Plant biologist Gitanjali Yadav first came across some of the most beautiful orchids as a teenager in Shillong in northeast India. Enchanted by their beauty, she was prompted to learn more about the secret life of plants. On her insistence, Yadav’s parents got her a membership to the city library, where she would spend hours reading books on the secret life of plants.
That was the starting point of her love affair with plants.
Today, Yadav is associated with the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR), New Delhi, with stereochemistry as her field of research. The field focuses on the study of how plants use biomolecules and their mirror images to generate a wide range of messages.
Currently, she is also on joint deputation as a lecturer at the Department of Plant Science, Cambridge University.
Her consistent accomplishments have been recognised the world over, most recent being the 2021 SASTRA-National Science Day – Obaid Siddiqi award, which will be presented to her virtually on February 28 on the occasion of National Science Day.
The other SASTRA awardees include Prof Ajoy Ghatak, a NASI Meghnad Saha Distinguished Professor; Prof AK Ganguli from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and Prof Mugesh from Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
Achievements and discoveries
Most of Yadav’s childhood was spent in north-eastern India, where she first visited the ‘sacred groves’, patches of primeval forest that “some rural communities protect as abodes of deities.” These groves are out of reach for most people, and there aren’t any roads. Such visits sparked her interest in biodiversity.
Yadav graduated in Botany from Sri Venkateswara College (University of Delhi), followed by MSc in Biomedical Research from Dr Ambedkar Center for Biomedical Research. She also received a PhD in Computational Biology from the National Institute of Immunology, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
After her PhD, Yadav combined all the three subjects of her study for a research proposal. Her idea was well-received, for which she bagged funding as the first Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award (IYBA) by the Indian Government.
Yadav joined NIPGR as a staff scientist in 2006, where she was responsible for setting up a research laboratory for plant computational biology. In addition, she also established a Linux-based infrastructure at the institute.
As part of the DBT-Cambridge Lectureship program, Yadav has been trying to explore the relationship between photosynthetic efficiency and epigenetic inheritance. In her position as lecturer, she is permitted to travel between the UK and India to further strengthen the Indo-UK strategic partnership in agricultural research.
Some of her notable work also includes collaborating with field ecologists at Kew to explore nectar chemistry in Himalayan flora.
Understanding RubisCO, the most abundant protein on earth
At Cambridge, Yadav is working with two labs to study an enzyme called ‘lazy RubisCO’. This enzyme — whose abundance can be ascribed to being fat and lazy — helps to make air into food by converting the inorganic carbon to organic carbon. In a nutshell, it is RubisCO that feeds all life on earth, but its inefficiency has been a bone of contention for scientists.
“We’re looking for ways to make Rubisco more efficient. Nature has evolved a few tricks to improve its efficiency, across various lineages of algae and higher plants — but not in most crops. Improvement in crop Rubisco would be a big step for food security. I’m trying to find out whether green algae could provide clues,” shares Yadav in a Cambridge blog.
The way forward
Yadav is also working on mapping about 2,000 plant species that are distinct to
Sino-Indian, trans-Himalayan and south American regions. She is trying to understand their adaptation and varying chemical emissions through this project.
Interestingly, plant species have the same DNA, but different geographies have different emission profiles.
“Using AI, we are trying to identify ecological factors that may influence the chemical arsenals of distinct species, for which we have taken into account abiotic factors like soil types, soil moisture, temperature, altitude, location, temporal variations, as well as biotic factors namely pollinators, seed dispersers and other plants in the neighbourhood.
There are questions one cannot address simply by knowing the plant DNA,” says Yadav to the media.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)