Treasure down under

In what he calls an attempt to convert "default into advantage". Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management,Gujarat, has initiated a project to map the soil microbial diversity in the state. "There is no genetic map of microbial diversity in the world of even a small area," he claims. "While widespread concern for sustainable land and water use is seldom balanced by rigorous, well-planned and coordinated research efforts, the Honey Bee Network, launched about seven years ago to build a database on traditional, ecological and technological knowledge and to adequately share the benefits accrued thereof, has been fortunate in discovering colleagues in the private, public and NGO sectors, willing to work for a common cause."

In Gujarat a number of farmers practice organic farming not by choice or as a fad but simply because they do not have the resources to use chemical inputs in the form of fertilisers and pesticides on their farms. Gupta plans to isolate and analyse microbial populations and pesticide residues In soil samples from eight different ecological zones in Gujarat, having a history of using chemical inputs as against farms which have not used any. The main objectives of this project "based on goodwill, trust and the urge to do something", as Gupta puts it, are to find out whether It is possible to develop a new method of identifying an organic soil from a chemically treated one by looking at some measure of biological diversity. This approach, he and his collaborators feel, will be cheaper than the conventional ones based on the laboratory assessment of pesticide residues. B B Chattoo, of the Maharaja Sayaji (MS) University, Baroda, and a collaborator in this project Ponders over the possibility of using these microbiological indicators as monitors of soil health, so that appropriate measures can be taken by policymakers as well as farmers. "And if while analysing the microbial population in the samples, we come across some unique properties of commercial importance, all the better." Gupta agrees: if, for instance, we are able to Identify pesticide degrading microbes, which we can use as biological indicators for soil health, we will hit a jackpot."

So far, 720 soil samples have been collected and the history of agricultural practices for the last five years recorded. While pesticide analysis is being carried out at the Jai Research Foundation, Valvada, Gujarat, and Gujarat Agricultural University, Ahmedabad, the microbes are being isolated, identified and characterised at the Indian institute of Science, Bangalore, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, and the MS University, Baroda. "It being a pioneering work, a number of problems need to be sorted out before we can draw any conclusions," says Chatoo. "For instance, the same soil samples analysed in different labs is giving us different numbers of microbes - probably due to the different procedures used for analysis," he feels. When questioned about the finances for this project, Gupta says, "if an idea is good, resources cannot be far behind. The gap between the developed countries and a developing country in the area of microbial diversity research and bioprospecting can be easily bridged. I am confident that what we lack in technology can be made up by using our brains."

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