Nurturer of the Nature
Asafoetida, called Heeng in Hindi, is the dried gum secreted by tap root of several species of a carrot family plant called Ferula. These plants grow naturally in Karakum Desert spread over Eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and mountains of Afghanistan. After five years of sowing a seed, a plant is ready to yield. The stems are cut down close to the root, a milky juice flows out and quickly sets into a solid resinous reddish-brown mass. After a season of giving resin, the plant dries out permanently.
When modern science arrived with analytic tools, asafoetida was found to contain volatile sulphur-containing compounds, which participates in various biological activities upon consumption. Upon deeper examination, three major sulphur constituents that have been identified include 2-butyl 1-propenyl disulphide, 1-(methyl thio) propyl 1-propenyl disulphide and 2-butyl 3-(methyl thio)-2-propenyl disulphide. If we look inside popular drugs used for antimicrobial activity, against hepatotoxicity, and anticarcinogenic activity, these three compounds are almost always present.
Supply chain disruptions during long Afghan war, that started in 1979, and militancy in Kashmir made Heeng very expensive. The import bill of about 1500-2000 tons of Heeng that India has been importing have crossed ₹1000 crore per year. The over-exploitation of wild population and lack of organized cultivation made Iran declared it an endangered species. As goes a cliché – necessity is the mother of invention, plant, and microbial biotechnologist Dr. Sanjay Kumar, arrived on the scene and developed a practical method of rapid regeneration of this species.
Dr. Sanjay Kumar approached ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (ICAR-NBPGR) and secured seeds from Afghanistan and Iran following a lengthy process. Using ecological niche modelling (ENM) a site was selected near the Center for High Altitude Biology (CeHAB) at Ribling, in Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. One in a hundred asafoetida seeds germinates under normal conditions but by meticulous planning and care, the CSIR-IHBT team achieved 2 plants for every 3 seeds. The Headspace-gas chromatography (HS-GC) analysis on one-year old plant has confirmed presence of all major sulphur compounds.
.The tissue culture laboratory at CSIR-IHBT has developed an efficient method for regeneration of Asafoetida through somatic embryogenesis. Scientists have grown cellular mass out of cultures from root, leaf, and stem of mother plant. The high frequency of regeneration of the derived callus will encourage them to carry out protoplast culture, somatic hybridization, and genetic transformation. The group joined hands with Himachal Pradesh State Department of Agriculture that organized cultivation in five districts. Plantations were also made in Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Besides a long-standing friendship, I share with Dr. Sanjay Kumar nativity and alma mater. We both were born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh and studied at the GB Pant University, of course in different times and fields. With doctorate at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, Sanjayji has been trained at the Texas Tech University and the Kansas State University in the U.S. and Rothamsted Research in the UK.
For Dr. Sanjay Kumar, science is the discovery of the secrets of nature. Through his work on high altitude plants, he discovered a novel carbon fixation pathway. Transplanting this pathway in a heterologous system reduced photorespiratory losses leading to photosynthetic gain and yield enhancement. According to him, winter dormancy and drought stress in tea, carry all the secrets for secondary metabolite synthesis and imparting stress tolerance to other plants.
Another work of far-reaching consequences led by Dr. Sanjay Kumar is growing of apples in North-East India. Apple trees thrive in temperate climates and needs cold winters to ensure plant dormancy and subsequent fruit production. Apples play a leading role in the economy of Himachal Pradesh. The uncertainties of the monsoon, dependence over the old cultivars, and pathogen infestation have created unwarranted uncertainties and hardships for the apple growers.
Most apples need at least 1,000 cold hours. Low-chill apple types can thrive with as little as 400 winter chill hours, whereas moderately chill apple varieties need between 400 and 700 chill hours. Dr. Sanjay Kumar organized efforts to get apple trees that can withstand heat and have been bred over time in kinds that are suitable for colder winter climates. Many dwarf rootstocks with disease and insect resistance as well as cold hardiness can be developed by technological intervention.
Apple trees in an orchard are generally not grown from apple seeds. There are two parts of an apple tree – the rootstock, which controls the size of the tree and the scion or cultivar which determines the variety or kind of fruit that grows on the tree. The scion is the plant which has the properties desired by the propagator, and the rootstock is the working part which interacts with the soil to nourish the new plant. The two parts are joined together by grafting.
The CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, where Dr. Sanjay Kumar assumed leadership in 2015, have developed micropropagation technology for the rapid multiplication of commercially important rootstocks which can be utilized for re-plantation in apple orchards. By “designed grafting” low-chilling apple cultivars, apples can now be grown in warmer climates at even 700-meter altitude. The CSIR-IHBT, Palampur, had supplied 87,000 plants for cultivation in Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh.
When my friend Dr. Ben Karenzi was in India, he informed me that apple crates must travel all the way from South Africa to Rwanda, making them very expensive. The climatic similarity between Manipur and Rwanda made us think of growing apples in Rwanda to great economic gains there. John McChlery, horticulturist from South Africa endorsed the proposition. Of course, things happen at their appointed times, and we can play out little parts and wait for larger forces arriving at the scene. For the bioeconomy to be successfully integrated into society, there must be a relationship between science, politics, and society.
Bioeconomy is a buzz word these days. Though it is generally used in context of ethanol substituting a part of petrol, but the bioeconomy’s largest niche is occupied by food systems. There are tremendous possibilities and the two stories I discussed are merely tip of an iceberg. As self-made scholars of the emerging field of bioeconomy, Dr. Sanjay Kumar and I see approximately $100 billon Indian bioeconomy as of 2023, poised to become $150 billion by 2025 and $300 billion by 2030. Like all things pass, poverty also must go for our small farmers living in remote places by taking and science and technology to them
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