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Dr. T. Madhan Mohan

25 Years of India's Biotechnology Information System Network (BTISNet)

As we move towards understanding biology at the systems level, access to large data sets of many different types has become crucial. Technologies such as genome-sequencing, microarrays, proteomics and structural genomics have provided 'parts lists' for many living organisms and researchers are now focusing on how the individual components fit together to build systems. The hope is that scientists will be able to translate their new insights into ways of improving the quality of life for everyone.

India was the first country to conceptualise and establish, during 1986-87, a national distributed Bioinformatics network, which is now the largest in the world. Even as the term 'Bioinformatics' was just coined, the Department of Biotechnology took a bold step in initiating the Biotechnology Information System Network (BTISNet). To start with in 1986- 87 nine institutions were identified for initiating the distributed information centres and they accepted the challenge then of using computers in the Life Sciences. In fact, this initiative was with the personal intervention and support of the former Hon'ble Prime Minister RajivGandhi.

Dr. S. Ramachandran, Founder Secretary of DBT, laid the foundation for BTIS in the country during the Seventh Five Year Plan and, of course, the present system of Bioinformatics network is the result of his vision. Subsequently, the then Secretaries Dr. C.R. Bhatia and Dr. Manju Sharma have extended all their support for the further growth of the network. From just a small number of Centres in the Seventh Plan it went up to 70 Centres during Eighth and Ninth Plan Period. Dr. M.K. Bhan, the present Secretary, DBT, brought a new dimension by bringing the hard core biologists as part of the BTISnet. In fact, during this period a major expansion of this network was undertaken which has reached to 160 Bioinformatics Centres spread across the country. Dr. Ramachandran has been much admired for his vision that has led to the growth of the present BTISnet and its emergence as a major scientific network in the country.

Dr. N. Seshagiri, the Founder Director General of National Informatics Centre (NIC) was the first Chairman of the Bioinformatics Task Force who had extensively supported the establishment of satellite communication system for the BTISnet Centres. Prof. K. Dharmalingam, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai and Prof. A.S. Kolaskar, University of Pune and presently the Vice Chancellor of KIIT, Bhubaneswar, were the second and third Chairpersons of the Task Force. They stressed the scientific activities in the Bioinformatics centres and helped in initiation of more than 100 R&D projects in the areas of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. From the year 2006 onwards, Prof. M. Vijayan, IISc. Bangalore, was chairing the Bioinformatics Task Force after Prof. A.S. Kolaskar. Prof. Vijayan contributed in consolidation of Bioinformatics outcomes in the country like Bioinformatics research publications from India and integration of computational biology as part of Bioinformatics. In the year 2009, the Bioinformatics Task Force was revised as Task Force on Bioinformatics, Computational and Systems Biology which is being chaired by Prof. M. Vijayan. The Members of the Task Force have over the years been drawn from a wide range of organisations like Universities, CSIR, ICAR, ICMR, National Institutes, Inter Ministerial and Industry. Their contributions for the growth of Bioinformatics is remarkable.

My predecessors in this area Dr. J. R. Arora, Former Adviser, DBT, Shri S.L. Bhat, Shri U.N. Behera, Former Joint Secretaries of DBT have contributed at different stages in pushing the Bioinformatics activities in the country and their contributions are unforgettable. My team members in DBT have worked hard to take the network across the country. Bioinformatics policy of India was also drafted in this period and later on the policy matters were combined as part of biotechnology strategy.

In this auspicious occasion of 25 years of India's BTISnet, I am quite happy to highlight the present status of BTISnet so as to help in planning future course of developments in this field.

The seed of this network has grown like a banyan tree over the years with varied activities. The present situation of awareness, expertise available in the country in this field is because of this initiation and one can visualise the role played by the bioinformatics in making life scientists becoming active users of computers in their research and teaching. Until now 160 institutions of different organisations ranging from Universities, CSIR, ICAR, ICMR, DST, DBT institutions, National Institutes, IISc. and many IITs are part of the network. The Centres are of different levels namely COEs, DICs, Sub-DICs and BIF for BTBI. Initially the network was aimed to create a strong Bioinformatics infrastructure in the country, and this has been indeed fulfilled more than as expected. Secondly, the focus was to develop and generate skilled personnel in the interdisciplinary area of bioinformatics. This was infact a great struggle, as two far apart areas of Computer Sciences and Life Sciences were brought together for developing a new field Bioinformatics. Up to some extent this has been achieved and the results can be seen in Bioinformatics papers published in peer reviewed journals from India and quality of trained personnel available in the subject area. DBT evolved and published for the first time a syllabus for teaching bioinformatics in the year 2002, which has then been improved over the years. The Advanced Diploma Courses in Bioinformatics and subsequently their up-gradation as MSc. M. Tech and PhDs have helped the bioinformatics community. Still, we do not have many PhDs in this area. The deficit was there in Computer Science, as well, in 1980s and even 1990s. Now a fair number of PhDs are there in Computer
Science. A similar situation is expected to happen in Bioinformatics as well during the current decade.

Since inception the network centres were fortunate to have state of art computer and communication systems. Satellite communication network was established for BTISnet by providing VSATs and subsequently high speed and large bandwidth network in the form of VPN as Bio-Grid India. The present National Knowledge Network (NKN) concept was earlier used for Bio Grid India with 12 institutions and subsequently all the BTISnet Centres were brought under this Grid by extending a minimum of 2 Mbps Network Internet connectivity. The VPN helped in accessing major computer servers in the country and
databases. Several international databases like EMBL, EBI, PDB, GDB have been mirrored as part of VPN for value added services and unhindered access to these resources by the researchers. Major interactive graphic facilities are also part of this network to take care of national requirements. Super Computer facility for Bioinformatics has been established at IIT, Delhi also as part of the VPN.

While concentrating on Research and Human Resource Development (HRD), a thought emerged on why Bioinformatics cannot be engaged in promoting Life Sciences teaching. Keeping this in view, a new scheme was introduced in the 11th five year Plan namely Bioinformatics facility (BIF) for Biology Teaching through Bio Informatics (BTBI) (BIF for BTBI). So far, more than 90 such facilities have been established and continue their further growth along with recurring cost every year. The students, research scholars, teachers are the great beneficiaries of these facilities in understanding complicated biological process and phenomena with the support of Bioinformatics tools and data resources. Various remote
institutions/Universities, women's colleges were given preferences for the establishment of BIFs. A large number of molecular biologists have been brought to BTISnet through this scheme. Several peer reviewed research papers have been published with bioinformatics as a major component by these centres.

A few consortium based projects have also been evolved and are being implemented in bioinformatics which includes Tuberculosis Bioinformatics (TBBI), Rice Bioinformatics (RBI), Mango database etc. The major institutions that are engaged in these areas are part of the consortium projects. Published and unpublished information, primary data, secondary data all are being made available as national databases. A major drawback of nonavailability of primary data for further research and analysis might be resolved through these efforts. Bioinformatics researchers particularly would be able to obtain the primary data through this approach which would encourage conceptualised research in the country.

During the visit of Hon'ble Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to Japan in December 2006, it was agreed to set up a consultation mechanism to facilitate bilateral high technology trade in this area and addressed the matters relating to respective export control systems of the two countries. A joint statement on this effect was signed on 15th December 2006, by the Prime Ministers of India and Japan. With this effect, both the countries have made quite impressive progress in the area of Biotechnology involving the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Japan. Until now eight important joint projects have been evolved and implemented
in the areas of Bioinformatics and Cell Engineering.

Larger institutions of this network are greatly benefited in doing hard core research and high end human resource developments. Whereas the small institutions have improved their strength in this area by establishing a Bioinformatics set up and a communication network. Access to data resources, outreach of information are quite easy now even for the remote institutions because of BTISnet. Over 100 subject specific databases have been developed and 50 software packages are on BTISnet as open access resources. Efforts are on to integrate the related databases as a single source to achieve a comprehensive data source for a particular subject area. More than 3000 peer reviewed publications have been published in last 5 years from India in the subject area. These are either completely bioinformatics publications or
have a combination of bioinformatics and experimental biology. However considering only papers having 50% and above bioinformatics contributions a Compendium of Bioinformatics Publications from India is being compiled and will be published shortly. This will help assess the impact made by bioinformatics in the growth of biotechnology in India. On an average 40-50 R&D projects are supported every year and these have also contributed publications in high impact journals.

Twenty six Bioinformatics Centres are functioning in North Eastern Region of India and these have been networked as North Eastern Bioinformatics Network (NEBInet). These institutions are quite active in pursuing biotechnology with the support of bioinformatics. More than 900 important e-Journals of Biotechnology are available through NEBInet for access to the researchers, students, teachers etc. of this region. The service is known as North East Region-DBT e-Library Consortium (NER-DeLCON). Annual coordinators meeting of NEBInet is being held on 12-13th November of every year. NEHU, Shillong is the Coordinating Institute for this network. NEBInet is also instrumental in implementing several biotechnology programmes in NER such as Biotech Hubs, Overseas Associateship, Twining R&D project and so on.

DBT would continue its support in future for the BTISnet as it has shown excellent progress and will help in utilising the expertise acquired through these years for the study of biological process. Moreover, it will help enhance the overall biotechnology growth in the country. Data driven research is going to revolutionise biological research, and planning is in progress for strengthening the infrastructure and pooling of expertise towards this purpose. Inter Ministerial and International cooperation would be part of this effort.

Padma Bhushan Dr. S. Ramachandran
  The Founder Secretary of DBT Dr. S. Ramachandran has laid the foundation for BTISNET in the country during the Seventh Five Year Plan and, of course, the present system of Bioinformatics network is the result of his vision. Born on September 9th, 1934, Dr. S. Ramachandran received his Bachelor of Science from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in 1955 and then his Master of Science from Banaras Hindu University in 1957. Under a merit fellowship, Dr. S. Ramachandran went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Illinois in 1960, specializing in biochemistry. In 1961, Dr. S. Ramachandran joined the Hindustan Antibiotics Limited,
Poona as a CSIR scientist and roseup to become its head of research in 1972. In 1977 he was appointed Chief Executive of Bengal Immunity Company Limited, Government of India, an organisation he successfully turned around. He was appointed Member Secretary of the National Biotechnology Board in New Delhi in 1982. It did not take him long to highlight the importance of a separate department and in 1986 he became the first Secretary to the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. During his nearly 7-year tenure as secretary, he initiated several successful mission progrmmes in the areas of immunization, tissue culture, aqua culture, academic and industrial training and information technology. After his retirement in 1992, Dr. Ramachandran held several international positions: Chairman, WHO commission on Children's Vaccine Initiative; Chairman, Biotechnology Advisory Commission, Swedish Environment Institute; Founding Member, Children's Vaccine Program, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and Member Strategic Advisory Council, Malaria Initiative, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He has served as the Chairman, Research Council for CLRI and the Member, Research Council for CDRI, CCMB, NCL, IMTECH and NIV. He is also an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Medical Science, World Academy of Arts and Science and National Academy of Science, United States..
Dr. Chittranjan Bhatia
  Having served DBT in its formative years after he took over as Secretrary from Dr. S Ramachandran, the department has a special place in the memories of Dr. C R Bhatia. Dr. Chittranjan Bhatia obtained his Ph.D. degree in plant genetics and breeding from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi in 1961. After post-doctoral training with the Agricultural University, Wageningen, the Netherlands, and at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York, U.S.A. he joined the then Biology Division of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Mumbai in 1966. He worked there in various capacities till 1993.
He was the Director, Bio-Medical Group, at BARC when appointed as Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Apart from being an elected fellow of all major scientific academies in India, he is also a recipient of Dr. S. K. Mitra award from INSA, Prof. R. N. Tandon award from NASI and O. P. Bhasin Award. Currently he is Co-chairperson, Joint Working Group for Indo-US collaboration in Agricultural Biotechnology; and member, Maharashtra Biotechnology Commission; Vice-President, Agri-Biotech Foundation, Hyderabad; Member, DST Committee for Technology Incubators. His significant contribution in DBT was to permit the import of some 100 seeds of Cocker–132 variety of cotton with the Cry1Ac gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) by a private seed company. That was the modest start leading to what is now recognized as the Bt cotton revolution in the country.
Padma Bhushan Dr. (Mrs.) Manju Sharma
  A distinguished biologist, recognized for her contributions to promotion of science and technology, in particular the emerging field of biotechnology, Dr. (Mrs.) Manju Sharma has played a pivotal role in taking up the cause of women in science and application of science and technology for the benefit of women, disadvantaged people and rural areas. She has held various positions in the government, including Secretary, Department of Biotechnology for over nine years during 1995- 2004. Dr. Sharma initiated and promoted many successful programmes but she is specially known for establishing a number of new institutions covering diverse fields of Biotechnology.
Her contributions have been instrumental in shaping biotechnology research and application and giving it a very strong position in the national interest. After superannuating in February, 2004, she has been advising many research institutions and is also the Principal Adviser on Biotechnology to the State Governments of Gujarat, and Uttarakhand. In recognition of her exemplary efforts she was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2007.
Dr. J. R. Arora
  Former Adviser of DBT has provided valuable contributions for the establishment of BTISNET.
Dr. S. L. Bhat
Shri. U. N. Behera
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