doi:10.1038/nindia.2017.152 Published online 11 December 2017
Lalji Singh, widely regarded as the father of DNA fingerprinting in India, and a former director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), passed away late last night (10 December, 2017) at the age of 70.
His death plunged CCMB into grief as it comes close on heels of the passing away of the centre's founder director Pushpa Mittra Bhargava in August this year.
Singh was about to catch a flight from Varanasi to Delhi when he complained of chest pain and died before he could be reached to the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) Trauma Centre.
He had retired from active professional life in 2014 after serving a successful stint as the Vice-Chancellor of the BHU. Singh was a recipient of India's civilian honour Padma Shri.
A pioneer of DNA fingerprinting in India, Singh was highly regarded for his significant contributions in the areas of molecular basis of sex determination, wildlife conservation, silkworm genome analysis, population genetics and ancient DNA studies. In a glorious 45-year-long scientific career, Singh published around 219 research papers, including a 2009 work reconstructing Indian population history that made it to the cover of Nature1.
Singh was the driving force behind the establishment of avant-garde facilities in India such as the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) for conservation of endangered wildlife in India and the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD). Known for his affable nature, ever-smiling disposition and public spirited endeavours, he also floated the not-profit Genome Foundation for diagnosis and treatment of genetic disorders especially those affecting underprivileged, rural people.
His leading-edge work in devising a probe from a highly conserved DNA sequence in a species of Indian snake — the Banded Krait Minor (Bkm) — opened up a world of possibilities in forensic investigations, paternity determination and seed stock verification. It was called the Bkm-derived probe for DNA fingerprinting.
Singh appeared in Indian courts several times to establish the veracity of this scientific technique in many high profile forensic cases. The technique has been used in more than 300 forensic investigations including that of the assassination of India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the 1995 Naina Sahni tandoor murder case and the 1996 Priyadarshini Mattoo murder case.
Singh's population genetics studies also led him to look at primitive tribes of the far flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, thereby unraveling the evolution and migration of humans from these tiny landmasses about 60,000 years ago.
1. Reich, D. et al. Reconstructing Indian population history. Nature 461, 489–494 (2009) doi: 10.1038/nature08365