What sort of unspoken language exists between pollinating insects and flowers? Do flowers talk to each other? How do bacteria communicate with the environment around them?
Such questions mark the immense “detective” work that will be undertaken by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in the seven northeastern States. The work, focussing on chemical ecology, received a major fillip recently with the Department of Biotechnology granting Rs. 26 crore for the five-year project.
Though the NCBS had been conducting research in Sikkim on a smaller scale, the grant will now enable it to extend its work of training ecologists and students in the region as well as explore the “uncharted territory” of the northeastern forests.
“Research in chemical ecology in India has not happened…it is almost nothing. The preservation of the astonishing diversity is best done when it is fully understood,” said Shannon Olsson, a chemical ecologist at NCBS.
She said there were “huge blanks” in the understanding of the chemical interactions among insects, plants and microbes. Eventually, the academic exercise will have has “tremendous” applications in the utilisation of bio-resources and medicinal plants, she said. “Plants secrete chemicals to repel bacteria or fungi. Understanding this can lead to ecologically-friendly pesticides,” said Prof. Olsson, who is already collaborating with an Imphal-based scientist to develop natural insect repellents.
In a statement after the grant was issued, K. Vijay Raghavan, DBT Secretary, said: “Scientific and technological advances allow the deciphering of the chemistry of specific interactions…such interactions are scientific detective work of the highest order… this will be transformative for both new science and new and sustainable biotechnology in this area.” The initiative will see NCBS and the Indian Institute of Science coordinating with the Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland Science & Technology Council, Kohima Science College, Jotsoma, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, The Institute of Bio-resources and Sustainable Development, Imphal, and their regional centre at Sikkim.