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Farewell to Sunil Kumar Mukherjee, scientist and plant biologist at ICGEB

Sunil Kumar Mukherjee, scientist and plant biologist, distinguished member of the Plant Molecular Biology Laboratory at ICGEB, New Delhi, passed away on 30 March 2023.

He joined the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi in 1990 where he continued his work in the field of DNA replication and RNA silencing, up to 2015. Most recently, he was an India National Academy of Sciences (INSA) Senior Scientist at the Advanced Centre of Plant Virology, Division of Plant Pathology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (ICAR-IARI).

He was an alumnus of the Calcutta University where he earned his PhD degree in 1983 on Biophysics under the supervision of Professor R.K. Poddar. Later he worked in the Biochemistry Department of the Johns Hopkins University, USA and in the Microbiology Department of Duke University, USA.

Dr. Mukherjee was fellow of all three major science academies of India (INSA, New Delhi, the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) in Bangalore, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Allahabad). He had received several awards including the Sriraman Memorial Lecture award (NASI, 2008) and the Panchanan Maheshwary Lecture award ( INSA, 2010).

At ICGEB, his work on pea chloroplast DNA replication led to the identification of replication factors that showed an interesting mix of prokaryotic and eukaryotic features. Later, his interest shifted to genome replication of geminiviruses, which are a family of plant infecting DNA viruses. He established a yeast model of geminiviral DNA replication and identified several host as well as viral factors necessary for viral DNA replication. After the discovery of RNA  mediated gene silencing he started to investigate the role of viral encoded suppressors of RNA silencing. He developed strategies to manipulate the suppressors to enhance transgene expression in plants. He also designed artificial microRNAs which could silence the critical genes of the tomato leaf curl Viruses (ToLCV) and used these to develop tomato transgenics that show extreme tolerance to the ToLCVs.

Dr. Mukherjee will be remembered for his exceptional passion for research and teaching. ICGEB, saddened by his loss, is thankful for his contribution to science and education and conveys heartfelt condolences to his family and colleagues.