Lakshmi Sita

Lakshmi Sita: A Bio-Tech Pioneer

In this era of tree scarcity, this Indian scientist mass produced large trees from tiny test tubes. Meet Lakshmi Sita, a professor at IISc, whose work became so famous that notable figures like Prince Charles, Rajiv Gandhi, and Ratan Tata were drawn to witness her groundbreaking work.

She began her journey as a scientist in 1976 when she joined IISc. After completing her studies on how plants grow in the UK, she returned to India.

On her return to India, she was asked to work on a problem that had plagued forest officials in Karnataka for close to a century.

Sandalwood spike disease devastated the trees in Coorg, leading to the removal of around a million trees from Mysore and Coorg between 1903 and 1916. 

Due to the significant losses incurred by the Karnataka government, scientists at IISc began investigating the issue. When Sita joined the Institute’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology (MCB), she was tasked with using her expertise in plant tissue culture to cultivate disease-resistant sandalwood trees.

Foresters wanted to grow strong trees but faced challenges. Then, they discovered the magic of tissue culture, where small plant pieces were nurtured in tubes with nutrients, showing how plants can grow from just a single cell.

Sita’s hard work with this technology reduced the time needed for harvesting. Her research extended to other valuable trees such as rosewood, eucalyptus, and teak.

After working as a postdoctoral fellow and a Senior Scientific Officer, Sita became a Professor at MCB. Her plant tissue culture lab became famous, attracting notable visitors like Prince Charles, Rajiv Gandhi, and Ratan Tata.

Sita and her team continued their research, aiming to improve crops by adding beneficial traits. They worked on various plants like tomatoes, capsicum, brinjal, groundnut, red gram, and cotton.

They also explored using plants to make vaccines. Sita and virologist MS Shaila teamed up to create vaccines against deadly animal diseases like rinderpest in cattle. Their experiments with peanuts and cattle showed promise, but global rules limited their research, and the disease was eventually eradicated in 2011.

Sita’s team also developed cotton plants that could resist viruses.

Picture: Mrs. Sita explaining her work to Prince Charles. Satish Dhawan stands in the background.

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