Microbiology dept at IISc turns 75

Back in 1975 when Prof V Nagaraja, President, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCSAR) joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the field of microbiology was witnessing rapid advances.

“I joined as a PhD student and was researching on bacterial viruses. It was a time when a number of new developments were taking place and even in the department itself, various aspects were being reactivated,” said Nagaraja.

Explaining the developments in the field then, Prof Umesh Varshney, Chairman, Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology (MCB), pointed out that the discovery of the DNA structure in the 1950s led to the development of the field of molecular biology in 1960s.

"The 60s was the Golden era of molecular biology. A number of questions however remained unanswered. The 70s provided the breakthrough and it was around this time that we at IISc began research in DNA, the first in the country," Varshney said.

Started in 1941 as a Pharmacology Unit under the leadership of N N De, a physician, the MCB has come a long way and is one of the oldest microbiology departments in the country.

Remembering his days fondly at the institute, Prof Nagaraja, who now divides his time between JNCSAR and at IISc as a faculty, said: “I was a very active student leader and was also a mess president for a time. I have very good memories at the institute.”  Nagaraja was also former chairman at MCB.

In the 75 years of its existence, the department has evolved and undergone a number of changes while chipping in the study of various diseases. In 1948, it became a section in the Department of Organic Chemistry and made a number of important contributions in the field of medicine - development of medicinal chemistry, drug research and antibiotics - to name a few. Throughout the 1950s, a number projects concerning various streams such as drug resistance, chem otherapy and therapeutic potentialities of Indian medicinal plants were undertaken.

The Fermentation Technology Unit that was started in 1942 was merged with the Pharmacology section and in 1982, the Centre of Genetic Engineering (CGE) was started. 

“A conscious decision was taken to concentrate on investigations on mycobacterium tuberculosis at this time and this has been a mainstay research”, said Varshney.

Study of Hepatitis, Cancer Biology were also given great focus. Finally, in 1988, the department got its present name. Other notable alumni of the department are: Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar, an authority in the field of sociobiology and behavioural ecology and R Sukumar, Professor, IISc and an elephant expert. 

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