IFS: Bringing science closer to the people

Pix and text by Sarath Chinthaka

Research and real life – for most people it is as separate as the sea and the sky. Throw in organizations like the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) and many consider them to be far removed from the daily life of Sri Lankans, “doing their own thing” not having an iota of an impact on anyone or anything.

Things have changed, the Sunday Times understands, with the formation of the Collaborative and Consultative Division (CCD) to liaise between the IFS and non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, universities and also other institutions, both local and international, to prevent important research publications from ending up on shelves, gathering dust.

This followed “indications” by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is the Chairman of the Governing Board, that though the IFS performance with regard to scientific research was good, there seemed to be little impact on the development of the country and on the people. The need for IFS input in development was great because it is supported by public funds.

With the IFS being steered by a new Director, Prof. C.B. Dissanayake, since May 2009, that is the direction that has been followed, it is understood – conducting basic research that would have an impact on national development. Many are the examples of IFS research which are seeking to make a change in the country’s development.
IFS tea nursery at Ratnapura

One that visiting scientist of the IFS, Prof. S.A. Kulasooriya highlights is the bio-fertilizer project of Prof. Gamini Seneviratne, who has come up with a “novel type” of bio-fertilizer proven in field tests to be of immense benefit to the tea industry.

As opposed to chemical fertilizers, bio-fertilisers are live formulates of beneficial micro-organisms -- such as bacteria, fungi, and algae which when applied to seed, root or soil, enhance root activity and improve nutrient uptake, the Sunday Times understands.

Usually, only one type of micro-organism such as a bacterium or a fungus is used as a biofertilizer inoculant to a targeted crop. The concept developed by Prof. Seneviratne combines two or more types of bacteria and fungi to form beneficial microbial communities to form “bio-films”.

These membranous bio-films form a coating or a net around the root of a targeted plant, acting more effectively than bio-fertilizers, stressed Prof. Kulasooriya, adding that Prof. Seneviratne who himself coined the word “Bio-film Bio-fertilizers (BBs)” has been acclaimed internationally as the first microbiologist to pronounce this concept.

BBs form a kind of net like cover and extend the root system beyond its finite extremities. They also form coatings and nodule like bulges along young roots enabling the host plant to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Demonstration of biological nitrogen fixation by tea plants inoculated with BBs is new to science said Prof. Kulasooriya.

The dramatic effects of this research came out when BBs were tested on nursery tea plants and field tested on young and mature tea plants at the Tea Research Institute’s stations in Talawakelle (up-country), Hantane (mid-country) and Ratnapura (low country), it is learnt.

It was found that BBs can replace about 50% of the recommended chemical fertilizers NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium). “The IFS BB preparation incorporating nitrogen-fixing bacteria and fungi together with 50% of the T65 chemical fertilizer mixture (currently used for nursery tea) gave the same growth as the 100% T65 fertilizer mixture. This shows that a 50% saving of chemical fertilizer can be achieved by the application of the IFS BB inoculants. Other noteworthy benefits of BBs are: as much as 40% reduction of a common disease, the shot-hole borer attacks on mature tea, enhancing drought resistance of nursery and young tea and the increase in soil organic matter, says Prof. Kulasooriya.

BBs will not only save the country huge amounts of foreign exchange spent on imported chemical fertilizer, but also stimulate the build up of organic matter in tea soils that could ensure sustainable yield increases over long periods of time, the Sunday Times learns.

The TRI is expected to make a recommendation in the near future that BBs be used on nursery tea, while field experiments and research on young and mature tea will continue until their full cycles of growth and plucking are completed, Prof. Kulasooriya said.

Moving from bio-fertilizer to the “elixir” of life, water, Prof. Kulasooriya points out that the IFS is also conducting research on how to make drinking water safer.

Over the years, the algal-plankton populations in reservoirs which feed the drinking water systems in Sri Lanka have turned from being harmless to toxin-producing due to the pollution of such water bodies. “When any water body gets polluted, the diversity of the algal population reduces to a large extent because the more sensitive species die, with only the hardy ones that can withstand the pollution remaining. Most of these produce toxins as a defence mechanism and become dominant among the phytoplankton population,” he said.

A survey conducted in several reservoirs a few years ago had found that there were 15,000 colony forming units of toxin producing species per millilitre of water except in two reservoirs whose catchments were protected forests and where there was no human activity. This showed that it is anthropogenic activities that pollute water in reservoirs which in turn leads to the algal populations in them changing from harmless to toxin producing species.

With regard to planktons, IFS research scientists are working with the Department of Zoology of the University of Peradeniya with the aim of developing a database on the phyto and zooplanktonic micro-organisms in the freshwater reservoirs of Sri Lanka. They will also work towards the development of a sensitive bio-assay to detect the presence of algal toxins in water. This will enable the rapid detection of algal toxins in potable water and help the authorities to take measures to overcome this problem and provide safer drinking water to the people.

Dealing next with green plants, Prof. Kulasooriya says they convert solar energy to chemical energy through photosynthesis and store it in various forms, mainly as complex carbohydrates. Another major project that the IFS has undertaken is to find ways to convert such stored bio-energy to bio-fuels. Prior to the production of bio-fuels these complex carbohydrates have to be broken down to simple carbohydrates that can then be fermented to yield alcohols which are combustible fuels. In nature, such breakdown processes collectively called decomposition, are conducted by micro-organisms.

Research studies at the IFS will focus on the development of bio-films which can rapidly breakdown such chemical structures. Substrates to be used for these purposes are biomasses obtained from terrestrial invasive weeds like Lantana, Mana and Illuk grasses and aquatic weeds such as water hyacinth, Salvinia and Pistia.

The primary objective is not only to become self-sufficient in producing Lanka’s fuel energy requirements, but also obtain energy from indigenous, renewable green biomasses obtained from what are today considered as nuisance plant species.

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