New Seeds Sown for Systems Biology Research at ICRISAT

Dr Karsten Kristiansen, BGI-Shenzhen

Looking at nutrition from the view of the microbiome in human and soil systems may provide answers to tackle malnutrition in Asia and Africa. Agricultural and medical researchers and doctors from around the world came together from March 22 – 24, 2018, at ICRISAT to brainstorm on the connect with between microbiomes of the gut and the soil. This workshop on systems biology for human and plant nutrition aimed to elucidate the workings of microorganisms in the human body; the microbial connection between gut and brain/immune system/obesity as well as the factors influencing them (diet, genetics, environment). Experts from Ghana, India, Senegal, Mali and The Gambia presented their respective countries’ nutrition reports, highlighting the need for urgent interventions to improve nutrition. The role of plant/soil microbiomes – especially that of legumes in immune response and other physiological functions – was discussed in detail.

In the inaugural address, Dr David Bergvinson, Director General, ICRISAT, called the workshop a rare integration of health, nutrition and soil, and challenged participants to connect the varied clusters and distil information that could significantly impact nutrition and agriculture, especially in the drylands.

Why gut bacteria are important

  • Gut Bacteria contain enzymes that help digest carbohydrates, and are involved in protein and lipid metabolism1.
  • They play a critical role in development of the immune system2.
  • They are also responsible for synthesis of certain vitamins such as Vitamin B123.

Dr Karsten Kristiansen, University of Copenhagen and BGI-Shenzhen, highlighted the importance of gut microbiome for different diseases. In his presentation, he showed how the certain human gut microbes such as Prevotella copri are linked to conditions such as insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.

Dr Rajeev K Varshney, Research Program Director, Genetic Gains, ICRISAT, introduced the newly commissioned Systems Biology initiative as an effort to understand the gut microbiome associated with legume-based diets, and the soil microbiome to better understand crop responses to soil inputs. The Systems Biology initiative at ICRISAT will focus on research on i) Human Gut Microbiome ii) Soil Microbiome and iii) Trait Biology. Dr. Varshney expressed hope that this approach would create a roadmap to tackle malnutrition in Asia and Africa.

Dr Peter Carberry, Deputy Director General, Research, ICRISAT, urged workshop participants to link systems biology with socio-economic systems (e.g. the Village Dynamics Studies in South Asia – VDSA) and crop systems modelling research. “This will enable us to exploit ICRISAT’s Village Level Studies, which have provided profound insights into social and economic changes in the village and household economies in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa,” he said.

In the workshop, speakers from 19 organizations and 12 countries presented updates on ongoing research work and their areas of strength, which can be utilized to complement each other and move ahead on systems biology approach to address bigger challenges.

The potential research areas highlighted during the workshop included:

  • Gut microbiome for improving human nutrition: A multi-institute collaboration to study the effect of legume-based nutritional supplement on the gut microbiome of pregnant women and children in India through government nutrition, health and agriculture institutions in India. This would be done with BGI-Shenzhen with University of Copenhagen. The expertise of BGI-Shenzhen in foxtail millet and the University Hyderabad synergized with ICRISAT could analyze plant/soil microbiome in chickpea. Collaborations with CSIRO and Rothamsted Research Institute are also being considered.
  • ICRISAT will partner the Vienna Metabolomics Center, University of Vienna, to study drought tolerance in chickpea and analyze the two-line hybrid system and epigenomics for hybrids in pigeonpea. This study will use models to predict higher-order relationships between molecular phenotypes, interactions among each other and subsequent influence on complex traits.
  • International standards for data collection, analysis and storage will be used.

For more information about the workshop:






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