Drifting to Serendipity – the Journey of a Sri Lankan Scientist

by. Dr. Dilantha Gunawardana

Any global citizen is a dimension-less time traveler in the ‘intangible’ realms of destiny. Even the odd supporter of evolution – sans any thread of intelligent design – will vouch for an almighty force that is inevitable and spawning life as we know it, and encompassing with it the many marvels that the life stork brings to your doorstep; love, partner, child, dream job and of course the unexplainable coincidences that visit our lives with random frequency. Within the spheres of destiny that surround our lives, we are travelers of many vibrant hues; time, education, profession, marriage and goodwill causes & crusades.  A traveler is one who undertakes a journey, and every facet of our lives, be it education or an eternity from the church alter, it is always a voyage undertaken on our own accord with blessings from our loved ones and perhaps even from an intangible superpower we recognize as god. As for me, my journeys have been varied but one journey that has taught me a plethora of life lessons and captivated my heart and soul has been my professional journey as a meandering science traveler.

A scientist’s life is simple yet complex. A scientist begins his journey in a mission that is initially conceived as an objective hypothesis with a largely pre-defined methodology that is used to conquer ‘the El-Dorado’ of the proposed plan. Even though conceptually simple, the path to eventual success can be convoluted and may encompass courses of action yet unforeseen. It is these complexities that spawn the many intricate dealings of a scientist that require mandatory aliases as journeymen in many spheres; hypothetical, mental, empirical and analytical. Foremost stands the cerebral sphere, as conception is rarely a forgone conclusion and crossroads an essential milestone. The more a scientist carries the capacity to explore the many diverse crossroads to a solution and to filter out the unlikely from the most feasible, the higher the likelihood of finding the golden path to precious treasure.  However, among the greatest of scientists who have trod on earth, there are some who have coincidentally harpooned a golden Kraken, in their fishing expeditions in the cold unforgiving Baltic waters – You see, infectious mold grew in cold and damp culture plates but it was the same fungi that spooned colossal penicillin that saved millions of lives at war trenches on the western front of the Maginot line.  The embedded lesson is that even scientific drifters, not necessarily journeymen, reach El-Dorado sometimes. 

My scientific journey, the physical one, has many tones of drifter embedded in it. The journey began in the luscious golden rice fields of Magellan’s heartland, where I undertook my post-doctoral journey to carry out a mission to convert the innate armory of a photosynthesizing rice plant to one of superior efficiency and robustness (C4 rice), with a photosynthesis mechanism known as C4 photosynthesis. This was a colossal task at first, and the time forecasted for the initial unraveling of a prototype was proposed to encapsulate 15 years, as this endeavor not only mandatorily required the metamorphosis of the founding anatomy of the rice plants, where veins are found far apart with very little chlorophyll-enriched bundle sheath cells, surrounding the vascular bundles, but also essentially required the fine tuning of the metabolic biochemistry that shunts the assimilated carbon in to productive sugars. In simple terms, in the futuristic C4 rice plant, the carbon will be captured in superabundance through the stomata, and shunted through a cycle known as the Calvin cycle to produce a higher level of sugars that will be stored in the endosperm of rice grains. 

The induced metamorphosis of the rice plant from C3 photosynthesis to an efficient carbon reactor, mandatorily requires tinkering with genetic modifications using transformation methods, chiefly a method known as Agrobacterium-mediated transformation, to transfer chosen gene cassettes that mediate the changes from C3 to C4 photosynthesis, in to unknown locations of the host plant’s genome. Yes, this will undoubtedly be a genetically modified plant, that as a trick of the trade, will encompass a system of higher carbon assimilation, which will inevitably result in higher grain filling, resulting in the provision of a panacea for hunger and malnutrition, found in the developing world, primarily Sub-Saharan Africa. My mission within the long-term goal to develop C4 rice was the analysis of expression of prospective ancestral C4 genes found within the rice plant and to eventually develop armed vectors (clones) that will be used for the transformation of the chosen rice variety. 

Vascular bundles in a weed that mimics the anatomy of the rice plant
Vascular bundles in a weed that mimics the anatomy of the rice plant

However, like every monumental task at hand, there are the skeptics, primarily the colossal wing of opposition to Genetically-Modified (GM) foods, as this endeavor truly is in the zeniths of human manipulation to re-engineer an innate mechanism found within a rice plant by genetic modification. Problems such as allergenicity from recombinant proteins, development of antibiotic resistance due to inherent selection systems and yet unknown health tribulations that could occur due to the consumption of GM C4 rice, hold fort as the top rungs of opposition to the endeavor of conceiving C4 rice. However, the skeptics in their haste, have missed one colossal point; that C4 photosynthesis is a recent trick in evolution and that C3 and C4 photosynthesis mechanisms only undertook their selected paths of evolution from a common divergent point a meager 25-32 million years ago.  Therefore, the conversion of one to the other, even through organized tinkering centered on genetic modification, should not confer detrimental outcomes to the rice plant, the surrounding biodiversity and even the consumers, us humans, due to the recent divergence of the two plant lineages and the subtlety of genetic changes in evolutionary pathways followed by the two major forms of photosynthesis.

The science drifter in me, undertook my next assignment in the east coast of Australia amidst the hustle and bustle and cacophony of busybodies in the boisterous metropolis of Sydney. My mission there encapsulated finding the pathway of chlorophyll D biosynthesis, a rare chlorophyll only found in a selected number of deep water-dwelling marine organismsChlorophyll as we all know absorb sun light to generate sufficient energy to undertake the task of synthesizing sugars to be streamed and stored in the endosperm of grains (transition of source to sink). The two mechanisms together form the nucleus of the pathway of photosynthesis. Unfortunately, I was needed back home in the most serendipitous of isles and later, I would regret not extending my stay in Sydney, as my supervisor and his team unraveled the first new chlorophyll found in 60 years, which caught the universal eye of the media and which graced the pages of the journal ‘Science’, a true noble among contemporary scientific publications. 


My journeys of the mind and the feet have been varied and have flourished on me, immense pride and joy. From Melbourne, Australia (where I completed my Ph.D.) to Los Banos, Philippines to my forays in to the American soil for scientific meetings, have made me realize that science is a domain that will only burgeon amidst the blending in of remote ideas in to a giant potpourri of scientific knowledge that will in turn spawn unique aromatic fragrances of new ideas to capture the tasks at hand for the sustainable development of the world. My forays in science have been centered on photosynthesis, deemed the most valuable reaction on earth by selective Nobel laureates that stems from the energy of a yellow dwarf that touches our daily life from dawn till dusk, and encapsulates the pathway that delivers arrays of foods for us, voracious humans.

From photosynthesis, I ventured back to my homeland and on to nitrogen fixation and phytoremediation, two fields that are assimilatory in their overall ethos and objectivity – to make the planet more eco-friendly and sustainable of life. Nitrogen fixation does this by limiting the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and phytoremediation detoxifies the soil and waterways by a synchrony of strategies centered on extraction and sequestration, where both together, mitigate the ‘pollution footprint’ of man. I am now working with a range of plants, both terrestrial and aquatic, cultivated and undomesticated, miniature and gargantuan, all of which has given me a saturated feeling of contentment in the expansion of my repertoire of studies centered on these two interrelated areas of biology. Now, I am deeply indebted to the drifter in me, to have chosen my motherland to further my professional career. I have never in my research career utilized a true smorgasbord of scientific techniques and although I may not be at the center of a cutting-edge activities, the wide array of proven techniques I depend upon to build the contemporary pool of knowledge in my chosen fields, is undoubtedly a treat to my mental faculties.

My journeys that lie beyond the horizon, whether in Serendib or on foreign soil, will be centered on plant sciences, since what is life without the primeval source of pneuma. Whether my journeys will yield a golden Kraken or serendipitous molds is a profound unlikelihood. Yet, the journeys of the psyche that a scientist engages in to build a cartographer’s map of El-Dorado and the empirical steps undertaken in the sludge of experimentation, to fulfill that mental promise, is a journey worth undertaking. 

The Baltic seas may be lonely and cold, but the psyche of a scientist will always be burgeoned with the warmth of ideas that spring in to mind in haphazard frequency. Ideas and empirical scientific endeavors will always be a serendipitous journey to the unknown. I have been a drifter this far, but just maybe, I have finally found my roots.



Dr Dilantha Gunawardana is a senior lecturer in Molecular PlantDr. Dilantha Sciences at the Department of Botany, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Gangodawila, Sri Lanka and holds a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Melbourne. Dilantha is also a contributor of scientific articles to magazines and periodicals and has authored two articles in the magazine ‘Rice Today’. Dilantha is also a fledgling poet, who is working on a book of contemporary poetry and his blog of poetry can be found at https://meandererworld.wordpress.com/.