Under the aegis of the Jodhpur City Knowledge and Innovation Cluster, Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur has launched Thar Desert Ecosystem Sciences Guided by Nature and Selection (DESIGNS), a unique initiative to conserve and restore the Thar desert, its minerals and medicines, and its flora and fauna by carrying out Ecosystem phenomics through transdisciplinary framework of Medical, Engineering, Environmental and Life Sciences.
Thar is a hot desert, unique to the Indian subcontinent and 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 innovative ‘designs’ that, ensures adaptation and survival of its constituent species, their interdependencies and the conservation of the entire ecosystem
The impact of loss of natural deserts is 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 stabilization of climate. Any shift in climate change or anthropogenic activity can lead to maladaptations for organisms who 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 under one umbrella brought together organizations from the Engineering, Space research, Medical, Agricultural, Zoological and Forestry that have carried out focused efforts in tackling diverse aspects of the Thar desert. This collaboration includes unique projects that address the complex and networked issues of the desert in an integrative framework.
Speaking about the Thar DESIGNS, Prof. Mitali Mukerji, Professor and Head, Department of Bioscience and Bioengineering, said, “Thar DESIGNS aim to disseminate knowledge and encourage participation through a citizen science approach and inculcate design thinking across the entire collaborative network.”
Under this initiative, the researchers will use IOT enabled devices and Big Data analytics framework to crowd source 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-spatio temporal scales and identify signatures of Thar DESIGNS for early actionable intervention strategies. This 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 be helpful in finding solutions for management of diseases common and endemic to desert regions, novel bioprospecting opportunities and innovative bio-inspired engineering designs. It could also help evolve unique strategies for ecological conservation and restoration that ensures sustained livelihood for its inhabitants.
Thar DESIGNS is also 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 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.