain. Yet, these students had a declining connect, even awareness of the (declining) research effort in the university.

A base level of assured research support is necessary for university faculty to be competitive when applying for further funds. Such support has been spotty when available. Heavy teaching loads leave faculty with little time for research.

And collaboration with research institutions such as the National Institute of Plant Genome Research and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute has been minimal.

The indices of performance set up by the university ends up conflating quantitative measures with objectivity. There is no room for a top-down approach such as Maurice Gwyer’s (then, the VC of University) hiring of Maheshwari from post-independence Dacca, nor is there a bottom-up desire to find today’s Maheshwari from anywhere in the world.

None of this is unique to plant sciences. The path to restoration and advancement is difficult, but it is not unmanageably complex. Today, plant sciences is one of the most exciting areas of study and research, contributing to mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis and to restoring the environment. Working together, the universities and institutions in Delhi can bring back the old days — to effectively tackle new problems.

K Vijay Raghavan is principal scientific adviser to the Government of India

This series, which will run through the celebration of India’s 75th year of independence, will focus on great scientists, institutions, and scientific achievements, and also look to the next 25 years

The views expressed are personal

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