Science & Technology - October 2021

Despite some recent advances, it found that 107 countries remain off track for a target to sustainably manage their water resources by 2030.

Global water resource management is “fragmented and inadequate” and countries should urgently adopt reforms to ramp up financing and boost cooperation on emergency warning systems ahead of a looming crisis, the UN weather agency said on Tuesday.

Climate change is expected to increase water-related hazards such as droughts and floods while the number of people living with water stress is expected to soar due to growing scarcity and population growth, the report warned.

Wake up to the looming water crisis, multi-agency #ClimateServices for #Water report warns
About 3.6 billion people have inadequate access to water at least 1 month per year. By 2050, this is expected to rise to more than 5 billion

Details https://t.co/YhOPw5hF8c pic.twitter.com/5kM54XSUtG

— World Meteorological Organization (@WMO) October 5, 2021

“We need to wake up to the looming water crisis,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization.

‘The State of Climate Services 2021: Water’, a collaboration between the WMO, international organisations, development agencies and scientific institutions, estimates that the number of people with inadequate access to water will top 5 billion by 2050 versus 3.6 billion in 2018.

It calls for more financing and urgent action to improve cooperative water management, naming the need for better flood warning systems in Asia and drought warning systems in Africa.

#ClimateServices for #Water report:
In past 20 years, terrestrial water storage (on land surface and subsurface, incl soil moisture, snow and ice) has fallen 1 cm per year. At global level this is HUGE
Biggest losses in Antarctica and Greenland
➡️https://t.co/YhOPw5hF8c pic.twitter.com/JbPCIKm2xM

— World Meteorological Organization (@WMO) October 5, 2021

Despite some recent advances, it found that 107 countries remain off track for a target to sustainably manage their water resources by 2030.

“Some 60% of national meteorological and hydrological services – the national public agencies mandated to provide basic hydrological information and warning services to the government, the public, and the private sector – lack the full capacities needed to provide climate services for water,” the report said.

Taalas said at a press briefing that these “major gaps” in data were worst in Central Asia, Africa and among island states. In some cases, he said information gaps can prove deadly, such as when Zimbabwe opened its dams during Cyclone Idai in 2019, which exacerbated flooding in downstream Mozambique.

“This was one example where better coordination between Zimbabwe and Mozambique would have avoided casualties,” he said. Overall, more than 300,000 people have been killed by floods and more than 700,000 by droughts and their impact on food production, the WMO said.

The robots can handle as many as 168,000 parcels weighing up to 15 kg a day and only need to be recharged every four hours for 5 minutes.

There’s a new addition to Greece’s postal service: a fleet of yellow robots sorting through the mail.

Fifty-five small, four-wheeled autonomous mobile robots — or AMR’s — powered by artificial intelligence, glide around Hellenic Post’s sorting centre in Athens, speeding up an often arduous process.

They scan the postal code, weigh the package and, directed by sensors, empty it into the corresponding mail sacks set up around a platform.

The robots are part of the state-owned company’s digital restructuring programme, which aims to tackle growing numbers of parcels from online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Until recently, sorting has been carried out by manual labour with a high demand in time, often with errors occurring, causing delivery delays for our customers and increased costs for the company,” Hellenic Post Chief Executive George Constantopoulos told Reuters.

Up to 80% of parcel sorting has been handed over to the robots and Constantopoulos said the process was up to three times faster, ensuring next-day delivery. The robots can handle as many as 168,000 parcels weighing up to 15 kg a day and only need to be recharged every four hours for 5 minutes.

“The purpose is not to replace human workers with robots, but rather to augment human workforces and make them more efficient,” Constantopoulos said.

The project targets a 2028 launch with a landing in 2033, a five-year journey in which the spacecraft will travel some 3.6 billion kilometers.

The United Arab Emirates on Tuesday announced plans to send a probe to land on an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter to collect data on the origins of the universe, the latest project in the oil-rich federation’s ambitious space program.

The project targets a 2028 launch with a landing in 2033, a five-year journey in which the spacecraft will travel some 3.6 billion kilometers.

The UAE’s Space Agency said it will partner with the Laboratory for Atmospheric Science and Physics at the University of Colorado on the project. It declined to immediately offer a cost for the effort.

The project comes after the Emirates successfully put its Amal, or ‘Hope’, probe in orbit around Mars in February. The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch. That excludes operating costs at Mars. The Emirates plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon in 2024.

The country, which is home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, also has set the ambitious goal to build a human colony on Mars by 2117.

Although coral reefs cover a tiny fraction of the ocean floor, they provide outsized benefits to people. Their fish supply a critical protein source to 1 billion people.

Written by Catrin Einhorn

The world lost about 14% of its coral reefs in the decade after 2009, mainly because of climate change, according to a sweeping international report on the state of the world’s corals.

The decline underscores the catastrophic consequences of climate change while also offering some hope that some coral reefs can be saved if humans move quickly to rein in greenhouse gases.

“Coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine telling us how quickly it can go wrong,” said David Obura, one of the report’s editors and chair of the coral specialist group for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The 14% decline, he said, was cause for deep concern. “In finance, we worry about half-percent declines and half-percent changes in employment and interest rates.”

Especially alarming, the report’s editors said, is the trajectory. The first global bleaching event occurred in 1998, but many reefs bounced back. That no longer appears to be the case.

“Since 2009, it’s a constant decline at the global level,” said Serge Planes, a research scientist at the Center for Island Research and Observatory of the Environment in Moorea, French Polynesia, who also edited the report.

Although coral reefs cover a tiny fraction of the ocean floor, they provide outsized benefits to people. Their fish supply a critical protein source to 1 billion people. Their limestone branches protect coasts from storms.

Their beauty supports billions of dollars in tourism. Collectively, they support an estimated $2.7 trillion per year in goods and services, according to the report, which was issued by the International Coral Reef Initiative, a partnership of countries and organizations that works to protect the world’s coral reefs.

Perhaps 900 species of coral exist, and the researchers noted that some appear more resilient to the heat and acidification that accompany climate change. Unfortunately, those tend to be slower-growing and not the more familiar, reef-building varieties that support the richest biodiversity.

Terry Hughes, who directs a center for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia and who was not involved with the analysis, also cautioned that the vast data underlying it, collected by more than 300 scientists in 73 countries, may skew toward healthier reefs.

“Researchers and monitoring programs often abandon sites that become degraded, or don’t establish new studies there, because nobody wants to study a reef that is covered in silt and algae instead of corals,” Hughes said.

Still, he and the report both emphasized that corals could recover or regenerate if the world limited global warming. “Many of the world’s coral reefs remain resilient and can recover if conditions permit,” the report said.

Although tackling climate change is the most important factor in saving coral reefs, scientists said, reducing pollution is also critical. Corals need to be as healthy as possible to survive the warming temperatures that have already been locked in. Harmful pollution often includes human sewage and agricultural runoff that can cause algae blooms, as well as heavy metals or other chemicals from manufacturing. Destructive fishing practices also harm reefs.

The report comes just before world leaders convene next week to discuss a new global agreement on biodiversity. While some are pushing to protect the most pristine reefs, Obura said this approach would not suffice.

“People are so dependent on reefs around the world, we need to focus a lot of effort on the mediocre reefs, or all the other reefs, as well,” Obura said. “We need to keep them functioning so that people’s livelihoods can continue.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

The cells changed their shapes from round to amoebalike and squeezed out of tiny holes in the follicle.

Written by Gina Kolata

Every person, every mouse, every dog, has one unmistakable sign of aging: hair loss. But why does that happen? Rui Yi, a professor of pathology at Northwestern University, set out to answer the question.

A generally accepted hypothesis about stem cells says they replenish tissues and organs, including hair, but they will eventually be exhausted and then die in place. This process is seen as an integral part of aging.

Instead Yi and his colleagues made a surprising discovery that, at least in the hair of aging animals, stem cells escape from the structures that house them.

“It’s a new way of thinking about aging,” said Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong, a skin cell researcher and professor of pathology at the University of Southern California, who was not involved in Yi’s study, which was published Monday in the journal Nature Aging.

The study also identifies two genes involved in the aging of hair, opening up new possibilities for stopping the process by preventing stem cells from escaping.

Charles K.F. Chan, a stem cell researcher at Stanford University, called the paper “very important,” noting that “in science, everything about aging seems so complicated we don’t know where to start.” By showing a pathway and a mechanism for explaining aging hair, Yi and colleagues may have provided a toehold.

Stem cells play a crucial role in the growth of hair in mice and in humans. Hair follicles, the tunnel-shaped miniature organs from which hairs grow, go through cyclical periods of growth in which a population of stem cells living in a specialized region called the bulge divide and become rapidly growing hair cells.

Sarah Millar, director of the Black Family Stem Cell Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who was not involved in Yi’s paper, explained that those cells give rise to the hair shaft and its sheath. Then, after a period of time, which is short for human body hair and much longer for hair on a person’s head, the follicle becomes inactive and its lower part degenerates. The hair shaft stops growing and is shed, only to be replaced by a new strand of hair as the cycle repeats.

But while the rest of the follicle dies, a collection of stem cells remains in the bulge, ready to start turning into hair cells to grow a new strand of hair.

Yi, like most scientists, had assumed that with age the stem cells died in a process known as stem cell exhaustion. He expected that the death of a hair follicle’s stem cells meant that the hair would turn white and, when enough stem cells were lost, the strand of hair would die. But this hypothesis had not been fully tested.

Together with a graduate student, Chi Zhang, Yi decided that to understand the aging process in hair, he needed to watch individual strands of hair as they grew and aged.

Ordinarily, researchers who study aging take chunks of tissue from animals of different ages and examine the changes. There are two drawbacks to this approach, Yi said. First, the tissue is already dead. And it is not clear what led to the changes that are observed or what will come after them.

He decided his team would use a different method. They watched the growth of individual hair follicles in the ears of mice using a long wavelength laser that can penetrate deep into tissue. They labeled hair follicles with a green fluorescent protein, anesthetized the animals so they did not move, put their ear under the microscope and went back again and again to watch what was happening to the same hair follicle.

What they saw was a surprise: When the animals started to grow old and gray and lose their hair, their stem cells started to escape their little homes in the bulge. The cells changed their shapes from round to amoebalike and squeezed out of tiny holes in the follicle. Then they recovered their normal shapes and darted away.

Sometimes, the escaping stem cells leapt long distances, in cellular terms, from the niche where they lived.“If I did not see it for myself I would not have believed it,” Yi said. “It’s almost crazy in my mind.”

The stem cells then vanished, perhaps consumed by the immune system.

Chan compared an animal’s body to a car. “If you run it long enough and don’t replace parts, things wear out,” he said. In the body, stem cells are like a mechanic, providing replacement parts, and in some organs like hair, blood and bone, the replacement is continual.

But with hair, it now looks as if the mechanic — the stem cells — simply walks off the job one day.

Genes and hair loss

But why? Yi and his colleagues’ next step was to ask if genes are controlling the process. They discovered two — FOXC1 and NFATC1 — that were less active in older hair follicle cells. Their role was to imprison stem cells in the bulge. So the researchers bred mice that lacked those genes to see if they were the master controllers.

By the time the mice were 4 to 5 months old, they started losing hair. By age 16 months, when the animals were middle-aged, they looked ancient: They had lost a lot of hair and the sparse strands remaining were gray.

Now the researchers want to save the hair stem cells in aging mice.

This story of the discovery of a completely unexpected natural process makes Chuong wonder what remains to be learned about living creatures.

“Nature has endless surprises waiting for us,” he said. “You can see fantastic things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Specifically designed panels can be retrofitted onto existing seawalls, simulating the natural shoreline ecosystem that provides habitats for organisms such fish, algae and invertebrates that flat seawalls cannot.

In sight of Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge, marine scientist Mariana Mayer Pinto gingerly steps into the dark waters to examine a seawall covered with hexagonal concrete panels marked with divots that are thronged with kelp, seaweed and barnacles.

About 50% of the natural shore of the harbour has been transformed by seawalls and pilings, which do not support biodiversity the same way a natural coastline would.

Sydney’s Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) with the help of scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Macquarie University have crafted a solution using three-dimensional concrete panels in what they call the “Living Seawalls” project.

Specifically designed panels can be retrofitted onto existing seawalls, simulating the natural shoreline ecosystem that provides habitats for organisms such fish, algae and invertebrates that flat seawalls cannot.

“We have seen a total of more than 90 species colonising these diverse panels and we see 30 to 40 percent more species on the panels in the living seawalls then on the unmodified parts of the seawall,” said project co-leader Mayer Pinto, a professor at UNSW.

In just several months, the panels are colonised by marine life, and since many of the organisms are filter feeders like oysters and barnacles, the water quality of the harbour improves, Mayer Pinto said. Popular in Australia, the panels have also been installed in Wales and Singapore.

The project has also been selected as one of 15 finalists for the Earthshot Prize by the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Mayer Pinto said that she hopes coastal structures built in the future would be ecologically sustainable, designed not only for humans, but also for nature. “I grew up on the ocean, the ocean’s my happy place so I really want my kids to be able to enjoy the ocean as I did growing up and for that we really need to take a bit more care of it.”

Kenya has five species of sea turtles. All are internationally recognized as endangered, and protected under local law with a penalty of life imprisonment.

As soon as he gets a call from a fisherman who’s accidentally caught a turtle off Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline, Local Ocean Conservation’s Fikiri Kiponda jumps into his car to save it.

The work is far removed from the 44-year-old’s previous career as an accountant. He now dedicates himself to protecting endangered turtles that face multiple threats — from pollution to being sold for food, traditional medicinal purposes or the making of jewelry.

When Kiponda gets a call for help, he hurries to check the turtle for injuries that need to be treated in the organization’s rehabilitation center. Then it is released back into Watamu National Marine Park.

“The moment I tag a healthy turtle and release it back to the ocean where it is supposed to be, the feeling is just overwhelming,” he said.

Kenya has five species of sea turtles. All are internationally recognized as endangered, and protected under local law with a penalty of life imprisonment.

Local Ocean Conservation works on grassroots solutions with local communities. Kiponda and others regularly visit to speak about the importance of a healthy ocean to livelihoods.

Over 350 fishermen in Watamu have collaborated with the group for years. Previously, when they caught turtles in their nets, they often would kill them for food, traditional medicinal purposes or to keep their shells as trophies.

The ingestion of plastics in the ocean remains another threat to the turtles, causing internal blockages that can be fatal.

The mission was launched in 2018, flying once past Earth and twice past Venus on its journey to the solar system’s smallest planet.

A joint European-Japanese spacecraft got its first glimpse of Mercury as it swung by the solar system’s innermost planet while on a mission to deliver two probes into orbit in 2025.

The BepiColombo mission made the first of six flybys of Mercury at 11:34 p.m. GMT Friday, using the planet’s gravity to slow the spacecraft down.

After swooping past Mercury at altitudes of under 200 kilometers, the spacecraft took a low resolution black-and-white photo with one of its monitoring cameras before zipping off again.

The European Space Agency said the captured image shows the Northern Hemisphere and Mercury’s characteristic pock-marked features, among them the 166-kilometre-wide Lermontov crater.

The joint mission by the European agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency was launched in 2018, flying once past Earth and twice past Venus on its journey to the solar system’s smallest planet.

Five further flybys are needed before BepiColombo is sufficiently slowed down to release ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter. The two probes will study Mercury’s core and processes on its surface, as well as its magnetic sphere.

The mission is named after Italian scientist Giuseppe ‘Bepi’ Colombo, who is credited with helping develop the gravity assist maneuver that NASA’s Mariner 10 first used when it flew to Mercury in 1974.

Some of the alterations are driven by the work of a single protein from the parasite called SAP05, which stands in the way of the plant’s maturation.

Written by Veronique Greenwood

A mustard plant infected with a certain parasite grows strangely, its development warped by tiny invaders. Its leaves take on odd shapes, its stems form a bushy structure called a witches’ broom and it may grow flowers that do not produce seed. Most peculiarly of all, it lives longer than its uninfected brethren, in a state of perpetual adolescence.

“It looks like it stays in a juvenile phase,” said Saskia Hogenhout, a scientist at the John Innes Centre in England, who studies the life cycle of the parasite, which is called Aster Yellows phytoplasma.

The plant’s neighbors grow old, reproduce and die, but the phytoplasma’s eerily youthful host persists. It becomes something like a mix between a vampire that never ages and a zombie host whose body serves the needs of its parasite, namely, tempting sap-sucking insects to feast on the plant’s bodily fluids as long as possible. When the insects ingest the parasite, they spread it to new hosts, and the whole “Night of the Living Dead-meets-Dracula” cycle repeats.

https://t.co/fidoJ7DMyR online! SAP05 protein effectors of the obligate parasite #phytoplasma simultaneously prolong plant lifespan and induce witch’s broom-like proliferations. #ZombiePlants #Parasite #MPMI #plantpath #plantsci. https://t.co/OtTrg1H8R0 pic.twitter.com/ihpcwM9aGV

— Saskia Hogenhout (@SaskiaHogenhout) February 17, 2021

How the parasite exerts such wide-ranging control is a subject of more than casual curiosity among scientists — phytoplasmas can cause destructive disease in crop plants like carrots. In a paper published in September in the journal Cell, Hogenhout and her colleagues reveal that some of these creepy alterations are driven by the work of a single protein from the parasite called SAP05, which stands in the way of the plant’s maturation.

SAP05 is not the first substance made by this phytoplasma that the scientists have linked to the symptoms it causes. The team sequenced the parasite’s genome some time ago and has pinpointed a handful of proteins that it may use to zombify its victims. But in the new paper, they explain how SAP05 seems to drive some of the more surprising effects, like the life-span extension.

It turns out that SAP05 binds to two groups of plant proteins that control the expression of genes used in development. Once it latches onto them, it causes them to be broken down by the plant’s own garbage disposal machinery. As a result, the plants appear frozen in time, unable to progress.

That makes sense, from the parasite’s perspective. If host plants were to mature normally, they would grow flowers and produce seeds, putting all of their energy toward making the next generation of plants. Before long they would drop their leaves and wither away.

“You can imagine that this situation is not a perfect situation for the parasite,” Hogenhout said.

Parasites benefit from the plant being sterile, so they can focus its energy toward making the microbe’s offspring. They also benefit from the plant staying alive and full of tasty juices as long as possible, the better to facilitate insects feeding on it.

Intriguingly, however, the scientists found that SAP05 attaches to a very specific piece of the cell disposal machinery to accomplish this goal. By tweaking the composition of that piece, they could radically curtail SAP05’s effects. Plants — in this case Arabidopsis thaliana, the diminutive mustard plant that’s a common lab model — with this modification did not grow into witches’ broom shapes, and they did not live longer than uninfected plants.

But that didn’t mean they were better off. Plants engineered to evade SAP05 had notably shorter lives when they were infected by the parasite. It seems that SAP05 may provide some protection against the stress of an infection, making it easier for the host to bear. Without that, the plant may be freer to continue its maturation, but it is also taking a greater hit from the disease than the zombie plants, which are more impervious to the parasite’s other effects. The zombies live on, protected by the organism that rides within them.

This control is likely exquisitely timed with the life cycle of the sap-feeding insects, Hogenhout said. After the insects feed on a plant, infecting it with the parasite, they lay eggs on it. At the same time that the parasite is taking over, the eggs are maturing.

When the young insects hatch, perhaps 10 days later, there is just enough time left in the plants’ extended life span for them to feast heartily on their juices before taking flight. Along for the ride will be their good friend, the phytoplasma.

“The parasite has now proliferated, just in time,” Hogenhout said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

The team of scientists led by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, will use genetic engineering to develop a cold-resistant elephant or an ‘Arctic elephant’. Several news reports have pointed out that the company has received $15 million in initial funding.

Last month, a company named Colossal, announced that it has started a landmark de-extinction project to resurrect the woolly mammoth, which went extinct roughly 10,000 years ago.

The team of scientists led by George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, will use genetic engineering to develop a cold-resistant elephant or an ‘Arctic elephant’. Several news reports have pointed out that the company has received $15 million in initial funding.

The team has selected over 50 traits that will enhance the cold-resistant ability of an Asian elephant. These include shaggy coats, smaller ears, cold-adapted forms of haemoglobin and excess adipose tissue production.

The idea is to use these genes and with the help of CRISPR technology insert them into the Asian elephant’s genome. The team will then create an embryo that carries the traits of a woolly mammoth.

The embryo will be implanted into a surrogate African elephant. The gestation in the elephant’s womb will take place for around 18-22 months and a hybrid ‘Arctic elephant’ will be born.

But why a woolly mammoth and why now?

Colossal mentions on its website that one of the core goals for reviving the mammoth is to revert the now-overshrubbed forests into natural arctic grasslands, which will help with carbon emissions.

The tundra, which is now a mossy forest, used to be a grassland and the team said that bringing back the mammoths could help bring back the steppe (unforested grassland) ecosystem and help in “reversing the rapid warming of the climate”.

They said that grazing mammoths will help re-establish the grassland ecosystem and prevent the thawing and release of greenhouse gases that are now trapped in the arctic permafrost.

Dr George Church told the IndianExpress.com that for carbon sequestration – preserving the methane from being released and bringing new carbon dioxide into the frozen soil – models have shown that about 100 ‘Arctic elephants’ would be needed.

“We would need an area of somewhere between one and three million square kilometre at first to have an impact. But considering there are about 20 million square kilometre of Arctic, that’s a small fraction,” he added.

When will an ‘Arctic elephant’ be born?

Ben Lamm, the founder and CEO of Colossal Biosciences, told reporters that one can see the first generation of ‘Arctic elephant’ calves in four to six years. “Our goal is a little over a decade before we get full reintroduction,” he added.

Lamm said that the short-term plan includes developing veterinary reproductive technologies for endangered species in particular, and for endangered environments and ecosystems.

“Look at this like the Apollo programme. When humankind went to the moon, we actually developed a lot of great technologies, including technologies that are allowing us to have this conversation today. And so we think there’s a lot of applications of the technologies that will come out of these synthetic wombs, multiplex editing which can be used for protecting critically endangered species, in agriculture, and for veterinary use,” he added.

Ethical questions

Professor Adrian M Lister from the Division of Vertebrates and Anthropology at Natural History Museum London told the IndianExpress.com that this plan raises many ethical questions, “Especially since we are talking about a highly intelligent, social animal, not a lab animal like a fruit fly or a nematode worm.”

He added that it was quite likely that there would be many failed experiments (abortions or malformed births) before they might have a successful pregnancy and a functioning offspring.

“Second, do we really know enough about the elephant’s adaptations to be sure we can fully equip it for life in the Arctic? This is a tropical animal that lives in equatorial daylight and climatic regime, eating trees and tall tropical grasses. They may be able to engineer a thick coat and fat layer, for example, but there may be many other necessary physiological or biochemical adaptations that we are not aware of. Will these animals thrive in such an alien environment?” he asked.

Coastal development, land clearing, and agriculture have all had their share of the blame, leading to the low oxygen content in water, disease, bleaching – a pattern observed across the Caribbean.

It is no news that human impact has adversely affected marine biodiversity. A recent study that used fossilised shark scales found that Caribbean shark populations have witnessed a steep decline since the mid-Holocene. The Holocene is a time period in the history of the Earth that began 10,000 years ago.

Cartilaginous fish like sharks, sawfish and rays have tiny, sharp tooth-shaped scales on their bodies that help them move through the water and also prevent microorganisms from taking up lodging on shark’s skin. These are called dermal denticles (dermal = of the skin, denticle = teeth-like). The study employed deposits of dermal denticles as proxies of past shark populations as well as their species composition. There are currently over 500 species of sharks.

Sediment study

In order to source mid-Holocene shark assemblages, researchers collected sediment containing denticles from the mid-Holocene reefs and compared them with those from the modern reefs.

Researchers identified five morphotypes of dermal denticles, with each corresponding to a particular ecological group of sharks. The approach allows for almost direct reconstruction of the past shark population size and species composition.

I’m excited to share our new paper, out now in @PNASNews. We used #fossil #shark scales (denticles) preserved in coral reef sediments to reconstruct the pre-exploitation baseline of a reef shark community in Caribbean Panama. https://t.co/Sbl0sOm0J2 @odealab @mccauley_lab (1/18) pic.twitter.com/vvxAx1abkm

— Erin Dillon (@erinmdillon) July 6, 2021

Almost all species of sharks witnessed a decline from the mid-Holocene to the present. Shark abundance in the mid-Holocene was nearly thrice higher than the present-day reefs.

Denticles corresponding to pelagic sharks registered the largest reduction in number. By contrast, the demersal sharks did not show that much of a decline. Pelagic organisms are those that are attached to the surface of the ocean, while demersal or benthic organisms live at the bottom. In the present day, benthic sharks are more abundant in number than pelagic sharks like the fast swimming requiem and hammerhead sharks that live near the shore.

The authors note the possible reasons for this shift – it could be that sharks of the yesteryears could have been larger, resulting in more denticle accumulation.

Role of overfishing

The decline in shark numbers post-industrialisation in Caribbean reefs also bears a close resemblance to the decline observed in this study from the mid-Holocene to the present day.

Another recent study published in 2020 found, via video monitoring, that overfishing had almost entirely exterminated sharks from several reefs. Indeed, historical records from the early twentieth or nineteenth centuries talk of ‘seas teeming with sharks,’ and early second millennium CE archaeological records also show evidence of shark teeth.

Substantial degradation in the populations of not only sharks but marine carnivores, in general, took place. well before coral disease and bleaching

The authors note how ‘modern-day Panamanian fisheries selectively catch pelagic sharks,’ which ‘implicates’ overfishing as a key factor in reducing numbers of pelagic sharks, as noted above.

But what about the decline in the numbers of nurse sharks, that live close to the bottom of the ocean and have little monetary value? Could a reason other than overfishing be at play? Coastal development, land clearing, and agriculture have all had their share of the blame, leading to the low oxygen content in water, disease, bleaching – a pattern observed across the Caribbean. That, and overfishing targets not only sharks but also other fish that serve as food for sharks.

The ecological impacts of reduction in the populations of sharks and marine carnivores, such as that on food webs, are still in the process of being studied.

The authors hope that diving into ancient fossil palimpsests that predate human impact could help in setting more robust baselines for biodiversity restoration targets in these areas.

– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)

Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021, with more doses coming next year.

Merck & Co Inc’s experimental oral drug for COVID-19, molnupiravir, reduced by around 50% the chance of hospitalization or death for patients at risk of severe disease, according to interim clinical trial results announced on Friday.

Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics plan to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for the pill as soon as possible, and to submit applications to regulatory agencies worldwide.

Today we announced positive interim data for our investigational #COVID19 #antiviral treatment. Learn more about our latest news: https://t.co/v1DDAa4RjN $MRK pic.twitter.com/na2O4Y5N3D

— Merck (@Merck) October 1, 2021

Due to the positive results, the Phase 3 trial is being stopped early at the recommendation of outside monitors. “This is going to change the dialogue around how to manage COVID-19,” Robert Davis, Merck’s chief executive officer, told Reuters.

If authorised, molnupiravir, which is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19. Rivals including Pfizer Inc and Swiss pharmaceutical Roche Holding AG are racing to develop an easy-to-administer antiviral pill for COVID-19 but so far, only antibody cocktails – which have to be given intravenously – are approved for treating non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

A planned interim analysis of 775 patients in Merck’s study found that 7.3 per cent of those given molnupiravir were either hospitalised or had died by 29 days after treatment, compared with 14.1 per cent of placebo patients. There were no deaths in the molnupiravir group, but there were eight deaths of placebo patients.

“Antiviral treatments that can be taken at home to keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital are critically needed,” Wendy Holman, Ridgeback’s CEO, said in a statement.

In the trial, which enrolled patients around the world, molnupiravir was taken every 12 hours for five days. The study enrolled patients with laboratory-confirmed mild-to-moderate COVID-19, who had symptoms for no more than five days. All patients had at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcome, such as obesity or older age.

Merck said viral sequencing done so far shows molnupiravir is effective against all variants of the coronavirus, including highly transmissible Delta. The company said rates of adverse events were similar for both molnupiravir and placebo patients, but did not give details of the side effects.

Merck has said data shows molnupiravir is not capable of inducing genetic changes in human cells, but men enrolled in its trials have to abstain from heterosexual intercourse or agree to use contraception. Women of child-bearing age cannot be pregnant and also have to use birth control.

Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021, with more doses coming next year. The company has a U.S. government contract to supply 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir at a price of $700 per course.

CEO Davis said Merck has similar agreements with other governments worldwide, and is in talks with more. The company said it plans to implement a tiered pricing approach based on country income criteria. Merck has also agreed to license the drug to several India-based generic drugmakers, which would be able to supply the treatment to low- and middle-income countries.

Molnupiravir is also being studied in a Phase 3 trial for preventing coronavirus infection in people exposed to the virus. Merck officials said it is unclear how long the FDA review of the drug will take. “I believe that they are going to try to work with alacrity on this,” said Dean Li, head of Merck’s research labs.

The researchers built machine learning models, which assigned a probability of human infection based on patterns in virus genomes.

Machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence (AI), may predict the likelihood that any animal-infecting virus will jump to humans, according to a study.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow in the UK noted that most emerging infectious diseases of humans such as COVID-19 are zoonotic — caused by viruses originating from other animal species. Identifying high-risk viruses earlier can improve research and surveillance priorities.

Our manuscript on predicting the zoonotic risk of novel viruses when all you have is a genome is now published in @PLOSBiology – a thread. 1/10

(with @SimonAB and @DanielStreicker)https://t.co/hc5EA357iC pic.twitter.com/xRNFKZP6iO

— Nardus Mollentze (@NardusMollentze) September 28, 2021

However, identifying zoonotic diseases prior to emergence is a major challenge because only a small minority of the estimated 1.67 million animal viruses are able to infect humans.

To develop machine learning models using viral genome sequences, the researchers first compiled a dataset of 861 virus species from 36 families. They then built machine learning models, which assigned a probability of human infection based on patterns in virus genomes. Machine learning is the study of computer algorithms that can improve automatically through experience.

The researchers applied the best-performing model to analyse patterns in the predicted zoonotic potential of additional virus genomes sampled from a range of species.

The study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, found that viral genomes may have generalisable features that are independent of virus taxonomic relationships and may preadapt viruses to infect humans. The researchers were able to develop machine learning models capable of identifying candidate zoonoses using viral genomes.

The researchers noted that these models have limitations, as computer models are only a preliminary step of identifying zoonotic viruses with the potential to infect humans. Viruses flagged by the models will require confirmatory laboratory testing before pursuing major additional research investments, they said.

While these models predict whether viruses might be able to infect humans, the ability to infect is just one part of broader zoonotic risk, according to the researchers. This risk is also influenced by the ability of the virus to transmit between humans, and the ecological conditions at the time of human exposure, they said.

“Our findings show that the zoonotic potential of viruses can be inferred to a surprisingly large extent from their genome sequence,” the authors of the study noted. “By highlighting viruses with the greatest potential to become zoonotic, genome-based ranking allows further ecological and virological characterisation to be targeted more effectively,” they added.

Simon Babayan from the University of Glasgow noted that a genomic sequence is typically the first, and often only, information on newly-discovered viruses. “The more information we can extract from it, the sooner we might identify the virus’ origins and the zoonotic risk it may pose,” Babayan said. “As more viruses are characterised, the more effective our machine learning models will become at identifying the rare viruses that ought to be closely monitored and prioritised for preemptive vaccine development,” he added.

Earth Sciences Minister Jitendra Singh said the two proposed MPAs are essential to regulate illegal unreported and unregulated fishing.

India has extended its support for protecting the Antarctic environment and co-sponsoring a proposal of the European Union for designating East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the Ministry of Earth Sciences said on Thursday.

Addressing a high-level ministerial meeting held virtually on Wednesday, which saw participation from different countries of the European Union, Earth Sciences Minister Jitendra Singh said the two proposed MPAs are essential to regulate illegal unreported and unregulated fishing.

He urged the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) member countries to ensure that India remains associated with the formulation, adaptation and implementation mechanisms of these MPAs in future. “India supports sustainability in protecting the Antarctic environment,” Singh said.

“India has extended support for protecting the Antarctic environment and for co-sponsoring the proposal of the European Union for designating East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs),” the MoES said.

Singh said the proposal to designate East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea as MPAs was first put forth to the commission in 2020 but a consensus could not be reached at that time. He said, since then, substantial progress has been made with Australia, Norway, Uruguay and the United Kingdom agreeing to co-sponsor the proposal. The minister added that by the end of October 2021, India would join these countries in co-sponsoring the MPA proposals.

Singh informed the EU delegates that India had embarked on Antarctic expedition in 1981, through the Southern Indian Ocean sector and since then, there has been no turning back. He said till date, India had completed 40 expeditions with plans for the 41st expedition in 2021-22.

Singh said this is the first time India is considering co-sponsoring an MPA proposal at CCAMLR and getting aligned with countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Korea, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, which are also proactively considering supporting the MPA proposals.

The minister said India’s decision to consider extending support and co-sponsoring the MPA proposals is driven by conservation and sustainable utilisation principles and adhering to the global cooperation frameworks such as Sustainable Development Goals, UN Decade of Oceans, Convention on Biodiversity, etc., to which India is a signatory.

The high-level ministerial meeting was hosted virtually by Virginijus Sinkevicius, Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, EU. It was attended by ministers, ambassadors and country commissioners from nearly 18 countries. The meeting aimed to increase the number of co-sponsors of the MPA proposals and reflected on a joint strategy and future actions for their swift adoption by CCAMLR.

CCAMLR is an international treaty to manage Antarctic fisheries to preserve species diversity and stability of the entire Antarctic marine ecosystem. It came into force in April 1982. India has been a permanent member of CCAMLR since 1986. Work pertaining to CCAMLR is coordinated in India by the Ministry of Earth Sciences through its attached office, the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE) in Kochi, Kerala.

A marine protected area provides protection for all or part of its natural resources. Certain activities within an MPA are limited or prohibited to meet specific conservation, habitat protection, ecosystem monitoring, or fisheries management objectives. Since 2009, CCAMLR members have developed proposals for MPAs for various regions of the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR’s scientific committee examines these proposals. After CCAMLR members agree upon them, elaborate conservation measures are set out by the commission.

“We’ll try to mass-produce them and hopefully reintroduce them into the wild,” said Matt Kier, a botanist with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Rare Plant Program.

A fern species that was believed to be extinct when the last known specimen died on Hawaii’s Big Island has been found on the island of Kauai.

The native pendant kihi fern, which only grows on the trunks of trees, was believed to be extinct for several years until a team from the Hawaii Plant Extinction Prevention Program found another specimen on Kauai earlier this year, Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Thursday.

The last known Big Island specimen of the fern, or Adenophorus periens, was found dead in 2015. That prompted it to be listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct. With the discovery of new specimens on Kauai, it’s no longer considered possibly extinct, the Hilo newspaper reported.

There were nearly 1,300 known specimens of the ferns throughout the state in 1994, but by 2012 there were only 31 on Kauai and less than 10 on the Big Island.

Five of the ferns were discovered at three locations on Kauai, said Matt Kier, a botanist with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Rare Plant Program.

“So, we’ll try to mass-produce them and hopefully reintroduce them into the wild, which means we may bring them back to the Big Island,” Kier said.

After 12 days on the space outpost, they are set to return to Earth with another Russian cosmonaut.

A Russian actor and a film director rocketed to space Tuesday on a mission to make the world's first movie in orbit, a project the Kremlin said will help burnish the nation's space glory.

Actor Yulia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko blasted off for the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft together with cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, a veteran of three space missions. Their Soyuz MS-19 lifted off as scheduled at 1:55 p.m. (0855 GMT) from the Russian space launch facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan and arrived at the station after about 3½ hours.

Shkaplerov took manual controls to smoothly dock the spacecraft at the space outpost after a glitch in an automatic docking system.

The trio reported they were feeling fine and spacecraft systems were functioning normally.

Peresild and Klimenko are to film segments of a new movie titled “Challenge,” in which a surgeon played by Peresild rushes to the space station to save a crew member who suffers a heart condition. After 12 days on the space outpost, they are set to return to Earth with another Russian cosmonaut.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the mission will help showcase Russia's space prowess.

“We have been pioneers in space and maintained a confident position,” Peskov said. “Such missions that help advertise our achievements and space exploration in general are great for the country.” Speaking at a pre-flight news conference Monday, 37-year-old Peresild acknowledged that it was challenging for her to adapt to the strict discipline and rigorous demands during the training.

“It was psychologically, physically and morally hard,” she said. “But I think that once we achieve the goal, all that will seem not so difficult and we will remember it with a smile.” Shipenko, 38, who has made several commercially successful movies, also described their fast-track, four-month preparation for the flight as tough.

“Of course, we couldn't make many things at the first try, and sometimes even at a third attempt, but it's normal,” he said.

In this handout photo released by Roscosmos Space Agency, actress Yulia Peresild, centre, film director Klim Shipenko, above, and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov wave prior to the launch to the International Space Station, ISS, at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. | Photo Credit: AP

Shipenko, who will complete the shooting on Earth after filming the movie's space episodes, said Shkaplerov and two other Russian cosmonauts now on board the station — Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov — will all play parts in the new movie.

Russia's state-controlled Channel One television, which is involved in making the movie, has extensively covered the crew training and the launch.

“I'm in shock. I still can't imagine that my mom is out there,” Peresild's daughter, Anna, said in televised remarks minutes after the launch.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, was a key force behind the project, describing it as a chance to burnish the nation's space glory and rejecting criticism from some Russian media.

Some commentators argued that the film project would distract the Russian crew and could be awkward to film on the Russian segment of the International Space Station, which is considerably less spacious compared to the U.S. segment. A new Russia lab module, the Nauka, was added in July, but it is yet to be fully integrated into the station.

On the space station, the three newcomers join Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency; NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Roscosmos cosmonauts Novitskiy and Dubrov; and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Novitskiy, who will star as the ailing cosmonaut in the film, will take the captain's seat in a Soyuz capsule to take the film crew back to Earth on October 17.

The project targets a 2028 launch with a landing in 2033, a five-year journey in which the spacecraft will travel some 3.6 billion kilometres

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) on October 5 announced plans to send a probe to land on an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter to collect data on the origins of the universe, the latest project in the oil-rich federation’s ambitious space programme.

The project targets a 2028 launch with a landing in 2033, a five-year journey in which the spacecraft will travel some 3.6 billion kilometres (2.2 billion miles).

The UAE’s Space Agency said it will partner with the Laboratory for Atmospheric Science and Physics at the University of Colorado on the project. It declined to immediately offer a cost for the effort.

The project comes after the Emirates successfully put its Amal, or “Hope”, probe in orbit around Mars in February. The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch. That excludes operating costs at Mars.

The Emirates plans to send an unmanned spacecraft to the moon in 2024. The country, which is home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, also has set the ambitious goal to build a human colony on Mars by 2117.

The winners — Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi — were announced by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The Nobel Prize for physics has been awarded to scientists from Japan, Germany and Italy.

Syukuro Manabe (90) and Klaus Hasselmann (89) were cited for their work in “the physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”.

The second half of the prize was awarded to Giorgio Parisi (73) for “the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.”

The panel said Mr. Manabe and Mr. Hasselmann “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it".

Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Manabe demonstrated how increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase global temperatures, laying the foundations for current climate models.

About a decade later, Mr. Hasselmann created a model that linked weather and climate, helping explain why climate models can be reliable despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the weather.

He also developed ways to look for specific signs of human influence on the climate.

Mr. Parisi “built a deep physical and mathematical model” that made it possible to understand complex systems in fields as different as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.

After the announcement, Mr. Parisi said that “it’s very urgent that we take very strong decisions and move at a very strong pace” in tackling climate change.

“It’s clear for future generations that we have to act now,” he added.

The winners were announced on October 5 by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Last year, the prize went to American Andrea Ghez, Roger Penrose of Britain and Reinhard Genzel of Germany for their research into black holes.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

Over the coming days prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Scientists find two of four existing models show significant prediction skills for up to 10 years

A new study from the University of Hyderabad (UoH) in collaboration with the University of Exeter (UK) claims to have found out decadal prediction skills for the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) to enable monsoon forecast for the next 5-10 years in advance.

Scientists analysed retrospective decadal forecasts, with initial conditions from 1960 to 2011 from existing four models and found that two models — MIROC5 from Japan, and CanCM4 from Canada — show significant prediction skills for up to 10 years, with strongest leads up to two years.

Interestingly, the predictability of IOD comes from the subsurface ocean signals in the Southern Ocean. The El Nino-Southern Oscillation events, which occur in the tropical pacific, are also well known as a major climate driver. IOD affects the global climate with a positive phase characterised by above normal sea surface temperature in the equatorial eastern Indian Ocean, and below normal temperatures in the western equatorial Indian Ocean.

Strong positive IOD events in 2019, 2007, 1997,1994, 1967 1963, 1961, etc. are associated with strong rains along the Indian monsoon trough region. Conversely, it also causes below normal rainfall in Indonesia and Australia, heat waves in Japan and Europe, and East Africa, and fires in Australia and Indonesia.

The latest extreme positive IOD occurred in 2019 summer, contributing to the unprecedented wildfire season in Australia, floods in East Africa and above normal rainfall and floods in India. The impact can be seen all the way till Europe and Americas as well. Negative IOD affects the Indian monsoon trough. In fact, this was prominent till August and is a likely factor for the below normal rainfall in north India.

While predicting IOD well in advance would be beneficial for the society, the lead prediction skills are limited to a few months with just 1-2 models showing the skills to predict the eastern Indian Ocean temperatures at the lead of a few seasons to one year.

Scientists say better decadal prediction skills are possible given the improved models and larger number of observations assimilated.

The research was carried out by professor K. Ashok, research student Feba Francis, and Satish Shetye, a former chair professor of Centre for Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, UoH, in collaboration with Mat Collins of University of Exeter, said an official release. It was featured in ‘Frontiers in Climate’ journal.

Patent

Meanwhile, Advanced Centre of Research in High Energy Materials, a DRDO’s centre of excellence at UoH, has recently been granted a patent for their invention ‘Green Method for the Synthesis of Bis(Fluoroalkyl)Carbonate’. Project scientist Balaka Barkakaty and her two assistants Saheli Dey and Nitesh Singh are the inventors of this patent. This patented invention outlines an ‘easy, green, no-solvent and cost-effective method’ for producing various types of bis(fluoroalkyl)carbonates in high purity and high yields.

David Julius, Ardem Patapoutian share the Nobel Prize for physiology

Two U.S.-based scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on October 4 for their discovery of the receptors that allow humans to feel temperature and touch.

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian focused their work on the field of somatosensation, that is the ability of specialised organs such as eyes, ears and skin to see, hear and feel.

“This really unlocks one of the secrets of nature,” said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee, in announcing the winners. “It's actually something that is crucial for our survival, so it's a very important and profound discovery.” The committee said Mr. Julius, 65, used capsaicin, the active component in chilli peppers, to identify the nerve sensors that allow the skin to respond to heat.

Mr. Patapoutian found separate pressure-sensitive sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation, it said.

The pair shared the prestigious Kavli Award for Neuroscience last year.

“Imagine that you're walking barefoot across a field on this summer's morning,” said Patrik Ernfors of the Nobel Committee. “You can feel the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the morning dew, a caressing summer breeze and the fine texture of blades of grass underneath your feet. These impressions of temperature, touch and movement are feelings relying on somatosensation."

“Such information continuously flows from the skin and other deep tissues and connects us with the external and internal world. It is also essential for tasks that we perform effortlessly and without much thought,” said Mr. Ernfors.

Mr. Perlmann said he managed to get hold of both of the winners before the announcement.

“I [...] only had a few minutes to talk to them, but they were incredibly happy,” he said. “And as far as I could tell they were very surprised and a little bit shocked, maybe.”

Last year's prize went to three scientists who discovered the liver-ravaging hepatitis C virus, a breakthrough that led to cures for the deadly disease and tests to keep the scourge from spreading though blood banks.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

The prize is the first to be awarded this year. The other prizes are for outstanding work in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Today's Cache dissects big themes at the intersection of technology, business and policy. Written by John Xavier, tech news lead at The Hindu

NASA's split tilts the balance in favour of private operators

Private enterprises have changed the dynamics of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and outer space missions. The change has made NASA re-think its future missions, and how it will execute them. That’s why the agency is splitting its human spaceflight unit by creating two new mission directorates.

The reorganisation will separate the unit’s human space exploration into two parts. One will make the agency focus on longer-term mission like travel to moon and Mars. The other will look at near-term operations of the International Space Station (ISS) and other near-to-Earth missions.

This change at the core of NASA’s structure reveals how commercialisation of space travel is making the top space agency cede power to private enterprises, such as SpaceX. It also underscores the importance of corporations in future missions.

The split creates two leadership roles at the agency. Jim Free, who retired from NASA in 2017, will return to the agency to lead the longer-term missions. He will define and manage projects focused on moon and Mars missions. His unit will also take charge of the Artemis programme that seeks to put humans on the lunar landscape once again in 2024.

The near-Earth missions will be led by Kathy Lueders, whose unit will focus on rocket launches, ISS management and commercialisation of LEO.  Beyond short- and long-term missions, the division of labour within the space agency will also help it handle commercial players effectively.

Take the case of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. The two billionaires are racing against each other to put LEO satellites in the sky. For now, Musk’s Starlink is far ahead in the race with nearly 1,300 LEO satellites in space. Bezos’ Kuiper has signed a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to send its satellites up. Its planned constellation will dot the sky with over 3,000 LEO satellites.

Even as the competition intensifies, Amazon has filed a harshly worded complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), accusing Musk of “launching rockets without approval [and] building an unapproved launch tower”.

In a separate move, Bezos’ space company Blue Origin has challenged NASA’s decision to award a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to Musk’s SpaceX. These ‘star-wars’ fought on Earth will idea land on Lueders’ turf. Between Free and Lueders’, the latter may find more action on the ground and a little over.

The Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) located at Hanle near Leh in Ladakh is becoming one of the globally promising observatory sites, according to a recent study.

This is due to its advantages of more clear nights, minimal light pollution, background aerosol concentration, extremely dry atmospheric condition and uninterrupted monsoon, the Department of Science and Technology said.

Researchers from India and their collaborators carried out a detailed study of the night time cloud cover fraction over eight high altitude observatories, including three in India, the DST said.

The researchers used reanalysis data combined from assimilation and observation extending over 41 years, along with 21 years of data from satellites. The study classified the quality of observable nights for different astronomical usages like photometry and spectroscopy on a daily basis.

Eight observatories

They analysed datasets for the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Hanle and Merak (Ladakh), and Devasthal (Nainital) in India, Ali Observatory in the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, South African Large Telescope in South Africa, University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory and Paranal in Chile, and the National Astronomical Observatory in Mexico.

The team found that the Hanle site which is as dry as Atacama Desert in Chile and much drier than Devasthal and has around 270 clear nights in a year and is also one of the emerging sites for infrared and submillimetre optical astronomy. This is because water vapour absorbs electromagnetic signals and reduces their strength, the DST said in a statement. The research led by Dr. Shantikumar Singh Ningombam of Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru,and scientists from Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) in Nainital, a DST institute and collaborators from St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru, and the National Institute of Meteorological Sciences, South Korea, University of Colorado and Chemical Sciences Laboratory, NOAA, U.S. has been published in the Monthly Notices for Royal Astronomical Society.

They found Paranal, located in a high-altitude desert in Chile, to be the best site in terms of clear skies with around 87% of clear nights in a year. IAO Hanle, and Ali observatories, which are located around 80 km from each other, are similar to each other in terms of clear night skies.

They found that Devasthal has a slightly larger number of clear nights compared to the other sites in the subcontinent but are affected by monsoons for about three months in a year. However, night observations at IAO Hanle from 2m-Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT) are possible throughout the year without any interruption due to monsoon.

Due to the advantages of more clear nights, minimal light pollution, background aerosol concentration, extremely dry atmospheric conditions, and uninterrupted monsoon, this region is becoming one of the promising sites globally for the next generation of astronomical observatories, it said.

From the murky waters of a lake in Chennai, researchers isolated an alga that breaks down low density polyethylene

Researchers from University of Madras and Presidency College, Chennai, have isolated an alga species that shows promise as an agent of biodegradation of plastic sheets. It is a preliminary study that has been published in Scientific Reports and needs further research and development before it can be translated to the industry.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s annual report for the year 2011-12, the plastic waste generated in a year amounted to 5.6 million metric tonnes. Only 60% of the plastic used in India was collected and recycled. The metros alone contributed some 21.2% of the total waste, led by Delhi, followed by Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai.

The usual means of disposal of plastic waste involves incineration, land-filling and recycling. These methods have limitations and also sometimes produce side-effects that are hazardous to the environment. Hence, researchers are on the lookout for biodegradation methods that are safe and environment friendly. It is in this context that the present study gains importance.

Common alga, epiphyte

In earlier studies, species of bacteria that degrade plastic have been studied. In the present study, this role is played by the microalga Uronema africanum Borge. This is a species of microalgae that is commonly found in Africa, Asia and Europe. In Rangoon, Burma, it was noted to be an epiphyte, attaching itself to other algae and plants.

Sanniyasi Elumalai, Professor in the Department of Biotechnology, University of Madras, and his graduate students Preethy P. Raj and Dinesh Kumar Gunasekar, along with post-doctoral fellow Rajesh Kanna Gopal from Presidency College, came upon a plastic bag which was colonised by, as they came to know later through study, three species of microalgae.

“We collected a polyethylene carry bag colonised by green, luxuriously grown photosynthetic microalgae and samples of water,” says Prof. Elumalai. “Viewing the collected polyethylene sample under a light microscope showed that it was colonised by microalgae… Abrasions were seen on the surface of the polyethylene sheet at different magnifications.”

Showed potential

The samples were collected at the Kallukuttai lake area near Taramani railway station, in Chennai. When they did a closer examination of the microalgal growth, they found one species, Uronema africanum Borge, showed potential to degrade plastic.

They first had to identify which species the alga belonged to, and in this they were helped by Dr. B. Babu of Madras Christian College, Chennai, whom they acknowledge in the paper.

In the experiments, they tested the microalga on low-density polyethylene, in sheets which are highly resistant to degradation, into simpler molecules. “We saw that the isolated algae Uronema africanum produced enzymes, hormones, and some polysaccharides which slowly degrade [the sheets], and the structural integrity of the polymer [breaks down] and it disintegrates into monomers,” says Prof. Elumalai.

After incubation of the algae in the polyethylene sheet for thirty days, they noticed under the microscope that there were aberrations, grooves, ridges and furrows in the material of the sheets. Following it up with gas chromatography and mass spectrum analysis, they found that there was a huge difference in the composition of supernatant fluids of controls and experimental sample.

Breaking down plastic

“The microalgae produce different kinds of extra cellular polysaccharides, enzymes, toxins such as cyanotoxins, hormones which react with the polymer sheets (polymer bonds) and break them up into the simpler monomers which will not have harmful effect in the atmosphere,” says Prof Elumalai.

In their analysis, the researchers used the facilities of Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, and Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore.

The researchers are planning to collaborate with industry to take up this technology in to a pilot scale and finally large-scale study.

researchers combined and centrifuged glass flakes with poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) to make a transparent composite.

Inspired by the inner layer of mollusc shells, scientists at McGill University, Canada, have developed stronger and tougher glass (Science). The glass material does not shatter on impact and has the resiliency of plastic. Potential uses could be to improve cell phone screens in the future.

The researchers combined and centrifuged glass flakes with poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) to make a transparent composite. A transparent composite was created by doping the glass flakes to alter the refractive index of PMMA to increase the optical clarity and make it at par with glass. The new material is not only three times stronger than the normal glass, but also more than five times more fracture-resistant, says the university press release. The fabrication method is robust and scalable, and the composite may prove to be a glass alternative in diverse applications, the release adds.

The scientists created the new glass and acrylic composite material that mimics nacre or mother of pearl. Nacre has the rigidity of a stiff material and durability of a soft material as it is made of stiff pieces of chalk-like matter that are layered with soft proteins that are highly elastic.

The researchers mimicked the architecture of nacre by using layers of glass flakes and acrylic. Initially, the material is opaque, but is made optically transparent like glass by tuning the refractive index of the acrylic seamlessly blended with the glass.

The researchers plan to improve the glass to change its properties, such as colour, mechanics and conductivity.

Going by past experience, the FDA might greenlight the vaccine for young children in a matter of weeks. The company expects to submit data of children 2–4 years and 6 months to 1 year by the end of the year.

Pfizer has submitted to the FDA Phase 2/3 trial data of mRNA vaccine on children 5–11 years for initial review. A formal submission to request for emergency use authorisation is expected in the coming weeks.

On September 20, Pfizer released details of the trial that showed the vaccine was safe and generated a “robust” antibody response in young children. Going by past experience, the FDA might greenlight the vaccine for young children in a matter of weeks. The company expects to submit data of children 2–4 years and 6 months to 1 year by the end of the year.

In an email, Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore, and Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist, discuss whether young children should be vaccinated and if that would further exacerbate vaccine inequity globally.

Considering that children below 11 years rarely suffer from severe disease and death, is it necessary to vaccinate young children?

Gagandeep Kang: All decisions about children needing to be vaccinated are based on assessment of risk and benefit. Here, when making decisions for public health, we also need to separate the benefits of vaccination against disease and against infection. If the risk from disease is low, then the risks of side-effects of vaccination need to be evaluated against the potential benefits of preventing a few cases. When we come to protection afforded by vaccines against infection, we need to understand whether infected children are a source of infection for the community. If children transmit infections, without themselves having severe disease, there may still be a benefit in vaccination. However, decisions need to be based on evidence, and as with other infectious diseases, transmission by children may be dependent on the amount of virus circulating in the community as well as the prior exposure of the community, and this will vary by geography.

Chandrakant Lahariya: Conducting clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccines in all age groups that are affected by the pathogen/disease is a standard process. However, the licensing and availability of an effective vaccine does not mean we need to find an arm to administer it. At present, there is not enough evidence to prioritise all children in 12–17 years over the vaccination of adults.

Is it safe to vaccinate young children considering the small risk of myocarditis (inflammation of heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) seen in adolescents and young adults after the second dose of the mRNA vaccine?

Gagandeep Kang: Myocarditis and pericarditis have been reported after the mRNA vaccines, particularly in young males. These are not common side-effects, and as with every other vaccine, we need to balance the small risk and the potential benefit.

The data provided by Pfizer are likely to be sufficient for approval. It is for public health authorities to decide whether they want to introduce vaccination into national immunisation programmes. Even if public health authorities in a country decide not to introduce the vaccine, it is possible that parents may decide, with the advice of their doctors, that they want to achieve protection for their children. In that case, would we want to override the decisions of parents for their children?

Is the trial carried out on just 2,268 participants aged 5–11 years sufficient to understand the safety profile of the vaccine?

Gagandeep Kang: Yes, that is sufficient information for approval. Usually, safety assessments are carried out in a few thousand individuals across a much wider age range. We already have data for older children and adults. The vaccines are generally safe as no strong signals have been detected in the trials. The small risk of viral myocarditis was identified in adults and adolescents after the mRNA vaccine was widely used, indicating that in the countries that are reporting the data, there is effective monitoring of adverse events following immunisation. Understanding the level of risk is important for all decisions regarding introduction and continued use of vaccines. If decisions are made to introduce vaccines in young children, post-introduction monitoring for safety will need to continue as for all other vaccines.

Chandrakant Lahariya: The information on the safety of vaccines is generated from the data of all trial participants. The subgroup provides an indication on safety profile. However, more than safety, the smaller trials in children examine immunogenicity (whether vaccines are generating immune response); dose response (what dose of vaccine generates comparable immune response) and reactogenicity to various doses. What we need to remember is that trials are designed to identify common adverse events. However, rare adverse events which happen at a frequency lower than one in trial size can only be identified after roll-out of vaccines. That’s why the post-marketing surveillance (after vaccine roll-out) and stronger AEFI reporting systems are very relevant.

Unlike 30 microgram dosage given to adults, is reducing the dosage of vaccines to 10 microgram in children 5–11 years likely to make the vaccine safer?

Gagandeep Kang: When there is a side-effect of a vaccine, it does not always depend on the amount of active ingredients in the vaccine. It could also depend just on the presence or absence of one of the ingredients and how the vaccinated person responds to it. If there was a dose response, as in a higher dose carries a higher risk, then it is possible that there would be a lower risk in young children or with a lower dose. However, we do not know that at this time.

Chandrakant Lahariya: The rare systemic adverse events, such as viral myocarditis, are not dose-dependent. The purpose of reduced dose is to achieve a similar level of immune response and reduce or minimise local reactions, which sometimes are reported at higher frequency in children. Moreover, if the same immune response can be achieved with a lower dose of the vaccine, more children can be vaccinated.

Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr. Anthony Fauci was quoted as saying that he expects approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a few weeks and vaccination of young children might begin by the end of October. After booster shots for certain categories of adults, does vaccination of young children further impact the supply of precious vaccines to low- and middle-income countries and thus further exacerbate vaccine inequity?

Gagandeep Kang: Yes, vaccinating children at a time when vulnerable people in other parts of the world have not been vaccinated is a problem for global vaccine equity. However, all countries make their decisions for the benefit of their citizens first, and then think about the rest of the world.

Chandrakant Lahariya: Every country is free to determine what criteria it wishes to adopt to vaccinate different sets of population groups. The vaccination decisions are based upon the burden of disease, safety and efficacy of vaccines and availability of supply. All of these are considered together.

If a country gives importance to availability of supply of vaccines to administer to additional population groups, it has the right to do so, but then, in doing so, it fails in ethical and moral principles of vaccination drives.

According to a survey published last month, only 26% of parents of young children are ready to immediately vaccinate their children, while 40% wish to wait and watch and 25% don’t want to vaccinate. Is the reluctance to vaccinate young children peculiar to this vaccine or do we see it whenever a new vaccine is introduced?

Gagandeep Kang: All parents want to ensure that they do their best for their children. When a disease is severe and the risk of infection is high, and a vaccine is likely to protect, then it is more likely that parents will want to vaccinate their children. When data on vaccine safety are limited, or disease is not severe in children and the risk of infection is low, parents are less likely to vaccinate their children. This cannot be considered peculiar to any particular vaccine.

While Central universities are doing well, few State universities stand out

While we have highlighted the importance of introducing humanities and social sciences in the IITs, the roles that universities and colleges play in educating their youngsters need to be pointed out. During the British colonial rule, while on one hand they charged exorbitant amounts as taxes for their revenue, there were some academicians too, who set up colleges and universities in the Bombay, Madras and Bengal Presidencies. In Bombay, they set up a regular academic college, and medical and law colleges. In Madras, they set up the Madras Presidency College in 1840, and in Bengal the Calcutta Presidency College in 1817.

All these offered quality and contemporary education. In addition, Christian missionaries also started some colleges in Delhi, undivided Punjab, Madras and Assam. Notable among these is the Christian Medical College at Vellore, which continues to offer world-class clinical practice and research to this day.

Royal initiatives

Quite besides these are the schools and colleges started by the Maharajas and Princely State Kings across India, particularly in the South. They have been the bedrock of imparting knowledge and wisdom, history, geography, and religions, over the last century. They have produced scholars, historians, writers and poets, civil servants, judges, chief ministers, governors and Presidents of India, and also M.S. Swaminathan of the Green Revolution and M. Visvesvaraya, the famous dam builder, and also the Nobel Prize winners (C.V. Raman, S Chandrasekhar and most recently Venky Ramakrishnan who is an alumnus of the century-old M.S. University Vadodara).

Outstanding institution

One outstanding institution founded in 1909 at Bangalore through the joint efforts of J.N. Tata and the Maharaja of Mysore is the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which has been spearheading research in science and technology from the very beginning. Outstanding research in genetics, molecular and cell biology, and protein structure and function has been going on from the very beginning. In recent times, IISc has become world-famous for its achievements in computer science and software technology. Thanks to the series of books on this subject by Dr. V. Rajaraman (which has been the Bible for thousands of students) and the investment by Shri. N.R. Narayanamurthy, who founded Infosys Foundation, India has become a world-leader in software. They have made many graduates from IITs and universities to turn to this area and flock to Silicon Valley in California for jobs, and do very well there.

Moving on to two Central Universities at Delhi, namely, Delhi University with its North and South campuses, and Jawaharlal Nehru University or JNU, we find quite notably that apart from their proven expertise in the areas of economics, humanities and social sciences, they have been doing remarkably well in science and biotechnology. The North Campus has been a forerunner in botany and plant sciences, and the South Campus in medical and biotechnology. And JNU, apart from its distinction in economics (Prof. Utsa Patnaik, who estimated how the British Empire impoverished India by 500 trillion dollars to become the richest Empire in the world), has also an active genetics and biotechnology group (Prof. Anand Ranganathan) that works on TB and Malaria, thus protecting us from these diseases.

But, alas, none of the 400+ State universities successfully stand out in their achievements – be it in language and literature, economics, technology and its use. The lone exception may be Punjab University which has come to the service of the community through its excellent rice production, successful fight against swarms of locusts, and also in the history of the Punjabi language. We have already referred to the work being done at the Jadavpur and Presidency Universities at Kolkata, and also the Osmania University at Hyderabad, in certain areas of science and technology, besides language, literature and economics should be mentioned.

Private universities

Recently, several non-profit private universities have been started and are doing excellent service in software sciences (Azim Premji University), genetics, molecular biology and virology, sociology and history (Ashoka University), and SRM University in Chennai and Amaravati. May there be more such private and non-governmental universities!

dbala@lvpei.org

Identification holds prospect for cultivation in areas with high soil salinity amid climate change

The discovery of a new plant protein by an Indian scientist, in collaboration with researchers from Germany, is set to improve the salt stress tolerance of crops and has opened possibilities of making farmland with high salinity amenable to cultivation.

Assistant Professor with the Department of Botany at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Dr Tariq Aftab, working with seven other collaborators from Germany, identified the new protein, HvHorcH, which plays an important role in conferring salt stress tolerance in barley.

The research was carried out at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Gatersleben in Germany when Dr Aftab was a Guest Scientist at the Institute having been awarded the Leibniz-DAAD Research Fellowship in 2012-13. After several subsequent years of further studies and trials, the new discovery was reported in the September issue of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.

After completing his Ph.D from AMU, Dr Aftab worked as a Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi where he was involved in acquisition, evaluation and identification of climate resilient wheat and rice genetic resources for tolerance to heat, drought and salt stresses. He has also worked as Visiting Scientist at the Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing on a Raman Fellowship awarded by the University Grants Commission.

Tell us about the relevance of the protein discovery

Salt stress tolerance of crop plants is a trait with increasing value for future food production. The area of farmland worldwide that can be cultivated is declining because of increasing drought periods and the increasing salinity of the soil in several regions of the earth. Global climate change, which is predicted to be accompanied by prolonged and intensified drought periods, is likely to aggravate this situation even further. Intensified irrigation attempts to combat drought ultimately increase soil salinity and thus eventually impede farmland cultivation when salinity reaches threshold levels that can no longer be tolerated by crop plants.

It is, therefore, an eminent goal for a global sustainable food supply to improve the salt stress tolerance of crop plants in order to push these thresholds of soil salinity upwards so that more farmland with high-salinity soil will still be amenable to agriculture.

How is it an addition to the existing knowledge?

The detection and identification of expression patterns of novel genes/proteins upgrade our knowledge of their function in stress adaptation and can offer the foundation of efficient approaches in developing stress-tolerant plants. The identification of this protein will open new horizons in developing stress-resilient crop plants.

Why was barley chosen for research? Can the outcome be applied to other crops directly or does it require further research.

Barley is commonly used in bread and other food products, and as a source of malt for alcoholic beverages. As you know, Germany is famous for a variety of breads, therefore, a lot of research is being conducted on this plant.

Further studies are needed to check the presence of this protein in other plants and if the gene responsible for encoding this protein can successfully be transferred to other crop plants.

Can you explain the process?

The protein sample was first separated by gel electrophoresis, then transferred to a nitrocellulose membrane, and finally stained with a primary antibody that specifically binds to this protein. Another fluorescent secondary antibody binds to the primary antibody and provides a means of detection via photography. To further study the function of HvHorcH during salt stress, a transgenic approach in Arabidopsis thaliana was applied. The gene responsible for this protein was transferred in A. thaliana to check its function. These results indicated that the expression of HvHorcH in root tips enhances salt tolerance in the plants.

How did you name the protein?

Since this is newly identified protein shows homology with the previously identified Jacalin-Related Lectin (JRL) horcolin from barley coleoptiles, therefore, we named the gene as HvHorcH.

What is the significance of the discovery for India and how can it be taken forward?

Like in other countries, salt stress is a major threat to the food security in India too. Therefore, scientists are making efforts to identify the novel proteins which are expressed in these stressful conditions in order to create more tolerant and future ready crops.

If approved, molnupiravir would be 1st oral antiviral COVID-19 drug

An antiviral pill developed by U.S. drug maker Merck & Co could half the chances of dying or being hospitalized for those most at risk of contracting severe COVID-19, with experts hailing it as a potential breakthrough in how the virus is treated.

If it gets authorization, molnupiravir, which is designed to introduce errors into the genetic code of the virus, would be the first oral antiviral medication for COVID-19.

Merck and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said they plan to seek U.S. emergency use authorization for the pill as soon as possible and to make regulatory applications worldwide.

"An oral antiviral that can impact hospitalization risk to such a degree would be game changing," said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Current treatment options include Gilead Sciences Inc's infused antiviral remdesivir and generic steroid dexamethasone, both of which are generally only given once a patient has already been hospitalized.

"This is going to change the dialogue around how to manage COVID-19," Merck Chief Executive Robert Davis told Reuters.

Existing treatments are "cumbersome and logistically challenging to administer. A simple oral pill would be the opposite of that," Adalja added.

The results from the Phase III trial, which sent Merck shares up more than 9%, were so strong that the study is being stopped early at the recommendation of outside monitors.

Shares of Atea Pharmaceuticals Inc, which is developing a similar COVID-19 treatment, were up around 20% on the news.

Shares of COVID-19 vaccine makers Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc were off more than 2% and 14%,respectively.

Michael Yee, a biotechnology analyst at Jefferies, said the share move indicated that investors believe "people will be less afraid of COVID and less inclined to get vaccines if there is a simple pill that can treat COVID."

Pfizer and Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG are also racing to develop an easy-to-administer antiviral pill for COVID-19. For now, only antibody cocktails which have to be given intravenously are approved for non-hospitalized patients.

A planned interim analysis of 775 patients in Merck's study looked at hospitalizations or deaths. It found that 7.3% of those given molnupiravir were hospitalized and none had died by 29 days after treatment, compared with hospitalization of 14.1% of placebo patients. There were also eight deaths in the placebo group.

"Antiviral treatments that can be taken at home to keep people with COVID-19 out of the hospital are critically needed,” Wendy Holman, Ridgeback's CEO, said in a statement.

Scientists welcomed the potential new treatment to help prevent serious illness from the virus, which has killed almost 5 million people around the world.

“A safe, affordable, and effective oral antiviral would be a huge advance in the fight against COVID," said Peter Horby, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the University of Oxford.

In the trial, which involved patients from around the world, molnupiravir was taken every 12 hours for five days.

The study enrolled patients with laboratory-confirmed mild-to-moderate COVID-19, who had symptoms for no more than five days. All patients had at least one risk factor associated with poor disease outcome, such as obesity or older age.

Merck said viral sequencing done so far shows molnupiravir is effective against all variants of the coronavirus including the highly transmissible Delta,which has driven the recent worldwide surge in hospitalizations and deaths.

It said rates of adverse events were similar for both molnupiravir and placebo patients, but did not give details.

Merck has said data shows molnupiravir is not capable of inducing genetic changes in human cells, but men enrolled in its trials had to abstain from heterosexual intercourse or agree to use contraception. Women of child-bearing age in the study could be pregnant and also had to use birth control.

Merck said it expects to produce 10 million courses of the treatment by the end of 2021, with more coming next year.

The company has a U.S. government contract to supply 1.7 million courses of molnupiravir at a price of $700 per course.

Davis said Merck has similar agreements with othergovernments, and is in talks with more. Merck said it plans a tiered pricing approach based on country income criteria.

Merck has also agreed to license the drug to several India-based generic drugmakers, which would be able to supply the treatment to low and middle-income countries.

Molnupiravir is also being studied in a Phase III trial for preventing infection in people exposed to the coronavirus.

Merck officials said it is unclear how long the FDA review will take, although Dean Li, head of Merck's research labs,said, "They are going to try to work with alacrity on this."

The agile Cnemaspis jackieii or Jackie’s Day Gecko is among 12 species of geckos recorded from the Western Ghats

When actor and martial artist Jackie Chan moved fast and ducked every danger on screen, little did he know that a gecko in the Western Ghats will be named after him as a tribute to his agility.

Researchers from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS); Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science; and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, have discovered 12 new species of geckos from the Western Ghats. They have also rediscovered populations of some species which have not been reported since their original discovery over 100 years ago.

The researchers have named one of the new species Cnemaspis jackieii or Jackie’s Day Gecko for its ability to move rapidly and sneak into the smallest crevices to escape when approached, reminiscent of Mr. Chan’s famous stunts.

The study published in the international journal Zoological Research is authored by Saunak Pal, Zeeshan A. Mirza, Princia D’souza and Kartik Shanker. “Commonly known as ‘dwarf geckos’ or even ‘day geckos’, geckos of the genus ‘Cnemaspis’ are known to be distributed in Africa, Indo-Sri Lanka and southeast Asia,” said Mr. Pal, who carried out extensive field visits across the Western Ghats to collect morphological data, distribution information, specimens and tissue samples.

The researchers found that geckos of the genus Cnemaspis are amongst some of the most ancient reptiles known from the Western Ghats, with their origin dating back to over 60 million years ago. The study confirms that these geckos originated even before the Indian plate collided with Asia and diversified across distinct biogeographic barriers in the Western Ghats mountains.

Mr. Mirza from the NCBS examined type specimens of known species in the collection of the Natural History Museum, London, and examined the osteology of Indian species. Princia Dsouza from the CES, IISc, generated molecular data essential for phylogenetic analysis for the collected specimens. This study was part of a larger survey of frogs, lizards and snakes of the Western Ghats, supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund between 2009 and 2014. The project, led by Mr. Shanker from CES, IISc, aimed to map the diversity and distribution of these groups in the Ghats, towards discovering species, documenting diversity and using this information towards conservation prioritisation.