Born at the cusp of the country’s independence in a family of modest means in Kalwari village in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, Lalji Singh became synonymous with the term, “DNA fingerprinting”, to a generation of Indians. Lalji (as he was called) and the CCMB (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology) became household names when DNA fingerprinting was used to identify victims and nail the accused in the assassination case of the late prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, as well as the gruesome Naina Sahni murder case in the 1990s. Today DNA evidence is admissible in courts and is used routinely in cases such as the Dadri lynching case or the paternity suit involving N D Tiwari.
Lalji earned a PhD from the Banaras Hindu University in 1971, studying the chromosomal differences between male and female snakes. He went on to identify a region of DNA that has repetitive sequences of GATA, the alphabets that make up DNA. This region, coined the Banded Krait minor (Bkm), was found to be present in almost all species Lajlji could test. The region had the ability to differentiate between species and even individuals of the same species. This meant that by using the Bkm region in the DNA one could distinguish between individuals and find similarities between parents and their children. Read: Father of DNA fingerprinting Dr Lalji Singh in India dies at 70
For Lalji, DNA fingerprinting was not just a technique but a lifelong passion. When the use of DNA fingerprinting was not yet an established method in legal cases, Lalji faced stiff resistance. He campaigned incessantly for the use of modern scientific methods, appeared regularly in courts and testified not just on the case in question but also for the need and importance of using DNA fingerprinting. His efforts paid off.
Recognising the growing need for expertise in genetic diagnostics and identification, in 1995, the Department of Biotechnology established the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) in Hyderabad under the leadership of Lalji. He became the director of CCMB in 1998 when the world was entering the era of genomics (the study of the complete DNA content of a cell). He introduced state-of-the-art technologies and instruments in the institute. Lalji brought with him his unique style of leadership. He put in more than 100 per cent effort in all his endeavours and expected the same of everyone. He ran the institute like a tight ship and pushed its scientists to strive for their best.
Lalji continued his interest in using DNA fingerprinting to find differences and similarities between species using the Bkm DNA. He spearheaded an effort to bring modern genetic tools to improve conservation of endangered species and prevent illegal trading in wildlife products. This led to the establishment of the only dedicated Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) in the country. The Hyderabad-based laboratory is doing path-breaking work in the field of wildlife forensics and conservation of important wildlife species.
Lalji’s tireless efforts in the field of genetics and genomics was recognised by the Government of India, when he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2004. During his final years at the CCMB, Lalji initiated genomic studies to understand the complex origins of population groups in India. These studies revealed the genetic footprints of early human migration from Africa to Asia and onwards. Lalji’s journey came full circle as he moved back to Banaras Hindu University as the vice-chancellor in 2009. During his stint at BHU, Lalji started a Masters course in forensic science.
After his tenure ended, Lalji headed back to Hyderabad to continue his efforts at bringing science to the public through his Genome Foundation. But as if to say goodbye to the city that taught him his trade, Lalji went back to Varanasi. He was in the city in his final hour.
In his passing away, we have lost an eminent scientist, an able administrator and an institution builder, who encouraged and inspired all around him to excel. We had the privilege of being associated with him and can say his legacy in areas of biology, forensics, law and conservation will live on. Lalji left DNA fingerprints wherever he went.