The daily news about fatalities from the Corona Virus hides an equally grim annual statistic – over 60000 deaths every year due to venomous snakebites in India ! As we learn to co-exist with venomous reptiles which are considered protected species, there is a dire need to understand various aspects of their ecology and environment that shape their venom composition, and develop effective treatment therapies.
Kartik Sunagar, our next pathbreaker, an Assistant Professor and Evolutionary Biologist at the Evolutionary Venomics Lab, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), investigates various fascinating aspects of snakes (and other venomous organisms) and their venoms to understand how venom proteins originate from completely non-toxic body proteins and evolve, in an effort to develop effective antivenom to treat snakebites.
Kartik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about frequently traveling to all parts of the country, spending a lot of time in remote locations and collecting venoms from snakes and other critters from the wild for conducting research.
For students, don’t just be content with seeing reptiles on TV shows, instead study them in the lab to come up with biological solutions to save human life.
Kartik, tell us about your background?
I was born and brought up in Dharwad, Karnataka. My parents are artists: they paint and sculpt. My mother is a retired Professor at the School of Arts in Dharwad, and my father, my biggest inspiration, retired as the headmaster of a primary school. As my father had an extensive collection of wildlife documentaries at home, I grew up watching them. I also loved going on excursions with my father from a very young age. This is how I fell in love with wildlife.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I completed my primary education in my hometown, Dharwad. I then went on to get a Bachelor’s degree (Genetics, Chemistry and Zoology) from Karnatak Science College, and a Master’s degree (Applied Genetics) from Karnatak University, Dharwad. I was extremely lucky to pursue the master’s programme here, as the University had a vast and beautiful campus. The biodiversity on the campus was astonishing and I frequently saw many rare species of birds and reptiles that one doesn’t expect to encounter within cities. While pursuing the 2nd year of my Bachelor’s degree, I became fascinated with birds and began bird watching and photography. In the next four years, I went on to record and photograph over 200 species of birds in and around the city.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
My parents have played a key role in shaping my career. My father had immense interest in astronomy and wildlife, and always nurtured my interest in science. My mother, who got her PhD at the age of 53, continues to inspire me greatly. And it is only because of my loving wife that I get to completely focus on my career and do what I love the most. I feel very fortunate to have a very supportive family.
Although I was fascinated with wildlife, I had no idea that I could make a career studying wild animals. The Internet was not that easily accessible at the time as it is today. Like everyone else, I thought I should be a doctor or an engineer if I were to have a successful career. I did not, however, work as hard as I should have in school and pre-university college, and instead preferred playing sports. Consequently, I didn’t do very well in my 12th class board exams and I could not get into a decent engineering or medical college. I was heartbroken and decided that I will study hard for a year and give the Common Entrance Test (CET) another go. I enrolled in a Bachelor’s programme in Karnatak Science College, as plan B. It only took me a class to realise how fascinating the field of molecular genetics is. For the first time, I realised how the startling diversity in nature is shaped by a complex interaction between our genes and the forces of natural selection. It took me exactly one class to realise that I wanted to become a molecular geneticist.
While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in genetics, I continued watching wildlife documentaries and shows on the television. I loved programs on reptiles, especially those that featured Sir David Attenborough and Romulus Whitaker – the Snakeman of India. I vividly remember watching an eyelash pit viper, an extremely beautiful snake from South America, catching equally beautiful and swift hummingbird mid-air! This is when I fell in love with snakes and their venoms. I read blogs and research papers on snake venoms, especially by Dr Bryan Fry, a.k.a the venom doc. By this time, I had made my mind that I will pursue a PhD on snake venoms and understand how these complex proteinaceous cocktails originate and diversify over the large evolutionary time. When I look back, I feel very fortunate that my PhD thesis, with the title “Molecular evolution of Animal Venom”, was exactly that. I not only got to work on snakes but various organisms across the animal kingdom, including spiders, scorpions, centipedes, vampire bats, octopuses, cuttlefish, squids, and venomous lizards. I feel privileged that I ended up collaborating with Romulus Whitaker and Bryan Fry – my childhood heroes, on many fascinating research projects.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path and the challenges you faced.
The transition into this new field was not easy. While I was in the final year of my master’s degree, I wrote to Dr Ullas Karanth, a renowned conservation biologist who has dedicated his life to studying tigers in India and expressed my deep interest to make a career in wildlife biology. Dr Karanth very kindly encouraged me to pursue my passion and advised me to write to Dr Uma Ramakrishnan, an incredible molecular geneticist who primarily studies big cats (tigers and leopards). This field relies on genetics to investigate various fascinating aspects of a species, from their evolutionary history to population health. My internship in Dr Ramakrishnan’s lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) laid the foundations of my career in wildlife science. I not only received training in various scientific processes that tremendously helped me later but also got to work on the population genetics of one of the big cats, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus). I got to work on two things that I loved the most: genetics and wild animals! Only after working here for a year and a half, I realised that there are many avenues in India to pursue a career in ecology, evolution and/or wildlife sciences. It is here that I learnt about the amazing Masters and PhD programmes offered by NCBS, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun (WII) and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore (IISc) – the institute I am based at today.
Although I was captivated with my research on leopards, I could not let go of my fascination for snake venoms. Unfortunately, no one in the country at that time worked on the evolutionary aspects of venoms. While searching for opportunities, I came across an advertisement for a PhD program on cyanobacterial toxins at the University of Porto in Portugal. I got in touch with Dr Agostinho Antunes, who had put out this advertisement, and persuaded him to allow me to work on animal venoms instead. I then wrote a grant proposal with Dr Antunes and succeeded in securing a PhD fellowship from the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) – Portugal’s premier scientific funding body. Finally, not only did I have an opportunity to work on snake venoms but on the venoms of any animal that I wanted! This enabled me to pursue a PhD degree by research at the University of Porto, and I managed to investigate the venoms of a diversity of animals across the globe. Moreover, I got to collaborate with the Venom Doc on the majority of these projects! After completing my PhD, I secured several postdoctoral research fellowships, including the prestigious Discovery Early Career Researcher Award from the Australian Research Council and Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. The latter enabled me to work as a Guest Scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, along with my mentor, Prof. Yehu Moran. Prof Moran and I manipulated the genomes of sea anemones to generate genetically modified animals that produced fluorescent (or glowing) proteins in their stinging cells (see sections below to find out why). Cnidarians, such as sea anemone, hydra, corals and jellyfish use these unique cells for injecting venom into their prey and predators.
How did you get your first break?
I always wanted to return to India and investigate the mind-boggling diversity of wildlife we have in the country. To return to India and begin my scientific career here, I was fortunate to receive prestigious fellowships from the Government of India, including the Ramanujan Fellowship (Science and Engineering Research Board) and the INSPIRE Faculty Award (Department of Science and Technology).
What were the challenges you faced? how did you address them?
Although I was captivated with my research on leopards, I could not let go of my fascination for snake venoms. Unfortunately, no one in the country at that time worked on the evolutionary aspects of venoms.
Where do you work now?
I returned to India in the latter half of 2017 to take up the job as an Assistant Professor at IISc, Bangalore. It is here that I established the Evolutionary Venomics Lab (www.venomisclab.com), India’s first research lab that focuses on ecological and evolutionary aspects of animal venoms. Interestingly, while I was interning in NCBS nearly 10 years ago, my friends and I frequently visited IISc. I have always been astounded by the beautiful campus and the awe-inspiring departments of IISc, which is amongst India’s premier research institutes. Never in my wildest imaginations did I ever think that I would have my research lab in this institute someday! Hence, receiving an offer letter from IISc has been the cherry on the cake!
What problems do you solve?
My students and I investigate various fascinating aspects of venomous animals and their venoms. We not only work on snakes but also other venomous creatures, including centipedes, cone snails, scorpions, spiders, lampreys, and venomous mammals. We strive to understand how venom proteins originate from completely non-toxic body proteins (many of which are also found in you and me!), diversify and attain remarkably potent effects. Consider, for example, the Sind Krait (Bungarus sindanus), which we recently identified as the most toxic snake in India (read the full paper here). Only 0.02 part of a milligram of this snake venom is enough to kill a large number of mice! We also investigate how various aspects of ecology and environment shape venom compositions. We do this by embarking on expeditions to various parts of the country, including the pristine and unexplored forests in the Western Ghats, Northeast India, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the deserts of Rajasthan, the Deccan Plateau in central India and the Gangetic Plains in the North. Along with our wonderful colleagues Gerard Martin (The Gerry Martin Project), Romulus Whitaker (MCBT), Ajay Kartik (also MCBT) and Ashok Captain, we collect venoms from wild-caught animals under investigation. The collected venoms are then transported back to the lab at subzero temperatures and subjected to rigorous assessment using various state-of-the-art techniques in biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics.
In addition to the above, my lab endeavours to develop highly efficient strategies for treating snakebites. India is the world’s major snakebite hotspot. More people die in India from snakebites than anywhere else around the globe. Over 60,000 people die from snakebite and approximately three times that number suffer amputations every single year! Since the majority of victims are the primary breadwinners of their families, snakebite affects the lives of many more people than what statistics inform us (read more on this in an article that I wrote for IISc’s Connect). Using advanced technologies in genetics and immunology, my lab is striving to develop next generation of snakebite therapies in the country.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
To address the scientific questions mentioned above, we employ techniques from various fields of science, including bioinformatics/computational biology, biochemistry, proteomics, transcriptomics, genomics, molecular biology and genetics. As our research primarily focuses on snakes and other venomous organisms, understanding their biology, behaviour and taxonomy is also very crucial. Over the years, I have realised that when you establish a solid foundation in the basics of a field that interests you, with enough practice and hard work, it is not very difficult to learn things on your own. While I picked up basic skills in molecular biology through the internship I did in NCBS many years ago, I self-taught necessary aspects of bioinformatics and computational biology. Similarly, by reading scientific publications, blogs and manuals on the internet, I learnt how to analyze transcriptomes (sequencing and characterising a collection of mRNAs or transcripts that are produced by a cell or tissue) and genomes (the genetic material of an organism) while pursuing postdoctoral research. When I was in college, I even learnt how to handle snakes on my own (do not try this; see the note below). I did this by watching documentaries, extensively reading books on Indian snakes (Snakes of India by Ashok Captain and Romulus Whitaker is my all-time favourite) and observing snakes and their behaviour in the wild for many years.
Note: I strongly advise against handling snakes. Make no mistake, handling snakes (or any other venomous organism) is extremely risky and can maim/kill you! Even when you think you know what you are doing, these are wild animals and no one can predict what they would do next when being handled. This is exactly why I don’t let my students handle snakes either. Of course, like any wild animal, they never go out of their way to harm anyone. When you see them in the wild, respect them and give them their space (and do not harass or bother them). They will always prefer to slither away as they know it would be a huge waste of energy to unnecessarily bite and envenom humans (it takes a lot of energy to produce venom). Hence, do not try handling venomous animals under any circumstance! You should also note that these animals are protected by law. Handling, killing or harassing them is punishable by law. We take all necessary permissions from the State Forest Departments before conducting our work on these wild animals.
What’s a typical day like?
To collect venoms of snakes and other animals we work on, we frequently travel to all parts of the country. We spend a lot of time in remote locations and often work with the State Forest Departments to collect venom samples necessary for our research. After completing these sampling trips, my students and I conduct experimental work on the collected venom samples. We spend a considerable amount of time planning and discussing concepts and experiments. Some of my students conduct bioinformatic analyses where they run simulations on the computer to understand how venom changes across the large evolutionary time, and how it is shaped by natural selection and various molecular and genetic mechanisms. Upon completing a research project, we draft and publish our findings in scientific journals that are reviewed by other experts in the field (see the complete list of publications from the lab here). Besides research, I also enjoy teaching courses on evolutionary biology and multi-omics technologies to bachelors, masters and PhD students. All in all, I spend the majority of my time doing what I love the most: investigate the ecology and evolution of venomous animals and their venoms!
What is it you love about this job?
First and foremost, I love the fact that I get paid to do what I enjoy doing the most. Secondly, I frequently get to travel across India and around the world. I enjoy meeting new people and experiencing their diverse cultures and cuisines. I not only travel to share our scientific findings with peers in national and international conferences but also for collecting samples of venomous animals. Spending time in pristine and unexplored regions in India and the world is probably the most exciting part of my job. Finally, I also enjoy meeting and mentoring students and early career scientists who share my excitement for nature and wildlife.
How does your work benefit the society?
Snakebites are treated using anti-snake venoms or antivenoms, which are commercially manufactured by injecting diluted sublethal and subtoxic doses of snake venoms into horses and collecting the generated antibodies. Many species of snakes cause numerous deaths and disabilities in the country, however, the Indian antivenoms are only manufactured against the so-called ‘big four’ snakes (see this article for more details). Moreover, as snakes adapt to the region they live in, their venom becomes specialised to capture their natural prey in those regions or environments. Hence, snake venoms can vary significantly between geographically distinct populations of the same species! Unfortunately, the Indian antivenoms are produced using a century-old technology that makes them ineffective in treating bites from many snake species and/or their geographically distant populations. Therefore, the long-term goal of my research is to develop novel methods of antivenom production that does not rely on horses. With the help of the recombinant DNA technology and our understanding of snake venom evolution, we hope to mass-produce highly and broadly effective antivenoms someday.
Interestingly, snakes have saved many more lives than they have taken. Snake venoms are rich in proteins with beneficial activities, such as those that prevent or speed up blood clotting or alter the blood pressure. These properties can be harnessed to design life-saving medicines for humans. Many drugs, which were derived from animal venoms, are being used for the treatment of hypertension to diabetes, and have saved millions of lives worldwide. Therefore, we are also pursuing drug discovery research on the highly neglected groups of venomous animals in India, in a hope to discover the next big antimicrobial agent or life-saving drug.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
There are many research outcomes that I find ‘memorable’. Amongst the most exciting things I have done in the past include editing the genome of sea anemones to introduce a fluorescent protein in ‘stinging cells’. This enabled me to isolate these cells and investigate their developmental and evolutionary history. I also enjoyed proposing theories to explain how venom evolves at the molecular level, and in animals across the large evolutionary time. I was also extremely intrigued when we found out that distantly related animals (e.g., insects, amphibians, mammals and reptiles), which are separated by over 400 million years of evolutionary time, became resistant to extremely deadly plant and toad poisons by adopting identical molecular solutions. More recently, discovering the most toxic snake in India, highlighting the influence of diet (i.e., prey preference) on venom potency, and unravelling the alarming inefficiency of commercial Indian antivenoms in treating bites from certain medically important snakes was enthralling too.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Figure out what interests you the most. Don’t be afraid to shift interests as life goes on, even to very unrelated things. I was fascinated with astronomy early on and wanted to study the origin of the Universe, but I ended up being a biologist! However, (ideally) try to identify a career path by the time you are done with college/pre-University life. Having access to the internet these days gives you a wealth of information on anything and everything under the sun. Hence, learning on your own can be fun and is also the best way to understand things in my opinion. It is not very difficult to find information related to any career path and make these decisions. It is also not very difficult to find experts in the field of your interest. Write to them and explore opportunities to visit their labs, institutes, or companies. Seek opportunities to work with them or briefly spend time in their organisations. Don’t run after marks and ranks but understand the concepts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; not only to others but also to yourself. Most importantly, chase your dreams!