Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, Tamilnadu, India.
Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, Tamilnadu, India.
I was always fascinated by the microscopic world that we often tend to ignore. Growing up as the son of doctors, I used to believe that microbes merely cause diseases and arrogantly used to wonder how something so small could bring down something as complex as a human. As I pursued my bachelors course in biotechnology, I was taught that these microbes, if used in the right way could promote health, produce consumables and protect us from other harmful microbes. This knowledge increased my fascination with microbiology and incited a curiosity in me to understand how these microorganisms function. After completing my bachelors, I applied for a masters course in Genomics offered by the prestigious School of Biological Sciences (SBS) at Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU). I was one among the applicants who were asked to make an interview presentation on a topic of their choice before a panel of seasoned professors as a part of the admission process. That was the year when Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of H. pylori as the etiological agent for gastric ulcers. Naturally, I chose Helicobacter pylori as my presentation topic. As I studied the molecular pathogenesis of H. pylori, I was enthralled by how this organism had evolved mechanisms to survive the hostile gastric environment, evade the human immune system and cause disease. Needless to say that my passion for the subject was obvious in my presentation and in my responses to the interview panel’s questions that I was one among the twelve chosen to pursue Genomics that year.
The SBS at MKU is any science-lover’s paradise. The School pursues research on a variety of subjects and the expertise of the faculty in these subjects was world-renowned. The masters course in Genomics not only reinforced my knowledgebase with new theoretical concepts and practical techniques, but also practically helped me zoom in to the molecular world inside the microbes that I had been fascinated with. Empowered by new perspective, I joined Prof. P. Gunasekaran’s team at the Department of Genetics, SBS, MKU in an ICAR-funded project to characterize interactions between the rice plant and its root-colonizing bacteria. Our research unearthed a molecular signaling pathway in the rice rhizosphere wherein the plant exuded quorum sensing signal mimics, which could affect bacterial populations on the root surface.
Pursuing a biological question relentlessly and finally elucidating something unknown by my research gave me a feeling of accomplishment comparable to none. At this point, I decided that I would pursue a career in academia. To this end, I joined Prof. Indranil Biswas at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, USA as a postdoctoral fellow investigating the regulation of virulence mechanisms in Streptococcus mutans. Although I had a world class research experience at KUMC, I was determined to return to India and establish myself as an independent researcher back home. The three years that I spent in Prof. Biswas’ lab helped me evolve as a researcher and guided me to my niche for independent research. My experience with S. mutans as a pathogen had taught me that much about this bacteria remains to be understood even after several decades of research. Whatever little progress we have made in preventing infections, developing diagnostics and developing new therapies owes its success to the decades of basic research conducted on this organism. Thus, I believe that fully understanding pathogenic bacteria and the cellular processes within them will help us fight them by developing antimicrobials.
Very little is known about virulence gene regulation in Klebsiella pneumoniae and yet, it is emerging fast as a serious concern due to its hypervirulent and antimicrobial-resistant nature. Therefore, I chose Klebsiella pneumoniae, which is one of the ESKAPE group of hospital-associated pathogens as my research target. Having identified my potential research area, I began researching options to get my research funded in India. Just as I was beginning to be disappointed with the limited funding available for basic research in India, I was introduced to the funding opportunities that the Wellcome Trust / DBT India Alliance provided. The entire application and interview process was very streamlined and entirely online, which was particularly useful for candidates like me, who applied from abroad. Now that my research is funded, my lab at Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore in collaboration with scientists at Christian Medical College, Vellore and Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai will develop new knowledge in the field. I am very confident that this knowledge will fuel the development of new and reliable therapeutic options for drug resistant bacteria in the not so distant future.