Ramanathan Sowdhamini

What inspires plant scientists and why is their job so important? Ramanathan Sowdhamini explains:

Why did you want to be a plant scientist?

Agriculture and farming are two of the major occupations in developing counties like India.  Even though farmers are crucial for the human population, if we look at the financial status of farmers in this country, a large proportion of them fall below the poverty line. Modes of farming are not technically advanced and this can be improved scientifically. I would like to improve the stress tolerance of plants, through our scientific studies like genome analysis so that they can be translated to the farmers for sustainable agriculture.

 

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Can you explain what your job involves?

I come from a chemistry background and was trained as a structural bioinformatician with a particular focus on protein structure prediction and similarities among proteins. With the advent of genome sequencing, our group has been analyzing genome databases. Our National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) campus is housed within University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) GKVK campus, in Bangalore. We developed collaborative interests with the UAS, to study the plant genome for transcription factor binding sites of genes that are up-regulated during stresses.

What are the pest’s/crop enhancements that you are working on?

Stresses include both biotic (like fungal or parasitic attacks) and abiotic (like drought, cold and salinity), we follow the genes that are up-regulated. We apply computational tools, data science, and machine learning methods, to study which transcription factors and genes are vitally required during multiple and simultaneous stresses. We take special interest in understanding the structure-function relationships and tissue-expression of proteins that are up-regulated during multiple stresses.

Can you describe how your work will benefit society?

Among the world population, around 3.1 billion people from developing countries live in rural areas. For a large subset of this population agriculture is the primary source for their livelihood. By the middle of the 21st century, the population is estimated to be about 10 billion, and we will witness severe food shortages. The increasing pressure on global food productivity due to climate change, combined with the drastic increase in population, results in demand for crop varieties that are adaptive and resistant to a variety of stresses. Considering such diverse socio-economic and agro-economic factors sustainable agricultural production is an urgent issue to meet these challenges. Optimizing farming practices can be improved by clear guidance garnered from scientific studies leveraging a large amount of biological data related to plant stress. Converging crop science, bioinformatics, plant genomics, and data science could help to improve our understanding of plant stress biology and improve the scale of global food production.

Why is your profession important in the challenge to feed the world?

Biology has entered an era of big and fuzzy data. Plant stress biology, as in most top-ranking laboratories worldwide, provides huge amounts of data – either through microarray or through transcriptomics on how their model plants respond to stress. We have found our computational resources, such as computational models or meta-integration of data, quite mandatory to make sense of the ever-increasing data and to recognize key factors that can change the life of a farmer. Ultimately, if the farmers can benefit in their productivity, it can benefit the whole world and human population. Collectively, our work is improving the ability of farmers to develop better plant varieties to help maximize food production in the context of climate change and decreasing levels of cultivable lands around the world.

What inspires you about your job?

Three things fascinate me the most- incredible chemistry within plants, large data from plant biology laboratories and the ability to conceptualize large data using computing algorithms and resources. Ultimately, it will be beautiful if we can understand the basics of plant stress response and use it to the benefit of mankind without disrespecting the powers of nature.

 

Ramanathan is a Professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore, India.