The Indian National Science Academy (INSA) arranged a seminar last week on the history of science in India, with particular focus on the last 100 years. Among the various topics, work in the area of genetics during the early years of the 20 century was presented by Dr. Durgadas Kasbekar of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad. In a gripping and highly informative half an hour, he presented three advances made in India, namely the success story of sugarcane breeding, the discovery of the Bombay Blood Type (the “O” subgroup) and the mathematical analysis of the mapping of genes distributed across the length of the chromosome. Of these, the story of sugarcane breeding and generating new varieties was particularly gripping not only for its glorious success but also because it highlighted the dedicated work of a lady scientist named Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal. And this story is worth retelling.
Dr. K.T. Achaya has written in his authoritative book, “Indian Food: A Historical Companion” (OUP 1994) that while sugarcane was well known and grown in India since the Rigvedic times (c. 1500 BC), as Ikshu, and Kautilya (c. 300 BC) mentions a whole range of products from sugarcane, our canes were not as sweet as those from the Far East. They had however robust stalks. Achaya in his other book: “A historical dictionary of Indian food” (OUP 1998) states that the Tamil book Agananuru mentions that when carts got stuck in the mud, stalks of sugarcane were heaped beneath the wheel to provide a grip! Such has been the robustness of our sugarcane.
The sweetest sugarcane comes from Papua New Guinea, and termed Saccharum officianarum. Also called ‘noble’ cane, it migrated northwest to Asia. During the early 1900s, India actually imported this sweet sugar from Java and the Far East. The freedom fighter and scholar Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya had suggested in the 1910s that we in India should do botanical work to sweeten our own varieties (called S. spontaneum). This led to the start of the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore, Madras Presidency, led by C. A. Barber, which took on the task of improving the Indian sugarcane plants. He and his assistant T.S. Venkataraman began crossing the ‘noble’ S. Officianarum females with S. Spontaneum males.
As Kasbekar explains, when the pollen of spontaneum fertilized eggs of officianarum, the products retained the full chromosome complement of officianarum, generating a hybrid sugarcane plant as sweet as officianarum and with robust stalks as in spontaneum. Back-crossing of the hybrid male with officianarum was even more successful. Success was thus achieved in producing sweeter varieties of Indian sugarcane. These Coimbatore breeds (Co-canes) were so successful that in the first year itself they increased sugarcane production in Punjab by 50 per cent, and were even exported to places like Cuba. Between 1930 and 1935, this work of Venkataraman led to a doubling of sugarcane production in the country.
It was during this time that the young girl from Tellichery, Kerala, Janaki Ammal (b. Nov 4, 1897) movedto do her BSc and BSc Honours from Queen Mary’s and Presidency Colleges, Madras. With a scholarship, she moved to the University of Michigan, U.S. to get her MS in 1925. She came back, got her DSc in 1931 and joined the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore to work with Venkataraman on sugarcane biology. She was an expert in cytogenetics (the genetic content and expression of genes in the cell). She had known that plants display polyploidy (collection of not just two pairs of chromosomes in each cell, as our body cells do, but many multiples of 2, e.g., 2n = 48, 56, 64, 72 and even 112). Her research in this area led to our understanding of the nature of polyploidy in sugarcane, forming a firm scientific basis for crossing and hybrids, but also helped in choosing plant varieties for cross-breeding. It also helped analyse the geographical distribution of sugarcane across India, and to establish that S. Spontaneum is sugarcane that originated in India.
She left Coimbatore to join the John Innes Institute at London and then the Royal Horticulture Society at Wisley, during the years 1945-51. A summary of the life and times of Janaki Ammal has been written by the famous scholar in plant pathology and evolution, Professor Chiryathumadom Venkatachalier Subramanian of Chennai (www.ias.ac.in/womenin science/Janaki.pdf). He writes that Nehru invited Janaki Ammal to return and reorganize the Botanical Survey of India. She came back and ran the Botanical Survey of India.
Even earlier than Nehru, Professor C.V. Raman saw the spark in her and made her a Foundation Fellow of the Academy. Years later, in 1957, she was elected to INSA — the first woman scientist elected to any of the science academies in India. She was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1957. Having led a full life, she breathed her last on February 4, 1984. Think about it; every time you bite a sugarcane, or a lump of gud or vellam, you are enjoying the fruits of toil of Barber, Venkataraman and Janaki.