Science & Technology - JANUARY 2021

The mixed layer of the ocean which blankets the top 20 to 200 metres is becoming thinner each year, says a new study which warns that the continued loss of this buffer may lead to more frequent and destructive warming events such as marine heat waves.

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder in the U.S. said the thickness of this top layer of the ocean is responsible for marine heat events.

The thicker this mixed layer, they said the more it can act as a buffer to shield the waters below from incoming hot air.

According to the study, published in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the scientists found that this armour is thinning, causing the oceans to become more susceptible to rapid swings in temperature.

"Marine heatwaves will be more intense and happen more often in the future," said Dillon Amaya, lead author of the study. "When the mixed layer is thin, it takes less heat to warm the ocean more," Amaya explained.

In the study, Amaya and his team used a combination of ocean observations and models to estimate the depth of the mixed layer back to 1980, and also project out into the future.

They found that over the last 40 years, the layer has thinned by nearly three metres in some regions of the North Pacific.

By 2100, they believe the mixed layer could be four metres thinner which is about 30% less than what it is today.

According to the researchers, this thin mixed layer combined with warmer global temperatures could set the stage for drastic swings in ocean temperatures, leading to much more frequent and extreme heating events.

"Think of the mixed layer as boiling a pot of water. It will take no time at all for an inch of water to come to a boil, but much longer for a pot filled to the brim to heat through," Amaya said.

They also warned that as the climate continues to warm and the mixed layer continues to thin, scientists might lose the ability to predict annual ocean surface temperatures.

Fisheries and other coastal operations could be in danger without this ability to accurately forecast ocean temperatures, the scientists warned.

Scientists have assessed a mutation in the novel coronavirus and found that it confers the virus resistance to some individual's serum antibodies, an advance which underscores the need for constant molecular surveillance of the pathogen to guide the development of vaccines.

According to the study, published in the journal Cell, variants carrying this mutation are similar to the wild-type novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China in their ability to spread and cause disease, but can bind more strongly to the human ACE2 receptor which acts as the gateway for the virus to enter host cells.

"Our structural analysis demonstrates that this new mutation introduces an additional interaction between the virus and the ACE2 receptor," said Gyorgy Snell, a co-author of the study from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research in the U.K.

In this mutation, the scientists said a single molecule part of the virus spike protein is altered from the amino acid asparagine to lysine, enabling the formation of a new point of contact with the ACE2 receptor.

Increase in binding affinity

They believe this alteration in the 439th position of the protein's chain of amino acid building blocks is in line with a two-fold increase in its binding affinity with ACE2.

"Therefore, the mutation both improves interaction with the viral receptor ACE2 and evades antibody-mediated immunity," Snell explained.

The scientists said the mutation, denoted as N439K, was first detected in Scotland in March and since then, a second lineage B.1.258 has independently emerged in other European countries. By January 2021, they said this lineage has been detected in more than 30 countries across the globe.

While the N439K mutation did not change virus replication, the scientists said it significantly diminished binding of a proportion of both clinical antibodies and serum samples.

They said the mutation particularly resisted neutralisation by clinical therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use as part of a two-antibody cocktail.

"The virus is evolving on multiple fronts to try to evade the antibody response," Snell said.

According to the researchers, one of the biggest hurdles in studying variants is the limited amount of viral genome sequencing that's currently being done across the globe.

"This underscores the need for broad surveillance, a detailed understanding of the molecular mechanisms of the mutations, and for the development of therapies with a high barrier to resistance against variants circulating today and those that will emerge in the future," Snell said.

Many stars, towards the end of their lifetimes, form supernovas - massive explosions that send their outer layers shooting into the surrounding space. Most of the energy of the supernova is carried away by neutrinos – tiny particles with no charge and which interact weakly with matter. Researching the mechanisms of the so called Type II supernovas, a team from IIT Guwahati has come up with new insights into the part played by neutrinos in this dramatic death of massive stars. The collaboration includes astrophysicists from Max Planck Institute, Munich, Germany; Northwestern University, Illinois and University of California, Berkeley, in the U.S.

Fate of the star

All stars burn nuclear fuel in their cores to produce energy. The heat generates internal pressure which pushes outwards and prevents the star from collapsing inward due to the action of gravity on its own mass. But when the star ages and runs out of fuel to burn, it starts to cool inside. This causes a lowering of its internal pressure and therefore the force of gravity wins; the star starts to collapse inwards. This builds up shock waves because it happens very suddenly, and the shock wave sends the outer material of the star flying. This is what is perceived as a supernova. This happens in very massive stars.

In stars that are more than eight times as massive as the Sun, the supernova is accompanied by a collapsing of the inner material of the dying star – this is also known as core collapse supernova or Type II supernova. The collapsing core may form a black hole or a neutron star, according as its mass. “Our work is on these core-collapse events of type II supernova,” says Sovan Chakraborty of the physics department of IIT Guwahati, in an email to The Hindu.

Three flavours

Neutrinos come in three ‘flavours’, another name for ‘types’, and each flavour is associated with a light elementary particle. For instance, the electron-neutrino is associated with the electron; the muon-neutrino with the muon and the tau-neutrino with the tau particle.

As they spew out of the raging supernova, the neutrinos can change from one flavour to another in a process known as neutrino oscillations. As Dr. Chakraborty explains, due to the high density and energy of the supernova, several interesting features emerge as this is a nonlinear phenomenon: “This [phenomenon] may generate neutrino oscillations happening simultaneously over different energies (unlike normal neutrino oscillation), termed collective neutrino oscillation. The oscillation result may dramatically change when one allows the evolution with the angular asymmetry, the oscillations can happen at a nanosecond time scale, termed fast oscillation.”

Models of this process, dubbed the effective two-flavour models, have only taken into account the asymmetry between electron neutrino and the corresponding antineutrino. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, the researchers from IIT Guwahati claim that a three-flavour model is needed to predict well the dynamics of the supernova.

Fast oscillations

The fast oscillations are important because the researchers find that these can decide the flavour information of the supernova neutrinos.

So far, this has not been done, and models have only kept terms involving a neutrino and its corresponding anti-neutrino. “We find that fast nonlinear oscillations of neutrinos are sensitive to three flavours, and neglecting the third flavour may yield the wrong answer,” says Dr. Chakraborty. “Thus, the presence of …[asymmetry between] the muon neutrinos and antineutrinos will be crucial for the neutrino oscillations, in turn influencing the supernova mechanism.”

Understanding this is important when one wants to measure the influence of neutrinos and their oscillations on supernova mechanism and heavy element synthesis in stellar environments.

The tilt of the rotation axis of the gas giant Saturn may in fact be caused by its moons, scientists from CNRS, Sorbonne University and the University of Pisa have reported (Nature Astronomy). The current tilt of Saturn's rotation axis is caused by the migration of its satellites, and especially by that of its largest moon, Titan.

Recent observations have shown that Titan and the other moons are gradually moving away from Saturn much faster than astronomers had previously estimated. By incorporating this increased migration rate into their calculations, the researchers concluded that this process affects the inclination of Saturn's rotation axis: as its satellites move further away, the planet tilts more and more.

In fact, Saturn's axis is still tilting, and what we see today is merely a transitional stage in this shift. Over the next few billion years, the inclination of Saturn’s axis could more than double.

The decisive event that tilted Saturn is thought to have occurred relatively recently. For over three billion years after its formation, Saturn’s rotation axis remained only slightly tilted. It was only roughly a billion years ago that the gradual motion of its satellites triggered a resonance phenomenon that continues today: Saturn's axis interacted with the path of the planet Neptune and gradually tilted until it reached the inclination of 27 degrees observed today, says a release from CNRS.

Scientists already are in agreement about the existence of this resonance but it was so far believed that it had occurred very early on, over four billion years ago, due to a change in Neptune's orbit. Since that time, Saturn's axis was thought to have been stable.

On April 30, 2020, the day the University of Oxford signed an agreement with the UK-based AstraZeneca for development, manufacture and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) that was then undergoing clinical trials, both partners committed to “operate on a not-for-profit basis for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, with only the costs of production and distribution being covered”.

Pascal Soriot, Chief Executive Officer, AstraZeneca repeated the company’s no-profit pledge on June 4, 2020 when the company signed agreements with CEPI and Gavi and the Serum Institute of India. He said: “We are working tirelessly to honour our commitment to ensure broad and equitable access to Oxford’s vaccine across the globe and at no profit.”

The COVID-19 pandemic that originated in China presumably in September of 2019, took the world by storm in 2020, wreaking havoc on global health and economy. Each country responded to the pandemic in its own way. The importations of the coronavirus were early and more numerous in countries with heavy travel to and from China, Italy, for example. Such countries were surprised with early start and rapid spread of the epidemic, overwhelming even their well-organised and robust healthcare systems.

The test-treat-trace-isolate policy of the Western world, and non-pharmacological personal protective measures – cough etiquette, mask wearing, maintaining physical distance and hand washing with varying degrees of acceptance – were able to flatten the initial wave of the epidemic curve. However, the virus was too infectious; the emergent variants even more so. Premature relaxation of curbs on assembly and personal protective measures led to resurgence of infections and larger second waves during the last quarter of 2020, spilling over to January 2021.

Countries which adopted universal mask-wearing and provided easy access for PCR testing for infection – such as Taiwan and South Korea, escaped with fewer cases and fewer deaths compared to many others. The socio-cultural-cum-political situations in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. led to public resistance to accept restrictions of personal freedom with consequent aggravation of the epidemics. However, for the last four months, all countries were eagerly waiting for a respite – by way of decline of the epidemic, which had to follow a peak. We believe the peak is just past, good tidings to the worst affected countries.

Composite structure

The pandemic is a composite of epidemics in all countries, hence a statistical construct, not reflecting any country-specific epidemic; some countries like India peaked earlier, some like Indonesia and Portugal may see a later epidemic peak, but this will not influence the world peak. The weekly number of cases world-wide, available in the Worldometer website, show that the pandemic has begun to decline as shown in the graph.

Thirty-five countries started rolling out vaccination in 2020 – China and Russia in September; the U.K., the U.S. and Canada in the second week of December and others by late December. More countries, including India have initiated vaccination programme in January 2021. Only very few have started giving the second dose – therefore vaccination has not started contributing to the decline of the epidemic in any country.

Remember, it takes two weeks after second dose – or six weeks from the date of the first dose, to confer immunity against COVID and have an impact on the epidemic curve. Therefore, vaccination has so far not contributed to the decline of the epidemic in any country.

The graph tells us that the global peak occurred around January 10, with decline in the ensuing 2 weeks. The weekly number of deaths are still on the ascent. This is expected in view of the four-week delay between infection and death. We expect the mortality graph to reach peak shortly and then decline. If that turns out to be true, our conclusion about the pandemic peak and decline will also be true.

What does the peak signify? The herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 coronavirus infection is approximately 60%, and at the peak of the epidemic, half that level, about 30% of the world population would have been infected. The peak is the half -way mark and in the absence of vaccination, a further 30% of the population would get infected before endemic phase is reached.

Effect of mass vaccination

Mass vaccination in countries which have not reached endemicity already, should accelerate the rate of decline of infections and take the world to a ‘pan-endemic’ state. If vaccination strategy is purposefully tailored, the programme carried out seamlessly and efficiently and universal acceptance is achieved through proper information-education -communication, we can prevent further deaths due to COVID-19 globally. We will even have an opportunity to eradicate COVID-19.

For this, all nations of the world should act in unison, helping each other, with support and leadership from WHO and cooperation of philanthropic agencies. This will pave the way for rapid and smooth global economic recovery. India has already set an example by sharing the vaccine with its neighbours, a fact much appreciated by the WHO.

In this pandemic, the world has learnt an important lesson. Any disturbance in ecological balance and health of species anywhere in the world may come with a heavy price. Among other ill effects, such imbalance may lead to animal-to-human transmission of serious infectious disease and threaten the fabric of socio-cultural and economic stability of mankind. All human developmental activities should be in tune with nature enabling all creatures to live peacefully in their respective habitats.

(Dr. M.S. Seshadri is Medical Director and consultant Physician, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet, Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Dr. T. Jacob John is former Professor of Clinical Virology, CMC Hospital Vellore.)

Tropical cyclones across the globe, except Atlantic hurricanes, are moving closer to land in recent decades, a new study found.

Tropical cyclones generally have been moving westward by about 30 kilometres per decade since 1982, putting them closer to land and making them more dangerous, a study published in Science said. Each decade since the 1980s, an additional two cyclones have come within 200 kilometres of land, the study said

Ominous trends

Researchers do not quite know why this is happening, but it adds to other ominous trends in cyclone activity. Past studies have found that the most intense storms are getting stronger and storms in general are getting wetter, shifting poleward, moving slower and are keeping their power longer after hitting land. But while the new study found storms are getting closer to land, researchers still haven’t seen a significant increase in landfalls, which “is still a puzzle,” said study lead author Shuai Wang, a cyclone scientist at Imperial College in London.

Atlantic zone

It's mysterious that, unlike other areas, the Atlantic hurricane basin didn’t show any significant westward shift, but that could be because the Atlantic hurricane zone is more closely surrounded by continents, Wang said. The busiest tropical cyclone basin is in the western Pacific, where there are the most landfalls and the shift westward is twice as big as the global average.

Wang and his colleagues are still trying to figure out why this westward shift is happening. Storms generally move east to west because of trade winds in the tropics, so a greater westward shift usually puts them closer to where the land is, Wang said. Storms that form just west of land, such as in the Pacific off the California and Mexican coasts, are usually moving away from land already, so this shift doesn’t spare more land. Changes in atmospheric currents that steer storms tend to be pushing cyclones farther west, but why is still an open question, Wang said. He said it could be only partly explained by some natural long-term climate cycles.

Other factors

Other shifts in atmospheric patterns have been connected to human-caused climate change and that’s a possible factor in the shift but not something researchers can prove yet, he said.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel said the study is plausible, especially since scientists have already seen a shift of storms more toward the north and south poles, but it raises questions that require follow up, especially why no corresponding increase in landfalls has been found.

The number of oceanic sharks and rays worldwide has fallen by 71% over the last 50 years, according to a study which found that some formerly abundant, wide-ranging species — including the Great Hammerhead — have declined so steeply that they are now classified as critically endangered.

The study, published in the journal Nature, found that three quarters of ocean shark and ray species face an elevated risk of extinction.

The researchers noted that in the Indian Ocean, shark and ray abundance has declined continually since 1970 — falling by 84.7% in total.

They found that since 1970, relative fishing pressure — exploitation of fish stocks relative to the number of fish left — has increased 18-fold, adding that the catch limits are now urgently needed to "avert population collapse".

The team, including researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K., warns that extinction among these species would jeopardise the health of ocean ecosystems and food security in many poor and developing nations.

"The species that we studied are some of the ocean’s apex predators," said Richard Sherley from Exeter. "They roam far from land and so might seem immune to the direct impacts of humans on our planet. Not so. Our global analysis points to some staggering declines,” Sherley added.

The research highlights the risks these species face if no immediate action is taken to limit the pressures fishing exerts on their populations.

A few bright spots in the data demonstrate that even these long-lived animals can recover when science-based fishing restrictions are enacted and enforced, the researchers said.

The research is based on two "biodiversity indicators": The Living Planet Index (LPI) on global population changes since 1970 and the Red List Index (RLI), which tracks changes in relative extinction risk.

The study found that all the oceanic shark and ray species, except for the Smooth Hammerhead, decreased in abundance over the last half-century.

The researchers said 24 of the world's 31 oceanic shark and ray species are now classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

These categories mean a "high", "very high" or "extremely high" risk of extinction in the wild, they said.

The study found that species in tropical areas are declining more steeply than those elsewhere.

The longest lived, late-maturing species initially declined faster than those with shorter generation times, but two of these species — including the "Great" White Shark — have shown signs of regional rebuilding since the early 2000s, the researchers said.

Some formerly abundant, wide-ranging sharks — including the Oceanic Whitetip and Great Hammerhead — have declined so steeply that they are now classified as critically endangered, they said.

Cobra’s defence

Published in Science

It is well known that snakes use their venom to hunt or to kill prey. However, researchers at the U.K’s Bangor University's School of Natural Sciences have found that, in one group of spitting cobras, the venom evolves as a means of protection, from their ability to spit venom to escape from their predators. The study conducted on three different lineages of cobras showed that these snakes have the ability to spit venom to a distance of up to 2.5 metres during adverse situations.

Nanofibers stronger than steel

Published in Nature Nanotechnology

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have constructed small molecules which when added with water form nanofibers. These hard and rigid molecules become so tough that they it can hold about 200 times their own weight.

Sourdough's microbe influence

Published in eLIFE

Researchers have decoded the microbial diversity in sourdough (a type of bread) and studied how microbes influence the aroma and fluffiness of the bread. "By studying interactions between microbes in the sourdough microbiome that lead to cooperation and competition, we can better understand the interactions that occur between microbes more generally — and in more complex ecosystems," says Elizabeth Landis, co-lead author of the study, in a release.

Saturn’s obliquity

Published in Nature Astronomy

The obliquity of a planet is referred to as the angle between its equatorial plane and the orbital plane, i.e the tilt of a planet. During Saturn’s formation, its obliquity was 26.7°. But recent observations have shown that it has increased to 27°. Scientists say this tilt may have been caused due to its satellites, which are moving away much faster than what researchers had estimated before. The scientists predict that in the next few billion years, the inclination of Saturn's axis could more than double.

New imaging technique

Published in Nature Photonics

Scientists from Australia have come up with a better imaging technique that what exists now, which will now benefit researchers in a better understanding of molecular particles. “This technique allows scientists to examine cells in their natural state without previously being stained or labeled. As a result, their structure and function—and perhaps even their dynamics—can be better understood,” says Professor Brian Abbey, of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, in a release.

People who recover from COVID-19 are protected against the novel coronavirus for at least six months, and likely much longer, according to a study which says the immune system evolves long after the infection and may block even mutant forms of the virus.

The research, published in the journal Nature, noted that antibodies are produced by immune cells that keep evolving, apparently due to a continued exposure to remnants of the virus hidden in the gut tissue.

According to the scientists, including those from Rockefeller University in the U.S., the study provides the "strongest evidence yet" that the immune system "remembers" the virus and, remarkably, continues to improve the quality of antibodies even after the infection has waned.

They suspect that when recovered patients next encounters the virus, the response would be both faster and more effective, preventing reinfection.

"This is really exciting news. The type of immune response we see here could potentially provide protection for quite some time, by enabling the body to mount a rapid and effective response to the virus upon re-exposure," says Michel C. Nussenzweig, a co-author of the study from Rockefeller University.

While antibodies against the coronavirus linger in the blood plasma for several weeks or months, earlier studies have shown that their levels significantly drop with time.

However, the researchers showed that instead of producing antibodies all the time, the immune system creates memory B cells that recognise the coronavirus, and quickly unleash a new round of antibodies when they encounter it a second time.

Since the novel coronavirus replicates in the cells of the lungs, upper throat, and small intestine, they suspect that residual viral particles hiding within these tissues could be driving the evolution of memory B cells.

In the current study, the scientists studied the antibody responses of 87 individuals at two timepoints — one month after infection, and then again six months later.

Although antibodies were still detectable by the six-month point, their numbers had markedly decreased, with lab experiments revealing that the ability of the participants' plasma samples to neutralise the virus was reduced by five-fold.

In contrast, the researchers found that the patients' memory B cells — specifically those that produce antibodies against the coronavirus — did not decline in number.

These cells also slightly increased in some cases, the study noted.

The scientists also discovered that the memory B cells had gone through numerous rounds of mutation even after the infection resolved.

As a result, the antibodies they produced were much more effective than the originals, the study noted.

According to the researchers, these antibodies were better able to latch on tightly to the virus, and could recognise even mutated versions of it.

"The overall numbers of memory B cells that produced antibodies attacking the Achilles' heel of the virus, known as the receptor-binding domain, stayed the same," said Christian Gaebler, another co-author of the study.

"That's good news because those are the ones that you need if you encounter the virus again," Gaebler said.

The Molecular Biology Lab at the Government Arts College (GAC) in Udhagamandalam has designed and standardised a DNA amplification technique that will allow researchers to identify the species and sex of tigers and leopards from scat and tissue samples.

The results were published in Molecular Biology Reports, a scientific journal recently. The authors of the paper note that species authentication from scat and tissue samples is essential for detecting illegal wildlife trade and for formulating conservation strategies.

As DNA in old scat from tigers has a high chance of degradation, very short, specific, DNA sequences can be targeted to identify the species and sex of tigers and leopards, the researchers said. Previous allele-specific (gene variant) methods at species identification targeted a specific nucleotide for amplification, but researchers at the GAC also altered a nucleotide, resulting in precise species and sex-specific amplification, making identification quick, and extremely efficient.

R. Sanil, associate professor, Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology, and one of the co-authors of the paper, said the technique would allow for species identification for a fraction of the cost it would take otherwise.

The researchers collected a total of 190 scat samples of tigers and leopards from across the Nilgiris and the Arignar Anna Zoological Park, including 37 samples in different stages of deterioration from the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. Using the new techniques, they were able to identify 107 samples as belonging to tigers, 74 from leopards, six as members of the Canid family, while only three were unidentifiable.

The papers were authored by research scholars and professors working at the GAC with the co-operation of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department – Nittu George, P.M.Bhavana, T.T.Shameer, B.Ramakrishnan, R. Archana, K.K.Kaushal, G.Mohan, M. Jyoti and R. Sanil.

K.K. Kaushal, Field Director of MTR and co-author of the paper, said that DNA analysis was of extreme importance and the fact that there was such an excellent lab for analysis was a great benefit for the forest department.

B. Ramakrishnan, assistant professor at the GAC and co-author of the paper, said that in the future, building a DNA database of tigers in the wild could help in tracing wildlife crimes. “For instance, if a tiger or a leopard is poached in Tamil Nadu and found in a different part of the country, we could use these techniques to identify the exact animal that was killed, its home range and other aspects, which could further strengthen the forest department’s efficacy at fighting wildlife crimes,” said Mr. Ramakrishnan.

College principal M. Easwaramurthi said that such insightful research was a testament to the excellent students, faculty and facilities available at the college. J. Ebanaser, Head, Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology, said the research further cemented the credentials of the department in training students for a career in wildlife research and conservation.

A study of snakes in southern and western India has identified a new species of snake. Named the Romulus’ krait (Bungarus romulusi) after the ‘snake man of India’, Romulus Whittaker, the species has so far remained undetected because of its similarity in appearance to the common krait (B. caeruleus) and only a careful genetic analysis revealed that the two were distinct species. The study also showed that some kraits in Maharashtra that were misidentified as the Wall’s Sind krait were actually the same as the Sind krait which is also found in parts of Pakistan and Rajasthan and has been identified as the snake with the most potent venom in India. This study, published in Toxins, was conducted by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru (IISc), in collaboration with members of the Liana Trust and the Indian Herpetological Society, based in Pune.

Surface likeness

Though the Sind krait and the common krait may look identical to a wayside observer, morphological differences do exist between the two. “The former has 17 dorsal scales at the mid-body, while the latter has 15,” says Kartik Sunagar, who heads the Evolutionary Venomics Lab at IISc and is the lead author of the paper, in an email to The Hindu. “The Romulus’ krait and common krait are so hard to distinguish that even herpetologists with years of experience couldn’t tell that it could be a distinct species through casual observation. Only after the genetic examination, we were surprised to discover a new species,” he adds.

The Wall’s Sind krait was originally described in the Oudh state by a British herpetologist as a distinct subspecies. “Our comparisons between the Wall’s Sind krait in Maharashtra and the Sind krait in Pakistan clearly revealed that there are only minor variations in their genes, suggesting that there is no evidence to support the identity of this subspecies,” explains Dr. Sunagar.

When the researchers compared certain gene sequences of the common krait (Maharashtra), the Romulus’ krait (Karnataka) and the Sind krait (Pakistan), they found that there were significant differences. Similar comparisons between the Wall’s Sind krait population in Maharashtra with the Sind krait population in Pakistan showed only 0.3% to 3% difference.

“This doesn’t mean that the Wall’s Sind Krait doesn’t exist – it may still do in certain regions of North India where it was originally described. Our results show that, at least, the 17 mid-body scale kraits in Pune, Maharashtra that we examined are not distinct from their counterparts in Pakistan,” says Dr. Sunagar.

Venom analysis

The group also found that the venoms of the snakes were very different compositionally from each other and this reflects in their toxicity. The venom of the Sind krait was 12–13 times as potent as that of the common krait, whereas the venom of the Romulus’ krait was about six times as potent. When the Indian antivenoms were tested for their ability to neutralise the venoms of these cryptic kraits, they were found to be ineffective. This is because these antivenoms are made to protect against the bites of the ‘big four’ Indian snakes – the spectacled cobra (Naja naja), common krait (Bungarus caeruleus), Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) and saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). In a situation where about 58,000 people die in India every year due to snake bites and three times this number suffer permanent disabilities, it is necessary to take cognisance of the difference between the venoms of the different species and their distribution across the country, according to the researchers.

Sequencing the venom glands, the group found that while the abundance of RNA that codes for the toxin proteins was similar, each krait species was producing distinct compositions of proteins (toxins) using the same set of RNA. “There are molecular mechanisms that have been described that can contribute to this. However, more work is needed to fully understand this,” he says.

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Unlike any other flying animal, butterflies have unusually short, broad and large wings relative to their body size. By studying the aerodynamics of butterflies in a wind tunnel, researchers have now answered this question which has confused lepidopterologists (who study moths and butterflies) for years.

Clap technique

The results suggested that butterflies use a clap technique which helps them take off rapidly. “When the wings clap together, the air between the wings is pressed out, creating a jet, pushing the animal in the opposite direction,” explains the paper published on Wednesday in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The flexible butterfly wings form a cupped shape during the upstroke and a clap that thrusts the butterfly forwards, while the downstroke is used for weight support.

Though butterflies exhibit a fluttery flight, they also perform highly directed and sustained flights during migration and take-off. Butterflies need high force and control for fast take-off flights. The team kept six individuals of silver-washed fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) in a wind tunnel and studied the behaviour and aerodynamics.

Why should one study butterflies and their flight? Researcher Per Henningsson, from Lund University in Sweden, who studied the butterflies' aerodynamics, explains in a release that the shape and flexibility of butterfly wings could inspire improved performance and flight technology in small drones.

There has been a low turnout of healthcare workers at over 3,000 COVID-19 vaccination sites across the country even a week after the massive exercise began on January 16. If vaccine hesitancy, especially in the initial days, may be the reason for the low turnout, the glitches in the CoWIN platform too have contributed to that.

Slow, steady increase

On January 16, the first day of COVID-19 vaccination in the country, with about only 1.91 lakh health-care workers taking the jab, only about two-third of the eligible people were vaccinated. January 17, a Sunday, saw very small numbers – 17,072 beneficiaries vaccinated in six States. Since January 18, the numbers per day have been slowly but steadily increasing – from 1.48 lakh on January 18 to 2.28 lakh on January 22. At the end of one week, 1.27 million were vaccinated, with the number crossing the one million mark on January 22 morning.

With the majority of States vaccinating only on four days a week, with the most populous State, Uttar Pradesh, vaccinating on just two days, the pace of vaccination has to be ramped up, says Dr. Rijo John, Health Economist and Consultant. “If only about two lakh people are vaccinated in a day, we’re looking at eight years to vaccinate even 20% of Indians with two doses,” says Dr. John.

“To vaccinate the original target of 300 million people with two doses each by end-August, about four million doses need to be administered per day for four days a week,” says Dr. John.

The major reason for low uptake has been vaccine hesitancy arising from short timelines for vaccine development and clinical trials, questions about Indian regulator’s approval process, data of the trials not being made public and approval to Covaxin even in the absence of efficacy data. But the glitches in the CoWIN platform and the way it was programmed to assign people for vaccination may have also contributed much to the problem.

“I am not sure if vaccine hesitancy is a real big problem in India as it is projected to be. We are known for vaccinating millions of children and adolescents, a sensitive age group, yet there are no major vaccine hesitancy issues,” says epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu of Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru. He had led the team of World Health Organisation’s polio eradication efforts as Karnataka’s senior medical officer and is a member of the Karnataka COVID-19 Technical Advisory Committee.

Convenient term

“I am hesitant in clubbing the problems with CoWIN into one phrase – ‘vaccine hesitancy’. This is a convenient term for those who have abdicated their responsibility and want to deflect the blame for low uptake on the community,” says Dr. Babu.

Discussing about the CoWIN platform, Dr. Babu says: “My own stand is that any technological tool should complement but not replace human interface or ignore India’s strength in vaccination programmes. The human interface is needed for improving confidence. Microplanning is a strength of the supplementary immunisation programmes.”

The CoWIN platform, developed quickly, is a work in progress with improvements and upgrades being made each day based on the needs of different areas and States, he says. Connectivity issues too are affecting the platform. While the improvisation of the platform theoretically allows beneficiary registration, session microplanning, real-time reporting of vaccination and issuance of vaccination certificates, the real challenge arises in allocation of eligible people to a specific site on a particular day. “Allocation to a session site based on one’s institution of work or pin code is a complex process. This is probably the first time any country is deploying such software for vaccination campaigns of this scale,” says Dr. Babu. Incidentally, sending out SMS messages and issuing certificates soon after vaccination have been a challenge.

When people assigned to a vaccine site on a given day do not turn up, the platform was originally not designed to alert and invite others assigned on other days to receive the vaccine. “People are manually reaching out to others. The health ministry has now made it possible to add available people to an ongoing session and vaccinate them provided they are registered previously,” explains Dr. Babu.

Bigger problem

But the bigger problem is that the registration of health-care workers on CoWIN is incomplete. “Many people practising alternative medicine are not registered on CoWIN. Such people do not know how to register themselves for vaccination,” informs Dr. Babu. “Imagine the problem when we reach the stage of vaccinating of people with comorbidities, where data of such people is very sketchy.”

The platform now allows registration on the spot, which permits States to accommodate walk-ins. However, this message has not been widely communicated. “Many health-care workers are simply not aware that they can walk-in and register on the spot,” he says.

Despite the low level of vaccine hesitancy generally seen in Tamil Nadu, the number of jabs at the end of one week stands at just about 48,000. At 1.82 lakh vaccinations as on January 22, Karnataka has the most number in the country, followed by Andhra Pradesh (1.27 lakh) and Odisha (1.21 lakh). Kerala has just recorded 47,000 jabs even though the daily fresh cases reported are still high.

Explaining the reason for the higher uptake seen in the two States, Dr. Babu says: “In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the administrators are continuously following up field templates and doing more sessions a day. Additional manpower has been deployed at the State and districts only for this. District and State control rooms have been set up and co-ordinated each day at all levels.”

Heeding to demands from States such as Karnataka, the CoWIN software has been enhanced by creating more session sites, more sessions per site and change in site locations. “It now allows up to seven sessions per site. But running it in offline mode to vaccinate people and using the CoWIN platform to update the vaccine stock and list of beneficiaries whenever feasible can help in reaching more people in a short time,” says Dr. Babu.

Despite not relying on an IT solution, India’s universal immunisation programme immunises millions of children each year. In January 2020, India achieved a record 90% coverage of all vaccines to be given in infancy. Are there measures that the COVID-19 vaccination programme can adopt from the UIP to improve coverage? “The Universal immunisation programme (UIP) and supplementary immunisation programmes (SIAs) (Pulse Polio or MR campaigns) have adapted polio micro plans,” says Dr. Babu. “These are prepared using the bottom-up approach from sub-centre to the primary health centre (PHC) to the district. The physical micro plan is prepared well in advance every year, updated, and implemented weekly.”

Tested approach

He then adds: “All planning in CoWIN is centralised at the district level. Instead, an approach similar to UIP can be adopted for the COVID-19 vaccination. Many of the States have physical copies ready at the PHC level and are referring to them even now. The UIP approach needs to be refined to target adults across all age groups.”

Apparently, the UIP approach can be applied everywhere – urban as well as rural areas. “Rural areas have reasonable manpower. In urban areas, we need volunteers. This is how the supplementary immunisation programmes – Pulse Polio and MR campaigns – are implemented in India,” he adds.

Indian mathematician Nikhil Srivastava, has been named winner of the prestigious 2021 Michael and Sheila Held Prize along with two others for solving long-standing questions on the Kadison–Singer problem and on Ramanujan graphs. Srivastava from the University of California, Berkeley, Adam Marcus, from the Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Daniel Alan Spielman from Yale University will receive the 2021 Michael and Sheila Held Prize, the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. said in the statement.

The prize consists of a medal and $100,000. Srivastava, Marcus and Spielman solved long-standing questions on the Kadison–Singer problem and on Ramanujan graphs, and in the process uncovered a deep new connection between linear algebra, geometry of polynomials and graph theory that has inspired the next generation of theoretical computer scientists, it said.

They published new constructions of Ramanujan graphs, that describe sparse, but highly-connected networks, and a solution to what is known as the Kadison–Singer problem. This is a decades-old problem that asks whether unique information can be gleaned from a system in which only some features can be observed or measured, according to the Yale news.

Srivastava is currently Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of California.

Their ground breaking papers on the questions, both published in 2015, solved problems that mathematicians had been working on for several decades, the National Academy of Sciences said.

“Their proofs provided new tools to address numerous other problems, which have been embraced by other computer scientists seeking to apply the geometry of polynomials to solve discrete optimisation problems,” the academy said.

The Michael and Sheila Held Prize is presented annually and honours outstanding, innovative, creative, and influential research in the areas of combinatorial and discrete optimisation, or related parts of computer science, such as the design and analysis of algorithms and complexity theory.

The prize was established in 2017 by the bequest of Michael And Sheila Held.

In 1979, India faced a severe flash drought, affecting about 40% of the country and taking a toll on agriculture. An article published that year in the journal India International Centre Quarterly noted that the big granaries of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra were affected, and the country suffered a loss of about ₹5,000 crores. A new study has now pointed out that India could experience more such flash droughts by the end of this century.

Flash droughts

Flash droughts are those that occur very quickly, with soil moisture depleting rapidly. Normally, developing drought conditions take months, but these happen within a week or in two weeks’ time. Several factors including atmospheric anomalies, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions play an important role.

Hopeful note

“The ongoing climate change has caused a significant increase in global temperature and this can lead to more and more flash droughts in the coming years. If we can meet the ‘Paris Agreement’ goals and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees C, the numbers and frequency of the projected flash droughts may go down,” says Vimal Mishra from the Civil Engineering and Earth Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar. He is the corresponding author of the paper published in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science. The team analysed the major flash droughts that occurred from 1951 to 2016 in India. They simulated the soil moisture using the meteorological data obtained from the India meteorological department. Duration, intensity, and area of the flash droughts were studied and an overall severity score was given. The top five flash droughts based on the overall severity score occurred in 1979 followed by 2009,1951,1986 and 2005.

To predict the future flash droughts the team used a Community Earth System Model which simulates the summer monsoon precipitation, sea surface temperature, role of El Nino Southern Oscillation, and air temperature over India. The analysis showed a considerable rise in the frequency of extremely dry and hot years in the coming three decades. They also examined the role of greenhouse gas emissions, industrial aerosols, and land-use/land-cover change. “The frequency of concurrent hot and dry extremes is projected to rise by about five-fold, causing an approximately seven-fold increase in flash droughts like 1979 by the end of the 21st century,” adds the paper.

They conclude that this increased frequency of flash droughts can have deleterious implications for crop production, irrigation demands and groundwater abstraction in India.

Predicting droughts

The team has planned future studies that will consider the flash-drought prediction ahead of time using operational meteorological forecasts from India Meteorological Department. They explain that this will help manage irrigation water demands and avoid considerable losses in agriculture.

German researchers have enabled mice paralysed after spinal cord injuries to walk again, re-establishing a neural link hitherto considered irreparable in mammals by using a designer protein injected into the brain.

Spinal cord injuries in humans, often caused by sports or traffic accidents, leave them paralysed because not all of the nerve fibers that carry information between muscles and the brain are able to grow back.

But the researchers from Ruhr University Bochum managed to stimulate the paralysed mice's nerve cells to regenerate using a designer protein. "The special thing about our study is that the protein is not only used to stimulate those nerve cells that produce it themselves, but that it is also carried further (through the brain)," the team's head Dietmar Fischer told Reuters in an interview. "In this way, with a relatively small intervention, we stimulate a very large number of nerves to regenerate and that is ultimately the reason why the mice can walk again." The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The paralysed rodents that received the treatment started walking after two to three weeks, he said.

The treatment involves injecting carriers of genetic information into the brain to produce the protein, called hyper-interleukin-6, according to the university's website. The team is investigating if the treatment can be improved.

"We also have to see if our method works on larger mammals. We would think of pigs, dogs or primates, for example," Fischer said. "Then, if it works there, we would have to make sure that the therapy is safe for humans too. But that will certainly take many, many years.

People with COVID-19 may rely on antibodies created during infections from earlier coronaviruses to help fight the disease, says a new study that may partially explain the difference in symptom severity between old and young patients.

The study, published in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, noted that humans have navigated at least six other types of coronaviruses before SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19.

"Our results suggest that the COVID-19 virus may awaken an antibody response that existed in humans prior to our current pandemic, meaning that we might already have some degree of pre-existing immunity to this virus," said John Altin, a co-author of the study from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in the U.S.

In the research, the scientists used a novel tool called PepSeq to map the body's antibody responses to all human-infecting coronaviruses.

"The data generated using PepSeq allowed for broad characterization of the antibody response in individuals recently infected with SARS-CoV-2 compared with those of individuals exposed only to previous coronaviruses that now are widespread in human populations," said Jason Ladner, the study's lead author from Northern Arizona University in the U.S.

The researchers examined the antibody responses from two other potentially deadly coronaviruses — MERS and the 2002-03 SARS pandemic virus. They also characterised the antibody responses of four older coronaviruses — alphacoronaviruses 229E and NL63 as well as betacoronaviruses OC43 and HKU1.

According to the scientists, these are common viruses that are endemic throughout human populations, but usually are not deadly and cause mild upper respiratory infections similar to those of the common cold.

By comparing how the antibodies react against these different coronaviruses, the researchers demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 could trigger immune system antibodies originally generated in response to these past coronavirus infections.

They said the cross-reactivity with these antibodies occurred at two sites in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike (S) protein which enables the virus to enter and infect human cells.

"Our findings highlight sites at which the SARS-CoV-2 response appears to be shaped by previous coronavirus exposures, and which have potential to raise broadly-neutralizing antibodies," Altin said. "We further demonstrate that these cross-reactive antibodies preferentially bind to endemic coronavirus peptides, suggesting that the response to SARS-CoV-2 at these regions may be constrained by previous coronavirus exposure," he said, adding that further research is needed to understand the implications.

The scientists believe the findings also explain the widely varying reactions COVID-19 patients have to the disease from mild to no symptoms, to severe infections requiring hospitalisation, and often leading to death.

They said the differences in the pre-existing antibody response identified by this study may possibly explain some differences in how severely COVID-19 disease affects old versus young people.

"Our findings raise the possibility that the nature of an individual's antibody response to prior endemic coronavirus infection may impact the course of COVID-19 disease," Ladner said.

Conservationists have started using satellite imagery to count elephants from space, a technique that British experts hope will help protect threatened populations in Africa.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Bath said the use of algorithms, machine learning and satellite technology could replace current techniques used to count elephants — a critical aspect of conservation.

"The population of African elephants has plummeted over the last century due to poaching, retaliatory killing from crop raiding and habitat fragmentation," Oxford said in a statement. "To conserve them requires knowledge of where they are, and how many there are: accurate monitoring is vital."

Currently, the most common technique for surveying elephant populations in savannah environments is aerial counts from manned aircraft.

The academics said aerial surveyors can get exhausted, and are sometimes hindered by poor visibility.

"Satellite monitoring is an unobtrusive technique requiring no ground presence, thus eliminating the risk of disturbing species, or of concern for human safety during data collection," they added. "A process that would formerly have taken months can be completed in a matter of hours."

The scientists first developed the techniques at South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.

The images, from a satellite orbiting 600 kilometres above the Earth, could survey upward of 5,000 square kilometres of land in one pass, captured in a matter of minutes.

The scientists trained the algorithm to recognise only adults among a dataset of 1,000 elephants in the park and then found it was also able to identify calves.

They hope such conservation technologies will be embraced as a matter of urgency to protect the world's biodiversity.

Conservationists have started using satellite imagery to count elephants from space, a technique that British experts hope will help protect threatened populations in Africa.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Bath said the use of algorithms, machine learning and satellite technology could replace current techniques used to count elephants — a critical aspect of conservation.

"The population of African elephants has plummeted over the last century due to poaching, retaliatory killing from crop raiding and habitat fragmentation," Oxford said in a statement. "To conserve them requires knowledge of where they are, and how many there are: accurate monitoring is vital."

Currently, the most common technique for surveying elephant populations in savannah environments is aerial counts from manned aircraft.

The academics said aerial surveyors can get exhausted, and are sometimes hindered by poor visibility.

"Satellite monitoring is an unobtrusive technique requiring no ground presence, thus eliminating the risk of disturbing species, or of concern for human safety during data collection," they added. "A process that would formerly have taken months can be completed in a matter of hours."

The scientists first developed the techniques at South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park.

The images, from a satellite orbiting 600 kilometres above the Earth, could survey upward of 5,000 square kilometres of land in one pass, captured in a matter of minutes.

The scientists trained the algorithm to recognise only adults among a dataset of 1,000 elephants in the park and then found it was also able to identify calves.

They hope such conservation technologies will be embraced as a matter of urgency to protect the world's biodiversity.

A male Springbok praying mantis looking for a hook up doesn't have to worry about a female stealing his heart away. There is, however, a very good change she'll bite his head off, and he knows it.

Indeed, 60% of sexual encounters between Springboks — one of nearly 2,000 mantis species across the globe — end in males being eaten as snack.

"Males play Russian roulette whenever they encounter cannibalistic females," explained Nathan Burke, an entomologist at the University of Auckland and an expert on mantis mating rituals. All male mantises show extreme caution when approaching a prospective partner. Hard to blame them.

But whereas most will sneak up from behind or distract the female with a tasty morsel, the Springbok has an entirely different — and previously unreported — strategy for staying alive, according to findings published Wednesday in Biology Letters.

"Under threat of cannibalistic attack, males try to subdue females by pinning them down in violent struggles," said Burke, co-author with colleague Gregory Holwell of the study. Males who win the lovers' tussle are far more likely to succeed in consumating the relationship, "which suggests that wrestling is both a mating tactic and a survival tactic," he added.

The key to victory, according to gladiatorial experiments with 52 pairs of mantises, was striking first.

If the male was quicker to the draw and grabbed the female with its serrated raptorial forelegs, he stood a 78% chance of escaping unscathed. And when, in addition, the male inflicted a serious but non-fatal wound to the abdomen, he kept his head every time.

"I was very surprised to discover that males injure females while trying to subdue them for mating," said Burke. "Nothing like that has ever been observed in mantises before."

If the female grasped first, however, males were always killed and devoured.

Asexual reproduction

Overall, males came out top more than half the time in these jousts, which lasted 13 seconds on average.

Winning the match did not automatically lead to mating — coupling followed only two-thirds of the time, and even then the male wound up in the female's stomach half the time.

The bright green Springbok mantis, aka Miomantis caffra, is native to southern Africa, but has spread to New Zealand, southern Europe and California, probably through the pet trade.

The nutrients gained when a female praying mantis eats her suitor benefit her offspring as they grow.

Sexual cannibalism — when the female of a species consumes the male during or after mating — is also known among spiders, such as the black widow, and scorpions.

Typically smaller males do what they can to avoid getting gobbled up, including playing dead. But female Springbok mantises have another trick up their spiky sleeve: the ability to reproduce asexually, or without any help from males.

"They can produce clones of themselves if they don't mate," said Burke.

Having this Plan B fallback raises an interesting question: if females are so good at cannibalising males and can reproduce without sex, how do males continue to exist?

"That's what motivated me to look so closely at male mating tactics," Burke said.

Sexual conflict theory, he explained, tells us that males in this situation should evolve couter-measures to help them mate and stay relevant. And sure enough, that is what the researchers found.

"It's a fascinating example of how sexual conflict can lead to the evolution of mating tactics that help one sex but hinder the other."

Jane Cooke Wright (1919 – 2013) was an American medical researcher who did pioneer work in chemotherapy. Her contributions to oncology revolutionised cancer treatment across the world.

Jane Wright was born in New York City in 1919 into a family of physicians. Her father, Louis Tompkins Wright, and her paternal grandfather, Ceah Ketcham Wright, were doctors. Louis Tompkins Wright was a well-known surgeon and medical researcher and was the first African-American to be a staff physician at a New York City hospital. Both Jane Cooke Wright and her younger sister, Barbara, followed in the family tradition and became doctors, overcoming both gender and racial bias.

After medical school, Wright worked in Bellevue Hospital (1945–46) and Harlem Hospital (1947–48). Her interest in chemotherapy drugs was sparked when she joined her father in research at the Harlem Cancer Research Center in 1949. Jane Wright studied the reactions of different drugs and chemotherapy techniques on tumours. At the time, chemotherapy was still a nascent area. There was scepticism about chemotherapy and it was not widely practised. Jane Wright’s research transformed that.

Jane Wright pioneered the use of the drug methotrexate to treat breast cancer (in 1951) and skin cancer (1960). She is also credited with developing the technique of using human tissue culture to test the effects of potential drugs on cancer cells. Adjusting treatment according to the individual was an idea forming the basis of much of Wright’s research. Wright also developed non-surgical methods to deliver drugs to tumours, even those deep within the body, using catheter systems.

Following Dr. Louis Wright's death in 1952, Jane Wright was appointed head of the Harlem Cancer Research Foundation. In 1955, she became the director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center and its affiliated Bellevue and University hospitals.

In 1971, Jane Wright became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. She retired from the New York Medical College and active cancer research in 1987. During her life time, she had published 135 scientific papers and written nine books.

A team of scientists reports physical attributes and genes that help identify which types of rice use nitrogen efficiently. Such knowledge could help farmers use nitrogenous fertilizers efficiently, save costs, as well as limit nitrogen-linked pollution, which contributes to climate change.

An inter-disciplinary team led by Nandula Raghuram from New Delhi’s Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University found that N-use-efficient (NUE) cultivars tend to be slow in germination and flowering, grow tall and deep with higher biomass and take longer duration to harvest but yield more with lesser N input. They also reported 34 genes associated with NUE for potential crop improvement. Their findings have just been published in international journal Frontiers in Plant Science.

For the study, the scientists compared 3 high NUE and 3 low NUE cultivars of rice with normal or low dose of nitrate or urea as the sole source of nitrogen (N).

“Many scientists described on one or two visible or phenotypic features that change in a plant in response to N-fertilizer, but nobody experimentally distinguished N-response from NUE,” Professor Raghuram, who also currently chairs the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), said in a statement

“Moreover, most of the crop improvement for yield is focused on reducing crop duration and biomass to maximize grain output over everything else. Our work indicates that unless scientists bring NUE traits together with yield traits through breeding, we may be gaining yield at the cost of NUE. We also need to worry about whether this is also true for other inputs such as phosphorus, water, potassium, sulphur etc., which we have not done”, he said.

‘Will be relevant to other cereals’

The researchers studied 25 phenotypic features comparing different cultivars and doses and found that only 20 of them respond to nitrogen-fertilizer, while only 8 of them actually account for NUE. “Our findings in rice will also be relevant to other cereals and possibly other crops, though they need to be validated. More importantly, the statistical and bio-informatic tools used in our study on NUE can be also be used for other difficult crop traits,” said Narendra Sharma, a co-author.

The Indian government’s subsidy on N-fertilizer (mainly urea) is over ₹ 50,000 crore per annum. The farmer pays only a quarter of the market price of urea and harvests a similar proportion of it into grain, at a NUE of 25-30%. The rest of it is lost as N-pollution.

According to the Indian Nitrogen Assessment (2017), agriculture accounts for over 70% of all nitrous oxide emission in the Indian environment, out of which 77% is contributed by fertilizers, mostly urea. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It has replaced methane as the second largest GHG emission from Indian agriculture over the last 15 years. Cereals account for over 69% of the total consumption of N fertilizers in India, with rice topping the list at 37%, followed by wheat (24%). Hence their importance as target crop for NUE in India and in many parts of the world.

Dr. V. Shanta, doyen of cancer care in the country, senior oncologist and chairperson of the Cancer Institute (WIA), Adyar died on January 19, 2021. She was 93.

In her medical career spanning for over 60 years, she focussed on organising care of cancer patients, study of the disease, its prevention and control, creation of specialists and scientists in different aspects of oncologic sciences. She played a key role along with Dr. Krishnamurthi in the development of the institute from a cottage hospital of 12 beds to a comprehensive cancer centre, according to the institute.

Dr. Shanta was the recipient of Padma Shri in 1986, Padma Bhushan in 2006 and Padma Vibhushan in 2016. She was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 2005.

Malaria menace

Published in Nature Communications

By giving malaria-infected blood meals to mosquitoes, researchers have now identified a few compounds that can kill the disease-causing parasite (Plasmodium falciparum). The team studied 400 chemical compounds and were able to pinpoint a few that were able to kill the parasites circulating in the human blood and also within the mosquitoes that ate the infected blood meal.

Plant defence

Published in Science

Many plants produce chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten. But how do they protect themselves from these chemicals? To understand this, researchers studied a chemical (diterpene glycosides) produced by wild tobacco plants. They found that these substances were stored in a non-toxic form inside the plant and when the insect feeds on it, the non-toxic molecule cleaves off and the chemical turns toxic.

History written in sands

 

Published in PNAS

The beach sand on a remote island in eastern Papua New Guinea has stunned geologists. Tectonic processes usually move grains of sand from the surface of the Earth to the deep (about 120 km into the Earth) and then back to the surface. The garnet sand showed that this cycle of subduction and exhumation took place in less than about 10 million years on the island, which is an extremely short period for geologic processes.

Circadian clock

Published in Nature Communications

Our biological or circadian clock (sleep-wake cycle) is controlled by many factors including CRY-1. A new study that analysed human cancer data, saw that CRY-1 increased in late-stage prostate cancers. Ayesha Shafi, the first author of the study explains in a release: “As we looked further into the role of CRY1, we unexpectedly found that the circadian factor was altering the way that cancer cells repair DNA.”

Breathe easy

Published in Communications Biology

A biodegradable expandable stent has been developed which can be used to treat pediatric laryngotracheal stenosis, a condition in children that leads to narrowing of airways. “Using commercial non-biodegradable metal or silicone-based tracheal stents has a risk of severe complications and doesn't achieve optimal clinical outcomes, even in adults,” said corresponding author of the study Prashant N. Kumta in a release. “Using advanced biomaterials could offer a less invasive, and more successful, treatment option.”

Lunar rocks retrieved by a historic Chinese mission to the moon weighed less than initially targeted, but China is still willing to study the samples with foreign scientists, the mission's spokesman said on Monday.

China became the third country ever to secure lunar samples when its unmanned Chang'e-5 probe, named after the mythical moon goddess, brought back 1.731 kg of samples last month, falling short of the 2 kg planned.

The probe had estimated the lunar rocks to have a density of 1.6 grams per cubic millimetre, based on data from past missions by other countries, said Pei Zhaoyu, the mission spokesman.

Going by that figure, the probe stopped taking samples afterjust 12 hours, apparently assessing that the target had been reached. "However, from tests, the actual density might not be that high," Pei told reporters. "We originally planned to use 22 hours to complete the work of surface sampling, but, in fact, we stopped after 12 hours."

But China is still open to cooperating with all nations in studying the samples, he said, including the United States.

For years, U.S. laws have limited its space agency NASA from directly cooperating with China. "We didn't set restrictions between countries," Pei said."Whether or not two countries could carry out related cooperation is a matter for two sides."

China has not yet received any access request for samples, he said, adding that the rocks were still in a pre-treatment stage.

In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have assessed the influence of human activities on extreme fire weather risk, and found that greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution have distinct regional impacts on wildfire outbreaks.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, analysed the climate under various combinations of human influences since 1920, isolating individual effects and their impacts on extreme fire weather risk.

While previous studies found that human activities and their products like greenhouse gas emissions, and air pollution raise the risk of extreme fire weather, the scientists, including those from the University of California (UC) Santa Barbara in the U.S., said the specific influence of these factors has been unclear.

"To get a wildfire to ignite and spread, you need suitable weather conditions — you need warm, dry and windy conditions," explained Danielle Touma, a co-author of the study from UC Santa Barbara. "And when these conditions are at their most extreme, they can cause really large, severe fires."

According to the researchers, heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant contributors to temperature increases around the globe.

By 2005, they said emissions raised the risk of extreme fire weather by 20% from preindustrial levels in western and eastern North America, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon.

The study predicted that by 2080, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to raise the risk of extreme wildfire by at least 50% in western North America, equatorial Africa, Southeast Asia and Australia, while doubling it in the Mediterranean, southern Africa, eastern North America and the Amazon.

According to the scientists, biomass burning and land-use changes have more regional impacts that amplify greenhouse gas-driven warming.

The study noted a 30% increase of extreme fire weather risk over the Amazon and western North America during the 20th century caused by biomass burning. Land use changes, according to the research, also amplified the risk of extreme fire weather in western Australia and the Amazon.

The scientists said industrial aerosols block some of the solar radiation from reaching the ground and tend to have a cooling effect on the climate.

"We knew something had been compensating in a sense for greenhouse gas warming, but not the details of how that compensation might continue in the future," said Samantha Stevenson, a co-author of the study from UC Santa Barbara.

However, in Southeast Asia, "where aerosols emissions are expected to continue," the study said there may be a weakening of the annual monsoon, drier conditions and an increase in extreme fire weather risk.

"Southeast Asia relies on the monsoon, but aerosols cause so much cooling on land that it actually can suppress a monsoon," Touma said. "It's not just whether you have aerosols or not, it's the way the regional climate interacts with aerosols."

The scientists hope that the current understanding of fire risk at a regional scale helps in mitigation and planning purposes.

"In the broader scope of things, it's important for climate policy, like if we want to know how global actions will affect the climate," Touma said. "And it's also important for understanding the potential impacts to people, such as with urban planning and fire management."

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit reached space for the first time on Sunday with a successful test of its air-launched rocket, delivering ten NASA satellites to orbit and achieving a key milestone after aborting the rocket’s first test launch last year.

The Long Beach, California-based company’s LauncherOne rocket was dropped mid-air from the underside of a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl some 35,000 feet over the Pacific at 11:39 a.m. PT before lighting its Newton Three engine to boost itself out of Earth’s atmosphere, demonstrating its first successful trek to space.

"According to telemetry, LauncherOne has reached orbit!" the company announced on Twitter during the test mission, dubbed Launch Demo 2. "In both a literal and figurative sense, this is miles beyond how far we reached in our first Launch Demo."

Roughly two hours after its Cosmic Girl carrier craft took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, the rocket, a 70-foot launcher tailored for carrying small satellites to space, successfully placed 10 tiny satellites in orbit for NASA, the company said on Twitter.

The successful test and clean payload deployment was a needed double-win for Virgin Orbit, which last year failed its attempt to reach space when LauncherOne’s main engine shut down prematurely moments after releasing from its carrier aircraft. The shortened mission generated key test data for the company, it said.

Sunday’s test also thrusts Virgin Orbit into an increasingly competitive commercial space race, offering a unique “air-launch” method of sending satellites to orbit alongside rivals such as Rocket Lab and Firefly Aerospace, which have designed small-launch systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

Virgin executives say high-altitude launches allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently and also minimize weather-related cancellations compared to more traditional rockets launched vertically from a ground pad.

Virgin Orbit’s government services subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the system to the U.S. military, with a first mission slated for October under a $35 million U.S. Space Force contract for three missions.

NASA conducted a test firing of the engines for its giant Space Launch System (SLS) lunar rocket on January 16 but they shut down earlier than planned, the space agency said.

The “hot-fire” test at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi was supposed to last a little over eight minutes — the time the engines would burn in flight — but they shut down just over a minute into the burn.

“Teams are assessing the data to determine what caused the early shutdown, and will determine a path forward,” NASA said in a statement.

The SLS rocket is intended to launch the Artemis missions that will take U.S. astronauts back to the Moon.

Despite being cut short, NASA said the test of the RS-25 engines had provided valuable information for the planned missions.

“Saturday’s test was an important step forward to ensure that the core stage of the SLS rocket is ready for the Artemis I mission, and to carry crew on future missions,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“Although the engines did not fire for the full duration, the team successfully worked through the countdown, ignited the engines, and gained valuable data to inform our path forward.”

It is not yet known what caused the early shutdown but SLS program manager John Honeycutt told reporters they had seen a flash in a thermal protection blanket on one of the engines and were analysing the data.

“In my opinion the team accomplished a lot today, we learned a lot about the vehicle,” Mr. Honeycutt said.

NASA’s Artemis I mission to test the SLS and an unmanned Orion spacecraft is scheduled to take place before the end of 2021.

The following Artemis II mission in 2023 will take astronauts around the Moon but will not land. Artemis III will send astronauts, including the first woman, to the Moon in 2024.

In its configuration for Artemis I, the SLS will stand 322 ft. (98 m) taller than the Statue of Liberty, and is more powerful than the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo missions that sent the first astronauts to the Moon.

NASA’s eventual goal is to establish an Artemis Base Camp on the Moon before the end of the decade, an ambitious plan that would require tens of billions of dollars of funding and the green light from President-elect Joe Biden and the Congress.

A manned return to the Moon is the first part of the Artemis program to set up a long-term colony and test technologies for a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s.

A study of fruit flies bred in the lab shows that they may actually evolve to modulate their reproductive traits based on the extent of competitiveness of their competing males. This study of 150 generations of fruit flies, spanning about six years, shows how the environment can influence evolution of reproductive traits.

It is a well-known fact that males of different species compete for the attention of females to mate with. In species where the female mates with many males, as in Drosophila (fruit fly) the sperms extend this competition to the post-copulatory domain. This is known as post-copulatory sexual selection.

Evolving traits

This study shows that over several generations, males actually evolve to modulate their reproductive investment based on their perception of the number and quality of the competition. The study was published in the journal Evolution.

It is significant because it shows how male fruit flies change the expression of their reproductive traits depending on the changes in the environment. “This study shows the evolution of plasticity according to the change in the socio-sexual environment,” says N.G. Prasad of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, who led the research. “In general, the rapidly changing environment can have a great impact on an organism’s behaviour. Acquiring plasticity enables an individual to cope with the fluctuating environment and maintain fitness in adverse conditions,” he adds, in an email to The Hindu.

The researchers maintained the study for over 150 generations. “The flies are maintained on a 14-day life cycle every generation. Therefore, one generation corresponds to 14 days, and 150 generations corresponds to 2,100 days, which is approximately six years,” explains Dr. Prasad.

Competing sperm

In general, post-copulatory sexual selection can be competition between the various sperm in the female reproductive tract to fertilise the egg, and also sperm choice mediated by the female reproductive tract. To understand this, the group studied three reproductive traits for males of male-biased and female-biased regimes. These were mating latency, copulation duration and sperm defence ability. Of these, mating latency is a measure of female receptivity and male courtship efficiency and intensity. Sperm defence ability is the ability of the experimental male sperm to displace another from a rival male. While mating latency and copulation duration were manually observed, the sperm defence ability was inferred from the (inherited) eye colour of the offspring.

The experiments demonstrated that first, males can plastically modulate their reproductive investment in response to change in socio-sexual environment experienced in early-life. Secondly, evolution under different operational sex ratios led to divergence of male reproductive investment patterns. Also, the identity of early-life competitors can influence the pattern of reproductive investment.

In order to eliminate the potential of parental effects to influence the results of the study, the flies were passed through one generation of standardisation. “During this process, flies were maintained in ancestral conditions and selection was not imposed on them. Then all the experimental conditions were also retained same for both the populations (male-biased and female-biased) and all the treatments,” he says.

Genetic material of plants and animals are well protected in the nucleus of each cell and store all the information that forms an organism. In addition, cells contain small organelles that contain their own genetic material. These include chloroplasts in plants, which play a key role in photosynthesis, and mitochondria, which are found in all living organisms and represent the power plants of every cell. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam have shown, through experimental approaches, (Science Advances) how the genetic material is not actually permanently stored within one cell but can migrate from cell to cell.

They conducted experiments with tobacco plants using grafting. Two different tobacco plants were grafted on to each other and the cells of the junction were observed microscopically in real time. They could observe that genome transfer from cell to cell occurs in both directions with high frequency at this site.

The researchers were able to observe structural changes in the cell walls in the wound tissue of the graft site. Protrusions formed on the cell walls, thus creating junctions between the two partners. The size of the created pores allowed the migration of an entire plastid. “Therefore, the genome does not migrate freely, but encapsulated from cell to cell,” Dr. Alexander Hertle says in a release. However, to actually make this possible, the plastids have to shrink and become mobile. These rod-shaped plastids grow back to normal size after transfer into the target tissue. It now remains to be studied if mitochondria and the nuclear genome also use similar transfer mechanisms.

We are familiar with the ‘Silk Route’ that connects Chinese and Central Asian regions with Southern Asian and West Asian regions of the world and how trade between these regions had started over 4,000 years ago, or the second millennium BCE. It was then that the King of Babylon (the region near the Euphrates River) Hammurabi ruled and had strict moral laws for his subjects. In this connection, the remarkable and ‘must read’ book ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’, written by Peter Frankopan mentions how even before that time, trade and cultural ties were going on between the East and the West in the Bronze Age (3000 BCE)’, that is, 5000 years ago. People from the Mediterranean region were trading with those in the Central, South and East Asia, introducing horses, camels and donkeys, and likewise from India through the Gulf region. Exchange of ‘exotic’ (non-native) food items such as wheat, rice, pulses, sesame, banana, soybean and turmeric was taking place.

Bronze Age bodies

Happily, studies from the Levant Region, a large land mass including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, still has the bodies of people who lived there in the Bronze Age, in the cemeteries and burial grounds. Studies of the bodies have been carried out by a group from Israel, Germany, Spain, U.K. and the U.S. The exciting paper, titled ‘Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE’, has appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, or PNAS, in December 2020. It may be accessed through https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014956117

Ancient literary sources referred to how long-distance travel was taking place in the third millennium BCE, of the transport of live animals such as the movement of donkeys from Egypt to the Southern Levant, i.e., the region between modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and the cities of Amman, Aleppo, Beirut and Damascus, and even between Italy and Mesopotamia (Iran, Syria and Turkey). Botanical evidence also confirmed the exchange of fruit trees such as melons, citrus fruits and others from Southern Asian region during the Bronze Age (2000–1500 BCE). This showed the evidence of a Mediterranean cuisine, and even trading between the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Southern Asian region such as from Indonesia to the Southern Levant, in particular the Middle Bronze Age sites such as in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Dental calculus

Two sites in this region, Megiddo and Tel Erani, were chosen for study. The research group had access to the tombs, cemeteries and burial sites in this region. Sixteen (16) samples from here were collected, from which they could obtain bones of the long-dead people. Analysis of the tooth bones, in particular the lower teeth connecting the jaw, was done and studied in detail. Scientists call this analysis, ‘dental calculus’. (By the way, this term calculus has nothing to do with mathematics at all, so please do not think that they were doing any advanced mathematical analysis!) The calculus here refers to the protein analysis of the teeth taken from the dead body, which offers information about the kind of food was eaten by the person – in particular plant material that had been stuck in the tooth. These plant materials are called ‘phytoliths’ (’phyto’ referring to plant and ‘lith’ to the fossilised part of the plant tissue stuck in the tooth).

The researchers could analyse the dental calculus of 16 individuals buried in Megiddo and Tel Erani, and the analysis revealed the presence of millet, date palm, flowering plants, grasses and dietary plants such as wheat, rice, sesame, barley, soybean, banana, ginger and turmeric, among others.

Proteome analysis

The group followed it up with the proteome analysis, which tells us the entire set of proteins expressed in the cells of the material. This revealed the presence of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, jasmine, cloves and peppercorn, revealing thereby that trade routes existed as early as the Bronze Age (3000–1200 BCE) and the Iron Age (500 BCE) between the Southeast and the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea-Dead Sea regions.

Bronze Age in India, particularly in the Northwest part of the country, is well documented by archeologists and historians. (The details of Bronze Age in the South of the region are still being studied). The Indus Valley Civilisation had already moved from the Stone Age into the Bronze Age (3300 – 1300 BCE). Metallurgy was practised.

The Indus Valley Civilisation, around 2600 BCE, is well documented for its urbanisation in the cities of Mohenjo- Daro and Harappa in what is now in Pakistan, then Nothwest India region, where introduction of written texts, agriculture, water management, astronomy and philosophy, were practised. More on this can be had by accessing the site: <study.com/academy/lesson/the-bronze-age-in-india-history-culture-technology.html>. In agriculture, we note millet, rice, wheat, grasses were produced. In technology, water management was practised. In business, trade between this region and Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and the Southern Levant was practised. All this was happening long before the Silk Routes were established.

dbala@lvpei.org

Breast cancer is the top cause of cancer-related deaths in Indian women and is the most prevalent type of cancer in women. Worldwide statistics show that about two million new cases were detected in 2018.

Researchers studying cancer metabolism have often noted that tumour cells are addicted to glucose. Once glucose enters the cell, it quickly gets fed to pathways and is utilised to multiply and grow. In contrast, normal cells primarily use glucose for energy production. This reprogramming of glucose metabolism by cancer cells often alters the response to drugs used in cancer treatment.

An international team has discovered the conflicting roles of two genes in regulating glucose utilisation by breast cancer cells. They revealed that the CBX2 gene promotes glucose uptake and consumption by breast cancer cells whereas CBX7, a sister gene, does the opposite. Targeting these genes and/or their glucose pathway can pave way for new cancer treatments.

Essential roles

“The reason we chose to study CBX genes is because of their essential role in human embryo development. Since metabolic requirements during embryogenesis and carcinogenesis share a striking similarity, we got interested in CBX genes and investigated their role in breast cancer,” says Mohammad Askandar Iqbal from Jamia Millia Islamia University who led the study.

The researchers identified the roles of the two genes by studying molecular data from over 3,000 breast tumour samples. In normal breast cells, they found lower CBX2 but higher levels of CBX7. In breast cancer patients they noted the opposite – higher CBX2 and lower CBX7 expression. Among breast cancer patients, those with higher CBX2 and lower CBX7 expression showed reduced survival, the study published in Molecular Oncology reported.

When asked if gene therapy – where one can disrupt the problematic gene – can be used here, Dr. Iqbal explains: “We can try to specifically knock out the CBX2 gene in breast tumour cells; however, we cannot take the chance of knocking the gene out of our body as it plays an essential role in human embryonic development. Alternatively, we can target the glucose consumption by breast cancer cells.”

Drug sensitivity analysis

The team also performed a drug sensitivity analysis to find out which FDA-approved drugs could be used to treat breast tumours with higher CBX2 and/or lower CBX7 expression levels. They identified methotrexate and rapamycin as candidate drugs to which patients with higher CBX2 expression in breast tumours may respond favourably.

“To further enrich our knowledge of therapeutic biomarkers, we are interested in delving into the mechanistic basis of these important observations and also profile the dependency of breast tumours on this pathway for designing personalised treatment strategies,” adds Dr. Iqbal.

Parameswaran Ajith, 40, a Bengaluru-based astrophysicist who specialises in the study of detecting gravitational waves, was chosen as the first recipient of The World Academy of Sciences-Chinese Academy of Sciences (TWAS-CAS) Young Scientist award for Frontier Science. He talks about his prize, the excitement of black holes, and about how he chose to become a scientist. Excerpts:

The award citation says you have “...pioneered a method to model the expected gravitational-wave signals from colliding binary black holes.” In layman’s terms, could you explain the principle of this method? Is it the only method for detecting wave signals or is it part of an algorithm of detection?

Detecting weak gravitational-wave signals buried in the detector noise is a quintessential “needle in a haystack” problem. The best way to find such signals is to compare the data with theoretical models of the expected signals, using a technique called “matched filtering”. Indian scientists, led by Sanjeev Dhurandhar, have done pioneering work in adapting this technique to gravitational-wave data analysis.

Calculating these theoretical signal models requires modelling their astrophysical source (for example, two black holes orbiting each other due to their gravity and finally colliding). This involves solving the “Einstein equations” (the equations of Einstein’s theory of gravity, the General Theory of Relativity) which are an extremely difficult set of equations to handle. There are approximation methods to solve these equations analytically. Contributions from Indian scientists such as Bala Iyer were seminal in this. Unfortunately, these methods break down as the black holes come close to each other during their final collision. Luckily, by around 2005, researchers managed to solve this “binary black-hole problem” using large supercomputers.

The “phenomenological method” that we developed provides a simple way of marrying the analytical calculations with supercomputer simulations. This can be used to produce accurate models of the expected gravitational-wave signals. Indeed, this is not the only method for creating such theoretical models — the “effective-one body” framework developed by Alessandra Buonanno and Thibault Damour also offers a theoretically elegant way of achieving the same.

How did you get into astrophysics and black holes?

I grew up in rural Kerala; I don’t think I ever met a scientist before I went to college. However, almost everyone in my family was a teacher. There was also an active village library and a vital presence of people’s science organisations like the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad. These must have instilled a culture of books. Also, the pressure of the (public) education system was not so large and one could still pursue one’s interests. I ended up in my career through a series of accidents. While I liked physics, I had other interests too. In college, I had almost made up my mind to study cinematography. It didn’t work out, and I ended up joining Mahatma Gandhi University for my master’s. There I had some wonderful teachers and peers who exposed me to the world of academic research. I was supposed to work on a summer project in another field, which didn’t work out. My teacher Prof. Indulekha then recommended my name to Prof. Dhurandhar, a doyen in the field of gravitational wave research in India. After this exposure, I guess I never seriously considered another career option!

Is this the best time to be an astrophysicist, and how do you see your field evolving?

My favourite quote on this is by Caltech’s Rana Adhikari: “When I was a student, my advisors used to tell me that this is the right time to work in this field. I tell this to my students too. But this time, I mean it.” Jokes apart, this is a fantastic time to work in astrophysics. Astronomical observations in the last two decades have uncovered major gaps in our understanding of the universe, such as the presence of the enigmatic “dark energy” that constitutes 70% of the energy budget of the universe. The age-old puzzle of “dark matter” remains unsolved. These are just two examples of the fundamental questions that modern astrophysics seeks to address. A wealth of upcoming observational data and sophisticated computer modelling has the potential to address these. Gravitational-wave observations will play a major role in this enterprise, along with electromagnetic and neutrino observations.

I read that one of your post-doctoral advisers was Nobel laureate Kip Thorne, who made a huge cultural impact as scientific consultant for the movie Interstellar. Have you worked alongside him? What was it like?

Kip Thorne’s research group was a wonderful ecosystem, involving researchers from a variety of expertise and age groups. His group meetings were fun and intellectually stimulating. He would start by writing everyone’s names on the blackboard. My surname is difficult — but never once did he make a mistake! There were all kinds of rumours about “the movie Kip was making,” but he was quite good at keeping it to himself. I remember one of the earlier storylines involved LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detecting gravitational waves from extra dimensions.

In 2016, the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves was the biggest scientific event of the year. You were among the 1,000-odd scientists who were part of LIGO and contributed to this discovery. How did you come to be associated with LIGO?

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration involves scientists from over 100 institutions and 18 countries. I joined the Collaboration in 2004, when while I was a Ph.D student at Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany. This group built and operated the gravitational-wave detector GEO600 in Hanover. Although this is a small-scale detector (“only” 600 metres long!), this is where many key technologies for advanced LIGO were developed. The first part of my Ph.D thesis was on developing methods to distinguish between real gravitational wave signals and transient noise events that mimic real signals in GEO. Slowly, I branched out to the analysis of LIGO data and to the theoretical work on developing models of expected gravitational-wave signals.

Since the 2016 detection of colliding black holes, several other such mergers have been detected. How has this changed our ideas about black hole formation, or the history of the early universe?

To start with, these observations provided the first direct evidence of binary black hole collisions. They have also uncovered a new population of “heavy” black holes. Over the last few decades, X-ray observations have identified several “small” black holes in our own galaxy — most of them weighing less than 10 times the mass of the Sun. However, most of the black holes detected are much more massive — about 30 to 100 solar masses. This was a big surprise to most astronomers. It is still not entirely clear how nature is producing these heavy black holes.

Most astrophysicists believe they are produced by the ‘death’ (gravitational collapse) of really massive stars. But some cosmologists argue that these could be the much-speculated “primordial black holes” — black holes produced by the collapse of extremely dense regions in the early universe. If the latter is true, it would be a ground-breaking discovery. However, the jury is still out. We need many more observations to decide one way or the other.

The collisions of black holes appear to be cataclysmic events. Are they rare events? Is it even theoretically possible for a merger between two blackholes to be felt strongly, like an earthquake, on earth?

Yes, these cataclysmic events are very rare — the rate of such collisions happening in one galaxy is much less than 1 per million years. So, it is very unlikely that our galaxy has hosted such an event in the whole history of the human race. Even if this happens, its effect is much weaker than that of an earthquake — for example, this could shake your dining table by the size of an atomic nucleus.

Gravitational-wave observatories overcome this difficulty by making extremely precise detectors, which can detect such mergers happening in billions of galaxies in our cosmic neighbourhood.

We also had images of a real black hole broadcast globally in 2019. Do you think these have significantly heightened public interest in black holes? Are they drawing in more students, Ph.Ds, in India for research?

Oh, yes! Black holes have always captured the public imagination; but the breakthroughs by LIGO and the Event Horizon Telescope have definitely enhanced this. So did the recent Nobel prize.

Apart from this general excitement, this is actually a wonderful time to work on black holes. Black holes have come out of their historical isolation, as objects of only mathematical interest, and are now taking centre stage in modern astrophysics. Finally, theoretical calculations, astronomical observations and supercomputer simulations are going hand-in hand in the exploration of black holes. Young students are surprisingly perceptive of these opportunities. In India, the upcoming LIGO-India project has added to this excitement. In fact, the Indian LIGO community is unable to handle all the students who are interested in working with us — we are mentor-limited at this point.

How far has India progressed on LIGO-India, or the local arm of the LIGO interferometer? Has the pandemic impacted it?

LIGO-India is in the construction phase now. The land acquisition has been completed and the required research and development is ongoing in the partner institutions. It is indeed a challenging project, and will take several years to complete. Like everything else, COVID-19 related delays are likely to impact the timeline. However, the project is very fortunate to have the support of LIGO-USA and the international LIGO collaboration. With timely support from funding agencies and goodwill of the Indian scientific community, I am confident that it will be successful.

The pandemic has resulted in the closure of several research institutes and consequently all research work, unless connected to COVID-19 and healthcare, has come to a halt. Has it been the case in your field too?

The pandemic did affect all the major observatory operations. For instance, the third observing run of LIGO and Virgo (another interferometer) had to be prematurely suspended in March 2020. The start of the next observing run will also be postponed. However, the forced isolation and the reduction in administrative responsibilities have given many researchers — especially those who don’t require labs for their work — a chance to focus more on their research. In fact, in areas such as astrophysics, there is a surge in the number of papers written during COVID-19.

In our group, we tried to stick together as much as possible by conducting all academic activities through video conferencing. We were productive and ended up working overtime! However, this is not a sustainable situation. Personal interaction is essential for academic research. I hope that some normalcy will return soon.

How did you decide to set up a lab in India? Are there advantages and disadvantages to working here?

Returning to India was a personal preference. Although I love to travel, I’ve never felt I “belonged” anywhere abroad. Working in India has its disadvantages — the “red-tapism,” for instance. The whole bureaucratic system is designed to promote mediocrity. However, it also presents its share of opportunities. Since we are a developing society with high aspirations, given the right support, one is able to be part of change — sometimes even be part of its driving force.

I was fortunate to find my professional home in a unique institution — the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences at TIFR, Bengaluru. We are a young institution with high aspirations and a keen sense of responsibility with regard to our scientific community and the wider society. My wonderful colleagues — both academic and administrative — make my work enjoyable.

jacob.koshy@thehindu.co.in

This was one of the key

When using public transport we often weigh the merits of jumping onto a crowded train or bus to be on time for a meeting, or wait for an empty bus to pull up so that we can travel in comfort but arrive a little later than planned. There are trade-offs to be made at every stage, and the decisions we take affects the outcome. Tiny organisms, too, appear to be able to engage in such complex decision-making processes that belie their size.

This was one of the key findings by two researchers from the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science who studied how microscopic worms called nematodes that live in fig trees hitch a ride on fig wasps so that they can move from one tree to another.

Third factor

A fig tree depends on a fig wasp for pollination, and in return the wasp has a place to lay its eggs and reproduce. This mutualistic association goes back millions of years, but there’s a third factor in this relationship: the hitch-hiking nematodes. Young nematodes enter the abdomen of the wasp which they use as a vehicle.

But it’s not as simple as jumping onto the first fig wasp they meet. The nematodes have to assess whether the pollinator wasp they choose to hitch a hike on is the right vehicle. Is it too crowded with other organisms? Are the organisms of the same species? Does that affect the outcome?

Finding a mate

The researchers found that nematodes generally tend to choose wasps that have less crowded guts, and are already carrying other worms of their own species. “Travelling with members of their own species can boost their chances of finding a mate when they reach their destination,” stated IISc. in a press release.

The findings were published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. “The main take-home message is that even very tiny organisms such as nematodes have complex decision-making processes,” Renee Borges, Professor at CES and senior author of the paper said in the release. “This kind of decision-making is exactly what we humans may do when we are making choices about which mode of transport we may use. We wouldn’t want to get on to an overcrowded bus unless there was no other bus available.”

Satyajeet Gupta, research associate at CES is first author of the study.

Chemical cues

The nematodes, too, tend to select wasps with a fewer passengers. “They check for this using chemical cues by sniffing out volatile compounds that the wasps emit by standing on their tails and waving their heads around. When the researchers offered the worms a choice between compounds emitted by a wasp carrying either fewer or more passengers, the worms selected the former,” said the release.

Earlier study

In an earlier study where the researchers conducted controlled experiments, they found that if “there were too many worms boarding a wasp, they turn into parasites and affect not just the wasp but also the tree they reach”.

While 3,000 sites across India prepare to vaccinate three crore high-risk individuals, beginning with healthcare workers, from January 16, scientists and doctors are divided on the issue of restricted use approval granted to the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, a COVID-19 vaccine.

In a tweet on January 14, the Health Ministry said both Covishield and Covaxin approved for restricted use by the Indian regulator are safe. On Thursday, the Ministry also released a statement by four dozen scientists and doctors across India to “collectively assure” the safety of both the vaccines.

Seeking efficacy data

The statement came on the same day as 12 other scientists, including Dr. Partha P. Majumder from the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani, issued a statement asking for efficacy data before vaccination. The statement comes after Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore Gagandeep Kang told The Hindu that she will not take Covaxin in the absence of efficacy data.

While acknowledging the safety and promising immunogenicity data of Covaxin, they say: “It is imperative that relevant data from the larger Phase-3 trial become available before administering the vaccine to large numbers of people. Providing a vaccine without adequate efficacy data can lead to a false sense of security among vaccine recipients”.

They also add: “A greater degree of transparency prior to the start of the vaccination programme is essential. This is especially true for Covaxin, for which phase-3 safety and efficacy data are not yet available.”

Robust response

In the statement released by the Health Ministry, the scientists and doctors agree that efficacy data is not available for Covaxin but point out that safety parameters are very good and there is a robust immune response seen in animal studies and phase-1 and phase-2 human clinical trials. Ironically, lack of efficacy data is exactly what scientists, who have been cautioning against using Covaxin for vaccinating people, have been highlighting.

“Once the regulator based on data has approved the vaccine then who are we to object it,” asks Dr. T.D. Dogra, former Director of AIIMS, New Delhi and one of the four dozen signatories of the statement. “They have the data and guidelines and have taken a decision accordingly. We should trust the regulator and the process of vaccine approval.”

The scientists who have criticised those raising concerns about granting restricted use approval to Covaxin even in the absence of efficacy data, point out to animal and phase-1 and phase-2 human clinical trial data that shows the vaccine is safe and provides robust immune responses.

Dr. Sunil Kumar Arora from the Department of Immunopathology at PGIMER, Chandigarh, and one of the scientists who signed the statement, told The Hindu that even robust immunogenicity data from phase-2 cannot be used as a substitute for efficacy data from phase-3 trial.

“In an emergency situation, the regulator is convinced that the data submitted is sufficient for approval. Who are we to question the regulator,” says Dr. Dogra. “Many drugs are regularly approved by the regulator. Why object only to this vaccine approval?”

However, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University Dr. Gautam Menon, who is also co-author of COVID-19 modelling studies, said in an email, “Even robust immune response data from human participants cannot be a substitute to efficacy data collected during phase-3 trials.” 

In response to the accusation that “reprehensible utterances are causing huge credibility crisis for the Indian scientific community”, Dr. Menon said: “The statement of the group of 49 doctors and scientists uses politicised language, talking of “vested interests”, “defamation” and “irresponsible statements”. But to talk of the need for safety in a vaccination program where many hundreds of millions of healthy people will be vaccinated is none of these, even as the fact that Indian companies are at the forefront of vaccine development is a source of pride.”

But Dr. Dogra says: “People with certain intentions don’t want people to get vaccinated and so are dividing people. They are biased and want to create confusion in people so they don’t get vaccinated.”

On the other hand, by not waiting for efficacy data from phase-3 trials, the Indian regulator has bypassed the approval process even for restricted use, says Dr. Aniket Sule from Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). “Questioning the approval process by the Indian regulator does make anyone anti-Indian scientists,” Dr. Sule says.

‘Wider protection’

Scientists supporting the approval of Covaxin say that the use of a whole virus inactivated vaccine which may have better protection even against mutant strains of the virus as the immune response will be against multiple antigens and not only against spike protein. “This vaccine has thus been approved under clinical trial mode keeping in mind the spread of mutants strains speeding in India from Britain and South Africa,” the scientists say.

“The whole virus that has been inactivated is used in Covaxin. Such a vaccine will produce an array of antigens that will elicit higher and stronger immune responses. So there is a biological reason for saying inactivated virus vaccines will be more effective against mutant strains,” says Dr. Samiran Panda, Head of the Epidemiology Division at the Indian Council of Medical Research.

“The whole virus that is inactivated will induce immune responses to all components of the virus unlike vaccines that use only the spike protein,” says Dr. Arora. “That immune responses to other components can neutralise the virus, including mutants, is theoretically possible. But we can’t say with certainty till we have evidence.”

Still speculative

“The statement that COVAXIN might be more effective against new strains of the virus is, as far as I can see, a speculative one which is not backed so far by data,” says Dr. Menon. “Human biology is complex and inactivated whole-virus formulations could potentially produce what is called antibody-dependent enhancement, exacerbating the disease. This is where good efficacy data and follow-up is crucial.”

But so far, no large-scale whole genome sequencing of the virus isolated from people testing positive has been done to say whether the mutants spreading widely in Britain and South Africa are indeed becoming more widespread in India.

The National Task Force (NTF) on COVID-19 recently wanted whole genome sequencing to be done for 5% of the positive cases from all the States and Union Territories. With 15,000-17,000 fresh cases detected daily in India, genome sequencing is far from reaching 5% of positive cases detected across the country.

NASA has declared the Mars digger dead after failing to burrow deep into the red planet to take its temperature.

Scientists in Germany spent two years trying to get their heat probe, dubbed the mole, to drill into the Martian crust. But the 16-inch-long (40-centimetre) device that is part of NASA’s InSight lander couldn’t gain enough friction in the red dirt. It was supposed to bury 16 feet (5 metres) into Mars, but only drilled down a couple of feet (about a half metre).

Following one last unsuccessful attempt to hammer itself down over the weekend with 500 strokes, the team called it quits on January 14.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said the German Space Agency’s Tilman Spohn, the lead scientist for the experiment.

The effort will benefit future excavation efforts at Mars, he added in a statement. Astronauts one day may need to dig into Mars, according to NASA, in search of frozen water for drinking or making fuel, or signs of past microscopic life.

The mole’s design was based on Martian soil examined by previous spacecraft. That turned out nothing like the clumpy dirt encountered this time.

InSight’s French seismometer, meanwhile, has recorded nearly 500 Marsquakes, while the lander’s weather station is providing daily reports. On Tuesday, the high was 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 8 degrees Celsius) and the low was minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49 degrees Celsius) at Mars’ Elysium Planitia, an equatorial plain.

The lander recently was granted a two-year extension for scientific work, now lasting until the end of 2022.

InSight landed on Mars in November 2018. It will be joined by NASA’s newest rover, Perseverance, which will attempt a touchdown on Feb. 18. The Curiosity rover has been roaming Mars since 2012.

NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, has completed 3,000 Martian days, or sols. Launched on November 26, 2011, it landed on Mars on August 6, 2012 and has since made interesting discoveries about the red planet.

Curiosity is about the size of a small SUV — 10 feet long, 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall.

It has a suite of instruments:

The main mission of Curiosity was "to search areas of Mars for past or present conditions favorable for life, and conditions capable of preserving a record of life."

Decoding platypus DNA

Published in Nature

Australia’s duck-billed platypus are the perfect example of weird - they lay eggs, nurse their young ones, are toothless with webbed feet, and most interestingly, have 10 sex chromosomes.

Belonging to an ancient group of mammals called monotremes, platypus have always confused scientists. Now, by mapping the complete genome of the mammal, researchers have answered a few questions about the species. The team explains that they are a mixture of mammals, birds and reptiles and have preserved many of their ancestors’ original features which help in adapting to the environment they live in.

Though the Union Health Ministry has confirmed the presence of 96 instances of the ‘UK variant’ — a form of the Sars-Cov2 associated with high infections — in India, it is yet to significantly begin looking for the variant in those without such history. So far these variants have only been identified in those with international travel history after November.

The new strain, B.1.1.7, has been reported to have several mutations that likely make it more infectious and is said to be responsible for a spike of coronavirus infections in the UK.

Local spread

Scientists associated with the sequencing exercise, on condition of anonymity, told The Hindu that it was “highly unlikely” the variant wasn't locally present in India in those without travel history and that not enough was being done to actively look for it.

On December 22, the government announced it had set up a consortium of 10 labs across the country to sequence about 45,000 (or 5% of positive cases) from November 23 to December 22.

This is in addition to all of those who’ve come into India from overseas since November 23 and tested positive, as well as those with a travel history in September and October. So far, efforts have been focussed on sampling 3,000-odd genomes with such history.

Identifying such variants is important because in the event of a rapid spike in cases, it can be analysed if certain variants are responsible. It would also be necessary to grow these viruses in the lab so that scientists can then design appropriate tools to make diagnostic devices or even improve vaccine development efforts. Whole genome sequencing involves bigger machines, more expertise and is the only way to quickly and accurately detect emerging variants of the coronavirus.

‘Just a handful’

“So far we've only processed only a handful samples in the general population (of the 5% lot). That’s too little and given that the variant has been around since September and many have come in since, there’s a good chance that the variant has spread locally in India,” said a scientist closely associated with the exercise but is anonymous due to restrictions on discussing these with the media.

Another scientist in another lab involved with the sequencing activity said reagents that are necessary for whole genome sequencing were scarce and restrictions imposed by the government since July prohibited sourcing them.

“Some reagents are only available abroad. No Indian company makes them and yet, we’ve been asked to procure locally. This greatly hindered sequencing even though the machines were available.”

Last week, however a notification from the government has eased this and has clarified a “process” to acquire them, the person — again who couldn't be identified for reasons cited earlier — added, saying, “It will take some time however to catch up on lost time.”

According to a detailed proposal unveiled by the government on December 22, a consortium of 10 labs with the capacity to sequence about 30,000 genomes a month — called INSACOG (Indian Sars-cov2 Genomics Consortium) — was created particularly in the wake of reports of infectious variants in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

This plan, however, indicates that the government would prioritise sequencing genomes of those with travel history before moving on the general population.

Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology,, which coordinates INSACOG, said problems with procurement had been sorted. “We are constantly on the watch for not only the UK variant but others of interest reported from other countries. The sequencing from the population has begun and so far there seems to be no evidence of a wider spread.”

“We've cultured viruses from some of the samples at the National Institute of Virology. The sequencing activity is in progress and so far we can confirm that none of these variants have been identified in those without international travel history,” Dr Balram Bhargava, Director-General, Indian Council of Medical Research, told The Hindu on the sidelines of a press briefing.

The world’s vital insect kingdom is undergoing “death by a thousand cuts,” the world’s top bug experts said.

Climate change, insecticides, herbicides, light pollution, invasive species and changes in agriculture and land use are causing Earth to lose probably 1% to 2% of its insects each year, said University of Connecticut entomologist David Wagner, lead author in the special package of 12 studies in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences written by 56 scientists from around the globe.

The problem, sometimes called the insect apocalypse, is like a jigsaw puzzle. And scientists say they still don’t have all the pieces, so they have trouble grasping its enormity and complexity and getting the world to notice and do something.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) chief scientist warned that even as numerous countries start rolling out vaccination programmes to stop COVID-19, herd immunity is highly unlikely this year.

At a media briefing on January 11, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said it was critical countries and their populations maintain strict social distancing and other outbreak control measures for the foreseeable future.

In recent weeks, Britain, the U.S., France, Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and others have begun vaccinating millions of their citizens against the coronavirus.

“Even as vaccines start protecting the most vulnerable, we’re not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” Dr. Swaminathan said. “Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in a few countries, it’s not going to protect people across the world.” Scientists typically estimate that a vaccination rate of about 70% is needed for herd immunity, where entire populations are protected against a disease. But some fear that the extremely infectious nature of COVID-19 could require a significantly higher threshold.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, an adviser to WHO’s director-general, said the U.N. health agency was hoping coronavirus vaccinations might begin later this month or in February in some of the world’s poorer countries, calling on the global community to do more to ensure all countries have access to vaccines.

“We cannot do that on our own,” Dr. Aylward said, saying WHO needed the cooperation of vaccine manufacturers in particular to start immunising vulnerable populations.

Dr. Aylward said WHO was aiming to have “a rollout plan” detailing which developing countries might start receiving vaccines next month.

Still, the majority of the world’s COVID-19 vaccine supply has already been bought by rich countries.

The U.N.-backed initiative known as COVAX, which is aiming to deliver shots to developing countries is short of vaccines, money and logistical help as donor countries scramble to protect their own citizens, particularly in the wake of newly detected COVID-19 variants in Britain and South Africa, which many officials are blaming for increased spread.

WHO, however, said that most of the recent spikes in transmission were due to “the increased mixing of people” rather than the new variants.

WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said that the spike in cases in numerous countries was detected before the new variants were identified. Ms. Van Kerkhove noted that during the summer, COVID-19 cases were down to single digits in most countries across Europe.

“We lost the battle because we changed our mixing patterns over the summer, into the fall and especially around Christmas and the new year,” she said, explaining that many people had multiple contacts with family and friends over the holidays.

“That has had a direct impact on the exponential growth that you have seen in many countries,” she said, describing the case count increase in some places as “vertical”.

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said while there is some evidence variants may be speeding the spread of COVID-19, “there is no evidence that variants are driving any element of severity”.

He said the variants shouldn’t alter countries strategies for controlling outbreaks.

“It doesn’t change what you do, but it gives the virus some new energy,” Dr. Ryan said.

A study by the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (NARL) in Gadanki in Chittoor district has solved the mystery over the unequal aerosol distribution in the atmosphere in India and China.

Published in the recent issue of the Nature magazine, a research paper brought out by a team led by Scientist-SF M. Venkat Ratnam is expected to change the narrative over the rainfall prediction pattern and the impact of aerosols on health. Aerosols are known to be caused by crop residue burning, forest fires, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. Studieshave pointed to the effect of the enhanced man-made emissions on the Asian monsoon circulation and the resultant precipitation over East and South East Asia. A ‘Dipole pattern’ in Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD), based on long-term satellite measurements, indicated a concurrent increase over India and a marked reduction over China.

The study observed a rapid increase in aerosol loading over India and its adjoining seas, and in sharp contrast, reduction over China, which is credited to the country’s ‘clean air actions’.

Scientists at NARL, a unit of the Department of Space, have found decreasing trends in the surface (black carbon) aerosol concentration in the recent decade. “It appeared as a surprise in the first glance, but similar decreasing trends were noticed over several locations in India,” Dr. Venkat Ratnam told The Hindu over telephone.

The pollutants over the earth’s immediate surface are easily lifted to the free troposphere through convection and upward vertical velocities, leading to higher aerosol concentration farther from the earth, added the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar awardee.

Global warming

The increased aerosol concentration over India is attributed to land aridity due to global warming, a 20% increase in fire activity and more than 50% rise in aerosol loading in the Thar Desert, southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa over the last decade.

Interestingly, decreasing trends in AOD were observed in northwestern India, which is credited to conversion of deserts into crop-land areas.

NARL Director A.K. Patra said the study would have significant consequences on the background meteorology.

“Depending on the aerosol type, they can modify the cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) activity, thus affecting convection and/or precipitation process,” Dr. Patra noted.

The NARL is currently obtaining chemical compositions at different altitudes to check for any change in the trends.

More than three quarters of COVID-19 patients hospitalised for treatment have at least one ongoing symptom six months after initially becoming unwell, according to a study published in The Lancet journal.

The research looked at the long-term effects of the novel coronavirus infection in 1,733 patients first diagnosed in Wuhan, China between January and May followed to June and September.

In the study, scientists interviewed the patients face-to-face using questionnaires to evaluate their symptoms and health-related quality of life. The discharged patients also underwent physical examinations, lab tests, and a six-minute walking test to gauge their endurance levels.

Nearly 400 patients also underwent further tests, including an assessment of their lung function, and 94 patients whose blood antibody levels were recorded at the height of the infection received a follow-up test.

According to the scientists, the most common symptom to persist was muscle weakness (63% of cases), with patients also frequently experiencing sleep difficulties (26%). They said anxiety or depression was reported among 23% of patients.

The study noted that hospitalised patients who were severely ill more often had impaired lung function and abnormalities detected in chest imaging — which the scientists believe could indicate organ damage six months after symptom onset.

Since very few follow-up studies have been conducted in recovered patients so far, the scientists said little is known about the long-term health effects of COVID-19. Those that have been conducted looked only at a small number of cases over a short follow-up period, they added.

“Our analysis indicates that most patients continue to live with at least some of the effects of the virus after leaving hospital, and highlights a need for post-discharge care, particularly for those who experience severe infections,” said study co-author Bin Cao, from National Center for Respiratory Medicine, China-Japan Friendship Hospital in China. “Our work also underscores the importance of conducting longer follow-up studies in larger populations in order to understand the full spectrum of effects that COVID-19 can have on people,” Cao said.

The scientists found that 76 % of patients reported at least one ongoing symptom during the follow up tests.

Patients with more severe illness commonly had reduced lung function, with 56 % of those who required ventilation support experiencing reduced flow of oxygen from the lungs to the bloodstream.

For patients who required supplemental oxygen therapy and those who did not require oxygen therapy, the researchers said the figures were 29% and 22%, respectively.

According to the study, patients with more severe disease performed worse in the six-minute walking test.

The scientists said 13% of patients whose kidney function was normal while in hospital had reduced kidney function in follow-up.

However, due to the way the data was analysed, the researchers said it was not possible to determine if symptoms reported during follow-up were persistent following the infection, worsened after recovery, or occurred post-discharge.

The scientists believe further work is needed to compare differences in outcomes between inpatients and outpatients.

COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care in the early months of the pandemic experienced a higher burden of delirium and coma than is typically found in those hospitalised with acute respiratory failure, according to the largest study of its kind to date.

The research, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal, tracked the incidence of delirium and coma in over 2,000 COVID-19 patients admitted before April 28, 2020, to 69 adult intensive care units across 14 countries.

According to the scientists, led by those at Vanderbilt University Medical Center(VUMC) in the U.S., the choice of sedative medications and curbs on family visitation played a role in increasing acute brain dysfunction for these patients.

They said ICU delirium is associated with higher medical costs and greater risk of death and long-term ICU-related dementia. Nearly 82% of the patients in the study were comatose for a median of 10 days, and 55% were delirious for a median of three days.

The scientists noted that acute brain dysfunction lasted for an average of 12 days. “This is double what is seen in non-COVID ICU patients,” said study co-author Brenda Pun from VUMC.

The scientists believe COVID-19 could predispose patients to a higher burden of acute brain dysfunction. However, they also noted that patient care factors, some of which are related to pressures posed on health care by the pandemic, also appear to have played a significant role.

With respect to COVID-19, the scientists believe there has been widespread abandonment of newer clinical protocols that are proven to help ward off the acute brain dysfunction that usually affects many critically ill patients. “It is clear in our findings that many ICUs reverted to sedation practices that are not in line with best practice guidelines and we're left to speculate on the causes,” Pun said. “Early reports of COVID-19 suggested that the lung dysfunction seen required unique management techniques including deep sedation. In the process, key preventive measures against acute brain dysfunction went somewhat by the boards,” she added.

Analysing patient characteristics from electronic health records, and care practices and findings from clinical assessments, the scientists found that about 90% of patients tracked in the study were invasively mechanical ventilated at some point during hospitalisation, and 67% on the day of ICU admission.

Patients receiving benzodiazepine sedative infusions were at 59% higher risk of developing delirium, they added. In comparison, the patients who received family visitation were at 30% lower risk of delirium, the study noted.

“There's no reason to think that, since the close of our study, the situation for these patients has changed,” said study senior author, Pratik Pandharipande. “These prolonged periods of acute brain dysfunction are largely avoidable. ICU teams need above all to return to lighter levels of sedation for these patients, frequent awakening and breathing trials, mobilisation and safe in-person or virtual visitation,” Pandharipande added.

Stanford scientists Hubert Scott Loring and Carlton Everett Schwerdt announced their

If the year 2020 taught us anything, it is to serve as a reminder that humanity isn’t all powerful and that we are just a tiny speck in the vast timeline of our universe. For not even in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that a virus would lockdown the majority of humankind at the same time.

The reason for this, as you obviously know, is the coronavirus. The disease might have been named COVID-19 for COronaVIrus Disease 2019, but the pandemic raged through 2020 and shows little signs of abating even now in 2021. This, despite the fact that a mountain load of human resources, on top of huge financial impetus, has been funnelled towards the cause of checking the spread of the disease.

Nature of the problem

In case you, or anyone around you, are wondering why it is taking us so long to find a fix, it is important to remember that that is indeed the nature of this problem. It isn’t the first one confronting us and a look at the poliovirus would illustrate it further.

Poliovirus is the causative agent of polio, a highly infectious disease that can totally paralyse a person in a few hours and is especially lethal against children under the age of five. If you ask the elders at your house, they would tell you that you too were administered a vaccine against the poliovirus as a child.

Our fight against the poliovirus, which is still ongoing, has spanned over decades. From affecting nearly 3,50,000 in over 125 countries even as recently as 1988, the numbers have dropped down to hundreds in the recent years. We have many people to thank along the way... Stanford scientists Hubert Scott Loring and Carlton Everett Schwerdt among them.

Loring’s laboratory

In the fall of 1939, with the world about to be embroiled in World War II, Professor Loring joined the faculty of the Stanford University Chemistry Department. His important research activities here took place in the early and mid-1940s.

Loring’s laboratory was characterised by a friendly atmosphere and subdued excitement. With his students, he was involved in two major areas during this time – the purification of the poliomyelitis virus and the structure and metabolism of ribonucleic acids.

Along with his student Schwerdt, Loring spent three years searching for the poliovirus. Their efforts led to the successful isolation of the Lansing strain of the poliovirus in 1946. Schwerdt completed his Ph.D. in biochemistry by the time their results were announced on January 10, 1947.

Tempers excitement

Loring and Schwerdt were able to obtain the virus with at least 80% purity. They were able to extract it from cotton rats, the only species then known to contract polio other than primates. Even though they had opened the door to further experimentation and the development of a vaccine against polio, Loring tempered the excitement, cautioning that the path ahead might still be long.

They were able to come up with a crude vaccine against polio in cotton rats later in 1947 before Schwerdt switched to the Virus Laboratory of the University of California at Berkeley. Here, he was able to further improve both his techniques and the product.

Working alongside his colleagues at Berkeley, Schwerdt developed a method to purify the poliovirus and also photographed it for the first time in pure form in 1953. He was involved in crystallising the pure virus in 1955 and also purified all three known major strains of poliovirus in 1957.

Our journey towards a polio-free world continues, even as the COVID-19 pandemic tries to undo some of the great work already achieved. Polio survives among the world’s poorest and marginalised, and the lockdowns and restrictions imposed to curtail the spread of coronavirus has also hindered administering vaccines against polio and other diseases to those who need it.

The work done by Loring, Schwerdt and many others ensured that the polio vaccine was safe when it came about in the 1950s. We will have countless more to thank when effective vaccines against COVID-19 also become a part of our lives.

Identical twins are not exactly genetically the same, new research shows.

Scientists in Iceland sequenced DNA from 387 pairs of identical twins – those derived from a single fertilized egg – as well as from their parents, children and spouses. That allowed them to find “early mutations that separate identical twins,” said Kari Stefansson, a geneticist at the University of Iceland and the company deCODE genetics, and co-author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Nature Genetics.

Genetic mutations

A mutation means an alteration in a sequence of DNA – a tiny change that is not inherently good or bad, but can influence physical features or susceptibility to certain diseases. They can occur when a cell divides and makes a slight error in replicating DNA.

Identical twins

On average, identical twins have 5.2 of these early genetic differences, the researchers found. But about 15% of identical twin pairs have more genetic differences, some of them up to 100, said Stefansson.

These differences represent a tiny portion of each twin's genetic code, but they could influence why one twin is taller or why one twin is at greater risk for certain cancers.

Previously, many researchers believed that physical differences between identical twins were related mostly to environmental factors, such as nutrition or lifestyle.

Jan Dumanski, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, who was not involved in the new paper, praised it as “a clear and important contribution” to medical research. “The implication is that we have to be very careful when we are using twins as a model” for teasing apart the influences of nature and nurture, he said.

Previous studies, including a 2008 paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics, have identified some genetic differences between identical twins.

Setting the stage

The new study goes beyond earlier work by including DNA of parents, children and spouses of identical twins. That allowed the researchers to pinpoint when genetic mutations occurred in two different kinds of cells – those present in just one individual and those inherited by that person’s children. They also found mutations that occurred before the developing embryo split into two, setting the stage for twins.

The crocodiles of today look very similar to those that lived during the Jurassic period some 200 million years ago. Though lizards and birds have evolved and diversified into many thousands of species, crocodiles have only a few species – just 25.

Now, scientists at the University of Bristol explain how a particular pattern of evolution known as the ‘stop–start’ pattern and certain environmental changes could explain why crocodiles haven’t changed much.

In a paper published in the journal Communications Biology, the scientists explain that crocodiles have a very slow rate of evolution. The team used a machine-learning algorithm to estimate the rates of evolution.

Lead author Max Stockdale from the University of Bristol’s School of Geographical Sciences said in a release that it was fascinating to see how intricate a relationship exists between the Earth and the living things we share it with. He explains that the crocodiles landed upon a lifestyle that was versatile enough to adapt to the enormous environmental changes that have taken place since the dinosaurs were around. The team is also working to identify why some types of prehistoric crocodiles died out, while others didn’t

In last year’s budget session, the Finance Minister of the Government of India proposed that ₹8,000 crore be set aside to develop quantum science and technology. The detailed project report for a National Mission on Quantum Technology and Applications (NM-QTA) has been drawn out and finalised, and in the next couple of months, this mission might get approval. Recognising the importance of quantum technology, the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India had initiated a programme called QuEST at a modest 200-crore-rupee budget to explore the possibilities and engage with the researchers.

Potential applications

“In the international arena, huge investments, both public and private, are carried out to roll out quantum-based products. Potential applications include secure communication, fast computers that established quantum supremacy, sensors and quantum inspired devices,” says Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary DST. “The first mover has the advantage in garnering market share and technology supremacy.”

Quantum technology

Knowledge of quantum mechanics is an indivisible part of the electronics industry. However, in the twenty-first century, the term ‘quantum technology’ refers to something even more disruptive and radical. It involves exploiting the properties of individual, or a few fundamental particles, to achieve revolutionary changes in technology. One example is the property known as entanglement. When two objects, say two particles of light, also called photons, are in an entangled state, any changes made to the state of one, for example, its spin, are reflected in the other particle, however far they move from each other without breaking the entanglement. If developed, this property can be used to transmit a message at a very high level of secrecy from one point to another.

In June 2020, China demonstrated quantum communication technology using the satellite Micius, by conducting a secret conference between two ground stations about 1,120 km apart. They used the satellite not to transmit the entire communication, but to simultaneously send a pair of secret keys to the two ground stations. Each secret key is one of two strings of entangled photons.

Inter-ministerial mission

The several areas in which this technology can be applied includes quantum communication, quantum encryption and quantum metrology.

“In the years 1970-1980, people thought photonics would replace electronics, but it has actually augmented the latter. Similarly, now there is a big drive to look for domains where quantum effects can be harvested,” says Rajiah Simon, from The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Prof. Simon chaired the advisory committee to the team that drafted the detailed project report submitted to the government of India for approval. “NM-QTA is an inter-ministerial mission, and Department of Science and Technology is the nodal department," he added.

Notable contributions

One of the members of the committee, Hema Ramachandran of Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, who passed away in November 2020, contributed to the work of getting the report finalised under extremely trying conditions, many times from the hospital. This is recalled by Prof Simon: “She was extraordinarily brave, had talent, a remarkable sense of commitment and sacrifice. She was always concerned about the academia–industry interaction being less than desirable and had plans to improve this interaction and co-operation.” Dr. Sharma, describing her as a “gem of rare brilliance”, expressed hope that she would live through her work.

The NM-QTA is yet to be approved by the government, and it is under process. “Around 300 scientists, faculty and researchers; 30 institutes and good number of stakeholders were involved in developing Detailed Project Report on NM-QTA. Mostly, these researchers and institutes shall be involved while implementing the mission once approved,” says Dr. Sharma. The approval, her colleagues hope, would be the best tribute to Hema Ramachandran who worked without letting any of them know her deteriorating health condition.

Good progress

There has been progress on several fronts as far as quantum technology is concerned, within India.

“There is a good progress in quantum communication, particularly in free space as well as in fibre. Prototypes have been developed and protocols are in place,” Dr. Sharma explains.

“Once satellite-based transponders are available, free space communication could be demonstrated. Work is progressing smoothly and very soon, in less than six months, it will be demonstrated,” he adds.

According to Dr. Sharma, on the fibre front, stretching beyond 150 km is being worked out. This includes development of repeaters so that signals could be boosted at every 150 km so that the desired communication can go for long distances.

Shahid Jameel, Virologist, and Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University said different concerns existed regarding both approved vaccines in India adding that it was premature to assume they would be useful against the 'UK strain'.

We've seen two Indian vaccines approved. Covishield by Serum Insitute of India has submitted — but not published — any data on its Indian trial. Bharat Biotech has published safety and immunogenicity data (preprint) for Covaxin but hasn't generated the all important efficacy data. Do you think the regulator has made a judicious call in approving both?

As more details trickle out, it appears that the fear of a second wave, propelled by more contagious viruses of the B.1.1.7 lineage (popularly called UK variant), weighed heavily on the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) and the regulatory committees. Since what was presented by the companies to them is not available in the public domain, it is hard to second guess.

But it is clear that the process, initially laid out by DCGI, was compromised. Vaccines are a product of science, and there is a methodology and process to science. It is based not on beliefs but on data and evidence, which is found to be lacking in this case.

The relative confidence in Covishield rests on efficacy studies in the UK and Brazil. However there were multiple problems pointed in these trials. Some vials of vaccine had less than intended dosage leading to varying efficacy estimates. The U.S. FDA too hasn't cleared the vaccine in their country. Are these matters of concern?

Yes, these should be matters of concern. You cannot combine Oxford/AstraZeneca efficacy data from Brazil and UK together — 62% and 90% as a weighted average of 70.4% — just to cross the threshold. The doses were different. The concern is indeed highlighted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not clearing this vaccine as yet. In India if two full doses of Covishield are to be used, the efficacy would be 62% not 70.4%.

The reasons cited by the Indian government, for approving vaccines, inspite of incomplete evidence, is the threat by “mutant strains,” and having “a backup”. Is there evidence that an inactivated whole virus might perform better than sub-unit recombinant ones? What does the history of virology suggest?

Firstly, there is no “backup” vaccine. A vaccine is a vaccine. Regulators never approve something as a backup. Every product must be safe and efficacious for everyone to take. And that data is still lacking for Covaxin.

The Covaxin Phase 2 data shows a rising antibody titre against both S and NC proteins after the first and second dose. The point to understand is that only the S protein is displayed on the virus surface and therefore, only anti-S antibodies will neutralize the virus; the anti-N antibodies would have no role.

Where the NC protein would help is to generate better cytotoxic T cell responses that would efficiently eliminate virus-infected cells. Being a killed vaccine, Covaxin is unlikely to raise good cytotoxic T cell immunity; live/replicating viral vaccines do that much better. While cell-mediated immunity data is shown for Covaxin, it is not clear how much is being contributed by the NC protein. Thus, while it is a theoretical possibility, the jury is still out on whether the NC protein is providing added benefit to Covaxin over other vaccines based only on the S protein.

Historically, for another respiratory virus – the Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) inactivated virus vaccines were found to produce antibodies to the surface protein that exacerbated disease in children who were naturally infected following vaccination. Cases of antibody-dependent enhancement have been reported after the use of inactivated vaccines against not just RSV, but also measles and in people with prior antibodies to dengue virus. This becomes a possibility when antibodies are developed to improperly folded proteins or proteins whose structure has been altered during inactivation of the virus with chemicals. Even though it is remote, this possibility has not been addressed by the data presented for the Covaxin phase 2 trial. It would have been addressed in Phase 3. Finally, Covaxin uses an adjuvant that has never been used in a licensed vaccine.

Bharat Biotech has expressed difficulties in recruiting people for trials. Does such apprehension exist globally or are there unique challenges in India?

Indian companies, Bharat Biotech included, are very good vaccine companies. These challenges are not on account of perceived quality. I feel this is because phase 3 trials in India came at a time when the outbreak had declined significantly. Had the Covaxin phase 3 trial started in August or September instead of November, there would have been no recruitment problems. It is both a matter of perception (reducing danger) as well as exclusion criteria. The latter require volunteers who have no exposure to SARS-CoV2 (i.e. antibody negative) and who also don’t share living quarters with someone who tested positive for the virus. Increasing exposure of the population makes the trial increasingly difficult.

Could you explain the relative merits of a DNA vaccine, RNA vaccine vs the tried and tested inactivated virus-platforms? Are the latter vestigial technology like typewriters? Are the new kinds of vaccines inherently easier to make or more effective?

I would not call inactivated viral vaccines as vestigial. Most effective vaccines in use today belong to that category. The inherent difficulty with this platform is that it requires viruses to be grown to high titres. That is often difficult and sometimes not possible. Take for example the hepatitis E virus on which I worked for three decades. It grows very poorly in culture and thus no inactivated vaccine has been possible.

Nucleic acid vaccines are a new platform and would be used for the first time with Covid vaccines. So far the results for mRNA vaccines look good and DNA vaccines are yet to be tested. But the long term safety for both is yet to be established. These would be platforms for the future simply because it is much easier to manufacture RNA and DNA than proteins. Viral protein antigens are best made by the body to ensure proper conformation and structure, which is often not possible in vitro. DNA, RNA and viral vectors (eg adenoviruses) use the cell’s machinery to make viral protein antigens.

In the pre-pandemic world, efficacy data from a phase-3 trial was non-negotiable for a vaccine. However exceptions have been made in the case of Ebola in Africa where a vaccine was rolled out because of high mortality. Does the state of the pandemic now in India justify an emergency rollout of an unproven vaccine?

Yes, Ebola vaccines were used without Phase 3 testing to vaccinate about 60,000 people in West Africa. But that cannot be cited as a precedence. The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak had 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths, giving about a 40% fatality rate. The global fatality rate for Covid-19 is 2.15%; for India it is 1.44%. There is a big difference in the two situations. Further, India is on a continuous declining curve since mid-September. From a peak of about 95,000 per day (7-day average), we are now down to about 18,000 cases per day. What was the tearing hurry?

What are the possible harms from rolling out a vaccine, that in limited human trials, appears to be not harmful but hasn't been shown to be efficacious either?

The antibody-dependent enhancement effect needs to be ruled out as described above and that is better done with Phase 3 data. Otherwise, it is a matter of due process, which was subverted for speculative reasons. We don’t know how many doses of Covaxin would be ready by Jan 13 when vaccines roll out in India. For Covishield, we are aware of 50 million doses ready to roll out. I see no rational reason to compromise the approval process.

Given that 30 million healthcare workers will begin to be inoculated in the coming weeks, is it reasonable for an eligible healthcare worker, who now observes a declining trend in daily positive cases for months, knows that the true exposure is far more than PCR positive cases, to decline to be inoculated on the grounds that vaccine's efficacy analysis is incomplete?

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That is a personal choice and it would not be proper to make vaccination mandatory. But HCWs and FLWs should also realize that they are at the highest risk and should get vaccinated. Further, considering the nature of their work, they also pose the highest risk to transmit to others. They should get protected. Most likely all of them will get Covishield. By the time we get to the remaining 270 million who are >50 years of age or those with co-morbidities, we will have efficacy data for Covaxin as well.

Given that India has a long history of administering childhood vaccinations, was a dry run for the COVID vaccine really necessary in that would it have genuinely given a taste of the potential challenges of actually administering a real vaccine to this nation of a billion plus?

Yes. I think this is a very good strategy by the government. India has a lot of experience under UIP [Universal Immunisation Programme], but the logistics of childhood vaccination are different from adult vaccination. For one, children are a captive population (parents bring them in) while adults are not. Secondly, we have never delivered vaccines to curb a pandemic. Any roll out lapses would adversely affect vaccine effectiveness and confidence. A dry run helps on both counts. Full credit to the Ministry of Health for thinking of this and doing it well.

Do you think the nature of vaccine and drug trials has now irrevocably changed forever? Will we ever go back to the regime of 5-10 years for a vaccine?

Yes absolutely. This is a real positive outcome of COVID —it has revealed to us the power of science.

On January 1, Pune-based Serum Institute’s Covishield vaccine was granted permission for restricted use, while Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin got a similar approval the next day with certain other riders. With two vaccines now being greenlighted for restricted use, the four high-risk priority groups, beginning with frontline health-care workers, will soon begin getting vaccinated. Nearly 300 million people belonging to the four priority groups are to be vaccinated with either of the two vaccines for free.

The Ahmedabad-based Zydus Cadilla only recently got the regulatory permission to carry out phase-3 trial and has to begin the recruitment, while the Hyderabad-based Biological E is yet to reach that stage. It is unclear if Dr. Reddy’s Laboratory has completed enrolment for phase-3.

Challenges in recruiting

In a webinar hosted by DBT on December 31, Krishna Mohan, Executive Director of Bharat Biotech, had mentioned about the challenges in recruiting participants for phase-3 trial, as many felt they had only a 50% chance of getting the candidate vaccine. The news about vaccines soon becoming available made the recruitment even more challenging.

Pankaj Patel, Chairman of Zydus Cadilla said during the webinar that he anticipates difficulties in quick recruitment of volunteers but not with recruitment per se. “There are enough people committed to helping clinical studies. It might take longer but there won’t be a challenge with recruitment,” he said.

Effects of approval

Now, with two vaccines approved for restricted use, how much more challenging will it be to enrol participants for clinical trials, particularly phase-3 trials that need 25,000–30,000 people? “I think it would be more challenging than earlier for this reason,” says virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel, Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.

Neurovirologist Dr. V. Ravi, formerly with NIMHANS, too, agrees that it would be challenging to recruit participants now. But says that DBT is addressing this through a call for research proposals for enhancing capacity for conduct of clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

Dr. Jameel also points out other challenges in recruiting participants now. “With the daily cases coming down, many people who would have volunteered would not see the urgency now as earlier. Also, with increasing numbers of infected people, there would be a reduced pool of susceptible people. Prior infection is an exclusion criterion,” he says.

Issues with slow spread

With the number of daily fresh cases slowing down since mid-September despite the winter and festival season, the spread of the virus appears to be slowing down. This raises an altogether different challenge in carrying out phase-3 trials where the efficacy of the vaccine is measured by comparing the number of COVID-19 cases and the kind of protection offered in participants in the vaccine arm vis-à-vis the placebo arm. China had to rely on other countries to carry out phase-3 trials of its vaccines as the virus spread had slowed sharply.

“It is going to be a challenge, mostly because of the requirement of certain cases to develop in the trial after vaccine administration to understand efficacy,” says Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru. “It is best to recruit participants based on an antibody test, and have two distinct groups of people to participate (both infected and susceptible) in trials to understand the efficacy in both groups. This will ensure reaching the sample size efficiently.”

Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore, Dr. Gagandeep Kang says vaccine manufacturers can carry out phase-3 trials outside India and efficacy results from such trials would be accepted by the Indian regulator for vaccine approval.

Health-care workers are relatively better informed of clinical trials and are more likely to participate in trials. However, with the government vaccinating them on priority, this section of potential participants will now hesitate to take part in COVID-19 trials. Dr. Jameel sees another reason why health-care workers would hesitate to participate in trials when they have been prioritised to get the vaccine. He says: “Why would health-care workers participate if they are at high risk of infection, in line of vaccination, but have only a 50% chance of getting a vaccine?”

Testing younger people

Older people are particularly at risk of developing severe disease, and even dying, compared with younger people. That is precisely the reason why people over 50 years are one of the four high-risk groups to get the vaccine on priority. Since vaccines would become available in the market only after the government finishes vaccinating the priority groups, which would take many months, will trials be able to recruit only younger people?

Less than ideal

Only in an ideal situation will 100% of older people get vaccinated on priority. There will always be a certain percentage of older people who might be missed. Enrolling such people then depends on individual trial sites, says Dr. Ravi.

Dr. Jameel says, “Yes, younger people can be induced to participate in phase-3 trials. But the vaccine will then only be tested largely in a young and generally healthy group, unlike the population it would target when approved.”

Serum Institute suing a Covishield trial participant for ₹100 crore has surely not helped in encouraging people to participate in trials. “That was a public-relations disaster. The picture that emerged was a company abandoning and threatening a trial participant who volunteered initially for no monetary gain,” says Dr. Jameel. Dr. Babu says the behaviour of the company was akin to intimidating the participant. “It would have been ideal for the manufacturer, data safety and monitoring board or regulator to speak about this incident to enthuse confidence in potential participants,” Dr. Babu says.

Guinea pigs

Ignoring the special challenges that companies now face in conducting COVID-19 vaccine trials in India, participation in trials has not been a high priority for people in India. “People still view participating in clinical trials as being guinea pigs and we have done nothing to address the trust issues relating to clinical research. We are now seeing significant problems in recruitment in Phase-3 trials because our communication strategies about clinical research tend to be very limited,” Dr. Kang said during the webinar.

“I think the problem is in ensuring proper communication regarding the trials. We need good communicators, who are as good or even better than the scientists who do the trials,” says Dr. Babu. Dr. Ravi too agrees saying that lack of awareness is the main reason for hesitancy. “Well designed communication strategies providing correct information and engagement with all stakeholders in the community is what is needed to address this challenge,” says Dr. Ravi.

On June 6, 2017, at around 5 a.m., residents of Mukundpura village near Jaipur saw a bright trail in the sky followed by a thunderous sound. They spotted a burning object with a sulphur smell on the soft agricultural land.

The meteorite broke into several fragments, but a pit of about 15 cm in diameter and 10 cm in depth was formed at the impact site. The local police immediately collected it and handed it over to the Geological Survey of India, Kolkata. Now, a new study has shed light on the mineralogy of the meteorite.

Carbonaceous chondrite

The meteorite named Mukundpura CM2 was classified to be a carbonaceous chondrite. “This is a type of stony meteorite, considered the most primitive meteorite and a remnant of the first solid bodies to accrete in the solar system. The composition of carbonaceous chondrites are also similar to the Sun,” explains Dwijesh Ray from the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad in an email to The Hindu. He is the corresponding author of the work recently published in Geochemistry.

He adds that meteorites are broadly classified into three groups – stony (silicate-rich), iron (Fe–Ni alloy), and stony-iron (mixed silicate–iron alloy). Chondrites are silicate-droplet-bearing meteorites, and this Mukundpura chondrite is the fifth carbonaceous meteorite known to fall in India.

Degrees of alteration

The study revealed that Mukundpura CM2 had experienced varying degrees of alteration during the impact. Some minerals like forsterite and FeO olivine, calcium aluminium rich inclusion (CAI) minerals escaped alteration. Few magnetites, sulphides and calcites were also found. Detailed spectroscopic studies revealed that the meteorite had very high (about 90%) phyllosilicate minerals comprising both magnesium and iron. Further X-ray studies showed it also had aluminium complexes.

Relevance to asteroids

Dr. Ray adds that the results of the Mukundpura CM2 study are relevant to the surface composition of near-Earth asteroids Ryugu and Bennu. In October 2020, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission collected samples from Bennu and is expected to return in September 2023. Last month, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission landed on Earth with samples from Ryugu.

“Infrared spectroscopy results suggest that spectral properties of the surface of these asteroids are consistent with CM carbonaceous meteorites. Therefore, a better understanding of the nature and evolution of such meteorites that have been aqueously altered will help considerably in the interpretation of results of these missions,” he writes.

Early solar system

On being asked why it is important to study meteorites, Dr. Ray explains: “Meteorites are representative of asteroids. Asteroids are the remnant debris of the inner solar system formation process and thus offer the formation history or the building blocks of the planets. Therefore, by studying meteorites in the laboratory and asteroids by exploration and sample return mission we try to reconstruct the activity of early solar system events. Also, asteroids are often rich in volatiles and other minerals and can be exploited for future planetary exploration.”

The proposed Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP) aims to establish a system whereby all researchers in India can access research published in top international journals for no cost. The government will negotiate, said Akhilesh Gupta, senior adviser in Department of Science and Technology, on behalf of all research bodies with publishers to enable access. Currently, it costs around ₹1,500 crore annually to subscribe to these journals.

“The price of subscription is very high and individual colleges cannot negotiate with publishers. Only a small fraction of our researchers are now able to benefit from these subscriptions and we would like to change that,” Mr. Gupta said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

The Science Ministry hadn’t yet drawn up a plan of execution as the STI policy was still in draft mode. It was possible that the eventual cost to the exchequer would be higher but it would come with the benefit to increased access, he said.

Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Professor Ashutosh Sharma said, “Times have changed with the future coming at us at a much faster pace. This policy will help us prepare for the fast pace of change. New problems are emerging that could only be tackled through science, technology, and innovation, and this policy is a right step in that direction to build a strong foundation for the future.”

The policy sets a target for doubling the number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) researchers, Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (GERD) and private sector contribution to the GERD every five years.

The policy had been drafted through a “four track” process of consultation and endeavoured to major changes through short, medium and long-term mission mode projects. Dr. Gupta said the process involved nearly 300 rounds of consultations with more than 40,000 stakeholders.

The policy is to identify and address the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian STI (Science, Technology, Innovation) ecosystem to catalyse the socio-economic development of the country and also make the Indian STI ecosystem globally competitive.

Origin of fertile soil in the Amazon

Published in Nature Communications

Amazonian dark earth or Indian black earth is type of very dark and highly fertile soil patches found in the Amazon basin. Since many artefacts have been discovered in such regions, they were thought to have been brought in or created by the indigenous peoples for agricultural purposes. But a new study has now shown that flooding and fire disturbances may have created these soils rich in phosphorus and calcium and the “indigenous peoples used their knowledge to identify and preferentially settle areas of exceptionally high fertility,” writes project leader Lucas Silva, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Oregon in a release.

Dry Ryugu

Published in Nature Astronomy

In April 2019, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission completed an experiment in which it remotely analysed the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. Using this data, researchers are now trying to explain why Ryugu does not have water-bearing minerals like some other asteroids. They suggest that the parent body from which Ryugu formed was dried out by some heating event before Ryugu was formed, leaving the asteroid drier than expected. The team will now study the samples from the asteroid to see if lab analyses match these remote sensing results.

Satellite saves forests

Here is the story of how high-res satellite images from NASA's Landsat Science program decreased the probability of deforestation in Africa by 18%. University of Maryland created a system known as GLAD which sends email alerts to subscribers when the algorithm detects deforestation going on in an area, thus helping government agencies and other deforestation prevention groups take immediate action.

Treating bipolar disorder

Published in Molecular Psychiatry

About 2% of the world population is affected by bipolar disorder, and Lithium is currently being used as the first-line long-term treatment for mood stabilisation. But more than half do not respond well to Lithium treatment. Researchers have now identified that decreased activation of a gene called LEF1 may be the reason for this. “When we silenced the LEF1 gene, the neurons became hyperexcitable,” says Shani Stern, co-first author on the study in a release. “And when we used valproic acid, the expression of LEF1 increased, and we lowered the hyperexcitability. That shows there is a causative relationship, and that's why we think LEF1 may be a possible target for drug therapy.”

Care for some Kefir?

Published in Nature Microbiology

Kefir or kephir, a fermented milk drink (similar to thin curd) has been considered as a superfood. Now scientists have decoded how different bacteria and yeasts interact or work together to create the perfect kefir. “Cooperation allows them to do something they couldn't do alone,” says Kiran Patil, group leader and corresponding author of the paper in a release. “It is particularly fascinating how L. kefiranofaciens (bacteria), which dominates the kefir community, uses kefir grains to bind together all other microbes that it needs to survive — much like the ruling ring of the Lord of the Rings. One grain to bind them all."

A rare white tiger, named “Nieve” (snow in Spanish) was born at the Nicaragua zoo, and is being raised by humans after its mother rejected it, the director of the zoo told AFP.

Nieve came into the world a week ago, weighing just under a kilogramme at birth, said director Eduardo Sacasa.

Conservation group WWF describes white tigers as “a genetic anomaly”, with none known to exist in the wild. There are several dozen in captivity.

White tigers are Bengal tigers whose parents carry a recessive gene, according to The Wildcat Sanctuary in Minnesota which helps and studies felines. They are not albinos or a separate species.

Some parks and zoos inbreed white tigers, as white cubs draw more visitors, though this is often at the cost of malformations and other genetic problems, states the sanctuary website.

The Nicaragua zoo said Nieve was the first-ever white tiger born in the country, to a pair of yellow-and-black-coloured Bengals.

Marina Arguello takes care of a newborn female white tiger named Snow at the National Zoo in Masaya, Nicaragua, on January 5, 2021.   AFP

Nieve was taken away from her mother, who rejected her, and is being bottle-fed by Sacasa's wife, Marina Arguello, who helps manage the zoo of some 700 animals and a rescue centre.

Arguello whispers sweet nothings into the tiny cub's ear while it suckles, and pats it lighty on the back afterwards. “She has not lost her appetite; every three hours she gets the bottle. If not, she screams... also if the milk gets too cold,” said Arguello.

Airborne COVID-19 infection is definitely possible under certain conditions. Chances of picking up SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus from air is directly related to the number of positive cases in the room, their symptomatic status and duration of the exposure in closed room experiments conducted in various hospitals in Hyderabad and Mohali (Punjab) by the CSIR-Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB).

In closed room experiments, where one or more COVID-19 patients spent a short duration of time, one sample — collected immediately after the departure of three symptomatic patients from the room — was positive. The study, published in the preprint server medRxiv, recommends that the demarcation of hospital areas into COVID and non-COVID areas is a successful strategy to prevent cross infections.

And, in neutral environmental conditions, the virus does not seem to spread farther away from the patients, especially if they are asymptomatic, giving objective evidence for effectiveness of physical distancing in curbing the spread of the epidemic, it said.

“We have analysed the air samples collected from various enclosures in hospitals in the two cities and performed closed room experiments with COVID-19 positive individuals. We had collected 64 air samples from COVID and non-COVID areas of various hospitals and 17 samples from closed rooms occupied by COVID patients. Four samples from COVID care areas were positive for SARS-CoV-2 with no obvious predilection towards ICU/non-ICU areas in the hospital samples,” informed CCMB Director Rakesh Mishra on Tuesday.

Early detection and isolation

The study shows that early detection and isolation of positive individuals helps in preventing infection of other family members in a home setting. Viral particles could be detected in air especially in closed rooms where COVID positive individuals had spent longer periods, even after two hours of their exit from the room and at distances greater than two meters as well.

Dr. Mishra has said considering the increased public mobility and interactions and based on the study, wearing a mask in public or crowded places should be made mandatory. Using masks significantly decreases the viral load released by a COVID positive individual and the spread of the pandemic, to a large extent, can be attributed to people having unprotected verbal interaction from close quarters with asymptomatic COVID positive individuals, he pointed out.

The advisory following the study stated that the risk of transmission is very low if both the affected person and unaffected person wear masks.

The advice is to conduct larger gatherings in open and well-ventilated spaces as it carries less risk of infection. Adequate measures should be taken in offices/ schools to facilitate cross ventilation. Exposure to a COVID positive individual for a short duration (< 30 mins) when adequate precautions are being taken does not significantly increase the risk of contracting the disease.

It also means short duration of travel in metros/ local trains or buses is likely to be safe. If one needs to travel longer, the journey may be broken into sub parts to mitigate the risk. For example, if the journey from point 'A' to 'B' is for an hour, it can be broken down into two journeys of half-hour each better.

Caution while using public toilets

Caution to be exercised while using public toilets as flushing has the potential to generate aerosols which can stay longer in air and virus is known to be excreted in stool. Masks should be always on while using these and if possible, the same toilet should be reused only after half an houror more of last usage. Pictorial instructions should be stuck in the toilets regarding cleaning them after utility. This should be followed by adequate hand hygiene.

For those in home quarantine, the infected person should be isolated in a separate room with a toilet, keeping utility things separately and other family members should preferably wear masks besides ensuring the rest of the house if properly ventilated. Within offices, texting and mailing should be encouraged even if sitting next to each other in the same room. Instead of face to face interactions, mobiles and telephones should be used for verbal communication, the advisory said.

About 400 km above Earth, the International Space Station has housed not just humans but various critters including frogs, snails, ants, mice, swarms of flies, and over a million microbes. Spiders were sent into space for the first time in July 1973. Two European garden spiders (Araneus diadematus) were sent to the then U.S space station called Skylab to see if they could build webs in zero gravity. And voila, they could. But only five photographs could be taken and the researchers found that the webs were irregularly shaped. But they couldn't conclude if lack of gravity or lack of food and moisture made them build deformed webs.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria worldwide and the number of malaria deaths stood at 4,09,000. Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and is carried to humans via the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. A new study (PLOS Pathogens) has shown that if a mosquito has multiple bouts of blood meal, it can shorten the incubation period of the parasites and increase the malaria transmission potential. This poses new challenges to the current malaria elimination strategy. It also makes us rethink malaria research which is usually carried out by giving a single blood meal to the mosquitoes.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. researcher W. Robert Shaw, a lead author of the study, says in a release that malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in endemic regions feed on blood roughly every two to three days and the study shows that this natural behaviour strongly promotes the transmission potential of malaria parasites, in previously unappreciated ways.

The team found that malaria transmission potential in the sub-Saharan Africa region is higher than previously thought, making disease elimination even more difficult. They also noted that parasites can be transmitted by younger mosquitoes, which are less susceptible to insecticides.

The COVID-19 pandemic began in January 2020. Italy, France and the U.S. had the novel coronavirus importation in November–December of 2019, but it had remained unrecognised until laboratory test for diagnosis became available in mid-January 2020. By January 24, 2020, infection was detected outside China, Hong Kong and Macau, in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Viet Nam, the U.S., France, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Nepal. By January 31, last year, Philippines, India, Russia, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. had documented virus importation. By February first week,26 afflicted countries realised that they were in the grip of a grave pandemic. The race for vaccine development was on.

Advanced biotechnology laboratories and large-scale vaccine manufacturing facilities made India a front runner, if not the best bet, to win the vaccine race in the world outside of China. We had two more advantages: representation in two global initiatives– the Global Pandemic Preparedness Monitoring Board and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the latter advising the world to prepare for vaccine development.

The Prime Minister promised to lead SAARC countries in pandemic response. A mammoth market for vaccines was readymade for India as SAARC countries represent 21% of world’s population. India had the capability to manufacture vaccine on a large scale.

High-rated facilities

India’s vaccine manufacturing facilities are highly rated, globally. They have in-house research and development laboratories. However, they are concerned with research of a practical nature, for refining processes and products, rather than basic and fundamental research necessary for designing new vaccine candidates. Universities and Institutes of technologies are where such new ideas are incubated. Commercial manufacturing facilities depend on profit for research funding. Universities and Institutes, funded by government and private philanthropic trusts, can pursue basic research without financial constraints. When confronted with urgent need for vaccines, the wise approach would have been to establish a platform to bring the two groups together for fast-tracking vaccine candidate designs, pre-clinical and clinical trials, and up-scaling manufacture of promising vaccines.

Unfortunately, during January through March there was no guidance or leadership from the Government of India for vaccine development. The expertise of the two global initiatives was not adapted for meeting India’s needs or for asserting India’s global leadership.

Filling the vacuum, fortunately, a few private companies, on their own initiative, invested heavily in vaccine development and up-scaling of vaccine production. Consequently, two made-in-India vaccines are now under the national regulatory agency’s assessment for suitability for emergency use authorisation. Neither vaccine has completed Phase 3 trials. One foreign vaccine company with a vaccine already registered in a few countries has also applied for similar approval. The regulatory agency has not yet approved any of them, as of December 31, 2020.

China, by political decision and Russia, by temporary registration, initiated a national vaccination programme with indigenous vaccines by or before September, even before Phase 3 trials were completed. By the end of December 2020, thirty-three countries other than China and Russia had already started vaccinating their citizens with vaccines with proper regulatory agency approvals after they had completed very large Phase 3 trials. Four countries began vaccinations in the first half of December and twenty-nine countries began the process in the second half of December.

Unique opportunity

India had the unique opportunity not only to lead the world in vaccine development and supply, but also in designing a vaccination strategy and platform for rolling out vaccine to the public. India’s model would have been a guide not only for SAARC countries but also for many Asian and African countries with rather weak health management systems. That opportunity was entirely in the hands of the government. Utilising these two opportunities, India could have partly overcome the economic downturn due to the pandemic.

The Government of India, Science Advisory bodies, economic advisors, Academia, Medical and Science Academies and Biotechnology experts ought to do some serious introspection now, and analyse how and why India missed this opportunity, in spite of the Prime Minister’s exhortation to scientists and entrepreneurs to “Make in India” for wealth creation and prosperity.

We lacked neither competence nor infrastructure, but lulled ourselves into overconfidence and complacency. We were slow, but had we been steady, we ought to have won the race.

(T. Jacob John is former Professor and HOD, Clinical Virology Department, CMC Hospital, Vellore. M.S. Seshadri is Medical Director, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet, Tamil Nadu.)

A well-preserved Ice Age woolly rhino with many of its internal organs still intact has been recovered from permafrost in Russia's extreme north.

Russian media reported on Wednesday that the carcass was revealed by melting permafrost in Yakutia in August. Scientists are waiting for ice roads in the Arctic region to become passable to deliver it to a lab for studies next month.

It’s among the best-preserved specimens of the Ice Age animal found to date. The carcass has most of its soft tissues still intact, including part of the intestines, thick hair and a lump of fat. Its horn was found next to it.

Recent years have seen major discoveries of mammoths, woolly rhinos, Ice Age foal, and cave lion cubs as the permafrost increasingly melts across vast areas of Siberia because of global warming.

Yakutia 24 TV quoted Valery Plotnikov, a paleontologist with the regional branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying the woolly rhino was likely three- or four-years-old when it died.

Plotnikov said the young rhino likely drowned.

Scientists dated the carcass as anywhere from 20,000- to 50,000-years-old. More precise dating will be possible once it is delivered to a lab for radiocarbon studies.

The carcass was found on the bank of the Tirekhtyakh river in the Abyisk district, close to the area where another young woolly rhino was recovered in 2014. Researchers dated that specimen, which they called Sasha, at 34,000 years old.

The C40 Cities report of 2018 notes that by 2050, over 570 low-lying coastal cities will face projected sea level rise by at least 0.5 meters, putting over 800 million people at risk from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges. While the inland areas can be flooded due to the heavy rainfall, the coasts are threatened by the impact of tidal surges.

New metric

To understand if a coastal city is more prone to floods caused by tidal events or extreme rainfall, a team from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay devised a new metric or measure called the Tide–Rainfall Flood Quotient. “It is very important to understand the main driver of the flooding events for effective disaster management. Using the past rainfall data, tidal data, and topography of the region you can apply this framework to pinpoint the major factor at play,” explains Subhankar Karmakar from the Environmental Science and Engineering Department at IITB. He is the corresponding author of the work recently published in Environmental Research Letters.

The team selected three geographically diverse flood-prone coastal regions – Mithi Catchment in Mumbai, Maharashtra, Jagatsinghpur District in Odisha, and Greater Chennai Corporation in Tamil Nadu to test their new metric. The new method helped classify these regions into ‘storm-tide dominated’ or ‘pluvial (rainfall) dominated’ regions.

In Mithi, they found a devastating impact of storm-tide reaching even up to a distance of 7 km from the coastal boundary. With Jagatsinghpur, high rainfall inundated several areas in the central region and the flatness of the terrain prevented easy drainage of the flood-water into the Bay of Bengal, which further increased the flooding. The flood maps for Chennai showed that rainfall contributed to the flooding, especially in the northern and central regions. Though there was storm-tide in the eastern coastal region, it was in the ‘low’ hazard category. They concluded that Mithi catchment was ‘storm-tide dominated’, while Jagatsinghpur and Chennai were ‘pluvial dominated’

Better management

The team writes that the metric can help disaster management experts in framing better flood risk management systems directed towards long term planning. “For storm-tide dominated regions, severe flood hazard can be alleviated by building coastal defence structures such as closure dams, tide breakers, and storm-surge barriers at appropriate locations. The tide and surge forecasting systems in these regions should be equipped with state-of-the-art ocean circulation models...On the other hand, for pluvial dominated regions, structural measures such as rainwater storage structures, lakes, and detention basins should be prioritised in the flood management plans,” according to the authors.

Mohit Prakash Mohanty, the first author of the paper who completed his Ph.D. from IITB adds: “We have planned to apply this metric and calculate for the 76 coastal districts of India. It is a hugely time-consuming task as it involves various large data including rainfall, tide, landscape, and elevation of the area. Our study now has given an idea that such long-term planning is needed especially in a country like India which has highly populated coastal cities.”