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Kumaraswamy Thangaraj, Kaza Poornachandra Gandhi, David Reich, Amrita Gupta, Subhra Priyadarshini
00:09 Subhra Priyadarshini: Today, you are listening to a special episode of the Nature India podcast from New Delhi, India. This is Subhra Priyadarshini. In December of 2017, India lost one of its most pioneering scientists Lalji Singh, known as the father of DNA fingerprinting in India. It is because of Lalji Singh that DNA evidence is permissible in the courts of this country. For this special tribute episode, Amrita Gupta spoke to some of Lalji Singh's peers and colleagues. We hear a little more about him and the legacy he leaves behind.
00:50 Kumaraswamy Thangaraj: I've been associated with Dr Lalji Singh for the last 25 years and we together worked on human populations and made very significant contributions. We were the first group to understand the origin of modern human in Indian subcontinent. And we have established that Andamanese are the first modern humans migrated out of Africa about 65,000 years back.
01:21 Amrita Gupta: That's Kumaraswamy Thangaraj, a senior principal scientist at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, where Singh was a former director. Thangaraj spoke to me from his lab in Hyderabad to reminisce for a little while about his mentor. He was a young PhD student when he met Lalji Singh, who by the way, didn't start out studying humans at all.
01:44 Kumaraswamy Thangaraj: In fact, Lalji Singh started his scientific career studying the sex chromosomes of the snakes. In the primitive snakes, we cannot actually differentiate the sex chromosomes. Then he started working at DNA level and found that there is a class of repetitive sequence, particularly GATA in the W chromosome of snakes. So that actually led to identification of sex-specific DNA in snakes.
02:22 Amrita Gupta: That sequence was found to be conserved across various species, animals, plants and humans. It was Singh who established that it could be used to generate individual DNA fingerprints.
02:34 Kumaraswamy Thangaraj: After the UK and USA, India became the third country in the world to generate its own DNA probe for DNA fingerprinting. So he demonstrated using that probe that every single individual can be identified as a unique person.
02:55 Amrita Gupta: The indigenous probe could also be used to solve crimes.
02:58 Subhra Priyadarshini: In fact, DNA fingerprinting and Lalji Singh's testimony were key to solving the assassination case of India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, then the high profile Nana Sani tandoor murder case in the 1990s, and many others. But first Lalji Singh had to convince the judiciary that DNA fingerprinting could be used as evidence. He worked closely with Kaza Poornachandra Gandhi, the former Inspector General of Police of the state of Andhra Pradesh to make that happen. It was K P Gandhi, who spearheaded the first state level DNA fingerprinting lab in India.
03:38 K P Gandhi: Any new science technology that is introduced, police and courts from all over the world not only in this country, especially the courts all over the world, will not accept the new technique or new technology unless it is proven beyond reasonable doubt. So then we have to popularise this DNA technology. So Lalji has conducted several seminars and several workshops. So we try to collaborate with each other to see that our work is properly utilised for the people and by the people.
04:16 Amrita Gupta: Because he brought the scientific community, the police and the judiciary closer together, Singh is known as the father of DNA fingerprinting in India. It was only later in his career that he started to focus on genomic studies to look at the origins of population groups in India. That's when he collaborated with David Reich. Reich's a professor in the Department of genetics at Harvard.
04:41 David Reich: We wrote to the Dr. Singh and Dr. Thangaraj, really out of the blue. We approached them and they were very positive about working together and we started a collaboration around 2007. I didn't know very much about Indian population history at the time and we were talking about issues that were important in India. I really appreciated Dr. Singh's willingness to take these issues head on and to help us articulate them together in a way that made the work really as effective as it could be.
05:13 Subhra Priyadarshini: Their paper reconstructing Indian population history was published in Nature in 2009. It was a landmark study that forms the basis of what we know about the country's gene pool today. Reich told us how highly he regards Lalji Singh's contribution to this field.
05:33 David Reich: We think that Dr. Singh was really a visionary in his view about what it would be possible to learn about human history and Indian history in particular, based on genetic variation he really built at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, of what remains, I think, the most impressive collection of human variation anywhere in the world. And it really makes it possible to ask an answer really powerful questions about diversity in the country that couldn't be addressed without this resource. And it was really Dr. Singh's vision at CCMB that made it possible to build this unique collection.
06:11 Amrita Gupta: In fact, it was largely Singh's vision that made him an institution builder throughout his career. He founded the Center for DNA fingerprinting and diagnostics in 1995. Three years later, he started the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species. And in 2004, he started the Genome Foundation with K P Gandhi.
06:33 K P Gandhi: When the Human Genome Project became a reality, both of us discussed that how can the advantage of Human Genome Project be provided to the common man in India, because the technology will to reach the rural people will take decades if not several decades. What is the best way to do that? And together we started Genome Foundation in 2004, we thought this is one thing we have to do. And we had to focus mostly on the rural areas.
07:04 Amrita Gupta: Though Gandhi and Singh had both retired, they still wanted to bring science to the public.
07:09 K P Gandhi: And every minute, I can say every minute, of his waking time was spent only on how to make things happen in a better way for the country. And how to make a difference to the knowledge we have and work till the last minute for the same purpose. He was a voracious worker, working nine to nine. Even at the age of 70.
07:31 Amrita Gupta: Thangaraj agrees. He says if there's one thing that described Singh throughout the time he knew him, it was his commitment to work,
07:39 Kumaraswamy Thangaraj: He put 100% of his effort, whatever the work he used to do. For example, we have gone for collecting samples and he always looked forward to contribute even for the small things like he used to write the consent form, he used to write the name of the person on the tube where we transfer the blood. So, so enthusiastic he was, it was surprising in the beginning but I got used to that because I came to know his nature and his contribution.
08:23 Amrita Gupta: For the people who knew him, little things like these will linger on for the rest of us, Lalji Singh will be remembered for bringing science out of the labs into the courtrooms and to the masses. This is Amrita Gupta for Nature India.
08:38 Subhra Priyadarshini: There's no doubt that Lalji Singh’s legacy to India will be lasting and unique. Just like the DNA fingerprinting technique he introduced India to.
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