His big break came when G.P. Roy Chowdhury asked Singh to study snake chromosomes because no one had studied them before. Singh soon came upon a startling result that his peers thought was impossible.
New Delhi: Lalji Singh, regarded the ‘father’ of Indian DNA fingerprinting, passed away on December 10 at the age of 70 following a heart attack. Singh’s was an outstanding personality; he was an excellent scientist, an able administrator, an institution builder and a social worker all rolled into one.
He was one of the leading lights in taking DNA fingerprinting to the mainstream in India, both in terms of research and forensic applications. Encouraged by his work, the Government of India gave him the task of establishing a Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) at Hyderabad in the late 1990s. The CDFD is today a major institution with an enviable global standing.
He also helped set up a slew of laboratories to work on different aspects of genetic research, such as population biology, structural biology and transgenic studies.
Singh’s life makes for an interesting reading. He was born on July 5, 1947, just one month before India attained independence, to a poor farmer’s family in a village near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. A brilliant student from the start, he was admitted to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi. His break came when he reportedly asked a professor to suggest a topic for a special paper as he was studying for a master of science degree. This professor was G.P. Roy Chowdhury, a big name in genetics, and without batting an eyelid, he suggested Singh study the chromosomes of snakes. When asked why, Chowdhury said no one had worked on that topic before, in a tone that suggested there would be no more questions.
Singh narrated the turning point in his career in an interview he had given a few years ago to Eureka, a television programme produced by Vigyan Prasar and Rajya Sabha TV. He recalled that he had been petrified because he was scared of snakes. But he had to do it as he had been instructed by Chowdhury.
Soon, Singh came up on a startling result. As he put it, “The molecular basis of sex determination on which I did a lot of work later actually began from snakes.” He was able to hypothesise that the W sex chromosome of female snakes have specific satellite DNA that are absent in the males. Though he had to confirm his results, the requisite facilities for such studies were not available in India in those days. His attempts to enlist the support of scientists abroad proved futile because none of them believed what he had found was possible.
He eventually managed to acquire a Commonwealth Fellowship on his own. Using it, he went on to successfully isolate high-molecular-weight DNA from a sample for the Indian banded krait and, from that, a sex-specific minor satellite DNA. This led to the now-famous DNA fingerprinting probe.
The probe was developed at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, where he had joined at the invitation of its then-director, the late Pushpa Mittra Bhargava. His probe became an alternative to a probe that already been developed abroad with human DNA, but the latter was expensive because it had been patented.
Singh’s probe has been used to resolve several high profile criminal cases, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the Beant Singh murder case in Punjab, the Swami Premanand case in Tamil Nadu and the Swami Shraddhanand case in Karnataka.
Singh is also known for his DNA studies of the Indian population. His most famous work was conducted with tribespeople of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. He was able to find that these tribes were perhaps the first descendants of the people who moved out of Africa to India about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. Subsequently, Singh proposed a southern route of migration of early humans from Africa via modern India.
From 1998 to 2009, he served as director of the CCMB and, from 2011 to 2014, the vice chancellor of BHU. Among other commitments, Singh had been actively involved with a nonprofit organisation called the Geome Foundation at the time of his passing. Geome aims to help diagnose and treat genetic disorders that affect the underprivileged.
This article was originally published by India Science Wire. Sunderarajan Padmanabhan tweets at @ndpsr.
Note: This article originally stated that Singh passed away on November 10. The actual date is December 10. The mistake was corrected on December 14, 2017.