Bharat Ratna for Dr MS Swaminathan

Dr Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, the visionary geneticist who transformed India’s agricultural landscape will be conferred Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India, posthumously. 

Dr Swaminathan was born in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, on August 7, 1925 to Smt. Parvati Thangammalhe and Dr MK Sambasivan. After completing his schooling in Kumbakonam he did his graduation from the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, and later Agricultural College, Coimbatore. He then joined IARI, New Delhi and obtained Associateship in Genetics.

In 1949 he went to Wageningen University, Netherlands, to study genetics on a UNESCO scholarship. In 1950 he joined the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Cambridge and earned PhD in 1952 for his thesis “Species Differentiation, and the Nature of Polyploidy in certain species of the genus Solanum – section Tuberarium”.

It is with cytogenetic studies in potato—speciation: species interrelationships -- induced polyploids in Solanum species— that he started his brilliant research career in 1949 at Wageningen and continued it at Cambridge as a research scholar and later in Wisconsin, USA as a postdoctoral fellow. Noticing the genomic affinity of the cultivated tetraploid potato with wild diploid species, he undertook the transfer of genes from wild species to cultivated potato to make it resistant to abiotic and biotic stresses. Later this hybrid material was used to develop a frost-resistant potato variety called ‘Alaska Frostless’.

In a span of about five years, he published research papers of significance on “Induced Polyploids in Non-tuberous Solanums and their cross ability with potato” in reputed journals such as Genetics, Nature, Journal of Heredity, Genetica, etc. His exhaustive review ‘The Cytology and Genetics of the Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) and related Species’, published along with Dr H.W. Howard in 1953 is still quoted by researchers engaged in the genetics of potato.

Turning down the faculty position offered by Wisconsin University, he returned in 1954, perhaps to make a difference in agriculture back home in India. He then joined CRRI, Cuttack and carried out indica-japanica rice hybridization program, which resulted in varieties like ADT27 and RASI. This he later commented as the early harbinger of the Green Revolution movement in India.

After six months he joined IARI, Delhi as an Assistant Cytogeneticist in the division of Botany. It is at IARI that he did his most outstanding basic research spreading across the elucidation of the structure of the chromatid, mitosis in yeast, mechanisms of ionizing radiation and chemical mutagenesis, radio-sensitivity as a function of ploidy level, actions of low and high LET ionizing radiations on diploid and polyploid wheats, etc.

Establishing a ‘Gamma-Garden’ with 200 Curie cobalt 60 source at IARI, he carried out chronic irradiation of crops to overcome ‘diplontic selection’ in vegetatively propagated material exposed to ionizing radiation.

He also set up laboratories to carry out basic research in cytogenetics using Drosophila melanogaster and human peripheral blood leucocytes in vitro. He was among the first and foremost to use the method of human chromosome preparation recommended by Moorhead (1960) to study the indirect effects of radiation on human chromosomes.

His intellectual curiosity opened up new avenues for basic and applied research in the areas of cytogenetics of wheat, monosomic - nullisomic analysis—useful to identify the chromosomes carrying desirable genes for biotic and abiotic stresses— in hexaploid wheat, radiation and chemical mutagenesis, ‘Oxygen effect’ in low and high LET radiobiology, etc. Dr Swaminathan’s School of Cytogenetics, IARI attracted global attention for its excellence in basic research in cytogenetics and radiation biology as revealed by papers published in journals such as Nature, Current Science, Genetics, Radiation Research, Radiation Botany, Environmental and Experimental Botany, Experientia, Die Naturwissenschaften, Experimental Cell Research, etc.

It is commented that Dr Swaminathan’s early basic research on the effects of ionizing radiation on cells and organisms—correcting the fallacy under ‘target theory’— partly formed the base for today’s ‘Redox Biology’. Rudy Rabbinge, Professor Emeritus, Wageningen University, Netherlands commented on Swaminathan’s paper on neutron radiation in agriculture in 1966 presented at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference as “epoch-making”. 

It was in recognition of his original and theoretical and experimental basic research in cytogenetics, radiation and chemical mutagens-induced clastogenesis and mutagenesis that Dr Swaminathan was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1973.

Unlike many other scientists who remained contended with carrying out basic research and publishing the results in high-impact journals and moving to newer areas, Dr Swaminathan’s sense of social responsibility drove him towards applied research to achieve freedom for the country from dependence on food imports. This led him to strive to reduce the height of wheat plants without reducing the length of grain-bearing panicles through interspecific hybridization, induced radiation and chemical mutagenesis, and use of plant growth regulators to improve their response to fertilization and thereby improve productivity. This path, though added to the basic knowledge of biological processes induced by physical and chemical agents, could not fulfill his objective of evolving dwarf/semi-dwarf wheat plants with normal spikes.

However, his trait of keeping himself abreast of major innovations in the world had finally led him to trace the Norin-10 dwarfing genes from Japan in wheat and Deejee-woo-jen dwarfing genes from China in rice. His contact with Prof. Orville Vogel of Washington University for dwarf wheat seeds ultimately led him to Norman E. Borlaug. It is this partnership of Swaminathan-Borlaug that ultimately introduced Mexican semi-dwarf wheat varieties to Indian farmers and thus paved the way for India’s Green Revolution in 1968. 

This fact is vindicated by Borlaug himself in a letter stating that “To you, Dr Swaminathan, a great deal of credit must go for first recognizing the value of the Mexican dwarfs (wheat seedlings). Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia”. 

His incisive vision on the role of science for serving societal aims is described as more than impressive. He authored/edited 18 books and published 254 papers in various journals of which he was the single or first author of 155 papers. They spread across crop improvement (95), Cytogenetics and genetics (87) and phylogenetics (72). He was also a passionate teacher known for elegantly simplifying the complex structural and functional aspects such as formation of asynapsis’ and ‘desynapsis’, etc., of course, without losing the science thereof. He taught cytogenetics, radiation genetics, and mutation breeding during late 1950s through 60s.

He became Director of IARI in 1966 and steered it to newer heights. In 1972 he became the Director General of ICAR and in 1979 joined the Government of India as principal secretary of Agriculture and Irrigation. Finally, in 1980 he retired from government service and joined the Planning Commission as a member for agriculture and rural development.

During 1982-88 he steered the International Rice Research Institute, Philippines with new scientific initiatives while adhering to ecological and social dimensions of sustainable development. Under his direction, efforts were initiated to create rice with better carbon fixation capabilities so that better photosynthesis and water usage leading to higher production can be accomplished.

He was an ardent builder of institutions. He established the Nuclear Research Laboratory at the IARI. He played an active role in the establishment of ICRISAT in India, International Board for Plant and Genetic Resources in Italy and International Council for Research in Agro-Forestry in Kenya. He also helped to build and develop institutions for research in China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran and Cambodia.

The role played by Dr Swaminathan in science and public policy for the last 70 years is commended by fellow scientists as “unapproachable”. He had received 84 honorary doctorates. Dr MS won many awards both in India and abroad, notable among them is: the first World Food Prize. With the prize money, he established the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988 in Chennai to harness science and technology for ‘sustainable agriculture’ and ‘sustainable rural development’. Under his guidance, the Foundation is also researching the impact of climate change on crop productivity and the conservation of coastal biodiversity with a focus on the mangrove ecosystem. With his ‘Antyodaya’ approach Dr MS wanted India to bridge the digital, genetic, technological, nutritional, and gender divides to a great extent and solve the problem of food and income security. He and his Research Foundation did work to achieve this goal. It is no wonder the Hungarian writer, Erdelyi Andreas called him “a modern Gandhi”. 

Conferring Bharat Ratna by the government on this ‘modern Gandhi’ is a befitting way of offering our salutations to Dr MS and his contribution to Indian agriculture.  


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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Views: 252      Comments: 2

Comment Thank you very much Dr PV Laxmiprasad for the visit and an apt observation.

10-Mar-2024 11:17 AM

Comment The article is but a beauty on the achievements of Swaminathan. He makes India proud with his innovative research in crop productivity. Unfortunately recognition cane out quite belated with Bharatratna. Congratulations to the author

09-Mar-2024 22:41 PM

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