From plant genetics to bacterial genetics, from molecular biology to
neurophysiology, Dr Obaid Siddiqi's vast areas of research only
projects his love for science, a thirst for individuality and a never
say never attitude
What would one do when a
hailstorm destroys wheat crops sown for research? Repeat sowing the
genetic crosses again? May be. But, Dr Obaid Siddiqi moved ahead, he
had learnt enough of wheat genetics and thus gave in to his attraction
of molecular biology. Not just here, but throughout his life, Dr
Siddiqi exemplifies the attitude of a go-getter.
Born on January 7, 1932, Dr Siddiqi is still an active researcher and
has over five decades of research in fields such as plant genetics,
molecular biology, behavioral genetics, neurobiology and his
contribution to the enrichment of modern science is invaluable.
BioSpectrum honors Dr Obaid Siddiqi, founder director of National
Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, with the Life Time
Achievement Award 2010 for his pioneering work in the fields of
microbial genetics and neurogenetics. He is synonymous with his
continuing experiments on Drosophila (fruit fly), first on their
paralytic mutations and then on the genetics of their chemical senses.
Among others, Dr Siddiqi's early research on DNA transfer and
recombination in bacteria and his work on suppression of 'nonsense'
mutation in E.coli are some breakthrough contributions.
Recipient of a dozen awards, Dr Obaid Siddiqi is a Fellow of the US
National Academy of Sciences, considered the highest international
scientific recognition for contribution to science. He initially
focused on plant genetics and later in University of Glasgow, he moved
on to the field of bacterial genetics. In the late 1960s he
started working on Drosophila and in 1976 his team described the first
olfactory mutant in the insect. For the past ten years, Dr Siddiqi has
been more interested in the learning and the memory of the fruit flies.
Living across various districts in Uttar Pradesh, Dr Siddiqi, son of a
bureaucrat, became interested in science towards the end of his
schooling. But, the love for the subject grew when he was studying
botany at the Aligarh Muslim University, where one of his teachers
encouraged him to pursue research. Despite learning only conventional
genetics, like Mendel's Law, Dr Siddiqi got involved in this branch by
self-study and eventually decided to take up plant genetics. While,
still at university, he went to the Indian Agricultural Research
Institute (IARI) to study wheat genetics, where destiny had different
plans for him.
“As luck would have it, at the end of the year, in a hailstorm, my crop
was destroyed, all the crosses we had made from wheat were destroyed.
So, I was faced with this problem of having to wait for one more year
and repeat all my work. But, people at IARI advised me that as I have
learned all I want to, I can move to a different lab to pursue other
interests. Then, I decided to move to Glasgow,” reminisces Dr Siddiqi.
At the University of Glasgow, he chose to do his PhD in genetics. The
place, because of its contribution to the gene structure, was a
scientific hub of geneticists. Thus here, Dr Siddiqi met some of his
future colleagues and also gradually got into molecular genetics - the
subject of his first breakthrough research.
In 1960, Dr Siddiqi moved to the US and started working with Dr Alan
Garen at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was working
on the connection between genes and proteins. Their experiments on the
suppression of 'nonsense' mutation in E. coli was an important step in
the understanding of chain termination in polypeptide synthesis.
Building upon Dr Francis Crick's research on the existence of sense and
nonsense mutations, Dr Siddiqi and Dr Garen started working on the
mutations of alkaline phosphatase.
“I noticed that there were many mutations which abolished the protein,
that is, no alkaline phosphatase was made in those mutants and yet
those mutations could be suppressed, which would cancel the effect of
the original. As I had worked on suppressors before, I clearly
recognized that many of the mutations, which cancel the effect of the
nonsense mutations, were those outside the gene and yet they changed
the structure of the enzyme,”says Dr Siddiqi.
Later, when he exchanged data on the same suppressors with Dr Seymour
Benzer, another molecular biologist with whom he would soon work, it
became clear that mutations terminate the making of the protein and
suppressors restore the completion of the chain. This gave rise to the
idea that there were codons that terminate the chain and stop its
synthesis. As a result, the three codons for all the nonsense mutations
- UAA, UAG and UGI were found within a year or so.
Back on home ground
Having made up his mind early that he would return to India, Dr Siddiqi
did so in 1962, after five years of research abroad. Through his
acquaintance with Leo Szilard, a nuclear physicist, Dr Siddiqi landed a
job at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, under the
aegis of Homi J Bhabha. He was asked to set up a molecular biology
group at TIFR, from scratch.
“There was no molecular biology group at TIFR and that was a very
attractive situation for me, because I knew that if you go to a
university where biology groups were already there, then you have to
fit into whatever existed. Whereas here, I had to develop my own
laboratory, which is actually what I wanted. This was in a sense, god
sent,” recalls Dr Siddiqi.
After setting up the lab, it was a time of transition for this
researcher. The research areas he was already working on needed to be
let behind so as to give way for fresh topics of experiments, which
would later turn out to be his most pioneering work ever.
“When I look back at it, this was scientifically the first phase in my
work. I had worked on molecular and microbial genetics, genetic code,
protein synthesis, structure of gene, suppression and things like that.
But, two-to-three years after setting up the lab, I realized that many
other people in the world were already doing the things we were trying
to do, and sooner or later bacterial genetics would no longer be an
area where we could compete, because we were likely to be left behind,”
says Dr Siddiqi.
He was extremely attracted to the ideas his friends were
advocating that one should turn from molecular genetics to
neurobiology, because in studying the brain of animals you could use
genetics in the same way as it was used in molecular biology. Thus,
started the research on Drosophila Melanogastor.
Tales of the fruit fly
Dr Siddiqi decided to work with Dr Seymour Benzer on neurobiology and
so, took a two-year sabbatical from TIFR. With no knowledge on the
subject or on Drosophila, he went to MIT, where he was visiting
professor, to learn about neurophysiology and electrophysiology. After
a year, he moved to California Institute of Technology, where he worked
in Dr Benzer's lab on temperature-sensitive paralytic mutations of
fruit fly. For a year-and-half, he was interested in and worked on
genes, which control the function of the insect's nerves and muscles.
“Dr Obaid Siddiqi is a
deep thinker, a scientist who has made major contribution in bacterial
genetics and in behavioral neurobiology and an outstanding institution
builder. India is very fortunate to have him, first in ushering in
molecular biology at the TIFR, then in developing developmental biology
and neurogenetics there and later in establishing the National Center
for Biological Sciences of TIFR. He is a role model for scientists and
colleagues, but one who is impossible to emulate! All of us at NCBS are
very pleased to have this award conferred on Prof Siddiqi.”
-K Vijay Raghavan
, director, National Center for Biological
“Dr Obaid Siddiqi was a
strong influence in getting non-biologists,
especially young researchers, interested in molecular biology and
genetics during 1960s & 1970s. One of his talks to physicists in
1963 on the nature of the genetic code was so lucid & exciting that
it got many of us interested in molecular biology. He influenced the
research scene in Indian molecular biology during its infancy. A very
good example of such a case is that of Prof K Vijay Raghavan, the
director of NCBS. Over a period of three decades when Dr Siddiqi was at
the helm, he has been able to put MBU at TIFR, on the world map. He has
been one of its chief architects.”
-Dr Padmanabhan Babu
, Biotools Technologies, Bangalore
“We found a set of genes, which cause temperature-sensitive paralysis
and what these have to do with the channels in muscles and nerves,
through which ionic current is conducted and signaling of nerves take
place. By electrophysiology, we found that drosophila's muscles and
nerve conduction were blocked. I consider this as the first significant
discovery and many other labs started working on this paralytic
mutations,” says Dr Siddiqi.
Later, when he returned to India, Dr Siddiqi realized that many people
started working on the same topic and he understood that it was
difficult to compete with them sitting here in India. Deciding to
retain his individuality, he started to work out the connection between
olfaction, immunology and neurobiology. Soon, he was working on sense
of smell of Drosophila, discovering the mutants, and since then he has
remained in that field.
His first paper on olfactory mutants of Drosophila was published in
1978 and in two years he discovered the first olfactory mutants. His
team initially worked on molecular biology of olfaction looking for
olfactory receptors, mechanisms and later combined behavior genetics.
These discovered mutants were later sequenced. His ongoing research
focuses on learning and memory of drosophila, which like humans, can be
trained to be attracted or repelled by chemicals.
“Once you train the fruit fly, then you can ask the question, how long
it can remember its training. Just like higher animals, they have
memory of various kinds like short-term and long-term memory and that
is what we do now,” says Dr Siddiqi.
Dr Siddiqi and his team's work has led to a lot of other sciences. They
were the first to develop methods for measuring olfactory response and
methods for doing electrophysiological recordings from Drosophila's
brain. Their work has had many technical implications, been used by
other people and has influenced various other research.
Dr Siddiqi is married to Dr Asiya Siddiqi, a historian, and they have
four children - two sons and two daughters. One of his sons has
followed Dr Siddiqi's foot steps to become a geneticist and, he now
works at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. Dr
Siddiqi loves to spend his free time listening to Indian classical
music. In his early days, Dr Siddiqi wanted to be a professional
photographer and despite life having different plans, he is pursuing
his passion for photography.
Dr Obaid Siddiqi, founder director, National Center for Biological
Q How are
the US and India different as research bases?
What is lacking in India is not money or support. There is a shortage
of good talent here. It is easier to get people in the US because
people from all over the world are ready to move there. But, here it
does not work that way, we have to look for good talent and then
convince them that if they come here they can work more or less in the
same way as in the US.
Q What is
your take on genetically modified (GM) crops?
I believe that plant and animal genetics can make a difference to
agriculture and its production. As a geneticist, I think one cannot say
all GM crops are good or all GM crops are bad. Things should be
examined more objectively and see what is good for the society,
environment, even economy and biodiversity. On one hand, the problem is
those who want to sell GM crops do not worry about these things and on
the other hand, those who oppose it claim everything that is
genetically engineered, is bad. I think there has to be something in
Q What are
your views on the Indian biotechnology industry?
Biotechnology industry is growing fast. Apart from the big companies, a
number of small companies, those started by people who were working in
research institutes, are also doing very well. These small companies
have developed their own research labs. People keep complaining that
the existing research labs do not do things which can be used by the
industries. I think, it is important for them to be close to the
industry, so that they each know what the other is doing. And this
connection is visibly useful in the pharmaceutical industry.
what kind of students do you train?
I have just one or two degree students. I have 8-10 visiting scholars
and post docs. Many universities in South India, such as VIT, SASTRA,
are smart enough to see that they do not have necessary facilities for
teaching students, how to do experiments. So, they freely give them six
months or so to go out and work at other institutions and I get many
such students. From my point of view, if I get four-five such persons,
it allows me to see how they are and how they work and if some are
good, I ask them to come back.
students coming to NCBS interested in a research career or in industry?
People coming to us are more interested in teaching and research or
they want to go abroad after their PhD. A majority of those here go to
research institutes. Now this might change, as I hear people say that
lot of them are coming back to India. My hope is more and more people
who are learning to do research will continue to do it here. Right now,
it is not a pretty situation, because we are not able to retain the
people we train.
Shruthi Ram in Bangalore