K. Vijay Raghavan (July 26, 2013)


Obaid Siddiqi, once a young star of molecular biology and later a pioneer in neurogenetics was an extraordinary intellectual and scientist. In building the Molecular Biology Unit (now the Department of Biological Sciences) and then the National Centre for Biological Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, he showed how catalyzing a culture of creativity is vital to long-term institutional success. With his death following a road accident the world of science has lost one of its most thoughtful and questioning leaders. However, his science and the schools he as built will stay and through their quality demonstrate the stay of his deep influence.


Obaid’s college days were at the Aligarh Muslim University in a period when India had just become independent and people all over the world were agitating for a just and inclusive society and for change, in much the same manner that we see today.There were many different political trends and popular movements in India and indeed all over the world. Obaid was involved in one of these and he could have very well gone into politics instead of science, but was rescued into science by Dr. Zakir Hussain, who later became the President of India. Obaid has reminisced on how much he owed Zakir Hussain for this change of course and for rescuing him from the consequences of his political passions.


Obaid finished his degree at the Aligarh Muslim University, then as now, a center of culture. He was introduced to taking up plant genetics by a colleague and started work in plant embryology and went to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa, New Delhi. There, famously, a hail storm destroyed his crop and he decided that he should get out of a hole rather than keep digging in one. He gave up his experimental-plot and hatched a new one; and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research lost a future star. Interested by the possibilities of doing genetics at a slightly faster pace than what wheat allowed, Obaid wrote to Guido Pontecorvo, Professor of Genetics at Glasgow. Pontecorvo asked him to come to Glasgow for an interview that would decide if he would be admitted to his lab or not. Reaching Glasgow in 1958, Obaid was taken to the lab to get started. Puzzled, he asked when the interview would be held. Pontecorvo replied that Obaid had passed the test by coming to Glasgow: He just wanted to see that the applicant was interested enough to come all the way from India despite the risk of being turned down. At Glasgow, as a PhD student, Obaid mapped the fine structure of the paba gene of Aspergillus by examining intragenic recombination and suggesting that this could be polarized. This work is a classic, with Obaid as the sole-author on the papers.


The world was well connected even then and of the visitors to Pontecorvo’s lab was Alan Garen who worked in Al Hershey’s lab in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 1961 Obaid moved to Garen’s lab as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, working on bacterial recombination. In elegant and brilliant experiments, Siddiqi and Garen discovered the suppressors of “nonsense” mutations. This work stimulated research on conditional mutations of bacteria and viruses and was directly important to the discovery of “nonsense” codons, the stop signals in the genetic code. At this time phage and bacterial genetics was at its zenith and the new term Molecular Biology was coined. Obaid was a regular in meetings at Cold Spring Harbor and elsewhere where the new biology was being invented. The young stars of that period, Obaid amongst them, were to become the who’s-who of molecular biology in the next decades: Obaid being a recognized comrade, brought these stars to India later on during his next avatar as an institution builder, thereby transmitting the culture of scientific excellence more effectively and linking young Indian scientists to the best the world-over.


There was a parallel trajectory happening in the world of science related to India that started a little earlier during the Second World War when Homi Bhabha, who was a physicist at Cambridge, came to Bangalore and couldn’t get back, trapped by the ongoing Second War. Bhabha became a Reader in the Institute of Science and decided to try to see whether he could establish an institute for fundamental research in India. That institute, as many of you know, is now the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Obaid, meanwhile in Pennsylvania, was looking to come back to India. At the time there was huge excitement in biology, particularly in the US. Much of that is written beautifully in Horace Freeland Judson’s book “The 8th Day of Creation” and a detailed scientific perspective in Gunther Stent’s “Phage and the Origin of Molecular Biology”. These were times where relatively ordinary people did good work but brilliant people did extraordinary work because of the interactions that they had with each other. Obaid was right in the midst of this as one of the really brilliant people participating in the phage courses and bacterial genetics courses, typically organized by people such as Max Delbruck, Jim Watson, Sydney Brenner and others. It was very unusual, while at this centre of intellectual ferment, to actually decide to return to India and start at a lab but that’s what Obaid wanted to do.


Obaid had contacts with the P.C. Mahalanobis, who started the Indian Statistical Institute and with Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, who started the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and it was a real possibility that he would come back to one or the other of those institutions.


But there was an extraterrestrial intervention, which took place with a Martian visiting Philadelphia and running into Alan Garen. Leo Szilard was the Martian. (He’s called a Martian because there were five Hungarians who changed the course of science in the US and it was so unusual that it was felt that they must have extra-terrestrial origins). Obaid met Szilard and as a result of that meeting, Szilard wrote to Homi Bhabha after talking to Alan Garen.


Szilard writes to Bhabha, “The enclosed letter of a distinguished colleague of mine, Alan Garen of the University of Pennsylvania, is self explanatory. The second enclosed letter is from Pontecorvo, a distinguished geneticist and whom you may know and relates to the same subject matter. I should be grateful to you for reading these two letters and following it up which such action, which appears appropriate in the circumstances. I regret that our paths haven’t crossed for a long time… With kindest regards.” Bhabha writes back to Obaid saying “I’ve received a letter regarding you from a friend, Szilard. I am very interested in personally supporting work in Molecular Biology… We should give you an appropriate offer of appointment either at the Tata’s Institute of fundamental research or the Atomic Energy Establishment of Bombay, the Biology division. I should be grateful if you send your CV. We usually ask for several letters of recommendation but those have already arrived so don’t bother too much about that and if you want to know anything, just let me know”. So that’s an interesting way of getting a job; the letters have come in first and all Bhabha wants is Obaid’s CV for the record because Bhabha, quite rightly, trusts the judgement of people like Szilard and Szilard trusts the judgment of people like Alan Garen and Guido Pontecorvo. But that’s not all, in Pontecorvo’s letter to Bhabha about Obaid, there is a statement about what is important for a scientist to do: “I think it would be very important for the progress of Biology in India that he should go back to a job in which his abilities would be fully expressed. In fact, I’m really baffled as to why India continues to promote mediocre scientist politicians and does nothing to maintain the really good scientists.” This prompted Bhabha to write to Prime Minster Nehru “My dear Bhai and is signed off as “Homi” saying that “I actually agree with this and we really should make sure that people who work in the lab are highly regarded and it’s not scientist politicians who are highly regarded”. Obaid came back to India with a job offer at the TIFR. Bhabha had presented his application to the TIFR faculty asking for their opinion. The view was, we are told, uniformly negative and the feeling was that there should be no biology at the Tata Institute, a place meant for the pure physics and mathematics. Bhabha responded by thanking the faculty for their view but apologetically said that he had already made Obaid an offer, from which he did not want to back off.


Obaid joined the Tata Institute in 1962 to set up the Molecular Biology Unit. Biochemists of that time did not like the term ‘Molecular Biology.’ “What other kind is there?” one, Erwin Chargaff, is famously said to have asked. Yet, using genetics to infer the molecular nature of inheritance and of cellular function was new, elegant, thrilling and informative. Its effective practitioners could be forgiven their deserved pride and self-confidence. At the Molecular Biology Unit at TIFR, Obaid established a small but strong bacterial genetics group. Their work, de-linking DNA transfer, DNA replication and recombination in bacteria, was widely recognized and is textbook material. Under Obaid’s influence Pabitra Maitra introduced yeast genetics to the Tata Institute and he and Zita Lobo become leaders in the dissection of the genetics of sugar metabolism. P. Babu was another pioneer in the genetics of the worm C. elegans and other areas also blossomed in Colaba by the sea.


Just when the ease of bacterial genetics could have become addictive, with its proponents doing more and more about less and less, Obaid worked with his friend Seymour Benzer in the 1970s to change his scientific directions again into using genetics to understand the nervous system and behaviour. Here too, Obaid struck gold with his study of temperature-sensitive paralytic mutants in Drosophila: work that has been pioneering in our understanding of how nerve signals are generated and transmitted.


Starting with his student Veronica Rodrigues in 1976 and until today in a bustling-lab, Obaid has pioneered yet again, this time studying the chemical senses of Drosophila. Obaid and his team have identified genes whose mutations block olfactory or gustatory responses. Some of these affect peripheral transduction processes, specifically the electrical activity of chemoreceptors, while others interfere with olfactory network development. While Obaid’s work has led to an improved understanding of how olfactory information is encoded in the brain of the fly, his study of chemosensory genetics has also inspired others to address this challenging field. All leaders in neuroscience today admire him for showing the way and continue to be inspired by him.


In 1984, I was standing next to the geneticist E. B. Lewis at Caltech, doing what men in a row usually do, looking blankly ahead. “Are you from India?” asked Ed. “From the Tata?” “Do you know Siddiqi?” “How does one person do such wonderful work in Aspergillus, E. coli, Drosophila Physiology and behavior, I can barely deal with one complex locus in a lifetime?” I didn’t have an answer to the last question. I had not known too many scientists then and I did not realize that Obaid was unusual. This was an eye-opener. “The Tata (as TIFR is often called outside India) is a great place”, continued Ed, “We had Babu from there and he’s pretty good, and if they’ve hired you, you should jump at it”. That chance meeting, and each of several others with the best (in other locations), showed how Obaid’s name made you good friends. Every meeting came with praise for the Molecular Biology Unit and TIFR. As students, we seemed to have taken for granted, to have the best courses conducted by the best as ‘normal’. Going out of the country we realized how privileged we were and what a wonderful culture and environment the Molecular Biology Unit (now the Department of Biological Sciences) and the Tata Institute has given us. A culture of questioning and one which defines purpose in science by the quality of the question and its answer and not by the volume of herd-opinion. That this culture has been constantly passed on and lives on at the Tata Institute today is testimony to the effectiveness of Obaid and others such as him.


With the same culture that combines ease of interaction with rigor in science, Obaid developed a vision for- and founded-the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). Along with Obaid’s 80th birthday we recently celebrated 20 years of NCBS’s formal existence. As Obaid’s vision crystallized to reality, one theme stood out at every stage: The refusal to be hurried, to compromise on quality or in our core-culture, in the interests of speed. Well-meaning bureaucrats and friends offered advice, or sometimes insisted, that something counter to Obaid’s understanding of good sense be done. Obaid would work hard to persuade them to change their view. If they did not, he would simply wait for their successor, hopefully of a different persuasion, to take office: “They will all retire,” he famously said, somehow implying that he would himself never age or ever go away.


Obaid Siddiqi had a huge list of students, collaborators and admirers all over the world. They were all his friends, to be questioned by him in his piercing crystal -clear style. His wonderful family enveloped his professional circle as their own and bear his imprint of fierce independence and gentle inclusiveness. He leaves behind his wife, the well-know historian Asiya Siddiqi and his children-Imran, Yumna, Diba and Kaleem.

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