Remembering Lalji Singh—Father of DNA Fingerprinting in India
Born in Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, trained in UK in DNA fingerprinting, Prof Lalji Singh, did groundbreaking work in Hyderabad, to etch his name in Science forever with his contributions.
The no-nonsense administrator, pioneering researcher and scientist, who would have entered 75 on July 5, brought DNA fingerprinting to the limelight, both in research and applications in a span of 25 years. Rightly so Lalji Singh, who passed away in 2017, is referred to as the ‘Father of DNA Fingerprinting’, in India.
Dr Lalji Singh arrived in Hyderabad in 1987 on the invitation of then Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Dr P M Bhargava. He left a promising career in the UK, where he worked with Dr Alec Jeffreys, the pioneer in DNA fingerprinting technology.
Incidentally, 1987 was also the year that the CCMB was formally inaugurated as a new national laboratory by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at a grand function attended by several Nobel laureates, including Dr Francis Crick, who with Fr James Watson decoded the ‘Double Helix structure of the Human DNA (Deoxyribonucleac acid).
The then 40 year old Lalji Singh, who was born on July 5, 1947 at the cusp of India’s Independence into a modest family in Kalwari village in UP’s Jaunpur district, immediately set about establishing a modern DNA lab and building a team. His indigenous probe, derived from the snake venom was waiting to be put into use in research and application.
Rajiv Gandhi assassination & DNA
Lalji, CCMB and Hyderabad soon became popular for ‘ DNA fingerprinting’, as the technique cracked high profile cases from Rajiv Gandhi assassination to the infamous ‘Thandoor Case’ or murder of Naina Sahni in New Delhi in the 1990s to the very recent paternity case involving N D Tiwari, then Governor of AP and former Union Minister.
With the full backing of Dr Bhargava, Dr Lalji, Dr KV Rao, Dr Thangaraj and their team started using the technique in settling paternity cases, crime and research into conservation of animals to utilisation in agriculture.
To the credit of Dr Lalji, he personally appeared in courts to explain the evidence derived and the importance of DNA fingerprinting to the judges in scores of cases for several years. I recall he narrating how in paternity disputes, sometimes when he went to court to present evidence, the men disputing the case would confess without much argument too. In some cases, the request for a DNA sample was enough to put the fear, Dr Lalji would tell me.
That the DNA evidence is admissible in courts and is used routinely today right from the blast case that killed Prakash Singh Badal to the Dadri lynching to ND Tiwari’s paternity dispute is a testimony to his tireless efforts spanning hours of explanations over years in the lowest to the highest courts in the country.