What’s in a name? Everything, if its botany

Taxonomists who can identify plant samples correctly are in great shortage, affecting research in applied sciences like biotechnology and genetics

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Wednesday 05 February 2014

Taxonomists who can identify plant samples correctly are in great shortage, affecting research in applied sciences like biotechnology and genetics 

Is there any relevance of working on basic sciences such as taxonomy, the science of classification of an organism based on its characters? This was the question raised at the inaugural session on plant sciences at the 101st Indian Science Congress being held in Jammu.

Paramjit Singh, director of Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Kolkata, said that taxonomy is so basic that every child who learns to recognise his or her parents is a taxonomist. But in the past few years, there has been an insidious shift towards applied sciences. It is now more fashionable to study subjects such as biotechnology and genetics. It was always so. But, a biotechnologist also had access to very able taxonomists and the two worked together. It is no longer so.

Many speakers shared anecdotes on how mis-identification of research material has led to problems for students and researchers. Singh gave the example of a student studying molecular profile of a member of genus Trifolium, commonly called clover. He found his results to be vastly different from existing research and believed that he had found a new genus. It was only later that he found that instead of Trifolium, he was working on a similar looking plant, Medicago, commonly known as burclover. Similarly, P S Ahuja, director at CSIR- Institute of Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Palampur, gave an example of researchers identifying a plant as Nardostachys jatamansi and later finding that it was species of genus Plantago. These examples show that identification of a plant is difficult. Another speaker gave an example of a teacher who took students for a plant identification tour but named each plant as a member of the genus Maenanjana. The teacher later explained that he just meant "I don't know" (mein nahi janta) in Hindi.

Behind the scene, taxonomists nowadays are not delegated to perform specific roles. Most researchers working on applied sciences go to taxonomists just to get there research material identified and that too as a last resort. In fact, Singh came up with term para-taxonomists, just like a para-medic is used for those who help doctors. Even those planning to teach botany in colleges need to pass the life sciences exam which is a part of the National Eligibility Test, which no longer offers a paper on botany. This explains the problems researchers face in identification of plants and this does not bode well for future.

Speakers at the session believed that there is a dire need for an emphasis on the subject. India is a country rich in biodiversity. But, we have not paid much attention to the flora here and there is a lot that needs to be done.

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