Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Richard J. Roberts deconstruct the unseen world of bacteria

Students, scientists and members of the public thronged Indian Institute of Science's (IISc) Tata Auditorium on Monday to hear Nobel laureates Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Richard J. Roberts deconstructing the fascinating workings of that invisible, yet ubiquitous life form: bacteria.

Are the days of incurable diseases really over? Not quite, when diseases such as tuberculosis are seeing a resurgence, said biologist Ramakrishnan, Joint Head of the Structural Studies Division at the Medical Research Council, Cambridge.

He was delivering a lecture on ‘How antibiotics illuminate Ribosome function and vice versa.'

“The world has 100 million active cases of tuberculosis, a disease that claims two million lives every year,” he said, attributing the complexities in treating the disease to drug resistance, among other reasons.

“When a new antibiotic is introduced, you can be guaranteed that it will at some point gain drug resistance.”

Bacteria counter antibiotics through several modus operandi: by degrading or altering enzymes and by actually ejecting them out of their cells, said Professor Ramakrishan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for “studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

It was significant that it took $1 billion to develop new drugs from scratch, he said.

“As public, we need to be aware that structural biologists and pharmaceutical companies cannot alone solve the problem of drug resistance. We need infection control, measures to improve sanitary conditions and promote the rational use of antimicrobials,” he said.

“Do not, for instance, insist on an antibiotic if you catch a cold and flu.”

In his lecture “Why I love Bacteria,” Professor Roberts, who is the Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs, Massachusetts, offered a look at the unseen bugs — friendly and unfriendly — that share our body and planet.

“If we removed every bacterium from our body, we will cease to exist,” he said. “Our bodies have some 10 trillion human cells, but it has 10 times the number of bacterial cells: 100 trillion to be precise.”

Whether the “picturesque” and colourful bacteria that lived in the Yellowstone geothermal pools or the deadly Yersinia pestis (or plague bacterium) that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages, the microscopic organism just cannot be ignored, he said.

Professor Roberts received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1993.

He described as “illogical” the European fear of genetically modified products, which has stalled research in several areas, including probiotic food that could have had several benefits.

The M.J. Thirumalachar and M.J. Narasimhan Endowment Lectures were organised to honour the memory of biologist Thirumalachar, who established the Jeersannidhi-Anderson Institute at Walnut Creek, California, along with his son M.J. Narasimhan.