Pune scientist Dr Thomas Pucadyil to receive $6,50,000 research grant  | pune news | Hindustan Times
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Pune scientist Dr Thomas Pucadyil to receive $6,50,000 research grant 

He is the only Indian among 41 scientists from 16 countries, who has been chosen as an international research scholar by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

pune Updated: Jul 14, 2017 14:29 IST
Ananya Barua
The competition chose 41 scientists from among 1,400 applicants, and are to receive a total of almost $26.7 million.
The competition chose 41 scientists from among 1,400 applicants, and are to receive a total of almost $26.7 million.(Ravindra Joshi/HT PHOTO)

For the first time, a Pune-based researcher has received a grant of $6,50,000 from an American medical research organisation for his research in cell membrane fission.

 Dr Thomas Pucadyil of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), is the only Indian among 41 scientists from 16 countries, who has been chosen as an international research scholar by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

HHMI, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, are organisations that together fund ‘exceptional early-career’ scientists globally, to enable discoveries advancing human health and enhancing the fundamental understanding of biology. 

Held in March last year, the 2017 International research scholars competition, takes place rotationally every five years. In 2012, Dr Sandhya Koushika of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, had received this grant from India. 

Open to scientists, who have held a full-time position at a research-oriented institution and have had their own laboratories for at least seven years, the competition chose 41 scientists from among 1,400 applicants, and are to receive a total of almost $26.7 million. Each researcher will be given a grant of $6,50,000 over a period of five years.

 A senior fellow in the Wellcome Trust- Department of Biotechnology and an associate professor in biology at IISER,Pune, his research is to understand how cell membranes - a protective layer, highly resilient to rupture, separating the interior of cells from outside environment- breaks away into smaller packages to transport cellular substances.This process, he added, is known as membrane fission. 

Speaking to Hindustan Times, he explained the process, “In a typical mammalian cell, all reactions inside the cell is contained within a membrane, nothing but loosely-held molecules that are stacked one against the other. This entire assembly is like five nano-meters thick, and this is what contains life, inside the cell.”  

Drawing the analogy of a balloon, he simplified the process, “Similar to a rupture in the rubber surface of a balloon, if a membrane is ruptured, it would lead to cell death, and hence, the reason why the membrane is made of a resilient lipid layer.”  

“Our research primarily tries to understand how cells make vesicles, a small structure within a cell, consisting of fluid enclosed by a lipid bi-layer, and how these vesicles. Due to it’s resilient lipid layer of membrane, takes an enormous amount of effort to bud out a vesicle. It essentially creates a whole range of proteins that come together and orchestrate this process of splitting the membrane, also known as the membrane fission,” he added.  

Therefore, observing the reactions within the cell, Dr Pucadyil's research would attempt at recreating or replicating the process artificially. “This approach is referred to as reconstitution for which we need to understand what are the proteins that come together, how they assemble to cut the membrane, or carry out the membrane fission,” he said. 

According to Dr Pucadyil, very few labs in India, are looking at this process of forming vesicles and cells and that none except them are looking at understanding membrane fission.   

For challenges, he mentioned replicating a natural process from scratch, “making the membrane tubes from the sheets by assimilating the proteins, and so on”, could be one, while time consumed in research due to lack of participating PhD graduates could be another. 

“In India primarily, your research is conducted by PhD students, who come fresh after their masters and it takes time for them to learn how to carry out research. It’s exciting, but time consuming. In the West, however, their research is carried out by post doctoral graduates, who can identify a problem and work at it, much rapidly, so the time taken in making discoveries goes down. But our process has it’s own dynamics,” Dr Pucadyil shared. 

His team for now, involves six PhD students, and the grant for it will be applicable from September 2017 and continue till 2022.