Uma Ramakrishnan does not regret trading atoms for poop. With a Bachelor of Science in physics, chemistry and mathematics, and a Masters degree in biotechnology, she could have tried her hand at astrophysics, but she couldn’t resist the lure of molecular ecology.
Fourteen years after completing her Ph.D in ecology and evolution at the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Ramakrishnan has become the first Indian to win the prestigious Parker/Gentry Award administered by The Field Museum in Chicago.
The award is given to ‘an outstanding individual, team or organisation in the field of conservation biology’. Dr. Ramakrishnan (43), who received the award on Wednesday, is an assistant professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru.
She and her team use genetic tools and genomics to learn more about the lives of animals, in this case the tiger.
“It’s like being a detective,” said the 43-year-old scientist, currently on a Fulbright Fellowship at Stanford University.
From faecal matter
And that’s where faecal matter comes to play. With faster and cheaper DNA sequencing and amplification technologies, she and her team are looking at ways to gather more information from the faecal matter of tigers.
“The genome is like a book, and holds many secrets about an individual and the species. We want to read these stories from faecal DNA, but reading the DNA from tiger faeces is similar to putting together the pieces of a now torn-up book,” said Dr. Ramakrishnan. “We are focusing on landscape genetics to infer how urban areas and different land use types like agriculture and forest affect connectivity between tiger populations.”
The DNA is used to understand the movement patterns of tigers, family ties and genetic variation. In 2009, for instance, she and her team established that for tigers, 60–70 per cent of the genetic variation in the whole species was actually within the Indian sub-continent.
India not only has 60 per cent of the world’s tiger population, but also around 60 per cent of the genetic variation.
But this genetic variation — the raw material for future evolution — is under threat. Dr. Ramakrishnan’s study suggests that with increasing urbanisation and population density, tiger populations are becoming isolated in pockets, which are not always connected to each other.
In fact, studies of fossil records by other scientists show that isolation of a species precludes its extinction. “The median size of a tiger population in a reserve in India is 19. These are tiny populations, which, without connectivity, will not be viable, and have low chances of survival,” said Dr. Ramakrishnan, adding that by sequencing faecal matter, we can get information more quickly.
She hopes that a better understanding of connectivity will promote informed development choices in India.
She and her team use genetic tools to learn more about the lives of animals, in this case tigers