Business India, November 30-December 13, 1998
Fish curry, feni, and oceanography
The National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, is learning to merge good oceanography with commercially exploitable R&D and consultancy services
Serious study of various aspects of the deep sea at the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) does not jell with the stereotype of life in Goa, carefree and fun-loving. Dr Ehrlich Desa, the director, NIO, is a rarity himself. A well-known oceanographer and one of the first Indian scientists to explore the Antarctic in the mid1980s, he is neither a geologist nor a marine biologist, as most oceanographers are He is actually an electronics engineer who specialised in instrumentation. However, Desa does not rest on his past laurels. Ask him about the Antarctic expeditions and he brushes the query aside. "That is history. My task now is to lead NIO in the current environment, where we have to do first-rate oceanography while earning revenue."
However combining good science with commercially useful R&D is a daunting task. Till recently, the majority of the 40-odd laboratories of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) produced neither. The autarky of the 1970s and 1980s proclaimed import substitution, not globally competitive technology, as the goal of lndian R&D. However things started to change in the late 1980s. For example, the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) in Pune built up a reputation for good science, global patents, and impressive dollar revenues. R.A. Mashelkar inspired other laboratories to do the same when he moved from NCL to become the director-general of CSIR in 1995. Today NIO, like many other CSIR laboratories, is buzzing with Mashelkar's slogan "research as business".
To describe the work being done at NIO, you are forced to state the obvious. Oceans are vast. So is the scope of oceanography. For academic convenience, oceanography is divided into physical oceanography, chemical oceanography, biological oceanography, ocean engineering, geophysics, and soon.
How do the ocean floors change when continents drift? What are the effects of vast amounts of sediments being brought in by the great rivers of the world, like the Indus and the Ganges? Which are the red-hot spots of submarine volcanic activity? Such questions are studied by physical oceanographers.
Similarly, sea water is not just salty water, say the chemical oceanographers. It is a rich storehouse of chemicals. Indian chemical oceanographers often compare their work to the mythical" samudra manthan" - the churning of the seas that brought forth an amazing number of things, from nectar to the most potent toxins.
By now, the variegated colours of marine life have reached the living rooms of people, thanks to Jacques Cousteau's underwater TV footage. Biological oceanographers study all forms of life in the oceans, from plankton and algae to whales. It is a fascinating subject. Many marine creatures exist in high-pressure depths. Temperatures too vary from the very cold of the Antarctic to the very hot of submarine volcanoes. Some marine species have survived for millions of years without appreciable change, like the shark and the horseshoe crab. Dr Anil Chatterjee at NIO has been studying the latter - a species of crab aptly called "the living fossil". He has interesting discoveries to his credit that can be very useful to the pharmaceutical and paints industries (see box).
Treasure hunt in the Indian Ocean
NIO has a dedicated team of treasure hunters. No, they are not looking for sunken Spanish gold, but for valuable metals at the bottom of the oceans. Many metals like copper, nickel, manganese, and cobalt exist in sea water in minute amounts. Over time these metals precipitate out and form nuggets as big as potatoes on the ocean floor. Early discoverers of these nuggets, more than a century ago, called them "black potatoes". However surveying ocean floors, collecting samples of these polymetallic nodules, analysing them, assessing the economic potential of these deposits, and so on, requires expensive ships, oceanographic expertise, and lots of hard work on board. NIO scientists developed this expertise with leased oceanographic ships in the 1980s. In fact, in 1987, the UN recognised India as a pioneer investor and, in fact, registered India's deep-sea mining claim the first ever by any country.
Since then, NIO scientists using the R/V Sidorenko in 1994-95 discovered rich ferromanganese deposits on the Afanasiy-Nikitin sea mount 1,000 km southeast of Sri Lanka in the north central Indian Ocean. The sea mount exists at a depth of 1.5 km. The nodules found here are rich in cobalt as well (as reported by NIO scientists V.K. Bankar, J.N. Pattan, and A.V. Mudholkar in Marine Geology, 136, 1997, pp299-31 5). However Bankar, true to NIO'S circumspect tradition, says: "The crust has substantial significance both in terms of R&D and economic potential, but I feel it is premature to give it publicity. We still have to investigate the extent of coverage of the sea mount by this crust. Moreover, no mining technology is yet available for this kind of deposit." In an atmosphere of grand announcements of unverified "breakthroughs" (remember press conferences organised amidst great fanfare not so long ago about breakthroughs in cold fusion and high-temperature superconductors!), this circumspection is welcome.
Similarly, marine organisms yield millions of different molecules which can be a rich source of active ingredients for the agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Appropriately, NIO has initiated a 'Drugs from the Sea' programme. Dr Raghu Kumar and other NIO scientists studying certain fungi found in the mangroves have discovered some chemicals with bleaching properties. These could reduce the chlorine intake of the paper industry by half, which in turn would reduce the load of effluent treatment.
NIO also has an active team of oceanographers who are studying the effect of oceans on weather systems. Their work will be greatly assisted by the Indian Space Research Organisation's Oceansat, which is going to be launched soon. Oceansat is a remote sensing satellite which will provide extensive data on ocean surface temperatures. Study of this data can lead to a better understanding of complex global weather phenomena like the monsoons or El Nino.
The Crab man
Animal rights activists would just love him. Dr Anil Chatterjee's discoveries, when commercially exploited by the pharmaceutical industry, will save the lives of quite a few rabbits. Pharmaceutical companies producing injectibles have to certify them for no contamination and the Indian Pharmacopoeia (IP) prescribes that the sample of the drug be injected into a rabbit and the effects seen after 48 hours. The drug is safe only if the rabbit survives. But this is not a fail-safe test. Recently, batches of injectibles exported from India have been rejected for failing more rigorous tests. The USFDA insists that injectibles be tested using a chemical found in the limulus horseshoe crab. The chemical, Limulous Amoebocyte Lysate (LAL), can detect even a single bacterium present in the sample. Now the IP too has changed the rules to allow the LAL test. Today India imports some Rs.80-90 crore worth of LAL from the US. There are six companies worldwide that produce LAL by extracting it from the blood of the horseshoe crab.
Dr Anil Chatterjee of the bio-oceanography group at NIO has spent years studying the horseshoe crab - the oldest living species on earth. Chatterjee has found that the blood of another. "species of horseshoe crab, called the trachypheus, found off the coast of Orissa, can be used to extract Trachypheus Amoebocyte Lysate (TAL), which is as effective as LAL. He has also patented a method to extract 20 per cent of the crab's blood without killing it. His current ambition is to develop a cloning process to produce TAL so that no more horseshoe crabs need be killed.
Billions of blistering, bilious barnacles!
We are not quoting Captain Haddock from the Tintin comics. It is an exclamation of every mariner who finds his newly painted ship soon covered with colonies of barnacles and molluscs. But ye ancient mariners, have patience, research at NIO might help you soon!
While at his favourite pastime of crab-watching, Chatterjee has made another discovery: that male horseshoe crabs have barnacles and molluscs clinging to their backs, while the female of the species is squeaky clean! Investigating the phenomenon further he has isolated a chemical (glycoprotein) in the female that has this anti-fouling property. If this glycoprotein can be synthesised then marine paints will get a powerful anti-fouling ingredient
The geophysics department at NIO, along with the National Geophysical Research Laboratory, Hyderabad, have carried out seismic surveys on the continental slopes of India and detected the presence of gas hydrates (frozen methane gas) at several places. This work might help India solve its hydrocarbon problem in the long run. At depths like 600m below the ocean floor, where the pressure is high and the temperatures low, methane and other components of natural gas can solidify into ice as hydrates. A tonne of hydrates brought up to the surface will yield 0.8 tonnes of water and 168 cubic metres of natural gas. So mastering exploration and mining of gas hydrates could be the key to overcoming the severe hydrocarbon shortage in India.
“The least glamorous of all departments at NIO is ocean engineering," says Dr P. Chandramohan, assistant director of the ocean engineering division. But the ocean engineers are the institute's bread and butter and jam! Every project along the coast of India, be it in petrochemicals, oil refining, steel, cement, ports, and so on, has to get an environmental impact survey done by NIO'S ocean engineers for clearance.
It is clear that, slowly, Desa and his team at NIO are learning to combine good science with its commercially exploitable applications. Today Mashelkar is proud of the work being done at NIO. Situated next to the romantic legend of Dona Paula and the white sands of Miramar beach, this centre of excellence is quietly proclaiming: “Goa is not just fish curry and feni, but oceanography too."