Padma Shri Prof. VijayRaghavan's appointment as the new Secretary of Department of Biotechnology (DBT) has met with a unanimous cheer from the life-sciences community. With his rare combination of scientific reputation, cross-disciplinary background, track record in building excellent institutions and the "can-do" spirit, Vijay has is bound to keep the momentum initiated by his predecessor Dr MK Bhan going full throttle. Despite his stature, setting directions for the future no doubt remains an immense challenge given the rapidly changing life-sciences scene in India.
With the Annual Talks finishing two days back, I sent out an email to our student, junior research felllow and postdoc mailing lists asking for comments. I have compiled the responses to date, while things are still fresh in our memory. One question focused on the new conference-style format: instead of every PI giving a talk, about half the faculty did, and there were also outside speakers. Please use the comment section below this article to add any further thoughts! All photos are by me, and are from the final day's poster session.
What were you favourite talks?
* I found Benny Shilo's talk good mainly because I could relate it to my research work. I also found Nicolas' talk and work very interesting though I don't do anything related.
* Favourite talks: Nicolas Gompel (really interesting work), Jayant (introduced comments which made his talk lively), Krushnamegh (hearing him for the first time) and Pedro (very different work and model system, also highly organized presentation) in that order.
Satyajit Mayor, a professor in NCBS's Cellular Organization and Signalling Group, and the Centre's Dean, has been awarded the 2012 Infosys Prize for Life Sciences. According to the citation for the award, Mayor's work "provides new insights into regulated cell surface organization and membrane dynamics, necessary for understanding self-organization and trafficking of membrane molecules in living cells, and in signaling between cells." The Infosys Prizes, awarded annually in six categories and providing cash prizes of Rs 50 Lakh each, are highly regarded within the research community. The jury panel is chaired by six internationally acclaimed academics, and in 2012 it included the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen.
Like our own skin, the membrane of the cell plays a critical, but easily under-appreciated, role in the proper functioning of the organism. While Mayor and his colleagues have been researching the nature and activities of this membrane for several decades, the longer version of the Infosys citation suggests it is the work on the membrane's internal organisation that has most excited the judges. This line of research was brought to a culmination in a paper recently published in the journal Cell: Active Remodeling of Cortical Actin Regulates Spatiotemporal Organization of Cell Surface Molecules (Gowrishankar et al., 2012). It is not a coincidence that this work was done in Bangalore. It draws heavily on insights and approaches from a relatively new area of physics - soft active matter - which is actively studied at the Raman Research Institute (Madan Rao's group) and the Indian Institute of Science (Sriram Ramaswamy's group). Rao, who was a co-author on the paper, has had a long-standing and very fruitful collaboration with Mayor (and Ramaswamy). Ramaswamy's work on soft active matter led to him winning last year's Infosys Prize in the Physical Sciences category.
In March this year the Indian news media reported the onfield death, by cardiac arrest, of 28-year-old Bangalore footballer D. Venkatesh. Many young athletes die like this every year - recent victims have included stars of the European soccer scene and American basketball. In most cases, these deaths are due to an inherited form of the disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Basically, the heart muscle gets too big for its own good. Its muscular walls lose the flexibility needed for normal pumping, and when the demand for blood flow jumps too high - most commonly while exercising - the hypertrophic heart cannot keep up. And the problem is not limited to athletes. It can also strike the more sedentary among us.
Scientists at NCBS and inStem, Bangalore, are trying to understand the underlying biology of inherited cardiac hypertrophy (HCM), and also the converse disease, in which the heart muscles thin out (dilated cardiomyopathy, DCM). In each disease, the most common genetic cause is a mutation in one of the proteins that comprise the cellular machinery for muscle contraction (see figure). The net outcome of any individual mutation - either a hyper- or hypo-trophic heart - depends on whether muscle contraction is increased or decreased by the change in the mutated protein. But how that increase or decrease in efficiency is brought about remains unclear.
One of the most prestigious awards in science, the 2012 Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, was announced yesterday, and all three recipients - Jim Spudich, Ron Vale and Michael Sheetz - have strong links to NCBS, and India generally.
Jim Spudich, from Stanford, has had a long association with NCBS and is currently adjunct faculty here. Like Vale and Sheetz, Spudich's work has focused on 'molecular motors' - intracellular molecules that can harvest chemical energy to generate force. Spudich's group has been at the forefront of discovering how the motors that power muscle and other intracellular movements -myosins- do their jobs. In particular, his laboratory has developed in vitro assays that measure the speed and force produced by myosins -and are exemplars of experimental elegance. The assays allow researchers to determine the movements and forces produced by single myosin molecules. At inStem, Spudich is now leading a team investigating the role of myosin and other proteins in inherited cardiomyopathies, visiting inStem/NCBS three to four times per year.
NCBS microscopists are invited to submit several of your images and/or digital video clips to the 2012 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition. As indicated by its title, the compettion will honour extraordinary microscope images of life science subjects. Up to five images, videos or image sequences can be entered per person, and you do not have to be a user of Olympus equipment to join in the fun. Entries for the contest can be uploaded through a web browser directly to the Olympus servers at the following URL:
You have exactly one month to hunt through your archives, or capture some dazzling new images. The deadline for new entries is Tuesday, October 2, 2012.
The winning photos of the competition are tentatively scheduled to be published in Scientific American and the photographers will receive substantial material rewards. First prize will be Olympus microscope or camera equipment valued at $5,000. Nine additional winners will also receive valuable prizes from Olympus. Winners will be notified in late October, and publicly announced in December, 2012.
As part of the Institut Curie and NCBS scientific meetings this week, NCBS is hosting a series of events to celebrate Marie Curie's life and ongoing legacy. A traveling exhibition Marie Curie 1867 - 1934, will be on display from August 7 - 25, 2012. This exhibition marks the International Year of Chemistry (2011) and also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1911). The 12 panels of this exhibition trace the remarkable scientific trajectory of Marie Curie.
A cut finger calls into action a crew of repair cells - macrophages - that crawl amoeba-like towards the wound. To drag itself forward a macrophage repeatedly anchors, then detaches, its advancing membranous fringe, to and from, the surrounding matrix. This feat is just one of many activities made possible by the cell's ability to enrich selected areas of its outer membrane with specialized proteins. For example, the macrophage's moving fringe is enriched in the protein integrin, which can link the membrane to the matrix. How such localized enrichment occurs within the broad expanse of the cell's membrane has remained unclear. Now however a team of researchers at the National Centre for Biological Science and the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, believe they have the answer. In a recent paper in the journal Cell (Gowrishankar et al., 2012) they have proposed, and tested, a model that, unlike previous models, explains how enrichment could be an active process, and thus controllable by the cell.
“This music comes out of silence, and to silence it returns,” Dominik Schwudke, introducing the concert, A Passion for Baroque.
On the night of May 11 the expansive plaza of NCBS’s new lab complex was the venue for a concert celebrating the music of the 18th century German masters, George Friderich Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. The performance featured five instrumentalists and a vocalist, NCBS’s own baritone, Dominik Schwudke. It was the first of three recitals for the ensemble, who also played at Memorial Church, Whitefield, and St John’s Church, Bangalore, on the following nights.
Shachi, tell us how you got into the sort of science you do?
I joined my integrated Masters in chemistry, but that was incidental. I became interested in physical chemistry in my final year because I liked the more quantitative aspects of it. During my Masters thesis project I got interested in doing theory and computation. So, that was the direction I decided to pursue when I joined Caltech for my PhD. By training I'm a theoretical physical chemist though I did do a few biochemistry related courses in my undergraduate years. But all through my PhD I was doing very non-biological research, looking at electron transfer at metal surfaces.
As in many parts of the world, soil salinity is a chronic condition in cultivable lands across most of India. Water provided by irrigation is saltier than rain, and so increased dependence on irrigation, and inadequate drainage systems, are causing soil salt to build up to toxic levels. Plant scientists are trying to develop crop varieties and management strategies that lead to higher salt tolerance. Pannaga Krishnamurthy and M.K. Matthew, from NCBS and their international colleagues* recently developed an elegant and practical technique to induce salt tolerance in rice, reported in the Journal of Experimental Botany.
Sandeep Krishna recently joined the NCBS faculty. As playful and fun to talk to as he professes to be below, he agreed without hesitation to take part in a hypothetical discussion. This is the set-up: Sandeep has just boarded a train to Chennai and, taking his seat, he finds himself next to the sharp-minded matriarch of the Bhatia dynasty, Mrs Lakshmi Bhatia. She has a vast reservoir of disposable cash and is eagerly looking for worthwhile projects to finance. Let's eavesdrop on their conversation as they watch the dry and dusty southern Indian landscape roll by...
So Sandeep, please tell me about this research that you do in Bangalore.
Sandeep: Sure. I do a lot of theoretical work. I'm interested in what one could call basic science, not that I think there is a sharp line between basic and applied research. We are trying to understand phenomena at many different scales, the way that organisms function, how they are built, why they are built that way, how they manage to interact with the environment. More specifically, I focus on cells and information: how do cells get information about their environment, how do they deal with, and make decisions based on, all this information? We know that there are regulatory networks that determine these decisions, I want to understand the principles that govern the operation and evolution of those networks.
Vatsala Thirumalai, a recent addition to the NCBS faculty line-up, can barely remember a time when she wasn't fascinated by neuroscience. In the interview below she tells how she is particularly interested in how the growth of the nervous system is coupled to the overall growth of an animal. A humble person, Vatsala explains her own growth as a developmental biologist largely in terms of the wonderful mentors she has had throughout her career.
G: How did you get into science?
V: I really was interested in neuroscience from the very beginning, that's what brought me into science. The interest in neuroscience came from two or three different avenues. One was that I liked biology a lot but if you looked in high school biology textbooks, then in physiology there are lessons on how respiration works, how circulation works, how the kidney works, and all that, but when you go to the nervous system, there was nothing really given in the textbooks. They only covered that simple monosynaptic reflex arc - you hit your kneecap and your leg flies up. And then they describe the different regions of the brain, cerebrum, cerebellum, spinal cord and so on. But that was about it. They never told you what was really going on in these brain regions, in the type of detail you would find for, say, the circulatory system. You know: all the chambers of the heart and how the flow goes from one to the next, through the lung, the oxygenation. When I asked my teacher Ms. Getsie about it, she told me that that was because we didn't know much about how the brain works. That piqued my interest in neuroscience. And on top of that philosophically I was interested in the nature of thoughts, why do we have thoughts, and what are they made of, is there a soul etc etc., so I really wanted to follow neurobiology and be a scientist.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail to find India, but never did. Roll forward the centuries, and the suave biological pirate, Vivek Malhotra, a more successful veteran of Indo-Spanish reconnaissance, will shortly attempt landfall in Bangalore. Vivek, also professor at the Centre for Genomic Regulation, is one of a crew of 11 scientists from Barcelona, and he shares co-captaining duties with Enrique Martin-Blanc, professor at The Molecular Biology Institute of Barcelona. What draws the Indian and Spanish teams together is a commitment to fundamental biological research of the highest calibre. Over the course of two days, April 6-7, the visiting scientists will deliver lectures at NCBS and participate in discussions with their colleagues aimed at forging collaborative scientific links between the two sides. Full details and the programme can be accessed using this link.
The last NCBS photo competition was such a great success, both in terms of participation and quality, that we have decided to go for broke with a competition every month! Upi has been thinking deeply about this and has come up with some inspired ways to highlight the superior lenscraft of our campus folk -- and to reward the winners in a way we know they will appreciate. Photos that win an award will be printed up on a grand scale, and gloriously framed, all at NCBS's expense, and then granted positions of honour in the NCBS Reception area. After a month, when it comes time for the next batch of winners to take their turn in the limelight, the departing masterpieces will be gifted to their creators.
Namrata Jayanth, a PhD student in Mrinalini Puranik's lab at NCBS was recently awarded a highly competitive travel award to attend the 2011 annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Washington. Below, Namrata talks about the conference and her research.
Namrata, is this your first big international conference?
Aswin Sai Narain Seshasayee has recently returned to his favourite place in the world, south India, to take up a faculty position at NCBS. In the interview below, Aswin tells how his interests in genomics and bacteria were initiated, how his career took him from Chennai to Cambridge, and what he thinks about his current research on global regulators of transcription in the bacterium E. coli.
Hi Aswin. Could you tell us a bit about your early life and how you got into science?
I was born and brought up in Chennai. My parents moved there in the 70s, well before I was born in 1983. I went to the local school, but moved to a bigger school when I was 11. It had a more modern approach - less mugging up!
One of the leading US research centres, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, home to 15 Nobel laureates since 1987, recently announced an international early career scientist program, which will support up to 35 scientists working in selected countries outside the United States. The program will support investigators who "are, or have the potential to become, scientific leaders". India is one of the eligible countries for applicants. The International Early Career Scientist Program will select and support highly qualified scientists who are in the critical beginning stages of their independent careers. HHMI International Early Career Scientists will receive very attractive five-year grants—$US250,000 in the first year and $US100,000 for each of the following four years. While applicants will be currently working outside of the US, they must have trained in the United States at the doctoral, medical or postdoctoral level. Applications close February 23, 2011 and full information can be found at this site: http://www.hhmi.org/research/competitions
The NCBS news site has just celebrated its first year of existence, so it is time to take a closer look at what was achieved in 2010. The interest in the news site has been much greater than I would have ever expected. We have been monitoring its access using Google Analytics, which tells us that overall there were 95,007 pageviews in 2010, from 28,704 visits. The average visit lasted 3:24 minutes and perused 3.31 pages. Visitors logged in from 115 countries including such exotic locations as Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati and Côte d’Ivoire. The cities tally was even more remarkable - 1,518 - and many of the place names also tantalise as travel destinations: San Cristobal de la Laguna (Tenerife), Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine), and Steamboat Springs (USA). I see there is an obvious need to extend the evaluation of our reader base by some on-location reporting!