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India: A Fungal Affection

A love of fungi grows into a collaboration spanning decades and continents

On first consideration, Mexico and India seem to have little in common. But despite their cultural differences, they do share several fundamental traits, including significant poverty levels, a number of shared agricultural products and a common latitude of 20 degrees. It’s this last detail that led to a friendship between two scientists—one from Mexico and one from India—when they met at a conference in Italy 14 years ago.

Because certain regions of these two countries have very similar climates—partly tropical and partly arid, but with rainy summers—Mukund Deshpande, chief scientist and professor in the biochemical division of the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, and Jose Ruiz-Herrera, investigator emeritus at Cinvestav, Mexico’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute, found they had a lot to talk about. In discussing their countries’ common problems, they also discovered that they share a love of fungi. With the support of their science foundations, Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACYT) and India’s Department of Science and Technology, the scientists soon started working on a collaborative project, Ruiz-Herrera explains, the “fungus Yarrowia lipolytica and its capacity to metabolize hydrocarbons.”

This two-lab endeavor spawned the first joint Mexico-India workshop on biotechnology, held in October 2013 in Pune, sponsored by the same foundations that had supported the research on Y. lipolytica. The 200-person guest list included scientists, teachers and students, but as news about the event spread, says Ruiz-Herrera, the doors were opened to all comers.

Deshpande and Ruiz-Herrera divided the sessions into three categories: agricultural, medical and industrial. In the agricultural segment, the scientists discussed new ways to obtain plants that resist infection from different pathogens; bioremediation; improving crop productivity and other topics. In the medical section, the subjects included using bacterial toxins to control insect vectors that cause human diseases and the importance of protein glycosylation in diabetes. In the industrial sessions, the discussions explored the production of enzymes and biofuels, eliminating contaminants from soil, removing toxins from foods and other areas of mutual interest.

In addition to these conversations, the event included poster presentations by students and investigators from Mexico and India. At the end of the workshop, the attendees also discussed how to transfer what’s learned in the lab to the outside world. “One of the main problems is convincing people of the benefits of transgenic plants and microorganisms, and the important products obtained by this technology,” Ruiz-Herrera says.

Deshpande and Ruiz-Herrera also edited a 29-chapter book, Biotechnology: Beyond Borders. It provides broad reviews of the workshop’s topics, written by the meeting’s attendees and others.

The overall outcome of this collaboration has pleased Deshpande, and he expects more workshops ahead, with the next one, he hopes, taking place by 2015. As he says, “We don’t want to lose focus.”

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