Unless there’s a new university model and scientists

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Singh grew up in the remote village of Dadsara in Jammu and Kashmir’s Tral district. “Our school was 3km from the hamlet. We’d wake up at dawn and walk all the way because there were no roads. The first sign of connectivity was a road built sometime around 2000,” Singh recalls. (Interestingly enough, one of his neighbors was Muzaffar Wani, father of deceased Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.)

Earning the doctorate

Singh left Kashmir to study plant breeding and earn his doctorate from Punjab Agricultural University, one of the country’s leading agritech institutions. A stint in the International Rice Research Institute would precede his association with ICAR.

But as most scientific endeavors in India go, his journey to the IWGSC wasn’t without hiccups.

Bikram Gill, a professor in the department of plant pathology at Kansas State University, is one of the world’s foremost wheat researchers. He’s also fed up with India’s “too little, too late” approach. Nevertheless, he set out in 2002 to convince scientists and policymakers to get on board bread-wheat genome-sequencing initiatives.

“India blundered by not participating in the HGP and missed the genomic revolution boat. I’d even offered to pay for Dr. Subrahmaniam Nagarajan’s US visits, but they didn’t give him permission,” says Gill, cutting to the chase. Nagarajan, a leading wheat pathologist, was the director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at the time.

And so, for the second instance in the history of genomics research, India snoozed as a dozen countries started shaping the IWGSC. It took Gill persistent visits to prod scientists (and the politicians they answer to) to even consider the possibilities.

“Unless there’s a new university model and scientists are freed from stifling top-down diktats, competing at the world level and getting rewarded, the picture will not improve,” Gill adds. “India has talent and resources but cannot get its house in order.”

Impact of the past

As a member of this dysfunctional house, Kuldeep Singh’s chances lay in moving past inaction. He signed up for the IWGSC in 2006 as a private member and met with like-minded researchers, including two Indians involved in the rice genome project (N.K. Singh and J.P. Khurana).

Being part of global scientific collaborations not only gives access to new approaches and technologies but also offers precious time and access to studies before they come into the public domain. In the case of food security, this is time you can’t toy with. India, the world’s second-largest wheat producer, has more to lose by not sequencing parts of its genome than it would have by not sequencing tulsi (which it did).

In the end, it was the fear of losing face that convinced the government (as is often the case). In 2008, when 13 of wheat’s 21 chromosomes were claimed for study by different groups, the DBT finally relented, giving Singh and his team of 17 the go-ahead. Even then, the sanctioned funding of Rs 35 crore (~$4.9 million) took two years to come through due to red tape.

Amplification of the complexity

Given wheat’s stubbornness and complexity, each country and private group in the IWGSC took on one chromosome. France, an original member, mapped 3B, the most complicated of the lot (it alone is longer than the entire soybean genome). In 2010, five years after the formation of the consortium, India submitted a proposal to sequence chromosome 2A, the second-longest.

“I traveled to eight laboratories around the world and spent up to three weeks in each to familiarise myself with the latest technologies,” says Singh.

His team worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, over the course of eight years to conclude their findings for 2A.

“The IWGSC was formed in 2005. We joined in 2010 and achieved our goal despite not having a five-year head start. That matters,” he says.