Policy News

Microbe hunters concerned over 'research in peril'

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.62 Published online 15 May 2016

A recent notification by India's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has caused much anguish among the country's researchers working in the field of taxonomy, the branch of science that covers identification, nomenclature, and classification of micro-organisms.

The NBA was set up under a 2002 Act to conserve biological resources "while facilitating access to them in a sustainable manner and through a just process." But taxonomists allege that this Act, has, instead become a stumbling block for the exploration of microbial diversity and documentation of new organisms from India that can have industrial applications.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of photomicrographs (top) and bacterium growing on nutrient medium (bottom).

NCCS, Pune

As per international protocol, scientists claiming credit for the discovery of new species of micro-organisms must deposit samples in at least two publicly accessible culture collections — one in the country of origin and the other in a foreign country. "The trouble is most culture collections abroad refuse to accept microbial cultures from Indian researchers after the NBA notification," Praveen Rahi, a scientist at the Microbial Culture Collection (MCC) in Pune told Nature India.

A January 2016 notification by NBA says that Indian bio-resource deposited in a foreign repository can be accessed by a non-Indian only after taking prior approval from NBA — a condition not acceptable to foreign repositories. Jörg Overmann, director of the German culture collection centre DSMZ, for instance, has informed MCC that "the current legal situation does not permit us to accept Indian strains into public collection. We would need clear permission to distribute."

Scientists allege that NBA's rule has also made it difficult for them to publish their discoveries of new organisms in international journals that demand "proof of deposit and its availability from culture collections without restrictions." Also, type strains deposited in Indian repositories are not recognised as valid deposits for publication purpose because they are not available to researchers abroad.

A paper submitted by MCC scientists on the discovery of a novel microbe in the Lonar impact crater in Maharashtra was rejected by International Journal of Systematics and Evolutionary Microbiology (IJSEM). The same journal also rejected the paper on a novel bacterium isolated from jelly fish by Shanmugam Mayilraj of the Microbial Type Culture Collection (MTCC) in Chandigarh . "We have isolated 150 strains and four of our papers are held up by journals and my students are dejected," Mayilraj told Nature India on phone. "The impediments in publishing new species and genera of microbes must be removed by NBA and Department of Biotechnology as quickly as possible," said T. Satyanarayana, a biology professor in Delhi University.

"Because of these problems, research in microbial taxonomy diversity has come to such a situation that we have no other option except stopping research," the MCC scientists said in a letter to NBA pointing out that NBA's requirement of "prior approval" is not in consonance with International Bacteriological Code of Nomenclature. "In fact, Indian researchers have been procuring microbial cultures from foreign culture collections or researchers without any difficulty and most of the standard microbial cultures used in Indian pharmaceutical and food industry are obtained from ATCC (USA) and Europe," says Rahi.

B. Meenakumari, who took over as the new chairperson of NBA two months ago, however, insisted that NBA is not stopping outsiders from accessing Indian bio-resource for research. "We are only asking them to take our approval first because we must know where our strain is going, who is using it and for what purpose. They only need to fill a simple form and pay a small fee," she told Nature India. She also pointed out that the guidelines of the World Consortium of Culture Collection require that its members should follow the national legislation. Regarding complaints that NBA approval takes six months, she said, "We are very very understaffed. That is why it takes that long."

India has 20 culture collections, four of which — including MCC in Pune and MTCC in Chandigarh — are NBA Designated Repositories (DRs) for micro-organisms and viruses. As a way out of the current problem, scientists have suggested that the four DRs may be allowed to act on NBA's behalf for supplying microbial cultures to investigators outside India after entering into material transfer agreement to ensure the bio-resource is used only for research and not commercial purpose.

"There is no need for our scientists to be upset," Meenakumari said. "I want to see NBA as a user friendly organisation and am keen to resolve all the issues."

Yogesh Shouche, principal investigator at MCC is optimistic. "The matter has been taken up with the ministers for environment and science & technology," he told Nature India." And they have agreed to look into it."