Indian polar science research is set to gain from a combined, inter-ministerial effort.
The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) have joined hands to set up a joint polar research centre. The idea is to create a shared space for advanced research and development (R&D) in the field of polar biology through collaboration.
The centre is expected to allow the two government organisations to work together under one roof to solve key problems in the area of polar science.
A memorandum of understanding for establishing the centre was between the two parties on Wednesday (14 July).
Biotechnological applications of polar microbes have been identified as a key focus area. Further, as highlighted in a series of tweets by MoES, the proposed centre will be be expected to investigate the relationship between climate change and the emergence of infectious diseases, derive products from nature that could be valuable to the industry, identify compounds for purposes such as preventing infections, and explore novel molecules for commercial use.
The MoES-DBT collaboration will jointly identify more thrust areas over time.
Initially, researchers will file proposals to carry out research using the existing MoES polar stations. However, joint laboratories will be set up in the future so that researchers won’t have to move samples to and from laboratories in India to carry out experiments.
“We have been doing research in the Arctic, Antarctic, and Himalayas — the three poles — but unfortunately we have not had expertise in biological sciences. DBT has the expertise, so we want to work together,” Dr M Ravichandran, director of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), told Swarajya.
Based in Goa, NCPOR is India’s premier R&D institution responsible for the country’s research activities in the polar and Southern Ocean regions. It is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, which is the nodal ministry for polar research in India.
The focus of the MoES-DBT joint effort, Dr Ravichandran says, will be “bioprospecting” and microbiology research.
Bioprospecting is short for biodiversity prospecting. It is the systematic study of bio-resources, like plants and microorganisms, with the purpose of developing commercially valuable products for pharmaceutical, agricultural, and other applications — and overall for the benefit of society.
The process of bioprospecting goes over the stages of sample collection, isolation, characterisation, and translation to product development and commercialisation, the United Nations Development Programme notes in its 2016 on the subject.
“Bioprospecting, when properly regulated, generates revenues that can be directly linked to the conservation of biodiversity and to the benefit of local communities,” the report says.
With eyes on bioprospecting and other research in biology, India aims to add biotechnology muscle to the science it carries out in the polar region.
“We want to encourage polar, cold-climate biotechnology study to strengthen the area of polar research,” Dr Ravichandran says.
Research in polar biology has been underway at a small scale in India. The work is done by very few people and usually includes researchers from different universities and institutes whose proposals get accepted by NCPOR.
The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Wildlife Institute of India, Zoological Survey of India, and Banaras Hindu University are among the institutes that have in areas like microbiology and wildlife ecology at the poles.
Much of the biology over the last decade has involved the study of bacterial diversity and adaptability in snow and ice, both in terrestrial and marine environments in the region.
However, there is now a sense that India can do more in polar biology.
The regions around the North and South Poles — north of the Arctic, or south of the Antarctic Circles, respectively — are important natural laboratories for scientific research.
Much of the land and marine expanse within this region still remains unexplored and therein lies the opportunity for researchers to find answers to scientific questions.
India’s engagement with the polar regions goes back a long time. It began with the signing of the in February 1920 to initiate formal ties with the Arctic. Getting started with the Antarctic region took longer, but began eventually when India launched its first Antarctic expedition in 1981.
Now, four decades later, India on its 40th scientific expedition to Antarctica in January 2021.
India launched its Arctic region-focused research programme in 2007. An expedition to the region that year led to the setting up of a research base named 'Himadri' at the International Arctic Research Base at Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, Norway the next year.
Then, in 2014, India set up an Arctic observatory called 'IndARC' to understand how the climate behaves in the region and what influence it may have on the Indian monsoon.
The underwater multi-sensor moored observatory — India’s first — is situated in the Kongsfjorden fjord, said to be roughly halfway between Norway and the North Pole.
India has enjoyed observer status to the Arctic Council since 2013. Established in 1996, the is an intergovernmental forum to promote collaborative effort towards sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. As part of the Council, India contributes to the discourse around keeping the Arctic safe and secure.
“India would continue to play a positive role in deepening shared understanding of the Arctic through observation, research, capacity building, as well in promoting sustainable development of the region through international cooperation”, Union Minister of Science and Technology Dr Harsh Vardhan in May this year during the 3rd Arctic Science Ministerial.
At the other end, in Antarctica, India has had three research bases ever since it got started here — Dakshin Gangotri, Maitri, and Bharati.
Of these stations, Maitri and Bharati are currently operational and are managed by NCPOR.
The Himalayan region is considered as the third pole. This is down to the fact that the Hindu Kush-Himalayan area has the most ice and snow outside of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. India has, therefore, had a high-altitude research base named ‘Himansh’ in the Himalayas since 2016.
With access to vast pristine polar space, India has made good progress over the years in cryosphere research, ice core drilling, ice sheet dynamics, reconstruction of the split of Gondwana supercontinent, polar geomorphology and climatology, among other areas.
As research activities continue to grow stronger at the poles, societal benefit of polar science is also beginning to be considered.
“We have been doing only science-oriented research, but now we are also trying to see the benefit to society. For example, what is the influence of the Southern Ocean on the Indian monsoon? Can we have better monsoon forecasting?” Dr Ravichandran explains.
India plans to adopt more modern instruments with a focus on first uncovering insights about past climate and, thereafter, what the climate will look like in the future. This will require drilling ice down to different depths and careful sampling and examination.
In these icy depths will also be present bacteria and viruses, which will be well-preserved in the great icy depths, thanks to the preservative quality of the polar environment. These microbes will hold the key to unlocking more biological secrets.
“We are also planning to have eDNA or environmental DNA, which will tell us how the DNA was for bacteria 100 years ago and how it is now,” Dr Ravichandran says.
Whether it is geology, climatology, or biology, there’s clearly a lot to dig into and uncover in the polar regions. A joint effort to explore new research areas within the polar realm is in India's interest.
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