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Meet Dr. Lalji Singh

Meet Dr. Lalji Singh

Dr. Lalji Singh and his colleagues working with an Indian python. Dr. Singh suggests that while such research may involve the capture of some endangered species, the techniques used are far less invasive than most accepted conservation programmes. Photo Courtesy: CCMB.

A scientist and wildlife visionary, Dr. Lalji Singh was born in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh in 1947. He graduated from the Banaras Hindu University, from where he moved to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied animal genetics for 13 years. He is currently the Director of one of India’s premier research institutions, the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB). He speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about the science of wildlife conservation and how the study of genetics can help endangered species.

Can science help reduce human-animal conflicts?

Science cannot, but the application of science could, if field managers and scientists worked together and understood and respected each other’s capabilities and limitations. Today, scores of innocent tigers, leopards and other wild animals are either killed or trapped on the vaguest suspicion that they may have been responsible for attacks on humans. The DNA fingerprinting technology protocols we have developed at CCMB can provide definitive results to pinpoint ‘culprit’ animals and clear innocents of false charges.

Can you explain very simply how this works?

Using DNA analysis tools. If we are given an uncontaminated drop of blood, saliva, semen, or a body part including bones, tissue, skull, teeth, hair (with follicle), we can positively identify not just the species, but the individual animal through its molecular structure.

So if I gave you a tiger dropping and said it was collected in Sariska, when in fact I took it from Periyar, you could nail my lie?

Why Periyar? If I had samples to compare the tiger scat you gave me, I could even tell you whether it was the resident male from Pandupole, or a female in Kankwadi. But Sariska is a bad example. Where are the tigers for us to study there now?

Some say you could keep a frozen zoo in your lab and resurrect animals decades, even centuries later.

Technically, yes. We have had this capability for a very long time. But, as you have yourself pointed out, wildlife conservation involves more than mere laboratory work. Every species’ unique relationship with its ecosystem has resulted in the genetic diversity we see around us. No one knows better than a molecular biologist or a geneticist just how important it is to protect ecosystems as a way to ensure genetic variability and vibrancy.

So what role will the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) play in wildlife conservation?

It’s a project funded by the Department of Biotechnology and the Central Zoo Authority in collaboration with the CCMB, the Nehru Zoological Park and the Forest Department of Andhra Pradesh. It will set up sperm and egg banks of endangered species and carry out artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilisation and eventually cloning of such species. With the increasing islanding of species, thanks to the snapping of wildlife corridors, I have no doubt whatsoever that genes from tigers in Periyar will be used to introduce variability into the genepool of Sariska, presuming that we are successful in encouraging tigers to recolonise this unique forest at some point in the future.

This sounds almost miraculous. If what you say works out, there would be a glimmer of hope for several vital conservation problems concerning dwindling gene pools.

We at CCMB are probably engaged in one of the largest and most unique projects of its kind anywhere in the world. Humans have created huge problems and mere tokenism will not solve anything. Having said this, we at CCMB are acutely aware of the fact that we can only try to imitate nature and take inspiration from it. There is nothing that can possibly top the genetic variation formulae built into wild nature. Essentially, this suggests that our best strategy will always be to keep ecosystems intact, with all their incredibly diverse components. This has been nature’s success story from day one.

A buccal swab is collected from an Onge tribal for genetic studies. Photo Courtesy: CCMB.

Where did this fascination you have for ‘the origins’ come from?

I think I was born with a curious mind that simply would not rest till I found the answers to questions that kept cropping up in my head. When I won the Young Scientist Medal in 1974, it spurred me on to greater things. Since then I have discovered that the deeper I enter the world of genetics, the more corridors I find to explore. Each such unmapped corridor then becomes a ‘discovery’. Sometimes even an earth-shaking one.

Such as?

Such as the answer to the question: “Where did the ‘Negrito’ races on the Andamans and the ‘Mongoloid’ races in the Nicobar Islands originate?” To answer that one, we had to analyse the complete mitochondrial DNA – [mtDNA] 16,569 base pairs – of five Onge, five Great Andamanese and five Nicobarese individuals. From here on it can get complicated, but trust me our findings are opening a window into the past to show how we (humans) were a hundred thousand years ago when the first ‘modern’ humans left Africa. The key was to study genetic mutations, which must inevitably differ in populations that split and were then isolated, such as the A&N islanders we studied (K. Thangaraj et al., Science 308, 1034 [2005]). Since mtDNA is only inherited through the mother, it is invaluable in tracing maternal lineages. We found that the mtDNA sequences of the Onge and Great Andamanese do not match that of any of the over 6,500 samples we covered in mainland India. The Onge and the Great Andamanese are placed in two unique branches (M31 and M32) in the human evolutionary tree. There is startling evidence indicating that India could very well have been the first step in the long march from Africa. And that this journey happened through sea some 65,000 – 70,000 years ago. I told you this was complicated!

What about the Nicobarese?

Their lineages (B and F) are common to China, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, which suggests they arrived more ‘recently’ from the East, possibly within a span of 18,000 years.

Fascinating. Can we shift stride? How is your work specifically going to help us protect our wildlife?

India is faced with two clear problems: 1) poaching by traders for economic gains, and 2) inbreeding that could lead to extinction. Both problems are equally serious, but perhaps in our effort to solve the most obvious one, we may be losing sight of the fact that ‘extinction is forever’ – we could face a genetic wipe out. It is high time that India took a look at alternative strategies and action plans.

Could you elucidate please?

India is a mega-biodiversity country. But this wealth is threatened because of ecosystem loss. The consequences are almost too great to contemplate. Every government in power is going to be pressured to hand over more and more forest area for cultivation, or sacrifice more ecosystems for short-term economic gains. And in the battle between humans and wildlife, nature is a foregone loser. We must seek to slow down this process, reduce fragmentation of wild habitats, particularly to save megafauna like tigers, lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos, plus the vast areas needed to keep their genetic stock vibrant and viable.

And if we cannot prevent fragmentation?

Then be prepared to lose large numbers of animals at the hands of in-breeding, which will lead to a fall in genetic diversity, sterility and… extinction.

Which is where LaCONES comes in?

Yes. Together with all the other conservation options I have already outlined. Specifically, on a red-alert basis, we have suggested a series of steps to the Government of India that include the establishment of facilities to monitor genetic variation using DNA fingerprinting, build gene banks and conduct semen analysis for the selective breeding of endangered species.

Would this involve invasive techniques?

By invasive if you mean will we have to go into wild habitats and capture some endangered species, yes. But in truth our techniques are far less invasive than most accepted conservation programmes, such as radio collaring and monitoring animals over extended periods.

It is vital that we reduce fragmentation of wild habitats if we are to save megafauna such as tigers, lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos and also the vast areas that are required to keep their genetic stock vibrant and viable. Photo: Joydip Kundu.

And what happens when you capture the animal?

We examine it to determine, for instance, the time of ovulation for successful intra-uterine insemination, then we may artificially inseminate some individuals (after standardising procedures for wild species) and may further perform in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfers for suitable candidates, involving the fusion of spermatozoon with oocyte in vitro and subsequently the safe transfer of the resulting embryo to a true or surrogate mother.

Which endangered Indian animal would you say exemplifies the conservation potential of work you have already done?

I think the best example I can give is the work we have done on genetic variation in Asiatic lions and Indian tigers. We have always presumed that Asiatic lions and tigers in India are highly inbred and exhibit very low levels of genetic variation. CCMB’s analysis suggests that these animals actually show a much higher degree of polymorphism than earlier reported. Apart from being able to identify pure Asiatic lions and Bengal tigers from hybrids we discovered (from 50-125 year-old skin samples in museums) that the genetic variability then was comparable to present day populations. In other words, low genetic variability could be the characteristic feature of these species and not the result of intensive inbreeding. DNA fingerprinting studies of Asiatic lions and tigers helps us to identify individuals with high genetic variability to be used in future for conservation-breeding programmes.

All this sounds very real, but few people really understand your work and controversy seems to dog scientists working at the genetic level, particularly when it comes to its commercial use such as for genetically-engineered foods.

If scientists stayed away from work that flirted with controversy, we would be clerks, not researchers. It stands to reason that when I explore unexplored areas someone or the other is going to feel insecure. We all fear and distrust the unknown. Having said that, I would like to acknowledge that science is often misused, but that must never put a brake on learning for the sake of learning. At the risk of adding to controversies, let me tell you that my work also deals with the molecular basis of sex determination! I isolated the sex chromosome-specific satellite DNA, (Bkm) from a female banded krait and took the first step in a long journey towards understanding the molecular basis of sex-determination, one of the most important unsolved enigmas in modern biology. Now if some quack somewhere uses my knowledge to perform female infanticide, jail him; but please don’t stop me in my quest for answers.

Is Dr. Lalji Singh a pessimist, or an optimist?

An eternal optimist. But I should qualify my statement. My loyalty is not confined to Homo sapiens. I am loyal to all life forms. To that extent, despite the ecological carnage we create, I know that life will find a way to survive. Then, long after we have passed, life will thrive again in ways we never imagined.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXV No. 4, August 2005.

 
 
 

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