‘Taming the taxanomy dragon’: Karthick Balasubramanian wins T N Khoshoo Award

Karthick Balasubramanian was honoured for describing 106 new combination of diatoms from India and erected two new genera of diatoms

November 28, 2022 05:11 pm | Updated 05:12 pm IST

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian being awarded the T N Khoshoo award for 2022 by Raj Khoshoo and Dr. P Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian being awarded the T N Khoshoo award for 2022 by Raj Khoshoo and Dr. P Balaram, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

Travelling through the waterways of the world are numerous organisms invisible to the naked eye. Among these are diatoms, a type of photosynthetic algaefound in places with moisture.

This year’s TN Khoshoo Memorial Award was awarded to Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian for his work on the taxonomy and systematics of diatoms found in the freshwaters of Peninsular and Northeast India, on November 25 by Bengaluru-based environmental think tank ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment).

This year’s annual TN Khoshoo Memorial Award and Lecture theme was ‘Biodiversity: Exploration and Discoveries’.

Explaining the significance of these microorganisms, Karthick says, “For every fourth breath we take, the oxygen comes exclusively from diatoms. Around 25% of the world’s oxygen comes from these tiny organisms.”

Scientists estimate that over 2 million species of diatoms exist in the world. However, till date only 65,000 species have been discovered. 

Karthick is a researcher at the Agharkar Research Institute and is involved with the study of classification and naming of diatom species found in the freshwater bodies in Peninsular India. He has described 106 new species or new combination of diatoms from India and erected two new genera of diatoms. To commemorate his work towards naming and categorising the diatoms, a genus of freshwater diatom — Karthickia — has been named after him. 

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian talking about his work on diatoms at the T N Khoshoo Memorial Award on November 25 at IISc, Bengaluru

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian talking about his work on diatoms at the T N Khoshoo Memorial Award on November 25 at IISc, Bengaluru

Acknowledging the work of his predecessors, especially H. P. Gandhi, he said, “Gandhi has significantly contributed to the discovery of diatoms in India. His specimen collection is among the largest diatom collection in Southeast Asia. My work in this field has been possible due to the building blocks laid by him.”

Today, diatoms are used to understand climate change using fossil diatoms, to obtain sustainable energy and in forensics as well.

Explaining the need for classification of organisms, Dr. Vinita Gowda, one of the speakers delivering the Memorial Lecture, said that to understand what a species is, there needed to be a system under which an organism could be categorised. The scientific organisation of organisms is called taxonomy while nomenclature is the scientific method of naming and sustaining the species. 

Can only scientists gather information about species?

Dr. Praveen J, a scientist at the National Conservation Foundation and an avid bird-watcher says no, you don’t have to be a scientist to know and use taxonomy to identify species. 

“The pied cuckoo has been known as the harbinger of monsoon. When you look at data collected from the birdwatchers of India and the meteorological maps, the myth comes true. You can track these small birds riding the winds of monsoon,” he says. 

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian

Dr. Karthick Balasubramanian

Giving another example of how amateur naturalists can help with taxonomical advancement, Praveen says that the calls and tappings of three species of flameback woodpeckers found in India were recorded by bird-watchers. 

While naming and classification is important, exploration forms the basis of scientific discovery. Taxanomists from Atree and wildlife filmmaker Sandesh Kadur teamed up to explore the far reaches of Arunachal Pradesh. 

Retracing the steps of Abor Expedition in 1911, the team set out to film the mesmerising beauty and unexplored reaches of Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh. The aim of the Siang expedition was to look at current biodiversity and compare it with plants and animal groups that were discovered over 100 years ago. 

“While the most significant find of our expedition was the rediscovery of velvet worm, we also found an astounding diversity of moths. We collected a full assortment of moths that were collected on the expedition. Of this over 450 species were identified right there by one of our expeditioner,” Praveen says.

Bringing together the aspects of naming plants and a deep connection with the natural world, a soulful rendition of a Soliga folk song about the medicinal plants of B R Tiger reserve was performed by Dr C Made Gowda, a Post Doctoral Fellow at ATREE.

The evening ended with Rajasthani folk tunes by Devu Khan Manganiyar and troupe, known for their song Dum-a-Dum from the 2015 Hindi movie Dhanak

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