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In First Place: Malay Saha, Ph.D.

By Amy Flanagan, Research Associate 2

Posted Sep. 28, 2017

Bangladesh is a country in Asia located on the Bay of Bengal in between India and Myanmar. It is slightly larger than Iowa in land area, but it far exceeds Iowa's 3.1 million population at almost 169 million people. Currently, about 47 percent of its people make their living from agriculture.

Rice harvestAgriculture employs 47 percent of the Bangladesh's total labor force and comprises 16 percent of its GDP. Most of the agricultural practices are manual, and rice is a major crop grown.

It was in Bangladesh in the 1960s in a large room with many people, when a 5-year-old boy gripped the microphone during his poetry recitation and wondered how everyone would hear him. As he spoke, his small voice reached everyone in the room. He was amazed and intrigued by the device, and he began to examine its cord and the amplifier in the speaker.

Rabindranath TagoreMalay Saha's first recitation was one of Rabindranath Tagore's poems during the annual cultural festival that celebrates Tagore's birth. Tagore (1861-1941) was a Nobel laureate in literature who reshaped Bengali literature and music. Malay describes Tagore as an inspiration to the common people. Illustration by Subrata Dhar

Music fills the infinite between two souls.

— Rabindranath Tagore

When Malay returned home and had access to his equipment, such as it was, he fashioned a rudimentary bamboo peg microphone attached with the rope from the family cow to a coconut shell amplifier. Even at that young age, Malay Saha possessed an inquisitive nature, a desire to learn many things and the ability to apply that knowledge – traits that have served him well over his distinguished career.

Malay Saha modelMalay Saha drew this model of the amplification system he constructed as a 5-year-old curious about the microphone he used while reciting poetry.

Famine in Bangladesh

The early 1970s was a difficult time for Bangladesh due to natural disasters, war and the ensuing political unrest.

In 1971, during the liberation war, the country received global attention. George Harrison (from the Beatles) released a single entitled "Bangla Desh" to raise money for those affected. Some of the lyrics include:

My friend came to me with sadness in his eyes.
Told me that he wanted help before his country dies.
Although I couldn't feel the pain, I knew I had to try.
Now I'm asking all of you; help us save some lives.

Now won't you give some bread to get the starving fed.

George Harrison benefitGeorge Harrison's single released to benefit people in Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan).

After liberation, the Bangladesh economy faced a crisis. It was further aggravated with severe flooding and crop failure, which lead to the famine of 1974. Thousands of people died due to starvation and diseases. The best solution was to radically increase food production.

Malay had a natural inclination to study science and became interested in agriculture after seeing the extreme needs his country experienced during the famine in 1974.

Malay was particularly impacted by the extreme famine and the suffering experienced in his country, so, when he entered agricultural university, his focus was drawn to developing agriculture as an answer to this great challenge. He was passionate about helping others, so he set out to improve agriculture to benefit the people of the world. His efforts have led him to where he is today.

Grass Genomics

Malay Saha, Ph.D., applies his knowledge of genetic markers and identifiable sequences in a crop's genome, the genetic code made of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), to improve conventional breeding (selecting for desirable traits in plant parents throughout generations to result in an improved cultivar) through marker-assisted selection (MAS).

Traditional breeding techniques can lead to the development of a new cultivar in 10 to 12 years, which is useful, but with the application of MAS, the best varieties can be developed within six to eight years. MAS allows researchers to focus on the central component that drives the performance of plants – DNA – and links the desired traits to known markers by matching specific patterns in the genome that the best performing lines have in common. This helps inform and kick-start the breeding process by defining a major indicator of which lines are the best to pursue.

The grass genomics core program led by Malay routinely uses DNA markers to characterize tall fescue, a deep-rooted, long-lived, sod-forming grass commonly used for hay, silage, pasture or turf. For example, a genetic marker can differentiate between the Continental and Mediterranean tall fescue types. Continental fescue has a 47-base-pair deletion in its genetic code compared to the Mediterranean type. Using genetic markers, the fescue type can be easily identified. Knowing the genotype of the tall fescue has application because it is important to match the fescue type to the environment and desired use of a field, so breeding new varieties requires consideration of this. Here is an example of a marker used in the tall fescue breeding program:

Continental gel imageThe bright "bands" lined up in this picture show the DNA fragments produced from a PCR reaction and tagged with a fluorescent tracking dye. The smaller the fragment, the faster it travels through the gel. Shown here, the 47-base-pair deletion is evident in the DNA fragments that moved farther through the gel when electricity was applied to make the DNA molecules move through it.

Today, looking toward the future, Malay believes this is the best time to make an intensive effort to improve agricultural production. Improvements made now will benefit the future when food production of the world will need to greatly increase. The land available for agricultural production is dwindling, and urbanization is increasing. This troubling fact, coupled with projections of a world population heading to 9 billion people by the year 2050, means it is beneficial to grow better plants and improve the land we already have in use for agriculture. The projected 35 percent increase in world population will necessitate doubling the food supply because not only will there be more people, but the diet overall will include more meat as developing nations adopt a richer diet that includes more meat and animal products. More animals will consume even more crops, so it is essential for agriculture to develop innovative ways to provide low-input, sustainable agriculture for the health of our planet.

Malay Saha, Ph.D.Malay Saha and others are working every day at the Noble Research Institute to meet grand challenges facing agriculture, such as the need to feed the people of the world. Photo by Rob Mattson.

Malay Saha has other hidden talents outside of his brilliant research. One award highlights his excellent public speaking abilities: In 2001, he won first place in the Toastmaster (Lake Division)'s humorous speech contest.

He's come a long way from where he started as a 5-year-old reciting poetry, but I suspect the same spark of interest and passion to find answers that he had in the first place has sustained his research success.

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