To See A World In a Grain of Wheat

Dr. Naveen Sharma recently defended his PhD thesis under the supervision of Dr. Paramjit Khurana, Professor and Head of the Department of Plant Molecular Biology, University of Delhi South Campus. He was part of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing project. This work, published last month in Science, was the culmination of efforts by 200 scientists from 20 different countries ( Dr. Sharma also studied the role of MIPS (Myo-Inositol-Phosphate Synthase), a protein that is critical for the production of phospholipids and signal transduction in plants. In this interview he shares insights from his PhD journey with the NGSF Team.

Congratulations on your PhD! How does it feel now?

   I have always wanted to be a part of the solution and I am glad that I was associated with the wheat genome sequencing project. Now I feel like I have really accomplished something.

What fascinates you the most about plants? How did you end up doing a PhD?

   Honestly, I am fascinated with plants because of their green color. I have always viewed them as the nurturer of our world since our survival depends on plants and their functions. During my childhood, I watched detective shows where they used techniques like DNA fingerprinting to convict criminals. I would wonder how certain bands of DNA could pinpoint to a criminal. This fascination introduced me to the world of molecular biology and fortunately I ended up doing a PhD in the same from a prestigious department of Delhi University.

What was the toughest phase in your PhD?Photos (3).JPG

   Fortunately, none. Sometimes you don’t get results instantly but that’s a trigger to create a blueprint for further research. From my experience, in such situations, one should know that the story hasn’t come to an end. You need to read more, research more, rectify your errors and evolve your hypothesis. Networking and socializing skills enabled me to do research without any hurdles.

What do you mean by genome and how does sequencing it help humanity?

   The complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism represents the genome of an organism. Genomes of major crops like rice, maize, tomato, sugarcane etc. have been sequenced except for wheat until now. In order to ensure food security for the ever-growing world population, which is projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050, wheat productivity needs to be increased by 1.6% per year. To do that without destroying the biodiversity and natural resources, it has to be achieved via crop improvement on the land currently available for cultivation without further expansion. The reference genome sequence is now complete and available to breeders and researchers who consequently will be able to identify genes and regulatory elements underlying complex agronomic traits such as yield, grain quality, and tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses.

Why did it take so long to sequence wheat, considering its importance?

   Wheat is an allohexaploid originating from three similar sub-genomes (A, B, and D) with a massive size of 17 Gb, which is five times larger than the human genome. It has 21 chromosomes, 7 from each sub-genome. Sequencing the wheat genome has long been considered an insurmountable challenge due to the high complexity making it difficult to obtain a high-quality reference sequence.  Since approximately 80% of the wheat genome consists of repetitive elements it creates a hurdle in the process of sequencing as well as in the correct assembly.  In order to obtain gold standard wheat genome, the IWGSC (International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium) was established and circumvented those issues by deciding to sequence each chromosome separately. This method was time consuming but yielded a high-quality reference genome at the end, which can be used by breeders and scientists to improve wheat varieties and address food security issues.

India’s contribution to the project?

   In 2005, as part of the IWGSC, twenty countries were involved in sequencing all the chromosomes of ‘Chinese Spring’ wheat. India was assigned the task of physical mapping and sequencing of chromosome 2 of A subset genome i.e. 2A. Three Indian institutes were involved in this humongous task – Delhi University, Punjab Agricultural University and Indian Agricultural Research Institute.

Is there a single paper that influenced you the most?

   Yes, “Dual function of MIPS1 as a metabolic enzyme and transcriptional regulator”. This research article talks about the role of MIPS protein as its own transcriptional regulator, which I consider is an important clue for building up the hypothesis for further work. MIPS has been associated with plant growth and stress tolerance. We delved deeper into the mechanism of MIPS action in plant growth and stress tolerance and identified hormone involvement in it. We raised transgenic wheat overexpressing MIPS and found that it provides tolerance to heat stress. This work will be useful to engineer wheat resilient to increasing global temperature.

Are there any issues with science funding in India?

   Of course there are constraints on basic science research funding in India. The government needs to channelize funds appropriately so that enrolled students do not suffer. During my PhD, I faced many issues regarding fellowships. I don’t recall ever getting my fellowship on time. There were instances where I didn’t receive the fellowship for 5 or 6 months straight. There isn’t a timely revision of the fellowship amount which is what triggered countrywide protest in 2014. I was never able to receive travel grants in spite of applying to funding agencies. Such situations demotivate students and decrease the enthusiasm students have for their work.

What are your tips for PhD aspirants?

   Each individual is different and their aspirations too. If your passion is research, then the foremost requirement is to be compassionate and ready to share. Science is all about giving to the society and I don’t think it can be done alone so it has to start with your PhD. I realized during my PhD the importance of continually reading about your topic, which students usually do only toward the end of their training. It actually develops your interest and guides you through the scientific process. Do socialize and make good friends in and across the department. It will make your lab a second home and create a joyful experience. The intellectual and emotional help provided by peers is necessary to untangle the complex questions that frame your research.

A photo of Dr. Naveen Sharma with his PhD Supervisor Dr. Paramjit Khurana (Dressed in green saree) and rest of the lab.


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