Panchanan Maheshwari: a giant in plant biology
Professor Panchanan Maheshwari established a thriving school of research and teaching in plant biology at the University of Delhi, where he arrived in 1949. Under his leadership, the Department of Botany at the University of Delhi has become “a center of world influence in plant morphology, known both for its graduates and the many foreign investigators drawn to Delhi by its fame, ”according to its biographer at the Royal Society RC Steward. Maheshwari died in 1966 at the height of his career. He was 62 years old.
Before coming to Delhi, Maheshwari was at Dhaka University from 1939. He worked on his flagship book, The embryology of angiosperms, between 1945 and 1947. Published in 1950, this book put Maheshwari and the University of Delhi on the world map. This treasure is available in Indian bookstores for a princely stay ??300.
To appreciate Maheshwari’s contributions, their relevance and importance, we need to understand the context of his work on seed plants, especially flowering ones. Flowering plants are relatively recent arrivals (around 250 million years ago) compared to other plants that evolved over 800 million years ago.
A pollen grain contains two sperm. The egg is fertilized to trigger the development of the embryo whose cells will divide and make parts of the plant, just like a fertilized human egg makes a human. In plants, a second sperm fuses with another cell to form a structure that serves as the source of food for the embryo, the seed. In parallel, the ovary develops into fruit. It sounds simple, but nature accomplishes it in various ways. The comparative study of the development of flowering plant embryos was an area of intense study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Writing of Maheshwari, V Raghavan (no parent) says: “Maheshwari’s bibliography from 1929 until his death included about 150 publications, many in the field of descriptive and comparative embryology; in addition, more than 300 publications have been credited to his student (s) ”.
Maheshwari and his colleagues addressed important, diverse and difficult issues. He was an expert in microtechnology just like his wife Shanti. This combination of great ambition in the choice of problems and the development of intellectual and technical tools to tackle them is the mark of the best of science. One without the other is useless.
One of the issues was fertilization and embryo development in the lab, as opposed to the field. They established in vitro fertilization (in a box) of flowering plants using seeds of the bread poppy (Papaver somniferum). In the 1970s, after Maheshwari’s demise, the method became well established and is an important tool in plant breeding.
It is possible to take a single cell from a mature plant and grow a whole plant, bypassing the requirement of fertilization and embryo formation. Maheshwari and his colleagues explored this method and made fundamental discoveries such as making embryos from mature cells, again creating an important avenue for research.
Shipra Guha (later Guha-Mukherjee) and Satish Maheshwari (Panchanan’s son) developed techniques for growing embryos from pollen only – a pioneering method in plant breeding. The Maheshwari School of Botany seeded at Delhi University has produced several rulers, some sadly more, but many are still with us. Some of the notables of the early days were BM Johri, Satish Maheshwari, HY Mohan Ram, Shipra Guha-Mukherjee, KR Shivanna, Sudhir Sopory, Akhilesh Tyagi. Much of plant science in India can trace its origins to this school whose contributions are widely recognized and have had a real impact on agriculture. We owe him a lot.
Yet we also need to recognize and see how we can address a significant slippage in its contribution over the past decades, as measured by reduced global recognition and national impact.
The reasons are internal and external. After Maheshwari, the next generation saw both great science and great internal struggles. It was then that advances in molecular biology swept the world, when the opposite of insularity and pride was needed. The University of Delhi has come to some understanding of these external changes, notably through the development of the South Campus and its departments of Biochemistry and Genetics and Plant Molecular Biology. But the North Campus missed the opportunity to use these new tools to move from a purely descriptive to an integrated mechanistic approach, and the connection between the two campuses was intellectually modest.
The University of Delhi has also grown to amplify the anchoring of undergraduates in affiliated colleges – without substantial undergraduate research. Bright students power the national and global supply chain. Yet these students had a declining connection, if not an awareness of the (declining) research effort at the university.
A basic level of assured research support is necessary for university professors to be competitive when applying for additional funds. Such support has been spotty when it was available. Heavy teaching loads leave professors little time for research.
And collaboration with research institutes such as the National Plant Genome Research Institute and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute has been minimal.
The performance indices set up by the university end up confusing quantitative measures and objectivity. There is no room for a top-down approach such as the hiring by Maurice Gwyer (then the university VC) of Maheshwari of Dhaka after independence, nor an upward desire to find the Maheshwari of today. ‘hui from anywhere in the world.
None of this is unique to the plant sciences. The path to restoration and advancement is difficult, but it is not ingeniously complex. Today, plant sciences are one of the most exciting fields of study and research, helping to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis and restore the environment. By working together, universities and institutions in Delhi can revive the good old days and effectively tackle new problems.
K Vijay Raghavan is the Senior Science Advisor to the Government of India
This series, which will run throughout the celebration of India’s 75th independence anniversary, will focus on leading scientists, institutions and scientific achievements, and will also look at the next 25 years.
Opinions expressed are personal