The botanist researching the inner world of plants

The orchids of India’s ‘sacred groves’ entranced Gitanjali Yadav as a teenager. Her fascination with botany endured and deepened — and today she has a post that enables her to foster links between the UK and India. Plants, she says, hold the key to life on this planet.

Gitanjali Yadav (Credit: Jacqueline Garget)

Plants are constantly communicating with each other, carefully considering their environment, conquering territory and enemies. Most of this is done via chemicals.

My field of research is called stereochemistry. It’s about studying how plants use biomolecules and their mirror images to generate an enormous diversity of messages.

A large part of my childhood was spent in north-eastern India. It was there that I first visited the ‘sacred groves’, forest fragments of varying sizes protected by tradition and religious belief. Very few people visit; there are no roads. These ecosystems are biodiversity hotspots.

I first became enchanted with plants as a teenager when we lived in a pinewood forest near Shillong in north-east India. I sat for hours under the trees, surrounded by the most beautiful orchids in the world. My parents fanned my zeal with a membership to the city library, where I read books on the secret life of plants.

My first degree was in botany, which led to an MSc in biomedical research. That’s when I discovered stereochemistry. I did a PhD in computational biology. After this I designed a research proposal combining these three subjects for bio-prospecting — new routes for using natural products.

The idea got funded and I won the first Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award (IYBA) by the Indian Government. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with a wildlife ecologist and we now have two kids.

One day I looked out of my lab window in New Delhi and wondered “Really, is this it?” After a decade as a principal investigator at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research (NIPGR) in New Delhi, I decided it was time to expand my horizons. When I spotted details of a newly-created lectureship at Cambridge, it seemed designed for me.

My post is jointly funded by Cambridge University and India’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT). The terms of the position allow me to travel back and forth between the UK and India to strengthen the Indo-UK strategic partnership in agricultural research and to contribute to learning-support activities.

I’ve initiated collaborative work with scientists at Kew Gardens and Cambridge. With field ecologists at Kew, I’m hoping to explore nectar chemistry in Himalayan flora to understand plant communication across geo-spatial distances. Working with two labs at Plant Sciences in Cambridge, I’m studying the enzyme known as ‘lazy Rubisco’, the most abundant protein on earth.

Rubisco makes air into food by converting atmospheric inorganic carbon to organic carbon. This single reaction makes it the link between living and non-living on the planet. It’s quite literally the key to life — but its high degree of inefficiency is a matter of great concern to scientists.

We’re looking for ways to make Rubisco more efficient. Nature has evolved a few tricks to improve its efficiency, across various lineages of algae and higher plants — but not in most crops. Improvement in crop Rubisco would be a big step for food security. I’m trying to find out whether green algae could provide clues.

As one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, India has huge potential. There are places to explore wherever you turn: the Himalayan foothills in the north, the Great Indian Thar desert of the north-west, evergreen woods of the north-east, and five-storied rainforests in the coastal peninsular regions.

I’d never been to Europe before taking up the DBT-Cambridge Lectureship But I was used to travelling. My father was an officer of the Indian Army and he was never posted to one place for long. My husband has field stations in the Andaman-Nicobar Islands, and we enjoy trips to visit him there.

In India I regularly engage with young people in universities and rural areas of Haryana and Punjab, and try to get them interested in science. Farmers need to be aware of technological advances in agriculture, not just in India but globally. I particularly want to encourage female students from far-flung areas to come forward and be independent in thought and action.

Cambridge is wonderfully international. In six months I’ve met people from more countries than I did in India over decades. I’m just as busy as I was in Delhi but I’m doing a lot of extracurricular stuff too — visiting museums, attending jazz concerts and going to the theatre. The explorer in me totally loves being here.

For the first time ever, I feel that life is short. As in the Lion King theme song lyrics, ‘There’s more to see than can ever be seen/More to do than can ever be done’.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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