‘There Is No Direct Evidence of Making Humans Immortal’

Young Kashmir scientist, Dr Abdul Wajid Bhat is credited for finding the protein Kinase CK2 that regulates chromatin-modulating factors. In a conversation, he offers some ideas about how genetics is revolutionising man’s understanding of his own being

KASHMIR LIFE (KL)How widespread is the field of genetics with respect to research?

DR ABDUL WAJID BHAT (DAWB): A lot of work has been done in this field so far and much is yet to be done. If you look at the work going at CIRI, you might think that every laboratory is working on the same subject. But the fact is things are quite different. There is a lot of diversity in the field of genetics. Everyone is aware of the fact that DNA stores genetic information, but how this information is decoded is basically our area of research interest. If we look at our body, all the cells possess the same DNA but they look and work differently – lung cell, liver cells and neurons from the same individual contains the same genetic information, but they are regulated differently in a controlled manner, which leads to different phenotype and helps to determine which function of a cell.

KLWhat has been your story of knowledge, a long journey from school to CIRI?

DAWB: I started schooling in my hometown, Tral and for my bachelor’s, I went to Amar Singh College, Srinagar. Thereafter, I joined the University of Kashmir’s Department of Biochemistry for my master’s course. Subsequent to my post-graduation, I worked as a junior research fellow in one of the most prestigious institutes in India, the IISc Bangalore. Then I joined Laval University, Canada to pursue my PhD. To continue my research work I joined as a postdoc at Cancer Research Centre at the same university. Eventually, in my third year of postdoc, I got selected for one of the prestigious research programmes as a Ramanujan Fellow at the University of Kashmir.

KLWhat was your research at PhD level all about?

 DAWB: I precisely focussed on how the large stretches of DNA within the nucleus are organised in the form of chromatin and how this organization is important for the tight regulation of gene expression.

KL: What were the key takeaways from your PhD?

DAWB: The process of DNA transcription includes various steps including initiations, elongation and termination. Earlier, the initiation step was considered a rate-limiting step for the regulation of transcription. Later it was discovered that transcription elongation is also critical for the tight regulation of gene expression. We studied various factors that have been found to be associated with transcription, elongation machinery and consequently regulates gene expression, any perturbation of such processes has detrimental consequences on the cell.

KLWhat was the status of this research field at the time you were busy with your PhD?

DAWB: Back then, this field of research was at its peak. By the time I started my journey as a PhD student, the focus had already shifted to the transcription elongation step and a number of laboratories around the world were working and discovering proteins involved in the regulation of transcription.

KLWhat was the main takeaway of your post-doctoral research?

DAWB: We focussed on how the integrity of chromatin is maintained during gene expression.

Dr Abdul Wajid, a molecular geneticist, at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation (CIRI) at the University of Kashmir. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

KLFor a very long time, CRISPR Cas technology has been dominating genetics research. Has there been any other equally important discovery?

DAWB: I believe that CRISPR Cas technology is a revolutionary technique, still unchallenged and will continue dominating the scene for a long time. With this technology, the genome of the living organism can be edited. This genome editing technology has extraordinary advantages in various fields. In the coming years, we expect to use this technology to potentially prevent or cure a genetic disease.

KLA lot many people are investing in research with the objective to live forever. Can helping make humans immortal?

DAWB: With the help of genetics, the longevity of human age is possible as it has been reported that human life expectancy can be prolonged by lifestyle changes and by introducing variations in genes that are associated with ageing. However, there is no direct evidence of making humans immortal.

KLWhat is the subject and the current status of your research work at CIRI?

DAWB: I started working at CIRI in my field of expertise – the decoding and expression of the information stored within the DNA. The DNA in a cell is organized in the form of a nucleo-protein complex called chromatin, which is a highly complex structure. The protein associated with chromatin helps in the compaction of DNA within the cell and eventually protects the DNA from damage and regulates its expression. During gene expression, the chromatin structure is loosened and transcription machinery gains access to genomic DNA and ultimately transcription is promoted. When the transcription step is terminated, it is very important for the cell to restore the chromatin structure to its original form. If chromatin fails to get re-established, it leads to many harmful consequences on cells. So, our area of research is to understand the mechanism of chromatin dynamics.

KLAll your scholars are working on the same subject?

DAWB: I discussed earlier that various factors are associated with chromatin dynamics during transcription elongation. One such important factor involved in the regulation of chromatin structure is histone methyltransferase Set2, which is the focus of research of one of my PhD scholars. Another scholar is working on ATP-dependent chromatin re-modeller and another is working on Protein Kinase CK2 whose direct role in chromatin dynamics formed part of my PhD thesis. At that time various proteins were extensively studied, which are associated with chromatin refolding. However, the mechanism regulating the function of these factors was not known. I, for the first time, found that the protein Kinase CK2 regulates these chromatin-modulating factors.

KL: Do you have the same laboratory infrastructure that you had when you were in Canada?

 DAWB: Initially, it was quite a struggle to work with limited resources and infrastructure but for the past three years we have seen a huge improvement. We hope that it could get better in the coming years which will speed up our work and increase our productivity.

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