Science & Technology - June 2021

When climate researcher Dailson Bertassoli went to measure greenhouse gas emissions at the Belo Monte hydropower plant in Brazil, the first thing he noticed was the bubbles.

Developers have built hundreds of hydroelectric plants in the Amazon basin to take advantage of the allegedly "green" energy generated by its complex of rivers.

But climate researchers now know hydropower is not as good for the environment as once assumed. Though no fossil fuels are burned, the reservoirs release millions of tons of methane and carbon dioxide as vegetation decays underwater.

So called run-of-river (ROR) dams like Belo Monte along the Xingu River, which have smaller reservoirs and channels allowing reduced river flow, were meant to address the problem, but a study Friday in Science Advances found that has not been the case.

Bertassoli's team studied methane and carbon dioxide emissions during Belo Monte's first two years of operation and compared the results to levels prior to the reservoirs being filled, finding a threefold increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

"Once you have the flooding of dry land, the organic matter that was trapped in the soil starts to degrade," the professor of geology and climate change at the University of Sao Paulo told AFP.

These were the source of the bubbles he saw at one of the plant's reservoirs. "Instead of a natural river, we now have a reactor that favours the production of methane," he added.

And as fellow author and climate researcher Henrique Sawakuchi pointed out, these "smaller" reservoirs are still quite large, with the largest on a partly dammed river where dead trees stand starkly white amid vast stagnant green channels.

Sawakuchi's brother Andre Sawakuchi, a University of Sao Paulo professor focusing on climate change and river systems who also participated in the study, added that this analysis highlights two issues to consider when building hydropower plants in the region.

"One is the local environmental impact on aquatic species unique to the area," he told AFP. "The other is the social impact to indigenous communities that live along the river."

Checkered history

Indigenous and environmental groups protested the Belo Monte's proposed construction back in the 1990s, causing it to be abandoned before being revived again as an ROR plant in 2011.

Environmental groups protested the loss of the forest that had to be cleared for the site while indigenous groups resisted the loss of flooded land and redirected or siphoned natural river flow.

Andre Sawakuchi argues it is important to keep the Amazon flowing, despite increasing energy needs, and not to "disrupt this natural cycle with hydropower plants of any type."

"This is the pulse of the river," he said. "With a hydroplant, there is no more pulse."

The authors concluded in their study that if Brazil must continue to build ROR dams along the Amazon, then it is important to at least avoid flooding vegetation, thereby increasing greenhouse gases.

A 2019 study by the Environmental Defense Fund found that some of the world's hydropower plants are carbon sinks — meaning they take in more carbon through photosynthesis by organisms living in the water than they emit through decomposition — while others are net emitters.

"There is no utopia here," Bertassoli said. "Especially for countries that look so hard at hydropower as a sustainable 'green' answer to their energy needs."

Ancient Egypt met modern medical technology when a mummy underwent a CT scan at an Italian hospital as part of a research project to discover its secrets.

The mummy of Ankhekhonsu, an ancient Egyptian priest, was transferred from Bergamo's Civic Archaeological Museum to Milan's Policlinico hospital, where experts will shed light on his life and the burial customs of almost 3,000 years ago.

"The mummies are practically a biological museum, they are like a time capsule," said Sabina Malgora, the director of the Mummy Project Research.

Malgora said information on the mummy's name comes from the sarcophagus dated between 900 and 800 BC, where Ankhekhonsu — which means 'the god Khonsu is alive' — is written five times.

Researchers believe they can reconstruct the life and death of the Egyptian priest and understand which kinds of products were used to mummify the body.

"Studying ancient diseases and wounds is important for modern medical research ... we can study the cancer or the arteriosclerosis of the past and this can be useful for modern research," she said.

A highly-awaited U.S. intelligence report on dozens of mysterious unidentified flying object sightings said most could not be explained, but did not rule out that some could be alien spacecraft.

The unclassified report said researchers could explain only one of 144 UFO sightings by U.S. government personnel and sources between 2004 and 2021, sightings that often were made during military training activities.

Eighteen of those, some observed from multiple angles, appeared to display unusual movements or flight characteristics that surprised those who saw them, like holding stationary in high winds at high altitude, and moving with extreme speed with no discernable means of propulsion, the report said.

Some of the 144 might be explained by natural or human made objects like birds or drones cluttering a pilot’s radar, or natural atmospheric phenomena, the report said.

Others could be secret U.S. defense tests, or unknown advanced technologies created by Russia or China, it said.

Yet others appeared to require more advanced technologies to determine what they are, it said.

The sightings of what the report calls unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) “probably lack a single explanation,” said the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“We currently lack sufficient information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations,” it said.

The report made no mention of the possibility of — or rule out — that some of the objects sighted could represent extra-terrestrial life.

The military and intelligence community have conducted research on them as a potential threat.

“UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security,” the report said.

Some could be U.S. rivals’ intelligence collection operations or represent other technology so advanced that the United States military has nothing similar.

The report was ordered after more UFO sightings by military pilots became public and pilot and radar videos leaked out showing flying objects behaving strangely with no explanation.

It stressed that pilots and their aircraft are ill-equipped to identify out-of-the-ordinary objects floating around the skies.

The only one of the 144 incidents in the years covered by the report that was explained turned out to be a large deflating balloon.

The nine-page report released on Friday did not discuss any specific incidents.

It was the public version of a more detailed classified version being supplied to the armed services and intelligence committees of Congress.

Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the frequency of UFO reports “appears to be increasing” since 2018.

“Today’s rather inconclusive report only marks the beginning of efforts to understand and illuminate what is causing these risks to aviation in many areas around the country and the world,” Mr. Warner said in a statement.

“The United States must be able to understand and mitigate threats to our pilots, whether they’re from drones or weather balloons or adversary intelligence capabilities,” Mr. Warner said.

At the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks issued a memorandum ordering more systematic reporting of UAPs encountered during military training and testing.

“Incursions into our training ranges and designated airspace pose safety of flight and operations security concerns, and may pose national security challenges,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

The department “takes reports of incursions — by any aerial object, identified or unidentified — very seriously, and investigates each one,” Mr. Kirby said.

Many dragonflies, beetles, butterflies, locusts and moths are known to migrate during the breeding season and the distance travelled varies with species. Most insects travel in large groups and scientists have been studying these movements for several years.

A recent study (PNAS) noted that the painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) can make 12,000 to 14,000 kilometre round trips. This is the longest annual insect migration circuit so far known.

Found in sub-Saharan Africa, the butterfly is able to travel to Europe, crossing the Sahara Desert when weather conditions are favourable. The caterpillars thrive in wetter winter conditions of sub-Saharan Africa and the adults migrate to North Africa during wet spring. They then cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

Simulations in the laboratory showed that favourable tailwinds between Africa and Western Europe help these insects in transcontinental travel. They fly about one to three kilometres above sea level with a maximum speed of around 6 metres per second. The researchers studied a similar butterfly species and calculated that the painted lady may have enough body fat to sustain 40 hours of non-stop flying.

In rural India concerns about COVID-19 vaccines are now increasingly commonplace. People voice their concern about what will happen to them if they get vaccinated and have doubts that the government is sending inferior quality vaccines to them. Vaccination sessions in local health centres often see very few or no takers. In contrast, urban vaccination sites face increased demand, especially in the 18-45 age group, and vaccine shortage is a major issue.

From a public health and equity perspective, this is a cause for worry. The fear of vaccines and rural communities not only resisting but also outright rejecting vaccination is a reality. There have been several reports recently highlighting this. A few weeks ago, villagers in Barabanki (UP) jumped into a river to escape COVID-19 vaccinators. Efforts by local health authorities to create awareness and convince people are of little avail. There are contrasting dimensions to COVID-19 vaccine rollout: one where people are enthusiastically accepting it and the other of resistance. There are many diverse factors at play in this, which may go beyond the health concerns and have more to do with socio- anthropological aspects of health-seeking behaviour.

Vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy is not a recent phenomenon. It is neither limited to a particular community or country, nor have we seen it only in the context of COVID-19. Various studies have shown that the acceptance of vaccines among African-American communities is relatively low in the U.S. Polls have also shown significant hesitancy among Hispanics and people in rural areas.

The fear around vaccines among people of colour, especially African-American populations, has to be discussed and understood in the context of Tuskegee experiment. It has often been considered one of the major incidents influencing how people of colour perceive public health interventions. This public health study which began in 1932 tested the progression of syphilis, while leaving many African-American participants without treatment for 40 years. Several participants experienced health complications, infected their partners and died due to their untreated syphilis. This experiment is believed to have left an indelible scar in the minds of many people of colour who now continue to carry deep mistrust for public health functionaries and vaccines.

We have also seen vaccine hesitancy among the urban and the more educated or ‘aware’ populations, with pockets of populations of socio-economically well-off communities refusing to get their kids vaccinated. While vaccine hesitancy can lead to a firm rejection of vaccines, there’s also a possibility of people changing their perceptions over time.

Socio-cultural context

Most of our fears and apprehensions stem from a deep impact of something adverse or unfavourable that we have personally experienced or our social circles have experienced. Over time these become our beliefs, our innate guards. In the context of the concerns described at the beginning of this article, we must look at vaccine hesitancy from a distinct lens of fear and not necessarily scepticism for new vaccines. These individuals, and the communities they belong to, are probably not really challenging medical science, or questioning vaccine trial results, adequacy or inadequacy of evidence. Rather, they seem to indicate deep-seated fears and belief in conspiracies, the fear of perhaps being discriminated and deceived and of being omitted (from societal benefits).

Parts of rural Rajasthan, where we have seen high vaccine refusal rates, are also often poorly resourced, and often tribal. Communities in this region here have believed that the widespread poverty and the general backwardness that they had been pushed into is a result of historically institutionalised discrimination imposed on them by those in power. They believe that they have been systematically alienated of their land rights, forest rights and kept deprived of basic education and health care. All of this has led to a state of despondency and, more than that, a very strong feeling of distrust and resentment against government institutions and those in power.

Such contexts cannot be ignored while we try to understand what might be fuelling the extreme fear and resistance around COVID-19 vaccine. The underlying causes revolve around their feeling discriminated, betrayed and exploited. They have lived with the notion that their lives have little or no value. It is thus natural for them to look at everything new, especially adult vaccination efforts during a pandemic, with suspicion and have their guards up. It’s the trust deficit which is at play here!

Building trust

Communities might not see the impact of a vaccine instantly, as it’s usually preventive in nature rather than curative. People are used to taking medications or intravenous fluids when they are unwell or in pain, and they may feel better almost immediately, but that’s not the case with vaccines. On the contrary, vaccines administered to a healthy person may lead to occasional side-effects like fever, body aches, etc. Add to that rumours about deaths post-vaccination, and it may not be so easy for people to get convinced about the vaccines.

Responses to vaccines must also be discussed and analysed in conjunction with and in comparison to uptake of other health care services by a particular population. Addressing vaccine hesitancy in rural India would first of all require health systems to be honest and transparent. Create awareness, let people know how vaccines work, how they help prevent a disease, what are the probable side effects and how they can be managed. Health authorities need to be comfortable about people raising questions, while providing them answers as best as possible. Moreover, it’s important to be patient with them. In most cases, it would take time before they change their minds, if at all. Being cognisant of local cultural sensitivities and working with trusted intermediaries is important in this effort.

Sustained and meaningful efforts need to be made to build trust, gain confidence of communities and meet their expectations. This would also require seeing them as equals, treating them with dignity and acknowledging their fears. To do this, governments and the health functionaries will need to break out of their conventional notions and beliefs around people’s healthcare-seeking behaviours and understand and address their fears and apprehensions. They will also need to rethink and alter their communication strategies and move beyond ceremonial awareness drives and campaigns to interventions that are truly engaging and which make the communities feel important and valued.

Even more crucial is to engage communities in planning, execution and monitoring of health care services at all levels. Create fora where they can freely convey what they want and how they want it to be delivered, where they can share how they feel about government policies, programmes or services and where they can hold people and systems accountable for gaps without the fear of being subjugated. Also, governments at both Union and State level must commit to investing more on health care and prioritising primary health care services. Quality health services in all aspects, and not just in sporadic efforts such as pandemic vaccination campaigns, should be delivered. Once we establish these, we might start seeing communities respond favourably and supportively to public health efforts.

(Chhaya Pachauli is associated with Prayas, Chittorgarh, and Jan Swasthya Abhiyan and works on public health issues. Anant Bhan is a researcher in global health, bioethics and health policy.)

On November 13, 2015, a meteorite fell near the town of Kamargaon in Assam, India. It weighed a little over 12 kg and scientists decoded its mineral composition and classified it as a chondrite, a variety of stony meteorite. A new study has now shown that by studying this meteorite and its minerals we may find new clues about the Earth’s lower mantle.

“We are always interested in knowing how this planet of ours was formed. The Earth has different layers - the upper, very thin crust, followed by the intermediate silicate mantle which starts from 30 km to 2,900 km depth, and then the centre iron-nickel alloy core. The mantle faces high temperature and pressure. So by studying these meteorites which may have experienced similar high pressure and temperature conditions, we can understand the inaccessible mantle layer in detail,” explains Sujoy Ghosh from the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. He is one of the authors of the paper recently published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Previous studies had noted that the Kamargaon meteorite contains minerals such as olivine, pyroxene, plagioclase and chromite. Olivine is also found in Earth's upper mantle. It is known to break down into bridgmanite and magnesiowustite in Earth’s lower mantle conditions. This breaking down is an important reaction that controls the physical and chemical properties of the Earth's interior.

Using new high-resolution electron microscopy and spectroscopy, researchers studied this dissociation reaction of olivine in the Kamargaon meteorite. They noted an alternative mechanism and reactions that may be driving the transformation of olivine. “It is possible that when materials are transported to the lower mantle by convection or subduction, there would be high-temperature conditions in the lower mantle that would cause this dissociated reaction,” adds Dr. Ghosh. The results suggest what processes and reactions may be involved in the formation of Earth’s lower mantle.

“This meteorite originated from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, and was somehow sucked by Earth’s gravity. By studying different meteorites, we can understand in detail about their parent body and in the process understand our own planet and its formation,” adds first author Kishan Tiwari, research scholar, IIT Kharagpur. “The question remained, however, if this process we identified could actually occur in nature. The mechanism needs to be verified in natural terrestrial samples in future studies.”

During evolution, the fitness costs experienced by bacteria under constant and fluctuating environments pose a problem that has not be solved. One way of seeing this is through the example of multi-drug resistance. It is not clear why some bacteria evolve multi-drug resistance while others do not. New research from the Population Biology Lab at IISER Pune could hold a key to this and a similar class of puzzles.

Multi-drug resistance is a menace in public health, however it is a fascinating problem to an evolutionary biologist who sees it from this angle: possessing multi-drug resistance implies that the bacteria is adept at handling multiple antibiotics simultaneously. This would increase its fitness appreciably. Given that antibiotics exert a very strong selection pressure, it would appear that every bacteria in nature can become multi-drug resistant, which is not the case. “One of the reason given for why that does not happen is fitness cost,” says Sutirth Dey, in whose lab the study was carried out. When bacteria become fit in one environment, they either lose fitness or fail to increase fitness in other environments. “Our study is showing that when the environment is fluctuating, large (but not small) populations can by-pass this effect,” he adds.

Yashraj Chavhan, Sarthak Malusare, and Sutirth Dey studied populations of small and large sizes across different constant and fluctuating environments and then subjected the evolved populations to whole-genome, whole-population sequencing analysis. They found that small populations acquire a certain set of mutations which allow them to survive in one environment while paying a cost in others. Large populations also develop these mutations but, in addition, have certain compensatory mutations that together give them fitness to survive in different environments. Thus, population size determines the kind of mutations available to the bacteria, which in turn, leads to the type of fitness costs they evolve.

In the paper, which has been published in the journal Ecology Letters, the group studied approximately 480 generations of E. coli in four types of steady environments consisting of different carbon sources, namely, galactose, thymidine, maltose and sorbitol, and one fluctuating environment in which the carbon source changed unpredictably between these four. Bacteria cannot use all carbon sources similarly. “Which carbon source is available impacts the bacterium’s ability to survive and grow. Since this is a very basic requirement for survival and growth, we decided to study what the availability of different kinds of carbon sources does to their evolution,” says Prof Dey.

The study showed that, all else being equal, whether the bacteria pay fitness costs or not will depend on the population size they evolve in.

Further, on doing whole-genome, whole population sequencing, the researchers found that the larger populations contained greater number of mutations. The smaller populations only had mutations related to metabolism of one kind of carbon source whereas the larger populations had known mutations for metabolism of multiple types of carbon sources. “We believe that this is the reason that the larger populations were able to bypass the costs while the small populations were not,” clarifies Prof. Dey.

The group plans to engineer these mutations in bacteria to formally show that they demonstrate antagonistic pleiotropy or compensation, in a confirmatory step.

Though the paper gives a very strong prediction about how population size interacts with fluctuating environments, it is not yet clear at what size the effect flips from cost to no-cost? “It will obviously differ from species to species. It would be interesting to figure out theoretically (and validate empirically) where these bounds are for different kinds of organisms,” he says.

About 9.1% of the world’s population in 2019, 703 million people, were 65 and over: the result of an acceleration in the ageing of the world populace. By 2050 it is estimated that this will rise to 1.5 billion (15.3%). As populations age, there is an increasing disease burden of vision-related disorders. Several of the most common reasons for blindness or moderate-to-severe visual impairment – cataract, under-corrected refractive error, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are avoidable if there are mechanisms available for early detection and intervention. Offering treatment to prevent or restore vision would be a noble deed of great value. Indeed, many nations across the globe are bravely doing their best, offering vision restoration with great commitment. As we can imagine, this is a Gargantuan task.

Data for the last 30 years, from a major study on the global burden of eye disease, published in the Lancet in February 2021, has noted that although much progress has been made in reducing blindness in this period, there is much scope for reducing the impact of blindness and vision impairment in our society. Outreach is far from complete and there is considerable variation between countries. There are over 1.5 crore people over the age of 50 with cataracts in the world today. A further 8.6 crores have severe refractive errors which can be corrected by properly prescribed spectacles. It is vital that more countries should get involved in this effort in their regions so that the number of needlessly blind people reduces in number and as many as possible enjoy 20-20 vision.

Peninsular India, comprising Karnataka, some eastern parts of Maharashtra, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Puduchery, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, has a population of about 36 crores. About 13 lakhs of these are blind, with 76 lakhs suffering from easily correctable cataracts and refractive errors. If we can devise viable methods to reduce this needless blindness by offering treatment modes, that would be a major advancement in reducing this burden.

Indeed, there are three notable centers in the peninsular area, the Aravind Eye Care System at Madurai, Sankara Nethralaya in Chennai (and Bangalore), and the L V Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad.The former two cater to the needs of blind people in the City and its Suburbs, and Aravind also caters to people in several districts in Tamil Nadu through mobile facilities, and free treatment for the needy; so does Sankara Nethralaya through similar facilities in Chennai and its suburbia, and at Bengaluru and its suburbia, catering to the needy poor for free). L V Prasad Eye Institute has set up a system that covers the entire states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, (and Nanded in Maharashtra) by establishing what has become known as the Rural Eye Health Pyramid (shown in the attached Figure). This pyramid comprises over 208 rural “Vision Centers”, situated at the bottom tier of the pyramid, each of which offers eye care services to a local rural population of about 500 people, essentially free of charge, by providing spectacles, and advising the cataract patient to go to the nearest ophthalmologist and so forth. A crucial link to communities is the number of ‘vision guardians’, individuals trained to be involved in their local environment and communicate with people about eye health and care.

In the second tier of the pyramid are 21 Secondary Centers such as rural eye care clinics, catering to people in the districts. Then we have three Tertiary Centers (each with its branches), which also do research work in ophthalmology, besides their regular clinical activities. And the Quaternary Center at the top of the pyramid at LVPEI Hyderabad which oversees and monitors in real- time the work being carried out at the tiers and corrects what, if any, that needs to be done, around the clock or 24/7.

What is most appreciable is the readiness with which local merchants and other public-spirited individuals from all the tiers of the pyramid have come forward to support the cause of the Rural Eye Health Pyramid- a total of about 1000 at the village level (bottom of the pyramid) and about a dozen at the secondary centers at the district level. These are the local equivalents of the Gates or the Tata Foundations, and we are deeply obliged to their philanthropy.

What about other ophthalmology centers across India? Yes, e.g., Aditya Jyot Centre, which caters to Mumbai, particularly Dharavi, where a million people live in a little over 2 sq. km of space; Project Prakash in Delhi and Western UP, and at Ahmedabad, Haryana, and elsewhere. They are no doubt analyzing the Pyramid Model, improving on it and will come out with their versions, based on the geographic and demographic conditions, and we welcome them and help them, in case they need. Indeed, we need more pyramids across the whole of India so that no one in our nation be needlessly blind al all; let all of India enjoy Vision 20-20!

dbala@lvpei.org

Scientists announced on June 25 that a skull discovered in northeast China represents a newly discovered human species they have named Homo longi, or “Dragon Man” — and they say the lineage should replace Neanderthals as our closest relatives.

The Harbin cranium was discovered in the 1930s in the city of the same name in Heilongjiang Province, but was reportedly hidden in a well for 85 years to protect it from the Japanese Army.

It was later dug up and handed to Ji Qiang, a professor at Hebei GEO University, in 2018.

“On our analyses, the Harbin group is more closely linked to H. sapiens than the Neanderthals are — that is, Harbin shared a more recent common ancestor with us than the Neanderthals did,” co-author Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London told AFP. “If these are regarded as distinct species, then this is our sister (most closely related) species.”

The findings were published in three papers in the journal The Innovation.

The skull dates back at least 146,000 years, placing it in the Middle Pleistocene.

It could hold a brain comparable in size to that of modern humans but with larger eye sockets, thick brow ridges, a wide mouth and oversized teeth.

“While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” said Ji, a co-author of the study.

The name is derived from Long Jiang, which literally means “Dragon River”.

The team believe the cranium belonged to a male, around 50 years old, living in a forested floodplain. “This population would have been hunter-gatherers, living off the land,” said Stringer. “From the winter temperatures in Harbin today, it looks like they were coping with even harsher cold than the Neanderthals.”

Given the location where the skull was found as well as the large-sized man it implies, the team believe H. longi may have been well adapted for harsh environments and would have been able to disperse throughout Asia.

Family tree

Researchers first studied the external morphology of the cranium using over 600 traits, and then ran millions of simulations using a computer model to build trees of relatedness to other fossils.

“These suggest that Harbin and some other fossils from China form a third lineage of later humans alongside the Neanderthals and H. sapiens,” explained Prof. Stringer.

If Homo sapiens had reached East Asia at the time Homo longi was present, they might have interbred, though this is not clear.

There are also many answered questions about their culture and technology level, because of a lack of archaeological material.

But the finding could still reshape our understanding of human evolution.

“It establishes a third human lineage in East Asia with its own evolutionary history and shows how important the region was for human evolution,” said Prof. Stringer.

A single dose of Pfizer or AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine offers around 60% protection against infection from SARS-CoV-2 in adults aged 65 years and above, according to a study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

To obtain real-world data on the effectiveness of these vaccines in care homes, the researchers from the University College London (UCL) in the U.K. used data from the VIVALDI study. That research investigated SARS-CoV-2 transmission, infection outcomes, and immunity in residents and staff in long-term care facilities in England for adults aged 65 years and older since June 2020.

This analysis included long-term care facility residents undergoing routine asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 testing between December 8, 2020 — the date the first vaccine was administered in the study cohort — and March 15, 2021 using national testing data linked within the COVID-19 Datastore.

This study was completed before the emergence of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 now dominating in the U.K.

The researchers estimated the reduced risk of PCR-positive infection at 0-6 days, 7-13 days, 14-20 days, 21-27 days, 28-34 days, 35-48 days, and 49 days and beyond after vaccination.

This was compared with unvaccinated residents, adjusting for age, sex, previous infection, local SARS-CoV-2 incidence, long-term care facility bed capacity, and clustering by long-term care facility.

The analysis included 10,412 care home residents aged 65 years and older from 310 facilities, with a median age of 86 years, of whom 70% were female and 1,155 residents (11%) had evidence of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection.

A total of 9,160 (88%) residents received at least one vaccine dose during the study period, of whom 6,138 (67%) received AstraZeneca and 3,022 (33%) received Pfizer.

Between December 8, 2020, and March 15, this year, there were 36,352 PCR tests carried out, with 1,335 PCR-positive infections detected — 713 in unvaccinated residents and 612 in vaccinated residents. The risk of infection was 56% lower in vaccinated residents after 28 to 34 days, and 62% lower at 35-48 days.

Similar effect sizes at 35-48 days were seen for the AstraZeneca vaccine (68% reduced risk of infection) and the Pfizer vaccine (65% reduced risk).

"Single-dose vaccination with either the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 in older residents in long-term care facilities,” the researchers said. "Our findings suggest that vaccination also has an effect on SARS-CoV-2 transmissibility by reducing the total number of infections in residents, as well as their infectivity."

The protective effect of a single dose of vaccination is evident from 4 weeks to at least 7 weeks after vaccination, which provides some evidence to support extension of the interval between doses beyond three weeks, the researchers said.

However, even beyond four weeks, a single vaccine dose does not eliminate infection risk, highlighting the continued importance of non-pharmaceutical measures to control transmission within long-term care facilities.

"Further work is required to evaluate the effectiveness of the second dose of the vaccine, and the effect of vaccination on transmission," the researchers said. "This knowledge will be critical to inform policy decisions regarding revaccination schedules in this vulnerable population and the disease control measures needed in the short, medium, and long term to protect long-term care facilities from future waves of SARS-CoV-2 infection."

Virginia Apgar (1909 – 1974) was an American physician, who developed the Apgar Score System, a method employed in hospitals around the world to quickly evaluate the well-being of newborns. Apgar scoring has helped decrease infant mortality to a great degree.

Virginia Apgar was born as the third child and raised in Westfield, New Jersey. Her older brother died early from tuberculosis, and her younger brother had a chronic illness. This perhaps strengthened her determination to become a doctor. She graduated with a degree in zoology in 1929 from Mount Holyoke College. Along with studies, she learnt violin, played sports, acted in plays and wrote for newspapers.

Apgar graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1929 and from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933. She joined as the anaesthesiologist at Bellevue Hospital, New York City, in 1935. Anaesthesiologists are doctors who specialise in giving patients anaesthesia, a medicine which controls pain during surgery. In 1937, she became the first female board-certified anaesthesiologist.

Apgar also became the first woman to head a speciality division at Columbia- Presbyterian Medical Center and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

She was appointed a director of obstetric anaesthesia. and researched the effects of maternal anaesthesia on newborns and how to lower neonatal mortality rates. In 1952, she formulated the Apgar Score as a way to assess how well a baby has endured delivery. It was published in 1953, and today is still administered worldwide.

What’s Apgar score?

Apgar Score is administered within the first few minutes of a baby being born. The baby is quickly assessed and scored against five simple criteria – namely Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration (backronym of APGAR). A score above 7 is normal, from 4 to 6 is considered fairly low and a score below 3 may indicate that the newborn needs medical attention.

Teratology

Apgar was also a name to reckon with in the teratology (a study of birth abnormalities) field of medicine.

She joined the National Foundation–March of Dimes in 1959, where she remained employed until her death in 1974. In 1972, Apgar co-authored a book called ‘Is My Baby All Right?’ with Joan Beck. It explains the causes and treatments of a range of birth defects.

Virginia Apgar was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995.

Foam’s behaviour

Published in PNAS

Who doesn’t love to play with foam? Now, chemical engineers have identified the life cycle of foam. The molecules of soap and detergent get accumulated in water to form micelles. The team noted that foam films have an ever-changing topography and the arrangement of micelles is governed by ionic interactions. The authors explain that this knowledge and understanding could aid in the development of new products — from food and personal care to pharmaceuticals.

Safe surgery

Published in Nature Communications

Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Purdue University have developed a new bio-ink for biosensors that could simplify surgery. These new biosensors allow medical practitioners to record and image tissues and help in identifying critical regions during surgery. The bio-inks are made of polymers which can also allow in 3D printing of stem cells. The team notes that the ink used in the biosensors is biocompatible and provides a user-friendly design.

How sour it is?

Published in Nature Communications

How do our taste buds identify the sourness of a food? Though we easily identify the sweet taste of any food, it is not the same in the case of sour foods. However, many animals are able to distinguish the sourness of foods. How are they able to do this? Researchers using the fruit fly as their research model found that the insect while tasting acidic foods activates a neuron that decides whether to intake or refuse the food.

Health problems in rural South Africa

Published in Lancet Global Health

A study conducted in rural KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa showed a high burden of undiagnosed diseases in the region. The 18-month study, conducted before COVID-19 screened 17,118 people over 15 years of age. It found that tuberculosis, diabetes, and hypertension were prevalent among both genders. Also, four out of five women above 30 years were suffering from a chronic health condition. “Our findings suggest that the massive efforts of the past 15 years to test and treat for HIV have done very well for that one disease…But in that process, we may have neglected some of the other important diseases that are highly prevalent,” the study author Emily Wong said in a release.

Protein filaments

Published in Nature Communications

The cellular skeleton in our body consists of various protein filaments. The protein filaments further consist of intermediate filaments and microtubules. The intermediate filaments get added to the microtubules and prevent the latter’s change in shape which ultimately helps to maintain the shape of our cells, notes a new study.

An instrument on board India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission has provided outstanding science results on the solar corona and heliophysics, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said.

Though we have a fairly good understanding of the origin of energy and other various aspects of the Sun, several potentially life-changing phenomena still remain a mystery, notes the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency.

Some of these mysteries are related to the hot outer atmosphere of the Sun, known as corona, which emits profusely in ultra-violet and X-ray wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

It is known that the corona consists of ionised gas at temperatures exceeding one million Kelvin, which is much higher than photospheric temperature of 6000K, the visible surface temperature of the Sun.

Sunspots help understand life around other stars

However, this observation is against the natural expectation that the temperatures should reduce as we go away from the source of energy, and this is known as the ‘coronal heating problem.’ From observations, such as the presence of even hotter corona, called active regions above the Sunspots (dark patches seen in visible images of the Sun) where the magnetic fields are known to be stronger, it is suggested that the magnetic fields have an important role in the coronal heating, according to the ISRO.

While there are different theories regarding the actual mechanism, one of these relies on the occurrence of a large number of small solar flares called nanoflares.

Another puzzling observation about the corona is that certain elements are found to have abundances three to four times higher in active regions than in the photosphere.

This happens for elements which are easier to ionise, or require lesser energy to ionise. In more technical terms, these elements have their First Ionisation Potential (FIP) lower than 10 eV, and hence this phenomenon is generally termed as FIP bias.

The exact reason behind the FIP bias and its origin remains an open question. A team of scientists from Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), a unit of Department of Space, used observations of the Sun in soft X-rays with Solar X-ray Monitor (XSM) on board ISRO’s Chandrayaan-2 mission during the deepest solar minimum of the past hundred years to learn exciting details about the solar corona, an update on the ISRO website said.

“For the first time, absolute abundances of elemental Mg, Al, Si in the quiet solar corona are derived. The team discovered and characterised around 100 sub-A class microflares in the quiet corona providing new insight into coronal heating puzzle”, it said.

The XSM, designed and developed by PRL with support from various ISRO centres, provides measurement of soft X-ray (1- 15 keV) spectrum of the Sun.

The XSM also supports the quantitative measurements of elemental abundances of the lunar surface using the companion payload CLASS (Chandrayaan-2 Large Area Soft X-ray Spectrometer) developed by URSC (U R Rao Satellite Centre), an ISRO centre, which measures the X-ray fluorescence spectrum from the lunar surface.

At present, XSM is the only instrument that provides soft X-ray spectral measurements of the Sun, i.e., measures the intensity of X-ray in different energies over the 1 to 15 keV.

More importantly, XSM provides such measurements with very good energy resolution at every second, the highest cadence for any instrument so far, the ISRO update said.

XSM started observations of the Sun in September 2019, during the period of solar minimum when typically there were very few Sunspots and active regions on the Sun.

The solar minimum of 2019-2020 was even more peculiar as the Sun was extremely quiet, and its activity was at the lowest level over the past century, the space agency said.

This provided a unique opportunity for XSM to observe the quiet corona without active regions for long periods.

The solar X-ray flux was observed by the XSM during this period when no active regions were present on the solar disk.

The Sun brings out a fresh batch of sunspots

A remarkable and surprising observation is the detection of a large number (98) of extremely small flares in the quiet corona.

These flares are so small that their intensity is well below the standard scale to classify solar flares (i.e. A, B, C, M, and X class flares, where each class is 10 times more intense than previous), and hence these are termed as sub-A class microflares.

Using the X-ray spectra of these microflares obtained with the XSM and contemporary images in Extreme Ultra-violet obtained with the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the energy content of these flares could be estimated, ISRO said.

“This was the first observation and statistical study of such a large sample of microflares in the quiet Sun, supporting the hypothesis of the presence of even smaller scale flares everywhere on the solar corona that could be responsible for the coronal heating,” the update said.

The X-ray emission over these 76 days, excluding the durations of the microflares, is unusually constant.

This is the lowest intensity of X-ray emission observed from the Sun since space-borne observations began, the ISRO said.

Analysis of the XSM spectra of the quiet Sun, excluding the microflares, provided the measurement of abundances of various elements.

The abundances of the low FIP elements Mg, Al, and Si were estimated and found to be lower than the abundances seen in active region corona but higher than that in the photosphere.

“This is the first report of measurement of abundances as well as reduced FIP bias in the quiet Sun.

Our observations of FIP bias in the quiet Sun provides significant inputs towards understanding the FIP bias and suggests that it arises due to the presence of Alfvn waves in the closed magnetic loops”, the ISRO said.

These outstanding science results on the solar corona and heliophysics obtained during a unique solar extremely quiet period using a sensitive instrument XSM aboard Chandryayaan-2 observations are published in two companion papers in the May issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“Both the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter and the XSM instrument are performing extremely well, and expected to provide many more exciting and new results”, the update added.

Hunger, drought and disease will afflict tens of millions more people within decades, according to a draft UN assessment that lays bare the dire human health consequences of a warming planet.

After a pandemic year that saw the world turned on its head, a forthcoming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), seen exclusively by AFP, offers a distressing vision of the decades to come: malnutrition, water insecurity, pestilence.

Policy choices made now, like promoting plant-based diets, can limit these health consequences — but many are simply unavoidable in the short term, the report says.

It warns of the cascading impacts that simultaneous crop failures, falling nutritional value of basic foods, and soaring inflation are likely to have on the world's most vulnerable people.

Depending on how well humans get a handle on carbon emissions and rising temperatures, a child born today could be confronted with multiple climate-related health threats before turning 30, the report shows.

The IPCC's 4,000-page draft report, scheduled for release next year, offers the most comprehensive rundown to date of the impacts of climate change on our planet and our species.

It predicts that up to 80 million more people than today will be at risk of hunger by 2050.

COVID-19, climate and carbon neutrality

It projects disruptions to the water cycle that will see rain-fed staple crops decline across sub-Saharan Africa. Up to 40% of rice-producing regions in India could become less suitable for farming the grain.

Global maize production has already declined 4% since 1981 due to climate change, and human-induced warming in West Africa has reduced millet and sorghum yields by up to 20 and 15% respectively, it shows.

The frequency of sudden food production losses has already increased steadily over the past 50 years.

"The basis for our health is sustained by three pillars: the food we eat, access to water, and shelter," Maria Neira, director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization, told AFP. "These pillars are totally vulnerable and about to collapse."

Emerging hotspots

Even as rising temperatures affect the availability of key crops, nutritional value is declining, according to the report.

Are your staple rice and wheat losing their nutrients?

The protein content of rice, wheat, barley and potatoes, for example, is expected to fall by between six and 14%, putting close to 150 million more people at risk of protein deficiency.

Essential micronutrients — already lacking in many diets in poorer nations — are also set to decline as temperatures rise.

Extreme weather events made more frequent by rising temperatures will see "multi-breadbasket failures" hit food production ever more regularly, the report predicts.

As climate change reduces yields, and demand for biofuel crops and CO2-absorbing forests grows, food prices are projected to rise as much as a third at 2050, bringing an additional 183 million people in low-income households to the edge of chronic hunger.

Across Asia and Africa, 10 million more children than now will suffer from malnutrition and stunting by mid-century, saddling a new generation with life-long health problems — despite greater socioeconomic development.

As with most climate impacts, the effects on human health will not be felt equally: the draft suggests that 80% of the population at risk of hunger live in Africa and Southeast Asia.

"There are hotspots emerging," Elizabeth Robinson, professor of environmental economics at the University of Reading, told AFP. "If you overlay where people are already hungry with where crops are going to be most harmed by climate you see that it's the same places that are already suffering from high malnutrition."

Water crisis looming

The report outlines in the starkest terms so far the fate potentially awaiting millions whose access to safe water will be thrown into turmoil by climate change. Just over half the world's population is already water insecure, and climate impacts will undoubtedly make that worse.

Research looking at water supply, agriculture and rising sea levels shows that between 30 million and 140 million people will likely be internally displaced in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America by 2050, the report says.

Up to three quarters of heavily tapped groundwater supply — the main source of potable water for 2.5 billion people — could also be disrupted by mid-century.

The rapid melting of mountain glaciers has already "strongly affected the water cycle", an essential source for two billion people that could "create or exacerbate tensions over water resources", according to the report.

And while the economic cost of climate's effect on water supply varies geographically, it is expected to shave half a percent off global GDP by 2050.

"Water is one of the issues that our generation is going to confront very soon," said Neira. "There will be massive displacement, massive migration, and we need to treat all of that as a global issue."

'Fault lines'

As the warming planet expands habitable zones for mosquitoes and other disease- carrying species, the draft warns that half the world's population could be exposed to vector-borne pathogens such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika virus by mid-century.

Risks posed by malaria and Lyme disease are set to rise, and child deaths from diarrhoea are on track to increase until at least mid-century, despite greater socioeconomic development in high- incidence countries.

The report also shows how climate change will increase the burden of non-communicable illnesses.

Diseases associated with poor air quality and exposure to ozone, such as lung and heart conditions, will "rise substantially", it says. "There will also be increased risks of food and water-related contamination" by marine toxins, it adds.

As with most climate-related impacts, these diseases will ravage the world's most vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has already exposed that reality.

The report shows how the pandemic, while boosting international cooperation, has revealed many nations' vulnerability to future shocks, including those made inevitable by climate change.

"Covid has made the fault lines in our health systems extremely visible," said Stefanie Tye, research associate at the World Resources Institute's Climate Resilience Practice, who was not involved in the IPCC report. "The effects and shocks of climate change will strain health systems even more, for a much longer period, and in ways that we are still trying to fully grasp."

A new species of skittering frog has been identified from the surroundings of the Thattekkad bird sanctuary.

A team of researchers from the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Mount Carmel College (MCC), Bengaluru, and National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar, made the discovery.

The new species is named as Euphlyctis Kerala in honour of the remarkable biodiversity of the State, which is also known for many endemic species of frogs.

The research findings of the study are published in the International Journal Zootaxa published from New Zealand.

The study is part of an “Integrative Taxonomic Approach (ITA)” wherein scientists utilise morphological characters, genetic studies and other parameters to substantiate their findings of new species. This discovery was a part of the Zoological Survey of India’s (WGRC, Kozhikode) faunal exploratory and documentation programme in the Thattekad bird sanctuary.

Initial studies suggest that the new species Euphlyctis Kerala is known to be found in the fresh water bodies of the foothills of the Western Ghats, south of the Palakkad Gap.

More studies are likely to understand the exact distribution range of the species from Kerala. Since these frogs live in fresh water bodies, conservation of these freshwater systems plays a crucial role in conservation of the species as well as species populations.

Although multiple skittering frogs have been described from India for almost two centuries (since 1799), the taxonomic mess within this group created a lot of confusion due to “morphological character crypticity”, say the scientists.

Members of the genus Euphlyctis (skittering frogs) have their distribution range from Arabian Peninsula, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand. Earlier, skittering frog species known from India were thought to be widespread across other countries, but with the help of the new work, these problems are resolved showing some of the frogs as endemic to India, the release said.

The study team says that it took a long time to resolve the problems as the locality names mentioned in the historical species descriptions were ambiguous and subsequent workers followed the same.

As of now, Kerala is known to have 180 species of frogs and there could be many more new species awaiting formal descriptions suggests the study team.

It is an established fact that human beings observe what and where something is happening around them using their sense of hearing. Humans, however, have a limited range of hearing and can perceive only certain sound frequencies – generally stated to lie between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz.

A new audio technique, developed by researchers at Aalto University, Finland, will now allow people to hear ultrasonic sources that generate sounds of frequencies over 20,000 Hz. The results, which were published in Scientific Reports early in June, also state that the technique would also allow for perception of the direction from which the sound is coming.

Listening to bats

Bats in their natural habitats were employed as the source of ultrasonic sound in this study. Using their technique, the researchers were able to hear the direction of arrival of bat sounds, effectively allowing them to track the bats in flight as well as hear them.

While previous devices have allowed humans to listen to bats, the fact that this allows us to locate them as well is novel. They achieved this by recording the sound using an array of microphones that were mounted uniformly on a small sphere, performing a sound- field analysis and obtaining the most prominent direction from which the sound originates. Additionally, a parameter also indicates if the sound comes from a single source.

The signal thus produced is then pitch- shifted to audible frequencies and a sound is played in headphones immediately, allowing the listener to perceive the sound and the source based on the direction from which it was analysed to arrive. While the pitch-shifting was performed in a computer during the research, scientists believe that this could be achieved using electronics mounted on headphones as well.

Detect pipe leaks

Apart from the general appeal that it has for humans in the fact that it allows us to hear sounds that we normally can’t, researchers also suggest practical applications. Minor pipe leaks and sometimes even damaged electrical equipment produce ultrasonic sounds that we can’t hear with our ears. Their device would enable quickly detecting the location of such faulty equipment, saving valuable time.

The Great Barrier Reef should be added to a list of “in danger” World Heritage Sites a UN committee recommended on Tuesday, prompting an angry response from Australia which said it had been blindsided by the move and blamed political interference.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation committee, which sits under UNESCO, said the world’s biggest coral reef system should be added to the list due to the impact of climate change.

Australia has for years been battling to keep the Great Barrier Reef, a major tourist attraction that supports thousands of jobs, off the “in danger” list. In 2015, UNESCO noted the outlook for the reef was poor but kept the site’s status unchanged. Since then, scientists say it has suffered three major coral bleaching events due to severe marine heatwaves.

Australia’s Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said Canberra had been assured there would be no recommendation on the reef by the UN before July.

Ms. Ley said she and Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne spoke overnight with the Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay.

“This decision was flawed. Clearly there were politics behind it,” she said. Ms. Ley did not elaborate, but a government source said Canberra believes China as responsible amid a souring of relations between the two countries. Chinese officials enjoy strong sway on three committees, while a Chinese lawmaker is chairman of the World Heritage Committee, the source said.

“We will appeal but China is in control, the meeting is in China, we don’t have much hope,” the source said, declining to be named as he is not authorised to talk to the media.

Environmental groups react

Environmental groups, however, rejected Australia’s assertion that the recommendation was political.

“The recommendation from UNESCO is clear and unequivocal that the Australian Government is not doing enough to protect our greatest natural asset, especially on climate change,” said Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, in an emailed statement.

The UN recommendation, which will be considered at a meeting of the committee in China next month, undercuts Australia’s assertion that it is taking climate change seriously.

Australia reliance on coal-fired power makes it one of the world’s largest carbon emitters per capita, but its conservative government has steadfastly backed the country’s fossil fuel industries, arguing tougher action on emissions would cost jobs.

Relations between Canberra and Beijing soured last year after Australia accused China of meddling in domestic affairs,and worsened when Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought an independent inquiry over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China has since moved to limit imports of Australian barley, beef, cotton and seafood.

Dozens of baby squid from Hawaii are in space for study.

The baby Hawaiian bobtail squid were raised at the University of Hawaii’s Kewalo Marine Laboratory and were blasted into space earlier this month on a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Researcher Jamie Foster, who completed her doctorate at the University of Hawaii, is studying how spaceflight affects the squid in hopes of bolstering human health during long space missions, the Honolulu Star- Advertiser reported on June 21.

The squid have a symbiotic relationship with natural bacteria that help regulate their bioluminescence.

When astronauts are in low gravity their body’s relationship with microbes changes, said University of Hawaii professor Margaret McFall-Ngai, who Ms. Foster studied under in the 1990s.

Ms. Foster is now a Florida professor and principal investigator for a NASA programme that researches how microgravity affects the interactions between animals and microbes.

“As astronauts spend more and more time in space, their immune systems become what’s called dysregulated. It doesn’t function as well,” Ms. Foster said.

“Their immune systems don’t recognize bacteria as easily. They sometimes get sick.” Ms. Foster said understanding what happens to the squid in space could help solve health problems that astronauts face.

The baby squid will come back to Earth in July.

Footprints from at least six different species of dinosaur – the very last dinosaurs to walk on U.K. soil 110 million years ago – have been found in Kent, a new study has claimed.

The discovery of dinosaur footprints by a curator from Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and a scientist from the University of Portsmouth is the last record of dinosaurs in Britain.

The footprints were discovered in the cliffs and on the foreshore in Folkestone, Kent, where stormy conditions affect the cliff and coastal waters, and are constantly revealing new fossils.

“This is the first time dinosaur footprints have been found in strata known as the ‘Folkestone Formation’ and it’s quite an extraordinary discovery because these dinosaurs would have been the last to roam in this country before becoming extinct,” said David Martill, Professor of Palaeobiology, at the University of Portsmouth. “They were walking around close to where the White Cliffs of Dover are now – next time you’re on a ferry and you see those magnificent cliffs just imagine that.”

The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists' Association this week and some of the footprints are on display at Folkestone Museum.

The footprint fossils formed by sediment filling the impression left behind when a dinosaur’s foot pushes into the ground, which then preserves it.

The footprints are from a variety of dinosaurs, which shows there was a relatively high diversity of dinosaurs in southern England at the end of the Early Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago.

They are thought to be from ankylosaurs, rugged-looking armoured dinosaurs which were like living tanks; theropods, three-toed flesh-eating dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex; and ornithopods, plant-eating ‘bird-hipped’ dinosaurs so-called because of their pelvic structure being a little bit similar to birds.

Philip Hadland, Collections and Engagement Curator, at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery and lead author on the paper said: “Back in 2011, I came across unusual impressions in the rock formation at Folkestone. They seemed to be repeating and all I could think was they might be footprints...This was at odds with what most geologists say about the rocks here, but I went looking for more footprints and as the tides revealed more by erosion, I found even better ones. More work was needed to convince the scientific community of their validity, so I teamed up with experts at the University of Portsmouth to verify what I’d found.”

Most of the findings are isolated footprints, but one discovery comprises six footprints – making a “trackway”, which is more than one consecutive print from the same animal.

This trackway of prints are similar in size to an elephant footprint and have been identified as likely to be an Ornithopodichnus, of which similar, but smaller- sized footprints have also been found in China from the same time period.

The largest footprint found – measuring 80 cm in width and 65 cm in length – has been identified as belonging to an Iguanodon-like dinosaur. Iguanodons were also plant-eaters, grew up to 10 metres long and walked on both two legs or on all fours.

When you swipe across the apps on a smartphone, or stare at the computer screen while attending your classes during the ongoing pandemic, do you ever stop to marvel at their wonders? If we were to look back at the different generations of computing, we would encounter a number of devices. While all of these more or less did the same thing at different scales, they were surely bulkier as we move back in time. We wouldn’t be able to go any earlier than the Baby, however, for it was the world’s first stored-program electronic computer.

Baby or Manchester Baby was the nickname of the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) that was built in Manchester, England in 1948. Englishmen Frederic Calland Williams, Tom Kilburn, and Geoff Tootill were the developers of Baby, a machine of critical importance in the evolution of computers.

ENIAC lacked memory

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was one of the earliest general-purpose computers that was introduced in 1946. While it was programmable, electronic and could solve a large class of problems through reprogramming, what it lacked was a program memory.

By this time, however, the recipe for computers that will soon change the world were almost in place. Hungarian- American John von Neumann articulated his ideas about a computer and described its architecture, consisting of a processing unit, memory and external input / output units. The von Neumann Architecture was at the heart of SSEM and continues to have its say in the internal workings of modern computers.

Radar to memory systems

Williams and Kilburn were top-class engineers with excellent working knowledge of the technology of the time. After having made exceptional contributions to the electronics of radar during World War II, the two men sought to switch to new fields after the war when the urgency of radar development reduced.

Aware that solving the problem of storage or memory systems would lead to a boom in computers worldwide, Williams turned his attention to the problem, hoping to apply his knowledge of cathode ray tubes to the storage of data. He was able to successfully demonstrate the operation of a single bit memory in October 1946.

In December that same year, Williams moved to the University of Manchester to take up a chair in Electro-Technics, now referred to as electrical engineering. Kilburn joined him soon enough and they worked together on their memory project. Joined later by Tootill, the trio successfully built a memory system by the end of 1947 that could operate and hold data.

Newman, Turin pitch in

The ultimate test, however, was building a computer around this memory system and testing its capability. While Williams and Kilburn knew all about electronics, they had to turn for support with respect to computers. Thankfully, they had the best in the business as their colleagues in the university, and they sought the help of mathematicians Max Newman and Alan Turing. Based on their advice, Williams designed the Baby, and it was built mainly by Kilburn and Tootill.

Almost the entire first half of 1948 was spent building the Baby. And then, on June 21, 1948, a program stored in an electronic memory was executed successfully for the first time anywhere in the world by Baby. A world of change was about to unfold.

Documentation of the program, which was written by Kilburn, has survived, including Tootill’s lab notebook. The actual code that Baby ran has been found and the popular consensus is that the first program was designed to find the highest proper factor of any given number.

While individual computers previously had been built to cater to specific problems, the Baby showed that one computer could do different jobs and solve a variety of problems. While this is something we all take for granted now, the idea was revolutionary in the 1940s, and it is this universality that makes Baby’s success a cornerstone in the evolution of computing.

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Spiders do not have sticky or adhesive pads like frogs and lizards, instead, they have toe pads covered in tiny, branched hairs. Called 'setae', these hairs are also found in geckos and certain beetles. Each hair is just one-hundredth of one millimetre thick.

The feet of wandering spider Cupiennius salei is made up of about 2,400 'setae' and a study published last month (Frontiers in Mechanical Engineering) found that each hair showed unique adhesive properties.

The research team from Germany studied how each hair sticks to rough and smooth surfaces, including sandpapers, glass, epoxy resin. They also looked at how the hairs stuck at different contact angles. Group leader Clemens Schaber of the University of Kiel said in a release that the adhesion forces largely differed between the individual hairs, for example, one hair adhered best at a low angle with the substrate while the other one performed best close to a perpendicular alignment. The team writes that this variety helps spiders climb different surfaces.

The team studied the hairs under hi-tech microscopes to understand their structure. They found that each hair was different and had previously unrecognised structural arrangements.

Understanding spiders can help develop new and better residue-free artificial adhesives, adds the team.

 

A pattern-analysis study of free-ranging dogs has come up with an interesting result that compares the language used by dogs with that of humans and other phenomena. The interdisciplinary study, which used a dataset of about 5,000 sightings of stray dogs, showed the existence of a power law dependence of dog behaviour that was a lot similar to graphs of human language.

A member of the team walked on randomly chosen streets and whenever a dog was seen, its behaviour at that instant was noted by them. “This way, we got a population-level random sample of behaviours of dogs at different places and times. We had a corpus of 93 unique [examples of] behaviour,” says Arunita Banerjee, a PhD student at the Behaviour and Ecology Lab, in the Department of Biological Sciences at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata. She is an author of the paper describing the work which has been accepted for publication in the journal Heliyon and has been posted online.

Power laws

Power law dependences are seen in many places in nature and in structures made by humans. An example of this is the set of words in a corpus – namely, if you take each word, count its frequency of occurrence and rank the words according to their frequency, and then make a log-log plot of the rank on the X-axis and frequency on the Y-axis, you will see that the plotted points all fall on a straight line with a slope -1 (minus one).

“Power-law dependencies suggest that there is, or are, underlying mechanisms(s), but extracting those mechanisms is not enabled by the power-law distribution, and requires further analyses of the time series,” says Ayan Banerjee from the Department of Physical Sciences of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, who is a corresponding author of the paper.

The present study works on the premise that the dogs’ language is a complex one involving intricate behavioural displays – gestures, vocalisations, movements, mating rituals etc. From the dataset of 5,000 sightings, the group ranked the gestures according to the frequency of use and constructed a log-log plot. The plot approximated a straight line with a slope equal to -1.7 (minus 1.7).

Multifractal behaviour

The group also observed a multifractal characteristic of the data. As explained by Nirmalya Ghosh, from the Department of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata, and an author of the paper: “When we plot the rank-frequency curve in a log-log scale, we observe that different sections of the data fit different straight lines (that is, they have different slopes). This implies they have different power law dependencies which is indicative of a multi-fractal nature.”

As Ayan Banerjee explains, “From a pure probability-based statistical analysis, one would expect that a high probability event would be the most likely to happen, and thus a rare-occurence event would be immediately followed by a common one.”

Thus, it would seem likely that a dog barking, would be followed by it sleeping – which is not what actually occurs in reality. “However, the multifractal analysis tells us that behaviours of particular ranks are clustered together. This implies that a behaviour of a particular rank is likely to be followed by one of a similar rank,” he adds.

The idea for this study came up to Anindita Bhadra, a corresponding author of the paper, from the Behaviour and Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences at IISER Kolkata, when she heard a talk by Ronojoy Adhikari, of The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. He presented a very interesting piece of work in which they had used the Zipf- Mandelbrot law to claim that the markings of the Indus valley seals are a language. She says, “I started wondering, whether we could do the same with data on animal behaviour and proposed doing this with Arunita's data. She had been collecting the data for a different study, and she jumped in.”

According to Dr. Bhadra, this is a tool that can be explored by other behavioural biologists to understand the mysteries of their model systems.

If the official count as on May 15 was over 0.27 million deaths in India since the pandemic began, based on modelling, The Economist had estimated around one million COVID-19 deaths as on May 15. Against a daily tally of over 4,000 deaths in May this year, the report estimated between 6,000 and 31,000 excess deaths per day. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimated that India will have one million COVID-19 deaths by August 1.

Based on modelling, a few Indian researchers outside India too had predicted that unrecorded COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic might be at least five times greater, taking the total COVID-19 deaths in India to over one million. “We have estimated death underreporting by a factor of two-five in the first wave. Now with the surge, the reporting infrastructure has probably eclipsed dramatically. So I expect the underreporting of deaths to be massive right now,” Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee, Professor of Epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Michigan told The Hindu on April 24.

State-to-State variation

“I think that underreporting varies a lot from State to State, and possibly also over time. Even within States, it is probably different in urban and rural areas. Many of the estimates (including my own median estimate of five times) are based on 2020 data. It’s too early to know whether underreporting has been higher during this wave, but as more data comes in, this will become clearer,” Dr. Murad Banaji who has been modelling COVID-19 and a senior lecturer in Mathematics at Middlesex University, London says in an email to The Hindu. “It may be that the speed of the surge meant that fewer of the deceased were tested, fewer received hospital care, and more died at home. All of these factors would tend to increase underreporting.”

While the official cumulative COVID-19 death toll stands at over 0.385 million (3.85 lakh) as on June 18, the actual count might far exceed the one-million mark if the models are to be believed. Besides modelling studies, all-cause mortality numbers from India’s Civil Registration System (CRS) from Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Assam do indicate that COVID-19 deaths in the country might be much greater than the official figures.

Excess deaths registered

Based on data from the Civil Registration System, from January to May this year Madhya Pradesh reported 42 times excess deaths while Andhra Pradesh reported 34 times excess deaths. In comparison, Tamil Nadu reported 6.2 times more deaths from April last year to May 2021, and Karnataka reported five times the reported deaths in 2021.

The excess deaths in the four large States have exceeded 0.5 million in the first five months of 2021 as against around 46,000 reported COVID-19 deaths in these States this year. “Not all these ‘excess deaths’ need to be COVID-19 but they are pandemic-related, in the sense that we would not be seeing them if the pandemic was not around,” says Chinmay Tumbe, Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and author of the book, ‘The Age of Pandemics’. “These four States comprise 21% of India and collectively are showing an under-reporting factor above 10. I would estimate the lower bound for excess deaths for all-India for the first five months of 2021 at 1.5 million.”

Dr. Banaji is a little more cautious while interpreting excess deaths based on civil registration data but does agree that it serves as a pointer to huge underreporting of COVID-19 deaths. “Civil registration data is not always easy to interpret, and we have to remember that civil registration is not complete in every State. Bearing this in mind, and bearing in mind that we can’t assume that the excess deaths are all from COVID-19, the all-cause mortality data coming through strongly suggests – as suspected – that underreporting of COVID-19 deaths is a major and widespread problem,” he says.

Additional, indirect evidence of the shocking rise in mortality during the second wave came from far in excess cremations seen in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and a huge number of bodies floating in Ganges and buried on the banks of the river in Uttar Pradesh. “The speed of the surge means that the rise in mortality became very clear whether we look at obituaries, cremations, news reports from villages, or registration data,” Dr. Banaji says.

“The excess cremations and bodies floating in the river may provide some empirical evidence for underreporting of deaths, but any conclusive statement cannot be made without reviewing linked medical certificates and/or verbal autopsies,” cautions Dr. Tanmay Mahapatra, epidemiologist and public health expert in an email.

Despite ICMR guidelines on appropriate recording of COVID-19 deaths, many States simply did not record deaths as due to COVID-19 in the absence of positive test results, leading to many COVID-19 deaths being missed. According to the guidelines, suspected COVID-19 deaths which are not confirmed through testing should be reported as such. The same applies to comorbidities. States such as Gujarat wrongly claimed to be following ICMR guidelines when deaths of patients with comorbidities were not counted.

Role of variants

Besides testing capabilities being stretched beyond capacity during the second wave, Dr. Mahapatra points out the role of variants in returning negative results even when the patient has COVID-19 symptoms. “There was some concern that newer variants are somewhat altering the sensitivity of the tests,” he says.

“If we applied our current protocols to the 1918 influenza pandemic, we would find that no one died of influenza in India even though the estimates are now placed at 20 million,” says Dr. Tumbe. “The reason: No one was ‘tested’ for influenza back then and the government had the common sense to note that if you died of a fever in late 1918, there was a high chance that it was influenza. We need to acknowledge that we have missed out on a large number of deaths due to the insistence that only those tested positive can be considered COVID-19 dead.”

If Maharashtra added 1,328 deaths and Delhi reconciled 437 deaths after an audit in June 2020, Chennai added 444 deaths to COVID-19 toll in July last year based on the recommendations of a Death Reconciliation Committee. Bihar recently added nearly 4,000 deaths to its tally after auditing COVID-19 deaths. But these were restricted to private hospitals and clinics. But the auditing did not include rural areas and deaths that had happened outside the healthcare facilities. “It is unlikely that a reconciliation like the one which occurred would capture these deaths. As civil registration in Bihar is also weak, to capture the scale of mortality in the State, surveying (as in Jharkhand) will be needed,” Dr. Banaji says.

Jharkhand became the first State to conduct a door-to-door counting of deaths during April-May 2021; it covered three-fourths of the total population. The State added nearly 25,500 more COVID-19 deaths, which is 43% more than the reported data. Verbal autopsy fills a critical gap in measuring mortality from COVID-19 for deaths that occur outside of healthcare settings and in rural areas. “In such scenarios where there is limited cause of death data, verbal autopsies have been recognised as a scientifically valid method of estimating cause-specific mortality,” says Dr. Mahapatra.

Emphasising the importance of verbal autopsy Dr. Banaji says, “Jharkhand has set a good example by doing this survey. Trying to accurately measure mortality over the course of the pandemic is crucial to understanding its impact. Verbal autopsying can be a valuable element in such surveying.”

Though Mumbai and Delhi witnessed a huge number of cases in both waves, one can expect underreporting in cities to be on a lower scale than in rural areas but cannot be ruled out. “We know that underreporting in cities can also be high. The impacts on marginalised communities (homeless, migrant workers, and those in slums) may not be captured in death registration data. So, even in cities, it’s crucial to have civil registration data, and ideally mortality surveying to assess the pandemic’s impact,” says Dr. Banaji.

Incorrect classification

For instance, excess deaths that went unrecorded were five times in Bengaluru since January this year and 10 times in Hyderabad during the period April 2020 to May this year. “It is hard to know why this factor is so high, and whether we’ll see similarly high underreporting from other cities during this wave when they release mortality data. It is possible that the speed and scale of the surge meant that more people died at home without being tested. It is also possible that a large number of deaths were incorrectly classified,” says Dr. Banaji.

“These examples show that while we might, in general, expect reporting from cities to be better than from rural areas, we cannot always assume that this will be the case,” Dr. Banaji adds.

But it must be borne in mind that deaths not reported within 21 days are considered as being missed and counted as excess deaths. In most cases, cities have access to medical certification and have the data within the public system to know what the actual number of excess deaths is. So it should not take much time to analyse the data. It is important to note that transparency and timeliness in death reporting are integral for the success of health emergencies and in ensuring better preparedness.

Rice, domesticated by humans over 10,000 years ago has now become the staple food for more than three billion people. But today’s rice does not have the same density of essential nutrients as those cultivated 50 years ago, notes a new study. Researchers from various institutes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya found depleting trends in grain density of zinc and iron in rice and wheat cultivated in India. The findings were published last month in Environmental and Experimental Botany.

The team collected seeds of rice (16 varieties) and wheat (18 varieties) from the gene bank maintained at the ICAR-National Rice Research Institute, Chinsurah Rice Research Station and ICAR-Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research.

Cultivar repositories

“These are nodal institutes that preserve and archive the old cultivars or varieties from our country. These institutes are repositories of genetic materials. If you want to study the genuine variety, or as botanists call them, ‘the true type’ of a plant, these institutes are your source,” explains Professor Biswapati Mandal from the Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya, West Bengal, and one of the corresponding authors of the paper.

The collected seeds were germinated in the laboratory, sown in pots and kept under an ambient environment outdoors. They were treated with the necessary fertilizers and the post-harvest seeds were studied for their nutrient content.

Falling nutrients

The team noted that zinc and iron concentrations in grains of rice cultivars released in the 1960s were 27.1 mg/kg and 59.8 mg/kg. This depleted to 20.6 mg/kg and 43.1 mg/kg, respectively in the 2000s. In wheat, the concentrations of zinc and iron --- 33.3 mg/kg and 57.6 mg/kg in cultivars of the 1960s, dropped to 23.5 mg/kg and 46.4 mg/kg, respectively in cultivars released during the 2010s.

Sovan Debnath, the first author of the paper explains: “There could be several possible reasons for such depletion: one is a 'dilution effect' that is caused by decreased nutrient concentration in response to higher grain yield. This means the rate of yield increase is not compensated by the rate of nutrient take-up by the plants. Also, the soils supporting plants could be low in plant-available nutrients.” He is a doctoral researcher at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya and a scientist for ICAR.

“Zinc and iron deficiency affects billions of people globally and the countries with this deficiency have diets composed mainly of rice, wheat, corn, and barley. Though the Indian government has taken initiatives such as providing supplementation pills to school children, it is not enough. We need to concentrate on other options like biofortification, where we breed food crops that are rich in micronutrients,” he adds.

Not sustainable

The paper concludes that “growing newer-released (1990s and later) cultivars of rice and wheat cannot be a sustainable option to alleviate zinc and iron malnutrition in Indian population. These negative effects need to be circumvented by improving the grain ionome (that is, nutritional make-up)… while releasing cultivars in future breeding programmes”

The coelacanth — a wondrous fish that was thought to have gone extinct along with the dinosaurs 66 million years ago before unexpectedly being found alive and well in 1938 off South Africa's east coast — is offering up even more surprises.

Scientists said a new study of these large and nocturnal deep-sea denizens shows that they boast a lifespan about five times longer than previously believed — roughly a century — and that females carry their young for five years, the longest-known gestation period of any animal.

Focusing on one of the two living species of coelacanth (pronounced SEE-lah-canth), the scientists also determined that it develops and grows at among the slowest pace of any fish and does not reach sexual maturity until about age 55.

The researchers used annual growth rings deposited on the fish's scales to determine the age of individual coelacanths - "just as one reads tree rings," said marine biologist Kélig Mahé of the French oceanographic institution IFREMER, lead author of the study published this week in the journal Current Biology.

Coelacanths first appeared during the Devonian Period roughly 400 million years ago, about 170 million years before the dinosaurs. Based on the fossil record, they were thought to have vanished during the mass extinction that wiped out about three-quarters of Earth's species following an asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous Period.

After being found alive, the coelacanth was dubbed a "living fossil," a description now shunned by scientists.

"By definition, a fossil is dead, and the coelacanths have evolved a lot since the Devonian," said biologist and study co-author Marc Herbin of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

It is called a lobe-finned fish based on the shape of its fins, which differ structurally from other fish. Such fins are thought to have paved the way for the limbs of the first land vertebrates to evolve.

Coelacanths reside at ocean depths of as much as half a mile (800 meters). During daylight hours they stay in volcanic caves alone or in small groups. Females are somewhat larger than males, reaching about seven feet (two meters) long and weighing 240 pounds (110 kg).

The two extant species, both endangered, are the African coelacanth, found mainly near the Comoro Islands off the continent's east coast, and the Indonesian coelacanth. The study focused on the African coelacanth, using scales from 27 individuals in two museum collections.

Previous research had suggested roughly a 20-year lifespan and among the fastest body growth of any fish. It turns out that this was based on a misreading decades ago of another type of ring deposited in the scales.

"After reappraisal of the coelacanth's life history based on our new age estimation, it appears to be one of the slowest - if not the slowest - among all fish, close to deep-sea sharks and roughies," said IFREMER marine evolutionary ecologist and study co-author Bruno Ernande. "A centenarian lifespan is quite something."

The Greenland shark, a big deep-ocean predator, can claim the distinction of being Earth's longest- living vertebrate, with a lifespan reaching roughly 400 years.

Ernande said the researchers were astounded when they figured out the coelacanth's record gestation period, which exceeds the 3.5 years of frilled sharks and the two years of elephants and spiny dogfish sharks.

The researchers said late sexual maturity and a lengthy gestation period, combined with low fecundity and a small population size, makes coelacanths particularly sensitive to natural or human-caused environmental disturbances such as extreme climate events or too much accidental fishing.

Fossils found in northwest China’s Gansu province indicate a new species of giant rhino that lived more than 26 million years ago, according to a paper published in the journal Communications Biology on Thursday.

The fossils including a skull and two vertebrae found in the reddish-brown sandstone of the Linxia basin shed light on how the ancient rhinos, some of the largest land mammals ever, evolved and moved across what is now Asia.

The dispersal of giant rhino fossils — others have been found on the far side of the Himalayas in Pakistan — indicate “Tibet, as a plateau, did not yet exist and was not yet a barrier to exchange of largest land mammals,” the paper said.

Giant rhinos like the newly discovered species, named Paraceratherium linxiaense, were hornless, long-necked herbivores, perhaps weighing 20 tonnes - equal to several elephants - and likely living in open woodland.

The first group of Chinese astronauts on Thursday entered the country’s under-construction space station, a major step in China’s plans to have a fully functioning station by next year.

On Thursday afternoon, the Shenzhou-12 spaceship, carrying the three astronauts, completed an “automated rendezvous and docking” with the Tianhe module, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) said, adding this "signified that for the first time the Chinese have entered their own space station”.

Shenzhou-12 was launched on Thursday morning from the Jiuquan launch centre in the Gobi desert, and the astronauts entered Tianhe around six and a half hours later, the agency said.

The three-man crew will be in orbit for three months. This is the first of two manned space missions planned for this year, part of an intense schedule of launches aimed at completing the space station in 2022.

The official Xinhua news agency said the mission will "help test technologies related to long-term astronaut- stays and health care, the recycling and life support system, the supply of space materials, extravehicular activities and operations, and in-orbit maintenance.”

The Shenzhou-12 mission follows a busy few weeks for China’s space programme, coming after last month’s launch of the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft, which carried vital supplies for the space station.

At least five more missions are planned for the year, with the Shenzhou-13 manned mission, also carrying three astronauts, set for later this year. The Tianhe module was launched in April, while the second and third modules to complete the space station will also be launched in coming months.

China last month landed a spacecraft on Mars carrying its first Mars rover, called Zhurong. The space agency last week released photographs captured of the planet’s terrain by Zhurong, hailing the success of its first Mars rover mission.

Separated for 1,000 years, two Viking warriors from the same family were reunited last week at Denmark's National Museum, as DNA analysis helps shed light on the Vikings' movements across Europe.

One of the Vikings died in England in his 20s in the 11th century, from injuries to the head. He was buried in a mass grave in Oxford. The other died in Denmark in his 50s, his skeleton bearing traces of blows that suggest he took part in battles.

DNA mapping of skeletons from the Viking era — from the eighth to the 12th century — enabled archaeologists to determine by chance that the two were related.

"This is a big discovery because now you can trace movements across space and time through a family," museum archeologist Jeanette Varberg told AFP.

Two of her colleagues spent more than two hours on Wednesday piecing together the skeleton of the man in his 20s, from the remains freshly arrived from Oxford.

The historical consensus is that Danish Vikings invaded Scotland and England from the late eighth century.

The younger of the two men "may have been cut down in a Viking raid, but there is also a theory that they (the skeletons in the mass grave) were victims of a royal decree by English King Ethelred the Second, who commanded in 1002 that all Danes in England should be killed," Varberg said.

It is very rare to find skeletons that are related, though it is easier to determine the relationships for royals, according to Varberg. While the two were confirmed to be relatives, it is impossible to determine their exact link. They may have been half-brothers, or a grandfather and grandson, or an uncle and nephew.

"It's very difficult to tell if they lived in the same age or they differ maybe by a generation, because you have no material in the grave that can give a precise dating. So you have a margin of 50 years plus or minus," Varberg said.

Decoding sneeze reflex

Published in Cell

A small tickle in your nose, exposure to irritants and viral infections can cause sneezing. But the cellular pathways and neurons behind them have been hardly understood. A new study has shown that a molecule named neuromedin B (NMB) was important for sneezing. When this molecule was blocked, the test mice did not sneeze in spite of being exposed to allergens. The researchers could also stimulate a sneeze reflex by exposing part of the mouse brain to the NMB peptide.

Snail survival skills

About 40 years ago, humans brought the North American rosy wolf snail to the island of Tahiti. This snail was a predator and it led to the extinction of over 50 species of native snails. But surprisingly one species survived, the white-shelled Partula hyalina. Now by sticking extremely small sensors to the shells of the snail, scientists have understood how it survived. P. hyalina could tolerate more sunlight than its predator, so it was able to live undisturbed in the sunlit parts of the forest.

Methane eating microbes

Published in PNAS

By studying sediments from seven seafloor seeps, researchers have found that these sites house several methane-oxidising microbes. These microbial communities showed high rates of methane consumption. Lead author Jeffrey J. Marlow explains in a release, that understanding these anaerobic methane-eating microbes, can help in bioremediation in other situations like landfills with methane leaks.

Bizarre lizard

Published in Current Biology

By studying amber collected from Myanmar, researchers have described a new lizard that lived 99 million years ago. The team named it Oculudentavis naga. Oculudentavis is derived from oculus = eye, dentes = teeth, and avis = bird and Naga is the name of one of the many ethnic tribes living in the Burmese amber mines area.

Sediment secrets

Published in Nature Microbiology

An international team of researchers has now discovered several bacteria that use DNA as a food source. They were found in the sediments of the Atlantic Ocean. "From the bacteria's perspective, DNA is particularly nutritious," says Kenneth Wasmund, lead author of the study in a release. "It's essentially a fertilizer. After all, it is a chain of millions of pieces of sugar and phosphorus- and nitrogen-containing bases." The team further studied the genomes of these species.

 

More than half the cosmetics sold in the United States and Canada are awash with a toxic industrial compound associated with serious health conditions, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame tested more than 230 commonly used cosmetics and found that 56% of foundations and eye products, 48% of lip products and 47% of mascaras contained fluorine — an indicator of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), so-called “forever chemicals” that are used in nonstick frying pans, rugs and countless other consumer products.

Some of the highest PFAS levels were found in waterproof mascara (82%) and long- lasting lipstick (62%), according to the study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Twenty-nine products with higher fluorine concentrations were tested further and found to contain between four and 13 specific PFAS chemicals, the study found. Only one item listed PFAS as an ingredient on the label.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, said the agency does not comment on specific studies. The FDA said on its website that there have been few studies of the presence of the chemicals in cosmetics, and the ones published generally found the concentration is at very low levels not likely to harm people, in the parts per billion level to the 100s of parts per million.

A fact sheet posted on the agency’s website says that, “As the science on PFAS in cosmetics continues to advance, the FDA will continue to monitor″ voluntary data submitted by industry as well as published research.

But PFAS chemicals are an issue of increasing concern for lawmakers who are working to regulate their use in consumer products. The study results were announced as a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to ban the use of PFAS in cosmetics and other beauty products.

The move to ban PFAS comes as Congress considers wide-ranging legislation to set a national drinking water standard for certain PFAS chemicals and clean up contaminated sites across the country, including military bases where high rates of PFAS have been discovered.

“There is nothing safe and nothing good about PFAS,'' said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who introduced the cosmetics bill with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "These chemicals are a menace hidden in plain sight that people literally display on their faces every day.''

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has sponsored several PFAS- related bills in the House, said she has looked for PFAS in her own makeup and lipstick, but could not see if they were present because the products were not properly labeled.

“How do I know it doesn't have PFAS?” she asked at a news conference Tuesday, referring to the eye makeup, foundation and lipstick she was wearing.

The Environmental Protection Agency also is moving to collect industry data on PFAS chemical uses and health risks as it considers regulations to reduce potential risks caused by the chemicals.

The Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing the cosmetics industry, said in a statement that a small number of PFAS chemicals may be found as ingredients or at trace levels in products such as lotion, nail polish, eye makeup and foundation. The chemicals are used for product consistency and texture and are subject to safety requirements by the FDA, said Alexandra Kowcz, the council’s chief scientist.

“Our member companies take their responsibility for product safety and the trust families put in those products very seriously,″ she said, adding that the group supports prohibition of certain PFAS from use in cosmetics. “Science and safety are the foundation for everything we do.”

But Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at Notre Dame and the principal investigator of the study, said the cosmetics poses an immediate and long-term risk. “PFAS is a persistent chemical. When it gets into the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates,'' Peaslee said.

No specific companies were named in the study, although supporting material indicates that researchers tested dozens of brands, including many household names.

The study did not seek to link any health effects to cosmetics use, but Peaslee said researchers found PFAS levels that ranged from a few parts to billion to thousands of parts per billion. He called the latter totals "worrisome.''

The chemicals also pose the risk of environmental contamination associated with manufacturing and disposal, he said.

The man-made compounds are used in countless products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent sports gear, cosmetics and grease-resistant food packaging, along with firefighting foams.

Public health studies on exposed populations have associated the chemicals with an array of health problems, including some cancers, weakened immunity and low birth weight. Widespread testing in recent years has found high levels of PFAS in many public water systems and military bases.

Blumenthal, a former state attorney general and self- described “crusader” on behalf of consumers, said he does not use cosmetics. But speaking on behalf of millions of cosmetics users, he said they have a message for the industry: “We've trusted you and you betrayed us.''

Brands that want to avoid likely government regulation should voluntarily go PFAS-free, Blumenthal said. “Aware and angry consumers are the most effective advocate" for change, he said.

A real-world study undertaken by Public Health England in 14,019 people infected with the delta variant (B.1.617.2) in England found that vaccination with two doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer offered high protection against hospitalisation. Of the 14,019 people infected with the delta variant, only 166 required hospitalisation. The study was undertaken between April 12 and June 4.

In the case of AstraZeneca, effectiveness against hospitalisation after full vaccination was 92%, while it was 96% in the case of Pfizer. The results have been posted as a preprint. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed.

Public Health England had earlier found that despite modest reductions, vaccines remain effective against the delta variant. It found that in the case of the delta variant, full vaccination offered good protection against symptomatic disease. Vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease was 67% in the case of AstraZeneca and 88% with Pfizer.

Effectiveness against hospitalisation was high even with one dose of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccine. In the case of delta variant, one dose of AstraZeneca vaccine offered 71% protection against hospitalisation, while two doses offered 92% protection. In the case of Pfizer vaccine, the protection against hospitalisation was 94% after one dose and 96% after two doses.

“These findings indicate very high levels of protection against hospitalisation with the delta variant with one or two doses of either vaccine,” the authors write. “Understanding the effectiveness against more severe end points such as hospital admissions is crucial in evaluating the risk delta variant poses on the population.”

“One dose effectiveness against hospitalisation [with delta variant] of the AstraZeneca vaccine was 71% and two doses were 92%. This is reassuring data for India. In order to choose our way forward, I think we should use modelling approaches that lay out different implementation strategies and compare their impact at different stages of the pandemic,” says Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore.

Another study posted as a preprint on May 24 found that protection against all symptomatic infections after a single dose of AstraZeneca was only 33.5% against the delta variant and 51.1% against the beta (B.1.1.7) variant. After the second dose, the protection against all symptomatic infections increased to 59.8% in the case of the delta variant and 87.9% against the beta variant.

These studies indicate that even if vaccines offer relatively less protection against symptomatic infection, the effectiveness against severe disease that require hospitalisation is far higher.

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A Chinese spacecraft will blast off from the Gobi Desert on a Long March rocket in the coming days, ferrying three men to an orbiting space module for a three-month stay, the first time China has sent humans into space for nearly five years.

Shenzhou-12, meaning "Divine Vessel", will be the third of11 missions needed to complete China's space station by 2022. Among them, four will be missions with people on board,potentially propelling up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space -more than the 11 men and women that China has sent since 2003.

The craft will also carry into space the hopes of some in Earth's most populous nation.

"The motherland is powerful," one person wrote on Chinese social media, which has lit up with well-wishes for the Shenzhou-12 crew. "The launch is a gift to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party."

Chinese astronauts have had a relatively low international profile. A U.S. law banning NASA from any connection with China means its astronauts have not been to the more than two-decade-old International Space Station, visited by more than240 men and women of various nationalities.

China, which aims to become a major space faring power by2030, in May became the second country to put a rover on Mars,two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

It also plans to put astronauts on the moon - the farthest celestial body that humans have travelled to.

THIS TIME, MEN

The Shenzhou- 12 crew is to live on the Tianhe, "Harmony of the Heavens", a cylinder 16.6 metres (55 feet) long and 4.2metres (14 feet) in diameter.

The planned three-month stay would break the country's record of 30 days, set by the 2016 mission - China's last crewed flight - of Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng to a prototype station.

Three men from China's first and second batches of astronauts will be on this mission, Yang Liwei, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office and China's first astronaut, told state tabloid Global Times last month.

China's space bloggers speculate they will be Nie Haisheng -who at 56 would be China's oldest astronaut sent into space -Deng Qingming, 55, and Ye Guangfu, 40.

The authorities typically do not announce a mission's crew until near or after the launch. China Manned Space did not respond to a Reuters fax request for comment.

The oldest human in space was John Glenn, who flew on the space shuttle at age 77 in 1998 - after having been the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate.

Also Read | To Mars and beyond: China’s space missions

While no women are scheduled for the Shenzhou-12 mission,they are expected to participate in every following mission,Yang told Global Times.

Two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were selected in 2011 among China's second cohort, after the first batch of 14 men in the mid-1990s. Liu was China's first woman in space in 2012,while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.

China began building its space station in April with the launch of Tianhe, the first and largest of its three modules.This year it aims to send a robotic cargo resupply spacecraft and three more astronauts, this time for a six-month stay.

While India has made ‘solid progress’ towards the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets concerning industry, infrastructure and innovation, the country’s investment in research remains unsatisfactory, the UNESCO Science Report has observed.

The gross domestic expenditure on research (GERD) has been stagnant at 0.7% of the GDP for years, although, in absolute terms, research expenditure has increased, the chapter on India authored by Sunil Mani, director, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, noted. India has one of the lowest GERD/GDP ratios among the BRICS nations, according to the report which is published every five years.

“India's research intensity has been declining since 2014. The Science and Technology Policy of 2003 fixed the threshold of devoting 2% of GDP to research and development (R&D) by 2007. This target date was set back to 2018 in the new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (2013) then again to 2022 by the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister. In 2020, the task force drafting the country’s new Science and Technology Policy recommended pushing back the target date to a more realistic 2030,” it noted.

Speaking to The Hindu, Dr. Mani said that in 1990, the density of scientists/engineers engaged in R&D in the country per 10,000 of the labour force stood at ten.

“It rose to just 11 in 2018, when it stood at 50 in China, 130 in Japan and 180 in South Korea,” he said.

R&D in the government sector has been in steady decline since 2015, whereas the share of private business enterprises in it has shot up to 42%. While in theory this is a positive trend, the R&D is focused primarily in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, automotive, and information technology. Even in these industries, it is concentrated in a small number of firms, the report said. It further noted that investment in R&D by foreign multinationals is on the rise, accounting for as much as 16% of private-sector investment in R&D in 2019.

On the bright side is the encouraging increase in scientific publications by Indian researchers on cutting-edge technologies. Total publications have risen from 80,458 in 2011 to 1.61 lakh in 2019.

“Indian researchers are publishing between 1.5 and 1.8 times the global average on smart-grid technologies, photovoltaics, biofuels and biomass and wind turbine technologies, complementing the government’s push to expand green energy sources,” the report noted.

But then again, patenting by domestic corporations, research institutes, universities and individuals remains low in India. The report noted that the majority of the software-related patents were being bagged by MNCs operating from Indian soil, while pharma patents were obtained mostly by domestic firms.

The UNESCO Science Report underscores the need for ‘policy bridges’ for fostering a more effective interaction between foreign and local research firms.

“Given the large number of multinational corporations now engaged in R&D, it is imperative that the host economy benefit from this activity,” the report said.

It also called for improved linkages between the start-up ecosystem and manufacturers to push technological development in sectors where India enjoys a global presence.

Japanese researchers found mouse sperm exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation for nearly six years produced a large brood of healthy, unremarkable "space pups." Their study was published Friday in Science Advances.

The sperm was stored in the International Space Station in freeze-dried form. Once brought back to Earth and rehydrated, it resulted in the birth of 168 young, free of genetic defects.

Developmental biologist and lead author Teruhiko Wakayama told AFP on Thursday that there was little difference between mice fertilised by space sperm and sperm that had remained confined to our planet. "All pups had normal appearance," he said, and when researchers examined their genes "no abnormalities were found."

In 2013, Wakayama and colleagues at the University of Yamanashi in Japan launched three boxes, each containing 48 ampoules of freeze-dried sperm, to the ISS for the long-term study.

They wanted to determine whether long term exposure to radiation in space would damage DNA in reproductive cells or pass mutations along to offspring. That could be a problem for our own species in future space exploration and colonisation missions.

Batches were returned to Earth for fertilisation after the first nine months, then after two years, and finally after six years, leading to hundreds of births.

Freeze-dried sperm was selected for the experiment because it can be preserved at room temperature, rather than needing a freezer.

The ampoules were also small and very light, about the size of a small pencil, further cutting launch costs.

When the space mice reached adulthood, they were randomly mated and the next generation appeared normal as well.

Space colonies

Wakayama, now director for Advanced Biotechnology Center at the University of Yamanashi, told AFP he had been inspired by the science fiction of Heinlein and Asimov and once wanted to be an astronaut. Though he settled on becoming a scientist, the sense of wonder and whimsy about space exploration never left him.

"In the future, when the time comes to migrate to other planets, we will need to mantain the diversity of genetic resources, not only for humans but also for pets and domestic animals," Wakayama and colleagues wrote in their paper. "For cost and safety reasons, it is likely that stored germ cells will be transported by spaceships rather than by living animals."

Getting to other planets means leaving the safety of Earth's protective atmosphere and magnetic field — which also extends to the ISS, 400 kilometers above the surface.

Deep space is filled with strong radiation from both solar particles and galactic cosmic rays from outside our system.

Solar flares from the surface of the Sun generate particles that can have particularly devastating impacts on human health and penetrate current generation spaceships.

According to Wakayama, the process of freeze drying sperm increases its tolerance compared to fresh sperm, since the former does not contain water inside its cell nuclei and cytoplasms.

According to the team's calculations, freeze-dried sperm could be stored for up to 200 years on board the orbital outpost.

Humanity might also want to spread its genetic resources off planet in case of a disaster on Earth, the paper added.

The study noted it is still necessary to investigate the effects of space radiation on frozen female eggs and fertilised embryos before humans take this next step into the space age.

An auction for a ride into space next month alongside Jeff Bezos and his brother ended with a winning $28 million bid on Saturday.

The Amazon founder’s rocket company, Blue Origin, did not disclose the winner’s name following the live online auction. The identity will be revealed in a couple weeks — closer to the brief up-and-down flight from West Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing.

It will be the first launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket with people on board, kicking off the company’s space tourism business. Fifteen previous test flights of the reusable rocket and capsule since 2015 — short hops lasting about 10 minutes — were all successful.

Saturday’s auction followed more than a month of online bidding that reached $4.8 million by Friday. More than 7,500 people from 159 countries registered to bid, according to Blue Origin. More than 20 bidders — the high rollers — took part in Saturday's auction.

Mr. Bezos announced on Monday that he and his younger brother, Mark, would be on board New Shepard’s first crew flight; the news quickly boosted bidding. The winning amount is being donated to Blue Origin’s Club for the Future, an educational effort to promote science and tech among young people.

The completely automated capsule can carry up to six passengers, each with their own big window. Blue Origin’s top sales director, Ariane Cornell, said following the auction that the fourth and final seat on the debut crew flight will be announced soon.

Blue Origin has yet to open ticket sales to the public or divulge prices.

Every year, the Indian Coast Guard’s “Operation Olivia”, initiated in the early 1980s, helps protect Olive Ridley turtles as they congregate along the Odisha coast for breeding and nesting from November to December.

“For optimal results, round-the-clock surveillance is conducted from November till May utilising Coast Guard assets such as fast patrol vessels, air cushion vessels, interceptor craft and Dornier aircraft to enforce laws near the rookeries,” a Coast Guard officer said. “From November 2020 to May 2021, the Coast Guard devoted 225 ship days and 388 aircraft hours to protect 3.49 lakh turtles that laid eggs along the Odisha coast.”

The Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) is listed as vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red list. All five species of sea turtles found in India are included in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and in the Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits trade in turtle products by signatory countries. Odisha has also formulated laws for protecting Olive Ridley turtles, and the Orissa Marine Fisheries Act empowers the Coast Guard as one of its enforcement agencies.

“Studies have found three main factors that damage Olive Ridley turtles and their eggs — heavy predation of eggs by dogs and wild animals, indiscriminate fishing with trawlers and gill nets, and beach soil erosion,” the officer said.

Also read: On the ground with Chennai’s Olive Ridley turtle troops

Dense fishing activity along the coasts of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, especially ocean-going trawlers, mechanised fishing boats and gill-netters pose a severe threat to turtles.

Coordination of efforts is done at various levels, the officer explained, including enforcing the use of turtle excluder devices (TED) by trawlers in the waters adjoining nesting areas; prohibiting the use of gill nets on turtle approaches to the shore; and curtailing turtle poaching.

Nesting habits

The Olive Ridley has one of the most extraordinary nesting habits in the natural world, including mass nesting called arribadas. The 480-km-long Odisha coast has three arribada beaches at Gahirmatha, the mouth of the Devi river, and in Rushikulya, where about 1 lakh nests are found annually.

More recently, a new mass nesting site has been discovered in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with more than 5,000 nests reported in a season, according to the U.S.’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries.

“Sea turtles generally return to their natal beach, or where they were born, to lay eggs as adults,” the Coast Guard officer explained. Mating occurs in the offshore waters of the breeding grounds and females then come ashore to nest, usually several times during a season. They crawl ashore, dig a flask-shaped nest about 1.5 to 2 foot deep, and lay 100 to 150 eggs in each clutch. Hatchlings emerge from their nests together in about seven to 10 weeks.

“Between the arrival of the mother and the hatchlings’ retreat to the sea, they go through various challenges. It is estimated that only one in a thousand survive to adulthood,” the officer added.

In 2014 and 2015, the brown rice coral in Hawaii was completely bleached, but the blue rice coral recovered quickly after bleaching, and blue coral was unaffected by the elevated ocean temperatures.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, U.S., have now decoded the reason for this resilience. Hawaiian blue rice corals have a deep blue pigment derived from algae called zooxanthellae that live inside the coral tissue. The researchers found that these algae produce sunscreen for the coral. This pigment has a protein named chromoprotein which filters out harmful UV radiation The findings of this study were published this week in Scientific Reports.

After the 2014 and 2015 Hawaii bleaching events, the blue rice coral was found to have exceptional reproductive vigour at 90% motility. But the brown coral's motility was only half this. A key factor in the blue rice coral's ability to reproduce successfully might be its sunscreen pigment, which the coral may retain even if it bleaches.

Lead author Mike Henley, explains in a release that by studying blue rice corals' reproductive successes, we can better understand how other corals weather climate change and ocean warming.

Our happy memories of school often include chemistry practicals – test tubes and Bunsen burners. Chemistry is the study of the properties of molecules. Everything living and non-living, is made of molecules. The simple chemicals that were learnt in school, such as hydrochloric acid (which has two atoms, one hydrogen; one chlorine), are dwarfed by the complexities of biological chemistry. A protein molecule can have thousands of atoms.

Simulating molecules

With increasing knowledge of chemical principles, it has been possible to move from the ‘test tube’ to theoretical studies of molecules, their structure and their interactions with other molecules. Just as there are games that let you simulate the landing of an aircraft on your computer screen, one can simulate the interactions between complex biological molecules with reasonable accuracy. Whether in simulating flight, or a molecule, mathematical methods are being linked to fundamental laws of physics. After all a protein is only a linear chain of linked amino acids (of which there are 20, each made up of between 10 and 27 atoms), neatly folded into a unique shape. Amino acids vary in their charge (positive, negative, neutral) or stickiness. Some regions of the chain of amino acids are buried in the core of the molecule. Others are on the surface. Surface amino acids determine interactions between proteins - important for assembling a structure, for binding to receptors, to antibodies and so on.

Back in the real world, many of us have anxiously followed the progress of the covid-19 pandemic, looking for signs of it slowing down. We have learnt new jargon, got accustomed to scary images of a ball-like virus particle studded with “spikes”. Now, we are confronted with new and worrying variants, each of which is described either with a geographical moniker, or with a WHO classification (Greek alphabets alpha, beta, etc.) or more accurately, with a code such as E484K, D614G. The numbers take us back to our linear chain of amino acids in a protein, which in this case is the spike protein on the surface of the virus. The spike protein initiates infection – it is attracted to and binds to a receptor molecule that lies on the surface of cells in your lung and other tissues. This protein molecule is a chain of 1,273 amino acids, and three individual molecules lock together to form the familiar ‘spike’ shape. The 484 is the position in the chain. It lies within the crucial motif that binds to the host receptor E is shorthand for Glutamate, an amino acid with a negative charge, which is now mutated to K (Lysine) – an amino acid with a positive charge. This mutation is found in the Beta and Gamma variants.

Effect of mutations

Notice that the mutation has replaced a negatively charged Glutamate with a positively charged Lysine. Will this bode well for us humans? Available data from the field suggest that infectivity of this particular variant of the virus seems to be enhanced. It also appears to make this variant less recognisable to some antibodies generated against the virus.

The Delta variant, much in the news, has a E484Q mutation, Q standing for Glutamine – which is not very different from Glutamate (E), but is neutral in charge and polar. The second mutation is L452R, which also lies within the receptor- binding motif of spike. L is Leucine, an uncharged, ’sticky’ amino acid and R the positively charged Arginine.

An important point to be made here is that the numerous variants of concern do not just have the one or two amino acid changes in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein described above. The Alpha variant first seen in the U.K. has a total of 23 mutations. Nine of these are in other parts of the spike protein, some more are in other constituents of the virus, and are not well understood.

It is apparent that changes of this sort – a replacement or two in a macromolecule - can be modeled in a computational environment quite efficiently and with reasonable confidence. Such modelling would give us quick approximations of what to expect whenever a new variant of a viral protein arises. Going further, modelling could help design and refine drug molecules that would bind tightly to a target protein. For example, the coronavirus has an enzyme, a protease that trims the spike protein to its correct size before a new virus particle is assembled. A drug molecule that would bind tightly to this enzyme would inhibit the trimming action and curtail the growth of the virus. Molecular modelling allows you to try out thousands of potential candidates for narrowing down to a few best-fit candidates that could then be tested in real laboratory experiments.

(This article has been co-authored by Sushil Chandani (sushilchandani@gmail.com) who is an independent consultant in computer modelling of complex molecules.)

dbala@lvpei.org

On June 7, when India announced a reversal of vaccine procurement to a system of centralised procurement with free vaccines to be provided for the 18–44 age group, it allowed 25% of vaccine procurement exclusively by the private sector. In an email to The Hindu, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore, and Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist and a vaccine and health systems expert, discuss the ethical and structural challenges of setting aside 25% of vaccines for private hospitals.

Is it prudent to allocate 25% of vaccine supplies to private hospitals when there is shortage of vaccines? Does selling vaccines, and that too at a far higher price, go against the grain of the universal free vaccination programme that is needed during the pandemic?

Gagandeep Kang: The universal vaccination programme should provide for free vaccines to all. The goal of the immunisation programme should be clearly defined, whether it is prevention of severe disease or deaths, or restoration of the economy, or a calibrated mix of the two primary aims.

When there is a shortage of supply, groups of individuals that need to receive vaccines first should be clearly delineated in the prioritisation policy. Sometimes it is not possible to identify or address all priority groups in an initial listing.

In India, we have always followed a two-tiered structure for immunisation. The bulk of immunisation is provided by the public sector which reaches the length and breadth of the country. A smaller proportion of immunisation is provided by the private sector, on payment basis; a much wider range of vaccines are available for those who can afford to pay for them.

If it is decided, as it has been by the government, the private sector purchase of vaccines is justified then clearly selling vaccines follows prior practice. The difference is the shortage in supply, and the need to ensure the coverage required for the target population. It would have been useful to have some guidance on the expected coverage that needed to be achieved before opening up to the private sector.

With regard to the pricing, the private sector has always charged a higher price for immunisation both for the purchase of the vaccine, which is determined by vaccine companies, and for the clinics and hospitals that deliver the vaccination.

Chandrakant Lahariya: The private sector has around 3–4% of total COVID-19 vaccination sites. Even if we factor in ‘on the campus vaccination drives’, which are being carried out by the private sector, the total vaccine requirement of the private sector is not more than 10% of the current availability. Therefore, allocation of 25% of available vaccines to the private sector is essentially cutting down the vaccine supply to the public sector facilities.

Moreover, allocating one-fourth of vaccination at an average 7–8-fold higher price (even if we factor in share of various vaccines); essentially means the total cost which people have to pay for vaccines would be around 1.75-2-fold higher than what the government would spend for three-fourths of the vaccine supply. At the vaccine sharing formula, of the total COVID-19 vaccine cost in India, two-thirds will be paid by the people. Then it becomes predominantly a paid programme, rather than a free vaccination programme, as the government is calling it.

Will private hospitals being predominantly found in urban areas lead to vaccine inequity in rural areas?

Gagandeep Kang: Vaccine inequity is a critical area of concern. However, immunisation in rural areas is not usually undertaken by large private hospitals. Private hospitals are located in and serve the populations of urban areas. Even before the private provision of vaccination started, inequity was a concern, both because of the digital divide as well as the delivery of vaccines in rural areas.

We also need to think about the communication and vaccination messages and processes that need to be in place for rural areas, and the potential private partners to deliver these vaccines in rural or hard to reach areas, to reduce vaccine inequity.

Chandrakant Lahariya: This is actually the key concern. Vaccination from private facilities would remain mostly for urban settings. This essentially means the rich and urban population has higher availability and easier access to the vaccines. This further aggravates vaccine inequity as even the government vaccination sites are far and few in rural areas. We have already seen that with technology-driven solutions to get registered the gap widens and puts poor, vulnerable, rural and marginalised — who actually need the vaccine most — at the end of vaccine access. There is reportedly higher vaccine hesitancy in the rural population. All of this understanding should be used to develop special strategies by the government to proactively address vaccine hesitancy.

Despite claims that allowing private hospitals will lead to exponential increase in vaccination coverage, only about 10% of vaccines were administered by private hospitals early on when there was a cap on price. Will we see an encore of this with a cap on vaccine administration charges?

Chandrakant Lahariya: In the four-decade old universal immunisation programme (UIP) of India, the private sector share of total vaccines is around 15%. It is the government facility which delivers around 85% of UIP vaccines. Thus, there is no reason to believe that the private sector would have any big role in COVID-19 vaccination. Moreover, the market price of currently licensed COVID-19 vaccines is far too high and is affordable to only the rich. The service charge is a fraction of the vaccination cost. The core issue is the vaccine price.

Should vaccine procurement not be 100% centralised and private hospitals provided free vaccines by the government?

Gagandeep Kang: I think that vaccine procurement should be 100% by the government. This should be provided through both public and private vaccination facilities until we reach at least 70% coverage of the above 45 years age group and the high-risk categories in the younger ages. After that, the government could consider the allocation of a proportion of vaccines through the private sector and let the free market operate. Of course, once it comes to children needing vaccination, we will need to reconsider based on supply and strategy.

Chandrakant Lahariya: The Central government should pay and procure 100% of vaccines at a single price. For people, vaccines should be completely free, no matter whether they go to a government or a private facility. At a private facility, the service charge should be paid by the government, on behalf of people. It is a public health emergency and not normal times.

Will it not be prudent to allow imported vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna and J&J) available through private hospitals while making Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V vaccines free even in private hospitals?

Gagandeep Kang: I think this is an excellent idea. The imported vaccines other than J&J have storage requirements that can be extremely challenging for government facilities to deliver. One way to think about this might be that any vaccines that are purchased by the central government for the national immunisation programme could be delivered by vaccination facilities anywhere based on their need. Other vaccines that are not included in the national programme could be purchased by private providers and administered through their own facilities or outreach clinics.

Serum is supposed to increase capacity to 100 million doses per month by July. Covaxin production too is supposed to increase to 60– 70 million per month by July–August. But the government is set to procure only 250 million Covishield doses and 190 million doses of Covaxin between August and December. This translates to procurement of just 50 million doses of Covishield and 38 million doses of Covaxin per month during this period by the government. Will that mean that private hospitals will get more than 25% of vaccines produced?

Gagandeep Kang: I think the orders currently placed by the government are not the entirety of the vaccine doses that will be needed or procured given the policy announced by the government. Therefore, the figures currently available for the gap between the production and the availability of future doses within the public immunisation programme, are unlikely to be directed entirely to the private sector. I think we should wait for the government to place additional orders with existing manufacturers.

Chandrakant Lahariya: I believe the manufacturers would use some of this to fulfil their bilateral sales/purchase commitment and global commitment such as COVAX, which in my opinion is a fair deal.

Is it sound rationale to say that higher charges levied at private hospitals will “incentivise production by vaccine manufacturers and encourage new vaccines”?

Gagandeep Kang: High prices for vaccines have encouraged vaccine manufacturers to invest in the development of new products. For every manufacturer that needs to be some assurance of return if they are to invest in making a new product. This is a principle that applies not just to vaccines but to all goods. Whether the 25% reservation for the private sector is sufficient incentive for them to produce wholly new products specifically for this segment of the population is unclear, but it seems unlikely to me because Indian manufacturers have so far focused on products that are used in India or outside in large-scale routine immunisation programmes, with the main markets being UNICEF, Gavi Alliance and country governments with a much smaller volume to private markets.

Chandrakant Lahariya: The thinking that market-based vaccine pricing will incentivise production in the middle of the pandemic is not very sound. If incentivising manufacturers is a short-term objective, then vaccine production is unlikely to increase as it is dependent upon multiple ‘rate limiting’ factors such as setting up manufacturing units, securing raw material, seeking approvals and other things. However, if increasing vaccine production was a long-term goal, then doing this in the middle of the pandemic is a wrong approach.

As the government is a co- developer of Covaxin and shares the IPR and gets royalty from sales, is it right to allow the companies to sell vaccines at a higher price to private hospitals?

Chandrakant Lahariya: The core of government–private sector partnership has to be an affordable product or service. A product which is sold at many times higher price in the private market than the price to the government puts both the government and manufacturers in a very bad light. If the government agrees for any such price set by the manufacturer, then the government should subsidise the cost of the vaccine for its people.

Will allocation of vaccines based on a few parameters including wastage lead to fudging of data or denial of vaccines in some cases to ensure reduced wastage? With several States under-reporting cases, will allotment based on disease burden negatively impact virus spread?

Gagandeep Kang: It is a truism in public health that we need to accurately measure what matters in order to decide what action needs to be taken. If measurement is inaccurate or deliberately misreported then we have a problem of allocation becoming inappropriate. There are several alternative ways of deciding on allocation, and perhaps the simplest is to do it on the basis of the eligible population.

I think we need to be aware that the most important thing is to be vaccinating as quickly as possible. Allotment based on disease burden would require an approach that could saturate the most affected areas with vaccines to prevent further spread.

While July was the target date to vaccinate 300 million health-care workers, frontline workers, and those above 45 years, only 230 million have been vaccinated including those above 18 years. Can India vaccinate the entire population above 18 years by December this year as said in the Supreme Court?

Chandrakant Lahariya: When we say vaccinate the entire adult population, it should mean one thing only, and that is the person should be fully vaccinated (or should receive both shots). Therefore, the aim to vaccinate all Indian adults by December 2021 is simply unachievable. The logic is simple. Just to illustrate, if someone who receives the first shot of Covishield starting the second week of October 2021 will not be eligible for the second shot till early 2022. Similarly, anyone who gets the first shot of whichever vaccine in early December 2021 will receive the second shot only in early 2022. Therefore, all of them cannot be counted fully vaccinated in 2021.We also need to factor in that at some point in the last quarter of 2021, India might start the vaccination of select population groups in 2–17 years of age, which would also slow down the adult vaccination. I believe a realistic best estimate of the adult population fully vaccinated by December 2021 is around 500 million Indians.

In the mid 20th century, researchers from the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, carried out extensive studies on rocks of the Yerrapalli Formation in what is now Telangana, uncovering several fossils. By studying some of these specimens stored at the Institute, an international team has now thrown light on a carnivorous reptile that lived 240 million years ago.

This reptile belongs to a genus and species previously unknown to science. They named it Bharitalasuchus tapani. In the Telugu language, Bhari means huge, Tala means head, and Suchus is the name of the Egyptian crocodile-headed deity. The species is named after paleontologist Tapan Roy Chowdhury in honour of his contribution to Indian vertebrate paleontology and especially his extensive work on the Yerrapalli Formation tetrapod fauna.

Further studies revealed that the reptile belonged to a family of extinct reptiles named Erythrosuchidae. “A precise identification had not been possible earlier because the family was not known from other examples in India. It was neglected because the fossil specimen was not as complete as those of other erythrosuchids from other countries. Also, because the few palaeontologists with expertise in the family had not examined the fossil or carried out the detailed comparative work needed,” explains David Gower from the Natural History Museum London, in an email to The Hindu. He is one of the authors of the paper recently published in Ameghiniana.

The team notes that Bharitalasuchus tapani were robust animals with big heads and large teeth, and these probably predated other smaller reptiles. They were approximately the size of an adult male lion and might have been the largest predators in their ecosystems.

“The first Erythrosuchidae remains were discovered in South Africa in 1905 and more were found in China and Russia. The South African one is about 245 million years old, while the ones from China and Russia are around 240 million years old. So the Indian one is one of the youngest fossil records we have of an erythrosuchid,” explains the first author Martin D. Ezcurra from the Argentinian Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires.

Biological interaction

He adds: “It was surprising to find tooth marks in the first trunk vertebra of Bharitalasuchus, indicating that a smaller animal took a bite probably after the death of the specimen. This is a nice example of evidence of biological interaction that occurred 240 million years ago.”

One of the authors Saswati Bandyopadhyay from the Indian Statistical Institute adds: “Apart from this erythrosuchid reptile, the fossil assemblage of the Yerrapalli Formation includes many other extinct creatures such as ceratodontid lungfish, rhynchosaur and allokotosaurian.”

She adds that future exploration and excavation in this unit are important in finding new fossils. “Unfortunately, deforestation, mining, agricultural expansion, urbanisation are gradually destroying the fossiliferous localities of India, and the Yerrapalli Formation of the Pranhita-Godavari Basin is not an exception,” she concludes.

A study carried out at CMC Vellore has found that two doses of COVID-19 vaccine offer high protection against infection and hospitalisation even among health-care workers who have a high risk of being infected. While the study found vaccination to be protective, it did not investigate the proportion of cases caused by the beta (B.1.1.7) and delta (B.1.617.2) variants that were responsible for the second wave.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

“Our study shows that COVID-19 vaccines have a great benefit in reducing infection and severity of disease. Vaccination helps in breaking the chain of transmission,” says Dr. Joy J Mammen, Professor at the Department of Transfusion Medicine, CMC Vellore and the corresponding author of the paper.

“We were not able to individually study the efficacy of Covishield and Covaxin as only a few received Covaxin,” Dr. Mammen said. Though over 93% received Covishield, the study only shows that vaccinated individuals are better protected compared with unvaccinated individuals.

In total, 8991 (84.8%) health-care workers were vaccinated between January 21 and April 30 2021. A majority of them (nearly 8,400) received Covishield. The incidence of infection and hospitalisation was studied between February 21 and May 19. While not a single death was reported among the 8,958 vaccinated individuals, there was one death among the 1,609 unvaccinated health-care workers.

The study found that among the 7,080 health-care workers who received two doses, the vaccines offered 65% protection against infection, 77% protection against hospitalisation, 92% protection against the need for oxygen and 94% protection from ICU admission. Among the fully vaccinated individuals, infection was seen on average 47 days after the second dose.

The study found that even a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine offered significantly high protection against both infection and hospitalisation. In 1,878 health-care workers who received only one dose, protection against infection was 61%, while protection against hospitalisation was 70%. In the case of those needing oxygen care and ICU admission, the protection offered by a single dose was 94% and 95%, respectively.

Among the 1,878 health-care workers who received only one dose, 200 (10.6%) were infected, while only 22 (1.2%) needed hospitalisation. In comparison, among the 7,080 health-care workers who received two doses, 679 (9.6%) were infected while 64 (0.9%) needed hospitalisation. Among those who received two doses, only four needed oxygen support and just two needed ICU care.

“Vaccines are working well! Good against infection (in healthcare settings where there is a high risk of transmission), great against severe disease,” Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore Dr. Gagandeep Kang tweeted. She is not involved in the study.

According to the authors, the reason why many health-care workers were not able to take the second dose was due to vaccine shortage and subsequently due to changes in guidelines on the interval between the first and the second dose of Covishield.

Among the 1,609 health-care workers who had not received any vaccination, 438 (27.2%) got infected, while 64 (4%) needed hospitalisation. Eleven (0.7%) individuals who did not get any vaccine needed oxygen support and eight (0.5%) needed ICU care.

“Beyond the immediate, implications for public health include cost-effective protection from infection, reduction of illness severity and an intervention to break the chain of transmission effectively. Even as many states chose to restrict movement to reduce stress on the healthcare system, we realize that future waves can at best be prevented or at worst mitigated through aggressive and widespread vaccination,” the authors write.

The dusty, rocky Martian surface and a Chinese rover and lander bearing small national flags were seen in photos released on Friday that the rover took on the red planet.

The four pictures released by the China National Space Administration also show the upper stage of the Zhurong rover and the view from the rover before it rolled off its platform.

Zhurong placed a remote camera about 10 meters from the landing platform, then withdrew to take a group portrait, the CNSA said.

China landed the Tianwen-1 spacecraft carrying the rover on Mars last month after it spent about three months orbiting the red planet. China is the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars, after the United States.

The orbiter and lander both display small Chinese flags and the lander has outlines of the mascots for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

Chinese rover Zhurong and the lander of the Tianwen-1 mission, captured on the surface of Mars by a camera detached from the rover, are seen in this image released by China National Space Administration (CNSA) on June 11, 2021.  | Photo Credit: CNSA VIA REUTERS

The six-wheeled rover is surveying an area known as Utopia Planitia, especially searching for signs of water or ice that could lend clues as to whether Mars ever sustained life.

At 1.85 meters in height, Zhurong is significantly smaller than the U.S.’s Perseverance rover which is exploring the planet with a tiny helicopter. NASA expects its rover to collect its first sample in July for return to Earth as early as 2031.

In addition to the Mars mission, China’s ambitious space program plans to send the first crew to its new space station next week. The three crew members plan to stay for three months on the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, station, far exceeding the length of any previous Chinese mission. They will perform spacewalks, construction and maintenance work and carry out science experiments.

Subsequent launches are planned to expand the station, send up supplies and exchange crews. China has also has brought back lunar samples, the first by any country’s space program since the 1970s, landed a probe and rover on the moon’s less explored far side.

Scientists with the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) Collaboration, who include researchers at the Pune-based Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), have assembled the largest collection of fast radio bursts (FRBs) in the telescope’s first FRB catalogue.

While catching sight of an FRB is considered a rare thing in the field of radio astronomy, prior to the CHIME project, radio astronomers had only caught sight of around 140 bursts in their scopes since the first FRB was spotted in 2007.

FRBs are oddly bright flashes of light, registering in the radio band of the electromagnetic spectrum, which blaze for a few milliseconds before vanishing without a trace. These brief and mysterious beacons have been spotted in various and distant parts of the universe, as well as in our own galaxy. Their origins are unknown and their appearance is highly unpredictable.

But the advent of the CHIME project — a large stationary radio telescope in British Columbia, Canada — has been a game-changer and has nearly quadrupled the number of fast radio bursts discovered to date. With more observations, astronomers hope soon to pin down the extreme origins of these curiously bright signals.

The telescope has detected a whopping 535 new fast radio bursts in its first year of operation itself, between 2018 and 2019.

“Before CHIME came along, different telescopes had observed a handful of FRBs each, but with their own selection criteria and software. But now, with the help of CHIME, we can observe a large swathe of the sky round the clock and were able to detect FRBs at an unprecedented rate. We could gather the first large sample of FRBs with a single instrument and a single, well-understood selection criteria which is allowing us to get a far better understanding of the properties of the FRBs as a population,” said CHIME/FRB member Shriharsh Tendulkar, also a faculty member at the TIFR-NCRA.

The new catalogue significantly expands the current library of known FRBs, and is already yielding clues as to their properties. For instance, the newly discovered bursts appear to fall in two distinct classes: those that repeat, and those that don’t. Scientists have identified 18 FRB sources that burst repeatedly, while the rest appear to be one-offs.

When the scientists mapped their locations, they found the bursts were evenly distributed in space, seeming to arise from any and all parts of the sky. From the FRBs that CHIME was able to detect, the scientists calculated that bright fast radio bursts occur at a rate of about 800 per day across the entire sky — the most precise estimate of FRBs overall rate to date.

The first FRB catalogue is to be presented later this week at the American Astronomical Society Meeting.

Mr. Tendulkar said that observations showed that the repeaters looked different, with each burst lasting slightly longer and emitting more focused radio frequencies than bursts from single, non-repeating FRBs.

“We find that repeaters emit bursts of longer duration with the radiation being detected in a narrower range of frequencies compared to the one-off FRBs. These differences strongly suggest that emission from repeaters and non-repeaters is generated either by different physical mechanisms or in different astrophysical environments,” said Pragya Chawla, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University and a member of the CHIME team.

CHIME comprises four massive cylindrical radio antennas, roughly the size and shape of snowboarding half- pipes, located at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, operated by the National Research Council of Canada in British Columbia. The telescope receives radio signals each day from half of the sky as the Earth rotates.

While most radio astronomy is done by swivelling a large dish to focus light from different parts of the sky, CHIME stares, motionless, at the sky, and focuses incoming signals using a correlator — a powerful digital signal processor that can work through huge amounts of data, at a rate of about seven terrabytes per second, equivalent to a few per cent of the world’s Internet traffic.

“Digital signal processing is what makes CHIME able to reconstruct and ‘look’ in thousands of directions simultaneously. That is what helps us detect FRBs a thousand times more often than a traditional telescope,” says Kiyoshi Masui, Assistant Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who will lead the group’s conference presentation at the American Astronomical Society Meeting.

For each of the 535 FRBs that CHIME detected, Professor Masui and his colleagues measured its dispersion and found that most bursts likely originated from far-off sources within distant galaxies.

The fact that the bursts were bright enough to be detected by CHIME suggests that they must have been produced by extremely energetic sources, he said. As the telescope detects more FRBs, scientists hope to pin down exactly what kind of exotic phenomena could generate such ultra bright, ultra fast signals.

According to Professor Masui, the scientists plan to use the bursts, and their dispersion estimates, to map the distribution of gas throughout the universe.

U.K. and Indian scientists have jointly developed a low-cost sensor that can detect fragments of the virus responsible for COVID-19 within wastewater, paving the way for health officials to get a better understanding of how prevalent the disease is in a larger area.

The technique, developed by researchers from the University of Strathclyde and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, could be used to enable widespread monitoring of COVID-19 prevalence in low- and middle-income countries which struggle to conduct mass human testing.

The sensor can be used with portable equipment that uses the standard Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus, without the need for the expensive chemicals and lab infrastructure needed for real-time quantitative PCR tests, according to the research published recently in the journal, Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical.

The sensor was tested with wastewater collected from a sewage treatment plant in Mumbai spiked with SARS-Cov-2 Ribonucleic Acid (RNA).

Andy Ward, Chancellor’s Fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said: “Many low- to middle-income countries face a challenge in tracking COVID-19 in people because of limited access to the necessary facilities for mass testing. Looking for traces of the virus within wastewater would enable public health officials to get a better understanding of how prevalent the disease is in a larger area."

Testing of wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid is already widely recognised as tool to identify areas where the case numbers are likely to be increasing and therefore allow more targeted action to be taken to limit viral spread in specific regions, Dr. Ward said.

“However, the current gold-standard method of real-time PCR testing (qPCR) requires expensive laboratory equipment and skilled scientists to complete. Furthermore, if resources are limited, testing of human samples would most likely take precedence over wastewater epidemiology surveillance. Therefore, lower cost, alternative approaches are required in order to support wastewater surveillance,” he said.

The researchers found that the sensor was able to detect the genetic material at concentrations as low as 10 picograms per microlitre.

Siddharth Tallur, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay, said: “The method we have developed is not just applicable to SARS-CoV-2, it could be applied to any other virus so it’s very versatile. In the future, we’ll focus on optimising the assay further to increase accuracy and also integrate the assay with a portable platform to handle both PCR reaction and electrochemical measurement.”

A microscopic organism has wriggled back to life and reproduced asexually after lying frozen in the vast permafrost lands of northeastern Siberia for 24,000 years.

Russian scientists found the tiny, ancient animal called the bdelloid rotifer in soil taken from the river Alazeya in Russia's region of Yakutia in the far north.

The bdelloid rotifer, a multicellular organism found in freshwater habitats across the world, is known to be able to withstand extreme cold.

Previous research suggested it could survive for a decade when frozen at -20 degrees Celsius.

This new case, which was detailed in a study in the journal Current Biology, is by far the creature's longest recorded survival period in a frozen state.

The organism was recovered from samples taken 3.5 metres below ground. The material was dated from between 23,960 and 24,485 years ago, the study said.

Land encased in permafrost — where the ground is frozen all year round — has for years thrown up startling scientific discoveries.

Scientists earlier revived microscopic worms called nematodes from sediment in two places in northern Siberia that were dated over 30,000 years old.

We all know the basics of volcanoes. They are spots on the Earth’s crust from where molten rock, volcanic ash and certain gases can escape from an underground chamber. The molten rock is called magma when it is below the ground, and lava when it erupts and may start flowing across the Earth’s surface. Volcanoes are broadly classified as active, dormant and extinct, based on their activity.

This much is well known and part of our textbooks. But a group of scientists revealed in 2020 certain explosive secrets that volcanoes had so far hidden deep underneath. They were able to show that volcanoes whose eruptions have been consistent actually hide chemically diverse magma underground with the potential to thereby generate explosive activity.

Study two Galapagos volcanoes

They did this by studying two Galapagos volcanoes that have erupted compositionally uniform lava flows throughout their lifetimes. But after studying the compositions of microscopic crystals in the lavas, the reconstructed characteristics of magmas was contrary to expectations.

As opposed to the monotonous lavas that erupted at the surface level, magmas were extremely diverse, including compositions similar to the most violent of volcanic eruptions in history. This implies that volcanoes that for millennia have erupted a certain way actually have the ability to undergo unexpected changes.

Helps hazard evaluation

Knowing this is important because hazard evaluation and evacuation models currently employed have worked under certain assumptions. By realising that just because a volcano has erupted a particular way in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue that way indefinitely in the future, we can better assess the risks posed by them.

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) scientists here have discovered an enzyme that helps maintain the stability and integrity of cell walls in bacteria such as Escherichia coli.

Named ‘LdtF’, the enzyme plays a vital role in the formation of covalent linkages between the bacterial outer membrane and an inner polymer layer that protects bacteria from environmental stress. This study will help understand the fundamental bacterial cell wall biology and identify alternate drug targets for the development of new antimicrobials.

Cell wall of gram-negative bacteria has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. Sandwiched between these two membranes is a layer of ‘peptidoglycan’, a polymer of amino acids and sugars that form a protective layer. A lipoprotein is known to link the outer membrane to the layer of peptidoglycan. But, how the linkages between the lipoprotein and peptidoglycan are modified is not known.

CCMB scientists led by Manjula Reddy studied the cell wall biology of a well-studied strain of E. coli using genetic and biochemical approaches to identify ‘LdtF’ which could cleave the lipoprotein from the peptidoglycan. Absence of this LdtF enhanced growth defects and increased the peptidoglycan-lipoprotein linkages in the bacteria.

The presence of this enzyme, however, decreased the levels of peptidoglycan-bound lipoprotein, suggesting its role in modulating the peptidoglycan-lipoprotein linkages. Such LdtF-mediated modulation of the cell wall gives bacteria flexibility and a survival advantage in fluctuating environmental conditions, said Dr. Reddy. The research finding was published in PNAS and has been featured in the latest Nature India magazine.

Aurora borealis mystery

Published in Nature Communications

Aurora borealis, also known as northern lights, is phenomenon that has been studied for decades. Now, a new paper has decoded its origin. The researchers note that interaction between electrons and Alfvén waves (a type of electromagnetic wave) plays an important role.

Earth vs meteorite

Published in PNAS

Every year thousands of meteorites land on the Earth. By studying over 10,000 different meteorites that represent the past 500 million years, researchers have now described the major collision events Earth has witnessed. "Future impact from even a small asteroid for example in the sea close to a populated area could lead to disastrous outcomes. This study provides an important understanding that we can use to prevent this from happening; for example, by attempting to influence the trajectory of rapidly approaching celestial bodies," explains corresponding author Birger Schmitz in a release.

Take a break

Published in Cell Reports

Planning to learn a new skill? Take short breaks from practice, says a new study. The team studied the brain waves of right-handed volunteers when they learnt to type with their left hand. They saw that memory was strengthened after a rest phase. "Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill. It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced," said senior author Leonardo G. Cohen in a release.

Eagle flight

Published in PNAS

Turbulent winds and gusts are known to influence the flight of birds and a new study has pointed out that golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) flying in the wild, maybe using this turbulence to their advantage. By studying wind speed data and eagle’s accelerations the team notes that there may be a linear relationship between the two. Understanding this in detail can help us design aircraft that can fly in turbulent environments.

Brain immunity

Published in Science

Two new studies in mice have found out the origin of immune cells that surround the brain and spinal cord. The immune cells are “supplied not from the blood, but by the adjacent skull and vertebral bone marrow,” notes the study. “Understanding where these cells come from and how they behave is a critical part of understanding the basic mechanisms of neuro-immune interactions, so we can design new therapeutic approaches for neurological conditions associated with inflammation,” said one of the authors Jonathan Kipnis in a release.

Despite a massive reduction in commuting and in many commercial activities during the early months of the pandemic, the amount of carbon in Earth's atmosphere in May reached its highest level in modern history, a global indicator released on Monday showed.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, said the findings, based on the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at NOAA's weather station on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, was the highest since measurements began 63 years ago.

The measurement, called the Keeling Curve after Charles David Keeling, the scientist who began tracking carbon dioxide there in 1958, is a global benchmark for atmospheric carbon levels.

Instruments perched on NOAA's mountaintop observatory recorded carbon dioxide at about 419 parts per million last month, more than the 417 parts per million in May 2020.

Because carbon dioxide is a key driver of climate change, the findings show that reducing the use of fossil fuels, deforestation and other practices that lead to carbon emissions must be a top priority to avoid catastrophic consequences, Pieter Tans, a scientist with NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory, said in a report on the emissions.

“We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year,” Tans wrote. “That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn, and release into the atmosphere as CO2 - year after year."

The amount of carbon in the air now is as much as it was about 4 million years ago, a time when sea level was 78 feet higher than it is today and the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution, the report said.

Despite the pandemic lockdown, scientists were not able to see a drop in the overall amount of carbon in the atmosphere partly because of wildfires, which also release carbon, as well as the natural behavior of carbon in the atmosphere, the report said.

The carbon dioxide levels measured were not affected by the eruption of Hawaiian volcanoes, Tans said, adding the station is situated far enough from active volcanoes that measurements are not distorted, and occasional plumes of carbon dioxide are removed from the data.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently called for an accelerated global effort to distribute vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monica de Bolle, Professor, Johns Hopkins University writes: It was a welcome step because past official statements by world leaders have fallen short of delivering specific policies to reach desperate populations, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The IMF was also right to recognise that the cost of containing the COVID-19 pandemic is far less than the overall benefits for the global economy of full vaccine coverage.

But it could have gone further by recognising that the inefficient vaccine allocation rules currently in place must be replaced by new cooperative institutional structures and more concrete steps by the Group of Twenty (G20) countries.

The IMF is approaching the problem too narrowly. It strongly supports vaccine donations and distribution to be carried out solely through the COVAX facility.

COVAX is one of three pillars of the initiative known as the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which was launched in April 2020 at an event co-hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Commission, French president Emmanuel Macron and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

COVAX was created to facilitate equitable access to vaccines. The first two pillars were focused on equitable access to diagnostics and treatment. As helpful as the arrangement has been, its model of approaching the problem has become out of date.

Since its creation last year, vaccines have become more available but distribution and other problems have become more apparent.

COVAX provided a good baseline model for expected public health needs. It was also useful for setting priority targets. The key one was to vaccinate about 20 % of each country’s population as quickly as possible.

But the facility suffers from two major flaws.

Firstly, it primarily allocates vaccines in proportion to population sizes, which is not the best public health metric.

Secondly, it does not consider countries’ capacities to roll out massive immunisation campaigns.

Flaws Setting vaccine distribution goals on the basis of population size is flawed for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it disregards the complexity of the problem. Countries are at very different stages of the pandemic. Some are suffering horrific losses and their health systems have collapsed. Others have a lack of adequate public health measures, and inadequate social adherence to these measures.

On the other hand, others face far less daunting scenarios.

Much has been said about the lack of vaccines in many African countries. But as precarious as this problem is on the continent, African countries aren’t currently experiencing the extremely aggressive outbreaks seen in India, Nepal, Brazil, and many other Latin American countries.

These cases lay bare the shortcomings of distributing vaccines on the basis of a population yardstick: the metric fails to capture the severity of the underlying public health problems facing different nations.

Criteria for allocation Vaccine allocation, whether done through COVAX or directly, should be based on public health metrics.

These include:

1. The incidence rate. This measures the number of new cases of COVID-19 that occur during a specified period of time in a population at risk for developing the disease. Usually expressed as incidence per a certain number of persons (1,000, 10,000, 100,000), the rate is a measure of events, that is, the transition from a non-diseased to a diseased state, and thereby a measure of risk.

Countries at higher risk levels calculated using the incidence rate should have priority in vaccine allocations.

2. The attack rate. This measures the number of susceptible people who become ill within a set period of time as a share of the total number of susceptible persons. Increases in the attack rate may suggest that a viral variant that is more transmissible is becoming dominant in a certain country.

Indeed, higher attack rates were associated with the emergence of Alpha, or B.1.1.7, in the UK, Gamma, or P.1, in Brazil and Delta, or B.1.617, in India.

Therefore, without widespread genomic surveillance, the attack rate may help in mapping the spread of dangerous variants of concern.

3. Health system capacity. This is measured by the number of intensive care beds per 1,000 people in a given country, for example.

Abiding by these and other metrics for vaccine allocation would ensure that vaccines went to countries that had the greatest immediate need.

Vaccine allocation also needs to take into account the capacity that countries have to distribute them internally. Recently, Malawi burned 20,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine only 18 days after receiving them due to the risk of expiration.

South Sudan has announced that the government will send back to COVAX 72,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, again because of the risk of expiration.

While these events are associated with increased vaccine hesitancy following rare blood clotting events associated with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, it is also the case that many countries in Africa, as well as in other regions, lack the resources to mount effective vaccination campaigns.

Without the necessary funding for these campaigns, donation of doses is not only insufficient but also a waste of life-saving vaccine doses, as the cases of Malawi and South Sudan illustrate.

What’s needed Vaccine allocation efforts need to be guided by both equity and efficiency principles. By focusing chiefly on equity, COVAX and other initiatives are currently failing at delivering vaccine doses to address public health emergencies around the globe.

Moreover, the excessive focus on equitable distribution leaves out the capacities and resources that countries have for mounting mass vaccination campaigns.

Improving the existing structure requires concrete steps in global cooperation. This includes an agreement on the public health guidelines and metrics for vaccine distribution, actual donations of doses according to these guidelines in lieu of open-ended commitments or pledges to donate surplus doses, and mechanisms to ensure that vaccine supply chains can operate smoothly.

Designing this structure should be the main objective of the G20 in the coming months both to fight the current pandemic and to prepare for future ones.

By Monica de Bolle, Professor, Johns Hopkins University (The Conversation)

Scientists at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) here have reported that anaemia — reduced haemoglobin or red blood cells — is high in rural, poor children while iron deficiency is more among the urban and rich across the country. Although anaemia prevalence was higher in rural and poorer children as well as adolescents, counter-intuitively, iron deficiency was less common among them. Similarly, anaemia was found to be lower among their urban counterparts while iron deficiency was seen more in them.

In a recently published research paper in collaboration with the ‘Journal of Nutrition’, scientists analysed data on iron deficiency in the blood samples collected in the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) conducted in 2016-18 under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The study included a representative sample of more than 33,000 children and adolescents in different states. It showed about 30-32% pre-school children and adolescent girls had iron deficiency whereas this proportion was lower (11-15%) in case of children aged 5-9 years. This finding provided new insights into the public health problem of anaemia, which, according to surveys, affects almost 40-50% women and children in the country.

“When anaemia prevalence increases in subsequent surveys, usually, iron supplementation interventions through supplemental iron tablets or iron fortification of foods are intensified. But are solutions that focus merely on increasing intake of iron enough to reduce anaemia prevalence in India? It does not seem so as per this study,” said NIN director R. Hemalatha.

Anaemia manifests when iron deficiency is severe, so it is expected that iron deficiency may affect the majority of the population. Measurement of iron deficiency in blood samples are expensive, population level surveys, therefore, usually measure only haemoglobin in the blood often used as a proxy to estimate the iron deficiency in the population.

“Diet quality is important for efficient haemoglobin synthesis, as iron is not the only nutrient required; many other nutrients are also essential. Underutilisation of iron for haemoglobin synthesis in poorer communities could be linked with overall low diet quality like low intake of animal source foods and fruits. Highly prevalent infections due to unhygienic environment also reduce iron absorption and utilisation for haemoglobin synthesis,” said lead author Bharati Kulkarni.

So, increasing iron intake alone without addressing the poverty-related constraints like poor diet quality, hampering iron absorption and utilisation, and high load of infections may not result in intended benefits for anaemia reduction through mere supplementation, he added.

A gigantic dinosaur discovered in Australia's outback has been identified as a new species and recognised as one of the largest to ever roam the Earth, according to palaeontologists.

Australotitan cooperensis, part of the titanosaur family that lived about 100 million years ago, has finally been described 15 years after its bones were first uncovered.

It is estimated to have stood at 5 to 6.5 metres (16-21 feet) high and measured 25 to 30 metres (82-98 feet) in length — which would make it Australia's biggest dinosaur.

"Based on the preserved limb size comparisons, this new titanosaur is estimated to be in the top five largest in the world," said Robyn Mackenzie, a director of the Eromanga Natural History Museum.

The fossilised bones were found on Mackenzie's family farm in 2006 about 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) west of Brisbane in the Eromanga Basin and nicknamed "Cooper".

Initially kept secret as scientists painstakingly dug up and studied the bones, the skeleton first went on display to the public in 2007.

Scott Hocknull, a palaeontologist at Queensland Museum, said it had been a "very long and painstaking task" to confirm the Australotitan was a new species.

The research, which relied on 3D scan models of bones to compare the dinosaur with its close relatives, was published in the peer-reviewed PeerJ journal Monday.

Numerous other dinosaur skeletons have been found in the same area, Hocknull said, adding that more work was needed as "discoveries like this are just the tip of the iceberg".

A small study claims that Covaxin offers protection from both the delta (B.1.617.2) and beta (B.1.351) variants.

Also read: More anti-bodies produced by Covishield than Covaxin, says study

The study evaluated the neutralisation potential in people vaccinated with Covaxin and found that there was a 3- and 2.7-fold reduction in neutralisation titers against the beta (B.1.351) and delta (B.1.617.2) variants, respectively. In comparison, the reduction in neutralisation titers with sera from people who have recovered from COVID-19 were 3.3- and 4.6-fold against the beta and delta variants, respectively. The results of the study were posted on the bioRxiv preprint server on June 7. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed.

“We observed a reduction in neutralisation titer values in Covaxin recipients against the beta and delta variants but the reduction is less than in people who have been naturally infected. So the vaccine does offer protection against the two variants,” says Dr. Pragya Yadav from the Pune-based National Institute of Virology and the first author of the preprint. The study was carried out by researchers from NIV, ICMR and Bharat Biotech.

The study evaluated the neutralisation potential of sera collected from 20 COVID-19 recovered cases and 17 people vaccinated with two doses of Covaxin against the beta and delta variants and compared it with the prototype D614G variant. “Many other studies investigating the neutralisation potential of sera collected from people administered different vaccines too have used only a small number of samples,” says Dr. Yadav.

The researchers assessed the neutralisation potential of sera from COVID-19 recovered cases after 5-20 weeks of infection and 28 days after two doses in the case of Covaxin recipients. Seventeen of the recovered cases were infected with D614G variant and three were infected with B.1.617.1 lineage.

All COVID-19 vaccines currently used, including Covaxin, have been found to offer relatively lower protection against the beta variant. In comparison, all vaccines offer relatively higher protection against the delta variant.

A gene-editing tool that has led to new cancer therapies and a rapid test for COVID-19 is now helping scientists find endangered species of salmon in the San Francisco Bay.

The CRISPR-based Sherlock tool can identify four types of Chinook salmon, including Sacramento winter-run and Central Valley spring-run, which are both protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"The Chinook are a great fit actually because all of the runs, more or less, look the same," said Andrea Schreier, an adjunct associate professor at the University of California Davis and coauthor of a study published last year in Molecular Ecology Resources that examined using this genetic identification on the endangered Delta smelt.

"They're visually very similar and the current method we have to identify the different types is based on what length they are at a particular age and it's not very accurate."

Researchers Melinda Baerwald (left) and Andrea Schreier (center) stand at the stern of a research vessel on the San Joaquin River off Antioch, California, U.S., May 25, 2021.  | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Sherlock, which stands for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter Unlocking, identifies the fish using their genomic sequence. Researchers begin by taking swabs of mucus from the fish and combining with reagents that will glow if certain snippets of DNA are present. The battery- powered fluorescent reader gives results in 30 minutes, ideal for field research.

By identifying the species, researchers believe they can better monitor population sizes and habitats.

With extreme drought gripping California, some rivers are too warm for the salmon to survive, forcing the state to truck 17 million young fish to the San Francisco Bay from hatcheries.

Emily Funk, an associate specialist who joined the team in July 2020, said the conservation angle drew her to the project. "I think it's important to preserve our ecosystems," she said. "I hope we can save the fish in our oceans."

Melinda Baerwald, an environmental program manager with the California Department of Water Resources and coauthor of the study, plans to deploy the technology at water pumping stations, which can impact endangered species.

"You don't have to wait for weeks or in some cases months to find out the answer to if you're impacting an endangered or threatened species," she said, adding that they currently have to drive an hour and a half to a lab to confirm the identity of a species. "Instead, you can find out at the moment that you're actually interacting with that species if you are affecting it."

More than 10% of the world’s crop land grow Genetically Modified crops or GM crops. Scientists around t

As the name suggests, GM food involves the editing of genes of a crop in such a way that it incorporates beneficial traits from another crop or organism. This could mean changing the way the plant grows, or making it resistant to a particular disease. Food produced using the edited crop is called GM food. This is done using the tools of genetic engineering.

How is it done?

Let us assume that scientists want to produce wheat with high protein content and they decide to incorporate the high protein quality of beans into wheat. To make this possible, a specific sequence of DNA with protein-making trait is isolated from the bean (which is called the donor organism) and is inserted into the gene structure of wheat, in a laboratory process. The new gene or the transgene thus produced is transferred into the recipient cells (wheat cells). The cells are then grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA structure.

Traditional cultivation of these seeds will then be undertaken and we will have genetically modified wheat with high protein content. The trait can be anything. A DNA from a plant that has high resistance to pests can be introduced into another so that the second plant variety will have the pest-resistant trait. A DNA of blueberry could be inserted into that of a banana to get a blue banana. The exchange could be effected between two or more organisms. One can even introduce a gene of a fish into a plant. You don’t believe it? Consider this fact. Genes from an Arctic fish were inserted into tomatoes to make it tolerant to frost. This tomato gained the moniker ‘fish tomato’. But it never reached the market.

What are the advantages of GM crops?

GM crops are perceived to offer benefits to both producers and consumers. Some of them are listed below...

• Genetic engineering can improve crop protection. Crops with better resistance to pest and diseases can be created. The use of herbicides and pesticides can be reduced or even eliminated.

• Farmers can achieve high yield, and thereby get more income.

• Nutritional content can be improved.

• Shelf life of foods can be extended.

• Food with better taste and texture can be achieved.

• Crops can be engineered to withstand extreme weather

Why is there stiff opposition to GM crops?

• Genetically engineered foods often present unintended side effects. Genetic engineering is a new field, and long-term results are unclear. Very little testing has been done on GM food.

• Some crops have been engineered to create their own toxins against pests. This may harm non-targets such as farm animals that ingest them. The toxins can also cause allergy and affect digestion in humans.

• Further, GM crops are modified to include antibiotics to kill germs and pests. And when we eat them, these antibiotic markers will persist in our body and will render actual antibiotic medications less effective over a period of time, leading to superbug threats. This means illnesses will become more difficult to cure.

• Besides health and environmental concerns, activists point to social and economic issues. They have voiced serious concern about multinational agribusiness companies taking over farming from the hands of small farmers. Dependence on GM seed companies could prove to be a financial burden for farmers.

• Farmers are reluctant because they will have limited rights to retain and reuse seeds.

• Their concern also includes finding a market that would accept GM food.

• People in general are wary of GM crops as they are engineered in a lab and do not occur in Nature

Over two lakh kilograms of biomedical waste was generated each day last month by hospitals in India dealing with COVID-19 patients, a new report revealed. The report titled, “State of India's Environment 2021,” released by the Centre for Science and Environment, said 2,03,000 kg of COVID-19 biomedical waste was produced daily in May this year and it was roughly 33% of India's non-COVID biomedical waste.

It said the COVID-19 biomedical waste generated per day in May was 46% more than in April when 1.39 lakh kg of such waste was produced daily. In March, the daily figure was 75,000 kg, according to the report. April and May witnessed a deadly second wave of coronavirus cases that swept through the country stretching the healthcare infrastructure to its limits.

An important phenomenon studied in aerospace engineering is the emergence of order from chaos in turbulent systems that leads to detrimental large amplitude fluctuations. Examples of this include aeroelastic flutter as observed in the wings of aircraft and thermoacoustic instabilities in rocket combustors, both of which can lead to the breaking down of the system. For this reason, it is important to be able to predict and understand such happenings and avoid them.

At R.I. Sujith’s lab in the Department of Aerospace Engineering of IIT Madras, this phenomenon has been studied for years. As he succinctly explains: Thermoacoustic instability, which comprises self-sustained large amplitude periodic oscillations, can overwhelm the thermal protection system in combustion chambers, cause damage to structural parts such as turbine blades, or even affect the guidance and control system of rockets and lead to mission failures.

Apollo rocket failure

An oft-quoted example of this is the failure during testing of the F-1 engine in the Apollo rocket. Initially, every time they tested the rocket, the engine would get into this instability and explode. They later introduced baffles that disrupted the interactions between the flames and that between the flames and the combustion chamber giving the engine the desired stability.

In a combination of theory and experiment, Prof. Sujith and his student Shruti Tandon have come up with an understanding of the emergence of order in chaotic systems by drawing an analogy with a phenomenon widely studied in quantum statistical physics – Bose-Einstein condensation (BEC). In BEC, Bosons, which are elementary particles having spins that take integer values, such as 0, 1 or 2, condense to the lowest energy level when temperature is taken to very low values. The group has shown an analogous condensation taking place in the case of order emerging from chaos in turbulent systems.

To understand this, take the concept of phase space – an dynamic imaginary space where a particle is represented by its position and momentum at every instant of time. The acoustic dynamics of the combustor is represented as a trajectory moving in this imaginary space.

Orbit condensation

During chaotic movement, there are several possible orbits, and so even as the trajectory moves towards one orbit, it is attracted to a different orbit, and therefore does not stick to any one orbit.

However, as the parameter is tuned and the system makes a transition towards order, the number of orbits is reduced and therefore, the trajectory gets caught in a few stable orbits. The researchers label this process a type of “condensation.”

“In the current work we have provided a novel perspective to study the transformation of the phase space structure with transition from chaos to order using analogy with Bose- Einstein Condensation,” says Ms Tandon, a dual degree student in the department.

“The next step would be to use statistics of Bosons, namely, tools from statistical mechanics that are used to study Boson particles and Bose-Einstein condensation, to quantify the transformations in the topology of the phase space,” she adds.

The paper that draws out the analogy is published in the journal Chaos. “Using measures from cycle networks and using analogy with BEC we were able to develop ‘early warning indicators’ that identify the onset of intermittency and hence forewarn the occurrence of thermoacoustic instability in the combustor,” says Prof Sujith, who is the D. Srinivasan Chair Professor in the department.

Strategies to mitigate

“In future, we would like to also analyse the spatio-temporal data from the perspective of BEC transition; thus, develop strategies to prevent the condensation transition and thus mitigate such instabilities,” he adds.

Elephants have two nostrils in their trunks. They can also suck up water at a speed of three litres per second into their trunk and then blow it into the mouth. New research ( Journal of The Royal Society Interface) has now found that elephants can dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to suck up to nine litres of water. First author Andrew Schulz, said in a release that the trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary.

The team studied elephants eating various foods, to decode the suction mechanism. They used an ultrasonic probe to measure the trunk walls and see how the inner muscles worked. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. The team suggests elephants can inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's bullet trains.

Lead author David Hu explained that an elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army Knife: It can detect scents and grab things, other times blowing objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum.

The researchers note that by investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements – a combination of suction and grasping – they could build better robots.

Even as the second wave in India seems to have already peaked, many States still report high test positivity rates suggesting more cases remain to be detected. The slow down in daily cases has been mainly due to strict lockdowns in many States. With the alpha (B.1.1.7) and delta (B.1.617.2) variants widely present across the country, and the possibility of new variants with higher transmissive ability getting imported or emerging in India cannot be ruled out, the possibility of a third wave appears to be real.

In an email to The Hindu, Dr. Bhramar Mukherjee, Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Dr. Giridhara Babu, Professor of Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Bengaluru discuss when a third wave is likely to begin in India, how to identify one and the measures required to achieve vaccine equity to reduce the daily cases and deaths in the third wave.

With the second wave appearing to have peaked in India. At what stage can it be said that the second wave has been contained?

Bhramar Mukherjee: The seven-day test positivity rate (TPR) is at about 7%, effective reproduction rate is at 0.68, so I think as a nation, one can say that the wave is in decline. But with 1,30,000 cases and 2,500– 3,000 deaths every day, I cannot say it is contained. There are large States still registering a significant number of cases with TPR of over 15% such as Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. Then there are smaller States with high TPR such as Goa, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim, Meghalaya and the north east cluster.

Giridhara Babu: It is projected that the daily case count will decrease beneath 50,000 around June 13. Assuming that we will maintain over a million tests each day, we might see daily test positivity at the national level to come below 5% during June 13–20.

Both alpha (B.1.1.7) and delta (B.1.617.2) variants were the main drivers of the second wave in India. Will India experience a third wave and worryingly more waves in the future?

Bhramar Mukherjee: This is probably not the last wave and these are not the last set of variants. We have to stay prepared for the future. What happens when we see another uptick or outbreak is to a great extent in our hands. We know how to fight this virus. Even with the second wave, if we had acted in mid-March, thousands of lives could have been saved. My point of view is that we need to stay prepared for the nth wave and the zth variant. We have to stay prepared for outbreaks for the foreseeable future. With accelerated vaccination, we can fight back and turn a peak into a bump.

Giridhara Babu: There is no doubt that there will be another wave around November–December. Any outbreak of infectious disease will occur when the build-up of susceptible persons reaches beyond a critical point. Super-spreader events will only facilitate reaching this point earlier. In addition, variants such as delta can spread faster than alpha. Therefore, it is only a matter of time.

What indicators should be looked for to call it as the beginning of a third wave?

Giridhara Babu: As we emerge from the second wave, seven-day average growth rates of cases and deaths should be regularly monitored. In order to have objective monitoring, the testing levels have to be stepped up, and the syndromic approach of surveillance has to be strengthened and reviewed in all the states. Whenever we observe the occurrence of cases clearly in excess of the previous weeks, we should be on high vigil to detect clusters and investigate them both for epidemiological and genomic investigations. Other indicators to help in the process are test positivity rate (doubled in a week subject to no changes but high testing levels) hospitalisation rates (doubled in the corresponding seven consecutive days). The centre should provide guidelines indicating when we can call a new outbreak as the next wave.

The following four prerequisite criteria are necessary to declare the third wave. First, the second wave should have been contained, which means that the reproduction number is below 1 for two weeks. Second, the low rate of infection has to be sustained for at least one month. Third, see if cases are increasing steadily for over two–three weeks, and finally, check if cases are increasing steadily after crossing the basic effective reproduction number (RT) of 1.5.

The government is projecting 10 million vaccinations per day by mid-July. Over 28 million have been already infected naturally though the actual numbers will be many times more. So what is the minimum percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to prevent a third wave?

Bhramar Mukherjee: We need to keep India’s age pyramid in mind. Forty percent of the Indian population is in 0–18 years for whom we do not have any vaccines available yet. If we can get Pfizer vaccine for those aged 12–18 years and for pregnant women, and Covaxin gets approved for kids that will be a big help to the immunisation strategy. Data also shows (a recent paper in Nature Medicine) that in people with past COVID-19 infection, one dose can produce similar antibody levels as in an infection-free person with two doses. If a large fraction of India is infected, then one dose of vaccine post infection will likely give good protection.

I also hope we can get some one-shot vaccines. This could go a long way for India where vaccine adherence is an issue along with a large population.

Giridhara Babu: The 1.3 billion plus people in India constitute the source population at risk of infection. We have a long way to go. Ideally, more than 70% of people should be protected with the vaccine in order to have lower peaks of the waves. I would not consider infected as a component of this estimation, as evidence suggests that even those who are infected should be vaccinated.

What vaccine strategy is needed to protect the vulnerable people in the 18–44 age group, particularly the urban poor and those living in rural areas?

Bhramar Mukherjee: For urban poor and rural areas, we need mobile vaccination, door-to-door campaigns, seeking buy-in from religious and community leaders, and vaccine clinics in front of places of religious gathering. Employers encouraging and providing vaccination to employees, even supporting and ensuring vaccination of all household help in urban metros goes a long way. People with comorbidities and special health conditions should have a priority.

Giridhara Babu: Any person with comorbidity should be part of the vulnerable population, irrespective of the age group. In addition, the parents, those who work in occupations with high people contact, school teachers etc., should be prioritised for two doses. Every eligible person should get at least one dose by December.

Over- reliance on the CoWin platform for the 18–44 age group is causing vaccine inequity even in cities. Can COVID vaccination be carried out without relying on CoWin in the rural areas to reduce vaccine inequity?

Giridhara Babu: The digital divide is a significant barrier created by the Government, which worsens the existing health inequities. India is a global leader in conducting vaccination campaigns. These are done by a bottom-up approach for micro-planning to include all the eligible beneficiaries without missing a single person. Also, mobilisation campaigns are important to alleviate the concerns related to vaccination and ensure that people visit the vaccination sites in time.

Since a surge in cases was first seen in big cities in both the first and second wave, will it be prudent to increase vaccine coverage in big cities to reduce the possibility of a third wave? Will such an approach lead to vaccine inequity between cities and between urban and rural areas?

Bhramar Mukherjee: First of all, the second wave has penetrated rural areas. The rural–urban vaccine inequity will happen even if you try to prevent it, so the governments have to take vaccines to rural areas. We have a strong immunisation framework using community health workers in rural areas. So we have to activate all our powers to get through this.

Giridhara Babu: That’s not the correct characterisation. The lower reported numbers from rural areas reflect the poorer testing and sparse population density in rural areas. There are also no hospitals in rural areas. If anything, it is important to ensure that people in the rural areas are well covered in the vaccination programme.

India has so far not undertaken any large-scale, real-world study to understand the effectiveness of the two vaccines against the alpha and delta variants. How concerning is this?

Bhramar Mukherjee: Why do we have vaccine data against new variants from the U.K. but not India? India should be providing data on effectiveness of the Covishield vaccine against the delta variant, but all we have is based on U.K. studies. How is the government assessing vaccine effectiveness studies? Are they employing test negative designs? How many breakthrough infections have happened with one dose? How many fatalities, hospitalisations? These are key information that the world needs to know from India.

We have to do careful studies of vaccine versus variant interface and understand the immune escape properties of emerging variants. We have to design studies to make sure if we need another booster dose of the vaccine, we get one before vaccine induced immunity wanes. There are still big unknowns and uncertainties in this pandemic that we need to first recognise and then prepare for.

A violent fall, a vehicular accident, or a sports injury can sometimes damage the spinal cord and brain leading to paralysis and other life-threatening health problems. The nerve fibres that carry important information are unable to regrow, leading to irreversible damage. Using novel bioinformatics frameworks and screening platforms, researchers have now identified a new gene combination that can help enhance the growth of nerve fibres after an injury.

It is well known that mammals including humans show a high capacity for brain and spinal cord regeneration but only during young ages. The researchers set out to decode why and how young neurons respond so well to injury. They studied a class of genes called transcription factors. They identified a particular combination of genes KLF6/Nr5a2 that when expressed lead to enhanced growth of nerve fibres following injury. The results were published last month in Nature Communications.

Ishwariya Venkatesh, the first and co-corresponding author of the paper explains: “If you think about growth after an injury, it is very similar to developmental growth that happens during the early embryonic stages. Inside the neuron, when you want an axon or nerve fiber to grow, there are networks of genes that work together. Between embryonic day 18 to about a week after birth, these genes are still on because they're helping the axons grow. So, if an injury occurs during this period, the genes quickly deploy these networks to repair. But a week after birth, these genes are no longer active because active developmental axon growth has ended and they are no longer needed.” She was a Research Assistant Professor at Marquette University when the paper was published.

Rebooting networks

“So, if we are able to turn back these gene networks in response to an injury, then we have a chance for high regenerative success. We're trying to artificially reboot those gene programs and trying to coax an older neuron to switch back to a younger, growth-competent state. And we do that by manipulating transcription factors that simultaneously regulate the expression of hundreds of growth-relevant genes because we can't go in and tweak the expression of individual genes,” she adds.

When asked if there is any evolutionary basis for these genes losing their program when we are adults she explains: “There could be a couple of reasons. One is we gave up or traded the ability to regenerate because even if these axons do regenerate, the chances of them reintegrating into a functional circuit in a complex system like the mammalian system is trickier. I also speculate that the longer the distance the axons have to grow, the more guidance errors can happen, and they can synapse onto the wrong targets leading to unintended behavioral outcomes.”

The team adds that these findings can open up avenues to discover additional groups of transcription factors with stronger reprogramming abilities to ultimately allow us to fully revert an older neuron into a younger growth-competent state following injury. These findings also hold promise as a novel molecular strategy for the treatment of human spinal cord injuries in the future.

“We are continuing with pre-clinical tests of Klf6/Nr5a2, for example confirming the genes are still effective when delivered in the chronic injury state, many months after the initial damage. This information is critical for individuals now living with spinal injury,” adds Murray G. Blackmore, Associate Professor at Marquette University and co-corresponding author in an email to The Hindu.

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One of the giants of the deep is shrinking before our eyes, a new study says.

The younger generation of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are on average about three feet (one meter) shorter than whales were 20 years ago, drone and aircraft data show in a study in Thursday’s journal Current Biology.

Scientists say humans are to blame. Entanglements with fishing gear, collisions with ships and climate change moving their food supply north are combining to stress and shrink these large whales, the study says.

Diminishing size is a threat to the species' overall survival because the whales aren’t having as many offspring. They aren’t big enough to nurse their young or even get pregnant, study authors said.

These marine mammals used to grow to 46 feet (14 meters) on average, but now the younger generation is on track to average not quite 43 feet (13 meters), according to the study.

“This isn’t about ‘short’ right whales, it’s about a physical manifestation of a physiological problem, it’s the chest pain before the heart attack,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, who wasn’t part of the study. “Ignoring it only leads to an inevitable tragedy, while recognizing and treating it can literally save a life, or in this case, an entire species."

There are only about 356 North Atlantic right whales left, down from 500 in 2010, said study co-author Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. Other estimates put the population around 400, though researchers agree the population is shrinking.

In the past, scientists and activists have concentrated solely on whale deaths, but now they realize there’s a problem afflicting surviving whales that can still cause populations to further dwindle, said study co-author Michael Moore, marine mammals director at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The authors were able to take pictures of 129 of the right whales and use a computer program to compare them to right whales of similar age 20 years ago.

The issue emerged from a research trip several years ago when Knowlton and others saw a few small whales and a dead one. They figured the small whales were calves, less than a year old, because of their size, but checking showed the whales actually were about two years old. Whale calves normally double in size in two years, said study lead author Joshua Stewart, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher.

The study authors said the No. 1 issue with smaller right whales is entanglement in fishing gear, especially ropes that have become stronger and harder for whales to shed.

“Over 83% now of the species has been entangled at least once in their lifetime, some as many as eight times,” Knowlton said. “If it doesn’t kill them, it’s certainly going to affect their ability to reproduce.”

Collisions with ships is another problem. Both fishing gear and ship crashes have been addressed with government regulations in some normal feeding grounds for the whales. But since 2010, climate change has caused plankton the marine mammals eat to move north and east to areas without regulations, so entanglements and crashes increased, Knowlton said.

The shifting of feeding grounds has added more physical stress to North Atlantic right whales, which already were skinny compared to their southern cousin species, Moore said.

“We know that climate change has affected some of their key prey sources, so entangled whales are likely experiencing a triple whammy of less food around, less ability to forage for it, while burning more energy,’’ said Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who was not part of the study. “It’s heartbreaking to think about the lives that some of these whales lead."

Brazilian agribusiness is losing up to $1 billion dollars a year as rising deforestation cuts rainfall in the southern Amazon — a problem set to expand if forest loss continues, a group of Brazilian and German researchers have warned.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications in May, they found that smaller-scale forest losses can enhance rainfall on adjoining agricultural land - but once losses pass 55-60%, rainfall plunges.

Losses of tree cover in particular seem to delay the start and shorten the length of the rainy season, they found.

As Brazilian Amazon forest destruction continues, drier conditions could put a massive strain on the region’s mainly rainfed agricultural industry, the authors said.

Brazil is the world’s top soybean producer, and its second largest producer of beef, as well as the globe’s biggest beef exporter.

In parts of the country, Brazil’s farmers are already battling unusually dry weather this year, with government agencies warning in late May of drought threats as the country faces its worst dry spell in 91 years.

In the southern Amazonian state of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s main soy producer, irregular rainfall is reducing potential harvests, according to the Mato Grosso Institute of Agricultural Economics.

Aprosoja Brasil, the country’s main soy production association, similarly said farmers faced drought while planting last October and November, followed by excessively heavy rain at harvest time this year, lowering the expected harvest.

The new study looked at rainfall changes between 1999 and 2019 in the southern Brazilian Amazon, a 1.9 million sq km area that has so far lost about a third of its forests, as a model for future rainfall shifts.

Researchers predicted what might happen through 2050 under continued weakening of Brazil’s conservation policies and strong political support for agricultural expansion compared to effective enforcement of forest protection laws.

Brazil’s environment ministry to stop fighting deforestation in the Amazon

Co-author Britaldo Soares told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the difference was stark. Unless Brazil’s government quickly shifts its pro-development policies, which favor economic growth over conservation, agribusinesses could become victims of the measures many of them support.

The effect would be like “shooting yourself in the foot,” said Soares, who is project coordinator for the Centre for Remote Sensing at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Environmentalists say President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies have weakened conservation efforts and his rhetoric has emboldened illegal ranchers, loggers and land speculators to cut down the Amazon forest to expand their business.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

More forest loss

Amazon forest losses have soared to a 12-year high since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, with deforestation rising 43% in April compared to the same month a year ago, according to government data published in May.

Removing trees to plant crops and raise cattle reduces the forest’s ability to trap and store planet-heating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and can contribute to emissions if forests are burned.

But more fragmented forest, as losses grow, also is less able to produce the same volume of water vapour that rises to become rain, and can make the forest drier and more vulnerable to burning.

Less rainfall can mean lower yields and force farmers in the southern Amazon and beyond to adapt by moving to new areas or growing more drought-resistant crops, the study noted.

It did not discuss prospects for irrigating crops in the region.

Farmers in the Amazon also commonly profit from double-cropping, or growing at least two crops per year.

But that could become more difficult or impossible if continuing tree losses cause rainy seasons to become delayed and shorter, the study noted.

p align='justify' >Space tourism company Virgin Galactic announced Thursday it will send researcher Kellie Gerardi, a well-known figure on TikTok, into space to conduct experiments for several minutes while weightless.

The move presents an ideal opportunity for the company to flaunt its ambitions not only to send wealthy tourists on pleasure rides costing $200,000 or more, but also to advance science.

The 32-year-old bioastronautics researcher, who is affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), said she always believed the space tourism industry's success could also "help open up opportunities for researchers like myself."

The first experiment conducted by Gerardi, who has more than 400,000 TikTok followers and some 130,000 on Instagram, will involve "astro skin," in which sensors are placed under her flight suit to collect biometric data. While the process has already been used aboard the International Space Station, data has never before been collected during landing and takeoff.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, hopes to begin regular commercial suborbital flights in early 2022, with eventual plans for 400 trips a year.

The flights are far from the classic rocket experience, with a carrier plane taking off from a runway then dropping the spacecraft once in the air, which then ignites its engines.

Asked whether just a few minutes in space was sufficient, Gerardi said "uninterrupted consecutive minutes of time in space in microgravity to do my research" was "really the dream."

Until now she has only been able to board parabolic flights which reproduce zero gravity conditions for a few seconds, achieved in conventional planes that tilt at strong angles towards the sky and then towards the ground.

When experiments are sent to the ISS, Gerardi said, they stay there for several months, but the scientists unfortunately don't travel with them.

"They're not able to check in on it or manipulate it, or fix it," Gerardi said.

With Virgin Galactic's expected frequent flight schedule, "we could validate data over and over instead of having to wait years, you know, for another spaceflight opportunity," she said.

CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad and Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi have collaboratively sequenced genomes of coronavirus variants in Varanasi and adjoining areas and have come across at least seven major strains of coronavirus circulating in these regions, including B.1.617 and B.1.617.2 or the ‘Delta variant’.

The multidisciplinary research unit headed at BHU collected samples from Varanasi and areas around the city, mostly in April earlier this year and the CCMB team had sequenced 130 samples.

“The most predominant variant we found in our study was B.1.617 among the Variants of Concern (VoC). This variant was also reported to be one of the major drivers of the second COVID-19 wave in India”, said Prof Singh, who heads BHU research unit on Friday.

“Just as in most of India, the B.1.617.2 variant (aka Delta variant) was the most common one in the samples we studied. They were found among 36% of the total samples. Other VoCs such as the B.1.351, detected in South Africa for the first time, was also found in this area”, said Dr Rakesh Mishra, Advisor, CCMB.

“This study confirms yet again that the Delta variant is the most widespread coronavirus variant in the country right now. But at the same time, it is imperative for us to keep an eye on the other emerging variants in the country to prevent another unprecedented surge of cases,” he added, in a press release.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday lauded Indian scientists for developing made-in-India vaccine against Covid and boosting other measures to fight the pandemic within a year of its outbreak.

Addressing a meeting of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Society via video conferencing, he cited India's experience in the previous century to say that it used to wait for years to lay its hands on innovations achieved abroad, but its scientists are now working shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts outside.

They are working at the same quick pace, he said.

Noting that the world is grappling with the biggest challenge in a century, the prime minister praised the scientific community, saying it is perhaps unprecedented that vaccines were prepared within a year.

On the occasion, Mr. Modi reiterated his call for an "Aatmanirbhar Bharat" (Self-reliant) and strong India, saying the COVID-19 crisis may have slowed its pace but our resolve remains the same.

India wants to be self-reliant in a number of sectors, ranging from agriculture to astronomy, disaster management to defence technology, vaccine to virtual reality, and biotechnology to battery technology, he asserted.

He said India is now showing the way to the world in sustainable development and clean energy, and is playing an important role in progress in other countries with its role in software and satellite development.

Do you remember what happened the last time you got into a fight as a youngster, either with your siblings, someone in your apartment or in the classroom? Chances are that an adult intervened, be it elders at your house or apartment, or a teacher, if you were at school.

A scientific study by researchers at Hiroshima University in Japan, with participation from early childhood educators from both Japan and the U.S., however, suggests that this might not always be the best strategy to deal with the situation. Their findings, which have been published in the Early Childhood Education Journal, suggests that a hands-off approach when children fight might not only serve the purpose, but also create opportunities for autonomy and encourage ownership for solutions.

The research, which was an attempt to explore and understand why Japanese early childhood educators do not intervene in such situations, offers a new possibility that can be implemented in other countries based on their cultural and regulatory requirements.

Mimamoru approach

It stems from a pedagogical strategy that the Japanese called mimamoru. A portmanteau of the Japanese words mi, meaning watch, and mamoru, meaning guard or protect, it corresponds to a method of teaching by just watching.

As a result, adults in Japan, including educators, intentionally allow kids to handle their own disagreements, thus promoting learning through voluntary explorations and actions. Even though it isn’t part of Japan’s official curriculum, it is used as a practical guideline by many practitioners.

Children's goodness

While the mimamoru approach might seem counter-intuitive and even look passive, it trusts in children’s inherent goodness and their ability to learn from social interactions, both good and bad, that take place every day.

The researchers, however, stressed on the fact that watching doesn't take precedence over the safety of the children and that intervention should take place if squabbles are taking a rather violent turn.

So while fighting constantly does no good, there might have been a learning opportunity when we were inadvertently drawn into those occasional tussles as a child. You might also want to use the mimamoru strategy the next time you are taking care of any group of children.

The risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is substantially reduced for up to 10 months following the first infection with the virus, according to a study.

The research, published in the journal Lancet Healthy Longevity on Tuesday, looked at rates of COVID-19 infections between October last years, and February this year among over 2,000 care home residents and staff in England.

The researchers from the University College London (UCL) in the UK compared people who had evidence of a previous infection up to 10 months earlier, as determined by antibody testing, with those who had not been previously infected.

They found that residents with a previous infection were 85% less likely to be infected during this four-month period than those who had never been infected.

Staff members with past infection were 60% less likely to be infected than those who had not had the infection before.

The researchers said this showed strong protection in both groups, but cautioned that the two percentages may not be directly comparable.

This is because the staff may have accessed testing outside the care home, leading to positive tests not being included in the study, they said.

"It's really good news that natural infection protects against reinfection in this time period. The risk of being infected twice appears to be very low," said study lead author Maria Krutikov, from UCL Institute of Health Informatics.

"The fact that prior COVID-19 infection gives a high level of protection to care home residents is also reassuring, given past concerns that these individuals might have less robust immune responses associated with increasing age," Ms. Krutikov said.

For the study, 682 residents, with a median age of 86, and 1,429 staff in 100 care homes underwent antibody blood tests in June and July last year following the first wave of COVID-19.

About a third tested positive for antibodies, suggesting they had previously been infected.

Researchers then analysed the results of participants' PCR tests, starting approximately 90 days after the blood samples were taken to ensure the tests did not pick up the initial infection.

PCR tests were taken once a week for staff, and once a month for residents, with further testing in the event of an outbreak.

Positive test results were only included if they were more than 90 days apart to make sure that the same infection was not included more than once.

The number of staff and residents who were reinfected between October and February was very small.

Based on the antibody test results, out of the 634 people who had been previously infected, reinfections occurred in only four residents and 10 members of staff.

Among the 1,477 participants who had never been infected, positive PCR tests occurred in 93 residents and 111 staff.

"This was a unique opportunity to look at the protective effect of natural infection in this cohort ahead of the roll-out of vaccination," said senior study author Laura Shallcross, from UCL Institute of Health Informatics.

Using Google Earth images, drone observations and field visits, two independent researchers from France have identified eight sites around Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert, that show linear features resembling geoglyphs. Geoglyphs are large, un-explained geometrical patterns on land usually proposed to be man-made features.

The largest concentration of geoglyphs is reported from southern Peru, covering an area of about 1,000 square km. The new paper published in Archaeological Research in Asia notes that the identified geoglyphs in the Thar Desert cover an area of about 6 square km.

The authors’ main area of interest was Boha, a small village 40 km to the north of Jaisalmer where they noticed a series of concentric and linear features. They named these features Boha geoglyphs and suggested that the features could be at least 150 years old. “It is however conceivable that they were built at the beginning of the British colonial period, in the middle of the 19th century,” adds the paper.

Peruvian archaeologists unveil giant cat carved into Nazca hillside

The first author of the paper, Carlo Oetheimer, explains in an email to The Hindu: “The Boha geoglyphs are clearly manmade as the main unit is a giant spiral, but they have been eroded due to the cars running over the lines lately. So, they are clearly not formed by weathering or another natural phenomenon.”

Dr. Amal Kar, formerly with the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, who has been studying the Thar Desert for nearly five decades, disagrees with the above conclusion. He suggests that the observed features might have been formed naturally, but degraded over time due to both natural and human-related causes. “The rocky terrain between Jaisalmer and Ramgarh in the north is home to a typical weathering feature, especially over the iron-rich sandstone and shale beds. Here, extreme aridity and high temperature lead to slow geochemical translocation of minerals for centuries, such that the heavier minerals like iron and manganese move away from the lighter minerals, which lead to the gradual formation of alternate bands of harder and softer mineral concentrations. With time the areas with softer materials get slowly eroded, while the harder ones stand out, producing the typical concentric or box-like geometric features,” he explains.

He adds that such features, both small and large, can be found in the similarly disposed rocky terrain of all the global deserts, but hardly in the semi-arid areas due to higher rainfall.

Considering the uniqueness of such micro- geomorphic features in our country, he pleads for appropriate conservation measures, especially from wanton construction activities and uncontrolled tourism. “Attributing such features to humans should be considered with caution and only when natural explanations fail absolutely,” he adds.

Memorial Stones

The French authors also suggest that the lines could be contemporary with the neighbouring memorial stones. During the fieldwork in 2016, the team located a total of nine monoliths with the most imposing one being a truncated conical pillar measuring about 1.60 metres. They also located four memorial stones with sculptures of Hindu deities (Krishna and Ganesha).

“We still need to complete our study, going back to India, making an anthropological survey with the help of local researchers, and bringing all the equipment in order to date the geoglyphs. We would like to date the glyphs with the thermoluminescence method,” adds Carlo Oetheimer.

Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912) was a British medical scientist and a pioneer in preventive medicine. He was the founder of antiseptic medicine, which helped prevent infection during and after surgery. His antisepsis principles laid the foundation of modern infection control.

Joseph Lister was born in 1827 in Essex, now in London, into a prosperous family. His father Joseph Jackson Lister was a wine merchant and an amateur physicist and microscopist. His discovery led to the modern achromatic microscope.

Soon after graduating in medicine in 1852, Lister became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and house surgeon at University College Hospital in London. In 1861, he was appointed surgeon to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where he was in charge of wards in the surgical block. At that time, wound infections were a common occurrence that frequently killed patients. Doctors did not then realise that patients were dying of operative sepsis, an infection of the blood by disease-producing microorganisms. Between 1861 and 1865 alone, Lister noted that about 50% of his amputation cases died (from sepsis).

Eureka moment

Lister’s moment of realisation came when he read about Louis Pasteur’s research on putrefaction. He realised that the process behind fermentation might also be involved with wound infection. In his ward, Lister began his experiments with antisepsis. He found an effective antiseptic in carbolic acid, which had already been used as a means of cleansing sewers and had been empirically advised as a wound dressing in 1863. This proved extremely effective at preventing sepsis and gangrene. Lister first successfully used his new method in 1865, and in 1867, published a series of cases. The sepsis cases in his ward came down drastically. His recommendations met with some resistance in the medical profession, but eventually came to revolutionise surgery.

Many firsts

Lister also has many firsts to his credit. He was the first person to isolate bacteria in pure culture (Bacillus lactis) using liquid cultures containing either Pasteur's solution. Lister also pioneered the use of catgut and rubber tubing for wound drainage. He also showed that urine could be kept sterile after boiling in swan-necked flasks.

In 1883 Queen Victoria made him a Baronet, of Park Crescent in the Parish of St Marylebone in the County of Middlesex. He was appointed one of the 12 original members of the Order of Merit in 1902. Lister is one of the two surgeons in the United Kingdom who have the honour of having a public monument in London. Lister's stands in Portland Place.

NASA announced plans on Wednesday to launch a pair of missions to Venus between 2028 and 2030 — its first in decades — to study the atmosphere and geologic features of Earth’s so-called sister planet and better understand why the two emerged so differently.

The U.S. space agency said it was awarding about $500 million each to develop the two missions, dubbed DAVINCI+ (short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble Gases, Chemistry and Imaging) and VERITAS (an acronym for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography and Spectroscopy).

DAVINCI+ will measure the composition of the dense, hothouse atmosphere of Venus to further understand how it evolved, while VERITAS will map the planet's surface from orbit to help determine its geologic history, NASA said.

DAVINCI+, consisting of a fly-by spacecraft and an atmospheric descent probe, is also expected to return the first high- resolution images of unique geological characteristics on Venus called "tesserae." Scientists believe those features may be comparable to Earth's continents and suggest that Venus has plate tectonics, according to NASA's announcement.

Earth's closest planetary cousin and the second planet from the sun, Venus is similar in structure but slightly smaller than Earth and much hotter. Above its forbidding landscape lies a thick, toxic atmosphere consisting primarily of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets.

The consequence is a runaway greenhouse effect that scorches the surface of Venus at temperatures as high as 471℃, hot enough to melt lead. The "air" on Venus is so dense and pressurized that it behaves more like a fluid than a gas near the surface.

Scientists believe Venus may once have harbored seas of water potentially suitable for life, before unknown forces triggered its extreme greenhouse effect, vaporising its oceans.

How long is the solar system's longest day? Venus has the answer

"Venus is a 'Rosetta stone' for reading the record books of climate change, the evolution of habitability and what happens when a planet loses a long period of surface oceans," James Garvin, chief scientist for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said in a statement.

Venus has lately received less scientific attention than Mars, Earth's next-closest planetary neighbor, where NASA's roving astrobiology lab Perseverance landed in February.

NASA's last dedicated mission to Venus, the Magellan spacecraft, reached the planet in 1990. After four years in orbit making the first global map of the Venusian surface and charting its gravity field, Magellan was sent plunging to the surface to gather atmospheric data before ceasing operations.

The DAVINCI+ probe will ultimately meet a similar fate. After two fly-by passes to capture time-lapse imagery of Venus' clouds, DAVINCI+ will release its spherical probe for an hour-long descent to a vast mountainous region.

Slowed first by a parachute, then by aerial friction, the probe will sample atmospheric chemistry, pressure and temperature all the way down, and take high-resolution images as it nears the surface.

Even if it survives landing, the probe is expected to overheat within 20 minutes, Garvin said.

Fossil plant study

Published in PNAS

About 14,500 to 5,000 years ago, North Africa was green with vegetation and the period is known as the Green Sahara or African Humid Period. Until now, researchers have assumed that the rain was brought by an enhanced summer monsoon. Now, a study of pollen and leaf waxes extracted from sediments have shown that there were two monsoon systems. "We have winter rain on the northern margin of the Sahara, the monsoon on the southern margin, and between the two areas an overlap of the two rain systems which provides rains there during both summer and winter, albeit rather sparsely," explains first author Rachid Cheddadi in a release.

Early to bed, early to rise

Published in JAMA Psychiatry

A genetic study of 8,40,000 people found that shifting sleep time earlier by just an hour decreases risk of major depression by 23%. "We have known for some time that there is a relationship between sleep timing and mood, but a question we often hear from clinicians is: How much earlier do we need to shift people to see a benefit? " said senior author Celine Vetter in a release. "We found that even one-hour earlier sleep timing is associated with significantly lower risk of depression."

Trust the wild bird

Published in Science Advances

A new study on Siberian jay, a group-living bird, showed that these birds have great trust in the warning calls from members of their own group, but ignore calls from conspecifics in the neighbouring territory. The researchers note that this finding is interesting as similar mechanisms could have played a role in the formation of human languages and dialects.

New microscopy

Published in Optics

Researchers from Switzerland have developed a 3D fluorescence microscopy that can help study the brain in high resolution. They tested on an adult mouse brain and noted that the method effectively covered a field of view of about 1 centimeter.

Timed pause

Published in Current Biology

Just like humans, electric fish also take a small pause before communicating important news, notes a new study. Lead author Bruce A. Carlson explains more in a release: "Human auditory systems respond more strongly to words that come right after a pause, and during normal, everyday conversations, we tend to pause just before speaking words with especially high-information content. We see parallels in our fish where they respond more strongly to electrosensory stimuli that come after a pause. We also find that fish tend to pause right before they produce a high-frequency burst of electric pulses, which carries a large amount of information."

Two Russian cosmonauts ventured out of the International Space Station Wednesday on a spacewalk to prepare for the arrival of a new Russian module.

It's the first spacewalk for both Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, who arrived at the space station in April, and it's expected to last about 6 1/2 hours.

The two needed to get the space station ready for the undocking and disposal of the Pirs docking compartment, which will be replaced later this year by the new Nauka (Science) multipurpose laboratory module.

They have already replaced a fluid flow regulator and also need to replace biological and material science samples on the exterior of the Russian modules.

The two Russians currently team up at the space outpost with NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide; and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

Two Russian cosmonauts ventured out of the International Space Station Wednesday on a spacewalk to prepare for the arrival of a new Russian module.

It's the first spacewalk for both Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov, who arrived at the space station in April, and it's expected to last about 6 1/2 hours.

The two needed to get the space station ready for the undocking and disposal of the Pirs docking compartment, which will be replaced later this year by the new Nauka (Science) multipurpose laboratory module.

They have already replaced a fluid flow regulator and also need to replace biological and material science samples on the exterior of the Russian modules.

The two Russians currently team up at the space outpost with NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide; and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

New Zealand announced Tuesday it was the latest country to sign a space agreement with NASA, just as New Zealand's nascent space industry begins to take off.

New Zealand became the eleventh signatory to the Artemis Accords, a blueprint for space cooperation and supporting the U.S. space agency's plans to return humans to the moon by 2024 and to launch a historic human mission to Mars.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said New Zealand was one of only a handful of nations able to launch rockets into space.

“New Zealand is committed to ensuring the next phase of space exploration is conducted in a safe, sustainable and transparent manner and in full compliance with international law,” Mahuta said.

New Zealand said it's particularly interested in making sure that minerals taken from the moon or elsewhere in space are used sustainably.

California- based company Rocket Lab, which specializes in putting small satellites into orbit, made history in New Zealand four years ago when it launched a test rocket into space from the remote Mahia Peninsula. It began commercial launches in 2018.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, a New Zealander, said signing the accords was testament to the country’s growing role in the space industry and opened the door for collaboration and mission opportunities with NASA.

There could also soon be a second New Zealand launch site. The government announced Tuesday it was partnering with Indigenous Maori to buy land in the Canterbury region to develop a space launch site.

Estimates indicate the New Zealand space industry is worth 1.7 billion New Zealand dollars ($1.2 billion) and that space manufacturing generates about NZ$250 million a year.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement that New Zealand was one of seven nations that helped craft the principles in the accords and he was delighted they had signed up.

“Outer space is getting crowded," Nelson said. “ As more countries establish a presence in outer space, via research stations, satellites, or even rocket launches, these accords provide a set of principles to create a safe and transparent environment that inspires exploration, science, and commercial activities.”

The other signatories to the accords are the U.S., Australia, Britain, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Ukraine. Brazil also said it plans to sign.

More than one-third of the world’s heat deaths each year are due directly to global warming, according to the latest study to calculate the human cost of climate change.

But scientists say that's only a sliver of climate's overall toll — even more people die from other extreme weather amplified by global warming such as storms, flooding and drought — and the heat death numbers will grow exponentially with rising temperatures.

Dozens of researchers who looked at heat deaths in 732 cities around the globe from 1991 to 2018 calculated that 37% were caused by higher temperatures from human-caused warming, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

That amounts to about 9,700 people a year from just those cities, but it is much more worldwide, the study's lead author said. “These are deaths related to heat that actually can be prevented. It is something we directly cause,” said Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, an epidemiologist at the Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

The highest percentages of heat deaths caused by climate change were in cities in South America. Vicedo-Cabrera pointed to southern Europe and southern Asia as other hot spots for climate change-related heat deaths. Sao Paulo, Brazil, has the most climate-related heat deaths, averaging 239 a year, researchers found.

About 35% of heat deaths in the United States can be blamed on climate change, the study found. That’s a total of more than 1,100 deaths a year in about 200 U.S. cities, topped by 141 in New York. Honolulu had the highest portion of heat deaths attributable to climate change, 82%.

Scientists used decades of mortality data in the 732 cities to plot curves detailing how each city’s death rate changes with temperature and how the heat-death curves vary from city to city. Some cities adapt to heat better than others because of air conditioning, cultural factors and environmental conditions, Vicedo-Cabrera said.

Then researchers took observed temperatures and compared them with 10 computer models simulating a world without climate change. The difference is warming humans caused. By applying that scientifically accepted technique to the individualized heat-death curves for the 732 cities, the scientists calculated extra heat deaths from climate change.

“People continue to ask for proof that climate change is already affecting our health. This attribution study directly answers that question using state-of-the-science epidemiological methods, and the amount of data the authors have amassed for analysis is impressive,” said Dr. Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin.

Patz, who wasn’t part of the study, said it was one of the first to detail climate change-related heat deaths now, rather than in the future.

Handwritten notes that show one of history’s greatest scientific minds in action are going up for auction in London.

Pages containing Isaac Newton’s jotted revisions to his masterwork, the “Principia,” are expected to sell next month for between 600,000 pounds and 900,000 pounds ($850,000 and $1.3 million), auctioneer Christie’s said on Tuesday.

Published in 1687, Newton's “Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica” — “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” — set out the laws of gravitation and motion and is considered a scientific watershed. A first edition of the book sold at auction for $3.7 million in 2016.

Thomas Venning, head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s in London, said the book “reinvented our understanding of the universe.” The page and a half of notes for a planned second edition includes comments and diagrams by Scottish mathematician and astronomer David Gregory. The two scientists met and corresponded while Newton worked on revising the “Principia” in the 1690s.

Mr. Venning said that when he was working on the revisions, Newton was “fizzing with the energy of one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.”

“And we can see that at work, the speed with which he's writing, the ferment of ideas coming out from his pen,” he said.

Keith Moore, head librarian at the Royal Society — the scientists’ club where Newton was president in the 18th century — said Gregory “kept up a written dialogue with Newton. He met Newton and that partnership, almost, between the two of them, resulted in refining Newton's thinking.” Newton eventually gave up on the revisions, but ultimately produced a new edition in 1713.

The document will go under the hammer at Christie’s in London on July 8.

“What a collector in the autograph world is looking for is the greatest minds in history, talking about their greatest achievements,” Mr. Venning said.

“It’s very, very rare to have that combination. And that’s what you have in this particular manuscript,” he said.