Venki’s impressions of his time at IMCB
When I first came to Singapore in 1987 to pursue a PhD degree I never imagined that I would be staying here for this long. My intention was to complete the degree and move on to North America or Europe to embark on a research career. Looking back, I now realize that I have spent most part of my professional life in Singapore.
During this period, I was indeed fortunate to be part of a revolution in biomedical research in Singapore that has thrust this tiny island state into international limelight. My personal quest to understand the structure, function and origin of human genome and genomes of various other beautiful creatures actually began when I joined Sydney Brenner’s Molecular Genetics Lab in Cambridge, UK as a postdoc in 1991. At that time, Sydney was exploring the concept of using the genome sequences of fishes with compact genomes for understanding the human genome and I was part of the team that characterized and proposed the genome of the pufferfish (fugu) as a model for understanding the human genome. Subsequently I brought the fugu genome project to Singapore and demonstrated the utility of fugu in discovering gene regulatory elements in the human genome and in understanding the evolution of human and other vertebrate genomes. Our efforts in Singapore ultimately led to the sequencing of the whole genome of the fugu in 2002, the first vertebrate genome to be sequenced soon after completion of the human genome.
Continuing our search for more ancient vertebrates that could shed light on the origin and organization of the human genome, we identified the elephant shark as a model cartilaginous fish genome. We discovered that despite being closer to fishes, the human genome bears a higher similarity (in terms of gene arrangements and nucleotide sequences) to the elephant shark genome than to pufferfish or zebrafish genomes. Convinced of the importance of the elephant shark as a critical reference genome for understanding the origin and evolution of human and other vertebrate genomes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA has granted funds for sequencing the whole genome of the elephant shark. In the search for model vertebrates, I have had the unique opportunity of exploring the genomes of many rare and unusual genomes including that of the “living fossil”, the coelacanth. Overall, it has been an enlightening and rewarding journey, with never a dull moment. My most rewarding moments were when I could find conclusive answers to questions, even simple questions like why fugu is not poisoned by its own toxin. I would like to acknowledge that many people including Sydney, my lab members and my family members, have kept me company during this journey and have supported me in my quest. There are still many more interesting genomes to be uncovered, and so the journey goes on...