TWO YEARS AGO, Praveen Rahi, a scientist at the Microbial Culture Collection in Pune, began to study the micro-organisms living in cellphones. He grew curious about the subject as several studies indicated that cellphones provide an ideal habitat for these tiny beings to thrive. “It was said that since mobile phones provide warmth, are regularly touched by people, and are never really washed, they’re an ideal habitat for bacteria,” says Rahi. “The fear was that phones will be habituated with pathogenic strains which could lead to the easy spread of diseases.”
Rahi was able to isolate around 500 strains of different bacteria. He found that while most of the micro-organisms were not pathogenic in nature, their virulence did correlate with the cellphone owner’s hygiene. “Owners who wash their hands regularly or use a handkerchief while sneezing, for example, were not found to be so pathogenic. But micro-organisms on phones owned by those with poor hygiene were found to have the most opportunistic pathogens, which could be very harmful to humans,” says Rahi.
Rahi will be publishing the study soon. But during the time when he was studying these micro-organisms, he discovered what he believes are two entirely new strains of bacteria. So he decided to prove his discovery. Rahi sent the sample of one bacterium to a Korean culture collection centre and the other to a centre in Belgium. Scientists who claim new discoveries of micro-organism species have to deposit samples of these, as Rahi explains, at a publicly-accessible culture collection centre in the country of their origin and one abroad. The next step would involve getting the discovery published in a scientific journal. Except the culture collection centre in Belgium—as it happened with culture collection centres abroad several times earlier this year—refused to accept the sample.
Since January, Indian microbiologists have been suffering from an unusual predicament. A notification issued by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has ruled that any Indian bio-resource deposited abroad cannot be accessed by foreign nationals without taking prior approval from the NBA. According to Shanmugam Mayilraj, a scientist at the Chandigarh-based Microbial Type Culture Collection (MTCC), this goes against the accepted international practice that micro- organisms deposited at culture collection centres should be freely available for non-commercial research. “Most foreign repositories have refused to accept micro-organism cultures from India after the notification. For most of them, such conditions like ‘non-Indians have to take approval from biodiversity authorities’ are unacceptable,” explains Mayilraj. “It goes against the very grain of accepted practice.”
Even international journals are refusing to publish papers about new microbiology findings from India. Most scientific journals, Rahi says, insist that culture samples have to be deposited in culture collection centres abroad where they should be freely accessible to researchers. When foreign culture collection centres do agree to seek approval, the delay they face in getting the permission—from seven months to longer, Indian microbiologists claim—dissuade them from agreeing to accept samples from India ever again. “For researchers interested in taxonomy, this has become a nightmare,” Rahi says. “We can’t conduct research. New organisms aren’t recognised. We are in a limbo.”
Rahi was eventually able to convince the Belgian culture collection centre to seek NBA approval. He hopes his two papers announcing the new discoveries will eventually come through. Around 150 strains of bacteria that Mayilraj has isolated over the past few years have not been accepted by culture collection centres abroad, and a total of four scientific papers have been held up by various journals, he claims.
The matter has become so urgent that earlier in May, a meeting between several microbiologists in India was held to discuss the problem. The researchers suggested that NBA Designated Repositories be allowed to act when it comes to sample deposits. “We are requesting the NBA to allow us to enter into material transfer agreements with collection centres abroad,” says Rahi. Most culture collection centres abroad sign material transfer agreements with other centres and researchers, as Rahi adds, to ensure that the samples are only used for research and not commercial purposes. “Only when researchers want to exploit the samples for some other performance, for commercial or any [intellectual property rights] related issue, should they have to contact the NBA,” adds Rahi.
According to microbial researchers, most officials in the NBA are botanists and zoologists, and are thus unable to properly comprehend the issues faced by microbiologists. B Meenakumari, chairperson of the NBA, declined to comment on the issue. Mayilraj is unable to understand why such a rule should be there in the first place. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Even China doesn’t do this [to microbiologists].”