A Treasure Within the Treasure

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endophytes- KashmirBy: Dr Syed Riyaz-Ul-Hassan

Khuda agar dil-e fitrat shinas de tujh ko
Sukoot-e lala’o gul se kalam pyda kar      -ALLAMA IQBAL

The diversity of plants in Kashmir Himalayas is enormous, although challenged by several man-made factors, especially political. Unfortunately, we have been harsh towards our natural resources, not realizing the enormity of the damage caused. The role of plants in the sustenance and, in fact, existence of man needs no deliberations.

However, there are aspects which, until recently, were unknown or least appreciated. Plants, like humans, are not individual organisms but, to put it simply, these are higher organisms harbouring a large community of microorganisms within themselves. For example, the number of microorganisms, in the human gut alone, is ten times the total number of cells in the human body.

Thus, on a lighter note, every human being has the right to use the royal plural “We” instead of using the scientifically incorrect terminology “I”. Interestingly, these tiny creatures are not sitting idle within our bodies; rather they play indispensable roles to maintain human health and well being. Likewise, plants recruit specific microbes, inside their tissues, that help them in their growth and development, adaptation to environmental stress, and fighting against disease causing microbes.

These benign microorganisms are known as endophytes, and include mainly bacteria and fungi. In addition to the functions that they perform in the environment, to benefit the plants, endophytes represent a huge natural resource awaiting exploration for human welfare. In the last two decades, numerous chemical entities have been obtained from such microorganisms that are potential leads for pharmaceutical, industrial and agricultural applications.

The search for novel endophytes from natural environments, with least human intervention, has inspired several rewarding scientific expeditions to the world’s major forests. However, endophytes from Kashmir Himalayas are almost unexplored, though the prospects of finding potential isolates are enormous. It is worth mentioning here that the sampling done for such work does not harm the wild plants as only small twigs or leaves are collected for the experimental work. Further, isolated microbes are preserved in the laboratory, and are thus conserved for use by the future generations.

In an effort to find out what lies hidden within the plants of the Kashmir valley, we undertook a study a few years back, and obtained remarkable scientific data. Interestingly, the Coniferous trees were found to possess highly diverse microbial wealth which led us to conduct a detailed study on the Himalayan blue pine (known as kayur in Kashmiri) at a particular site in the Kashmir valley.

From the samples, collected from ten trees, we obtained 38 different major types (Genera) of endophytes. Several of these were found to produce novel chemical entities with drug like properties, and are being explored in detail. Without going much into the scientific details, I want to emphasize here how valuable are the plants that decorate the landscape of our valley. If the magnitude of microbial diversity obtained from small twigs of ten trees is so high, how much microbial wealth may be concealed within the tissues of the plants growing in the valley, keeping in mind that many of them are endemic only to the Kashmir region.

These microbes may be holding the key for the cure of many fatal human diseases. Thus, with the felling of each tree, numerous microbes with enormous potential for human welfare are lost as well. Hence, harming our forests is a much expensive bargain than what meets the eye.

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