Born on March 20, 1935, Joseph Thomas was destined to leave his mark on biological research and its application in the country. He did his PhD at the Institute of Science, Bombay and got his degree from the University of Bombay in 1962. He continued his research as a UNESCO fellow at the Institute of Microbiology in the Prague, Czechoslovakia working on mass cultivation of algae. In 1966, he joined the Biology and Agriculture Division of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. It is at BARC that Joe (as he was popularly known among his peers) did his pioneering research that led to several outstanding and original contributions to cyanobacterial/ rhizobial nitrogen fixation research in India. Joe worked at BARC till 1987 as Head, Biological Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory, before moving to SPIC to head two separate activities there- one developing Biotech industry and the other developing R & D of academic and industrial relevance.
In the laboratory of Prof. Peter Wolk at Michigan State University, East Lansing in 1974-76 he pioneered the work on ammonia assimilation pathway in cyanobacteria using the short-lived radioisotope 13 N. Subsequent to his return to BARC, he also used stable isotope of nitrogen ( 15 N) to obtain reliable estimates of nitrogen fixation by cyanobacterial biofertilizers and their contribution to rice yields. This work formed the foundation for a series of classical publications by Joe Thomas and collaborators that established the pathway of nitrogen fixation in microbes and plant cells.
Joe set up the Biotech Division at SPIC for commercialization of Biotech products. They established a ten million capacity facility at Coimbatore for tissue cultured plants and a production facility for fermentation and down-stream processing of the BIOGOLD and NEEMGOLD products. He also had a successful seeds business initiated at SPIC with the farms and seed processing units set up at Chennai, Coimbatore and Hosur. At SPIC Science Foundation, he set up the Centre for Biotechnology with emphasis on three areas: plant molecular biology, plant tissue culture and microbial technology. Microbial technology group developed several technologies that were taken up by the SPIC Biotech Division for commercialization. After his retirement from the SPIC group, he served as an Advisor of the Department of Biotechnology at IIT Madras and helped shape the department during its formative stages.