The biodiversity-biotechnology nexus: Where does India stand?

[Nature India Special Volume: Biotechnology — An agent for sustainable socio-economic transformation]

Uma Ramakrishnan*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.78 Published online 13 June 2016

Uma Ramakrishnan
Stop what you are doing and look outside your window! I hope you can see plants and insects, and you may also hear or see some birds. There are certainly lots of microbes out there that one cannot see, which nonetheless play an important role in our lives. We are lucky to share the earth with so many other organisms — a whole host of species of animals, plants and microbes — the elements of biodiversity. 

This biodiversity is not distributed equally around the globe. For example, tropical regions have more diversity than other regions. We live in the tropics — India with around 2% of global land cover houses approximately 10% of all species in the world. In fact, four of 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world fall within India’s boundaries.

The spectrum of life-forms in India is truly fascinating, but what is its link with biotechnology? And why should biotechnologists be interested? Here are two fundamental reasons. Biotechnology is concerned with fostering human welfare by integrating biology and technology. Human welfare is very strongly linked to biodiversity: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat comes to us as a service from biodiversity. Nature provides us these (free) services, and without them we cannot survive. 

The nexus between human well being and biodiversity is vital, and the strongest evidence for this comes from the detrimental effects of the loss of biodiversity on human health. For example, intact functioning of ecosystems provides clean water that safeguards human health. Eutrophication of lakes and other natural water bodies will impact human health and well being, and unclean water (e.g. poor sanitation) may lead to high disease burden. The best way to ensure safe, sustainable sources of water is to increase forest cover and decrease biodiversity loss. While we link human health and well being to medical interventions, lasting solutions may be technologically simpler. Social justice requires that resources be shared equitably. Many of the world poorest people are critically dependent on biodiversity or food.

Biodiversity in healthcare

Let us think about medical interventions in the context of human health. How does one find medications that cure diseases? Human societies have been using natural ‘drugs’ for a very long time, and biodiversity has always been a sustainable source of traditional medicine. Modern biotechnological tools provide us the ability to scientifically analyse active compounds in plant extracts and to test their efficacy. 

India has just begun to unveil the vast treasures of medicinal plants in two biodiversity hotspots – the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. It is worth mentioning that Tu Youyou, one of the winners of the 2015 Nobel in physiology and medicine, has been conferred with the most prestigious award for her research on the antimalarial properties of artemisinin (also known as qinghaosu), a product from the Artemesia plant — which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for the last 2,000 years. India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has also taken several efforts to investigate the distribution of medicinal plants and assess their active compounds.

While some diseases can be cured by medication, others are progressive. Often, scientists use laboratory-based animal models to study the cause and progression of a disease. However, we do not have that many models to choose from. It turns out that here too, biodiversity could provide us with deep insights. Consider the curious case of the spiny African mouse Acomys. Researchers have recently discovered that this species has a remarkable ability to heal wounds very fast, without scarring. This species now provides us with a unique model for studying skin regeneration — why such regeneration is not so common in mammals. Many such instances exist: the naked mole rat that lives an incredibly long life, and elephants that don’t seem to get cancer despite being huge!

Exploration and careful observations of Indian biodiversity will definitely lead us to interesting organisms and life strategies, which may hold key answers to human health and well-being. Such insights that could lead to mechanistic molecular investigations of biological phenomena would never have been realised without field-based or natural history-based observations. 

Sadly, so far, Indian biodiversity scientists have not often worked with developmental biologists, cell biologists and geneticists. Much remains to be done in this field including exploring marine biodiversity, chemical signalling and mechanisms of communication in nature. Hopefully, the country will initiate work in this direction in the future, because such endeavours will allow us to synthesise our knowledge in the context of the wide array of diversity in nature.

The loss of biodiversity may have detrimental impacts. Recent studies suggest that human induced factors, like biodiversity loss and climate change, are responsible for the increased emergence of infectious diseases. Infectious diseases that spill over from wildlife to humans are called zoonoses, and these are tremendous burden to human health. India is poised to be a region where emergence will be common: high human population density, high biodiversity and high conversion, and loss of biodiverse spaces. 

Another important reason for us to study and better understand biodiverse natural spaces is to gain information on handling disease outbreaks effectively. What causes disease emergence? Can it be predicted beforehand? Are there ecological correlates of disease emergence?

While the emergence of pathogens correlates with regions of high biodiversity, the final verdict on this is not yet out. Tracing host-switching events (from wildlife to humans) and how infections spread, will require large-scale study of the nature-people interface in the context of infectious disease. This might be a very interesting application of biotechnological tools in infectious disease research.

Tools to assess biodiversity

Today, studies on biodiversity mainly use molecular biology tools as standard methods. One of the main roles of biotechnology in the study of biodiversity begins with its role in describing biodiversity. How do we actually know how much biodiversity is out there? Such research has been dominated by natural history and taxonomy for a long time — where scientists collected, described and classified organisms, and organised them into bins called species. 

Researchers use tools like phylogenetics. Sequencing DNA from several different species allows us to quantify which organisms belong to the same group versus different ones. Such approaches of assessing diversity have been called DNA barcoding, and DBT has funded several DNA barcoding initiatives on butterflies, frogs and other taxa. New and exciting opportunities in biodiversity research using cutting-edge tools, like Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) and genomics, are sure to yield fascinating insights into how Indian biodiversity has been accumulated, and why certain places have more diversity than others.

Apart from quantifying biodiversity, using it for model-system based research and studying it in the context of diseases would be interesting. In addition, it is fascinating to try and understand how various species present in an ecosystem interact with each other. We are now relatively well versed with the language of evolutionary change: genes are made up of DNA, and changes in DNA sequence result in phenotypic change and in evolution. 

However, we are less well-versed with language(s) by which organisms communicate. How might one individual communicate with another in the same species? How do plants interact with insects in nature? Many such interactions are mediated by chemicals, and chemical ecology provides detail description of such communication. 

For example, how do plants attract some insects and repel others? How do insects know which plant is the right one for them to lay eggs on? These questions constitute the field of chemical ecology. Understanding such communication is fascinating and useful, because it may help us learn how to repel insects or control behaviour of certain animals. The prospects of understanding biological interactions in nature through chemical ecology are tremendous. Given the potential applications of such discoveries, these explorations provide an exciting interface between a deeper understanding of basic science using technological approaches and innovations and applications, making it an area of tremendous interest for biotechnologists.

Providing social equity

Although the DBT has played a very important role in providing social equality in India, the fact perhaps remains understated and underappreciated. How can social equity be achieved in a country as diverse as India, and in particular, what role may biotechnology play in such a process? The DBT has taken this responsibility very seriously through its grants in the north-eastern region. In the northeast, very high biodiversity areas are thrown together with ethnically and culturally diverse people with relatively low economic opportunity.

Could biodiversity and its provision of bio-resources provide a means to economic opportunity (and social justice) in the north-east? A DBT Institute in Imphal seeks to attempt this. A new multi-institutional programme with researchers from the north-east and other parts of India will attempt to glean understanding from nature that could be of use to humans, and build scientific capacity in this region through the process. The prospects for chemical ecology research in biodiverse regions like the north-east are tremendous and it may lead to some interesting innovations in the near future.

The diversity in life forms on our planet is fascinating. Understanding this diversity requires cutting edge technology, making it a prerogative for funding agencies to aid scientists in this endeavour. Deconstructing biodiversity will require new research directions like chemical ecology.

Biotechnological approaches to biodiversity research allow us to unravel scientific principles right here, in our backyard. Such scientific enterprise is fascinating and also helps us connect better with our immediate surroundings and our country. This would certainly inspire the younger generation, feeding their curiosity and building a scientific temperament, both critical for a better future. 

*The author is from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR, Bangalore, India.