Prized Science | Every drop counts, and making quality medicine
Read about Vimal Mishra’s attempt to quantify changes in water resources, and Akkattu T Biju’s work to improve the quality of pharmaceutical molecules
Vimal Mishra, Vikram Sarabhai Professor of civil engineering at IIT Gandhinagar, has won this year’s Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean and Planetary Science. He discusses his work, which quantifies how water resources have been affected by climate change and human activities, and the relative contribution of these two factors. Read edited excerpts.
Please tell us about your research.
The water cycle has witnessed profound changes due to climate change. Moreover, climate change and human intervention have considerably affected water availability and water demands in India. However, the relative contribution of climate change and human interventions (irrigation and reservoir storage) on water availability has not been quantified. Our research has demonstrated that while climate change has affected the rainfall characteristics that resulted in reduced groundwater recharge, groundwater pumping for irrigation caused a rapid groundwater decline in north India. We have also proposed measures for groundwater sustainability in north India under the warming climate.
What are the methods you use to quantify these effects?
We have developed an integrated framework that combines in-situ and satellite-based observations and hydrological modelling to estimate the relative contribution of climate and human interventions on water resources and hydrological extremes.
Our modelling approach is based on an integrated framework that uses observations, climate projections, and state-of-the-art hydrological model(s) that represent human interventions (irrigation and groundwater pumping). Thus, we demonstrated that not only climate but also human activities have contributed to rapid groundwater decline in north India.
What have your findings been over the years?
Through our modelling experiments, we showed that excessive groundwater withdrawal from deep aquifers for irrigation is the major driver of the massive groundwater decline in north India. Monitoring and forecasting of hydrological conditions (soil moisture, rainfall etc) play an important role in managing the water resources. Therefore, we developed a near-real-time hydrological monitoring framework for India.
Over the last several years, the water and climate lab at IIT Gandhinagar has not only quantified the impacts of climate change and human interventions on water resources and hydrological extremes, but also developed an operational monitoring and forecasting system in collaboration with other agencies. This can help them in decision-making.
A process to improve medicine quality
Akkattu T Biju, associate professor of organic chemistry at IISc Bangalore, is one of the two winners of this year’s Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for chemical sciences. Like the other winner, Debabrata Maiti of IIT Bombay, Biju too develops new strategies for pharmaceutically valuable molecules. Read edited excerpts:
How do you synthesise molecules?
We rely on novel organocatalysis and aryne chemistry — organocatalysis refers to the use of small organic molecules as catalysts, circumventing the use of transition metals in catalysis. This eliminates the risk of trace metal contamination in pharmaceuticals, a concern for product safety and compliance with health standards. Furthermore, organocatalysed reactions often operate under mild conditions, reducing energy consumption and environmental impact. Aryne chemistry, on the other hand, refers to the use of a class of compounds to synthesise highly functionalized benzene derivatives, which are compounds of great pharmaceutical significance.
What makes your organocatalysis methods novel?
We utilise NHC (Nucleophilic Heterocyclic Carbene) as the organocatalyst to carry out targeted transformations. Carbenes are a type of molecule that has a carbon atom with two electrons available for bonding. They can interact with aldehydes to reverse their polarity, a term that refers to whether an atom in a reaction is positively or negatively charged.
Typically, in aldehydes, the carbon atom is partially positive, and the oxygen atom is partially negative. However, when carbenes interact with aldehydes, they can cause a reversal of this polarity. This allows for new types of reactions to occur that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. In 2021, organocatalysis was acknowledged as a highly significant and valuable methodology, leading to two pioneers in this field being awarded the Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking contributions.
What breakthroughs has your work led to?
Previously, NHCs were exclusively employed for reversing the polarity of aldehydes. In 2017, our team pioneered the use of NHCs for the polarity reversal of another group of compounds, called imines. This groundbreaking chemistry was employed to synthesise biologically significant chemicals called unprotected indole derivatives. Subsequently, we expanded the concept of polarity reversal in imines to create chiral molecules. This concept using NHC as an organocatalyst gained global traction among esteemed organic chemists, leading to the development of numerous innovative methodologies for synthesising biologically significant molecules.
What does such research mean for the future of pharmaceuticals?
Our team is diligently working on transition-metal-free methodologies for various carbon-carbon and carbon-heteroatom bond-forming reactions. These methods are not only versatile and efficient, but also sustainable, making them highly relevant in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries, as well as in drug discovery.
One of our notable works in aryne chemistry has garnered interest from the agrochemical industry for the synthesis of various nitrogen heterocycles. They are keen to utilise the bicyclic molecules we have synthesised in their quest to create new pesticides. In addition to our research efforts, we have authored two books on NHC catalysis and aryne chemistry with a focus on making these complex topics accessible to a general readership.
The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes for Science and Technology were awarded to 12 researchers in seven disciplines. The annual prizes, given by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, recognise scientists under the age of 45 for notable or outstanding research. Read interviews of all 12 awardees in the Prized Science series