Columns Indian Scenario

First marine biology institute for India

Vrushal Pendharkar & Nandini Rajamani

Indo-French workshop on marine biology and biotechnology
Indo-French workshop on marine biology and biotechnology    (Photo: DBT, CNRS)

“An adventure we are trying to embark on” was how K VijayRaghavan, Secretary, Department of BioTechnology described the first marine biology institute proposed to be set  up in India. At an address unveiling the plan for the National Institute of Marine Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB), he stated that this was the realisation of an idea first conceived 15 years ago.

The Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in collaboration with the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) have partnered with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France and the Sorbonne University, France, to set up this marine institute. Srini Kaveri, Director of the CNRS Office in India, said, “This is an extremely ambitious project both for India and France. It is also an appropriate platform for the two expertises to come together and establish collaborative efforts.” France, like India, he said, has a long coastline, and has for many decades had marine biological stations with cutting-edge technology and expertise. Insights from their research programs and stations will  be valuable while setting up NIMBB and its programs. 

To kickstart the collaboration and announce the initiative, a workshop was held at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, between 7-9 March 2016. Scientists from India and France across various disciplines of biology and environmental sciences spoke about their research, with applications to marine systems. Talks varied across cell and developmental biology, neurobiology and physiology, as well as the possibilities of exploration of research in marine biology.

Sudha Rajamani from IISER, Pune spoke about the chemical origins of life and the presence of ancient bacteria in deep-sea habitats. Mukund Thattai from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore who also works on early evolution, pointed out that hydrothermal vents were ideal sites to find ancient organisms, which might enable a better understanding of molecular archeology. 

Several talks, from both the French and Indian teams, were focused on marine biology. The highlight of the meeting was a series of talks on the ambitious and hugely successful Tara Expeditions, a French initiative that organises voyages of a schooner, Tara, to study and understand the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans. Chris Bowler, Director of the programme, outlined the history and successes of 12 years of commitment, drawing attention to the enormous amount of data generated on bacteria, protists, metazoans, viruses and the physico-chemical interactions within the ocean. The expeditions are global, with 30 participating research institutes, 171 research stations and 35,000 collected samples, and the analysis uses a three-pronged approach, using high throughput sequencing, high throughput analysis and physico-chemistry. Their results so far highlight the importance of plankton in marine ecosystems, and describe the social networks of organisms in the ocean. Much more about this biome remains to be understood, said Nadia Ameziane, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, as “the total number of marine species is not known even to an order of magnitude”. 

N Ramaiah spoke about the 50-year journey of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, since its inception in 1966. One of its important contributions has been joint global ocean studies in the Arabian Sea as well as the Bay of Bengal, mapping various oceanic changes across seasons. AC Anil, also from NIO, spoke about his work on barnacles, which are excellent indicator organisms as they inhabit shallow and tidal waters. Discussing the influence of monsoon perturbations on phytoplankton and barnacle recruitment, he explained that their findings indicate that zooplankton and barnacle numbers have decreased in the past 30 years in Mumbai, Goa and Cochin. Elrika D’Souza, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, presented the findings of her study on dugongs (herbivorous marine mammals, Dugong dugon) in the waters off the Andaman Islands. She finds that dugong numbers have declined by as much as 45% in the last decade. The major causes for this alarming fall are hunting, accidental entanglement in fishing nets, and degradation of the seagrass meadows that dugongs feed on. Only about 17 dugongs including three mother-calf pairs are known to be surviving in the Andamans.

While the workshop showcased exciting marine research from both India and France, it also highlighted the enormous potential for marine science in India. Kartik Shanker, Indian Institute of Science and ATREE, one of the organisers of the workshop, opined that NIMBB would provide tremendous opportunity for India to explore its enormous marine potential using all the tools of modern science. “In India, marine biology has fallen far behind modern biology in general, and marine ecology lags behind terrestrial ecology,” he said. 

NIMBB is proposed to be a modern state-of-the-art centre of excellence for marine science, exploring various aspects from cell biology, marine ecology and conservation biology to biotechnology applications. The institute will follow a hub and spoke model, with the central campus in Goa, and stations in the Andamans, Lakshadweep Islands, Gulf of Munnar, Kutch and Nellore. NIMBB will act as a centre for education and training programmes, as well as for meetings and workshops, along the lines of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA. Also proposed as part of the institute are an oceanarium for the public, and a technology transfer and incubation unit. 

The oceans have inspired human exploration for several thousand years and an institute like NIMBB will allow this exploration to be continued to new breadths and depths with all the amazing tools of of science, stressed VijayRaghavan. “Such exploration will open new knowledge, understanding, and applications, but, most importantly, will allow us to meet our responsibility to create a sustainable marine ecosystem on a planetary scale,” he said. The central tenet of international collaborative research being the way forward was reiterated through the workshop, for, as Chris Bowler said, there is only one ocean.