Biography – G.N. Ramachandran

With today’s blog post, we are introducing a new series dedicated to bring the biographies of people who revolutionised the science and influenced a whole generation of scientists in India.

G_N_Ramachandran

G.N.Ramachandran (1922-2011) (Image Source (International Union of Crystallography)

A graduate student in Biochemistry/ Biophysics/ Molecular Biology does not need any introduction to the “Ramachandran Plot” or Map named after Gopalasamudram Narayana Iyer Ramachandran (G.N Ramachandran, 1922-2001). Ramachandran is a maverick Indian physicist born in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family in Ernakulam, Kerala. Ramachandran completed his Master (MSc) and Doctoral (DSc) studies under the guidance of the great Sir C.V Raman at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the then director of IISc and also the Head of the Department of Physics. It was C.V Raman’s  farsightedness and his interest in Ramachandran brought him to physics, as the latter initially joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at IISc. It is said that Raman wrote to the Chairman of Electrical Engineering department saying “I am admitting Ramachandran into my laboratory because he is too bright to be in your department”. Under his guidance, Ramachandran studied optical studies of the corona and studies of light scattering in periodically stratified medium. Within a week, Ramachandran solved an equation related to principles of optics and became the distinguished student of Raman’s wing.  He earned his first doctorate in 1946 at the age of 24 !.  He had one more doctoral degree (PhD) which he obtained from Cambridge University while working in prestigious Cavendish laboratory (He earned PhD degree in 2 years which is a record even in Cambridge university!).

Ramachandran returned to the Department of Physics at IISc in 1949, however it was once again C.V Raman who pushed him to the University of Madras (UoM). At age of 29, Ramachandran was appointed as a full professor and also the founding Head of the Department at UoM! Having established a new lab, Ramachandran started thinking of  the problems in Biological research and on the advice of J.D Bernal, he took up  structural studies on the collagen (Collagen is the most abundant protein in humans and animals that gives strength to skin and bones). It was the peak time in structural studies in Biology where legendary scientists like Linus Pauling (elucidated α-helix structure of proteins), Kendrew (who elucidated structures Mb by X ray crystallography, the first protein to be crystallized) and Max Perutz (who elucidated structures Hb by X ray crystallography) were extensively using X-rays for determining structures of various proteins. His good relation with Dr.Nayudamma, a research scientist in Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Chennai, helped him in getting plentiful of collagen (after all leather is made of collagen) required for crystallization and subsequent studies.

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Ramachandran demonstrating the left handedness of an alpha helix and triple helix during a seminar (Image Source (International Union of Crystallography)

In short span of 2 years, Ramachandran and his post doctoral fellow Gopinath Kartha published the work on triple helical nature of collagen in prestigious journal Nature shocking the whole scientific fraternity in the west as they have never heard of Ramachandran or such work being carried out in India which is relatively backward in advanced science at that time. Before this the two landmark discoveries in structural biology are Linus Pauling’s discovery of the single α-helix and Watson & Crick discovery of the double helix. Alexander Rich and Francis Crick were the other two along with Ramachandran independently published comparable results in the same year. To his bad luck, Ramachandran was never given the credit for his discovery as of Crick and Rich.

Psi and Phi

The torsional angles Cα⎺N bond (Φ) and the Cα⎺C bond (Ψ) of a polypeptide chain (Image Source: Voet and Voet).

Ramachandran’s work did not stop with collagen structure. The criticism he faced for proposing double hydrogen bonding between helices in Collagen (as opposed to widely accepted single hydrogen bonding) led him to discover the torsion angles or dihedral angles of the polypetide called psi (Ψ) and phi (Φ). The two-dimensional representation of the allowed ranges for the two torsion angles came to be known as the Ramachandran Map in 1963. Till today, Ramachandran map stands as the simplest way to determine a protein’s conformation (the spatial arrangement of amino acids in polypeptide chain or proteins). Soon after his retirement at UoM, Ramachandran returned to IISc and established the Molecular Biophysics Unit (MBU) in 1971, now a leading department in the world for structural studies with more than 200 PhD degrees awarded and published more than 1000 journal articles! . Ramachandran also contributed to Fourier methods and image reconstruction methods. He was also a pioneer in X-ray crytallography methods.

Map

Ramachandran plot shows the sterically allowed angles (Φ and Ψ) of a polypeptide (Image Source: Voet and Voet)

Ramachandran’s health started deteriorating after his wife Mrs.Rajyalakshmi’s unexpected death. He started showing signs of Parkinsonism and had last breathe on 7th April, 2001. The auditorium in CLRI is named as “Triple Helix” in honour of his discovery. Every year, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), Govt of India awards “G N Ramachandran Gold Medal for Excellence in Biological Sciences & Technology for outstanding research work in Biological Sciences. Ramachandran is survived by three children, all of them doctorates in science. It’s unfortunate that Ramachandran was not awarded neither Nobel (till 1964, He was nominated once for Nobel prize in Chemistry by Sir C.V Raman) nor Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India, however he remains immortal in all biochemistry books as long as it remains.

REFERENCES: 

  • Donald Voet and Zudith Voet (2012), Biochemistry, 4th edition, John Wiley Publication.
  • Raghupathy Sarma (2001). G.N. Ramachandran (1922–2001), Nature 411:544.
  • Rajinder Singh (2016). C. V. Raman nominated G. N. Ramachandran for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Current Science 111 (10): 1714.
  • D.Balasubramnian, The prize that missed the master. The Hindu
  • M. Vijayan (2016). The legacy of G. N. Ramachandran and the development of structural biology in India, Current Science 110 (4): 535-542
  • Ramachandran: A Biography of Gopalasamudram Narayana Ramachandran, the Famous Indian Biophysicist by Raghupathy Sarma (Amazon)

 

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