‘DESIGNS’ to conserve and restore Thar desert

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New Delhi: The Indian Institute of Technology-Jodhpur has launched a new initiative to conserve and restore the Thar desert, its minerals and medicines, and its flora and fauna by carrying out ecosystem phenomics through a transdisciplinary framework of medical, engineering, environmental, and life sciences.

Called Thar Desert Ecosystem Sciences Guided by Nature and Selection (Thar DESIGNS), the initiative has been launched under the aegis of the Jodhpur City Knowledge and Innovation Cluster.

The Thar is characterized by high maximum temperature with large diurnal variations, scanty rainfall, extreme aridity, and intense UV radiations. This has been one of the largest natural laboratories for evolving systems that ensure the adaptation and survival of its constituent species, their interdependencies, and the conservation of the entire ecosystem.

The impact of any loss of natural deserts will be immense as these habitats are rich in flora and fauna as well as minerals and medicines that nurture and maintain different life forms on earth. Often considered as wastelands, deserts are crucial for the stabilisation of climate. Any shift in climate or anthropogenic activity can lead to maladaptations for organisms that live at the ebb of physiological extremes, loss of diversity through extirpations, and ultimately an ecosystem collapse. This threatens the lives and livelihood of the native inhabitants.

To address this, the Jodhpur City Knowledge and Innovation Cluster (JCKIC) has brought together organizations that are engaged in activities ranging from engineering, space research, medicine, agriculture, zoology, and forestry, which have carried out focused efforts in tackling diverse aspects of the Thar desert. This collaboration includes projects that address the complex and networked issues of the desert in an integrative framework.

Prof. Mitali Mukerji, Head of the Department of Bioscience and Bioengineering at IIT-Jodhpur, said, “`Thar DESIGNS’ aims to disseminate knowledge and encourage participation through a citizen science approach and inculcate design thinking across the entire collaborative network.”

Under the initiative, the researchers will use IOT enabled devices and big data analytics framework to crowdsource observations from the local ecosystem to the regional level keeping the cultural context and traditional medicine knowledge in perspective. Researchers would also integrate computer vision and machine learning along with domain knowledge to infer links between environment, phenotype, and genotype at geo-spatiotemporal scales and identify early actionable intervention strategies. The knowledge generation will result in providing a ‘Desert Ecosystem Knowledge Grid’ that could foster the cycle of engineering- research-development-commercialization.

This data grid will, among other things, help find solutions for the management of diseases common and endemic to desert regions and the generation of novel bioprospecting opportunities and innovative bio-inspired engineering designs. It could also help evolve unique strategies for ecological conservation and restoration that ensure sustained livelihood for its inhabitants.

Thar DESIGNS is likely to propel the growth of new industry and capacity building for next-generation tech-savvy social and eco-entrepreneurs. An AI-assisted recommendation engine for the sustenance of desert ecosystems based on the interacting principles of desert ecology, evolutionary biology, and culture would also be of enormous utility for policymakers and diverse stakeholders. (India Science Wire)

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