Indian scientists have discovered extraordinary molecules literally from the cold

Indian expeditions to the Antarctica and the setting up of a specialised institution the National Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research (NCAOR) in Goa have started yielding some results.

Indian scientists have discovered extraordinary molecules literally from the cold

Pallava Bagla

Recent findings include anti-cancer molecules from organisms in the Antarctica and life-saving anti-freeze molecules from the Arctic environments. All frigid environments where life's boundaries are pushed to the fullest just to survive.

A new effort has also been launched by the Ministry of Earth Sciences to look for similar new molecules but from the high altitude Himalayan region.

Life needs special adaptation mechanisms to survive the extreme cold polar environments where the temperatures for most parts of the year can remain well below zero degrees Celsius and ice and snow remain a reality all the time. Yet even in these hostile environments microorganisms thrive and survive but evolution has provided them with special protective covers that help them tide over the freezing cold and frigid conditions.

Indian expeditions to the Antarctica and the setting up of a specialised institution the National Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research (NCAOR) in Goa have started yielding some results.

Shiv Mohan Singh, a scientist at the NCAOR, has reported the finding of a new molecule called 'thelebolan' that has anti-cancer properties. The molecule was extracted from a fungus 'Thelebolus microsporus' which was collected from the Larseman Hills not far from the Indian permanent station in the Antarctica.

The 'thelebolan' molecule has been characterised and it helps stop the multiplication of cancer cells. Along with scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur the team is working to understand the full spectrum of the benefits that 'thelebolan' could offer.

Finding novel drugs from plants is not new, this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to a Chinese researcher Tu Youyou who discovered an anti-malaria compound 'artemisinin' from a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese researcher investigated more than 2,000 plants before hitting on a blockbuster anti-malarial drug, which has helped save millions of lives. This Nobel Prize has boosted the morale of boffins like Singh.

According to Singh, 'thelobolan' also helps boost immunity and could help people suffering from HIV/AIDS. The fungus when grown can be used as a 'nutraceutical' to boost wellness says Singh, adding that IIT-Kharagpur has made biscuits where the extracts are used and they are being tested in the laboratory. Full-scale exploitation is still far away as clinical trials still need to be undertaken.

Another important discovery from the NCAOR includes the identification of eight new bacterial strains that have anti- freeze properties. This discovery was made from the glaciers in the

Arctic region where India has recently set up a field station. The anti-freeze molecules provide the ability to the organisms to survive the extreme cold temperatures where water would freeze killing the bacteria.

The special protective proteins work by either helping to lower the freezing point of water or sometimes help in avoiding the formation of ice crystals. Once ice crystals are formed it usually leads to death. The anti-freeze compounds have potentially important applications, like in increasing the shelf life of human organs or helping to store blood for longer durations.

Once an organ is harvested from a brain dead person, there is always a scramble to try to get it across soonest from the donor to the recipient. One often hears of green signal free corridors being designated in cities for the transport of a harvested heart to clear way for an ambulance speeding across town from one hospital to another. As it is, in India organ donors are few and far between, so if the shelf life of the donated organs can be increased it could prove to be a boon for many who wait on long waiting lists like for finding suitable matching kidneys.

Singh says the anti-freeze compounds identified by his team in collaboration with the Japanese could prove to be a big boon. Singh collected a broth of bacteria that were growing in very tiny pools of water found on the tops of glaciers in the Arctic region. Harvested from there these bacteria were then grown in the laboratory on a special medium and the anti-freeze proteins were then isolated from these cell cultures.

The small protein has now been sequenced and Singh and his team hopes to clone it into a fast growing yeast so that in the laboratory pilot scale quantities of the special protein can be extracted. Singh finds that this protein provides that special protective cover that are needed to make the bacteria survive the extreme cold environment.

Singh says commercial exploitation of discoveries from the bio-resources of the Arctic region has its own challenges as special laws governing the exploitation of global commons are stringent and could hinder in easy commercialisation.

To avoid some of those complications mostly related to bio-piracy Singh and his team has now launched a new effort to look for similar organisms from the high Himalayan glaciers in the Indian region. In the last two years his team has made four expeditions to high altitude glaciers like Humta and Chota Shingri, samples have already been collected and his team which has according to him works on a small budget of few lakhs of rupees is trying to identify and extract the cryo-protective proteins from the Himalayan micro-flora.

Singh says if one surveys the ancient Indian texts one finds several mentions of life saving herbal mixtures. He cites one well-known example where in the epic Ramayan there is the mention of the use of a 'Sanjeevani buti' on Lord Ram's brother Laxman after he had fallen unconscious in the battle long battle with Ravana in Lanka.

To resuscitate Laxman, the Ramayana cites that Hanuman, the trusted aide of Lord Ram, had specially flown to the Himalayas to bring back the 'Sanjeevani buti' when he could not identify the magical plant, the monkey god Hanuman had lifted up the entire mountain so that the ancient physicians or Vaidyas could pluck the special plant. This extract was then given to Laxman who regained consciousness.

Singh feels if he is able to discover the anti-freeze compounds from the Himalayan region he could help re-discover what is possibly the lost art of using something akin to the 'Sanjeevani Buti'.

A long shot but he says he will devote the rest of his life looking for these magical cures and then validating it through modern science.

On a recent visit to the NCAOR, India's science minister Harsh Vardhan was shown some of these unique findings and he urged the scientists to bring such findings to early commercialisation.

India has been undertaking annual expeditions at a huge cost to the icy cold Antarctica ever since the first expedition was undertaken in 1981. The leader of the first expedition S Z Qasim recently passed away recently, micro- biologists say it would be great tribute to him if and when the first anti-freeze compound is commercialised it should ideally be named after him.

Singh says using these life-saving anti-freeze proteins on humans still remains a distant dream since first trials on animals have to prove that it actually work on higher forms of life, human use could still be a more than a decade away. Singh asserts his small lab of five researchers has made a humble beginning and he hopes bring it to fruition.  

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