“[He] was the original nucleating force that attracted and initiated several influential Indian biologists”

Distinguished scientist Obaid Siddiqi, who passed away in Bangalore on Friday, did much to establish molecular biology and neurogenetics research in India.

“ There are a daring few who define new intellectual quests, and whose courage and leadership create a culture ... today, we celebrate Obaid Siddiqi whose foresight, determination and quiet courage has transformed research in molecular biology in India at least twice and whose scientific successes span many fields of biology,” observed K. VijayRaghavan, who was the director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) at Bangalore that Prof. Siddiqi founded.

Prof. Siddiqi was born in Uttar Pradesh in 1932. He studied plant embryology at the Aligarh Muslim University and then worked on wheat genetics at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi. He switched to microbial genetics and took his PhD from the University of Glasgow under the supervision of Guido Pontecorvo. He carried out postdoctoral research with Alan Garen at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and University of Pennsylvania. This seminal work led to the discovery of stop codons in the genetic code and how protein synthesis is halted.

In 1962, at the invitation of Homi Bhabha he set up the Molecular Biology Unit at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai.

In the early 1970s, Prof. Siddiqi began to study the genetic basis of behaviour using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as model. Working with Seymour Benzer at Caltech, he discovered a set of temperature sensitive paralytic mutants that exhibited defects in the electrical activity of nerves and muscles. This discovery led to a deeper understanding of the mechanistic basis of neuronal function.Over the next decade, Prof. Siddiqi and his students at TIFR carried out pioneering work on the genetic basis of taste and smell in the fruit fly. These discoveries paved the way for the modern understanding of how senses such as taste and smell are detected and encoded in the brain. He was active in this area of research till the end of his life.

Prof. Siddiqi established NCBS as an autonomous unit of TIFR in the early 1990s and was its director till February 1997. As a National Research Professor, he maintained an active laboratory there till the very end.

“Obaid was the original nucleating force that attracted and initiated several influential Indian biologists, and thereby played a major role in the development of modern biology in India,” commented K.S. Krishnan of NCBS and others in an editorial of a special issue of the Journal of Neurogenetics brought out last year to mark Prof. Siddiqi’s 80th birthday. “His easy recognition of excellence and generous support of young scientists of potential are legendary,” they went on to say.

Prof. Siddiqi’s contributions have been widely recognised within the country and abroad. He was an elected member of the Royal Society in London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, The World Academy of Sciences at Trieste, the Indian Academy of Sciences in Bangalore, National Academy of Sciences (India) at Allahabad and Maharashtra Academy of Sciences.

He has been honoured with the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, Bhatnagar Prize and many other awards.

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