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Royal Society’s only new Indian fellow this yr is agricultural scientist who decoded legume genomes

New Delhi: Rajeev Varshney, an Indian agricultural scientist who has contributed to decoding the genomes of legumes and developing new varieties of chickpeas, has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society — the UK’s national academy of sciences —  for his work towards food and nutrition security. 

In a statement Tuesday, the Royal Society announced a list of 80 new fellows — researchers, innovators and communicators from around the world — elected this year. Varshney is the only Indian on the list and only the fourth Indian agricultural scientist to have been elected after B.P. Paul (1972), M.S. Swaminathan (1973), and Gurdev Khush (1995).

The statement quotes Varshney as saying, “I am thrilled to be included alongside the stalwarts and giants such as Norman Borlaug, M.S. Swaminathan, Jim Peacock, Gurdev Khush, who have been inspirations and role models not only for me but all agricultural scientists across the world.”

Varshney is currently at Murdoch University in Australia as the director of the Centre for Crop & Food Innovation, Western Australian State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre, and International Chair in Agriculture & Food Security.

The Royal Society statement also quotes Himanshu Pathak — secretary of India’s Department of Agricultural Research and Education and director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research — as saying this was a “great recognition for Indian agricultural science that an Indian agricultural scientist based on the work done in India has been recognised by the Royal Society, an apex learned body of the world”.

Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the oldest continuously existing scientific academy. It unites some of the most eminent scientists, engineers, and technologists from all over the world. Cuttently. there are approximately 1,700 fellows and foreign members, including around 85 Nobel laureates. 

Each year, at least 52 fellows and up to 10 foreign members are elected from a group of around 800 candidates who are proposed by the existing fellowship. 

Past fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society have included Charles Darwin, Lise Meitner, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin, and Stephen Hawking, while Isaac Newton served as its president in the early 18th century. 


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‘Focus on sustainability’

Varshney’s team at Murdoch University is currently working on improving wheat, legume and horticultural crops for agronomic and abiotic stress tolerance traits by developing and deploying novel genomics approaches, the statement from the Royal Society said.

He moved to his current workplace after having worked at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Hyderabad for 17 years. During his time at the ICRISAT, he worked in collaboration with research institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, state agricultural universities, and other organisations in India and abroad. 

Varshney has been credited with having decoded the genomes of 12 tropical crops, analysed genetic variation in more than 5,000 lines of legumes and dissected more than 30 agronomic traits at the molecular level in three legume crops  — chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. 

Varshney’s contributions have helped India release eight chickpea varieties for drought tolerance and resistance to Fusarium wilt, two high-oleic groundnut varieties, and one Fusarium wilt-resistant pigeon pea variety, the statement said.

Fusarium wilt is a fungal disease that’s caused by many forms of the soil-inhabiting fungus Fusarium oxysporum, whereas high-oleic oil is any oil that is high in monounsaturated fats.

The statement added that Varshney and his team have been part of programmes to train hundreds of scientists in developing countries across Africa and South America. 

It also quoted Andrew Deeks, the vice-chancellor of Murdoch University, as saying that Varshney has maintained a keen focus on sustainability throughout his research, impacting “the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people”. 

“He is a very fitting recipient of this high honour and we are very proud to have him as Murdoch’s first Royal Society fellow,” Deeks said. 

Gurdev Khush, FRS and a recipient of the World Food Prize, said in a statement: “It is great to see FRS being bestowed to Prof. Varshney, who has not only excelled in science but also in its application to solve the downstream problem of food security and poverty alleviation in less endowed regions of the world”.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)


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Source: The Print

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