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A man of science

K.S. Krishnan was a biologist who played with animal poisons to treat neurological diseases.

June 21, 2014 12:15:40 am
K.S. Krishnan ( 1946-2014 ) K.S. Krishnan ( 1946-2014 )

By: K. VijayRaghavan and Satyajit Mayor

A well-known biologist, who spent his recent years studying the possible healing properties of deadly animal venoms, Professor K.S. Krishnan passed away on May 24. In his demise science has lost one of its most inspirational biologists, a friend who stimulated generations of students. Krishnan, born on June 19, 1946, was an inventor par excellence and an institution in himself. His fundamental impact was the ease with which he repeatedly linked his questions with the most innovative solutions. He joined the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai. The close connections between BARC and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research gave him an opportunity to meet legendary biologist Obaid Siddiqi, who suggested he join the Indian Institute of Science. A brief stint at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst resulted in the building of a sensitive heat-measuring instrument called a calorimeter to study membranes. A patent was filed, though Krishnan typically did not bother to get his name onto the patent. He was too smart to pursue science as a set of minor achievable goals. The exciting things he talked about were too broad to be limited to just one discipline.

Krishnan loved inventing devices and looking at molecules or animals in many ways, and he would inspire others to fill in the important details. At NCBS in Bangalore, one of us (Mayor) entered a similar transformative collaboration in studying the mechanisms of how cells take in large proteins by a process called endocytosis. This ended up charting completely new and exciting territory, offering news ways of delivering drugs to cure diseases.

Later, Krishnan met Toto Olivera, who was studying the toxins of common cone snails, and he was captivated by the potential animal venoms offered in curing debilitating neurological diseases. Krishnan realised the opportunity he had to study the field biology of cone snails sitting in the middle of peninsular India at Bangalore. Thus began his foray into field biology, chasing not only cone snails but also wasps, frogs and chameleons, looking for possible therapeutic drugs made from wasp venoms and deadly secretions released from the colourful skins of several frogs. This would become the mainstay of his research — the biology of cone shell toxins was a tour de force of modern biology he pursued from the beaches of Tamil Nadu to the lab at Bangalore.

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Krishnan’s style of getting complex tasks accomplished was stunning in its simplicity. An ability to rope in the best colleagues, with a combination of generosity and excitement, was the pivot on which everything connected for him. This is just the approach India needs today. Collaborative, grand, rooted in the local environment and yet globally of the highest class. Scientists often moan the passing of idyllic times, when science was pursued for the pure joy of it. Krishnan showed how wrong this view was. As long as one searches for and pursues good scientific questions, there is fun to be had and meaning to be found. Krishnan truly practised what he preached.

He cared nothing for awards and recognition, even though he celebrated the success of his friends. His presence in the laboratory was reassuring. His advice was deep, unselfish, impossibly complicated at times, but always extraordinarily fun. He was a man of science who loved molecules and molluscs in equal measure, researching the unexplored world of animal poisons, looking for that missing miracle cure for some of the most dreaded human diseases of the nervous system.

VijayRaghavan is secretary, Department of Biotechnology and Department of Science & Technology, Union government. Mayor is director, National Centre for Biological Science and Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Bangalore

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