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An insight into IISc’s past: making the impossible possible

In the first couple of decades after independence, India was an under developed country leading a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, by importing food from the U.S. under the somewhat unpalatable PL480 scheme. The situation was not very different when I came back to India in 1971” said Prof M Vijayan, an INSA Albert Einstein Research Professor at the Molecular Biophysics Unit, Indian Institute of Science.

Prof Vijayan has been examining the structure of molecules that are found in living systems all his life. After playing a role in deciphering the structure of insulin at Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hodgkin’s lab at Oxford, Prof Vijayan was “the first trained protein crystallographer to return to India, to the Indian Institute of Science”, as he writes in a conference paper in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.

People who went abroad at that time reacted differently to the contrast between India and other countries, which was pronounced at that time”, said Prof Vijayan. “Some of us came back. Science was a great motivation, but India was equally a great motivation.”

Crystallography is the examination of the inner structure of materials and molecules. The most preferred tool to examine the structure of large biological molecules involves firing X-rays at crystals of the molecule and studying how the rays get scattered, by examining the diffraction pattern. When Prof Vijayan returned to India, he wanted to initiate studies on “macromolecular crystallography”.

The technique began to take the scientific world by storm in the 1960s and1970s; but, it was expensive and there was not enough funding in India to devote to it at that time. “For me, it was a conscious decision to come back and establish this branch of science in India,” said Prof Vijayan.

So, Prof Vijayan diverted his attention to another, equally fascinating field: the study of interaction between molecules, now called “supramolecular associations”. Working along with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he was involved with research into chemical evolution and the origin of life on earth.

It was only in 1983, a full 12 years after his return to India, that Prof Vijayan could return to pursue his dream of starting off crystallography research in India. The Department of Science and Technology designated crystallography as a thrust area, and a centre was setup at IISc. The Bangalore centre was visualised as a nucleus for the development of this research area in the country.

Prof Vijayan started with plant proteins called lectins. “In 1978, I met a young Avadesha Surolia [now a faculty member at Molecular Biophysics Unit], who was interested in the functions of proteins called lectins,” said Prof Vijayan. Lectins are proteins found in plants, which can bind to carbohydrates in a very specific manner.

Starting with the structure of peanut lectin, Prof Surolia and Prof Vijayan started examining the hitherto under explored research area. The rich diversity of crops in India provided them with more than enough research material.

At the turn of the century, Prof Vijayan decided to take up a research topic of extreme relevance to India and the world at large: an investigation of the proteins in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes the disease tuberculosis.

Prof Vijayan’s students are now spread in many of India’s leading institutions. He was part of the nucleus for the Molecular Biophysics Unit, a department of international standing. A fitting legacy indeed.

About Prof Vijayan: http://mbu.iisc.ernet.in/~mvlab/

Contact: 080-23600765/22932590; mv@mbu.iisc.ernet.in

This is a compilation of a conference presentation, which appeared as a paper, “Structural diversity and ligand specificity of lectins. The Bangalore effort”, published in the journal Pure and Applied Chemistry.