Science & Technology - May 2021

This picture was not shot from the Grand Canyon in the U.S. In fact, this image was not even photographed on Earth. This is a picture of Mont Mercou, a cliff on Mars. The contrast of grey clouds over the brown mountain was shot by NASA’s Curiosity rover on March 19, 2021 - - the day it completed 3,063 Martian days, (one day in Mars is called sol). The picture is a collection of 21 separate images stitched together and colour corrected so that the location appears as how it would to a human eye. The rover has been studying this cliff to better understand the Red planet.

While spotting clouds on Mars is rare, this capture by the rover is an even rarer phenomenon. That’s because, to the extent we know about the fourth planet, clouds typically appear during the coldest time of the year near Mars’ equator when planet is farthest from the Sun. Two Earth years ago (one full Mars year), scientists at NASA noticed clouds forming over the rover earlier than expected.

Also read | NASA releases stunning new picture of Milky Way

That’s when they decided to look deeper into this phenomenon early on. So, they started to track the “early” clouds in late January and spotted “wispy puffs” filled with ice crystals that scattered light from the setting Sun, some shimmered with colours. The Curiosity team analysing the clouds were more interested in how these ‘puffs’ are formed than in their spectacular displays.

Initial discovery and clues to next

When it made its first discovery of clouds on Mars, the team noted that, “The early-arrival clouds are actually at higher altitudes than is typical.” Most clouds on the Red planet hover at about 37 miles (60 kilometres) or lower in the sky, and are composed of water ice. The latest capture by Curiosity shows the clouds at a higher altitude, where it is very cold. This translates to a higher likelihood of clouds formed by frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice, NASA said in a blog post.

“I always marvel at the colours that show up: reds and greens and blues and purples,” Mark Lemmon, atmospheric scientist at Space Science Institute in the U.S., told NASA. “It’s really cool to see something shining with lots of colour on Mars.”

Also read | China to send three male astronauts for 3-month stay in its new space station

The findings are not final yet as scientists will need to do more analysis to know for sure which of the recent images photographed by Curiosity has water-ice clouds and which one has dry-ice ones. One of the clues scientists use to determine the altitude of the clouds is by looking at twilight clouds, also known as “noctilucent”. During sunset, the ice crystals in the cloud catches the fading light, which makes them glow against the darkening sky. They gradually darken as the Sun’s position in the sky drops below their altitude. This will help scientists calculate the position of the clouds in the sky.

Discoveries like this by the Curiosity rover helps scientists to better understand Earth’s neighbour, its topography and climactic conditions.

Scientists have identified a new drug which is highly effective in preventing severe COVID-19 in mice infected with SARS-CoV-2, and could also treat other respiratory coronaviruses.

The findings, published in the journal Science Immunology, suggest that the drug diABZI activates the body's innate immune response, the first line of defence against invading pathogens.

"This paper is the first to show that activating an early immune response therapeutically with a single dose is a promising strategy for controlling the virus, including the South African variant B.1.351, which has led to worldwide concern," said Sara Cherry, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S.

"The development of effective antivirals is urgently needed for controlling SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease, especially as dangerous variants of the virus continue to emerge," Cherry, the senior author of the study, said.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus initially targets epithelial cells in the respiratory tract.

As the first line of defence against infection, the respiratory tract's innate immune system recognises viral pathogens by detecting their molecular patterns. The researchers first sought to better understand this effect by observing human lung cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 under the microscope.

They found that the virus is able to hide, delaying the immune system's early recognition and response.

The team predicted that it may be able to identify drugs that could set off this immune response in the respiratory cells earlier and prevent severe SARS-CoV-2 infection.

To identify drugs that would block SARS-CoV-2 infection, the researchers screened 75 drugs that target sensing pathways in lung cells.

They identified nine candidates that significantly suppressed infection by activating STING — the simulation of interferon genes which plays an important role in innate immunity.

The team tested a newly-developed drug molecule called diABZI, which is currently being tested in clinical trials to treat some cancers.

The researchers found that diABZI potently inhibits SARS-CoV-2 infection of diverse strains, including variant of concern B.1.351, by stimulating interferon signalling. Interferons are a group of signaling proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of several viruses.

The scientists tested the effectiveness of diABZI in transgenic mice that had been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Because the drug needed to reach the lungs, diABZI was administered through a nasal delivery. Mice treated with diABZI showed much less weight loss than the control mice, and had significantly-reduced viral loads in their lungs and nostrils, and had increased cytokine production.

The findings provide further support that diABZI stimulates interferon for protective immunity, the researchers said. The study also offers promise that diABZI could be an effective treatment for SARS-CoV-2 that could prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms and the spread of infection, they added.

NASA has released a stunning new picture of our galaxy’s violent, super-energised “downtown.”

It's a composite of 370 observations over the past two decades by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, depicting billions of stars and countless black holes in the center, or heart, of the Milky Way. A radio telescope in South Africa also contributed to the image, for contrast.

Astronomer Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst said in an email: “What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown...There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.”

This busy, high-energy galactic center is 26,000 light years away. His work appears in the June issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Launched in 1999, Chandra is in an extreme oval orbit around Earth.

China's cargo spacecraft, carrying supplies, equipment and propellant, docked with the space station's key module Tianhe on Sunday, the official news agency Xinhua reported.

The Tianzhou-2, or "Heavenly Vessel" in Chinese, autonomously rendezvoused and docked with Tianhe at 5:01 a.m. Beijing time, Xinhua said on Sunday.

It blasted off via a Long March-7 Y3 rocket at 8:55 p.m. Beijing time on Saturday from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan, the China Manned Space Engineering Office said.

With a designed life of more than 1 year, Tianzhou-2 carried supplies for future astronauts including food for the Shenzhou-12 crew which will be launched next month for a three-month stay on the station, as well as two tons of propellant.

Tianzhou-2 is the second of 11 missions needed to complete China's first self-developed space station around 2022, and follows the launch of Tianhe, the first module, in late April.

The three-module space station will rival the International Space Station (ISS), which is backed by countries including the United States, Russia and Japan. China was barred from participating in the ISS by the United States.

The rocket's launch was postponed this month due to technical reasons, state media said.

The first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 was sent to refuel a space lab - Tiangong-2 - three times in 2017, as a test of the technologies needed to support construction of the space station.

Both Tiangong-2 and an earlier space lab Tiangong-1 have been deorbited in recent years.

Next year, China will launch the two other core modules — Wentian and Mengtian — using the Long March 5B, its biggest and most powerful space transport vehicle.

That rocket, capable of sending 25 tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit, was a source of worry earlier in May as it re-entered the atmosphere after delivering Tianhe into orbit.

Media reports warned of an uncontrolled re-entry of the rocket's core stage, reviving memories of debris from the flight of the first Long March 5B in May 2020, which damaged buildings when it landed in Ivory Coast.

Remnants from the rocket finally fell harmlessly in the Indian Ocean, but China drew criticism for not being transparent about the timing of the debris re-entry and predictions of its trajectory.

From June until 2022, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft will also be launched, by the smaller Long March-7 and 2F rockets, which have a maximum low Earth payload of 14 tonnes and 8.8 tonnes, respectively.

Roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) are animals that lack dedicated immune cells. But they are constantly under attack from viruses and fungal parasites called microsporidia.

Researchers from the U.S have now decoded the complex dynamics that are involved in how these organisms sense an infection. The paper published last month (Plos Pathogens) notes worms can sense changes in their metabolism and then unleash protective defenses, even if they don't directly sense the pathogens.

The team studied an important biological pathway in the worms – the purine metabolism pathway. The results suggest that the host has developed ways to sense the theft of purine metabolites. It seems that when these key cellular building blocks are stolen by the pathogen, the host senses this theft to mount an immune response to the pathogen, explains first author Eillen Tecle in a release.

The team adds that studying worms can also shed light on some purine-related compound mutations seen in human diseases. Lead author Emily R. Troemel added in a release that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's important to study these questions of immunity in lots of different systems to build new tools so that we can learn how to prevent and treat infections.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi (IIT Mandi) in Himachal Pradesh have revealed the part of structure of a key protein in COVID-19 virus, which helps in understanding its mode of action, its role in the spread and severity of the disease and development of antiviral therapeutics. The findings have been published in Current Research in Virological Science.

According to the team, current COVID-19 treatments simply manage symptoms while the body fights off the infection with its immune defence system. There are, as yet, no confirmed antiviral drugs that can stop the virus from replicating.

“One route to neutralising any virus is to attack its proteins. Such an approach holds true for the COVID-19 virus as well, and scientists across the globe are involved in studies to elucidate the structure and functions of these proteins to understand the viral disease and develop drugs that are effective against the virus,” said Rajanish Giri, Assistant Professor of Biotechnology, IIT Mandi.

This virus has 16 non-structural proteins (NSP1–NSP16), of which the NSP1 plays a vital role in the pathogenicity (ability to cause disease) of the virus.

“The NSP1 disrupts the proteins of the host cell and suppresses its immune functions. Its importance can be understood by the fact that it is also called the ‘host shutoff factor’. Earlier in 2020, we have shown through bioinformatics studies that NSP1 C-terminal region has intrinsic disorder propensity between 0.4 to 0.5 scales – very close to borderline of intrinsic disorder prediction.

“However, without experimental studies we were not sure that this 13-180 amino acid region is actually an intrinsically disordered protein region. Generally, these regions are unfolded in solution but are folded into particular conformations when binding with specific molecules or partners inside the host cells,” said Giri, explaining the recent developments to his previous research.

The IIT Mandi team has experimentally studied the structural conformations of SARS-CoV-2 NSP1 under various conditions – in an organic solvent, membrane mimetic environment and inside liposomes.

Using analytical techniques such as circular dichroism spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, and molecular dynamics simulations, the researchers have shown the dynamic changes in the conformation of the IDR of the NSP1, in response to its surroundings, due to hydrophobic and electrostatic interactions between the protein and the environment.

“Our finding provides valuable insight into disorder-order conformation of the NSP1 C-terminal region (residues 131-180) of the SARS-COV2 virus under various environments, which will help in understanding the broader aspect of NSP1 and its interactions with binding partners that are currently unknown,” Giri said. The other members of the team include IIT Mandi research scholars Amit Kumar, Ankur Kumar and Prateek Kumar, along with Neha Garg from the Banaras Hindu University.

On May 27, a PIB press release said “Several myths on India’s Covid-19 vaccination program are doing the rounds. These myths are arising due to distorted statements, half-truths and blatant lies”. Dr. Vinod Paul, Member (Health) in NITI Aayog and Chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) sought to address seven “myths”. One of them was on vaccination of children.

According to the release, the myth was that the Centre wasn’t taking any step to vaccinate children. Clarifying this, Dr. Paul said: “As of now, no country in the world is giving vaccines to children.”Unfortunately, the “fact” put out by Dr. Paul was completely incorrect. As early as December 11, 2020, when the FDA granted the first emergency use approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, the regulatory body permitted the vaccine to be used on children older than 16 years.

On May 10 this year, the FDA reduced the upper age limit to become eligible for the Pfizer vaccine to 12 years. So far, Canada, the U.S., U.A.E., Singapore, Bahrain and Qatar have approved the use of Pfizer vaccine in children 12–15 years. On May 5, 2021, Canada became the first country to approve its use in children 12–15 years.

The authorisation by Canada’s regulatory agency was based on the phase-3 trial carried out in the U.S. on 2,260 children in the age group 12–15 years.

The trial found that the vaccine was safe and had 100% efficacy. The trial also found that the vaccine produced robust antibody responses in children 12–15 years, exceeding those reported in trials of participants aged 16–25 years, according to a company release.

Approval worldwide

While the U.S., FDA cleared the vaccine for use in children aged 12–15 years on May 10, the U.A.E. approved its use on May 13. On May 18, Singapore became the fourth country to approve the vaccine for children 12–15 years; Bahrain too approved the vaccine for the target group the same day. On May 19, Qatar approved the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12 years.

Not only did the U.S. approve the vaccine for children aged 12–15 years weeks before Dr. Paul issued the statement but also vaccinated more than 6,00,000 children in just a week after the CDC on May 12 cleared the vaccine for public distribution. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of CDC also said that in the U.S. as on May 18, in total more than 4.1 million children aged 12–17 years were vaccinated.

Now, on May 28, a day after Dr. Paul’s clarification, the European Commission has approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in children 12–15 years. The decision comes after European Medicines Agency (EMA) backed the use of the vaccine in the target group earlier in the day. Germany and Italy are already preparing to vaccinate children aged 12–15 years. Japan too approved the vaccine use in children in the same age group on May 28.

Issues clarification

Following the huge storm on social media, Dr. Paul clarified his earlier statement. He said: “It has been found out now that Pfizer [vaccine] can be administered to the younger population. One-two countries will start doing [vaccinating] that now”.

It is surprising that Dr. Paul as the Chair of the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 was ignorant about the Pfizer vaccine being approved for use in children 16 years and above in the U.S. and many other countries, and the U.S. has been vaccinating children above 16 years since April 20, 2021 and those above 12 years since May 12. It took this huge uproar on social media for him to know this.

Even then, the clarification from Dr. Paul was not factually correct. He said “one-two countries will start doing [vaccinating] that now” when in reality the U.S. has been vaccinating children above 16 years since April 20. The U.S has already vaccinated 4.1 million children older than 12 years as on May 18. Dubai started vaccinating children above 12 years soon after the FDA approved the vaccine for this age group. As on May 24, 1,800 children aged 12–15 years got their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Lack of accuracy

“From the very beginning of the pandemic, people at the top have not been keen on data accuracy and sharing factual statements. The need for verification of data has not been given sufficient respect by these people. Opinions and facts are mixed up,” says Dr. Jacob John, formerly with CMC Vellore. “It is unacceptable and irresponsible that Dr. Paul, who holds a responsible position, does not respect the truth. People tend to believe what he and others holding responsible positions say as verified facts.”

Dr. John adds: “The need to set a false narrative sets in to suit the ground reality.” In this case, clinical trials in children have not begun in India. So an attempt is being made to show that no country has been vaccinating children.

While, Dr. Paul tried to clarify that the Pfizer vaccine be administered to the younger population and one–two countries will begin vaccination in children, PIB cited a very different reason while issuing a corrected release. The corrected release said: “The release mentions that ‘no country in the world is giving vaccines to children’. It should read ‘no country in the world is giving vaccines to children under 12 years’. The inadvertent typographical omission is regretted.”

Studies on children

Moderna, which was the second vaccine to get an EUA from the FDA, recently said the preliminary results from the Phase 2/3 study in children aged 12–17 year showed 100% efficacy 14 days after the second dose. The company plans to submit data to regulators in early June. While Novavax has just begun a study in children 12–17 years, AstraZeneca is already testing its vaccine among children in Britain aged above six years. Meanwhile, both Pfizer and Moderna have begun studies in children aged six months to 11 years.

While people like me, in their eighties, use the wrist watch to know the time of the day, today’s ‘hip’ youngsters, typically clad in blue jeans with pre-planned rips at the right place and a watch carrying facilities that not only tell the time but also the right tweets, movies and music of the present day. Compared to them, people like me are museum pieces. But when I challenge some of the more ‘knowledgeable’ among them, about how early this technological advance has come about, they proudly point out that right here in India, there is the Qutub Minar and its Iron Pillar in Delhi, both from the Iron Age.

Modern humans

‘Modern’ humans have populated the earth from long before the Iron Age, for some 300,000 years, cohabiting Mother Earth along with other pre-human hominins. Who were these other people? Because bones of one of these ‘others’ were first discovered in the Neander valley, just east of Dusseldorf in Germany, they were called ‘Neanderthals’. This hominin arose about 430,000 years ago and did not evolve in Africa, as Homo sapiens did. Early humans first encountered them when they migrated out of Africa.

Compete or co-operate

Did they compete with us Homo sapiens, or was there cooperation? Answers to such questions have come, one fragment at a time, from studies on the genetics of populations from Asia and Europe in places where migration brought the two species face to face. The techniques for these analyses are also advancing rapidly – all you need today is a bone fragment or, even better, a tooth – these are drilled to remove a few milligrams of powder, from which DNA is extracted and sequenced. Sometimes, you don’t even need the fragment, dwelling places like caves have extractable DNA in their sediments! Notable driving forces behind all these technical and intellectual advances in this field include the Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo and the biochemist Johannes Krause.

‘Modern’ humans interbred with the locals in these regions. Recently a thigh bone of such a cross-bred individual became available, as Dr Ann Gibbs points out in her column titled, ‘When modern humans met Neanderthals’, (Science, 9 April 2012: vol 372, issue 6538, pp. 115-116, DOI:10.1126/science.372.6538.115). A more recent genetic analysis of one set of samples from the region showed that Neanderthals came to the Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria first, more than 50,000 years ago and left their stone tools. Next came modern humans in two or more waves, and littered the cave with beads and stones about 45,000, and then 36,000 years ago. Genome-wide data of three human males who lived in this cave 45,000 years ago show that all three had Neanderthals in their family lineage, from just a few generations ago. This clearly showed that the modern human population in that region had interbred with the ‘locals’ and produced a cross-bred group of people – modern with Neanderthals. This cross-bred group had 3.4%–3.8% Neanderthal ancestry (in modern non-Africans it is about 2%). The inheritance was in the form of long chunks of chromosomal segments, which grew shorter with each generation. By measuring the size of these chunks, it is estimated that these three residents had a Neanderthal ancestor 6–7 generations ago. In another study, a nearly intact feminine skull from the Zlatý kůň hill in the Czech Republic, roughly as old as the Bachi Kiro gentlemen, was found to have Neanderthal ancestors going back about 70 generations (2,000 years).

Genetic connections

Tracing the genetic lineages of these four individuals, it is somewhat surprising that no traces are to be found among today’s Europeans. However, they are connected to present-day East Asians and Native Americans. The descendants of these Eurasian cave dwellers appear to have packed up and moved eastward, finally enduring the hardship of crossing an ice-age Bering Strait, and the luxury of visa-free travel, into the Americas.

Conferring immunity

Further studies on the genomes of the Neanderthals themselves allow a comparison with those of modern humans (see reference above) and give us a glimpse of the genetic changes in the DNA sequences of the two. The chunks inherited from Neanderthals were whittled down to 2%, but what advantages did these newly acquired genes confer on humans? Having adapted to colder regions for 400,000 years, the Neanderthals gave us out-of-Africa humans variations in skin and hair colour better suited to the cold, as well as adaptive variants for metabolism and immunity – to help better adjust to strange new food sources and to unfamiliar disease-causing viruses in the new environment.

dbala@lvpei.org

With extremely cold winters and pleasant summers, the State of Uttarakhand is home to the Western Himalayan temperate forests which harbour a large number of endemic bird species. A new study that analysed these natural oak-dominated forests and modified forests has noted that there was a drastic loss of bird species in all modified landscapes.

The researchers studied an area of about 1,285 square kilometres between the altitudes of 1,700 and 2,400 metres. Six major land-use types which included natural oak forest, degraded oak forest (lightly used), lopped oak forest (intensively used), pine forest, agricultural cultivation area and sites with buildings were studied.

The results showed that there was a low diversity of species in monoculture areas and urban sites. They also noted a drastic loss of pollinator birds and insectivores in the degraded forests, monocultures and urbanised sites. The results were published recently in Global Ecology and Conservation.

Habitat guilds

Ghazala Shahabuddin, first author of the paper from the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, Dehradun, adds: “We also noticed strong decline in some of the habitat guilds in the areas that experienced land-use change.

Habitat guilds are groups of bird species that have common habitat preferences. For instance, forest specialists include species which forage and breed only in dense protected oak forests at this altitude, while forest generalists can adapt to modified habitats such as orchards and degraded forests.”

The researchers noticed that many of the species that dropped out of the modified land areas were recognised oak forest specialists such as rufous-bellied woodpecker, greater yellownape, rufous sibia, white-throated laughingthrush and black-faced warbler.

Another paper published by the group looked at woodpeckers in the region to understand how they can be used as indicators of bird diversity and also to understand habitat degradation

Woodpeckers enhance

They found that the higher the number of woodpeckers at a site, the higher was the richness of all other birds. “The cavities that woodpeckers make on trees are used by a number of other birds to nest in. This may be the primary reason how woodpeckers enhance the diversity in a region. Woodpeckers are known to abandon their cavities and even be chased away from their own cavity by other birds,” explained Tarun Menon, one of the authors of the paper who is currently a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

They also noted that two species (rufous-bellied woodpecker and greater yellownape) showed great potential as indicators of forest quality as they were most likely to be found in dense canopied forests with larger and taller trees on which they preferred to forage.

“With tourism and other anthropogenic activities increasing in the region, we are witnessing rapid invasion by non-native species. One would not expect to see pigeons and Black Kites in these altitudes, but with increasing concrete urban ghettos, these birds have become a common sight now,” adds Rajkamal Goswami who was associated with the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, Dehradun, while carrying out the field surveys. He is currently working with the Ashoka Trust for Research and the Environment (ATREE) and is one of the authors of the paper. He adds that land-use changes are also leading to the depletion of water-table and drying of perennial springs in these areas. “The loss of forests and intensification of land-use has led to a significant decrease in the abundance of important birds known to provide critical ecosystem functions and services such as pollination and pest control,” he adds.

Scientists have identified persistent damage in the lungs of COVID-19 patients at least three months after they were discharged from hospital, and for some patients even longer.

This damage was not detected by routine CT scans and clinical tests, and the patients would consequently normally be told their lungs are normal, according the researchers at the universities of Sheffield and Oxford in the U.K.

The study, published in the journal Radiology, also shows that patients not hospitalised with COVID-19 but who experience long-term breathlessness may have similar damage in their lungs. However, the researchers said a larger study is needed to confirm this.

They noted that hyperpolarised xenon MRI (XeMRI) scans had found abnormalities in the lungs of some COVID-19 patients more than three months — and in some cases, nine months — after leaving hospital, when other clinical measurements were normal.

The 129Xe MRI is pinpointing the parts of the lung where the physiology of oxygen uptake is impaired due to long standing effects of COVID-19 on the lungs, even though they often look normal on CT scans.

"Many COVID-19 patients are still experiencing breathlessness several months after being discharged from hospital, despite their CT scans indicating that their lungs are functioning normally," said Professor Fergus Gleeson, the study's principal investigator at Oxford. "Our follow-up scans using hyperpolarised xenon MRI have found that abnormalities not normally visible on regular scans are indeed present, and these abnormalities are preventing oxygen getting into the bloodstream as it should in all parts of the lungs."

p align='justify' >The study has now begun testing patients who were not hospitalised with COVID-19 but who have been attending long COVID clinics.

"Although we are currently only talking about early findings, the XeMRI scans of non-hospitalised patients who are breathless — and 70% of our local patients with Long COVID do experience breathlessness — may have similar abnormalities in their lungs," Gleeson explained. "We need a larger study to identify how common this is and how long it will take to get better."

In this episode of Worldview, our Diplomatic Affairs Editor Suhasini Haidar takes a look at the global search for the origins of the coronavirus, and why the controversial lab-leak theory just won’t go away.

Why is the question on the Origins heating up again now ?

It has been 18 months since the first few cases of the SARS-CoV-2 was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan. After 168 million cases worldwide and three-and-a-half million deaths, the focus is returning to where the virus emerged from, for three distinct reasons:

At its annual executive meeting, beginning May 24, the World Health Assembly reviewed a report commissioned by the WHO to look into the zoonotic origins of the virus globally.

The 120-page report  on China that was put together by a team of experts jointly conducted by scientists concluded that the possibility of an animal-man transmission or food-chain transmission was more likely than that of a lab-leak, but more research was necessary to pin down the origins of the virus.

On May 26, U.S. President Joseph Biden announced that he was unsatisfied by the inconclusive report put together by U.S. intelligence agencies on the issue, and that he was asking them to redouble efforts to decide whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident.

But perhaps what has really reopened the debate, especially for the scientific community is an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences written by acclaimed Science writer Nicolas Wade that has made a case for why the theory that SARS-CoV-2 is in fact a laboratory made virus, the product of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health, and led to what was called “Gain of Function” research, should not be dismissed.

In the article, Wade made several assertions:

  1. That it has been a year since the original theory of a bat-animal-human transmission from the Wuhan wet markets, and yet no evidence has been proferred by China of the animals involved. In comparison, the origins of the SARS virus that hit China in 2003 and the MERS virus that hit the Middle East (West Asia) in  2012 were traced to a horseshoe bat, and a dromedary camel respectively, fairly soon after by genome sequencing. In this case, there appear to be no leads to the animals that first brought SARS-CoV-2 to humans.
  2. That the lab leak theory had been dismissed too early in the pandemic, essentially because of scientists who were compromised or had a conflict of interest, or simply did not want to admit that such research could be so dangerous.
  3. Wade specifically pointed to joint research carried out by Wuhan Institute's Shi Zhengli and University of North Carolina's Ralph Baric in 2015 that focused on the ability of Bats to infect humans, where they re-engineered a coronavirus in a lab. The funding of the studies by the U.S. were subsequently cancelled, but as late as January 2020, the U.S. State Department had inspected the Wuhan facilities as part of its funding procedures.
  4. And finally Wade asked, if COVID-19 had come from bats, that are not native to Wuhan, why had it not infected any other animals or humans handling it along its travels, at least 1,500 kms away.

Wade concluded that Neither the natural emergence nor the lab escape hypothesis can yet be ruled out, but that the lab theory seemed more likely.

He also said that given that the U.S. National Institute of Health which was headed by Dr. Fauci at the time had funded Dr. Zhengli's research, that neither China nor the U.S. had an interest in shedding too much light on jointly funded experiments that could raise uncomfortable questions on research ethics and biowarfare.

These are explosive conclusions, but unlike last year, the lab-leak theory is not being dismissed as easily.

What is India's position on the origins of the virus issue?

India has consistently called for more investigation, but has been clear that it is wrong to stigmatise any country by naming a virus on the basis of its origins

On May 28, India issued a statement, its second so far, calling for WHO to conduct next phase studies into the WHO-China team’s report.

In an indirect criticism of China that limited access to the team that was only able to visit Wuhan for about 4 weeks, from mid January 2021, India called for "full co-operation" from all stakeholders.

What did the WHO report say?

The WHO report placed 4 hypotheses and gave for and against statements against each being a possible pathway of emergence:

  1. Direct zoonotic transmission (also termed: spillover)
  2. Introduction through an intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission
  3. Introduction through the cold/ food chain
  4. Introduction through a laboratory incident.

The team concluded 1 was likely 2 was extremely likely 3 was possible but 4 was extremely unlikely.

India is also watching the U.S.'s report closely, but has stayed away from commenting- or wading into the U.S.-China tensions on the issue.

The government had its own enquiry earlier this year, when it emerged that the Bangalore based NCBS had also conducted research on bat viruses in Nagaland that looked at zoonotic spillovers.

The study published in 2019 was funded by two universities with funds from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and also credited collaboration from Dr. Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute.

According to sources, an inter-ministry enquiry was conducted into the study that concluded there were lapses, and new norms are now being prepared.

Most of all, India and other global leaders must seek to study the origins of the virus conclusively, commit to ensuring that scientific research is not manipulated for weaponization, and build safe standards for the future. That will be a political and diplomatic imperative as well.

Book Recommendations:

  1. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
  2. Pale Rider on the Spanish Flu by Laura Spinney
  3. Age of Pandemic by Chinmay Tumbe

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has developed a simple and fast method of swab collection and processing for RT-PCR coronavirus test which could be used in rural and tribal areas.

The method is simple, fast, cost-effective, patient-friendly and comfortable, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said.

It is well-suited for rural and tribal areas, given minimal infrastructure requirements, it said.

The Nagpur-based NEERI is a constituent laboratory of CSIR.

Krishna Khairnar, senior scientist, Environmental Virology Cell at NEERI, said the swab collection method requires time. Moreover, since it is an invasive technique, it is a bit uncomfortable for patients.

"Sometime, it is also lost in the transport of the sample to the collection centre. On the other hand, the Saline Gargle RT-PCR method is instant, comfortable and patient-friendly. Sampling is done instantly and results will be generated within three hours," he said.

The method is non-invasive and so simple that a patient can collect the sample himself, said Mr. Khairnar.

Collection methods like nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swab collection require technical expertise and they are also time-consuming. In contrast, the Saline Gargle RT-PCR method uses a simple collection tube filled with saline solution, he said.

The patient gargles the solution and rinses it inside the tube. This sample in the collection tube is taken to the laboratory where it is kept at room temperature, in a special buffer solution prepared by NEERI.

An RNA template is produced when this solution is heated, which is further processed for Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR).

This particular method of collecting and processing the sample enables to save on the otherwise costly infrastructural requirement of RNA extraction. The method is environment-friendly as well, since waste generation is minimised, Mr. Khairnar said.

The Nagpur Municipal Corporation has given permission to go ahead with the method, following which testing has begun at NEERI, the CSIR said.

There is now a 40% chance that global temperatures will temporarily reach 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels in the next five years — and these odds are rising, a U.N. report said on Wednesday.

This does not yet mean that the world would already be crossing the long-term warming 1.5-degree threshold set by the Paris Climate Accord, which scientists warn is the ceiling to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. The Paris Accord target looks at temperature over a 30-year average, rather than a single year.

But it does underscore that "we are getting measurably and inexorably closer" to that threshold, said U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a statement. Taalas described the study as "yet another wakeup call" to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Every year from 2021 through 2025 is likely to be at least 1℃ warmer, according to the study.

The report also predicts a 90% chance that at least one of those years will become the warmest year on record, topping 2016 temperatures.

In 2020 – one of the three warmest years on record – the global average temperature was 1.2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial baseline, according to an April WMO report.

"There's a little bit of up and down in the annual temperatures," said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. "But these long term-trends are unrelenting."

"It seems inevitable that we're going to cross these boundaries," Schmidt said, "and that's because there are delays in the system, there is inertia in the system, and we haven't really made a big cut to global emissions as yet."

Almost all regions are likely to be warmer in the next five years than in the recent past, the WMO said.

The WMO uses temperature data from multiple sources including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Weather that was once unusual is now becoming typical. Earlier this month, for example, NOAA released its updated "climate normals," which provide baseline data on temperature and other climate measures across the United States. The new normals — updated every 10 years — showed that baseline temperatures across the United States are overwhelmingly higher compared with the past decade.

Temperatures shifts are occurring both on average and in temperature extremes, said Russell Vose, chief of the climatic analysis and synthesis branch at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. Over the next five years, these extremes are "more likely what people will notice and remember," he said.

Warming temperatures also affect regional and global precipitation. As temperatures rise, evaporation rates increase and warmer air can hold more moisture. Climate change also can shift circulation patterns in the atmosphere and ocean.

The WMO report predicts an increased chance of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, that Africa's Sahel and Australia will likely be wetter, and that the southwest of Northern America is likely to be drier.

The projections are part of a recent WMO effort to provide shorter-range forecasts of temperature, rainfall and wind patterns, to help nations keep tabs on how climate change may be disrupting weather patterns.

Looking at marine and land heat waves, ice sheets melting, ocean heat content rising, and species migrating toward colder places, "it's more than just temperature," Vose said. "There are other changes in the atmosphere and in the ocean and in the ice and in the biosphere that all point to a warming world."

London’s Science Museum and the Cambridge University library said on Wednesday they have acquired a large collection of items belonging to late physicist Stephen Hawking, from his personalised wheelchairs to landmark papers on theoretical physics and his scripts from his appearance on The Simpsons.

The entire contents of Hawking’s office at Cambridge — including his communications equipment, memorabilia, bets he made on scientific debates and office furniture — will be preserved as part of the collection belonging to the Science Museum Group.

Hawking occupied the office at the university’s department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics from 2002 until shortly before his death in 2018.

Highlights will go on display at the London museum early next year. Museum officials are also hoping to create a touring exhibition in the U.K. before setting up a permanent display in London.

Meanwhile, his vast archive of scientific and personal papers, including a first draft of his bestselling A Brief History of Time and his correspondence with leading scientists, will remain at Cambridge University’s library.

The institutions’ acceptance of Hawking’s archive and office meant that his estate settled 4.2 million pounds in inheritance tax.

This was done through a U.K. government plan which allows those who have such tax bills to pay by transferring important cultural, scientific or historic objects to the nation. Artefacts accepted under the plan are allocated to public collections and available for all.

Hawking studied for his PhD at Cambridge and later became the university’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, the same post that Isaac Newton held from 1669 to 1702.

Cambridge’s acquisition of the 10,000-page archive means that Hawking’s papers will join those of Newton and Charles Darwin at the university library, where they will soon be free for the public to access.

“The archive allows us to step inside Stephen’s mind and to travel with him round the cosmos to, as he said, ‘better understand our place in the universe,’” said Jessica Gardner, the university’s librarian.

“This vast archive gives extraordinary insight into the evolution of Stephen’s scientific life, from childhood to research student, from disability activist to ground-breaking, world-renowned scientist,” she added.

Diagnosed with motor neuron disease at 22 and given just a few years to live, Hawking survived for decades, dying in 2018 at 76. His work on the mysteries of space, time and black holes captured the imagination of millions, and his popular science books made him a celebrity beyond the preserves of academia. Hollywood celebrated his life in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything.

Hawking’s children, Lucy, Tim and Robert, said they were pleased that their father’s work will be preserved for the public for generations to come.

“My father would be so pleased and I think maybe at the same time, just a tiny bit overwhelmed that he was going to form part of the ... history of science, that he was going to be alongside the great scientists, the people whose work he really admired,” Lucy Hawking said.

Published in Nature Communications

How does our brain strengthen memories? It is long known that while we sleep, our brain reactivates previously learnt information and solidifies memories in the neocortical long-term stores. A new study has now shown an intricate interplay of brain activities that enables this reactivation. They noted that two patterns (slow oscillations, sleep spindles) that occur during our non-rapid eye movement sleep play an important role.

New carbon

Published in Science

The quest for new carbon allotropes (different forms of the same element) other than graphene has kept scientists busy for years. New carbon networks such as graphenylene and biphenylene have been predicted to have better mechanical, electronic, and transport properties. An international team of researchers has now synthesised an ultra-flat biphenylene network made up of four-, six-, and eight-membered rings of carbon atoms.

Clownfish clues

Published in PNAS

Clownfish, star of the movie Finding Nemo, dons an orange coat with white stripes. A new study has now found how these stripes are formed. The international team found that thyroid hormones regulate the white bar formation and the speed at which these bars are formed depends on the species of sea anemone in which the clownfish live.

Wallaby conservation

Published in Current Biology

A novel conservation strategy known as ‘headstarting’ has saved the population of bridled nailtail wallabies from the brink of extinction. In this method, young wallabies were isolated from their main predators - feral cats - during the critical early life stage before being returned to the wild. The paper notes that this improves juvenile survival and this method can be recruited in populations facing a high level of threats.

Cocaine catastrophe

Published in Genome Research

By giving small amounts of sucrose supplemented with cocaine to fruit flies, researchers have now decoded its effect on brain cells. The team studied over 88,000 cells and gene expressions in the flies. Geneticist Trudy Mackay, one of the corresponding authors of the study explains in a release: "Now, we can see what genes are expressed when exposed to cocaine and whether there are Federal Drug Administration-approved drugs that could be tested, perhaps first in the fly model. This is a baseline. We can now leverage this work to understand potential therapy."

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati have developed a smart window material for automatic climate control of buildings.

According to the researchers, the smart window material designed by them can effectively control the amount of heat and light passing through it in response to an applied voltage and would ultimately help in developing efficient automatic climate control.

The results of the study have recently been published in the journal, Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.

“There has been increased attention to sustainable architectural designs for better light and heat management in buildings in recent years, and deploying smart windows is the first step for such structures,” said Debabrata Sikdar, Assistant Professor, Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering, IIT Guwahati.

“Conventionally, window designs are static — they are predesigned for specific climatic conditions. The emergent smart windows, on the other hand, can dynamically adjust the amount of light and heat radiation entering a building in response to external stimuli, thus conserving the building’s energy,” Sikdar added.

Noting that the design of smart windows that are tuneable for all-weather conditions is challenging, the team claimed that it has designed smart window ‘glasses’ using noble metals as well as their relatively inexpensive alternatives that can dynamically control the intensity of transmitted solar radiation, depending upon the weather or climate conditions.

“We have proposed an electro-tuneable glass made of two ultra-thin metal layers sandwiching an electro-optic polymer whose refractive index can be changed by applying a small voltage, which allows filtering of visible and infrared radiation,” explained Ashish Kumar Chowdhary, research scholar, IIT Guwahati.

The researchers used this design to perform simulation studies to understand the light and heat transmission properties in response to the applied voltage. They initially considered gold and silver as the metal layers, but later tested their model with cheaper alternatives such as copper, and transparent semiconductor such as indium tin oxide.

"At present, the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed an unprecedented risk of cross-infections through aerosols transmission in public buildings such as healthcare centres, offices, transportation systems, workshops, laboratories and food storage facilities, where central air-conditioning systems are in use. We believe that our smart windows can provide an alternative solution for maintaining ambient indoor temperature and lighting inside a building or a vehicle by integrating those with usual glass windows or walls, thereby reducing the need of air-conditioning systems,” Sikdar said.

The researchers acknowledge that since the optical response of these types of smart glasses is critically linked to the surface smoothness and other physical properties of the layers, it is important to further analyse the effect of these properties on the performance of the glass.

The lunar eclipse on May 26 is going to be a special event, because not only is it the first lunar eclipse of 2021, but also a supermoon and a red blood moon.

Combined to be called the super “blood” moon, it will be visible across the Pacific, as well as the western half of North America, bottom of South America and eastern Asia. However, only few places in India will be able to see a partial eclipse close to the eastern horizon after moonrise. The partial eclipse will be visible in some parts of West Bengal, some coastal parts of Odisha and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. But you can catch the total eclipse from other parts of the world live online.

Better look quick: The total eclipse will last about 15 minutes as Earth passes directly between the moon and the sun. But the entire show will last five hours, as Earth's shadow gradually covers the moon, then starts to ebb.

“Hawaii has the best seat in the house and then short of that will be California and the Pacific Northwest,” said NASA’s Noah Petro, project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. New Zealand and Australia also will have prime viewing.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which circles the moon, will measure temperature changes on the lunar surface during the eclipse. Telescopes atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea also will monitor the moon, Petro said.

How to watch it?

Everyone everywhere, though, can still soak in the brighter than usual moon, weather permitting.

Unlike a solar eclipse, there's no harm in looking at an eclipsed moon.

The next total lunar eclipse will be in May 2022. The last one was in January 2019.

When does a supermoon occur?

The moon’s orbit around the earth is distinctly elliptical. The point when the moon is closest to the earth is called Perigee and the point when it is farthest from it is called Apogee. When a full moon occurs at its perigee, it is called a supermoon. It is a rare event, as it has to satisfy two conditions – the moon must be closest to the earth and it should be a full moon. At this point, the moon is observed to be 30% brighter and appears 14% larger.

What’s Blood Moon?

During totality, the moon may turn red or coppery. This happens because some light from the sun passes through earth's atmosphere and is bent towards the moon. While other colours in the spectrum are blocked and scattered by the atmosphere, red makes it through. And people call it blood moon.

Why does the moon look red?

When the Moon is completely covered by Earth's shadow it will darken, but doesn't go completely black. Instead, it takes on a red color, which is why total lunar eclipses are sometimes called red or blood moons.

Sunlight contains all colors of visible light. The particles of gas that make up Earth's atmosphere are more likely to scatter blue wavelengths of light while redder wavelengths pass through. This is called Rayleigh scattering, and it's why the sky is blue and sunrises and sunsets are often red.

In the case of a lunar eclipse, red light can pass through the Earth's atmosphere and is refracted – or bent – toward the Moon, while blue light is filtered out. This leaves the moon with a pale reddish hue during an eclipse.

A total lunar eclipse will occur on May 26 but it will be visible in the country for a short span from northeastern India, some parts of West Bengal, coastal parts of Odisha and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the eclipse will be visible in the region covering South America, North America, Asia, Australia, Antarctica, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean.

"From India, just after moonrise, ending of partial phase of the eclipse will be visible for a short span of time from the northeastern parts (except Sikkim), some parts of West Bengal, some costal parts of Odisha and Andaman and Nicobar Islands," the IMD said.

The partial phase of the eclipse will begin at 3.15 p.m. and end at 6.23 p.m., while the total phase will begin at 4.39 p.m. and end at 4.58 p.m.

The eclipse can be seen from Port Blair from 5.38 p.m. and viewed for 45 minutes, the longest time. It can be seen from Puri and Malda from 6.21 p.m. but can only be viewed for two minutes.

The next lunar eclipse will be visible from India on November 19. It will be a partial lunar eclipse. The ending of the partial phase of which will be visible for a very short span of time just after moonrise from extreme northeastern parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

Lunar eclipse occurs on a full moon day when the Earth comes in between the Sun and the Moon and when all the three objects are aligned. A total lunar eclipse will occur when the whole Moon comes under the umbral shadow of the Earth and the partial lunar eclipse occurs when only a part of the Moon comes under the umbral shadow of the Earth.

A rare Super Blood Moon will be seen in the eastern sky on May 26 evening, just after a total lunar eclipse, Director of MP Birla Planetarium and renowned astrophysicist Debiprasad Duari said. “At perigee a full moon looks 30% bigger and 14% brighter than an average full moon. That is the reason the full moon will shine brighter and also look bigger on that night,” he said. Explaining the reason behind calling it a blood moon, Duari said as the totally eclipsed moon takes a dark blackish red colour, it is called a blood moon. “This happens because of the comparatively less deviation of the red part of the moon light through the earth’s atmosphere and falling on the moon’s surface,” he said.

Scientists have for the first time managed to partially restore the sight of a blind patient by altering his cells, according to the results of a groundbreaking study published on Monday.

The technique known as optogenetics, which has been developed in the field of neuroscience over the last 20 years, involves genetically altering cells so they produce more light-sensitive proteins.

In some cases of blindness, known as inherited photoreceptor diseases, light-sensing cells in the retina that use proteins to deliver visual information to the brain via the optic nerve progressively degenerate.

Scientists in Europe and the U.S. recruited a man who had lost his sight due to an inherited photoreceptor disease 40 years ago and began treating him with optogenetic techniques.

This involved injections in his eye and several months of stimulation with light emitting goggles, which transformed images of the visual world into light pulses projected into the retina in real time.

In a clinical first, they were able to restore partial sight for the 58-year old patient, leaving him able to recognise, count, locate and touch different objects laid out on a table in front of him.

Jose-Alain Sahel, lead study author from France's Sorbonne University and National Centre for Scientific Research, said the trial provided proof-of-concept confirmation that it was possible to use optogenetics to restore sight in humans. "Importantly, blind patients with different kinds of neurodegenerative photoreceptor disease and a functional optic nerve will potentially be eligible for the treatment," he said.

"However, it will take time until this therapy can be offered to patients," added Sahel, who is also a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Department of Ophthalmology.

During the tests, the patient was able to locate and touch a notebook on a table in front of him 92% of the time while wearing the goggles. Without them, he was unable to perform any visual task.

Botond Roska, from the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel, said that the patient was initially frustrated as he could not perceive objects even after months of training with the goggles.

"And then spontaneously, be started to get very excited, reporting that he was able to see and getting very excited about this achievement," said Roska, who co-authored the study published in the journal Nature Research Journals.

The Delhi government has started calling up about 2,550 people, who had tested positive for COVID-19, to understand the impact of mutations and variants of concern of the virus on people and vaccines, especially the double mutant strain, a senior Delhi government official said.

Of the about 2,550 people, around 1,600 were detected to be infected with mutations and variants of concern during genome sequencing. The rest had tested negative for any of the mutations and variations of concern.

“The idea is to mainly understand the effect of the double mutant on people, whether it is more deadly, infectious, or causing more reinfections. By collecting information from both groups of people, ones who were affected by variants and mutations of concern and others, we will be able to have a better understanding of the effect of double mutant,” the official told The Hindu.

The government has not officially announced any details about the commencement of the study.

The decision to do the study was taken with an increase in double mutant strain of the virus (B.1.617) observed in Delhi, as per officials.

Questions asked

People are asked whether it was the first or the second time they were infected, whether it was a severe infection or not and other questions to understand how the double mutant strain of the virus is affecting people.

“People are also asked whether they had taken the vaccine before getting infected. If yes, then whether they had taken both shots. For instance, if a large number of people who were infected by the double mutant strain of the virus say they got infected even after taking the vaccine, then it will show that vaccines are not working that well against it. But we have just started the process now and can’t say anything right now,” the official said.

The government started calling up people over phone from Friday and the process is expected to be completed this week. The data compiled by the Delhi government will then be analysed by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

Variants of concern

The mutations and variants of concern that are being studied include the U.K. variant, the double mutant strain, and the South African variant.

A group of researchers from Pune and Chandigarh has discovered new “multi drug-resistant” bacteria from the scats of vine snake, a mildly venomous reptile, commonly found in Northern Western Ghats.

According to the team, the newly-isolated bacteria are resistant to at least 35 types of antibiotics.

This collaborative research work, published in the journal Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, is carried out by researchers from Shri Shiv Chhatrapati College, Junnar; National Centre for Microbial Resource; National Centre for Cell Science, Pune; Microbial Type Culture Collection, and CSIR-Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh.

Ravindra Chaudhari, one of the researchers, said the microorganisms present in scats of animals can very easily come in contact with human beings and other animals through water flow during rainy season and also through air.

"The bacteria reported here comes under family Planococcaceae and some species of this family are pathogenic in nature, so it is important to identify the bacteria in snakes because they can cause infectious diseases,” he said.

"Recently, it has been observed that the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra may be the original source of coronavirus. When the researchers performed a more detailed bioinformatics analysis of the sequence of 2019-nCoV, it suggests that this coronavirus might have come from snakes," he claimed.

He added that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently claimed that 70% of infectious diseases will cause due to microorganisms from wildlife. "So it is better we start a research into that direction and make some anti-biotic medicines, which will be helpful for humans," added Dr. Chaudhari.

Yogesh Shouche, another researcher from the NCCS, said that many bacteria, including those which are multi drug-resistant in snakes, lead to wound infection after the snake bites. "In some serious cases, patients may suffer from cellulitis, tissues necrosis, finger or toe gangrene, and/or extensive necrotizing fasciitis. To avoid such type of infections, antibiotic therapy is the only way. However, these newly-isolated bacteria are resistant to antibiotic drugs, which is a cause of serious concern," he said.

He further added that a few species and strains of Planococcus have been demonstrated to be pathogenic to other animals. Some species lead to an outbreak of necrotic hepatitis in chickens. Some of the species and strains of Planococcus are found in bronchial biopsy in a child with cystic fibrosis. "We are focusing on the study of the pathogenicity of these bacteria in relation to humans as well as other animals," said Dr. Shouche.

India is home to 4,371 species of deep-sea fauna, including 1,032 species under the kingdom Protista and 3,339 species under the kingdom Animalia, a recent publication by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) has revealed.

The deep-sea ecosystem is considered to be below a depth of 200 metres, where solar energy cannot support primary productivity through photosynthesis. This publication is the first detailed work on deep-sea organisms of the country.

Published by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the book titled 'Deep Sea Faunal Diversity in India' is the work of five authors and several other contributors over 41 chapters.

India is surrounded by the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and the Laccadive Sea (Lakshadweep Sea). Of the 4,371 species, the maximum of 2,766 species has been reported from deep sea areas of the Arabian Sea, followed by 1,964 species from the Bay of Bengal, 1,396 species from the Andaman Sea, and only 253 species from the Laccadive Sea.

RIMS ship investigator

The authors behind the book point out that India is one of the countries that made a pioneering exploration in the deep Indian Ocean region in 1874 by commissioning a RIMS (Royal Indian Marine Survey) ship investigator, which conducted enormous studies in seas around India. “This RIMS investigator continued to work till 1926. After that, several other vessels, including vessels of the Indian Navy and scientists from the ZSI and other institutions, conducted deep sea explorations, gathering information about the fauna. This publication is a result of the work put together by several scientists across three centuries,” C. Raghunathan, ZSI Acting Director, one of the authors of the publication, said. The marine biologist said deep sea fauna had a vast diversity, starting from unicellular eukaryotes, sponges, corals, echinoderms and fishes, and also mammals.

Kailash Chandra, former ZSI Director, said that the deep sea ecosystem was the most unexplored ecosystem across the world. It included hydrothermal vents, submarine canyons, deep sea trenches, sea mounts, cold seeps, and mud volcanoes. “This publication, the first of its kind, provides baseline information on all groups of fauna and biological organisms in the Indian deep seas. Not only will this support our knowledge on conserving and managing deep sea faunal resources, but it will also pave way for their sustainable utilisation,” Dr. Chandra said.

31 species of sea mammals

There are 31 species of sea mammals which are found in deep sea ecosystem of Indian waters, including the Critically Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. Two other species, the Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise and the Sperm Whale, are recorded as ‘Vulnerable’ in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classification.

The list of mammals includes Cuvier’s Beaked Whale and Short-beaked Common Dolphin, which dive as deep as 8,000 metres below the Earth’s surface.

Marine turtles

Out of the seven species of marine turtles found across the world, five species have been recorded from Indian waters. India is known as one of the best and largest breeding grounds for sea turtles, especially for Olive Ridley and Leatherback Turtles, across the world.

The publication’s chapter-wise description includes details of 36 species of sponges, 30 species of hard corals, 92 species of octocorals, 124 species of hydrozoans, seven species of jellyfish, and seven species of comb jellies.

The other deep-sea fauna found in Indian waters include, among others, 150 species of molluscs, including 54 species of cephalopods; 134 species of prawns; 23 species of lobsters; 230 species of echinoderms, 53 species of tunicates, 443 species of fishes and 18 species of sea snakes.

The other authors of the book are Honey U.K. Pillai, P. Jasmine and Tamal Mondal.

The publication comes days after the allocation of ₹4,000 crore was made for the Deep Ocean Mission by the government of India in the Union Budget for 2021-22.

Scientists pointed out that while the publication comes up with a baseline figure of 4,371 species, there is an urgent need for greater exploration of Indian deep seas. Most of the earlier explorations were carried to maximum depth of 2,000 metres, whereas parts of Indian seas are deeper than 6,000 metres, Dr. Raghunathan said.

Roadside habitats are important for many plants, insects, mammals, and birds. There is mounting evidence that traffic noise can have several negative effects on animals. The loud noise has been known to disrupt the ability of birds to communicate and even attract mates. A previous study proposed that traffic noise reduced breeding success in Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus). Another paper found that hearing the noises of cars driving by was enough to inhibit cognitive performance in songbirds.

A new study (Science Advances) published this week noted that juvenile zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) raised in an environment that simulated city traffic noise had weaker immune responses and delayed vocal development than chicks raised in quiet nests. Henrik Brumm, who led the international research project, said in a release that the findings indicate that young songbirds, just like human children, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of noise because of its potential to interfere with learning at a critical developmental stage.

The paper adds that traffic noise pollution also has the potential to affect the cultural evolution of birdsong.

A remote-controlled Chinese motorised rover drove down the ramp of its landing capsule on Saturday and onto the surface of Mars, making China the first nation to orbit, land and deploy a land vehicle on its inaugural mission to the Red Planet.

Zhurong, named after a mythical Chinese god of fire, drove down to the surface of Mars at 10:40 a.m. Beijing time (0240 GMT), according to the rover's official Chinese social media account.

China this month joined the United States as the only nations to deploy land vehicles on Mars. The former Soviet Union landed a craft in 1971, but it lost communication seconds later.

The 240-kg (530-pound) Zhurong, which has six scientific instruments including a high-resolution topography camera, will study the planet's surface soil and atmosphere.

Powered by solar energy, Zhurong will also look for signs of ancient life, including any subsurface water and ice, using a ground-penetrating radar during its 90-day exploration of the Martian surface.

Zhurong will move and stop in slow intervals, with each interval estimated to be just 10 metres (33 feet) over three days, according to the official China Space News.

"The slow progress of the rover was due to the limited understanding of the Martian environment, so a relatively conservative working mode was specially designed," Jia Yang, an engineer involved in the mission, told China Space News.

Jia said he would not rule out a faster pace in the later stage of the rover's mission, depending on its operational state at the time.

Jia said the rover was designed to be highly autonomous because the distance to Mars, at 320 million km (200 million miles), means a signal takes 40 minutes to travel both ways, posing a hurdle for real-time control of the rover.

Martian temperatures are also a problem, he said: a nighttime drop to minus 130 degrees Celsius (minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit) freezes carbon dioxide, covering the uneven ground with a layer of dry ice - a terrain risk for the rover.

Zhurong has an automated suspension system that can lift and lower its chassis by 60 centimetres (2 feet), the only rover with such a capability, according to China Space News.

The rover is covered by nano-aerogel plates to protect its body from the cold.

Dust storms could also affect the rover's ability to generate power through its solar panels, Jia said. To overcome this, the panel surface is made with a material that cannot be easily stained by dust and can easily shake dust off by vibration, he said.

Ancient ocean

China's uncrewed Tianwen-1 spacecraft blasted off from the southern Chinese island of Hainan in July last year. After more than six months in transit, Tianwen-1 reached the Red Planet in February where it had been in orbit since.

On May 15, the landing capsule carrying the rover separated from Tianwen-1 and touched down on a vast plain known as Utopia Planitia, believed to be the site of an ancient ocean.

The first images taken by the rover were released by the Chinese space agency on Wednesday.

The coordinates of the landing site are 109.9 degrees east and 25.1 degrees north, China Space News said.

Tianwen-1 was one of three probes that reached Mars in February.

U.S. rover Perseverance touched down on February 18 in a huge depression called Jezero Crater, more than 2,000 km (1,240 miles) from Utopia Planitia.

Hope — the third spacecraft to arrive in February — is not designed to land. Launched by the United Arab Emirates, it is orbiting above Mars, gathering data on its weather and atmosphere.

Perseverance and Zhurong are among three robotic rovers operating on Mars. The third is NASA's Curiosity, which landed in 2012.

NASA’s InSight, which arrived on the surface of the planet in 2018 to study its interior, is a stationary module.

The novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 could cause no more than common cold-like coughs and sniffles within the next decade, according to a study. The research, published in the journal Viruses, makes this likely prediction based on mathematical models that incorporate lessons learned from the current pandemic on how our body's immunity changes over time. “This shows a possible future that has not yet been fully addressed,” said Fred Adler, a professor of mathematics and biological sciences at the University of Utah in the US. “Over the next decade, the severity of COVID-19 may decrease as populations collectively develop immunity,” Adler said.

The study suggests that changes in the disease could be driven by adaptations of our immune response rather than by changes in the virus itself. Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the best-known member of the family, other seasonal coronaviruses circulate in the human population, and they are less dangerous.

The ‘Russian flu’

The researchers noted that some evidence indicates that one of these cold-causing relatives might have once been severe, giving rise to the “Russian flu” pandemic in the late nineteenth century. The parallels led the scientists to wonder whether the severity of SARS-CoV-2 could similarly lessen over time.

They built mathematical models incorporating evidence on the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2. Analysing several scenarios and their versions set up a situation where an increasing proportion of the population will become predisposed to mild disease over the long term.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, no one had seen the virus before. Our immune system was not prepared,” Adler explained.

The models show that as more adults become partially immune, whether through prior infection or vaccination, severe infections all but disappear over the next decade, the researchers said. Eventually, the only people who will be exposed to the virus for the first time will be children who are naturally less prone to severe disease, they said.

“The novel approach here is to recognise the competition taking place between mild and severe COVID-19 infections and ask which type will get to persist in the long run,” said Alexander Beams, study first author and graduate student at University of Utah. “We have shown that mild infections will win, as long as they train our immune systems to fight against severe infections,” Beams said.

New variants

However, the researchers noted that the models do not account for every potential influence on disease trajectory. For instance, if new virus variants overcome partial immunity, COVID-19 could take a turn for the worse, they said.

The team also noted that these predictions will hold up only if the key assumptions of the models hold up. “Our next step is comparing our model predictions with the most current disease data to assess which way the pandemic is going as it is happening,” Adler added.

On August 15, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said three COVID-19 vaccines are in different stages of testing and that India is “ready with a plan for production” and has a roadmap ready to distribute the vaccines to “every Indian in the least amount of time”. The Indian regulatory agency granted restricted use approval to Covishield and Covaxin on January 2 and January 3, 2021, respectively.

On August 7, a week before Mr. Modi’s announcement, the Pune-based Serum Institute signed an agreement with GAVI and Gates Foundation to manufacture and deliver up to 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries as early as the first half of 2021. The supply was meant to be made to the COVAX facility.

On September 29, 2020, Serum Institute pledged to manufacture and deliver an additional 100 million doses, bringing the total number of doses to be delivered to the COVAX facility to 200 million, with an option to produce more.

To ensure assured supply of 200 million vaccine doses, the Gates Foundation provided $300 million of “at-risk funding” to Serum Institute. This came in two tranches of $150 million when supply of 100 million doses was sealed and then an additional $150 million funding in September 2020 when Serum agreed to supply 100 million more doses to the collaboration.

As per data shared by the government, Serum has exported 66.2 million doses to 95 countries as on April 21. Of these, only a paltry 19.8 million doses were supplied to COVAX. India gave away 10.7 million doses to 48 countries as a grant, while Serum sold 35.7 million doses to other countries as part of commercial contracts.

Export ban issue

But with the second wave raging across the country, India has stopped Serum from exporting vaccines either to the COVAX facility or to individual countries as part of the bilateral agreements already signed by Serum. The government has instead directed the company to make the vaccines available to Indians on priority. But the government has not explicitly said it has banned exports.

On April 2, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi clarified on the export ban issue. “Till now, we have supplied vaccines to more than 80 countries across the world and we have already stated that our external supplies would be done keeping in mind our domestic requirements,” Mr. Bagchi said. He then added: “At this time, I hope our partners understand that vaccines are primarily purposed for domestic consumption. I want to emphasise that we have not imposed any export ban on vaccines.”

But contrary to the claims made by the government, on May 11, Serum was stopped from exporting five million doses to the U.K. despite an agreement with AstraZeneca in this regard. These doses were to be used for vaccinating adults aged 18-44 years in India.

Balancing needs

Even on February 21, just days after cases started surging in Maharashtra, Serum gave the first indication that it would not be able to meet its global commitment of supplying 200 million doses to the COVAX facility by the first half of 2021. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum tweeted: “Dear countries & governments, as you await Covishield supplies, I humbly request you to please be patient, Serum Institute has been directed to prioritise the huge needs of India and along with that balance the needs of the rest of the world. We are trying our best.”

On April 7, Mr. Poonawalla was optimistic of resuming exports by June if the second wave waned quickly. But with the second wave appearing to have peaked just a few days ago, at least in a few States, Serum is going to miss the June target date too.

Going by a statement released on May 18, Mr. Poonawalla has been forced to shift the goalpost for exports once again. “We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritise India. We also hope to start delivering to COVAX and other countries by the end of this year,” he said.

While the U.S. provided billions of dollars in funding to each vaccine manufacturer right in the beginning of vaccine development and testing and is now ensuring that it has enough vaccines to immunise 70% of adults by July 4, India provided funding only in April this year.

Inordinate delay

Only on April 19 did the government approve Rs.3,000 crore in funding to Serum Institute and Rs.1,500 crore to Bharat Biotech to meet the cost of ramping up production capacity. This funding comes nearly seven–eight months after Serum Institute received $300 million funding from Gates Foundation.

Not only did India fail to place firm orders with the two companies well in advance, but also it did not provide the companies any funding till a month ago to expand the manufacturing capacities. What it has instead done is to appropriate for its use the vaccine doses which were already paid for by other entities and were meant for other countries under COVAX facility and bilateral agreements.

Despite appropriating all the vaccine doses manufactured by Serum Institute, India is facing huge vaccine shortages and so the vaccination drive has been slow and the rate of immunisation steadily dropping; on May 20, only 1.4 million were vaccinated.

As on May 20, India has vaccinated over 190 million adults; only 40-odd million have received both doses. The three priority groups of healthcare workers, frontline workers, and those older than 45 years alone account for 300 million people. This would mean 600 million doses to cover the three priority groups by July.

With Serum Institute’s capacity to manufacture only 60–65 million doses per month and that of Bharat Biotech of about 10 million per month, completion of a large-scale expansion of production capacities months ago was essential if all the 300 million were to be vaccinated by July.

With nearly 600 million more adults aged 18-44 now eligible for a vaccine, and any expansion of capacity likely to take a couple of more months, it is not sure when Serum Institute will ever be able to meet its obligation towards COVAX and bilateral agreements with other countries.

The BRICS Astronomy Working Group has recommended networking of telescopes in member countries and creating a regional data network.

Under the science, technology and innovation track of the BRICS 2021 calendar, India hosted the seventh meeting of BRICS Astronomy Working Group (BAWG) on online mode from May 19 and 20. Also present were astronomers from these countries. In the BAWG meeting, the delegates agreed to develop a flagship project in this area. It witnessed participation from all five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – with more than 50 participants, including researchers, academicians and government officials.

Future directions

The members of the working group also indicated future directions of research in this area such as building a network of intelligent telescopes and data, study of transient astronomical phenomena in the universe, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning applications to process the voluminous data generated by the enhanced multi-wavelength telescope observatory.

The delegates deliberated on strategic and operational matters and recommended the networking of existing telescopes in BRICS countries and creating regional data network. They agreed to develop a flagship project in this area, according to a statement by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India. From the Indian side, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and the DST coordinated the meeting.

Enhance collaboration

The BAWG, which provides a platform for BRICS member countries to collaborate in the field of astronomy, recommended that each country should present the scientific results of the work being carried out in their country. This will help seek funding support to realise the flagship project whenever funding opportunities were announced by BRICS funding agencies. The BAWG noted the importance of enhancing collaboration among astronomers from the BRICS countries.

The calendar

S K Varshney, head of international cooperation division of the DST, presented India’s perspectives, and lead scientific researchers from each BRICS country presented their country report which highlighted the research activities and infrastructure they have created.

India assumed the BRICS Presidency from January 2021. About 100 events, including ministerial level meetings, senior official meetings, and sectorial meetings or conferences, stand to be organised in 2021.

It was early summer in 2016 when Selvaraj Krishnan and his team from ICAR- National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources set out to investigate a coconut field in Tamil Nadu. They were surveying the area for the whitefly, which was reducing the yield and wreaking havoc. The first invasive whitefly reported from Kerala in 1995 has now spread across the country, and a study has now detailed the damage caused by the pest.

Patterns of occurrence

Extensive studies were carried out from 2015 to 2020 across the country to understand the patterns of occurrence, the intensity of the infestation and their natural enemies. The team visited at least 5 to 10 locations in each district and 5 to 12 districts in each state including the islands of Lakshadweep. They extracted genomic DNA from individual adult whiteflies and explained in detail about eight invasive species found in India.

“Most of these species are native to the Caribbean islands or Central America [or both]. It is difficult to pinpoint how they entered our country. Most probably a nymph or baby insect may have come along with imported plants. Also nowadays with globalisation, it is also possible that tourists may have brought the insect along with plants. Out of curiosity, people randomly pluck and bring tiny plants which lead to the accidental introduction of invasive species. We need to create awareness among the travellers,” explains R. Sundararaj from the Forest Protection Division at ICFRE-Institute of Wood Science and Technology. He is the first author of the paper published in Phytoparasitica.

The team note that the first reported invasive spiralling whitefly Aleurodicus dispersus is now distributed throughout India except Jammu & Kashmir.

Similarly, the rugose spiralling whitefly which was reported in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu in 2016 has now spread throughout the country including the islands of Andaman Nicobar and Lakshadweep. Recent reports have indicated that approximately 1.35 lakh hectares of coconut and oil palm in India are affected by the rugose spiralling whitefly.

The team found that the host range of all of the invasive whiteflies was increasing due to their polyphagous nature (ability to feed on various kinds of food) and prolific breeding.

Aleurodicus dispersus and Aleurodicus rugioperculatus have been reported on over 320 and 40 plant species, respectively.

Invasive whiteflies

Other invasive whiteflies were also found to expand their host range on valuable plants species, especially coconut, banana, mango, sapota, guava, cashew, oil palm, and ornamental plants such as bottle palm, false bird of paradise, butterfly palm and important medicinal plants.

p align='justify' >The team also carried out explorative surveys to find novel biological control of these invasive pests. “The whiteflies are difficult to control by using synthetic insecticides, and hence currently naturally occurring insect predators, parasitoids and entomopathogenic fungi (fungi that can kill insets) are being used. They are not just environmentally friendly but also economically feasible,” explains Selvaraj Krishnan, corresponding author of the paper.

“Entomopathogenic fungi specific to whiteflies are isolated, purified, grown in the lab or mass-produced and applied into the whitefly infested field in combination with the release of lab-reared potential predators and parasitoids,” he says.

He adds that continuous monitoring of the occurrence of invasive species, their host plants and geographical expansion is needed, and if required, import of potential natural enemies for bio-control programmes can also be carried out.

Invasive species introduced by human activity are costing African agriculture some $3.66 trillion every year — around 1.5 times the combined gross domestic product of all African countries — new research showed Thursday.

Non-native species of weed, insect or worm can have catastrophic effects on farming, with just a single bug capable of reducing yields of staple crops across the continent.

Now researchers based in Ghana, Kenya, Britain and Switzerland have sought to estimate the annual economic hit caused by invasive species to African agriculture.

The team studied open source and peer-reviewed literature on species that were not native to the continent but had caused crop losses to assess the economic impact on yield, management and the cost of research.

Next, they surveyed more than 1,000 stakeholders — including farmers, researchers and government officials — about the financial implications of invasive species.

Participants were asked to estimate crop losses caused by invasive alien species as well as the costs incurred.

p align='justify' >Thee team found that the average cost of invasive alien species to the agricultural sector in Africa's 54 countries was $74.3 billion each year.

But there was substantial variation among countries. The worst affected nations were found to be Nigeria — which loses around $1 trillion annually due to invasive species — and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which loses $317 billion each year.

In all, economic losses by invasive alien species were found to exceed the GDP of 27 out of 49 countries included in the study, which was published in the journal CABI Agriculture and Bioscience.

'Wake-up call'

The overwhelming majority (99.2%, or $3.63 trillion) of estimated total costs inflicted by alien species came from removing invasive weeds from crops.

Weeding cereal crops accounted for 72% ($2.61 trillion) of this, the authors found, while weeding maize and root crops accounts for 14% ($508 billion) and weeding vegetables accounts for 3.3% ($120 billion).

Rene Eschen, corresponding study author from Switzerland's CABI research institute, said the research highlighted the hidden economic and social costs of having to weed crops across the continent.

"The removal of invasive alien weeds is largely unpaid work and is primarily carried out by women and children, reducing the amount of time they are able to spend on income-generating and community activities or education," he said.

The species found to cause the most crop losses was a moth known as Phthorimaea absoluta, which affects tomato plants, at an estimated cost of $11.4 billion annually.

Other insects were estimated to inflict more than $21.5 billion worth of crop losses each year to maize, cassava and mango and citrus crops.

The authors cautioned that their findings may in fact underestimate the true economic cost of invasive species to Africa's agriculture sector, as they didn't include costs related to chemical herbicides used to control pests and disease.

Kat Kramer, climate change lead at Christian Aid, said Thursday’s research showed an additional "often overlooked" challenge for Africa that should feed in to G7 discussions next month.

"One of the drivers of invasive species is a changing climate as new plants threaten the established crops which people rely on for both food and income," she told AFP. "This report should be a wake up call to leaders preparing to meet for the G7."

Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, said the research showed "the huge battle that Africa faces to bring prosperity to its people".

"This is yet further evidence for the need for greater support from richer nations to help Africans, be that through strengthening aid budgets, cancelling unpayable debts and delivering on climate finance to help people adapt to these challenges," he told AFP.

Mudumbai Seshachulu Narasimhan, a towering figure in Indian science, passed away on May 15 in Bangalore; he would have turned 89 on June 7.

He was a world-renowned mathematician of extraordinary breadth and depth, who made fundamental contributions to diverse fields in mathematics such as algebraic geometry, differential geometry, representation theory and partial differential equations.

Born in 1932 in a family of agriculturalists in Tandarai village in northern Tamil Nadu, Narasimhan had a keen interest in mathematics from his school days. In an interview with mathematician Sujatha Ramdorai for Asia Pacific Mathematics Newsletter, he said that when he was 12, he was fascinated by Euclid and solving “riders,” thinking for oneself.

When asked about the moments he cherished in his life, his answer was: “The best moments, I think, were the times I spent as a student with Father Racine, K. Chandrasekharan and L Schwartz, which shaped my approach to mathematics and my mathematics career.”

In Loyola College, Chennai, Father Racine, a Jesuit priest and a student of Elie Cartan, noticed the talent of young Narasimhan and asked him to take up higher studies in mathematics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, where a school of mathematics had just been founded by K. Chandrasekharan.

Narasimhan went to TIFR for his PhD in 1953 and among his co-students was C.S. Seshadri, with whom he went on to collaborate closely. Narasimhan and Seshadri shot to fame in 1965 with the publication of the Narasimhan-Seshadri theorem, which makes a deep and unexpected connection between two different areas of modern mathematics. This and the Harder-Narasimhan filtration (which was discovered later with German mathematician G. Harder) have been generalised and stand as fundamental examples of paradigms with wide applicability.

Narasimhan and Seshadri continued to be good friends, and the former was a great support when Seshadri established the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

One of Narasimhan’s PhD students and mathematician at Chennai Mathematical Institute, Prof. T. R. Ramadas, says in an article in Current Science, “Mathematical theorems are rarely described as discoveries. When they were barely 30 years old, Narasimhan and Seshadri made a remarkable discovery at the cross roads of Algebraic Geometry and Complex Analytic Geometry of that era.”

Prof. Ramadas joined TIFR to do a PhD in physics and he describes how he crossed over to mathematics in the article. Following a series of lectures given by Narasimhan on vector bundles, connections and characteristic classes, Prof. Ramadas, who was a note-taker, ended up in discussions with the former.

“Over the next two years, I reported to Narasimhan my attempts to understand Gauge Theories … and Dirac’s theory of constrained systems. Then, I watched in awe as he laid bare the geometry underlying the theory, in work that became the body of my thesis,” says Prof. Ramadas.

Many of Narasimhan’s students acquired renown in the field — they include S. Ramanan, M. S. Raghunathan, V. K. Patodi and R. Parthasarathy.

Lingering advice

In his article, Prof. Ramadas mentions that though Narasimhan was spare with advice, some of his aphorisms and advice continued to linger. Some of this is paraphrased here: (1) While learning new mathematics, do not spend too much effort on hard exercises; save your energy for research problems. (2) Understand simple cases first. (3) Learn and think about any piece of mathematics from the most advanced/sophisticated point of view you are capable of. (4) Administration is important. (5) You have been helped by those who went before, so you should help those who come after. (6) In the beginning of the workday, sit and do some relatively concrete mathematics – say compute a homotopy group – even if your work is going nowhere. If you are lucky enough to be in the midst of a project with its own momentum, contrive to end the day with a concrete task programmed for the next day.

Narasimhan was with the mathematics department at TIFR for the large part of his career. From 1992-1999, he was head of the Mathematics group at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, and then moved to Bangalore, where he resided. He won the S.S. Bhatnagar prize in 1975, Third World Academy award for mathematics in 1987, Padma Bhushan in 1990, Fellow of the Royal Society and King Faisal International Prize for Science in 2006 (jointly with Simon Donaldson, Imperial College).

Narasimhan was married to Sakuntala Narasimhan, a musician, journalist and consumer advocate. Their daughter and physicist Shobhana Narasimhan is at JNCASR, Bengaluru, and son Mohan is a management professional in Bengaluru.

Tibetans are one of the oldest high-altitude inhabitants in the world. There are known genetic and physiological factors that help them endure low-oxygen conditions. However, their population has now moved to low-altitude regions such as Karnataka.

When Dr K. Thangaraj (now DBT- Director of Centre for DNA Finger Printing & Diagnostics - CDFD) and his team at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, studied changes in physiological factors of Tibetans now inhabiting the low-altitude regions like Karnataka, and found that the blood parameters in Tibetans are significantly different compared to their high-altitude counterparts.

“We found that the red blood cells, haemoglobin concentration and haematocrit are significantly lower in the low-altitude Tibetans. Their haemoglobin levels are much closer to those living on the plains than the other Tibetans living beyond 4500 metres,” said Nipa Basak, first author.

“Our study suggests that when Tibetan people reside in non-native, low-altitude, area for long time, their body undergoes various adaptations to cope with the relatively hyperoxic environment in low-altitude areas,” said Dr. Thangaraj, also the lead investigator.

In this study, physiological factors of the people of the Tibetan ethnicity from various regions of the high altitudes of Ladakh at 4,500-4,900 metres in India are compared with those inhabiting Tibetan settlements in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, at an altitude of around 850 metres.

The population in Karnataka had migrated from Tibet after Tibetan uprising in 1959 and have been living there for the last 50 years. The study has been recently published in the Journal of Blood Medicine and the work was done in collaboration with researchers from Ladakh and Karnataka, including Dr Tsering Norboo of the Ladakh Institute of Prevention, Ladakh, and Dr. MS Mustak of Mangalore University, Karnataka, said an official release.

The arrival of European colonists led to a mass extinction of between 50% to 70% of the snake and lizard populations of the Guadeloupe Islands, according to a large fossil study published Wednesday.

The paper, which appeared in the journal Science Advances, highlights human impacts on animals that are often seen as less "charismatic" and therefore neglected in scientific study, its authors wrote.

Corentin Bochaton of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique said that he and his colleagues studied 43,000 reptile bone remains from the Caribbean archipelago's six islands.

"What we found is that we have massive biodiversity in the past record, with several species we were unaware were present there in the past, and also several species that were never described before," lead author Bochaton told AFP.

The team analyzed the remains of 16 taxa, or animal groups across 31 sites from Guadeloupe, which is a part of France.

Nature under assault: 80% decline in freshwater fauna population; Latin America worst hit with 90% loss of wildlife

These were sorted into four periods: the Late Pleistocene (32,000 to 11,650 years ago), the Holocene before the arrival of humans (starting 11,650 years ago), the Indigenous habitation period, and the modern period.

By carbon dating the remains and their surrounding sediment, they were able to reconstruct the region's evolutionary history, and found that the mass extinction occurred over only the last 500 years.

The islands could have been first inhabited by humans as far back as 5,000 years ago. Columbus arrived in Guadeloupe in 1493, while French colonization started in 1635 and led to the disappearance of Guadeloupe's indigenous people within 20 years.

"We observed no extinction in the Amerindian time," said Bochaton.

The fossil record also showed reptile species were able to survive the climate transition at the end of the last Ice Age when this region became warmer and wetter.

As to what led to the eradication of species such as the curlytail roquet and the Marie-Galante Boa, the authors believe the colonists' cats, mongeese, racoons and even rats were mostly to blame.

Smaller reptiles fared better than the larger ones, which could be indicative of the invasive predators' preferences.

Their data also revealed that tree-dwelling species were less impacted — which Bochaton said might be down to the role of agriculture in the destruction of the ground-dwellers' habitats.

Bochaton said the work highlighted the importance of using fossil data to determine how humans impacted a region's biodiversity.

In the case of Guadeloupe, the transformation was so fast and so violent it occurred before contemporary naturalists had time to document the fauna.

The research also comes at a time of increasing recognition that reptiles — long victims of "taxonomic chauvinism" in science — have an important role to play in ecosystems, from seed dispersal and pollination to important ecosystem engineers.

“COVID-19 is a recent disease and at times it displays symptoms which no other viral infection does. While we are developing understanding about the short and long-term impact on the body we now know that one may develop new symptoms six months to one year after recovering from COVID. The term given to this is long COVID,” said N.K. Arora, head, Operations Research Group which is part of the National Task force set up by Indian Council of Medical Research in response to COVID-19, speaking exclusively to The Hindu.

Also read: Single COVID-19 vaccine dose boosts protection in previously infected: study

He added that studies have shown that after a COVID-19 infection, antibodies may persist for three to nine months, which prevent re-infections.

“The current data from India and other countries indicate that re-infections are rare. However, in some cases, it may occur any time beyond three months after recovery from COVID-19. Vaccines provide protection against severe disease for a longer duration,’’ he said.

Also read: Coronavirus | Vaccines aimed at curbing severe COVID-19: experts

Available data and research explain that not all but some people may experience long-term effects of COVID-19, said Mubasheer Ali, senior internal medicine consultant, Apollo TeleHealth. He noted that these long-term effects may include fatigue, respiratory symptoms, and neurological symptoms.

“This is long COVID and it refers to when people continue to experience symptoms of COVID-19 and do not fully recover for several weeks or months after the start of their symptoms. Although it is still unclear how many people have experienced long COVID, data from some COVID Symptom Study suggest that one in 10 people with the illness experience symptoms for three weeks or longer,” he said.

‘B.1.617 extremely infectious’

The virus strain B.1.617 was extremely infectious and virulent, said Sushant Chhabra, HOD, Emergency Medicine, Manipal Hospital, Delhi. He noted that currently some infected with this strain even after recovery were showing long-term injuries to the lungs which took a good four-five months for recovery.

“There are many cases which we have observed in the last few days wherein patients have COVID-19 like symptoms but their RT-PCR tests are showing negative results. Irrespective, we are treating them as COVID-19 patients,” said the doctor.

He added that they were seeing patients who recovered from COVID-19 in the first wave during October or November and had got re-infected in the second wave.

“The possibility of re-infection is always there in COVID-19 because their immunity is not a life-long thing. It generally stays for three-four months which is why patients end up getting re-infected,” he added.

A giant slab of ice bigger than the Spanish island of Majorca has sheared off from the frozen edge of Antarctica into the Weddell Sea, becoming the largest iceberg currently afloat in the world, the European Space Agency said on Wednesday.

The newly calved berg, designated A-76 by scientists, was spotted in recent satellite images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 mission, the space agency said in a statement posted on its website with a photo of the enormous, oblong ice sheet.

Its surface area spans 4,320 square km (1,668 square miles)and measures 175 km long by 25 km wide.

By comparison, Spain's popular tourist island of Majorca in the Mediterranean occupies 3,640 square km (1,405 square miles).The U.S. state of Rhode Island is smaller still, with a landmass of just 2,678 square km.

The enormity of A-76, which broke away from Antarctica's Ronne Ice Shelf, ranks as the largest existing iceberg on the planet, surpassing the now second-place A-23A, about 3,380 square km (1,305 square miles) in size and also floating in the Weddell Sea.

Another massive Antarctic iceberg that had threatened a penguin-populated island off the southern tip of South America has since lost much of its mass and broken into pieces ,scientists said earlier this year.

A-76 was first detected by the British Antarctic Survey and confirmed by the U.S. National Ice Center based in Maryland using imagery from Copernicus Sentinel-1, consisting of two polar-orbiting satellites.

The Ronne Ice Shelf on the flank of the Antarctic Peninsulais one of the largest of several enormous floating sheets of ice that connect to the continent's landmass and extend out into the surrounding seas.

Periodic calving off of large chunks of those shelves is part of a natural cycle. But some ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have undergone rapid disintegration in recent years, a phenomenon scientists believe may be related to climate change, according to the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center.

Published in Science

Researchers studying tiny traces of plutonium-244 and radioactive iron-60 collected from deep ocean crust noted that the two isotopes could be evidence of violent cosmic events that took place near Earth millions of years ago. "The story is complicated - possibly this plutonium-244 was produced in supernova explosions or it could be leftover from a much older, but even more spectacular event such as a neutron star detonation," lead author of the study, Anton Wallner said in a release.

Catch the Sun

Published in Science Advances

Inspired by leaves on a plant, researchers have now created a novel material that can capture light energy. The team writes that the material displayed an energy transfer efficiency of over 96%, making it one of the most efficient aqueous light-harvesting systems of its kind reported thus far. They add that it has potential applications in photovoltaics and bioimaging.

Quasicrystal created by nuclear explosion

Published in PNAS

On July 16, 1945, the world's first nuclear explosion test took place at Alamogordo in New Mexico. A new material that formed accidentally during the blast has now been discovered. Similar to previously discovered quasicrystals, this new example also breaks the rules of classical crystalline materials. The new quasicrystal “was found in a sample of red trinitite, a combination of glass fused from natural sand and anthropogenic copper from transmission lines used during the test,” notes the paper.

Published in Nature Communications

Major pollinators are struggling to survive in intensive croplands in the tropics, finds a new study. Over 4,500 pollinating species, including insects, birds and bats were studied. The team looked at over 300 studies covering 12,170 sites across North and South America, Europe, and Africa. Senior author Tim Newbold said in a release: "More than three-quarters of globally important food crops are at least partly reliant on animal pollination, including nuts, berries, and fruits grown in tropical areas. As a result, we may see reduced yields of the many tropical crops that depend on animal pollination.”

Published in Nature Astronomy

About 10 billion years ago, the Milky Way galaxy merged with another satellite galaxy, known as Gaia-Enceladus. A new study has now shown what happened to our galaxy after this merger event. The team writes that many of the stars that were already in the Milky Way ended up in the thick disc in the middle of the galaxy, while most that were captured from Gaia-Enceladus are in the outer halo of the galaxy. The researchers say that these studies will give a sharper view of the Milky Way’s assembly history and evolution.

A COVID-19 test developed by PathShodh Healthcare, a start-up incubated at the Society for Innovation and Development (SID), Indian Institute of Science (IISc),

has received the license to manufacture the test for sale from the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO).

The test is touted to be the first-of-its-kind, semi-quantitative electrochemical ELISA test for COVID-19 IgM and IgG antibodies, received the licence after due diligence validation at the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI), Faridabad, as per the requirements of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), an IISc release said.

According to the release, the novelty of the technology is based on the measurement of electrochemical redox activity of IgM and IgG antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Glycoprotein (S1). "The S1 protein has a Receptor Binding Domain (RBD) which latches on to the ACE2 receptors on the host cells before infection. Hence, antibody tests targeting the S1 spike protein are more representative of immune response against infection compared to those that target the Nucleocapsid (N) protein," it explained.

PathShodh’s technique, which is protected through US and Indian patent applications, is also a major departure from the qualitative rapid antibody tests in the market, which are primarily based on the lateral flow ELISA technique, it added.

“The capability to quantify the COVID-19 antibody concentration will be crucial in estimating the declining antibody response over time and hence its possible impact on immunity against recurrence of infection. This technique will also play a very big role in elucidating seroconversion response to COVID-19 vaccines, and thereby play a supporting role in vaccination programmes in the future,” the release quoted Navakanta Bhat, Dean, Division of Interdisciplinary Sciences and Professor, Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE), IISc, and co-founder of PathShodh Healthcare, as saying.

Vinay Kumar, CEO and co-founder of PathShodh, said, “This novel technology can detect COVID-19 antibodies all the way down to the nanomolar concentration. It can work with venous or capillary (finger-prick) whole blood sample as well as serum sample. We plan to deploy the product in the market in the next couple of weeks. PathShodh’s current production capacity is about 1 lakh tests per month, and we can scale this up further by augmenting the manufacturing infrastructure.”

The test has been developed by leveraging PathShodh’s Lab-on-Palm platform “anuPathTM”, which interfaces with disposable test strips functionalised with an immunoreceptor specific to COVID-19 antibodies. The results are automatically displayed by the handheld reader, eliminating subjective errors due to manual readout of test results. The other unique features of this technology include on-board memory to store more than 1 lakh real-time test results, touch screen display, rechargeable battery, Bluetooth connectivity to smart phone and cloud storage, capabilities to map the patient data to Aadhaar number and the possibility of connecting test data through APIs to Aarogya Setu, the IISc release said.

PathShodh Healthcare is an ISO 13485 certified company, the first start-up from IISc to get this certification. The company is also developing a COVID-19 rapid antigen test on the same platform. This could become a first-of-its-kind COVID-19 diagnostics solution with the capability to perform both rapid antibody and rapid antigen tests on a single platform. The funds for developing and commercialising this technology were provided by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, under its initiative on Centre for Augmenting WAR with COVID-19 Health Crisis (CAWACH). The technology development was also supported by SINE at IIT Bombay and IKP Knowledge Park, Hyderabad. The Society for Innovation and Development at IISc provided the seed funding for this development, the release said.

The Indian Institute of Technology in Punjab's Ropar on Wednesday said that the institute along with Australia based Monash University has developed a unique detector named ‘FakeBuster’ to detect imposters attending a virtual conference without anybody’s knowledge.

The detector can also find out faces manipulated on social media to defame or make joke of someone, said an official statement.

In the present scenario of pandemic when most of the official meetings and work is being done online, this standalone solution enables a user to detect if another person's video is manipulated or spoofed during a video conferencing, it added.

“Sophisticated artificial intelligence techniques have spurred a dramatic increase in manipulation of media contents. Such techniques keep evolving and become more realistic. That makes detection difficult”, said Dr. Abhinav Dhall, one of the members of four-man team that developed the ‘FakeBuster’. Other members include Assistant Professor Ramanathan Subramanian and two students Vineet Mehta and Parul Gupta.

A paper on this technique — FakeBuster: A DeepFakes Detection Tool for Video Conferencing Scenarios — was presented in the 26th International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces, in USA, last month.

Dr. Dhall said that the usage of manipulated media content in spreading fake news, pornography and other such online content has been widely observed with major repercussions. He said such manipulations have recently found their way into video-calling platforms through spoofing tools based on transfer of facial expressions. These fake facial expressions are often convincing to human eye and can have serious implications. These real time mimicked visuals (videos) known as deepfakes can even be used during online examinations and job interviews.

The deepfake detection tool ‘FakeBuster’ works in both online and offline modes. Since the device can presently be attached with laptops and desktops only “we are aiming to make the network smaller and lighter to enable it to run on mobile phones-devices as well”, said Mr. Subramanian. He said the team is working on using the device to detect fake audios also.

The IIT team asserted that ‘FakeBuster’ is one of the first tools to detect imposters during video conferencing using DeepFake detection technology. The device has already been tested and would hit the market soon.

China on Wednesday successfully sent a new ocean-monitoring satellite into orbit as part of its effort to build an all-weather and round-the-clock dynamic ocean environment monitoring system which would provide early warning on marine disasters.

The satellite was launched by a Long March-4B rocket carrying the Haiyang-2D (HY-2D) satellite from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China, the state media reported.

The HY-2D will form a constellation with the HY-2B and HY-2C satellites to build an all-weather and round-the-clock dynamic ocean environment monitoring system of high frequency and medium and large scale, Xinhua reported.

The constellation will support the country's early warning and prediction of marine disasters, sustainable development and utilisation of ocean resources, effective response to global climate change as well as ocean research.

The HY-2D was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology, and the carrier rocket by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology.

Wednesday's launch was the 370th by the Long March rocket series, the report said.

China's space programme made significant advancements last week when it landed a spacecraft on Mars, becoming the second country after the United States to have a rover on the red planet.

Nearly 70% of tropical forests cleared for cattle ranching and crops such as soybeans and palm oil were deforested illegally between 2013 and 2019, a study showed on Tuesday, warning of the impact on global efforts to fight climate change.

Illegal logging was behind the loss of 4.5 million hectares of forest — an area the size of Denmark — on average each year in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa, said the report by U.S.-based nonprofit Forest Trends.

“If we don’t urgently stop this unlawful deforestation, we don’t have a chance to beat the three crises facing humanity – climate change, biodiversity loss and emerging pandemics,” said Arthur Blundell, report lead co-author and an advisor to Forest Trends, which works on economic tools to protect ecosystems.

Palm oil cultivation in Indonesia, and soy and beef farming in Brazil — home to roughly 60% of the Amazon rainforest — were key drivers of illegal deforestation, the report said.

The production of other agricultural commodities, such as cocoa used to make chocolate in Honduras and West Africa, and corn in Argentina, was also behind illegal forest clearance.

In Indonesia, at least 81% of forested land cleared to produce palm oil is estimated to be illegal, the report said.

In soy-producing countries, such as Brazil, about 93% of land converted to grow the crop used in cooking and for animal feed was illegal, while 93% of forest clearance for cocoa plantations was illegal and 81% for beef, the report said.

The report defined illegal deforestation as forest clearance that broke national laws, such as loggers and companies failing to obtain permits from landowners or conduct environmental impact assessments, as well as cases involving tax evasion.

Supply chain risks

Environmentalists and some lawmakers in the United States, EU and Britain are calling for legislation that would stop goods grown on illegally cleared lands from ending up on supermarket shelves.

In the United States, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii and congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon have announced plans for a bill that would ban U.S. imports of agricultural commodities produced on illegally deforested land.

“I think most U.S. consumers would strongly agree that it’s immoral, outdated, and preposterous that products sold on supermarket shelves can be traced back to illegally deforested land,” Blumenauer said in a statement.

The approach is modeled on the Lacey Act of 2008 passed in the United States that banned the import of illegally trafficked wildlife, plants and timber, which he said had brought progress.

Britain is planning to introduce similar legislation.

Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-warming carbon emissions produced worldwide.

Carbon emitted from illegal forest clearing for agriculture accounted for at least 41% of all emissions from tropical deforestation from 2013 and 2019, the report said.

Efforts should also be stepped up to work with soy farmers and cattle ranchers to adopt a moratorium on forest clearing.

"Illegal deforestation is a key driver of forest loss and creates significant risk for supply chain companies and financial institutions that may unwittingly supply or finance illegally sourced commodities," said Justin Adams, executive director of the Tropical Forest Alliance, which works to rid supply chains of deforestation links.

A team of Japanese scientists has shown it is possible for mammals to absorb oxygen via the anus.

Intrigued by how certain sea creatures breathe through their intestines in emergencies, researchers at Tokyo Medical and Dental University were able to prove the same was true under experimental circumstances for mice, rats and pigs, publishing their findings in the journal Med on Friday.

They say the finding might also apply to humans who are in respiratory distress when ventilators are not available or inadequate.

For higher order animals, respiration involves breathing in oxygen and excreting carbon dioxide using lungs or gills. Some species however have evolved alternate ventilatory mechanisms. Loaches, catfish, sea cucumbers and orb-weaving spiders can also use their hindgut to oxygenate to survive in emergencies.

This is called enteral ventilation via anus, or EVA.

"The rectum has a mesh of fine blood vessels just beneath the surface of its lining, which means that drugs administered through the anus are readily absorbed into the bloodstream," lead author Ryo Okabe said.

This made the team wonder whether oxygen could be delivered into the bloodstream in the same way.

To answer the question, they decided to carry out experiments on oxygen-deprived mice, pigs and rats using two methods: delivering the oxygen into the rectum in gas form, and infusing an oxygen-rich enema via the same route.

The researchers prepared the lining of the rectum by rubbing it to cause inflammation and increase blood flow, which improved the effectiveness of oxygen delivery.

However, since such a preparation would likely be unacceptable for humans, they also tried using oxygenated perfluorodecalin, a liquid that has already been shown to be safe and is in selective clinical use.

Delivery of oxygen both as gas and in liquid form increased oxygenation, normalised the animals' behavior and prolonged their survival.

The team also confirmed the improvement in oxygenation at the cellular level, by a technique called immunochemical staining.

They added that the small amount of liquid that was absorbed along with the oxygen caused no harm and did not disrupt the gut bacteria, indicating the method was safe.

"Patients in respiratory distress can have their oxygen supply supported by this method to reduce the negative effects of oxygen deprivation while the underlying condition is being treated," added co-author Takanori Takebe.

Eventually the team hopes to establish the technique's effectiveness in humans in a clinical setting.

Writing an accompanying commentary, Caleb Kelly of the Yale School of Medicine, said EVA should be taken seriously. "This is a provocative idea and those first encountering it will express astonishment. Yet, as the potential clinical role is considered and the data presented by Okabe et al is examined, EVA emerges as a promising therapy deserving of scientific and medical interest," he said.

The technique could play a role when there is a shortage of ventilators, as seen in the current coronavirus pandemic, he added.

The warming Arctic tundra will make it harder for the world to curb climate change, as thawing permafrost and wildfires release greenhouse gases that are not fully accounted for in global emissions agreements, a study said on Monday.

As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, carbon dioxide and methane trapped within the long-frozen soil are released. The deeper the thaw, the more gas is released.

That threatens to create a feedback loop that contributes to even more warming of the atmosphere, scientists warn in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The Arctic is in the process of disintegrating as we know it, and the permafrost is one major component with some pretty grave implications," said co-author Rafe Pomerance, an environmentalist who chairs the Arctic 21, a network that highlights climate challenges in the polar region.

Siberia saw its highest-ever recorded temperature last summer, when the far north town of Verkhoyansk hit 38℃. Also last year, unprecedented wildfires in the region released about 35% more carbon dioxide than in 2019, which saw the highest emissions from Russian fires since 2003, the study says.

However, emissions levels estimated from the gradual thaw of permafrost — which covers 25% of the Northern Hemisphere — do not account for the wildfires and abrupt thawing recently observed, and so are likely too low, the authors say.

That omission "does leave us with a substantial hole in those predictions," said co-author Rachael Treharne, an Arctic ecologist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts.

While more research is needed to measure the emissions coming from permafrost, the researchers estimate that fires along with abrupt thawing events could increase carbon emissions up to 40% by the end of the century unless fossil fuel emission are drastically reduced.

That would blow the global "emissions budget," a scientific estimation of how much more the world can emit before average global temperatures rise more than 1.5 Celsius beyond pre-industrial levels, a limit outlined by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. In total, scientists say permafrost holds twice as much carbon as what is already in the atmosphere.

Policymakers need to be pursuing deeper emissions cuts, Treharne said. "What we need is increased urgency and increased ambition."

On Thursday, delegates from the United States, Russia, Canada and Scandinavian countries are expected to discuss the region’s climate challenges along with development during the biennial Arctic Council meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Scientists hope the meeting will produce a declaration on the importance of addressing permafrost thaw.

Meanwhile, Russia also has been acknowledging permafrost risks to industrial infrastructure and housing developments and plans to establish a permafrost monitoring system to issue that early warnings of rapid thaw, according to the Independent Barents Observer.

Herbivores, or plant-eaters, are known to have strong jaws with broad, flat back teeth which help them grind and eat tough plant tissues. Some of the early herbivores including plant-eating dinosaurs also had strong jaws. A new study (Nature Communications) has shown that herbivores developed strong jaws after the mass extinctions that happened millions of years ago. They had to eat different kinds of plants and chew harsher materials, so they evolved stronger jaws.

The team measured hundreds of fossil jaws and compared their shapes with living animals. They tried to understand the bite force, mechanical advantage and how fast the jaws shut. The researchers note that as plants diversified during the Triassic era (252–201 million years ago) the herbivores also evolved to eat the new kinds of plants. The drying conditions in the Late Triassic, led to many softer plant groups becoming less common, and dry-adapted conifers spreading worldwide. These changes also drove patterns of extinction. The hardy herbivores thrived, as other herbivores died out.

Mike Benton, from the University of Bristol, who co-led the study explained in a release that this sheds real light on key processes at an ecological level and helps explain why some groups died out and were replaced by others such as the first dinosaurs.

A new species of dinosaur identified by Mexican paleontologists is believed to have been "very communicative" and used low-frequency sounds like elephants to talk to each other, a researcher said Friday.

The specimen, which has been named Tlatolophus galorum, is thought to have died around 72 million years ago in what is now Mexico's northern state of Coahuila.

After initially discovering the tail, paleontologists said they later found most of its skull, a 1.32-meter (4.3-foot) bony hollow crest through which it communicated, as well as bones such as its femur and shoulder.

"We are calculating the size, which could be between eight meters and 12 meters long because just the tail is around six meters," said paleobiologist Angel Alejandro Ramirez. "We believe that these dinosaurs were very communicative. They even produced and perceived low-frequency sounds like those made by elephants, which travel several kilometers and are imperceptible to humans."

These "peaceful, but talkative" dinosaurs could also have had the ability to emit loud sounds to scare off predators, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Thursday when it announced the discovery.

Mexican researchers think Tlatolophus galorum's crest may have been red.

"We believe that these dinosaurs, like modern birds, saw in colour and so these structures like the crest were possibly brightly colored. They could have been completely red, or multi-colored, with spots," Ramirez said.

The discovery is still under investigation, but research about the ancient reptile has already been published in the scientific journal Cretaceous Research, according to the INAH.

"It is an exceptional case in Mexican paleontology," it said. "Highly favorable events had to occur millions of years ago, when Coahuila was a tropical region, for it to be conserved in the conditions it was found in."

The name Tlatolophus is derived from tlahtolli — which means word in the indigenous Nahuatl language — and lophus, meaning crest in Greek, the researchers said.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which saw the shuttle break apart 73 seconds after launch during its 10th mission, shook the U.S. and the world. It changed the way NASA functioned forever. Of the many changes that came was the birth of Endeavour, the fifth and final space shuttle to be built by NASA as part of the Space Shuttle programme.

Even though Endeavour was born of a tragedy and built to replace the Challenger that had been lost, it was highly successful. Using spare parts from its shuttle fleet, including those parts pre-fabricated during the development of Discovery and Atlantis, NASA completed the new orbiter in 1991.

How to name it

Sensing an opportunity to get some positive press, NASA decided to have a competition for U.S. schools to name the shuttle while it was still under construction. The NASA Orbiter-Naming Project, which set out the requirements for the name, attracted entries from over 6,000 schools, representing nearly 70,000 children.

As the shuttle had to be named after an “exploratory or research sea vessel”, a large number of entries chose the same name: Endeavour. The Endeavour was an 18th-Century British vessel best-known for its maiden voyage during which Captain James Cook charted the South Pacific and commanded the vessel to Tahiti to watch the transit of Venus across the sun.

Endeavour’s first flight in itself was a challenging one. Launched on May 7, 1992, the mission was tasked with salvaging the Intelsat-VI communications satellite that had been launched into a low-altitude orbit.

First challenge

Finding it impossible to grab with the tools they had, the crew worked out a different solution. For the first time, three astronauts performed a spacewalk together that enabled them to recover the satellite. Once in the payload bay, the astronauts repaired it and sent it out on its way to start its service and support the live broadcast of the 1992 Summer Olympics.

When Endeavour landed back on Earth on May 16, 1992 after successfully completing its maiden voyage, a drag chute was released from the orbiter’s tail – one of the more visible safety measures that had been added to the shuttle fleet following Challenger’s loss.

During its next flight in 1992, Endeavour’s seven-member crew included the first female African-American astronaut Mae Jemison as well as the first married couple to fly together in space, Americans Mark Lee and Jan Davis.

Hubble servicing mission

In its fifth mission in 1993, Endeavour ferried the first Hubble Space Telescope repair crew. Following Hubble’s deployment, it was discovered that the telescope’s primary mirror had a small but significant flaw. During the 11-day mission, astronauts carried out a then-record five spacewalks to fit Hubble with corrective optics and other science instruments, including new solar arrays.

Endeavour had the honour of being deeply involved in the construction and assembly of the International Space Station (ISS). And though it is best remembered for launching satellites and building the ISS, Endeavour’s crews also performed thousands of hours of science experiments.

Endeavour’s last space mission reached orbit on May 16, 2011. In its nearly two decades of active service, Endeavour performed 25 missions, clocking nearly 300 days in space.

Endeavour’s road trip

As there were calls to house the Endeavour permanently, the California Science Center was chosen as the shuttle’s permanent home after retirement. This, however, proved to be a logistical challenge as the Endeavour had to make a 19-km journey by road to get to its new home.

Workers cut down trees to make room for Endeavour along its way. It took it far longer than flying to space, as Endeavour had to manoeuvre past poles, trees and any other obstacles along the roads. It finally reached the museum in October 2012, where it is now on display.

In September 2019, a group of herpetologists gathered at Anaikatti hills in Coimbatore for the South Asian Reptile Red List Assessment organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). When Achyuthan Srikanthan, one of the members, from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, suggested an impromptu night visit to a nearby private farm, little did they know they would stumble upon a new species: an Asian gracile skink.

Named Subdoluseps nilgiriensis, after the Nilgiris, the reptile has a slender body of just about 7 cm and is sandy brown in colour. Based on genetic studies, the team writes the new species is closely related to Subdoluseps pruthi that is found in parts of the Eastern Ghats.

“The new species was found in a dry deciduous area, showing that even the dry zones of our country are home to unrealised skink diversity which needs to be further explored. There is an urgent need to change the notion that high biodiversity can be found only in the wet and evergreen forests,” says Aniruddha Datta Roy, corresponding author of the paper recently published in Zootaxa.

He adds that most of the studies in Tamil Nadu are carried out only in the protected areas and focus only on megafauna such as tigers, elephants and other such charismatic species “We also need to study the little-known animal groups inside our forests. They are fundamental and indispensable components of our biodiversity,” adds Prof. Roy from the National Institute of Science Education & Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar.

Most skinks are diurnal and are usually secretive in their habits. Because of their elusiveness, not much is known about their natural and evolutionary history. Most of the species are placed under the data-deficient category. “This species is only the third skink species discovered from mainland India in the last millennium. Such discoveries give us an understanding of how underestimated our reptile species diversity truly is,” adds Prof. Roy.

Though skinks are non-venomous, they resemble snakes because of the often-inconspicuous limbs and the way they move on land. Such resemblance has led to confusion often resulting in humans killing this lowly harmless creature. “We are yet to study the breeding and feeding habits of this new species. Other skinks are known to feed insects such as termites, crickets and small spiders, and we assume our new species has a similar diet,” adds Avrajjal Ghosh, one of the authors of the paper.

Subdoluseps nilgiriensis is currently considered a vulnerable species as there are potential threats from seasonal forest fires, housing constructions and brick kiln industries in the area. Rapid urbanisation, which has increased the road networks in the area, has also threatened the small geographical range of the species.

A type of nanoparticle designed by researchers from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the U.S., embodies a new approach to treating diseases that could potentially revolutionise the field. This combines concepts of biologics and antibody–drug conjugates to produce protein–antibody conjugates that can be used for targeted drug delivery – in the case of pancreatic cancer cells, for example. The team has tested the mechanism in cell lines in the lab and now plans to move on to studying it in mouse models. Their research is published recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Two approaches

The new concept, namely, Protein–Antibody Conjugates or PACs, combines two different approaches to drug delivery. One is biologics, where the idea is to target a defective protein in the system by delivering proteins to it. An example of this is the case of insulin treatment. If a person is short of insulin, which is a protein, they are given a shot of this protein which balances the system.

The reason this works is because we need a circulation of insulin outside the cells and not inside the cells. “Now, we have 20,000 proteins and when one of these is malfunctioning, we have no way of taking that protein specifically inside the cell. That is a big problem in biologics,” explains Sankaran Thayumanavan, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts, who led the research. “It will be a gamechanger if we can take the protein inside the cell. So, people have been looking at protein delivery for a while.”

Antibody conjugates

The other concept is of using antibodies for drug delivery. Antibodies are something the body produces to detect a foreign substance inside the body. “We can develop antibodies to recognise anything that does not belong in our bodies. That includes cancer cells as well. If there is something different on the surface of a cancer cell compared to a healthy cell, you can design the antibody that selectively goes to the cancer cell,” he explains. Drug molecules can be attached to the antibody, forming drug–antibody conjugates.

Prof Thayumanavan’s group developed protein–antibody conjugates or PACs, which have a protein attached to the antibody, and this conjugate can zero in on, say, pancreatic cancer cells.

This could have an impact on incurable diseases. Most drugs work this way: If the protein has a particular shape – bent concave like a cup for example, the drug is designed to fit into the bent portion, like a key into a lock, so that the protein’s function is inhibited, and it cannot function. But some of the proteins have an open structure, it is difficult to design a drug that can bind to it, because it is so wide.

However, using a protein molecule, which is typically large, can solve this problem.

Undruggable cases

Pancreatic cancer is an example. “There are [types] that are considered undruggable. In 90% of pancreatic cancers, this is the case. We know what we should target but we do not know how to design drugs that will bind. But with proteins we know we can design molecules that will bind to the target,” says Prof. Thayumanavan.

In a telling analogy, he compares the protein–antibody conjugate to an addressed envelope containing the drug. The antibody plays the role of the address and indicates the cell where the drug should precisely be delivered.

The group also realises that biology involves complexity and that this method may well fail if it is not tuneable. “In our lab we are already developing three different polymer platforms, each of which has its own tuneability… the concept is real, and it is important at the molecular level we understand how to tune it,” he says.

The researchers are planning to test this concept in mouse models as the next step.

Early detection and isolation of potentially infectious individuals are the keys to successfully fighting a viral pandemic. The importance of diagnostic testing to facilitate this cannot be overemphasised. A widely deployed and efficient testing strategy can go a long way in limiting the spread of new cases as it significantly reduces the chance of individuals with undetected virus exposure from roaming freely among unexposed individuals.

Depending on the type of diagnostic test that is used, testing can turn out to be expensive in terms of machinery, manpower, and other resources especially when these resources are at a limited supply. COVID-19 testing required specialised testing kits that were not easily available at the beginning of the pandemic in India in January 2020. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020 and India had also reported its first case of COVID-19 on the same day, until about the second half of March 2020, India’s COVID-19 testing was largely confined to symptomatic airport travellers and contacts with known sources.

Game of catch-up

India went into a complete nationwide and staggered lockdown starting March 25, 2020. However, our testing strategy for SARS‑CoV‑2 was still being evolved. A closer look at the different revised testing guidelines from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) throughout the period of the pandemic shows the scope of testing got gradually expanded to include different population subgroups only as new incidences of novel coronavirus infection were reported from those groups. Instead of using it as a pre-emptive strategy, our testing strategy appeared to be a game of catch-up with the spread of the virus. Naturally, the virus always outsmarted this testing strategy.

A complete lockdown is widely perceived as a tool to expand resources including ramping up testing infrastructure along with other healthcare infrastructure instead of being a solution in itself. However, an analysis of the progression of India’s COVID-19 cases and testing reveals that the growth of testing lagged behind that of cases during the pre-peak phase of both the first and the second wave. The second wave saw daily new cases growing three-to-four times higher than the growth of tests.

Vastly underprepared

Although the second wave came more than a year from the onset of the first wave, it appears that India’s testing infrastructure remained highly insufficient and vastly underprepared. This becomes obvious when we see that average daily new cases recorded during the second wave grew more than four-fold compared to that during the peak of the first wave, while the daily average testing grew only by 60% during the same time.

At the end of the first wave of COVID-19, in early February 2021, India was doing about 63 tests per detected case while the daily testing has decreased to 4.5 tests per each detected case during recent times. Even at the peak of the first wave, India was doing about 11.4 tests per detected case. The average daily test positivity rate was only 8.5% at the peak of the first wave, whereas, the average positivity rate reached 22.8% a few days ago when India was reporting close to 400,000 daily new cases. The WHO, on the other hand, recommends raising daily testing enough to bring the test positivity rates below 5% level.

Glaring statistic

Yet another glaring statistic points to the serious deficiency of testing during the current wave of this pandemic. India reported a total of 108 lakhs COVID-19 cases with the help of 20.3 crore tests, during the first wave that lasted about 375 days. However, for the second wave so far, in 95 days, India already reported 130 lakh new cases by conducting only 10.6 crore tests.

At about 229 tests per 1000 people, India’s testing remains below that of 112 other countries. There has been wide variation in testing across states in India too, ranging from a low of only 76 tests per 1,000 people in Nagaland to 1,314 tests per 1,000 people in Lakshadweep. Among the larger states, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh carried out the lowest number of tests per 1,000 people while Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Karnataka did the highest.

In recent days, however, several states including Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Arunachal Pradesh have been decreasing their daily new tests even as their test positivity rates are still rising. If the tests are reduced while the cases are still rising, it will manifest in an increased test positivity rate. While the reduced number of reported cases may be inadvertently interpreted as a peak of the present wave, the pandemic will continue unabated whether we detect more cases or not. The downside to this would be an unnecessarily prolonged pandemic straining our healthcare system and the economy even further while putting more lives at risk.

Combined capacity

Dr. Balram Bhargava, the chief of ICMR in a press conference on May 11, stated India has a daily capacity of doing 16 lakh RT-PCR tests and 17 lakh Rapid Antigen Tests which indicate a combined capacity of 33 lakh tests per day. Yet, it is unfortunate that India has not done even 20 lakhs of daily testing on any day from the beginning of this pandemic. For a country of 140 crore people, it is grossly inadequate. It is high time India makes use of its full testing capacity and augments this capacity even further to effectively fight this pandemic. The growth of testing should far outpace the growth of the cases in order to be ahead of the epidemic curve rather than chasing it.

(Rijo M. John is Health Economist and Adjunct Professor, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi, Kerala.)

Close your eyes and imagine a dinosaur. Did you think of a tall, sinewy, sharp-fanged creature? How did this image pop up in your head considering that dinosaurs lived millions of years before the first modern humans appeared? Of course, there’s Jurassic Park, but the actual credit goes to the discipline of paleoart, or paleo illustration, which helps create the most realistic depictions of long-extinct animals.

In the early 19th century, artists mingled science with fantasy to recreate dinosaurs for popular imagination, usually showing them in apocalyptic forests with an erupting volcano in the background.

American paleoartist Doug Henderson, who was credited as a “dinosaur specialist” in the film Jurassic Park, says dinosaurs were part of popular culture when he was a child in the 50s. “There were books and movies that made deep impressions on me — illustrations by Charles Knight and Zdeněk Burian — and one movie in particular, King Kong, made in 1933.” The septuagenarian starts with a simple doodle and the ideas get refined eventually into fully developed outlines, with all the image’s components orchestrated into a workable composition.

Prehistoric life was more than just dinosaurs. Even before plants and life on land evolved, creatures thrived in marine environments and now their fossils tell those stories. In 2019, while studying the fossils of a worm, Facivermis, that lived 500 million years ago, researcher Richard Howard noted that the creature didn’t have lower limbs, and that it may be a missing link in evolution. Now, this mere imprint on a rock needed flesh, skin, and colours. “Facivermis looks so strange and alien because there’s nothing like it living today,” says Franz Anthony, a professional paleoartist from Indonesia. “To illustrate this creature, Howard and I looked at other marine animals for inspiration, and we agreed that it might have resembled modern featherduster worms, even if they’re not closely related!”

Paleoart is a complex art form. The reconstruction of an extinct animal involves vast research, only the beginning of which is examining the fossil. Scientists cover much ground here, and their detailed research papers give most of the details needed for reconstruction. David Hone, a palaeontologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, explains how paleoart has advanced over the decades. “In the 70s and 80s, you would see drawings where everything lived in a rainforest. But in the last few years, there’s been a real intensity to the art form. Artists try to recreate what trees there were or depict how hot the location was in summer. Would there be snow in winter? Would it be deep snow? What was the daylight like?”

Moon in paleoart

Paleoartists also analyse the geological time period the animal lived in, to recreate its habitat as truly as possible. Dr. Hone talks of how Julius T. Csotonyi, a paleoartist in Canada, even paid close attention to the moon in his paleoart. “About 80 to 90 million years ago, the moon was closer to Earth and would have looked bigger. And some of those really big craters that we look at weren’t there, because we know they’re more recent. He did a painting of the moon with a dinosaur in front of it, where he took out the craters and made the stars brighter. Not just because you didn’t have light pollution. But again, 100 million years ago, we were in a different position in the galaxy. It makes quite a difference — what stars you see, and how bright they are.”

Ancient and modern

It is also important to know the closest relatives of the creature in the evolutionary tree. Artists compare the fossil with modern animals that may have had similarities in anatomy and behaviour.

However, one can never be sure what a prehistoric creature really looked like. When American paleoartist Emily Willoughby finished painting the Anchiornis huxleyi, a small dinosaur from China, she thought it was a perfect reconstruction. “But a week later, a new study came to light that described in fantastic detail the coloration that this animal’s feathers would have had. I had painted it brown and black but the study showed that it was black and white with a red crest like a woodpecker. I painstakingly repainted the animal to reflect the new findings.” She says that paleoartists have to come to terms with the fact that everything they draw may become outdated or inaccurate at some point.

More fossils are being discovered today than ever before, and palaeontologists have realised that good art helps their work reach a wider audience. Mark Paul Witton, a vertebrate palaeontologist and paleoartist from the U.K., says that paleoart is scientifically informed art. “At its most fundamental level, paleoart is not reconstructing extinct creatures as they were, it is reconstructing our ideas about them. This is what we thought about that creature when this art was constructed. We can never be 100% confident about our illustrations. We are visualising hypotheses, not recreating the creatures themselves.”

aswathi.p@thehindu.co.in

Paralysed from the neck down, the man stares intently at a screen. As he imagines handwriting letters, they appear before him as typed text thanks to a new brain implant.

The 65-year-old is "typing" at a speed similar to his peers tapping on a smartphone, using a device that could one day help paralysed people communicate quickly and easily.

The research could benefit people suffering spinal cord injuries, strokes or motor neurone disease, said Frank Willett, a research scientist at Stanford University and lead author of the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"Imagine if you could only move your eyes up and down but couldn't move anything else — a device like this could enable you to type your thoughts at speeds that are comparable to that of normal handwriting or typing on a smartphone," he told AFP.

Existing devices for those with paralysis rely on eye movement or imagining moving a cursor to point and click on letters.

But Willett and his team wondered whether thinking about handwriting letters might be another way for people to express themselves.

The theory was not necessarily obvious, as handwriting is a much more complex action than moving a cursor from point to point.

But the researchers found that handwriting generates distinctive brain activity that proved easier for an implant to detect and a computer programme to interpret and translate into text.

The research involved a man nicknamed T5 who was paralysed from the neck down after a spinal cord injury in 2007.

He was fitted with two aspirin-sized brain-computer interface (BCI) chips on the left side of his brain that could detect neurons firing in the motor cortex that governs hand movement.

Sensors transmitted the signals to a computer for translation by an artificial intelligence algorithm into typed text.

The first step was to determine whether T5 even produced distinctive and readable brain activity when imagining writing, given the many years since his injury.

And once that activity was detected, the algorithm had to be trained to recognise and interpret the thoughts, a process that took nine days over a six-week period.

T5 painstakingly imagined handwriting individual letters and copying out sentences so the programme could identify which brain activity patterns indicated which letter.

'It will get better'

Over time, T5 was able to produce 90 characters or about 18 words a minute when copying sentences, and around 74 characters or 15 words a minute when replying to questions.

That compares with the maximum 40 characters a minute that point and click systems can produce.

The sentences weren't flawless, with a mistake in about one in every 18 characters when copying and one in every 11 characters when replying to questions.

But adding an autocorrect function like that on a smartphone reduced the error rate to between one and two percent, the authors said.

And even the training exercise offered a chance for T5 to express some poignant thoughts, including the advice he would give his younger self.

"Be patient it will get better," he replied.

Writing in a review commissioned by Nature, Pavithra Rajeswaran and Amy Orsborn of the University of Washington's bioengineering department called the work a "milestone". "The authors' approach has brought neural interfaces that allow rapid communication much closer to a practical reality," they wrote. But they cautioned that further testing and refinement is still needed.

The study involved a single participant, and research is needed on how the implant will adapt to the way brain activity changes with age.

Willett acknowledged the challenges, which also include creating technology smart enough to recognise handwriting without training and making the entire set up wireless.

"Here, we are just showing a proof-of-concept demonstration that a handwriting BCI is an exciting and potentially viable approach for restoring communication to people who are severely paralysed," he said.

But he is hopeful the technology could be feasible for general use within "years as opposed to decades".

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an American astronomer who specialised in cataloguing stars. She, along with Edward Pickering, created the Harvard Classification Scheme based on the stars’ temperatures and spectral types. The International Astronomical Union officially adopted Cannon's system of stellar classification in 1922, and astronomers use it even today.

Annie Jump Cannon was born in Dover, Delaware. It was Cannon’s mother, Mary Jump, who instilled an interest for astronomy in Annie Cannon. The mother and daughter duo used an old astronomy book to identify stars. Annie Cannon lost most of her hearing due to scarlet fever sometime during her adult years.

Annie Cannon graduated in physics and astronomy from Wellesley College in 1884. In 1895 she enrolled at Radcliffe to study advance astronomy. Cannon was hired to work at the Harvard College Observatory under Edward Pickering, in 1896. She became part of a group known as “Pickering’s Women,” who specialised in cataloguing stars, an ambitious project of Pickering. Williamina P.S. Fleming and Antonia Maury were the other two women scientists in the team. The group was tasked with recording, classifying, and cataloguing the spectra of all stars to photographic magnitude of about 9.

By simplifying the earlier classifications of Fleming and Maury, Cannon came up with the classes O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. She categorised the stars based on their temperature. Her spectral classifications were soon universally adopted.

Cannon classified over 350,000 and discovered some 300 variable stars and 5 novae in the process. Her work was published in nine volumes as the Henry Draper Catalogue.

She was awarded the honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1925 and the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1931.

Published in Science Advances

Researchers at Columbia Engineering have built what they say is the world's smallest single-chip system. The chip is less than 0.1 cubic millimetre in volume, about the size of a dust mite. Study leader Ken Shepard said in a release that the chip can be used for developing wireless and miniaturised implantable medical devices.

How to be a bean

Published in Nature Communications

Tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolis A. Gray) found in the United States and Mexico are known to survive in harsh conditions. By studying the genome, researchers have now decoded the possible mechanisms behind its resilience to heat stress. They noticed that in tepary bean, specific genes sensitive to heat stress get activated and protect the plant.

Published in Current Biology

Increasing ocean temperatures may kill off many species of marine animals in the coming centuries, notes a new study. It adds that most of the survivors would shift away from the equator. One of the authors Richard Stockey said in a release, “Our analyses indicate that many equatorial marine animals are living close to their thermal limits in the modern ocean and are unlikely to be able to adapt to warming oceans over the coming centuries.”

Diamonds tell a story of Earth’s history

Published in Nature Communications

Under conditions of intense heat and pressure, diamonds are formed deep within the Earth at about 150 to 200 kilometers under the surface. Now by studying these diamonds researchers are trying to trace the past geologic events and evolution of our planet. They studied 10 diamonds mined from South Africa and noted that the diamond-formation phase spanned a possible time frame of 550 million to 300 million years ago.

Brainy bats

Published in PNAS

A new study found that “bats encode the world in terms of time and do not translate time into distance.” This means that when a bat locates an insect, it perceives the prey as being at a distance of nine milliseconds, and not one and a half meters. The team also found that bats have this ability to know the speed of sound from birth and is not an acquired or learned talent.

The classic 1979 sci-fi horror film "Alien" was advertised with the memorable tagline, "In space no can hear you scream." It did not say anything about humming.

Instruments aboard NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft, which nine years ago exited our solar system's outer reaches, have detected a faint monotonous hum caused by the constant vibrations of the small amounts of gas found in the near-emptiness of interstellar space, scientists said.

It essentially represents the background noise present in the vast expanse between star systems. These vibrations, called persistent plasma waves, were identified at radio frequencies in a narrow bandwidth during a three-year period as Voyager 1 traverses interstellar space.

"The persistent plasma waves that we've just discovered are far too weak to actually hear with the human ear. If we could hear it, it would sound like a single steady note, playing constantly but changing very slightly over time," said Stella Koch Ocker, a Cornell University doctoral student in astronomy and lead author of the study published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in September 1977, is currently located about 14.1 billion miles (22.7 billion km) from Earth — roughly 152 times the distance between our planet and the sun — and is still obtaining and transmitting data.

Having decades ago visited the huge planets Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 is now providing insight into interstellar space.

The immense regions between star systems in a galaxy are not a complete vacuum. The stew of matter and radiation present in low densities — mostly gas — is called the interstellar medium. About 15% of the visible matter in our Milky Way galaxy is composed of this interstellar gas, dust and energetic particles like cosmic rays.

Much of the interstellar medium is in what is called an ionized, or electrically charged, state called plasma.

"Interstellar plasma is extremely diffuse compared to what we're used to on Earth. In this plasma, there are about 0.1 atoms for every cubic centimeter, whereas the air we breathe on Earth has billions of atoms for every cubic centimeter," Ocker said.

Voyager 1 previously detected disturbances in the gas in interstellar space triggered by occasional flares from our sun. The new study instead reveals the steady vibrations unrelated to solar activity that could be a constant feature in interstellar space. This hum has a frequency of about 3 kilohertz (kHz).

"When the plasma oscillations are converted to an audio signal, it sounds like a tone that varies. It's a bit eerie," said Cornell University astronomy professor and study co-author James Cordes.

After 44 years of travel, Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object in space.

"Voyager 1 will keep going but its power supply will run out most likely this decade after up to 50 years of service," Cordes said. "There are conceptual designs being made for future probes whose intended purpose is to reach further than the Voyager spacecraft. That is the message I find appealing: our reach is expanding into interstellar space."

A NASA spacecraft, which scientists believe has collected samples from an asteroid, began its two-year journey back to Earth on Monday.

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is attempting to complete a mission to visit Bennu, a skyscraper-sized asteroid some 320 million km from Earth, survey the surface, collect samples and deliver them back to Earth.

Staff celebrated at the OSIRIS-REx control room in Colorado as the space vehicle pushed away from the asteroid, whose acorn-shaped body formed in the early days of our solar system. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in 2018.

The spacecraft found traces of hydrogen and oxygen molecules - part of the recipe for water and thus the potential for life - embedded in the asteroid's rocky surface, said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx mission's principal investigator, in 2018.

The trip back to Earth will take about two years. The spacecraft will then eject a capsule containing the asteroid samples, which NASA says will land in a remote area of Utah.

NASA says samples will be distributed to research laboratories worldwide, but 75% of the samples will be preserved at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for future generations to study with technologies not yet created.

The roughly $800 million, minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, launched in 2016 to grab and return the first U.S. sample of pristine asteroid materials. Japan is the only other country to have accomplished such a feat.

Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system's formation some 4.5 billion years ago. A sample could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth, scientists say.

Although two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine confer some protection for people who have received solid organ transplants, it's still not enough to enable them to dispense with masks, physical distancing and other safety measures, according to a study.

This is a follow-up study to an earlier one in which the researchers reported that only 17% of the participating transplant recipients produced sufficient antibodies after just one dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimen.

"While there was an increase in those with detectable antibodies after the second shot, the number of transplant recipients in our second study whose antibody levels reached high enough levels to ward off infection was still well below than in people with healthy immune systems," said study lead author Brian Boyarsky from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the U.S.

"Based on our findings, we recommend that transplant recipients and other immunocompromised patients continue to practice strict COVID-19 safety precautions, even after vaccination," Boyarsky said.

The researchers noted that people who receive solid organ transplants, such as hearts, lungs and kidneys, often must take drugs to suppress their immune systems and prevent rejection. Such regimens may interfere with a transplant recipient's ability to make antibodies to foreign substances, including the protective ones produced in response to vaccines, they said.

The latest study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), evaluated this immunogenic response following the second dose of either of the two mRNA vaccines — made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — for 658 transplant recipients, none of whom had a prior diagnosis of COVID-19.

The participants completed their two-dose regimen between December 16, 2020, and March 13, 2021.

The researchers found that only 98 of the 658 study participants (15%) had detectable antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 at 21 days after the first vaccine dose. This was comparable to the 17% reported in the March study looking at immune response after only one vaccine dose. At 29 days following the second dose, the number of participants with detectable antibodies rose to 357 out of 658 (54%), the researchers said.

After both vaccine doses were administered, 301 out of 658 partsicipants (46%) had no detectable antibody at all while 259 (39%) only produced antibodies after the second shot, they said.

The researchers also found that among the participants, the most likely to develop an antibody response were younger, did not take immunosuppressive regimens including anti-metabolite drugs and received the Moderna vaccine. These were similar to the associations seen in the March single-dose study, they said.

"Given these observations, transplant recipients should not assume that two vaccine doses guarantee sufficient immunity against SARS-CoV-2 any more than it did after just one dose," said study co-author Dorry Segev, from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

American space agency NASA on Sunday slammed China for failing to meet "responsible standards" regarding its space debris, hours after remnants of the country's largest and an out of control rocket disintegrated over the Indian Ocean near the Maldives.

The debris from China's Long March 5B rocket re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 10.24 a.m. Beijing time and fell into an open sea area at 72.47 degrees east longitude and 2.65 degrees north latitude, China's Manned Space Engineering Office said.

Reacting to China's space programme, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.” “Spacefaring nations must minimize the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximize transparency regarding those operations," he said in a statement.

"It is critical that China and all spacefaring nations and commercial entities act responsibly and transparently in space to ensure the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of outer space activities,” said Mr. Nelson, former Florida senator and astronaut who was picked for the role in March.

"It is a great honor to lead @NASA, a can-do agency that accomplishes so much! I look forward to a robust future as we continue to explore the heavens," he said in a tweet on May 4.

NASA’s new administrator is big on tackling climate and diversifying the agency's workforce, but hedging on whether the U.S. can put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

The rocket launched the first module of China's new Tianhe space station into Earth's orbit on April 29. At around 100 feet tall and weighing about 22 metric tonnes, the rocket stage is one of the largest objects to ever re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere on an uncontrolled trajectory.

Its re-entry prompted international concern about where it might land. Scientists said the risk to humans was astronomically low, but it was not impossible for it to land in an inhabited area.

Last year, the re-entry of debris from the first Long March 5B flight fell in Ivory Coast, damaging several homes in villages. It was the largest craft to crash to Earth since the US space laboratory, Skylab scattered debris over the southern Australian town of Esperance in 1979.

China is expected to carry out more launches in its space station programme in the coming weeks as it aims to complete the space station project next year.

With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country and concerns being raised about a possible third wave, experts caution that the next wave could be less severe if people keep following COVID-appropriate behaviour and a large portion of the population is vaccinated.

According to the Union Health Ministry data released on May 9 morning, India recorded 4,03,738 fresh COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, pushing the country’s cumulative tally to 2,22,96,414, while the death toll climbed to 2,42,362 with 4,092 daily deaths. There has been a sharp surge in infections over the past couple of months, making the second wave much worse than the first one that began in early 2020 and peaked in the last quarter of that year before the tally hit a trough in the first quarter of 2021.

Several experts believe that a casual approach that followed the trough of the first wave could be a possible reason for the pandemic raising its head again, though others are also putting the blame on the new mutants and variants of the virus being more virulent.

K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor, had said on Wednesday last week that the third wave was inevitable and it was necessary to be prepared for new waves, but clarified two days later that the “insidious asymptomatic transmission” can be stopped if prescribed guidelines about precautions, surveillance, containment, treatment and testing are followed.

“If we take strong measures, the third wave may not happen in all places or indeed anywhere at all. It depends on much how effectively guidance is implemented at the local level in the States, districts and cities everywhere,” he said.

According to experts, in a few months when the immunity people have developed naturally or with the help of vaccination fades, the virus strikes again and the only thing that can stop the virus from bouncing back is how people are guarding themselves.

“Early this year, as the new cases receded, people started interacting as if there was no virus. The immunity had already started declining. They organised mass gatherings, they stopped wearing masks, giving the opportunity to the virus to strike again,” said Dr. Anurag Agarwal, director, Institute of Genomics and Integral Biology, New Delhi.

“While we anticipate a third wave, we cannot say when exactly it will come or how severe it will be. But if people keep following COVID-appropriate behaviour in coming months and we are able to vaccinate a large number of people, the third wave could be less severe,” Dr. Agarwal added.

While the sudden surge in the number of cases during the second wave has led to panic among people, what is adding to their fear is the constant threat of new mutants of the virus and how these mutants could potentially harm them.

Some experts, however, believe that mutations are a common phenomenon, and the mutations do not generally affect the prevention, treatment, or vaccination.

‘Every virus, while replicating in the host’s body, mutates. The virus is a prolific multiplier, but its replication is error-prone and so every copy it makes of itself may not be its exact replica.

“Any change, minor or major, that occurs in its structure is known as a mutation. A virus undergoes hundreds and thousands of such mutations,” said Dr. Saumitra Das, Director, National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG), Kalyani, and professor, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Experts also said that every mutation cannot be a cause of concern arnand genome sequencing of a virus is done to keep a track of any mutation that can make a virus more dangerous.

“What concerns us is whether a mutation is making it more transmissible, or virulent; whether a mutation has the potential to make the existing medicines or vaccines ineffective against the virus. If so, the mutant is classified as a variant of concern [VoC],” said Dr. Das.

Mutations shown so far in the novel coronavirus have not warranted any change in the required treatment or vaccines, but experts believe it is technologically possible to tweak the medicine or a vaccine quickly to fight a mutant that poses a threat to their efficacy.

“But in the case of COVID-19, since its spread has been so rapid, it is not giving our scientists enough time to identify all the mutants. And so, the role of COVID-appropriate behaviour is as critical as ever in controlling its spread,” said Dr. Arun Sharma, a community medicine expert and director of NIIRNCD (ICMR), Jodhpur.

He said a virus mutant can escape the body’s immunity and undo the efforts to developing an effective vaccine or medicine against it, but chances of it escaping the shield called COVID-appropriate behaviour are low.

“A three-ply mask, frequent hand washing or sanitising, maintaining physical distance, avoiding crowd, especially indoors, are still most effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19 virus,” Dr. Sharma added.

He said any virus starts a chain of transmission by infecting the most vulnerable population and it keeps infecting till the time everyone susceptible is infected and then it starts dying out.

“We treat the patients with antiviral drugs, and we protect the population through vaccination. These measures help us break the virus’s chain of transmission,” he added.

Under the cover of darkness in desert habitats about 70 million years ago, in what is today Mongolia and northern China, a gangly looking dinosaur employed excellent night vision and superb hearing to thrive as a menacing pint-sized nocturnal predator.

Scientists said on Thursday an examination of a ring of bones surrounding the pupil and a bony tube inside the skull that houses the hearing organ showed that this dinosaur, called Shuvuuia deserti, boasted visual and auditory capabilities akin to a barn owl, indicating it could it hunt in total darkness.

Their study, published in the journal Science, showed that predatory dinosaurs overall generally possessed better-than-average hearing — helpful for hunters — but had vision optimized for daytime. In contrast, Shuvuuia loved the nightlife.

Shuvuuia was a pheasant-sized, two-legged Cretaceous Period dinosaur weighing about as much as a small house cat. Lacking the strong jaws and sharp teeth of many carnivorous dinosaurs, it had a remarkably bird-like and lightly built skull and many tiny teeth like grains of rice.

Its mid-length neck and small head, coupled with very long legs, made it resemble an awkward chicken. Unlike birds, it had short but powerful arms ending in a single large claw, good for digging.

"Shuvuuia might have run across the desert floor under cover of night, using its incredible hearing and night vision to track small prey such as nocturnal mammals, lizards and insects. With its long legs it could have rapidly run down such prey, and used its digging forelimbs to pry prey loose from any cover such as a burrow," said paleontologist Jonah Choiniere of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the study's first author.

"It's such a strange animal that paleontologists have long wondered what it was actually doing," added paleontologist Roger Benson of the University of Oxford in England, who helped lead the study.

The researchers looked at a structure called the lagena, a curving and finger-like sac that sits in a cavity in the bones surrounding the brain and is connected to the part of the ear that lets reptiles and birds keep balance and move their heads while walking. Acute hearing helps nocturnal predators locate prey. The longer the lagena, the better hearing an animal has.

The barn owl, a proficient nocturnal predator even in pitch-black conditions, has the proportionally longest lagena of any living bird. Shuvuuia is unique among predatory dinosaurs with a hyper-elongated lagena, almost identical in relative size to a barn owl's.

The researchers also looked at a series of tiny bones called the scleral ring that encircle the pupil of the eye. It exists in birds and lizards and was present in the ancestors of today's mammals. Shuvuuia had a very wide scleral ring, indicating an extra-large pupil size that made its eye a specialized light-capture device.

The study found that nocturnality was uncommon among dinosaurs, aside from a group called alvarezsaurs to which Shuvuuia belonged. Alvarezsaurs had nocturnal vision very early in their lineage, but super-hearing took more time to evolve.

"Like many paleontologists, I once considered that nighttime in the age of dinosaurs was when the mammals came out of hiding to avoid predation and competition. The importance of these findings is that it forces us to imagine dinosaurs like Shuvuuia evolving to take advantage of these nocturnal communities," Choiniere said.

Benson added, "This really shows that dinosaurs had a wide range of skills and adaptations that are only just coming to light now. We find evidence that there was a thriving 'nightlife' during the time of dinosaurs."

Archaeologists discovered the remains of nine Neanderthals at a prehistoric site near Rome, Italy’s Culture ministry said on Saturday.

Eight of the remains are dated to between 50,000 and 68,000 years ago, while one, the oldest, is dated to between 90,000 and 100,000 years ago, the ministry said in a statement.

The find occurred in Grotta Guattari, prehistoric caves discovered more than 80 years ago, located around 100 metres from the coast of Tyrrhenian Sea in San Felice Circeo, near Latina, in the Lazio region.

Video footage from the ministry showed bones, craniums and other body parts found at the site.

Neanderthals, the closest ancient relatives of humans, died out about 40,000 years ago. It is unclear what killed them off, although theories include an inability to adapt to climate change and increased competition from modern humans.

Taking into account other remains found previously at the same site, there are in total 11 individuals present in Grotta Guattari, which is "confirmed as one of the most significant places in the world for the history of Neanderthal man," the ministry said. "They are all adult individuals, except for one who may have been in his early teens," Francesco Di Mario, head of the Grotta Guattari excavation, said in the statement.

Animal remains have also been found, including the aurochs, a large extinct bovine.

Debris from the last stage of China’s Long March rocket that had last month carried a key component of its under-construction space station fell into the waters of the Indian Ocean west of the Maldives on Sunday.

The re-entry of the rocket, described by astrophysicists as the fourth-largest uncontrolled reentry in history, had evoked concerns in recent days about possible damage should it have fallen on land, and had been criticised by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the U.S. for “failing to meet responsible standards”. China had rejected those concerns, saying most of the debris had been burned during re-entry and that a fall into international waters was most likely.

The China Manned Space Agency (CSMA) said on Sunday “the vast majority of the device burned up during the reentry, and the rest of the debris fell into a sea area with the centre at 2.65 degrees north latitude and 72.47 degrees east longitude,” placing it west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives National Defence Force said on Sunday its Coastguard Squadron “is active after receiving reports of rocket debris fallen in Maldivian waters”.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement called on “spacefaring nations” to "minimise the risks to people and property on Earth of re-entries of space objects and maximise transparency regarding those operations.” “It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” he said.

Chinese experts rejected the criticism over the uncontrolled entry, saying authorities had been tracking the course, although they did not have any control over where the debris would fall.

"It only refers to the loss of propulsion, but in no way means that China has lost track of its flying trajectory and real-time location," Song Zhongping, an aerospace commentator and former instructor at a PLA Rocket Force affiliated university, told the Global Times, saying that debris from the U.S. SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that fell on a farm in Washington State did not attract similar criticism and showed Western “double standards”.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the uncontrolled reentry of the Chinese rocket was “the equal fourth-biggest” among uncontrolled reentries, on a par with the first Long March rocket that last year fell in the Ivory Coast where there were reports of debris damaging homes in villages. "An ocean reentry was always statistically the most likely,” he said on Twitter. "It appears China won its gamble (unless we get news of debris in the Maldives). But it was still reckless."

The Long March-5B Y2 rocket was carrying the Tianhe, or Heavenly Harmony, module, which is the first of three key components for the construction of China’s space station, which will be completed by the end of next year.

Tianhe will act “the management and control hub of the space station” which is called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, Chinese authorities said after the April 29 launch of the rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island province of Hainan.

The space station, which will be only the second after the International Space Station (ISS), has been designed with a lifespan of 10 years but could last 15 years, or until 2037. The life of the ISS, experts say, could be extended until 2030, by when one of its members, Russia, has said it would launch its own space station.

Pangolins, despite being listed in Schedule I of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 continue to be the world’s most trafficked mammal. The primary demand for its scales in the making of traditional East Asian medicines has led to an estimated illegal trade worth $2.5 billion every year. To enforce the appropriate national and international laws and to track the decline of the species, researchers of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata, have now developed tools to tell apart the scales of Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla).

They characterised the morphological features and investigated genetic variations between the two species by sequencing 624 scales of pangolins and comparing the sequences with all eight pangolin species. Based on the size, shape, weight and ridge counts on the scales, the team was able to categorise the two species.

“These simple morphological characters can be easily measured by the use of a simple Vernier caliper. These metric characters will be of immense utility for the law enforcement agencies for taking spot decision during larger seizures,” says Mukesh Thakur, lead author and the Coordinator of Wildlife Forensic Facilities at ZSI. The results were recently published in Forensic Science International.

He explains that when scales are confiscated, the wildlife officers just weigh and estimate how many pangolins might have been killed. “This needs revision as the dry weight of the scales from one single mature Chinese pangolin is roughly about 500 to 700 grams. However, in the case of Indian pangolin it goes up to 1.5 kg to 1.8 kg,” explains Dr. Thakur.

“Studies have shown that between 2000 and 2019, an estimate of about 8,95,000 pangolins was trafficked globally, which mainly involved Asian and African pangolins. This has led to a drastic decline of the species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Indian pangolins are endangered and the Chinese pangolins are critically endangered. Therefore, it is important to develop protocols that can readily identify species and the number of individuals poached in seizures,” explains first author Prajnashree Priyambada, a PhD scholar at the University of Calcutta.

“Though the Chinese pangolin is distributed mostly in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, the northeastern part of our country is also its home. The population is already limited as it has a limited geographical range, low fecundity with just one offspring a year. It is also facing pressure due to habitat degradation and is prone to local extinction,” adds Dr. Thakur.

Skill-building workshops

“We have been conducting training and skill-building workshops for the law enforcement agencies like various officials of forest department, police, revenue department and wildlife crime control bureau and this method of identifying scales will also be demonstrated soon. Forest guards, customs officials or the airport authority when they undertake search and seizure don't have much of a clue about identification. This study has laid out the methods to take a spot decision, which is crucial to prosecuting the case in the court of law,” adds Dr. Thakur.

NASA's new administrator is big on tackling climate and diversifying the agency's workforce, but hedging on whether the US can put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

In his first interview since becoming NASA's top official this week, former Sen. Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Friday that tracking climate change is a top issue.

He also wants to diversify the space agency's workforce so it reflects America.

As for landing astronauts on the moon, Nelson said the goal remains 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. But he cautions space is hard and he needs more time to review the matter, especially with a contract protest over the lunar lander for astronauts.

"We all know that space is hard,” he said, noting there are often delays developing new technologies.

"But the goal is 2024.” His underlying vision for NASA “to explore the heavens with humans and machines”.

Mr. Nelson said he did not seek the NASA administrator job and had recommended three women to lead the space agency.

He said he told the Biden administration he would accept the nomination only if one of the women could serve as his deputy selected for the job: former space shuttle commander Pam Melroy.

Mr. Nelson, 78, is NASA's 14th administrator, the third to fly in space and the first to grow up in the shadow of rockets.

He was sworn in Monday by Vice President Kamala Harris, who will head the National Space Council.

In a show of bipartisan space support, the two previous administrators took part in the ceremony, representing the Obama and Trump administrations.

Mr. Nelson steps into NASA's top job after 44 years of public service, 42 of them in an elected public office.

Mr. Nelson grew up near Cape Canaveral, graduating from high school a year before Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space 60 years ago this week.

He went on to law school and served in the US Army Reserve during the Vietnam War.

After a few terms in the Florida legislature, Mr. Nelson, a Democrat, won election to Congress, first in the House and then the Senate, before a 2018 defeat ended his political career.

It was while Mr. Nelson was a congressman that he rocketed into orbit aboard space shuttle Columbia in January 1986 — just two weeks before Challenger's astronauts perished during liftoff.

The INSACOG consortium of scientists, spanning 10 labs across the country, and involved in sequencing genomes of coronavirus samples in different States, had been giving regular updates on the threat from new strains to the government, said a senior member of the group.

“The INSACOG members have meetings every alternate day. Whatever the results of analysis that emerge from the threat posed by new strains is shared with the National Centres for Disease Control and being a Health Ministry [body] is naturally shared with government,” Rakesh Mishra, Advisor, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, told The Hindu.

Dr. Mishra retired as the Institute’s Director in April and since has been a scientific advisor there. “This system has been in place for most of this year, since the INSACOG system has been put into place,” he said.

INSACOG refers to the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia. In an interview to the news portal The Wire on Tuesday, Dr. Mishra said that warnings of an increase in cases from the increasing prevalence of new variants were conveyed to the government channels that eventually could likely have made their way to the Prime Minister's Office.

At a press meeting on Wednesday, Health Ministry officials said that information on genome sequencing had been shared with States twice in February, 2021, four times in March 2021, and again four times in April. In a video conference with States, the Union Health Ministry said it was informed about the current status of Variants of Concern and new mutants and “stressed on increased and stringent public health interventions”.

The current surge in cases could be correlated with the rise in the B.1.617 lineage of SARS CoV-2, popularly known as the “Indian variant” of the coronavirus, the officials added.

Dr. Mishra, in response to the interviewer’s questions in his interview to The Wire, agreed that India’s political leadership should have been more communicative about the risks that events such as political rallies and religious gatherings posed, in the way of crowding, and transmission of newer infectious variants getting magnified.

Cocoa beans, when fermented correctly, have a pleasant smell with sweet and floral notes. But they can have an off-putting scent when fermentation goes wrong, or when storage conditions aren’t quite right and microorganisms grow on them. If these beans make their way into the manufacturing process, the final chocolate can smell unpleasant. Researchers had previously used molecular techniques to identify the compounds that contribute to undesirable smoky flavours.

By using gas chromatography in combination with olfactometry and mass spectrometry, researchers at the Technical University of Munich, Germany identified 57 molecules that made up the scent profiles of both normal and musty/mouldy smelling cocoa beans. Of these compounds, four had higher concentrations in off-smelling samples.

The researchers determined that geosmin — associated with mouldy and beetroot odours — and 3-methyl-1H-indole — associated with faecal and mothball odours — are the primary contributors to the musty and mouldy scents of cocoa beans. According to a release from American Chemical Society, they found that geosmin was mostly in the beans’ shells, which are removed during processing, while the latter was primarily in the bean nib that is manufactured into chocolate. The researchers say that measuring the amount of these compounds within cocoa beans could be an objective way to detect off-putting scents and flavours.

Published in PNAS

About four billion years ago, Mars had a water-rich environment. Despite receiving just 30% of the Earth’s present-day sunshine, how did Mars have flowing rivers? A new study that used a computer model shows that Mars could have had a thin layer of icy, high-altitude clouds that caused a greenhouse effect.

Global glacier retreat

Published in Nature

An international team that studied all the world's glaciers - around 2,20,000 in total - found that over the past two decades glaciers have rapidly lost thickness and mass. "The situation in the Himalayas is particularly worrying," explains lead author Romain Hugonnet, in a release. “During the dry season, glacial meltwater is an important source that feeds major waterways such as the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus rivers. Right now, this increased melting acts as a buffer for people living in the region, but if Himalayan glacier shrinkage keeps accelerating, populous countries like India and Bangladesh could face water or food shortages in a few decades."

Lightning cleanser

Published in Science and JGR: Atmospheres

Lightning bolts increase the atmosphere’s ability to cleanse itself or breakdown greenhouse gases, a team of researchers found. The team noted that extreme amounts of hydroxyl radical (OH) and hydroperoxyl radical (HO2) were discharged during lightning events. This OH initiates chemical reactions and breaks down molecules like the greenhouse gas methane.

How red corals survive heat stress

Published in PNAS

The corals in the Gulf of Aqaba, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, have been known to be resistant to higher temperatures. By studying them at the laboratory researchers have now decoded the full molecular mechanism behind this resistance. The coral Stylophora pistillata has a rapid gene expression response and recovery pattern when exposed to heat stress. The team noted that the algae and bacteria they live in symbiosis with the coral can also withstand average temperatures 5°C higher than what they typically experience.

Key-hole mining

Published in Science Advances

A team of international researchers has developed a new method to extract metals directly from the parent ore deep inside earth. In the new technique, electrodes are drilled into an ore body and an electric current is applied. The team says that this can transport the electrically charged metal ions, such as copper, through the rock via a process called electromigration.

With close to 4,00,000 cases being added every day, questions are being raised by many scientists on whether a government-backed model, called SUTRA, to forecast the rise and ebb of the COVID-19 pandemic, may have had an outsized role in creating the perception that a catastrophic second wave was unlikely in India.

An official connected with the COVID-19 management exercise said, on condition of anonymity, that the SUTRA model input was “an important one, but not unique or determining”.

The SUTRA group had presented its views to Dr. V.K. Paul, who chaired a committee that got inputs from several modellers and sources. “The worst case predictions from this ensemble were used by the National Empowered Group on Vaccines and the groups headed by Dr. Paul to take measures. However, the surge was several times what any of the modellers had predicted,” the official said.

On May 2, the SUTRA group put out a statement, carried by the Press Information Bureau, that the government had solicited its inputs where it said a “second wave” would peak by the third week of April and stay around 1 lakh cases. “Clearly the model predictions in this instance were incorrect,” the group noted.

Past its peak

SUTRA (Susceptible, Undetected, Tested (positive), and Removed Approach) first came into public attention when one of its expert members announced in October that India was “past its peak”. After new cases reached 97,000 a day in September, there was a steady decline and one of the scientists associated with the model development, M. Vidyasagar, said at a press conference then that the model showed the COVID burden was expected to be capped at 10.6 million symptomatic infections by early 2021, with less than 50,000 active cases from December. In October, at that time, there were 7.4 million confirmed cases of which about 7,80,000 were active infections.

Computational biologist Mukund Thattai, of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, in a Twitter thread summarised instances of the SUTRA forecasts being far out of bounds of the actual case load. “The so-called Covid ‘supermodel’ commissioned by the Govt of India is fundamentally flawed,” he tweeted. “Based on Prof. Agrawal’s [Manindra Agrawal of IIT-Kanpur] own posts, it was quite clear that the predictions of the SUTRA model were too variable to guide government policy. Many models got things wrong but the question is why the government continued to rely on this model, than consult epidemiologists and public health experts,” he told The Hindu.

Mr. Agrawal was one of the scientists involved in developing the model. In an email to The Hindu, Mr. Agrawal admitted that the model, which had multiple purposes, didn’t work well on a metric of “predicting the future under different scenarios”.

He said unlike many epidemiological models that extrapolated cases based on the existing number of cases, the behaviour of the virus and manner of spread, the SUTRA model chose a “data centric approach”. The equation that gave out estimates of what the number of future infections might be and the likelihood of when a peak might occur, needed certain ‘constants’. These numbers kept changing and their values relied on the number of infections being reported at various intervals. However, the equation couldn’t tell when a constant changed. A rapid acceleration of cases couldn’t be predicted in advance.

Too many parameters

Rahul Siddharthan, a computational biologist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, in an email said no model, without external input from real-world data, could have predicted the second wave. However, the SUTRA model was problematic as it relied on too many parameters, and recalibrated those parameters whenever its predictions “broke down”. “The more parameters you have, the more you are in danger of ‘overfitting’. You can fit any curve over a short time window with 3 or 4 parameters. If you keep resetting those parameters, you can literally fit anything,” Mr. Siddharthan said.

According to Mr. Agrawal, one of the main reasons for the model not gauging an impending, exponential rise was that a constant indicating contact between people and populations went wrong. “We assumed it can at best go up to pre-lockdown value. However, it went well above that due to new strains of virus,” he said.

Further the model was ‘calibrated’ incorrectly. The model relied on a serosurvey conducted by the ICMR in May that said 0.73% of India’s population may have been infected at that time. “ I have strong reasons to believe now that the results of the first survey were not correct (actual infected population was much lower than reported). This calibration led our model to the conclusion that more than 50% population was immune by January. In addition, there is also the possibility that a good percentage of immune population lost immunity with time,” Mr. Agrawal said.

In the SUTRA approach, the factor by which reported cases differ from actual ones is a parameter in the model that could be estimated from just reported data, (covid19india.org), according to Mr. Agrawal. “I understand it may appear a bit mysterious, but the math shows how. This, in fact, is one of our central contributions,” he told The Hindu. This has been described in a preprint research paper that has been available online since January.

The modelling study called the “COVID-19 India National Supermodel” was the result of analysis by an expert committee consisting of mathematicians and epidemiologists — though in a research paper explaining how the model worked, there are three authors: Mr. Agrawal, M. Vidyasagar, a professor of electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad and Madhuri Kanitkar, paediatric nephrologist and Deputy Chief, Integrated Defence Staff (Medical) in the Army.

While many groups of epidemiologists, disease experts and groups of mathematicians had developed several kinds of models to predict the outcome of the pandemic, this group was facilitated by the Department of Science and Technology and was the only one among several forecast groups, whose numbers were relayed using the government’s publicity channels.

Until February, the model seemed more or less right, the curve was declining and as of mid-February while 10,000-12,000 new cases were added daily, the overall numbers were close to 10 million.

Overall caseload

In an interview with this newspaper published on February 27, Mr. Agrawal asserted that a “second wave was unlikely” though a slight pick-up — to about 15,000 cases a day — had begun. India’s overall caseload wouldn’t extend beyond mid-March and only 3,00,000-5,00,000 new confirmed infections over the next 10 weeks were expected which would bring the overall load to 11.3 or 11.5 million infections by April 2021. This was premised partly on 60% of the population having been exposed to the virus.

On April 2, he told the Press Trust of India that the new cases would “peak” by April 15-20 — in line with the SUTRA team’s public statement.

On April 23, he again reported a new peak at May 11-15 with 3.3-3.5 million total ‘active’ cases and a decline by the end of May. India is currently at about 3.4 million active cases.

Gautam Menon, a modeller and Professor, Ashoka University, Sonepat, Haryana, who also worked on estimating the spread of COVID-19 disagreed with the approach, on the grounds that it was “somewhat simplistic and insufficiently informed by epidemiological data and expertise”.

At best, the SUTRA model could be used along with an ‘ensemble’ — where results from various scenarios were grouped. “The use of machine learning to forecast epidemic spread is a relatively recent advance. Some of those models do quite well. But the problems with those methods is that you can’t really figure out what they are doing and how sensitive they are to simply bad data. I would use those models, if we had them, along with an ensemble of other models, but would not repose utter faith in them.”

The SUTRA model’s omission of the importance of the behaviour of the virus; the fact that some people were bigger transmitters of the virus than others (say a barber or a receptionist more than someone who worked from home); a lack of accounting for social or geographic heterogeneity and not stratifying the population by age as it didn’t account for contacts between different age groups also undermined its validity.

New variants

Mr. Agrawal — who now regularly tweets on the evolution of the pandemic in States and districts — responded that new variants showed up in the SUTRA model as increase in value of parameter called ‘beta’ (that estimated contact rate). “As far as the model is concerned, it is observing changes in parameter values. It does not care about what is the reason behind the change. And computing new beta value is good enough for the model to predict the new trajectory well.”

He conceded that a combination of good epidemiologists, data-centric modelling like SUTRA and time-series models worked best. “Time-series based predictions are good at detecting changes in data patterns. So they can flag, early on, phase changes. SUTRA-type data-centric models can explain the past very well [and in studying what was the effect of policy actions, leading to a better knowledge base for the future]. They are also very good at predicting future trajectory assuming phase does not change.”

In 2002, Mr. Agrawal and two of his students developed a mathematical test called AKS primality that could efficiently determine if one could tell a big number was prime that won them global accolades. He used a computer science approach to solve a problem of pure math. “This is the second time I am entering a domain as a complete outsider. First was when I proved primality theorem. Mathematicians all over the world welcomed a computer scientist in their fold, and in fact went out of their way to celebrate it. Our paper was not written in standard math style, however, experts quickly shut down anyone who questioned the presentation or minor errors in the paper. In contrast, I am experiencing a hostile reaction from epidemiologists, at least in India,” he said.

Researchers have identified fossil bone fragments of long-necked dinosaurs called sauropods, dating back to about 100-million-years from an area around West Khasi Hills District in Meghalaya.

The yet-to-be-published findings were made during a recent field trip by researchers from the Geological Survey of India's Palaeontology division in North-East.

The GSI researchers noted that this is the first record of sauropods of probable Titanosaurian origin discovered in the region.

Sauropods had very long necks, long tails, small heads relative to the rest of their body, and four thick, pillar-like legs. They are notable for the enormous sizes attained by some species, and the group includes the largest animals to have ever lived on land.

The finding makes Meghalaya the fifth state in India after Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu and the only state in the North-East to report Sauropod bones having titanosaurian affinity, they said.

Titanosaurs were a diverse group of sauropod dinosaurs, including genera from Africa, Asia, South America, North America, Europe, Australia and Antarctica.

"Dinosaur bones from Meghalaya were reported by GSI in 2001 but they were too fragmentary and ill-preserved to understand its taxonomic identification," said Arindam Roy, Senior Geologist, Palaeontology Division, GSI. "The present find of bones is during fieldwork in 2019-2020 and 2020-21. The last visit of the team was in February 2021. The fossils are presumably of Late Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago."

He noted that the best-preserved fossils are limb bones, adding the type of curvature, development of lateral and proximal margins of the partially preserved bone are indicative of it being a humerus bone.

He, however, noted that the conclusions are drawn from preliminary studies and detailed work is going on.

The bone fragments were collected from poorly sorted, purplish to greenish very coarse-grained arkosic sandstone interlaid with pebbly beds. More than twenty-five disarticulated, mostly fragmentary bone specimens were recovered, which are of different sizes and occur as isolated specimens but some of them were found in close proximity to each other, the researchers said.

Taxonomic identification up to genus level is difficult due to poorly preserved, incomplete, fragmentary nature of the bones and most of the recovered bones are partially petrified and partially replaced, they said.

Therefore, only three of the best-preserved ones could be studied. The largest one is a partially preserved limb bone of 55 centimetres (cm) long. It is comparable with the average humerus length of titanosaurids.

Robustness of the bone, the difference in curvature in the lateral margins and the proximal border being relatively straight, are some of the morphological characters that hint at the titanosaurid affinity, according to the researchers.

Another incomplete limb bone measuring 45cm in length is also comparable with the limb bones of titanosauriform clade, they said.

“The abundance of bones recovered during the present work and especially the finding of few limb bones and vertebrae having taxonomic characters of titanosauriform clade are unique,” Roy said. “The record of the sauropod assemblage of probable titanosaurian affinity from Meghalaya extends the distribution and diversity of vertebrates in the Late Cretaceous of India.”

An incomplete chevron of caudal vertebrae and also cervical vertebra have also been reconstructed from a few recovered bone specimens.

The other fragmentary specimens though partially preserved might probably be parts of limb bones of a sauropod dinosaur.

Titanosaurian sauropod dinosaurs were the most diverse and abundant large-bodied terrestrial herbivores in the Southern Hemisphere landmasses during the Cretaceous Period but they were not endemic to the Gondwanan landmasses, the researchers said.

Gondwana is the southern half of the Pangaean supercontinent that existed some 300 million years ago and is composed of the major continental blocks of South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, Antarctica, and Australia.

In India, the Late Cretaceous sauropod dinosaur generally belong to the titanosaurian clade and has been reported from the Lameta Formation of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and Kallamedu Formation of Tamil Nadu, the researchers said.

Data obtained by bouncing radio waves off Venus — treating it, as one scientist said, like a giant disco ball — is providing new insight into Earth's closest planetary neighbour, including a precise calculation of the duration of a Venusian day.

The study also measured the tilt of the Venusian axis and size of the planet's core, allowing for a deeper understanding of an enigmatic world sometimes called Earth's 'evil twin.'

It was already known that Venus has the longest day — the time the planet takes for a single rotation on its axis — of any planet in our solar system, though there were discrepancies among previous estimates.

The study found that a single Venusian rotation takes 243.0226 Earth days. That means a day lasts longer than a year on Venus, which makes a complete orbit around the sun in 225 Earth days.

The researchers transmitted radio waves toward Venus 21 times from 2006 to 2020 from NASA's Goldstone Antenna in the Mojave Desert of California and studied the radio echo, which provided information on certain planetary traits, at Goldstone and at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

"Each individual measurement was obtained by treating Venus as a giant disco ball. We illuminated Venus with a giant flashlight, the radar at Goldstone, and observed the reflections as they swept over the surface of the Earth," said UCLA planetary astronomy professor Jean-Luc Margot, who led the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy. "Venus is an amazing laboratory for understanding planet formation and evolution, and it's a stone's throw away. There are likely billions of Venus-like planets in the galaxy."

The new data showed that the Venusian planetary core has a diameter of about 4,360 miles (7,000 km), comparable to Earth's core. Previous Venus core estimates had been based on computer modeling rather than observational data. Its core is almost certainly composed of iron and nickel, though it is unclear whether it is solid or molten, Margot said.

Venus spins on its axis almost upright - meaning it lacks discernable seasons — while Earth has more of a tilt. The study calculated the Venusian tilt at about 2.64 degrees. Earth's is about 23.5 degrees.

Venus, the second planet from the sun, is similar in structure but slightly smaller than Earth, with a diameter of about 7,500 miles (12,000 km). Above its foreboding landscape is a thick and toxic atmosphere that consists primarily of carbon dioxide, with clouds of sulfuric acid droplets. With a runaway greenhouse effect, its surface temperatures reach 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead.

Venus spins from east to west, the opposite direction from all other planets in our solar system but Uranus. In another quirk, its day-night cycle - the time between sunrises as opposed to the length of a single axial spin - takes 117 Earth days because Venus rotates in the direction opposite of its orbital path around the sun.

Venus has received less scientific attention than Mars, Earth's other planetary next-door neighbor, and other solar system destinations.

"I don't think that Venus would be more difficult to understand than other planets if we had adequate data, but there is a deplorable scarcity of data about Venus," Margot said. "There have been no NASA missions to Venus in almost 30 years and about a dozen NASA missions to Mars in this time interval," Margot said, adding that the new findings on how Venus spins could help any future landing attempts.

(Subscribe to Science For All, our weekly newsletter, where we aim to take the jargon out of science and put the fun in. Click here.)

A single dose of COVID-19 vaccine boosts protection against SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus variants, but only in those previously infected with the disease, according to a study.

The researchers looked at the U.K. and South Africa variants, however, they think it is possible that the findings will apply to other variants in circulation, such as the Brazil (P.1) and India (B.1.617 and B.1.618) variants.

The findings, published in the journal Science, show that in those who have not previously been infected and have so far only received one dose of vaccine, the immune response to coronavirus variants of concern may be insufficient.

The researchers at Imperial College London, Queen Mary University of London and University College London, looked at immune responses in U.K. healthcare workers at Barts and Royal Free hospitals following their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

They found that people who had previously had mild or asymptomatic infection had significantly enhanced protection against the Kent and South Africa variants, after a single dose of the mRNA vaccine. In those without prior COVID-19, the immune response was less strong after a first dose, potentially leaving them at risk from variants.

"Our findings show that people who have had their first dose of vaccine, and who have not previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2, are not fully protected against the circulating variants of concern," said Rosemary Boyton, Professor of Immunology and Respiratory Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the research. "This study highlights the importance of getting second doses of the vaccine rolled out to protect the population."

p align='justify' >The researchers analysed the blood samples for the presence and levels of immunity against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the Kent (B.1.1.7) and South Africa (B.1.351) variants of concern.

Along with antibodies, the researchers also focused on two types of white blood cell: B-cells, which 'remember' the virus, and T cells, which help B cell memory and recognise and destroy cells infected with coronavirus.

They found that after a first dose of vaccine, prior infection was associated with a boosted T cell, B cell and neutralising antibody response, which could provide effective protection against SARS-CoV-2, as well as the Kent and South Africa variants.

However, in people without previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, a single vaccine dose resulted in lower levels of neutralising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and the variants, potentially leaving them vulnerable to infection and highlighting the importance of the second vaccine dose. It remains unclear precisely how much protection is offered by T cells.

The mutations in the Kent and South Africa variants resulted in T cell immunity which could be reduced, enhanced or unchanged compared to the original strain, depending on genetic differences between people.

"Our data show that natural infection alone may not provide sufficient immunity against the variants," Boyton said. "Boosting with a single vaccine dose in people with prior infection probably does. As new variants continue to emerge, it is important to fast track global rollout of vaccines to reduce transmission of the virus and remove the opportunities for new variants to arise," she said.

The surging second wave of COVID-19 pandemic has been putting tremendous strain on the healthcare facilities in both the public and private sector with scores of patients lining up for admission. This has also had an effect on the ongoing clinical trials for various drugs and vaccine candidates even as hospitals and staff remain busy with patient care.

CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) has lined up at least three potential repurposed drugs — Niclosamide, Colchicine and Chlorpromazine — in association with other CSIR labs for clinical trials. “While this is the time to initiate clinical trials with many patients being admitted in hospitals, we are conscious that it will also put pressure on doctors partnering for clinical trials because, they have to monitor these patients much more closely and record many more parameters,” pointed out IICT director S. Chandrasekhar.

The institute has pioneered the process technology of Favipiravir and Remdesivir, repurposed for treatment of COVID-19 and is also working closely with indigenous pharmaceutical industries for development of the next generation of antivirals and other drugs.

“CSIR is open to providing non-exclusive licence to the processes we develop so that drugs are available in quantities at affordable cost. A challenge with Favipiravir and Remdesivir long storage is the shelf life. Currently, companies have data for less than one year and if more data is available, the production can be ramped up,” he explained.

Drug firms had to shed the production lines by December last year due to reduced demand and now the sudden increase has led to panic-buying and shortage. “We expect the firms to ramp up production during these months and the situation could ease up in the coming days once the regulatory approvals come in for infrastructure upgrade of the existing facilities for more production,” he added.

IICT has also been instrumental in developing a crucial adjuvant for Bharat Biotech International Limited for bringing out Covaxin in association with Indian Council of Medical Research and the National Institute of Virology. “We are further improving the process so that the scale up is easier to provide more adjuvants to Bharat Biotech as they enhance the vaccine production to meet the demand within the country and internationally in a more cost-effective manner,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar.

Viruses can only survive and multiply in host cells. Therefore, studying SARS-CoV-2 virus will require studying the host. As the viral genome takes the help of host machinery, understanding the host genome is paramount to studying both susceptibility and protection against the virus in a given population. This is the main aim of multiple groups and international consortia of researchers like the Severe Covid-19 genome-wide association study Group, the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, and the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC).

A series of published studies from these consortia shed light on the host genome’s role in viral infection. These studies, published in NEJM, Nature and MedRxiv provide cues on how certain host genome regions confer an increased risk of developing the severe disease while others protect against the virus. Thus, studying the genomes of individuals in a group (for example, a particular genetic population group in India) can make us predict whether the individuals in that group are more or less likely to develop severe disease.

Crucial genes

The recent papers pointed out that a region on host chromosome 3 acts as a significant genetic risk factor towards getting seriously ill and, at the same time, a group of genes on chromosomes 6,12,19, and 21 protect us against the virus. Enzymes coded by the OAS gene family on chromosome 12, a component of the interferon-induced antiviral system, are of particular importance as they can act as a drug target against the virus. An independent study from Canada in Nature Medicine corroborated this by showing that a protein from the same component in blood protects against getting severely ill among European ancestry people.

Interestingly, evolutionary biologists in Sweden and Germany showed that the regions of host genomes that increase the risk of getting severely ill and protect against the virus were inherited from Neanderthals. How can Neanderthal genes both increase the risk of getting the severe disease and at the same time protect against the virus?

Once, Neanderthals and modern humans came in contact with each other, and they interbred. As a result, genetic content between Neanderthals and humans got mixed in their offspring.

In their first paper, published in Nature, the researchers showed that modern-day humans share a stretch of 50,000 nucleotides (nucleotides are the basic building blocks of DNA) in chromosome 3 with Neanderthals. It is this stretch that increases their risk of getting severe COVID-19. They predicted that having a copy of this region of chromosome 3 nearly doubles the risk of getting severe COVID-19.

Push-pull effect

The same researchers published a second paper in PNAS showing that a part of host chromosome 12, previously shown to protect against the virus, also was inherited from Neanderthal genomes. While specific genes from Neanderthals are working against the virus and protecting us from getting a severe disease, others are associated with an increased risk of getting critically ill. This push and pull effect may be one of the intriguing facts about how the selection of genes happens during evolution.

These studies have special significance to India. About 50% of South Asians carry the region in chromosome 3 from Neanderthal genomes, the same region that make us more prone to getting severely sick with the virus. On the good Neanderthal gene front, nearly 30% of South Asians bear the chromosome 12 region that protects us from getting severely ill. As Indians are a diverse genetic group, the above risk was determined using samples used previously in an international consortium called the 1,000 genome project. The project is represented by Indian Gujaratis and Telugus, Pakistani Punjabis, and Bangladeshi Bengalis in the South Asian group. These recent studies only validate what the legendary evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in his famous essay, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” and makes perfect sense when one thinks about the evolution of host genomes concerning SARS-CoV-2 infection.

(Binay Panda is a Professor of Biotechnology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

In the first four months of 2021, the Western Ghats presented new butterflies, frogs, fruit flies, and even a freshwater crab. Joining the list is a tiny snake of just 20 cm length with iridescent scales - Xylophis deepaki, first stumbled upon in a coconut plantation in Kanyakumari, is now reported to be an endemic species of Tamil Nadu and has been sighted in a few locations in the southern part of the Western Ghats. The species is named in honour of Indian herpetologist Deepak Veerappan for his contribution in erecting a new subfamily Xylophiinae to accommodate wood snakes. The team suggests the common name Deepak’s wood snake.

Wood snakes

Wood snakes are harmless, sub-fossorial and often found while digging soil in farms and under the logs in the Western Ghat forests. They feed on earthworms and possibly other invertebrates. Interestingly, their close relatives are found in northeast India and Southeast Asia and are known to be arboreal.

Drier habitat

“This new species is found in the drier regions and in lower altitudes around Agasthyamalai hills. The other Xylophis were reported from cold higher altitudes, of 1,700 m and above, in the Nilgiris and the Anaimalai. Its close relative, Captain’s wood snake, is known from the western slopes of the Western Ghats in the Kerala,” explains Surya Narayanan, from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, and first author of the paper recently published in Vertebrate Zoology.

The snake was previously confused with X. captaini, but detailed morphological studies showed that the it had a broader off-white collar and more ventral scales. Further, DNA studies indicated that it was indeed a new species and was a close relative to X. captaini.

The new find increases the total number of currently recognised wood snakes to five species. The paper adds that very little information is available on the precise distributions of each species, their natural history, population status, feeding and reproductive ecology, and conservation status.

“These are burrowing snakes and we have planned to carry out more studies to understand its geographical distribution,” adds Pratyush P. Mohapatra, Scientist at the Zoological Survey of India, who is based in Jabalpur. He adds that as the snake was found from rubber, banana, and coconut farms, it seems to be well adapted to moderate habitat changes, but more studies are needed to ascertain its status.