ISRO on Sunday successfully launched Brazil’s optical earth observation satellite, Amazonia-1, and 18 co-passenger satellites from India  and the U.S.A.  from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SHAR) at Sriharikota.
The satellites were carried on board the PSLV-C51, the 53rd flight of India’s workhorse launch vehicle and the first dedicated mission for New Space India Ltd (NSIL), the commercial arm of ISRO. The mission was undertaken under a commercial arrangement with Spaceflight Inc., USA.
The PSLV-C51, equipped with two solid strap-on boosters, the third such launch of the PSLV-DL variant, lifted off at 10.24 a.m. from the first launch pad at Sriharikota.
Of the 13 satellites from the U.S., one was a technology demonstration satellite and the remaining for 2-way communications and data relay. Among the five Indian satellites, one belongs to DRDO.
Five satellites belong to India including the Satish Dhawan SAT (SDSAT) built by Space Kidz India, a nano-satellite intended to study the radiation levels, space weather and demonstrate long range communication technologies, and the UNITYsat, a combination of three satellites intended for providing radio relay services. The other satellite belongs to DRDO.
The SDSAT developed by SpaceKids India has an engraving of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the top panel of the satellite to show solidarity and gratitude for the atmanirbhar initiative and space privatisation, SpaceKidz said. The Bhagavad Gita was also sent on-board an SD card to give the scripture, which teaches oneness as the highest form of humanity, the highest honour, it said.
The UNITYsat was designed and built as a joint development by the Jeppiar Institute of Technology, Sriperumbudur, G.H. Raisoni College of Engineering, Nagpur and Sri Shakthi Institute of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore.
Roughly 16 minutes after lift-off, the PS-4 engine was cut-off and the Amazonia-1, weighing 637 kg, belonging to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), was separated a minute later. The satellite will further strengthen the existing structure by providing remote sensing data to users for monitoring deforestation in the Amazon region and for analysis of diversified agriculture across the Brazilian territory, according to ISRO. The Amazonia-1 was injected into its precise orbit of 758 km in a sun-synchronous polar orbit.
“This moment represents the top of all this effort made by so many people in our National Institute for Space Research and our Space agency. This is a very important mission for Brazil and it represents a new era for Brazilian industry for satellites. This is one positive step of our partnership that is going to grow. Congratulations on a beautiful launch. We are going to work together and this is the beginning of our partnership,” Brazil’s Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Marcos Cesar Pontes said.
Following that, the other 18 customer satellites were placed into their intended orbits. The entire operation of the mission took about 1 hour and 55 minutes to completion.
“This particular mission is special because these five Indian satellites are coming under the new space reform announced by the Government of India. These institutes have done an excellent job. ISRO has promoted, handheld and all along helped them to build these satellites technically correctly to launch them,” ISRO Chairman, K. Sivan said.
He said ISRO has 14 missions planned this year, including the first unmanned mission around the end of the year.
Scientists have documented the earliest-known fossil evidence of primates, an advance which sheds light on how life on land recovered after the extinction event 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and led to the rise of mammals.
The researchers, including those from the University of Washington in the US, analysed several fossils of Purgatorius – the oldest genus in a group of the earliest-known primates called plesiadapiforms.
According to the study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, these ancient mammals were small-bodied and ate specialised diets of insects and fruits that varied by species.
“This discovery is exciting because it represents the oldest dated occurrence of archaic primates in the fossil record,” said Stephen Chester, co-leader of the study from Brooklyn College in the U.S.
“It adds to our understanding of how the earliest primates separated themselves from their competitors following the demise of the dinosaurs,” Chester said.
The scientists analysed fossilised teeth found in the Hell Creek area of northeastern Montana in the U.S. which are now part of the collections at the University of California Museum of Paleontology.
They are estimated to be 65.9 million years old, about 1,05,000 to 1,39,000 years after the mass extinction event.
Based on the age of the fossils, the scientists said the ancestor of all primates, including the plesiadapiforms and modern day primates such as lemurs, monkeys and apes, likely lived alongside large dinosaurs.
“It's mind blowing to think of our earliest archaic primate ancestors,” said study co-author Wilson Mantilla, a University of Washington (UW) professor of biology.
“They were some of the first mammals to diversify in this new post-mass extinction world, taking advantage of the fruits and insects up in the forest canopy,” Mantilla said.
The fossils, according to the researchers, include two species of Purgatorius – Purgatorius janisae, and a new species described by the team named Purgatorius mckeeveri.
They said three of the teeth found have distinct features compared to any previously known Purgatorius species and led to the description of the new species.
“This was a really cool study to be a part of, particularly because it provides further evidence that the earliest primates originated before the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. They became highly abundant within a million years after that extinction,” said study co-author Brody Hovatter, a UW graduate student.
A bone fragment discovered from southeast Alaska has now answered a few questions on dog migration into the Americas. Researchers found that the thigh bone belonged to a dog that lived in the region about 10,150 years ago. Scientists say the remains represent the oldest confirmed remains of a domestic dog in the Americas.
Analysis of the mitochondrial genome revealed that the dog belonged to a lineage of dogs that diverged from Siberian dogs. Researchers (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences) say in a release that this study provides not only the timing but also a location for the entry of dogs and people into the Americas. The study also supports the theory that this migration occurred just as coastal glaciers retreated during the last Ice Age.
The researchers from University of Buffalo, New York, who studied the bone say that canines did not arrive in the Americas all at once: some Arctic dogs arrived later from East Asia with the Thule culture, Siberian huskies were imported to Alaska during the Gold Rush and other dogs were brought by European colonizers.
The researchers did not set out to study dogs. They came across the femur fragment while sequencing DNA from a collection of hundreds of bones excavated years before in southeast Alaska by other researchers. The bone fragment, originally thought to come from a bear, was quite small, but when the DNA was studied, the team realised it was from a dog.
“Our early dog from southeast Alaska supports the hypothesis that the first dog and human migration occurred through the northwest Pacific coastal route instead of the central continental corridor,” Flavio Augusto da Silva Coelho notes in the release.
A new and exciting field in astronomy to study exoplanets and gauge whether they possess conditions that will favour the presence and sustainability of life. In this quest, an important part is looking at our own celestial backyard to gain insights – hence the many missions to Mars and Venus probing for signs of past life. One thing that astronomers search for in exoplanets, in the so-called Goldilocks zone of habitability, is the existence of liquid water and an atmosphere like that on Earth. In this context it is believed by many that Mars once had such an atmosphere. The mechanism as to why it lost its atmosphere has remained in doubt. Scientists from Indian Institution for Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata suggest that it was the planet’s intrinsic magnetic dynamo which, by shielding its atmosphere from the sun’s solar wind, protected its atmosphere. When the magnetic dynamo switched off, the atmosphere slowly was eroded by the solar wind and eventually vanished, leaving the thin remnant we see today. These results have been published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In the simulation, the researchers build a computer model of a Mars-like planet interacting with the plasma wind from a Sun-like star. They study two scenarios. In the first one, the planet has a magnetic dynamo and an intrinsic magnetosphere surrounding it. The physics is described by Maxwell’s equations – which describe electro-magnetic fields and their interactions with matter – in the presence of plasma. In a simulation, they mimic the Mars model with an intrinsic magnetosphere and allow a solar-wind like plasma to fall on the dayside of the planet. They run the model to simulate the interactions between the magnetized solar wind and Mars.
In the second scenario, they modelled the same system but with no intrinsic magnetic field.
To ascertain that they are indeed on the right track, the researchers modelled the present day Mars, with no intrinsic magnetosphere. “We perform a simulation for present day Mars based on which we generate the magnetic environment around the planet. We find that this has good correspondence with observations from NASA Mars Global Surveyor and NASA Maven missions,” says Dibyendu Nandi from Center of Excellence in Space Sciences India (CESSI), in IISER Kolkata, in an email to The Hindu.
From the study, the scientists infer that when Mars had an intrinsic magnetosphere, it enveloped the planet like a shroud and shielded its atmosphere from the stripping effect of the solar wind. When the planet lost its intrinsic magnetosphere, only the imposed one due to the pileup of the solar wind remained. “This imposed magnetosphere was made of the Sun's magnetic fields which slips past Mars when the solar wind flows past it after impacting the day side,” explains Prof. Nandi. “So, there is a continuous slippage of magnetised plasma from the day-side to the night-side of Mars which also strips away the atmosphere of Mars slowly.”
The computational models being developed in CESSI, in IISER Kolkata can be used to simulate and predict the space environment around planets, according to Prof. Nandi.
“Thus these are particularly important to complement and aid in the interpretation of data from planetary space missions,” he says. “These simulations can also help in understanding how astrophysical space environments determine atmospheric evolution and thus habitability of planets and exoplanets,” he adds.
Six months after India witnessed a peak, a spike in daily fresh COVID-19 cases is seen in a handful of States, particularly in Maharashtra. From 10.9 million cases across India as on February 17, the cases shot up to 11 million on February 26, with daily cases staying above 13,000 from February 18 onwards and even almost touching 17,000 on February 24.
From below 5%, the test positivity rate has suddenly shot up in Maharashtra – the seven-day average test positivity rate in the State as on February 26 was 9.5%; the national figure stands at 1.9%. Does the sharp rise in numbers suggest the beginning of a second wave in India?
“No, the increase in daily cases is only a spike. It cannot be called as the beginning of a second wave, not even in Maharashtra,” says Dr. Giridhara Babu, Epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru and a member of the Karnataka COVID-19 Technical Advisory Committee. “There’s no strict definition for what a wave is; usually, epidemiologists refer to the second wave as a resurgence of infection in an area where the transmission had decreased to below the outbreak potential but is now continually increasing over a certain period.”
Dr. Babu adds that the prerequisites for defining the second wave are that the first wave should have been contained — the reproduction number or R0 is below 1.5 and low rate of infection has been sustained for at least one month.
The cumulative test positivity rate below 5% is generally used as a criterion to decide the end of a wave. Any increase in the cumulative test positivity rate beyond 5% and cases show a steadily increasing trend for over two-three continuous weeks are used to define the beginning of a wave.
The Karnataka COVID-19 task force also considered other criteria to define the beginning of a new wave – the seven-day average growth rate should be in excess of normal expectancy and where the test positivity rate doubles in a week despite there being no changes in the testing pattern, and hospitalisations double in the corresponding seven consecutive days. Also, the cases should be increasing steadily after crossing the basic reproduction rate (R0) more than 1.5. “Any of the above conditions that shows a steadily increasing trend for over two-three weeks is to be used to define the beginning of a new wave,” he says.
Referring to sudden spurt in daily cases in Maharashtra, he says it is a bit too early to call it as a second wave. “Yes, the number of cases starting to recede around mid-January, but there has been a spike in new cases in the last one week. We need to wait and see if it is sustained over the next one week at least. If there is sustained increase in cases along with either a doubling in hospitalisation or test positivity rate in a week then we can call it a second wave, at least in Maharashtra,” Dr. Babu explains.
Since millions have been infected by the first wave in India, and there have been no large surges in cases even during the festival season, winter and large gatherings, will India ever witness a second wave? “With the currently prevailing strains, I do not think that India, as a nation, will have a second wave bigger than the first wave. If anything, we will have second waves regionally in States, which may occur over a period, depending on compliance to COVID-19 appropriate behaviour, testing levels and population movement. For instance, Delhi witnessed not one but three waves. But we may not see a sudden spurt in cases in the entire country all at once,” he adds.
The third serosurvey of ICMR found that only 21.5% of India (around 225 million people) has been exposed to the virus — and hence, a large population is still vulnerable to infection. Dr. Babu is not entirely convinced with the results of the third serosurvey. “There is a lot of uncertainty looming around how long the IgG antibodies can be detected. The evidence suggests that IgG estimation underestimates the overall level of protection in the community. This is corroborated by the higher level of antibodies seen in the serosurveys done in many metros, such as Mumbai and Delhi,” he says.
“My own personal assessment is that we have had a greater number of infections in urban areas in the first wave. The threshold for population immunity might have been achieved in the densest settings, responsible for the greater number of cases in the first wave,” Dr. Babu adds.
But all these assumptions would prove wrong if a new variant that shows greater transmissibility either arises in India or those circulating in other countries spreads here. Dr. Babu says: “Newer variants, especially those capable of immune escape, can change everything we know, and this is the only way to have a second wave more devastating than the first wave. As of now, we have not seen such trends affecting India.”
The coronavirus can linger in the lungs even when swab tests of the back of the nose and throat are negative, doctors reported after unknowingly transplanting infected lungs into a patient who later died of COVID-19.
University of Michigan surgeons obtained the lungs from a deceased donor who had tested negative for the virus and had reportedly never been exposed to it. Soon afterward, the transplant recipient and one of the surgeons developed COVID-19.
The team collected a fluid sample from the patient’s new lungs and compared it to a sample taken from the lungs immediately after removal from the donor, as well as to swab samples from the infected surgeon. Genetic analyses showed the patient and surgeon had both acquired virus from the donor lungs, the doctors reported in the American Journal ofTransplantation.
The surgeon had worn only a surgical mask when preparing the lungs for transplant, rather than full personal protective equipment, because both donor and recipient had tested negative.
Potential lung transplant donors should all have specimens collected from deep within the lungs to be tested for the coronavirus, the report’s co-author Dr. Daniel Kaul said. The virus is less likely to be transmitted by other donated organs, such as liver or kidneys, he said.
Mass spectrometry is an importantat tool and has helped win several Nobel Prizes. It provides valuable information about the composition and structure of molecules and has found applications from drug testing to carbon dating. Using this, researchers can ionise or break down the compound into simple ions and then identify the molecules based on their masses. The current process of ionisation requires electrical potential of a few kilo volts, heat or high energy ultraviolet lasers (UV-lasers). But now, researchers have developed a new method of soft ionisation using nanosheets which eliminates the need for external energy sources completely.
The team used a simple filter paper as a support material and coated this with 2D molybdenum disulphide (MoS2). “The 2D materials are sheet-like structures and graphene is a perfect example. You pull out sheets of carbon and create graphene. Similarly, this molybdenum disulphide was created as a thin sheet and spread on a paper. This modified paper produces an electric current when liquids flow over it,” explains Thalappil Pradeep from the Department of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. He is the corresponding author of the work published last week in ACS Nano.
The team observed that a flow of pure methanol over the nanosheet generates a record-high current of 1.3 microampere. The sample to be tested can be mixed with this methanol, and the induced current helps make ions of the compound to be tested.
The team then tested the device to measure uric acid. By simply flowing raw urine (about 5 microlitre) over the nanostructured surface and measuring the corresponding current (with no other stimulus), the team detected the uric acid in the urine of a healthy individual.
They also demonstrated that the device can be used as a self-energised disposable sensor for breath alcohol detection. The device was modified in such a way that the breath of a drunken person can interact directly with the flowing liquid on the MoS2-coated surface. A volunteer who had consumed 650 mL of beer containing 9% (v/v) alcohol blew over the paper, and the corresponding current was measured. While standard breath analysers detect breath alcohol concentration above 5%, this device could detect even less than 3%.
“The device can find many more applications: check glucose in blood, toxic chemicals in any liquid, pesticide or any contaminants in drinking water. The main plus point is that it can even detect very low levels. The current wet chemical or reagent-based methods are lengthy and require skilled labour. The new method is cost-effective, and all you need is simple paper coated with nanostructures. By just flowing the liquid and studying the spectrum, molecular detection has now been made simple and easy,” adds the first author of the paper Pallab Basuri, a PhD scholar at the institute.
International travellers are particularly vulnerable to virulent strains of drug-resistant bacteria – often picking up several different types during a trip through spending time in the company of other tourists, a new study has revealed.
The global spread of intestinal multidrug resistant gram-negative (MDR-GN) bacteria poses a serious threat to human health worldwide, with MDR clones of E.coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae threatening more antibiotic resistant infections around the world.
Researchers monitored a group of European travellers visiting Lao People’s Democratic Republic for three weeks – analysing daily returns of information and stool samples to build a comprehensive picture of the tourists’ gut health.
Bacterial strains colonised multiple travellers staying at the same hotels and spending time in each other’s company. In one exceptional instance, two participants staying in separate accommodation shared an identical strain after one took a shower in the other’s bathroom.
The international group of researchers, led by scientists at the Universities of Basel, Birmingham, Helsinki and Oslo and the Wellcome Sanger Institute have published their findings in The Lancet Microbe.
Alan McNally, Professor in Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham and a senior author of the study, said: “International travel is strongly linked to the spread of MDR-GN bacteria, with transmission highest in India and Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. Travellers visiting these high-risk regions are at substantial risk of acquiring the bacteria.”
“Colonisation by MDR-GN bacteria is a highly dynamic process. We found constant ‘competition’ between circulating strains acquired by individual hosts and the travellers’ ‘native’ bacteria. Travellers can pick up the bacteria even during short visits and further spread the strains after returning home,” he added.
The impact of travel on the global spread of multidrug-resistant E. coli is well documented – up to 80% of travellers returning from high-risk regions are colonised by MDR-GN bacteria, with colonisation lasting up to a year.
Previous traveller studies only analysed pre- and post-travel samples, rather than the actual travel period.
Researchers found that, of the group of 20 European volunteers visiting Laos, 70% had been colonised at the end of the study. Daily sampling revealed that all participants had acquired extended-spectrum beta-lactamases (ESBL) at some time point during their overseas stay.
ESBL enzymes create resistance within the body to most beta-lactam antibiotics, including penicillins, cephalosporins, and aztreonam. Infections with ESBL-producing organisms have proved difficult to treat.
All but one participant acquired multiple strains of bacteria with 83 unique strains identified (53 E. coli, 10 Klebsiella, 20 other ESBL-GN species) and some of these strains being shared by as many as four subjects.
Study co-senior author Jukka Corander, Associate Faculty at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, U.K., and professor at Faculty of Medicine at the University of Oslo commented: “Our study reveals the true scale and complexity at which drug-resistant bacteria colonise the intestinal tract during travel, demonstrating that it has been seriously underestimated previously...In addition, several of our participants lost some of their travel-acquired ESBL-GN strains while still abroad - indicating that previous studies solely employing pre- and post-travel sampling have under-reported the extent to which travellers are colonised by ESBL-GN.”
The lives of people lost due to wildlife-human conflicts are not adequately compensated in India, according to a new study which says changing the approach to this estimate can improve conservation efforts, and help understand which species to prioritise at conflict-prone zones.
The research, published in the journal PNAS, surveyed 5,196 households living near 11 wildlife reserves in India, and self-reported annual costs including crop and livestock losses, injuries, and human deaths.
"Human casualties contribute overwhelmingly to overall damages from wildlife interactions. This is despite the use of a relatively low valuation of human life from the literature," study lead author, Sumeet Gulati from The University of British Columbia in Canada, told PTI.
The researchers said compensation for human death ranges from ₹76,400 in Haryana, to ₹8,73,995 in Maharashtra. They said the average compensation paid for human death in the country is ₹1,91,437, and the average compensation paid for injury is ₹6,185.
According to Gulati, these compensation values, known as value of a statistical life (VSL) are typically calculated from labour market comparisons. "Controlling for how productive workers are across different industries, economists estimate how much of the compensation paid can be attributed to the risk of injury or death across occupations," Gulati explained. "One obvious way to improve this estimate is to have more studies estimating the VSL using data from developing countries."
According to the researchers, better compensation for human fatalities can likely reduce animosity towards the species conservationists intend to preserve.
"More importantly, if governments invested in measures to reduce conflict based on an accurate understanding of the real value of the loss of human life, conflict would be reduced, and animosity would fall, making both those living near the forest and those who care about the beings in the forest better off," Gulati explained.
According to the wildlife conservationist, the dominance of the costs of human casualties rationalises the innate fear and respect towards large species like elephants displayed by those living with wildlife in India.
Based on the findings, the scientists said focusing on the cost of human casualties while estimating losses from wildlife conflict is necessary.
"Our research is one of the largest scientific assessments of human-wildlife conflict globally," said study co-author Krithi Karanth from the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru. "We find that farmers experiencing a negative interaction with an elephant over the last year incur damages on average that are 600 and 900 times those incurred by farmers with negative interactions with the next most costly herbivore — the pig and the nilgai."
Similarly, she said farmers experiencing a negative interaction with a tiger over the last year incur damage that is on average three times that inflicted by a leopard, and a 100 times from a wolf.
Although a species is associated with a rare occurrence of human fatalities, the scientists said the expected cost of death from a negative interaction could be much higher than the expected cost of frequently occurring crop or livestock damage. "Conservation managers have to prioritise human casualties and improve assistance provided to people," Karanth added.
People with comorbidities will need a doctor certificate to avail COVID-19 jab during the second phase of the vaccination drive, a task force member told The Hindu. The second phase of vaccination is set to begin from March 1 for people above 60 years of age and also those above 45 years of age with comorbidities.
The vaccines will be available at both government and private hospital vaccination sites.
According to N.K. Arora, Head of the Operations Research Group of the COVID-19 Task Force, the cost of vaccine and delivery (vaccine administration) at private hospitals will be announced in a day or two. Vaccines will be provided for free at government vaccination sites.
“Those older than 45 years and with comorbidities will need a certificate from a registered medical doctor. But those older than 60 years will not need any certificate,” Dr. Arora told The Hindu. “Comorbidities will include hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, kidney and lung diseases, cancers and those on immuno-suppressants. A full list will be provided soon.”
Dr. Arora also said that only Serum Institute’s Covishield vaccine will be available at private hospitals.
“Self-registration on CoWIN will be needed for those with comorbidities above the age of 45 years,” he said. “This will help in knowing how many have been vaccinated and also helps in informing the recipients when the second dose is scheduled.”
According to him, for those above 60 years, self-registration will be permitted so that anyone wishing to get vaccinated is not missed. It is not clear if the names of those above 60 years will be uploaded by the government based on the electoral list.
“On registration on CoWIN, the applicant will be informed of the government and private hospital sites closest to his/her place of residence. The applicant can choose whether to go to a government vaccination site or a private hospital,” Dr. Arora said.
CoWIN will be open for self-registration from March 1 onwards, Dr. Arora said.
Published in Science Robotics
If you thought all robots need electronics to function, meet this cute four-legged soft robot that uses pressurised air to function. The authors write that these robots can find applications in places where electronics cannot function, such as MRI machines and mine shafts. The team is now working to improve the robot’s gait to help it walk on uneven surfaces and navigate over obstacles.
Published in Science
Cygnus X-1, one of the closest black holes to Earth discovered in 1964, has now been found to have a mass of over 20 times the mass of our Sun. Co-author Professor Ilya Mandel said in a release that the black hole is so massive it’s actually challenging how astronomers thought they formed. “The black hole in the Cygnus X-1 system began life as a star approximately 60 times the mass of the Sun and collapsed tens of thousands of years ago,” he said.
Published in Nature Communications
Ice is a very versatile material, with about 18 crystalline forms known so far. The different arrangement of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, different pressure and temperature help in the formation of these different types of ice. Using a new cooling process and by increasing the pressure to around 20-kilo bar, researchers produced a new ice XIX and have now elucidated its crystal structure.
Published in Cell
The human gut houses over 142,000 species of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), notes a new study. “It’s important to remember that not all viruses are harmful, but represent an integral component of the gut ecosystem,” says co-author Dr. Alexandre Almeida in a release. “It’s fascinating to see how many unknown species live in our gut, and to try and unravel the link between them and human health.”
Published in Nature Plants
Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, researchers have now found a way to increase the number of maize kernels per cob. "A lot of people were using CRISPR in a very simple sense just to disrupt genes completely, to knock out the gene. But we came up with this new idea to CRISPR the promoter regions that turn the gene on," says Professor David Jackson in a release. The team hopes this new strategy will increase crop yield per acre and make agriculture more sustainable.
China says its Tianwen-1 spacecraft has entered a temporary parking orbit around Mars in anticipation of landing a rover on the red planet in the coming months.
The China National Space Administration said the spacecraft executed a maneuver to adjust its orbit early Wednesday morning Beijing time and will remain in the new orbit for about the next three months before attempting to land. During that time, it will be mapping the surface of Mars and using its cameras and other sensors to collect further data, particularly about its prospective landing site.
Also read | China's Tianwen-1 probe successfully enters Mars orbit
That follows the landing of the U.S. Perseverance rover last Thursday near an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater to search for signs of ancient microscopic life.
A successful bid to land Tianwen-1 would make China only the second country after the U.S. to place a spacecraft on Mars. China's solar-powered vehicle, about the size of a golf cart, will collect data on underground water and look for evidence that the planet may have once harbored microscopic life.
Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.” Landing a spacecraft on Mars is notoriously tricky. About a dozen orbiters missed the mark. In 2011, a Mars-bound Chinese orbiter that was part of a Russian mission didn't make it out of Earth orbit.
China's attempt will involve a parachute, rocket firings and airbags. Its proposed landing site is a vast, rock-strewn plain called Utopia Planitia, where the U.S. Viking 2 lander touched down in 1976.
Tianwen-1's arrival at Mars on Feb. 10 was preceded by that of an orbiter from the United Arab Emirates. All three of the latest missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment between Earth and Mars that happens only once every two years.
Tianwen-1 represents the most ambitious mission yet for China's secretive, military-linked space program that first put an astronaut in orbit around Earth in 2003 and last year brought moon rocks back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. China was also the first country to land a spacecraft on the little-explored far side of the moon in 2019.
China is also building a permanent space station and planning a crewed lunar mission and a possible permanent research base on the moon, though no dates have yet been proposed.
The program is a source of enormous national pride and Tianwen-1 has attracted a particularly strong following among the public. Tourists flocked to tropical Hainan island to watch the launch, while others visit mock Mars colonies in desert sites with white domes, airlocks and spacesuits.
A kangaroo painting created over 17,000 years ago by Aboriginal artists has been identified — with a little help from some ancient wasps — as Australia's oldest intact rock art.
The two-metre-long (six-feet) artwork on the sloped ceiling of a rock shelter in Western Australia's Kimberley region was painted in an early naturalistic style, which often features life-sized renderings of animals, according to research published Monday.
Scientists worked with the local Aboriginal community, who can trace their heritage in the region back tens of thousands of years, to establish the age of original rock artworks, many of them worked and reworked over millennia.
"The main challenge, globally, in dating ancient paintings is that they very rarely employed a pigment that can be dated with any of the current, quantitative dating techniques," lead author Damien Finch, a geochronologist at the University of Melbourne, told AFP.
To get around this the researchers identified a way to work out the age of the painting using ancient mud wasp nests.
Finch and his colleagues found that some of the rock paintings had the remains of these nests — which can be radiocarbon dated — above and below the images.
They estimated that the kangaroo painting was between 17,500 and 17,100 years old, the oldest discovered to date. "It's important that Indigenous knowledge and stories are not lost and continue to be shared for generations to come," said Cissy Gore-Birch, head of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, in a statement from the University of Western Australia.
She said partnerships could weave together traditional knowledge with western science, adding that the dating of the oldest known rock shelter painting "holds a great deal of significance for Aboriginal people and Australians and is an important part of Australia's history."
In total, the team dated 27 mud wasp nests around 16 different paintings from eight rock shelters, and found that the artworks in this same naturalistic style were produced between around 17,000 and 13,000 years ago.
The images were mostly depictions of animals, including a snake, a lizard-like figure, and three macropods — marsupials including kangaroos, wallabies and quokkas.
"This is a significant find as through these initial estimates, we can understand something of the world these ancient artists lived in," said Finch in a statement, adding that the environment would have been cooler and drier than today.
"We can never know what was in the mind of the artist when he/she painted this piece of work more than 600 generations ago, but we do know that the Naturalistic period extended back into the Last Ice Age."
The research, part of Australia's largest rock art dating project, was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Cape Canaveral (U.S.) The huge parachute used by NASA’s Perseverance rover to land on Mars contained a secret message, thanks to a puzzle lover on the spacecraft team.
Systems engineer Ian Clark used a binary code to spell out “Dare Mighty Things” in the orange and white strips of the 21-metre parachute. He also included the GPS coordinates for the mission’s headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Mr. Clark, a crossword hobbyist, came up with the idea two years ago. Engineers wanted an unusual pattern in the nylon fabric to know how the parachute was oriented during descent. Turning it into a secret message was “super fun”, he said Tuesday.
Only about six people knew about the encoded message before Thursday’s landing, according to Mr. Clark. They waited until the parachute images came back before putting out a teaser during a televised news conference on Monday.
It took just a few hours for space fans to figure it out, Mr. Clark said. Next time, he noted, “I'll have to be a little bit more creative.” “Dare Mighty Things” — a line from President Theodore Roosevelt — is a mantra at JPL and adorns many of the centre’s walls. The trick was “trying to come up with a way of encoding it but not making it too obvious,” Mr. Clark said.
As for the GPS coordinates, the spot is 3 metres from the entrance to JPL’s visitor centre.
Another added touch not widely known until touchdown: Perseverance bears a plaque depicting all five of NASA’s Mars rovers in increasing size over the years — similar to the family car decals seen on Earth.
Deputy project manager Matt Wallace promises more so-called hidden Easter eggs. They should be visible once Perseverance’s 2-metre arm is deployed in a few days and starts photographing under the vehicle, and again when the rover is driving in a couple weeks.
“Definitely, definitely should keep a good lookout,” he urged.
The IIT Ropar on Tuesday said it has developed a low-cost device to produce electrolysed water that could be used as an alternative to alcohol-based disinfectant.
A team of Dr. Vishwajeet Mehandia, assistant professor, Dr.S. Manigandan of the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Prof. C.R. Suri, head, central research facility, has developed the device. An official statement said the electrolysed water could be used to combat COVID-19.
The acidic electrolysed water has a pH of 5.0-6.5 and high concentration of Free Available Chlorine (FAC). It was reported recently that freely available chlorine can potently inactivate the virus. The electrolysed water also shows strong killing activity against bacteria, fungi and many other types of viruses, said the statement.
Unlike traditional procedure of cleaning water with chlorine treatment, electrolysed water does not harm humans. It also shows strong activity against food-borne pathogens that could be beneficial for food and agricultural industries, it said.
“We have successfully developed the electrolysed water from the tap water in our laboratory with a pH of 5.0-6.5 and a high concentration of FAC. It can be prepared within five minutes and is stable up to one week. We have tested the stability of electrolysed water for up to 48 hours,” said Dr. Mehandia.
Prof. Suri said, “It can be used in healthcare, food safety, water treatment, and general sanitation.”
Dr. Manigandan said the electrolysed water can be used as “a powerful natural tool” in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. It is non-toxic and non-flammable and therefore does not require hazardous or chemical storage or handling precautions. Nor are there any special shipping or export requirements.”
The team is also in touch with a few industrial partners to commercialise the technology, he said.
Some microbes found on Earth may temporarily survive on the surface of Mars, according to a study that could be vital for the success of future missions to the Red Planet.
The researchers from NASA and German Aerospace Center tested the endurance of microorganisms to Martian conditions by launching them into stratosphere, the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere which closely represents key conditions on Mars.
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, paves the way for understanding not only the threat of microbes to space missions, but also the opportunities for resource independence from Earth.
"We successfully tested a new way of exposing bacteria and fungi to Mars-like conditions by using a scientific balloon to fly our experimental equipment up to Earth's stratosphere," said Marta Filipa Cortesao, joint first author of the study from the German Aerospace Center. "Some microbes, in particular spores from the black mold fungus, were able to survive the trip, even when exposed to very high ultraviolet (UV) radiation"
When searching for extra-terrestrial life, the scientists need to be sure that anything that they discover has not just travelled from the Earth.
"With crewed long-term missions to Mars, we need to know how human-associated microorganisms would survive on the Red Planet, as some may pose a health risk to astronauts," said joint first author Katharina Siems, also based at the German Aerospace Center. "In addition, some microbes could be invaluable for space exploration. They could help us produce food and material supplies independently from Earth, which will be crucial when far away from home."
Many key characteristics of the environment at the Martian surface cannot be found or easily replicated at the surface of Earth, however in middle stratosphere the conditions are remarkably similar.
"We launched the microbes into the stratosphere inside the MARSBOx (Microbes in Atmosphere for Radiation, Survival and Biological Outcomes experiment) payload, which was kept at Martian pressure and filled with artificial Martian atmosphere throughout the mission," explained Cortesao. "The box carried two sample layers, with the bottom layer shielded from radiation."
This allowed the researchers to separate the effects of radiation from the other tested conditions: desiccation, atmosphere, and temperature fluctuation during the flight.
The top layer samples were exposed to more than a thousand times more UV radiation than levels that can cause sunburn on our skin, they said.
"While not all the microbes survived the trip, one previously detected on the International Space Station, the black mold Aspergillus niger, could be revived after it returned home," Siems explained. "Microorganisms are closely-connected to us; our body, our food, our environment, so it is impossible to rule them out of space travel.”
Solar winds may have led to Mars losing its atmosphere, according to a computer simulation study which confirms the long held belief that planets need a protective magnetic field to block such harmful radiations in order to sustain life.
While factors like the existence of a moderately warm, moist atmosphere and liquid water determine whether a planet can host life, the study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, noted that the ability of planets to generate magnetic fields around them is an overlooked aspect.
According to the scientists, Arnab Basak and Dibyendu Nandi from the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, these magnetic fields enveloping planets can act like a protective umbrella, shielding the atmosphere from the super fast plasma winds of the Sun.
On the Earth, they said a geo-dynamo mechanism generates the planet's protective magnetosphere — an invisible shield that stops the solar wind from eroding away our atmosphere.
In the current study, the scientists simulated two scenarios of the Red Planet — one considering a young Mars with its magnetosphere intact, and the other with the planet without this force field.
The simulations revealed that in the young Mars, the magnetosphere may have acted as a shield stopping the solar wind from coming too close to the planet's atmosphere thus protecting it.
Without an intrinsic magnetosphere, the researchers said the solar wind magnetic field may have first draped around, and slipped past Mars, carrying bits of the planet's atmosphere away, eventually eroding it completely. They said the findings confirm the belief that the magnetospheres around planets play a crucial role in determining their ability to sustain life.
Alternatively, planets that lose their magnetic field eventually become inhospitable with loss of their atmosphere, the scientists added.
The researchers believe the study has important implications for the search for habitable exoplanets via initiatives like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope and ISRO's ExoWorlds mission.
(Subscribe to Science For All, our weekly newsletter, where we aim to take the jargon out of science and put the fun in. Click here.)
The U.S. space agency NASA on Monday released the first audio from Mars, a faint crackling recording of a gust of wind captured by the Perseverance rover
NASA also released the first video of last week's landing of the rover, which is on a mission to search for signs of past life on the Red Planet.
A microphone did not work during the rover's descent to the surface, but it was able to capture audio once it landed on Mars.
NASA engineers played a 60-second recording.
"What you hear there 10 seconds in is an actual wind gust on the surface of Mars picked up by the microphone and sent back to us here on Earth," said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for the camera and microphone system on Perseverance.
The high-definition video clip, lasting three minutes and 25 seconds, shows the deployment of a red-and-white parachute with a 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy.
It shows the heat shield dropping away after protecting Perseverance during its entry into the Martian atmosphere and the rover's touchdown in a cloud of dust in the Jezero Crater just north of the Red Planet's equator.
"This is the first time we've ever been able to capture an event like the landing on Mars," said Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the mission.
"These are really amazing videos," Mr. Watkins said. "We binge-watched them all weekend.">
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, said the video of Perseverance's descent is "the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit."
Jessica Samuels, Perseverance's surface mission manager, said the rover was operating as expected so far and engineers were conducting an intensive check of its systems and instruments.
"I am happy to report that Perseverance is healthy and is continuing with activities as we have been planning them," Ms. Samuels said.
She said the team was preparing for a flight by the rover's small helicopter drone dubbed Ingenuity.
"The team is still evaluating," she said. "We have not locked in a site yet."
Ingenuity will attempt the first powered flight on another planet and will have to achieve lift in an atmosphere that is just one percent the density of Earth's.
Perseverance was launched on July 30, 2020 and landed on the surface of Mars on Thursday.
Its prime mission will last just over two years but it is likely to remain operational well beyond that. Its predecessor Curiosity is still functioning eight years after landing on Mars.
Over the coming years, Perseverance will attempt to collect 30 rock and soil samples in sealed tubes to be sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for lab analysis.
About the size of an SUV, the craft weighs a ton, is equipped with a seven-foot-long robotic arm, has 19 cameras, two microphones and a suite of cutting-edge instruments.
Mars was warmer and wetter in its distant past, and while previous exploration has determined the planet was habitable, Perseverance is tasked with determining whether it was actually inhabited.
It will begin drilling its first samples in summer, and along the way it will deploy new instruments to scan for organic matter, map chemical composition and zap rocks with a laser to study the vapor.
One experiment involves an instrument that can convert oxygen from Mars' primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, much like a plant.
The idea is that humans eventually won't need to carry their own oxygen on hypothetical future trips, which is crucial for rocket fuel as well as for breathing.
The rover is only the fifth to set its wheels down on Mars. The feat was first accomplished in 1997, and all of them have been American.
The United States is preparing for an eventual human mission to the planet, though planning remains very preliminary.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) on Monday conducted two successful launches of vertical launch short range surface-to-air missile (VL-SRSAM) off the Odisha coast in Balasore.
The launches were carried out from a static vertical launcher from Integrated Test Range (ITR), Chandipur.
Indigenously designed and developed by DRDO for the Navy, the VL-SRSAM is meant for neutralising various aerial threats at close ranges, including sea-skimming targets, the DRDO said.
The launches were carried out for demonstration of vertical launch capability as part of its maiden launch campaign.
On both the occasions, the missiles intercepted the simulated targets with pinpoint accuracy. They were tested for minimum and maximum range.
The VL-SRSAM with weapon control system (WCS) was deployed during the trials.
The launches were monitored by senior scientists from various DRDO labs involved in the design and development such as DRDL, RCI, Hyderabad and R&D Engineers, Pune.
The flight path and vehicle performance parameters were monitored using flight data, captured by various range instruments such as Radar, EOTS and telemetry systems deployed by the ITR, Chandipur.
The trials have proved the effectiveness of the weapon system and few more trials will be conducted shortly before deployment on the ships.
Once deployed, the VL-SRSAM system will prove to be a force multiplier for the Navy.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh congratulated DRDO on the successful trials. Dr. G Satheesh Reddy, Secretary, Department of Defence R&D and Chairman, DRDO congratulated the teams involved in the successful flight test of VL-SRSAM Missile System.
Taking to twitter, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said, “Congratulate @DRDO_India on the successful launch of indigenously developed vertical launch short range surface-to- air-missile (VL-SRSAM)@indiannavy, off the coast of #Odisha.” As a safety measure, the Balasore district administration in consultation with the ITR authority at Chandipur temporarily evacuated 6,322 people residing in five hamlets within 2.5-km radius of the launch pad.
They were put up at the nearest shelter centres in the morning, a revenue official said.
Chandrayaan-3, India's third mission to Moon, is likely to be launched in 2022, ISRO chief K. Sivan has said.
The COVID-19 lockdown has hit several projects of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) including Chandrayaan-3, which was scheduled to be launched in late 2020, and Gaganyaan, the country's first manned space mission.
Unlike its predecessor, Chandrayaan-3 will not have an orbiter.
“We are working on it. It is the same configuration like Chandrayaan-2 but it will not have an orbiter. The orbiter launched during Chandrayaan-2 will be used for Chandrayaan-3. With that we are working on a system and mostly the launch will be next year in 2022,” Mr. Sivan told PTI.
Chandrayaan-2, aimed at landing a rover on unchartered Lunar South Pole, was launched on July 22, 2019 on board the country's most powerful geosynchronous launch vehicle.
However, the lander Vikram hard-landed on September 7, 2019, crashing India's dream to become the first nation to successfully land on the lunar surface in its maiden attempt.
Chandrayaan-3 is critical for ISRO as it will demonstrate India's capabilities to make landing for further interplanetary missions.
He said ISRO is targeting December to launch the first unmanned mission under the Gaganyaan project. The mission was originally scheduled to launch in December last year.
It will be followed by another unmanned mission and the third leg is the main module, he said.
Gaganyaan envisages to send three Indians to space by 2022. The four test pilots selected for the mission are currently undergoing training in Russia.
When asked about the launch of the third module of Gaganyaan – the manned mission – Mr. Sivan said, “A lot of technology needs to be demonstrated. We will decide on the time (of the manned mission) after checking whether all the technology is perfect.”
The status of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in healthcare facilities is an important issue in development. In an article published recently in BMJ Global Health, researchers from Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), Maryland, US, have estimated the cost of ensuring WASH and taking related steps for infection prevention and control for one year in healthcare facilities in all of India.
They estimate that improving WASH across the pubic healthcare facilities in India and maintaining this for a year would cost $354 million (Rs 2567,00,00,000 approximately) in capital costs and $289 million (Rs 2095,00,00,000 approximately) in recurrent expenses.
The study further finds that the most costly interventions were providing clean water, linen reprocessing and sanitation while the least expensive were hand hygiene, medical device reprocessing and environmental surface cleaning. A 2019 joint global baseline report by WHO and UNICEF had pointed out that globally, one in four healthcare facilities lacked basic water servicing and one in five had no sanitation service and 42% had no hygiene facilities at point of care.
A WHO document on WASH in healthcare facilities points out that 8,27,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene each year. Also, death of 2,97,000 children under five years can be prevented each year if better WASH could be provided.
On a positive note, a 2012 WHO report had calculated that for every dollar invested in sanitation, there was $5.50 to be gained in lower health costs, more productivity and fewer premature deaths.
It is noteworthy that ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation to all is one of the 2030 sustainable development goals of the WHO.
Given this context, the India study by CDDEP comes as a welcome first-level estimate.
“The goal of our study was to gather estimates of unit costs for each intervention service unit from which we extrapolated facility wide costs,” says Katie K. Tseng of CDDEP, the first author of the study, in an email to The Hindu. “In our calculation of national cost estimates, the proportion of healthcare facilities requiring intervention were estimated primarily from literature and not from surveyed healthcare facilities,” she says.
Inadequacies in proving WASH and also lack of infection prevention and control can lead to healthcare associated infections. Some of the pathogens to look out for are Acinetobacter baumannii, Enterococcus faecalis, Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhi, Streptococcus pneumoniae and many more. “These pathogens are commonly implicated as causative agents of healthcare associated infections because of their ability to develop resistance to antibiotics. Common healthcare associated infections include central-line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, surgical site infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia,” says Dr. Tseng.
In the fight against the spread of antimicrobial resistance too, the importance of prevention of infections cannot be overemphasised. “This study was a part of a larger project to determine the cost-effectiveness of WASH interventions to reduce healthcare-associated infections among mother and neonates across the Indian healthcare system,” says Jyoti Joshi of CDDEP, another author of the paper.
According to her, while this study forms the starting point for larger costing estimates, it also highlights the need for a concerted effort from local bodies, State and Central governments to sustainably address quality and inequality issues in WASH provision.
“We believe our findings show that addressing gaps in WASH across the Indian healthcare system is not only within the realm of possibility in terms of affordability – when compared to other national health campaigns – but can also be combined with other national efforts to address health priorities such as antimicrobial resistance,” she says.
“The intersection between WASH, infection prevention and control and antimicrobial resistance is unique in that it offers policy makers an opportunity to address multiple overlapping problems through interventions on WASH in healthcare facilities,” she adds.
British scientists have found (Science Advances) that lakes underneath the Antarctic ice sheet could be more hospitable than previously thought, and can host more microbial life. More than 400 ‘subglacial’ lakes have been discovered beneath the Antarctic ice sheet, many of which have been isolated from each other and the atmosphere for millions of years.
Researchers drilled into two small subglacial lakes at the edge of the ice sheet, where water can rapidly flow in or out and found microbial life beneath.
The lakes being cut off from sunlight, they derive their energy not through photosynthesis but by processing certain chemicals found in sediments on the lake beds. Since the sediments are found only on the lake bed, the water mixing is required so that the sediments are evenly distributed.
While water in surface lakes gets mixed by the action of wind and convection currents due to the sun’s heat, the team found that in the lakes beneath the Antarctic, ice mix is due to geothermals — rising from the interior of the Earth and generated by the combination of heat left over from the formation of the planet and the decay of radioactive elements.
“The water in lakes is not still and motionless; the flow of water is quite dynamic, enough to cause fine sediment to be suspended in the water. With dynamic flow of water, the entire body of water may be habitable, even if more life remains focused on the floors,” Louis Couston from the University of Lyon and the British Antarctic Survey and one of the authors of the study said in a release.
With the emergence of three variants — B.1.1.7 first found in Britain, B.1.1.248 first seen in Brazil, and B.1.351 first detected in South Africa — less than two months after the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved for emergency use by the U.S. FDA, all companies have begun making booster shots or tweaking the existing vaccine based on the new variants. Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore and a vaccine expert explains in an email the challenges in developing and testing newer vaccines to keep pace with the emergence of new variants.
Each variant (and many more beyond the first three that have been widely reported in the last couple of months) will need to be evaluated to see whether the variant has mutations in sites known to affect the antibody response. Because we have good structural models now, this is feasible in silico (or studying structures on a computer). If variants are found that might affect the immune response, then we will need to validate this information in real life. Doing this in humans in phase-3 trials is going to be very difficult if not impossible, so we will have to develop methods that can be done faster. One example of an approach would be to challenge studies in animals, where animals immunised with the version of the vaccine to be tested are challenged with the variant virus.
There have been experiments in primates, but not with the variant strains, where it was shown that a low level of antibodies is required for protection, but also that if antibody responses are less than needed then cellular immune responses may also contribute to protection. So we could hypothesise that in case of a variant, what was an effective antibody response could become less effective in terms of antibodies, but the cellular immune system could come to the rescue, but this will need to be tested.
Designing the vaccine requires the sequences of the variants. While we can predict which variants are likely to matter for antibody binding and neutralisation, there will be a need to validate the results. The design of the vaccine can be done in a few days, and production of the vaccine is a matter of a few weeks. But after that, knowing whether a vaccine works will require a testing strategy that has not been defined yet. It is highly unlikely that we will be repeating phase-3 studies for every new vaccine based on a variant strain, but we do need alternative regulatory pathways, and most likely these will involve hundreds rather than tens of thousands of people.
If we had an immune correlate of protection, where a biological specimen, most likely blood, from a vaccinated person could be tested to show that the person was protected from disease, that would make it easier. But would we need a separate correlate for each variant virus? At the moment, we do not know.
Yes, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easy to redesign as a booster based on a variant strain, and the time taken will not be much longer than for mRNA vaccines.
Redesigning and making the vaccine is not the major hurdle. We need to figure ways of being reasonably sure that the vaccine will work in humans, and preferably against old and new variants.
This is feasible to do — in many vaccines the first dose of the vaccine induces a response to the virus on which the vaccine is based, called a homologous response. With further doses, the immune response becomes more able to recognise a wider range of viruses — this is called a heterologous response. What we would like to induce with the smallest number of doses is a protection against a wide range of viruses — old and new variants.
We do not know. What is known is that vaccines that are based on the whole spike protein work, and work well. For inactivated vaccines, we expect that immune response that is induced will be against many proteins, including the spike. Does this mean that the vaccine will be more protective? It is feasible that additional immune response might induce a T cell response that could contribute to further protection, but that has not been shown at this time.
At the moment, we do not know what protects and how well, but we do know that vaccines based on the spike protect against disease, so it is not essential to have an immune response against other parts of the virus to induce protection. If the most important protein for inducing protection is the spike, then if an inactivated vaccine was made using an older variant with one kind of spike structure, why should we expect it to protect against a virus with a different spike?
When a vaccine is based on a whole virus, and we need a new version of the vaccine, is that a new vaccine and does it require a full evaluation through all the phases of testing? So far the only vaccine for which new versions, including inactivated vaccines, have been permitted to be licensed based on limited human testing are vaccines where we have a good understanding of what constitutes protective immunity or influenza vaccines — where annually updated vaccines are made.
Will regulators have to make new guidance for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines? I think this is very likely and many stringent regulatory authorities, like the U.S. FDA, are already in discussion about the testing requirements which will help the regulators to adequately assess the vaccines.
I do not think new phase-3 trials will be required — proving variant specific efficacy will be a logistic nightmare and very expensive, so we will need to have better ways for regulators to evaluate new vaccines on any platform.
I think we will need phase-1 and phase-2 studies of safety and immunogenicity. It is likely that regulators will require inclusion of standards such as those developed by the National Institute of Biological Standards (which is derived from people who have been infected and recovered, but may need to be periodically revised or added to ensure that the standard or panel of standards cover the breadth of viral variants).
Not every variant requires a new vaccine. The D614G mutation emerged in early 2020 and became globally dominant, but vaccines based on older variants protect, and protect well.
We can design a new vaccine in days, produce small amounts in weeks and test in weeks or months. The duration of testing requires a regulatory pathway — how much testing will be needed to approve a new vaccine. Manufacturing at scale can take several months, but again when a vaccine is a modification going into an established process, this is not impossible.
It is not inevitable, but it is possible. I think it is more likely that with a primary set of two immunisations we might need to take boosters perhaps in a couple of years. After that depending on whether the virus settles down to be endemic and less severe or continues to cause severe disease flare-ups, we may not need a vaccine or need subsequent boosters.
Influenza vaccines are decided based on strains recommended by WHO twice a year for northern and southern hemisphere vaccines. They require animal studies in ferrets and small safety and immunogenicity studies, based on measurement of antibodies. If we had a reasonable antibody measurement which could reflect protection, then we could potentially follow a similar strategy for SARS-CoV-2.
Original antigenic sin depends on the antigen which induced the immune response, and as far as I know should not differ between mRNA vaccines or spike-based protein vaccine (unless the adjuvant differs).
With the mRNA vaccines, we know that the antibodies induced by older variants have decreased but not absent activity against the variants. Unlike other infections, where a worry is that the original response might trap the immune system into an ineffective response, that does not appear to be the case at this time for [SARS-CoV-2] infection or vaccination, but we will need to do the evaluations.
Based on what we know about the other coronaviruses, and now about SARS-CoV-2, the spike is the most important protein certainly for the antibody response. It is not clear what a nucleocapsid protein might contribute to humoral and cellular immunity. We cannot treat all variants as being equivalent and make predictions on what might or might not work. We will need experimental evidence from the laboratory in animals and in humans.
There are several approaches, including adoptive transfer experiments that might help us with answers to these questions, but to my knowledge, we are only at the start of working with variants.
At the moment, we can only hypothesise and then proceed to test. The first vaccine to combine two different vaccines for a single pathogen was the Janssen vaccine for Ebola, which uses an adenovirus vector for the first dose and a different poxvirus vector (modified Vaccinia Ankara) for the second dose and this was licensed in 2020. So we have proof-of-principle, but are new to this. We now have the Sputnik V or the Gamaleya vaccine which usesAd26, the same vector as the Janssen Ebola and COVID-19 vaccines, for the first dose and the Ad 5 vector, same as used by CanSino, for the second dose. We have data showing high vaccine efficacy, and there are also studies combining the Ad26 with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the UK, studies have started combining the Pfizer mRNA and the AstraZeneca vaccines. These studies will only evaluate immunogenicity and not efficacy. However, these types of studies are very valuable, because from the sera of individuals participating in studies of combinations of vaccines it will be possible to evaluate the ability of antibodies produced in vaccinated individuals to bind to and neutralise different types of variants which will give us a better understanding of approaches that may work well in vaccination programmes.
Yes, we will continue to have variants. All RNA viruses have higher rates of mutation than DNA viruses, and among the RNA viruses coronaviruses mutate relatively slowly. Nonetheless, SARS-CoV-2 has been accumulating mutations at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Recently, from California, we have also had another form of change, called recombination, where two viruses can combine with each other to produce a hybrid virus. The only reason that we are able to find these variants now, is because we are looking for them and sequencing more than we have ever done before. Now that we have a sense of how and how fast change happens in SARS-CoV-2, we should expect to continue to have variants and have the laboratories ready to sequence so that we stay a step ahead of virus spread.
The more important question is will variants matter and why? In my view, there are five reasons to track variants and understand what, if anything, we need to do about them. These are:
(1) Will the mutation result in a change in our ability to detect the virus? In other words, will our tests fail to detect infection? Since the most widely used test is RT-PCR, we might need to change the test if this happens.
(2) Will the mutation result in increased transmission? We know that this is happening with the new variants. The new viruses are getting better at sticking to their receptor protein, and that makes it easier for them to get into the host cell. This kind of evolution might continue to happen, since it makes it easier for the virus spread, which is an advantage for the virus.
(3) Will the mutation result in worse disease? Usually, as viruses evolve, they tend to cause milder disease and not more severe disease. It is in the interest of the virus to spread easily but not kill its host, because spread from a host that dies is not possible. There are some data that indicate that some of the new SARS-CoV2 variants cause more severe disease, but that has not been definitively proven yet. We need to track patients carefully to understand what is happening.
(4) Will the mutation allow the virus to escape treatments? At the moment with monoclonal antibodies, it has been shown in the laboratory that variant viruses can change enough to prevent antibodies from binding. We do not know whether the variants will escape treatments, because we do not have any direct antivirals that work well. Remdesivir is an antiviral, but not very good even against the older forms of the virus.
(5) Will the mutations allow the virus to avoid the immune responses induced by vaccines? Not all vaccines — we have data showing that most vaccines work well against the 501Y.V1, which is also known as the UK variant. On the other hand, we also already have data that show us that vaccines designed against older versions of the spike protein have lower efficacy against the new variants. There are data showing that the Janssen, Novavax and Astra-Zeneca vaccines all work less well against the 501Y.V2, or the South African variant.
Even if we quickly achieve herd immunity through vaccination, will the emergence of new variants in some part of the world threaten all the gains?
I do not think that with the new variants we will lose all the benefits of protection acquired through infection or vaccination. A variant virus is exactly that — a variant, a mostly related, slightly different virus, not an entirely new one.
These are early days of variants that partially escape the immune response. We know people can be re-infected and that immune responses induced by the older variants do not prevent mild or moderate illness, but we still need data on the more important outcomes of severe disease. When we have those data, we will be able to make better predictions and think about the future. At the moment, all we can offer is opinions based on very limited information.
The quiet, sleepy, yet mesmerising village of Mawsynram trounced Cherrapunji to become the wettest place in the world. Mawsynram receives over 10,000 millimetres of rain in a year.
A recent study that looked at the rainfall pattern in the past 119 years found a decreasing trend at Cherrapunji and nearby areas. The team analysed daily rain gauge measurements during 1901–2019, and noted that the changes in the Indian Ocean temperature have a huge effect on the rainfall in the region. They also analysed satellite data and add that there was a reduction in the vegetation area in northeast India in the past two decades, implying that human influence also plays an important role in the changing rainfall patterns.
“The traditional way of cultivation known as Jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation is now decreased and being replaced by other methods. Also, previous studies have noted there is sizable deforestation in the region. Our study also saw the decrease in vegetation cover and increase in the areas of cropland mainly from the year 2006 onwards,” says Jayanarayanan Kuttippurath from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. He is the lead author of the paper published last month in Environmental Research Letters.
Earth had its quietest period indecades during 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced human activity and its impact on the planet's crust, according to scientists working on a global study.
An international group of seismologists from 33 countries measured a drop of up to 50% in so-called ambient noise generated by humans travelling and factories humming after lockdowns came into force around the world.
The team, which included experts from the Swiss Seismological Service at ETH Zurich, a university, measured lower noise levels at 185 of the 268 seismic stations analysed around the world.
Urban ambient noise fell by up to 50% at some measuring stations during the tightest lockdown weeks, as buses and train services were reduced, aircraft grounded and factories shuttered.
NASA scientists on Friday presented striking early images from the picture-perfect landing of the Mars rover Perseverance, including a selfie of the six-wheeled vehicle dangling just above the surface of the Red Planet moments before touchdown.
The color photograph, likely to become an instant classic among memorable images from the history of spaceflight, was snapped by a camera mounted on the rocket-powered "sky crane" descent-stage just above the rover as the car-sized space vehicle was being lowered on Thursday to Martian soil.
The image was unveiled by mission managers during an online news briefing webcast from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory(JPL) near Los Angeles less than 24 hours after the landing.
The picture, looking down on the rover, shows the entire vehicle suspended from three cables unspooled from the skycrane, along with an "umbilical" communications cord. Swirls of dust kicked up by the crane's rocket thrusters are also visible.
Seconds later, the rover was gently planted on its wheels, its tethers were severed, and the sky crane - its job completed- flew off to crash a safe distance away, though not before photos and other data collected during the descent were transmitted to the rover for safe keeping.
The image of the dangling science lab, striking for its clarity and sense of motion, marks the first such close-up photo of a spacecraft landing on Mars, or any planet beyond Earth.
"This is something we've never seen before," Aaron Stehura, a deputy lead for the mission's descent and landing team, describing himself and colleagues as "awe-struck" when first viewing the image.
Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Perseverance project at JPL, said he found the image instantly iconic, comparable to the shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon in 1969, or the Voyager 1 probe's images of Saturn in 1980.
He said the viewer is connected with a landmark moment representing years of work by thousands of individuals.
"You are brought to the surface of Mars. You're sitting there, seven meters off the surface of the rover looking down," he said. "It's absolutely exhilarating, and it is evocative of those other images from our experience as human beings moving out into our solar system."
The image was taken at the very end of the so-called "seven-minutes-of-terror" descent sequence that brought Perseverance from the top of Mars' atmosphere, traveling at 12,000 miles per hour, to a gentle touchdown on the floor of avast basin called the Jezero Crater.
Next week, NASA hopes to present more photos and video — some possibly with audio — taken by all six cameras affixed tothe descending spacecraft, showing more of the sky crane maneuvers, as well as the supersonic parachute deployment that preceded it.
Pauline Hwang, strategic mission manager, said the rover itself "is doing great and is healthy on the surface of Mars, and continues to be highly functional and awesome."
The vehicle landed about two kilometers from tall cliffs at the base of a ancient river delta carved into the corner of the crater billions of years ago, when Mars was warmer, wetter and presumably hospitable to life.
Scientists say the site is ideal for pursuing Perseverance's primary objective — searching for fossilised traces of microbial life preserved in sediments believed to have been deposited around the delta and the long-vanished lake it once fed.
Samples of rock drilled from the Martian soil are to be stored on the surface for eventual retrieval and delivery to Earth by two future robotic missions to the Red Planet, as early as 2031.
Another color photo published on Friday, captured moments after the rover's arrival, shows a rocky expanse of terrain around the landing site and what appear to be the delta cliffs in the distance.
The mission's surface team will spend the coming days and weeks unfastening, unfurling and testing the vehicle's robot arm, communication antennae and other equipment, aligning instruments and upgrading the rover's software, Hwang said. She said it would be about nine "sols," or Martian days,before the rover is ready for its first test spin.
One of Perseverance's tasks before embarking on its search for signs of microbial life will be to deploy a miniature helicopter it carried to Mars for an unprecedented extraterrestrial test flight. But Hwang said that effort was still about two months away.
As the world witnessed the historic landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on the Martian surface, it was Indian-American scientist, Swati Mohan, who led the guidance, navigation, and control operations of the Mars 2020 mission.
Ms. Mohan also confirmed that the rover had survived a particularly tricky plunge through the Martian atmosphere.
"Touchdown confirmed," exclaimed Ms. Mohan, who emigrated from India to the US when she was only a year old. She says the Guidance, Navigation, and Controls Operations (GN&C) are "eyes and ears" of the spacecraft.
Raised in Northern Virginia and Washington DC metro area, she completed her bachelor's degree from Cornell University in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, and her M.S. and Ph.D from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Aeronautics/Astronautics.
Over the course of her career with NASA, Ms. Mohan has worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and GRAIL — a pair of formation flown spacecraft to the Moon, and has been a mainstay with the Mars 2020 mission since its beginning in 2013.
According to Ms.Mohan, her interest in space was peaked after watching the popular TV show Star Trek when she was nine-years-old.
“Seeing the beautiful depictions of the new regions of the universe that they were exploring. I remember thinking ‘I want to do that. I want to find new and beautiful places in the universe.’ The vastness of space holds so much knowledge that we have only begun to learn,” she had told NASA.
She noted that her passion for space increased further when she took her first physics class. “I was lucky enough to have a great teacher, and everything was so understandable and easy. That was when I really considered engineering, as a way to pursue space,” she added.
Commenting on her team's role in the current mission, Ms. Mohan said during the cruise phase heading toward Mars, their job is to figure out how the spacecraft is oriented, and make sure it is pointed correctly in space — “solar arrays to sun, antenna to Earth, and maneuver the spacecraft to get it where we want to go.” She said during the "seven minutes of terror" leading to the entry, descent, and landing on Mars, GN&C determines the position of the spacecraft and commands the maneuvers to help it land safely.
“As the team's operations lead, I am the primary point of communication between the GN&C subsystem and the rest of the project. I am responsible for the training of the GN&C team, scheduling the mission control staffing for GN&C, as well as the policies/procedures the GN&C uses in the mission control room," Ms. Mohan noted.
NASA's science rover Perseverance, the most advanced astrobiology laboratory ever sent to another world, streaked through the Martian atmosphere on Thursday and landed safely on the floor of a vast crater, its first stop on a search for traces of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
Mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles burst into applause and cheers as radio signals confirmed that the six-wheeled rover had survived its perilous descent and arrived within its target zone inside Jezero Crater, site of a long-vanished Martian lake bed.
The robotic vehicle sailed through space for nearly seven months, covering 293 million miles (472 million km) before piercing the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 miles per hour (19,000 km per hour) to begin its approach to touchdown on the planet's surface.
The spacecraft's self-guided descent and landing during a complex series of maneuvers that NASA dubbed "the seven minutes of terror" stands as the most elaborate and challenging feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight.
"It really is the beginning of a new era," NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said earlier in the day during NASA's webcast of the event.
The landing represented the riskiest part of two-year, $2.7 billion endeavor whose primary aim is to search for possible fossilized signs of microbes that may have flourished on Mars some 3 billion years ago, when the fourth planet from the sun was warmer, wetter and potentially hospitable to life.
Scientists hope to find biosignatures embedded in samples of ancient sediments that Perseverance is designed to extract from Martian rock for future analysis back on Earth - the first such specimens ever collected by humankind from another planet.
Scientists have recovered the oldest DNA on record, extracting it from the molars of mammoths that roamed northeastern Siberia up to 1.2 million years ago in research that broadens the horizons for understanding extinct species.
The researchers said on Wednesday they had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of three individual mammoths — elephant cousins that were among the large mammals that dominated Ice Age landscapes — entombed in permafrost conditions conducive to preservation of ancient genetic material.
While the remains were discovered starting in the 1970s, new scientific methods were needed to extract the DNA.
The oldest of the three, discovered near the Krestovka river, was approximately 1.2 million years old. Another, from near the Adycha river, was approximately 1 to 1.2 million years old. The third, from near the Chukochya river, was roughly700,000 years old.
"This is by a wide margin the oldest DNA ever recovered," said evolutionary geneticist Love Dalén of the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden, who led the research published in the journal Nature.
Until now, the oldest DNA came from a horse that lived in Canada's Yukon territory about 700,000 years ago. By way of comparison, our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago.
DNA is the self-replicating material that carries genetic information in living organisms — sort of a blueprint of life. "This DNA was extremely degraded into very small pieces, and so we had to sequence many billions of ultra-short DNA sequences in order to puzzle these genomes together," Dalén said.
Most knowledge about prehistoric creatures comes from studying skeletal fossils, but there is a limit to what these can tell about an organism, particularly relating to genetic relationships and traits.
Ancient DNA can help fill in the blanks but is highly perishable. Sophisticated new research techniques are enabling scientists to recover ever-older DNA.
"It would be a wild guess, but a maximum of two to three million years should be doable," Dalén said.
That could shed light on some bygone species but would leave many others unattainable — including the dinosaurs, who wentextinct 66 million years ago. "When we can get DNA on a million-year time scale, we can study the process of speciation (formation of new species) in a much more detailed way. Morphological analyses on bones and teeth usually only allow researchers to study a handful of characteristics in the fossils, whereas with genomics we are analysing many tens of thousands of characteristics," Dalén said.
The researchers gained insights into mammoth evolution and migration by comparing the DNA to that of mammoths that lived more recently. The last mammoths disappeared roughly 4,000 years ago.
The oldest of the three specimens, the Krestovka mammoth,belonged to a previously unknown genetic lineage that more than 2 million years ago diverged from the lineage that led to the well-known woolly mammoth.
Geneticist Tom van der Valk of SciLife Lab in Sweden, the study's first author, said it appears that members of the Krestovka lineage were the first mammoths to migrate from Siberia into North America over a now-disappeared land bridge about 1.5 million years ago, with woolly mammoths later migrating about 400,000 to 500,000 years ago.
The Adycha mammoth's lineage apparently was ancestral to the woolly mammoth, they found, and the Chukochya individual is one of the oldest-known woolly mammoth specimens.
DNA analyses showed that genetic variants associated with enduring frigid climes such as hair growth, thermo regulation,fat deposits, cold tolerance and circadian rhythms were present long before the origin of the woolly mammoth.
Kunchala Kyvalya Reddy, an eighth standard student, has brought laurels to the State by bagging a certificate from International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC) for “provisional discovery” of an asteroid.
The 12-year-old analysed the photographs clicked through the PAN STARRS telescope and identified an asteroid located in the asteroid belt between the planets, Jupiter and Mars.
She received training at the New Delhi-based Space Port India Foundation. She is studying in Narayana English Medium School at Nidadavole in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
Spacecraft aiming to land on Mars have skipped past the planet, burned up on entry, smashed into the surface, and made it down amid a fierce dust storm only to spit out a single fuzzy gray picture before dying.
Almost 50 years after the first casualty at Mars, NASA is attempting its hardest Martian touchdown yet.
The rover named Perseverance on February 18 is headed for a compact 5-mile-by-4-mile (8-kilometer-by-6.4-kilometer) patch on the edge of an ancient river delta. It's filled with cliffs, pits, sand dunes and fields of rocks, any of which could doom the $3 billion mission. The once submerged terrain also could hold evidence of past life, all the more reason to gather samples at this spot for return to Earth 10 years from now.
While NASA has done everything possible to ensure success, “there's always this fear that it won't work well, it won't go well,” Erisa Stilley, a landing team engineer, said on February 16. “We've had a pretty good run of successful missions recently and you never want to be the next one that isn't. It's heartbreaking when it happens.”
The genome sequencing lab at NIMHANS has uploaded results of nearly 250 genome sequences on the global genomic database so far, said V. Ravi, nodal officer for genetic confirmation for SARS-CoV-2 in Karnataka.
Dr. Ravi, who is also a member of the State’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), said India has contributed more than 7,000 sequences on the global database and nearly 2,500 were in the last one-and-a-half months alone.
“We know what are the circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2 in India based on the sequences. We had done over 120 sequences prior to the U.K. variant sequencing for our research project,” he said.
NIMHANS has tested 86 samples of U.K. returnees of which 25 were positive for the new strain. None had the Brazilian or the South African variant, he said.
He said that Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG) labs (a group of 10 labs) are awaiting funds from the Centre to do more genomic sequencing.
“A meeting will be held on February 25 with the Centre to finalise the funding. After this, 5% of routine samples in each State will be sent for genomic sequencing,” he added.
An unmanned Russian cargo ship docked at the International Space Station on Wednesday with a load of supplies.
The Progress MS-16 cargo ship, which blasted off Monday from the Russia-leased Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan, has delivered water, propellant and other supplies to the orbiting outpost.
The station's crew guided the ship to moor at the station in manual mode at 0627 GMT (local time) (11:57 a.m. IST) following a last-minute glitch in the automated docking system.
The space station is now operated by NASA's Kate Rubins, Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi; and Russian Space Agency Roscosmos' Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.
Sixty-six million years ago, a huge celestial object struck off the coast of what is now Mexico, triggering a catastrophic "impact winter" that eventually wiped out three-quarters of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs.
A pair of astronomers at Harvard say they have now resolved long standing mysteries surrounding the nature and origin of the "Chicxulub impactor."
Their analysis suggests it was a comet that originated in a region of icy debris on the edge of the solar system, that Jupiter was responsible for it crashing into our planet, and that we can expect similar impacts every 250 million to 750 million years.
The duo's paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports this week, pushes back against an older theory that claims the object was a fragment of an asteroid that came from our solar system's Main Belt.
"Jupiter is so important because it's the most massive planet in our solar system," lead author Amir Siraj told AFP. Jupiter ends up acting as a kind of "pinball machine" that "kicks these incoming long-period comets into orbits that bring them very close to the Sun."
So-called "long-period comets" come from the Oort cloud, thought to be a giant spherical shell surrounding the solar system like a bubble that is made of icy pieces of debris the size of mountains or larger.
The long-period comets take about 200 years to orbit the Sun, and are also called sungrazers because of how close they pass. Because they come from the deep freeze of the outer solar system, comets are icier than asteroids, and are known for the stunning gas and dust trails that they produce as they melt.
But, said Siraj, the evaporative impact of the Sun's heat on sungrazers is nothing compared to the massive tidal forces they experience when one side faces our star. "As a result, these comets experience such a large tidal force that the most massive of them would shatter into about a thousand fragments, each of those fragments large enough to produce a Chicxulub size impactor, or dinosaur-killing event on Earth."
Siraj and his co-author Avi Loeb, a professor of science, developed a statistical model that showed the probability that long-period comets would hit Earth that is consistent with the age of Chicxulub and other known impactors. The previous theory about the object being an asteroid produces an expected rate of such events that was off by a factor of about ten compared to what has been observed, Loeb told AFP.
Another line of evidence in favor of the comet origin is the composition of Chicxulub: only about a tenth of all asteroids from the Main Belt, which lies between Mars and Jupter, are made up of carbonaceous chondrite, while most comets have it.
Evidence suggests the Chicxulub crater and other similar craters, such as the Vredefort crater in South Africa that was struck about two billion years ago, and the million-year-old Zhamanshin crater in Kazakhstan, all had carbonaceous chondrite.
The hypothesis can be tested by further studying these craters, ones on the Moon, or even by sending out space probes to take samples from comets.
"It must have been a beautiful sight to see this rock approaching 66 million years ago, that was larger than the length of Manhattan Island," said Loeb, though ideally we'd like to learn to to track such objects and devise ways to deflect them if necessary.
Loeb added he was excited by the prospect of the Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile becoming operational next year.
The telescope might be able to see tidal disruption of long-period comets "and will be extremely important in making forecasts for definitely the next 100 years, to know if anything bad could happen to us."
Though Siraj and Loeb calculated Chicxulub-like impactors would occur once every few hundreds of millions of years, "it's a statistical thing, you say, 'on average, it's every so often' but you never know when the next one will come," said Loeb.
"The best way to find out is to search the sky," he concluded.
Published in Science Advances
About 18,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Marsoulas Cave (now in France) tuned a sea snail shell into a wind instrument and used it during important social events and rituals. Musicologists and researchers worked together and have now reproduced the sound of the horn. “This seashell horn, with its unique sonority...sheds light on a musical dimension until now unknown in the context of Upper Paleolithic societies,” notes the paper.
Published in Nature Communications
The arrival of humans and over-hunting were believed to be one of the reasons behind the extinction of North America's largest mammals such as the woolly mammoth and saber-tooth cat. A new study found that climate change (a decrease in global temperatures around 13,000 years ago) initiated the decline of these massive creatures. They write that there was no evidence for a relationship between human and megafauna population levels in North America.
Published in Nature Communications
If your parents scold you for sleeping during the day, tell them to blame your genes. “Daytime napping is biologically driven and not just an environmental or behavioral choice,” says Hassan Saeed Dashti, co-author of the study that identified 123 regions in our genome that are associated with daytime napping.
Published in Optica
Ever wanted to look inside a semiconductor or a computer’s microchip? Meet a new imaging technology called Coherence Tomography with Extreme Ultraviolet Light. The researchers write that the method is highly precise and can help inspect the deep structure of the tiny samples and also study the chemical composition of the samples in a non-destructive manner.
Published in PNAS
White-faced capuchin monkeys found across Central and South America, have the largest relative brain size of any monkey and are also known to live past the age of 50, despite their small size. A study of their genome has now identified genes associated with longevity, brain development and also shown how they live in different environmental conditions.
International wildlife trade is causing declines of over 60% in the abundance of species on the planet, say scientists who call for more research on the impacts of this severe threat across the world.
The scientists, including those from the University of Sheffield in the UK found that wildlife trade is causing declines of around 62% in the abundance of species, with endangered species suffering losses of over 80%.
Although there are policies managing trade, the study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, warned that without enough research on the effects of wildlife trade these policies cannot claim to safeguard species.
According to the researchers, at least 100 million plants and animals are internationally trafficked each year and the international wildlife trade is said to be worth between $4 to $20 billion per year.
Citing some examples, they said wildlife trade continues to impact the decline of African elephants due to the ivory trade and the demise of pangolin species across Africa and Asia.
The research called for better protective measures for threatened species and management of trade with trade still driving declines of 56% in protected areas.
"Thousands of species are traded for pets, traditional medicines, and luxury foods, but how this impacts species' abundances in the wild was unknown," said David Edwards, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Sheffield.
While the declines in abundance are worse for species being traded as pets, the scientists said these are also caused by trade for bushmeat.
"Our research draws together high-quality field studies to reveal a shocking reduction in most traded species, driving many locally extinct," said Edwards, one of the corresponding authors of the study.
The scientists believe trapping drives particularly severe declines in species at high risk of extinction and those traded for pets. "Such high levels of offtake suggests trade is often unsustainable, yet a lot of trade is conducted legally. As a society, we urgently need to reflect upon our desire for exotic pets and the efficacy of legal frameworks designed to prevent species declines," Edwards said.
According to the scientists, an understanding of how wildlife trade is impacting species is severely lacking in developed nations, and for many commonly traded wildlife groups, despite it being one of their biggest drivers of species extinction.
"Where extraction for wildlife trade occurs we found large declines in species abundances. This highlights the key role global wildlife trade plays in species extinction risk," said Oscar Morton, lead author of the research from the University of Sheffield.
Without effective management, Morton believes such trade will continue to threaten wildlife.
"For such a severe threat to global wildlife, we uncovered concerningly limited data on the impacts of wildlife trade in Asia, North America and Europe, as well as a lack of data for many amphibians, invertebrates, cacti and orchids, despite these groups often being traded," he added.
A week after a landslip claimed 58 lives in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, a team of scientists at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) in Dehradun are analysing fragments of ice, rock and mud in their labs to better understand the origins of the disaster.
Also read: Death toll in Chamoli disaster now 58
Five WIHG researchers travelled to the disaster site and later undertook aerial surveys right upto the vicinity of the Raunthi glacier, near the Nandadevi biosphere reserve, in the Himalayas. A portion of this glacier is believed to have crumbled down and caused an avalanche that destroyed the Rishiganga and Tapovan hydropower projects in Chamoli as well as trapping atleast 150, many fatally, in muck and slurry.
Sameer Trivedi, who was among those involved in the reconnaissance and analysis, said he and his colleagues had managed to extract several boulders of glacier —some about 25 kg — from the slurry even as rescue operations were on. “We’ve collected several samples. We also have sediment samples from glaciers in the region from previous expeditions. We can now compare them and be more certain of the glacial origin of the avalanche,” he told The Hindu. Other in his team included Manish Mehta, Amit Kumar, Vineet Kumar and Akshaya Verma.
An outstanding research question that the scientists are poring over is what might have caused the rock to break off.
The current hypothesis is that it was a natural process of freezing and thawing of the icy mountains over eons that might have caused cracks to develop, weakening the structure and causing it to crumble.
Another suggestion is that a heavy mass of snow may have fallen over the glacier, that was already partially melting, causing it to break off.
However the scientists’ team reports that residents of Raini village, located near the Rishiganga, have reported hearing a loud blast just prior to the avalanche. “It could be due to an enormous volume of water, or there could be another source, we don’t know yet,” said WIHG Director Kalachand Sain.
Taking zinc or vitamin C supplements does not significantly decrease the severity or duration of symptoms in COVID-19 patients, when compared to standard care, according to a study.
Researchers at Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. noted that zinc is known to be important for immune function, with a role in antibody and white blood cell production and fighting infections. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, can help reduce damage to cells, and has shown to be immune-boosting, they said.
The COVIDAtoZ clinical trial enrolled 214 adult patients with a confirmed COVID-19 infection. The participants either received 10 days of zinc gluconate (50 mg), vitamin C (8000 mg), both agents, or standard of care from April 2020 to October 2020.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Open Network, found no significant difference among the four groups.
At 50% reduction in symptoms, the study showed no significant difference between the usual care, vitamin C, zinc gluconate or the group receiving both vitamin C and zinc gluconate.
"When we began this trial, there was no research to support supplemental therapy for the prevention or treatment of patients with COVID-19," said Milind Desai, from Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Vascular & Thoracic Institute and co-principal investigator of the study. "As we watched the pandemic spread across the globe, infecting and killing millions, the medical community and consumers alike scrambled to try supplements that they believed could possibly prevent infection, or ease COVID-19 symptoms, but the research is just now catching up."
"While vitamin C and zinc proved ineffective as a treatment when clinically compared to standard care, the study of other therapeutics continues," he said. The patients enrolled in this study were not hospitalised, but rather managed on an outpatient basis.
"We know that not all patients with COVID-19 require hospital admission, and compared to those being treated in a hospital setting, they are more likely to be seeking out supplements that could help them, so it was an important population to study," said Suma Thomas, from Cleveland Clinic's Heart Vascular & Thoracic Institute and co-principal investigator of the study.
The researchers said a total of four safety events were observed during the trial, including three deaths. However, the data safety monitoring board did not believe that any of the adverse events were caused by individual treatments that patients received as a part of the study.
Bhimbetka, the famed Central Indian cave art repository near Bhopal dating back to Palaeolithic and Mesolithic times, has yielded a fossil find dating back about 550 million years, the first time the particular fossilised organism has been recorded in India. It dates back to an era regarded as the precursor to the explosion of life on earth during the Cambrian period and puts India firmly on the map for studies of the Ediacaran era along with Australia and Russia. Here’s what makes the discovery a global milestone:
The recent finding of the very first fossils of the organism Dickinsonia by a team of researchers led by Gregory J. Retallack reported in the journal Gondwana Research enthused scientists studying the evolution of some of the earliest living species during a period of the earth’s history known as the Ediacaran, named after the Ediacara hills in South Australia.
This period in the Earth’s history when Dickinsonia and several multicellular organisms existed, was approximately between 635 million years ago (Ma) and 541 Ma, with the living creatures of the era called vendobionts. Earlier, Dickinsonia fossils were found in Russia and Australia among other places. They extended to a size of even one metre. The first Indian fossils were discovered in the roof of the auditorium cave in Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, preserved in Maihar sandstone of the Bhander group, which is part of the Vindhyan sub-group rocks. The research was reported late last year.
The age of fossil rock is determined using isotopes. Zircon dating of the youngest Maihar sandstone in Madhya Pradesh puts its age at 548 Ma, while the lower Bhander group in the Son and Chambal valleys yielded an isotope-derived age for limestones ranging from 978 Ma to 1073 Ma, situating it in the older Tonian period. The Ediacaran period was the precursor to the Cambrian (about 541 Ma to 485.4 Ma) when the earth witnessed an explosion of life forms, and much of which makes up modern animal life today.
The age profiles of the Dickinsonia fossils in the Maihar sandstone, determined using Zircon dating, make them comparable to those from Russia’s White Sea region, at about 555 Ma. Further proof comes from comparable Dickinsonia tenuis and Dickinsonia costata fossils in South Australia, estimated to be from 550 Ma. Studies of the rock characteristics in and around Bhimbetka show that they shared several characteristics with rocks in Australia, including “old elephant skin” texture and also a trace fossil, Prasinema gracile, the research paper notes.
Dickinsonia fossils from India were found by the scientists to be identical to the Rawnsley Quartzite in South Australia, providing evidence of their age, and the proximity of the two land masses in Gondwanaland in that era. The evidence however did not support reconstructions adjusted for the polar wander phenomenon [which involves motion of continents over geologic time and its impacts].
One distinguishing characteristic of these creatures is the absence of hard protective parts such as skeletons and carapaces (exteriors), perhaps because there were no predators. This was also the time that evidence shows some of the earliest multicellular organisms, or metazoa. The evidence comes from life forms in water when land lacked life.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the finding of Dickinsonia and other Ediacaran species such as Ernietta and Arumberia, as the team led by Retallack discuss, raises the question of whether they were shallow marine organisms or non-marine in nature. Taking note of the faraway locations of the fossil finds separated by deep oceans and clustering of Dickinsonia in Australia-India and the Baltic, the researchers propose that these might have been in a similar environment in ancient geological time, rather than in a single biogeographic province.
Whether Dickinsonia were animals or some other organism has been a matter of differing interpretation, with one group of researchers led by Ilya Bobrovskiy arguing that their finding of cholesteroids in preserved matter using lipid biomarkers, indicated that these were indeed animals. Retallack and colleagues argue that such cholesterols are found also in red algae and most fungi. Knowledge about Ediacaran biogeography is evolving, and India is now a theatre of studies on life on earth from a time when the subcontinent was in a different place on the globe.
A study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay has shown why the novel coronavirus may survive for far lesser time on porous surfaces such as paper and clothes than on impermeable surfaces like glass and plastic.
COVID-19, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is transmitted through respiratory droplets. The virus-laden droplets also form fomite upon falling on a surface, which serves as a source for infection spread.
In the study, published in the journal Physics of Fluids, the researchers analysed the drying of droplets on impermeable and porous surfaces. They found that a droplet remains liquid for a much shorter time on a porous surface, making it less favourable to the survival of the virus.
The research suggests that the virus can survive for four days on glass, and seven days on plastic and stainless steel. However, the virus survived for only three hours and two days on paper and cloth, respectively, the researchers said.
"Based on our study, we recommend that furniture in hospitals and offices, made of impermeable material, such as glass, stainless steel, or laminated wood, be covered with porous material, such as cloth, to reduce the risk of infection upon touch," said study author Sanghamitro Chatterjee from IIT Bombay.
The study also suggests that seats in public places, such as parks, shopping malls, restaurants, and railway or airport waiting halls, could be covered with cloth to reduce the risk of disease spread.
According to the researchers, 99.9% of the droplet's liquid content for both impermeable and porous surfaces is evaporated within the first few minutes. They noted that after this initial state, a microscopic thin residual liquid film remains on the exposed solid parts, where the virus can still survive.
The team, including Janani Srree Murallidharan, Amit Agrawal and Rajneesh Bhardwaj, also from IIT Bombay, discovered the evaporation of this remnant thin film is much faster in the case of porous surfaces as compared to impermeable surfaces.
The droplets spread due to capillary action between the liquid near the contact line and the horizontally oriented fibres on the porous surface and the void spaces in porous materials, which accelerates evaporation, the researchers said. "The fact that just the geometric features rather than the chemical details of the porous material make the thin-film lifetime significantly less was surprising," Bhardwaj explained.
The researchers said that the study findings, such as the droplet’s liquid phase lifetime of approximately six hours on paper, will be particularly relevant in certain contexts, like schools. While this timescale is shorter than that of any permeable material, such as glass with a liquid phase lifetime of around four days, it would impact the exchange of notebooks, they said.
For example, the researchers said, it could come handy when policymakers evaluate safe measures for reopening schools or the exchange of currency note transactions in retail banks.
Similarly, they said the cardboard boxes, used commonly by e-commerce companies around the world, could be deemed relatively safe, since they would inhibit the virus survival.
Researchers have discovered three fossils of the earliest known living animal — the 550-million-year-old ‘Dickinsonia’ — on the roof of the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, about 40 km from Bhopal.
One can identify the fossils from the white leaf-like patches with a central vertebra (central midrib) and connecting veins. While one fossil is 17 inches long, the other two are much smaller.
The new discoveries, published in a journal, Gondwana Research, can be seen right at the beginning of the ‘Auditorium Cave’, the first of such caves at Bhimbetka, a UNESCO heritage site, located about 3.5 metres above the ground.
Geological Survey of India’s Bhopal in-charge Tapan Pal, who had come to visit the site, told The Hindu that they were the only such fossils available in the country, and were similar to those seen in south Australia.
“This is further proof of the similar paleoenvironments and confirms assembly of Gondwanaland by the 550 Ma (mega annum), but not reconstructions adjusted for true polar wander,” the article says.
The five authors of the article are Gregory J. Retallack, Neffra A. Matthews, Sharad Master, Ranjit G. Khangar and Merajuddin Khan.
The UAE's "Hope" probe sent back its first image of Mars, the national space agency said on Sunday, days after the spacecraft successfully entered the Red Planet's orbit.
The picture "captured the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, emerging into the early morning sunlight," it said in a statement.
The image was taken from an altitude of 24,700 kilometres (15,300 miles) above the Martian surface on Wednesday, a day after the probe entered Mars' orbit, it said in a statement.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, UAE prime minister and Dubai's ruler, shared the coloured image on Twitter.
"The first picture of Mars captured by the first-ever Arab probe in history," he wrote.
The mission is designed to reveal the secrets of Martian weather, but the UAE also wants it to serve as an inspiration for the region's youth.
Hope became the first of three spacecraft to arrive at the Red Planet this month after China and the U.S. also launched missions in July, taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearest.
Watch | All about the Emirates Mars Mission
The UAE's venture is also timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the unification of the nation's seven emirates.
"Hope" will orbit the Red Planet for at least one Martian year, or 687 days, using three scientific instruments to monitor the Martian atmosphere.
It is expected to begin transmitting more information back to Earth in September 2021, with the data available for scientists around the world to study.
On June 26, 2000, former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, announced the completion of a draft sequence of the human genome, a historic landmark for genetic research. The Human Genome Project helped map our genes, strengthened the study of human diseases and aided new drug discovery. But even after two decades, the number of ‘known’ genes – encoding around 20,000 ‘known’ proteins - has remained constant. It is also a conundrum why only 1.5% of the entire human genome codes for proteins.
A team from the University of Cambridge set out to find whether new genes emerge in the genome of living organisms, and if they do, how they do so.
In the last seven years, the team extensively studied the human genome and has now catalogued 1,94,000 novel regions. The results were published in Genome Research.
“These ‘novel’ genomic regions cannot be defined by our current ‘definition’ of a gene. Hence, we call these novel regions – novel Open Reading Frames or as nORFs. We show that the mutations in nORFs do have physiological consequences and a majority of mutations that are often annotated as benign have to be re-interpreted,” explains lead author Sudhakaran Prabakaran from the Laboratory of Noncoding genome and Data Science at the University.
When asked why we weren’t able to see or find these regions earlier, he added that in the last 10 years new technologies have helped look at the entire gene better. “For example, if you were to look at a mountain range from the top, you will only see the peaks. But as the resolution of the technology improves, you will see things that are present in the lower peaks and you can see the valleys. So, new genomic and proteomic technologies, algorithms have enabled us to see the complete landscape of everything that is being made from the human genome,” he explains.
The team found that these regions are also broadly involved in diseases. The nORFs were seen as dysregulated in 22 cancer types. Dysregulated is a term which means that they could either be mutated, upregulated, or downregulated, or they could be uniquely present.
A paper published last month by the team in npj Genomic Medicine noted that these regions were uniquely present in the cancer tissues and not present in the control tissue. They found that some nORF disruptions strongly correlated with the survival of patients. “More importantly, we show that nORFs proteins can form structures, can undergo biochemical regulation like known proteins and be targeted by drugs in case they are disrupted in diseases,” adds Dr. Prabakaran.
The researchers also identified these nORFs in Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite which causes the deadliest form of malaria. The results were published last week in Malaria Journal.
This shows that there is an urgent need to redesign our existing drugs that target only the known proteins in the parasite.
The team is now systematically ‘mining’ the dark genome to identify more such novel proteins and investigating whether they could be involved in disease processes. They have also identified 50 such novel proteins disrupted in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The results are yet to be peer-reviewed and published. The researchers are positive that these novel proteins are the key to diagnosing and treating complex diseases.
The tuft of hair at the end of an elephant’s tail helps as a fly swatter to protect itself from insect bites. Researchers have now found that elephant tail hair can be used to study the health of elephants.
In a paper published in a journal (PeerJ), researchers show that the tail hair can be used to assess stress in the life of the animal. The tail hair growth rate and levels of immunoreactive cortisol in hair (hC) were studied. The cortisol hormone has been previously studied in various animals to decode the ‘stressful’ past-events. Hair cortisol levels are considered to be an effective measure to understand the cumulative concentrations of systemic cortisol exposure over a longer period.
The cortisol from the blood is assumed to enter the hair through passive diffusion from capillaries. It is also speculated that cortisol produced locally or contamination through sebaceous and sweat glands may contribute to hair cortisol levels.
The tail hair samples from six captive Asian elephants from two zoos in Japan were studied and compared with the daily behavioural health records maintained by the zookeepers. The paper notes that these ‘observations open up the possibility of using the tail-hair as an alternative matrix to reconstruct the physiological history of elephants’.
The team writes that by studying these hormones and other biomarkers in hair we can assess how various captive conditions such as housing, grouping, diet, disease have affected the animal. ‘Further, analysing hair cortisol levels along with other biomarkers (such as reproductive hormones) can facilitate more meaningful biological interpretations of an animal’s life’, concludes the paper.
Crystals are normally rigid, stiff structures, but researchers from University of Hyderabad have shown how crystals can be sliced and even bent using atomic force microscopy. Manipulating them with precision and control comes in very useful in the field of nanophotonics, a qualitative, emerging field where the aim is to go beyond electronics and build up circuits driven entirely by photons (light). If the technique can be successfully developed, this can achieve an unprecedented level of miniaturisation and pave the way to all-optical-technology such as pliable, wearable devices operated by light entirely.
Light, when left to itself moves along straight paths, so it is crucial to develop materials and technology that can cause its path to bend along what is required in the circuits. This is like using fibre optics, but at the nanoscale level using organic crystals. The Hyderabad group has demonstrated how such crystals can be lifted, bent, moved, transferred and sliced using atomic force microscopy. They add a crucial piece to the jigsaw puzzle of building an “organic photonic integrated circuit” or OPIC.
Generally, millimetre- to centimetre-long crystals were bent using hand-held tweezers. This method lacks precision and control. Also, the crystals used were larger than what was required for miniaturisation.
In 2014, for the first time, the group led by Rajadurai Chandrasekar of the Functional Molecular Nano/Micro Solids Laboratory in the School of Chemistry of University of Hyderabad, demonstrated that tiny crystals could be lifted and moved with precision and control using atomic force microscopy.
They published the results in Angewandte Chemie. “We figured out that the atomic force microscopy (AFM) cantilever tip could be used to lift a crystal, as crystals tend to stick to the tip due to tip–crystal attractive forces. Subsequently, we demonstrated the real waveguiding character of the crystal lifted with a cantilever tip,” explains Prof. Chandrasekar in an email to The Hindu.
Recently, the group has extended the atomic force microscopy technique to deliberately move, bend, slice or cleave and transfer (from one substrate to another) micro-sized waveguiding crystals, and the results were published in Angewandte Chemie. Not stopping with this, they have also shown how other crucial elements needed for nanophotonics can be developed using this technique. “Not only crystals but also polymer microcavities or microresonators (light-trapping elements) can be precisely manipulated to create photonic structures,” says Prof. Chandrasekar.
The researchers have named this technique “mechanophotonics” as this method can be used to generate the basic elements needed to build up a photonic integrated circuit.
Usually photonic integrated circuits are made using silicon, silicon-based and metallic materials using electron beam lithography. This group on the other hand uses organic materials and atomic force microscopy to manipulate them.
The research collaboration extends to several countries: Germany, UAE, Spain and India. As Prof. Chandrasekar explains: “We receive the macro-sized samples from our collaborators, we grow microcrystals suitable for mechanical manipulation with atomic force microscopy, and investigate the photonic properties in our Hyderabad lab. We have also been making these crystals in our labs.”
The field is in its infancy and the results are qualitative. The group next plans to fabricate high-density photonic circuits using organic passive, active and energy-transfer mechanisms. “We believe that this futuristic area will gain momentum with the arrival of new molecular materials with exciting mechanical and optical attributes and improvement of the micro-spectroscopy techniques,” he says.
On February 3, 2021, the Subject Expert Committee of the Indian drug regulator approved Pune-based Serum Institute to conduct a phase-2/3 trial of CovoVax COVID-19 vaccine that was originally developed by Novavax Inc. headquartered in the U.S. Novavax’s vaccine was found to have over 89% efficacy in a phase-3 trial carried out in the U.K. In mid-January Dr. Reddy’s lab was allowed to carry out a phase-3 trial of Sputnik V vaccine. There are other vaccines which too will begin human clinical trials in India.
In both cases, the SEC allowed the vaccine manufacturers to use a placebo in the control arm even as two vaccines – Covishield and Covaxin – have been granted restricted use approval. Though the two vaccines have only a restricted use approval, is it correct to test the efficacy of new COVID-19 vaccines by comparing them with a placebo and not use either Covishield or Covaxin in the control arm?
“There are two ways to think about this,” Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore says in an email to The Hindu. “Usually, ‘restricted use’ or ‘emergency use’ is not considered as equivalent to licensure. Taking a regulatory point of view, if a product is not licensed and available for use, then the availability of a product for ‘restricted use’ does not preclude any standard study design, including the use of placebo.”
Dr. Kang then adds: “We can also think about this from an ethical perspective. All persons in a control arm should receive, at a minimum, the standard of care. If the vaccine under ‘restricted use’ is considered the standard of care, then all controls will need to be given the ‘restricted use’ vaccine.”
Dr. Anant Bhan, a Bhopal-based researcher in global health and bioethics, says in an email: “The regulator should have specified their criteria for allowing placebo-controlled trials to still be given permissions, and whether a revised standard of care will only apply when full licensure is given (and not just approved for restricted use). It circles back to the need for more transparency and clear detailed justifications with regards to regulatory decisions in the country.”
But at the moment, we do not have any written guidance on the path that will be taken by the regulatory authorities, says Dr. Kang. But in the case of CovoVax vaccine, the drug regulator has allowed Serum Institute to use a placebo under the condition that the participants randomised to the placebo arm could be unblinded 60 days after the second dose upon request of the participant and offered the candidate vaccine.
“Ethically, all clinical trial participants, both in the current trials and future studies have to be informed about the availability of vaccines for priority populations in the country after restricted use approval from the regulator,” emphasises Dr. Bhan. “What would be the ethical obligation to minimise risk in those receiving a placebo? What kind of information would be provided to them so that they make an informed decision about participation?”
Dr. Kang sees one more reason why the drug regulator might not be wrong in allowing companies to use a placebo in the control group. “When the standard of care is available only to a section of the population, the ‘priority groups’ at the moment, then it is not standard of care for the rest of the population. Therefore, it is ethical to continue with a placebo in the population outside the priority groups, as long as that non-priority status is maintained,” she explains. Dr. Kang highlights further subtleties in this: “If the regulators had insisted on using any of the restricted use vaccines, that would create another complication — how would the company with the new vaccine get access to the ‘restricted use’ vaccine since it is not approved for sale in the open market?” she wonders.
While the U.S., with less than one-fourth of India’s population, conducted at least six clinical trials with more than 30,000 participants each, Bharat Biotech faced difficulty in recruiting nearly 26,000 participants for the phase-3 trial of Covaxin. The use of a placebo in the control arm might make volunteer recruitment even more difficult especially when vaccination of the remaining priority groups — those older than 50 years, and younger people with comorbidities — begins soon.
Given the larger sample size requirements when an approved vaccine is used in the control arm, and also because the concerns around seriousness of COVID-19 seems to have gone down in public perception given the falling number of COVID-19 cases in India, recruitment of the numbers required could be challenging. These trials could also take longer and be costlier to run, Dr, Bhan says.
“I think volunteer recruitment might become more difficult unless younger people, who stand no chance of getting a vaccine in the near future, opt in,” says virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University. “But that would raise the issue of the vaccine trial population skewed towards a younger population without sufficient numbers of older volunteers. Since younger people predominantly get asymptomatic infection, they may also not volunteer.”
Acknowledging the challenges faced by vaccine companies in recruiting volunteers even before restricted use approval was granted to the two vaccines, Dr. Kang is optimistic that volunteer recruitment is not insurmountable. “I think recruitment of volunteers is always about clear communication. With the right kind of communication, a lot of people are willing to participate in advancing science, as long as they understand the study process, risk and benefit and know that the study staff are always available to them,” she says.
Testing the efficacy of a new vaccine by comparing it with an already approved vaccine in the control arm is called a non-inferiority trial. The non-inferiority trial attempts to show that the new vaccine is not an unacceptably worse alternative to the already approved ones. “If a comparator is to be used among vaccines with restricted use approval, it should be ideally the vaccine for which safety, immunogenicity and efficacy data is available, at least globally, if not in India,” says Dr. Bhan.
Scientists have unveiled the detailed genome of the malaria mosquito vector, revealing thousands of new genes vital for the development of genetic control strategies of disease transmission.
The researchers included those from Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS), and Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology, both in Bengaluru.
In order to engineer advanced forms of defence against malaria transmission, including targeted CRISPR and gene drive–based strategies, scientists require intricate knowledge of the genomes of vector mosquitoes.
CRISPR technology is a gene-editing tool which allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.
Mahul Chakraborty, a project scientist at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the U.S. and colleagues produced a new reference genome for the Asian malaria vector mosquito Anopheles stephensi.
With the newly upgraded Anopheles stephensi genome, the team unearthed more than 3,000 genes that previously evaded scrutiny and which offer fresh gene-drive targets, play key roles in blood feeding and the metabolism of ingested blood meal, reproduction and immunity against microbial parasites. The research was published in BMC Biology.
“This reference genome and its excellent quality should help malaria biologists in India and the rest of the world, particularly in view of the national goal of malaria elimination in India by 2030,” said TIGS Global Director Suresh Subramani, a distinguished professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at UC San Diego.
The discoveries include 29 formerly undetected genes that play crucial roles in resistance to chemical insecticides, a development that can help address the growing Asian and African An. stephensi populations with insecticide-resistant mutations, the researchers said.The findings also offer clues suggesting that the molecular basis of insecticide resistance may differ between sexes, they said.
Buoyed by the success of the first phase of rehabilitating critically endangered gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) in the rivers of Punjab, the State Department of Forests and Wildlife Preservation on Friday released 23 captive-bred gharials in the Beas conservation reserve.
Earlier, in 2017-18, during the first phase of ‘Gharial Reintroduction Project’ as many as 47 gharials were released in the Beas conservation reserve in batches in Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts.
Hoshiarpur’s Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife) Gursharan Singh said 23 captive-bred gharials brought from Morena in Madhya Pradesh were released in the Beas conservation reserve. “A joint team of the wildlife division and WWF-India has been formed for the daily monitoring for next one month,” he said.
A suitable stretch of river Beas near Salimpur and Tahli forest in Hoshiarpur district has been selected for the reintroduction of the current batch.
Geetanjali Kanwar, coordinator - Rivers, Wetlands and Water Policy, World Wildlife Fund-India, told The Hindu that post release monitoring was one of the vital aspects of the gharial reintroduction. “The surveys will focus on understanding dispersal, habitat preference, population ecology and general wellbeing of the released species,” she said.
The ambitious scheme of the Punjab government aspires to establish a breeding population of these critically endangered gharials in the rivers of Punjab.
“In the first phase of this project, 47 juvenile gharials were released in the Beas conservation reserve in batches during year 2017-2018 in Amritsar and Tarn Taran districts. Field surveys conducted, so far, jointly with WWF-India indicate that gharials have dispersed both upstream and downstream of the release sites in the reserve. About 40%-50% of the reintroduced gharials can be spotted in the reserve any time depending on the water levels and season of survey,” said Ms. Kanwar.
The coronavirus variant first found in the British region of Kent is a concern because it is mutating and so could undermine the protection given by vaccines against developing COVID-19, the head of the UK's genetic surveillance programme said.
She also said the British variant was dominant in the country and was likely "to sweep the world, in all probability".
The coronavirus has killed 2.35 million people and turned normal life upside down for billions, but a few new worrying variants out of thousands have raised fears that vaccines will need to be tweaked and people may require booster shots.
Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium, said vaccines were so far effective against the variants in the United Kingdom, but that mutations could potentially undermine the shots.
"What's concerning about this is that the 1.1.7 variant that we have had circulating for some weeks and months is beginning to mutate again and get new mutations which could affect the way that we handle the virus in terms of immunity and effectiveness of vaccines," Ms Peacock told the BBC.
"It's concerning that the 1.1.7, which is more transmissible, which has swept the country, is now mutating to have this new mutation that could threaten vaccination."
That new mutation, first identified in Bristol in southwest England, has been designated a "Variant of Concern", by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.
Britain's chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the Bristol variant had one of the same mutations as the South African. "It is not surprising that it has happened and it will happen elsewhere as well," he said on Wednesday.
"In getting that variant it does make it slightly more likely to look different to the immune system so we need to watch out for it, we need to measure it, we need to keep on top of it and need to keep testing the vaccine effects in thissituation."
There are so far 21 cases of that variant which has E484K mutation, which occurs on the spike protein of the virus, the same change as has been seen in the South African and Brazilian variants.
"One has to be a realist that this particular mutation has arisen in our kind of communal garden lineage now, at least five times - five separate times. And so this is going to keep popping up," Ms Peacock said.
British people should expect to receive repeated vaccinations against COVID-19 in future to keep pace with mutations of the virus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.
There are three major known variants that are worrying scientists: the South African variant, known by scientists as20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351; the British variant known as 20I/501Y.V1or B.1.1.7; and the Brazilian variant known as P.1.
The British variant, which is more infectious but not necessarily more deadly than others, was likely "to sweep theworld", Peacock said.
"Once we get on top of (the virus) or it mutates itself out of being virulent - causing disease - then we can stop worrying about it. But I think, looking in the future, we're going to be doing this for years. We're still going to be doing this 10 years down the line, in my view."
The two COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech andAstraZeneca protect against the main British variant.
Ravi Chopra, Director, People’s Science Institute, has been a critic of hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and has chaired and been part of several committees that have deliberated on infrastructure development in the State, while staying true to the principles of sustainable environment. He spoke to The Hindu on the causes of the Uttarakhand deluge, the challenges of hydropower development and whether alternate models of development are possible.
What we know so far is that the temperatures on February 5 and 6 in the Himalayas were higher than what’s normal for this time of the year. A mass of ice, snow and fresh water — always a lethal combination — came hurtling down a slope carrying with it lots of boulder and rocks and other debris and reached the base of the Rishi Ganga river. However to those who’ve died and been swept away, it doesn’t matter if the origins of the floods were from a glacial lake being breached or a rock falling on a glacier. While these are natural events, we have at various previous occasions warned of such risks. It’s a folly to be building dams, and hydropower projects above elevations of 2,200 metres. So in that sense, it’s entirely a man-made disaster.
In the aftermath of the disaster, and after several petitions, there was no response from the government until the matter reached the Supreme Court. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which was then led by Secretary, Mr. Shashi Shekhar, accepted our key recommendation — that most of the hydropower projects proposed by the Uttarakhand government be dropped. However, this led to the power developer companies then raising objections that they were being penalised in spite of following all the norms of the environmental appraisal process. That led to a second committee being formed and they opined that while all environmental appraisal norms were followed, it would be advisable to cancel hydropower projects.
A third committee has been set up but this time there were barely any environmentalists and consisted almost entirely of engineers. There is still a constant tussle and the Uttarakhand government has now cancelled most of the hydropower projects. The Clean Ganga mission and the Ganga draft law also played a significant role which influenced the Centre’s decision to not develop any more new hydropower projects.
Until about 10 years ago, I believed that it was possible to strike a balance between hydropower projects in Uttarakhand without harming the environment here but there is really no case for it now. There are multiple reasons. One is that the cost of solar power has been dramatically reduced and it makes no sense to generate power at ₹7-8 per unit when solar power is ₹2. Second is that there is no sustainable way to develop such projects given the flouting of environmental norms and challenges with the disposal of debris, accumulated muck. The recent avalanche plus the 2013 experience show that dams in the para glacial zone (above 2,200 m) are a danger to the people below.
We must have a solar-power based development. Just as it was possible to people to design space shuttles to take them to the moon, solar-based storage has to be innovated and mass produced to be the main source of power. Industrial development here also has to be though through. There were once 80 steel rolling mills installed and it turns out that they were consuming nearly half the State’s electricity. That’s unsustainable.
We need a services-based economy on information technology companies such as Infosys and Wipro that will not be power-intensive. And we also need to develop our roads, improve access and go about it in a thoughtful sustained manner such that it contributes to tourism. There are thousands of places here with unexplored potential that can host homestays and once that road infrastructure improves, it would be extremely beneficial to the local economy.
An uncrewed Chinese spacecraft on Wednesday successfully entered orbit around Mars after a 6-1/2-month journey from Earth, China's space agency said, in the country's first independent mission to the red planet.
The robotic probe initiated and completed a 15-minute burn of its thrusters, the China National Space Administration said in a statement, slowing the spacecraft to a speed at which it could be captured by the pull of Mars' gravity.
In about three months, the Tianwen-1 will attempt to send a landing capsule carrying a 240-kilogram rover in a rapid seven-minute descent onto a massive plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars known as Utopia Planitia.
If the landing is successful, the solar-powered rover will explore the Martian surface for 90 days, studying its soil and seeking signs of ancient life, including any sub-surface water and ice using a ground-penetrating radar.
Tianwen-1, or "Questions to Heaven", the name of a Chinese poem written two millennia ago, is China's first independent mission to the planet after a probe co-launched with Russia failed to leave the Earth's orbit in 2011.
The probe is one of three reaching Mars this month. The Hope spacecraft launched by the United Arab Emirates successfully entered the planet's orbit on Tuesday. Hope will not make a landing but will orbit Mars gathering data on its weather and atmosphere.
In the United States' most ambitious Mars mission, the 1-tonne Perserverance probe is expected to arrive on February 18. It will immediately attempt a landing in a rocky depression with precipitous cliffs called Jezero Crater.
The National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, which has a germ plasm resource centre for marine ornamental invertebrates on Agatti island in Lakshadweep, is lending a helping hand to those wanting to rear ornamental shrimps.
On February 5, the fish genetics bureau centre supplied a hundred F2 generation Thor hainnensis variety of ornamental shrimps for further rearing to a cluster of farmers who have set up a rearing unit on Agatti island. They will rear the shrimps for another two months before selling them to ornamental fish keepers or sellers.
The bureau has supplied plastic tubs, aeration devices and other accessories needed for shrimp rearing along with the F2 generation of ornamental shrimps. The materials for the unit have been supplied for free under the Tribal Sub Plan with financial support from the Union Department of Biotechnology, according to a scientist at the NBFGR. Director Kuldeep Lal told The Hindu that the bureau had taken up the assignment for germ plasm conservation and livelihood promotion of the islanders. Ornamental shrimp rearing would be a source of additional income for them and a considerable economic activity as it grows, he added.
The islanders’ means of livelihood are limited to tuna, copra, and tourism. Diversified livelihood opportunities are a way forward, Dr. Lal added. A survey in different Lakshadweep islands has revealed hidden biodiversity and new shrimp species.
Thor hainanensis and Ancylocaris brevicarpalis are high-value marine ornamental shrimps native to Lakshadweep. They are much in demand in the international aquarium trade but at present the demand is met with wild collections only, said a communication from the ICAR-NBFGR. The bureau has developed the ornamental shrimp brood stock/parents in captivity and standardised the technology for captive production.
The NBFGR team has given hands-on training for a month to the islanders and extended the rearing technology to 40 women. The communication added that it was the first-of-its-kind programme in the country on marine ornamental shrimp conservation and livelihood promotion.
In a small cohort involving just 20 trial participants, researchers have found that both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are able to neutralise SARS-CoV-2 variants encoding mutations E484K or N501Y or the K417N:E484K:N501Y combination.
However, the neutralizing activity decreased one to three-fold in the case of the variants with E484K or N501Y or a combination of mutations. Results were published in the journal Nature.
Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines showed no significant difference in neutralising activity. Individuals immunized with either Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines produce closely related and nearly identical antibodies.
Plasma neutralizing activity of volunteer plasmas was determined using human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) pseudotyped with SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein. Vaccine plasma was significantly less effective in neutralizing the pseudotyped virus with certain mutations of the S proteins.
To examine the neutralising breadth of the monoclonal antibodies the researchers from the Rockefeller University, New York tested 17 of the most potent antibodies. They found that neutralisation by 14 of the 17 most potent antibodies was reduced or abolished by either K417N, or E484K, or N501Y mutations.
E484K is an escape mutation because it helps the virus slip past the body’s immune defences. The E484K mutation was first identified in the South African variant (B.1.351). The E484K mutation is also found in the Brazilian variant (B.1.1.28). The E484K mutation has also been in the U.K variant (B1.1.7).
The mutant N501Y has been found in both the UK and South African variants.
The researchers say that as seen in natural infection, a majority of the antibodies tested (9/17) were at least ten-fold less effective against pseudotyped viruses carrying the E484K mutation. While five of the antibodies were less potent against K417N, four were less potent against N501Y by ten-fold or more.
“We conclude that the plasma neutralizing activity elicited by either mRNA vaccination or natural infection is variably but significantly less effective against pseudoviruses that carry RBD mutations found in emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the researchers write. “The mRNA vaccines may need to be updated periodically to avoid potential loss of clinical efficacy.”
The results show why vaccination elicited better antibody response compared with naturally infected people. They found the IgG and IgM levels were significantly higher in the vaccinated group compared to a cohort of convalescent patients assayed 1.3 and 6.2 months after infection.
However, in the case of IgA, the levels were similar in both vaccinated and naturally infected people. “There was a broad range of plasma neutralising activity 3-14 weeks after the second vaccine dose that was similar to that elicited by natural infection in a convalescent cohort after 1.3 months, and greater than the activity at 6.2 months after infection,” they write.
The vaccines elicit antibody responses against the RBD, the major target of neutralizing antibodies, much like a natural infection. “Notably, the neutralizing antibodies produced by mRNA vaccination target the same epitopes as natural infection,” they note.
On February 7, a flash flood hurtled down in Chamoli, Uttarakhand killing at least 31 and destroying two hydropower projects. The trigger for the floods is believed to be either a glacial lake being breached or a broken mountain peak falling on a glacier. Scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Dehradun were among the first teams of experts to leave for an examination of the causes of the disaster. Kalachand Sain, Director, WIHG, says in an interview to The Hindu’s Jacob Koshy, that it was large rock falling on a hanging glacier that precipitated the avalanche and flood. He also highlighted the challenges of accessing the glacier because of which it could be months before the exact cause that triggered the rockfall could be determined.
A team of five immediately left for the spot. They have made some measurements of the topography near the locations but access is difficult. They also undertook an aerial survey. What we know so far is almost entirely based on an analysis of satellite imagery, with some ground observations. Ground-based measurements are critical to supplement this but the prevailing conditions aren’t conducive. These are glaciers at an elevation of 5,000-6,000 metres. Himachal Pradesh has 10,000 glaciers, Uttarakhand has 1,000 glaciers — and all are in extremely inhospitable locations. Normally, access to these regions is only possible in the summer, and it’s not easy even then. That’s why our knowledge of glaciers is limited and this is inadequate. That makes satellite analysis or aerial surveys critical but they have their limitations.
We are about 90% certain that this was caused by a combination of a large piece of rock, possibly from a mountain peak, breaking off. This was probably part of the Raunthi/Mrigudhani mountain. It fell on a hanging glacier, probably perched off a cliff. The impact from the falling rock broke it [the glacier] and this mass of rock and ice debris avalanched over a nearly 40 degree slope for two kilometres before falling onto the Raunthi Gadhera stream floor. There was thus a huge mass of rock, ice and other debris that stayed that way for a while. It looks like it stayed that way for three days and the ice and snow started to melt from the heat. It was a clear sky. Eventually, the pressure created by the volume of water and other debris forced its way down the valley and led to the flooding and deluge. This was different from a situation like Kedarnath in 2013. There, multiple cloudbursts in June led to a torrent of snow and water that resulted in a flash flood. (This resulted in widespread destruction in Uttarakhand and the loss of nearly 5,700 lives, along with damaged hydropower tunnels as well as destruction of livestock and property.)
This is still to be determined. What is likely is that this is a result of decades of freezing and thawing that would have led to weaknesses and cracks forking in those mountain structures. It was not a sudden event, and this underlines the reasons of why we need to keep monitoring the Himalayas. They are fragile and host to several complex processes that need to be monitored. Global warming contributes to the weakening of the glaciers and we need several organisations and specialists working on these aspects to monitor, make models and thereby make predictive forecasts that can warn of such occurrences in the future.
We need some ground-based measurements and we have already made a scientific plan to be able to access these mountains in the summer. We will have to investigate if there was some tectonic activity, or a blast from somewhere higher up that triggered fault-lines. We don’t know yet and it will take some time to establish that. But imagine a heap of rice. If the base is not strong and grains accumulate, there will at some point be a single rice grain, that when added to the heap, will cause it to crumble. So we have to determine structural weaknesses too.
Ideally, before projects are conceived, there are expert assessments done and these are expected to be followed.
Published in Current Biology
The fastest snapping claws on Earth belong to male amphipods (Dulichiella cf. appendiculata) which are microscopic, shrimp-like creatures. Scientists noticed that they can repeatedly close their claws in less than 0.01% of a second. The claws make up a third of the male's body weight and researchers say they are still trying to figure out why these creatures invest so much into this action and whether it plays into male-female interaction or territorial disputes.
Watch video here
Published in PNAS
The level of dangerous nitrogen oxides has reduced across the north equatorial part of Africa. But how was this possible when the region has seen an increase in human population and fossil fuel use? Researchers found that the reason was a decline in the longtime practice of setting dry-season fires to manage land. They noted that row-crop agriculture and shifting weather patterns also played a role.
2 papers published in Cell
About 370 million years ago, a certain fish species walked out of water, converted its fins to limbs and modified its lungs for air-breathing. A new paper has now shown that fish ancestors that lived millions of years before fish crawled ashore carried the genetic codes needed for limbs and air-breathing. "The water-to-land transition is a major milestone in our evolutionary history. The key to understanding how this transition happened is to reveal when and how the lungs and limbs evolved. We are now able to demonstrate that biological functions occurred much earlier before the first animals came ashore," stated lead author Guojie Zhang in a release.
Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution
In 2015, a mass coral bleaching event occurred near the Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. Four years later, the corals were studied, and new chemical signatures or biomarkers that helped some corals be more resistant to the bleaching, have been discovered. The researchers write that this finding can help conservationists restore and protect the global reef ecosystem.
Published in PNAS
What walking or running style did dinosaurs have? Is it similar to the visuals shown in Jurassic Park? By studying the joints and limb movements of modern birds and alligators, scientists have developed a new 3D imaging technology called X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology — or XROMM that can help reconstruct the locomotion of extinct animals. The team writes that this technology “will help to unravel the history of vertebrate locomotor evolution.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled an ambitious 10-year space program for his country Tuesday that includes missions to the moon, sending Turkish astronauts into space and developing internationally viable satellite systems.
Erdogan announced the program, seen as part of his vision for placing Turkey in expanded regional and global role, during a live televised event laced with special effects.
He said Turkey planned to establish “a first contact with the moon” in 2023, when the country marks the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic. The first stage of the mission would be “through international cooperation,” while the second stage would utilize Turkish rockets, Erdogan said.
“Our primary and most important goal for our national space program is the contact of the Republic, in its 100th year, with the moon,” the Turkish leader said. “God willing, we are going to the moon.”
Erdogan also declared Turkey’s aim to send Turkish citizens into space with international cooperation, to work with other countries on building a spaceport and to create a “global brand” in satellite technology.
“I hope that this roadmap, which will carry Turkey to the top league in the global space race, will come to life successfully,” he said.
Turkey established the Turkish Space Agency, or TUA, in 2018, with the aim of joining the handful of other countries with space programs.
Critics have questioned the government's decision to spend vast sums of money on that goal at a time when the country’s economy is suffering. But supporters say a space program will provide jobs for researchers and is likely to reduce the brain drain of emigrating scientists.
Erdogan did not provide details on how Turkey plans to achieve its goals. Last month, he and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk spoke by telephone and discussed cooperation on space technologies with Turkish companies.
Meanwhile, a metal monolith that mysteriously appeared and disappeared on a field in southeast Turkey turned out to be a publicity gimmick before the event.
The 3-meter-high (about 10-feet-high) metal slab with the inscription “Look at the sky, you will see the moon” written in an ancient Turkic script was found Friday by a farmer in Sanliurfa province. The monolith was near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe, which is home to megalithic structures dating to the 10th century B.C., thousands of years before Stonehenge. The structure was reported gone Tuesday morning, adding to the mystery. An image of the monolith was later projected on the screen as Erdogan said: “I now present to you Turkey’s 10-year vision, strategy and aims and I say, ‘Look at the sky, you will see the moon.’”
A spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates swung into orbit around Mars on Tuesday in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission.
Ground controllers at the UAE’s space center in Dubai rose to their feet and broke into applause when word came that the craft, called Amal, Arabic for Hope, had reached the end of its seven-month, 300-million-mile journey and had begun circling the red planet, where it will gather data on Mars’ atmosphere.
The orbiter fired its main engines for 27 minutes in an intricate, high-stakes maneuver that slowed the craft enough for it to be captured by Mars’ gravity. It took a nail-biting 11 minutes for the signal confirming success to reach Earth.
Tensions were high: Over the years, Mars has been the graveyard for a multitude of missions from various countries.
A visibly relieved Omran Sharaf, the mission’s director, declared, “To the people of the UAE and Arab and Islamic nations, we announce the success of the UAE reaching Mars.”
Two more unmanned spacecraft from the U.S. and China are following close behind, set to arrive at Mars over the next several days. All three missions were launched in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars.
Amal’s arrival puts the UAE in a league of just five space agencies in history that have pulled off a functioning Mars mission. As the country’s first venture beyond Earth’s orbit, the flight is a point of intense pride for the oil-rich nation as it seeks a future in space.
An ebullient Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, was on hand at mission control and said: “Congratulations to the leadership and people of the UAE. ... Your joy is indescribable.”
About 60% of all Mars missions have ended in failure, crashing, burning up or otherwise falling short in a testament to the complexity of interplanetary travel and the difficulty of making a descent through Mars’ thin atmosphere.
A combination orbiter and lander from China is scheduled to reach the planet on Wednesday. It will circle Mars until the rover separates and attempts to land in May to look for signs of ancient life.
A rover from the U.S. named Perseverance is set to join the crowd next week, aiming for a landing February 18. It will be the first leg in a decade-long U.S.-European project to bring Mars rocks back to Earth to be examined for evidence the planet once harboured microscopic life.
If it pulls this off, China will become only the second country to land successfully on Mars. The U.S. has done it eight times, the first almost 45 years ago. A NASA rover and lander are still working on the surface.
For months, Amal's journey had been tracked by the UAE's state-run media with rapturous enthusiasm. Landmarks across the UAE, including Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower on Earth, glowed red to mark the spacecraft's anticipated arrival. Billboards depicting Amal tower over Dubai’s highways. This year is the 50th anniversary of the country's founding, casting even more attention on Amal.
If all goes as planned, Amal over the next two months will settle into an exceptionally high, elliptical orbit of 22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers, from which it will survey the planet's mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere at all times of day and in all seasons.
It joins six spacecraft already operating around Mars: three U.S., two European and one Indian.
Amal had to perform a series of turns and engine firings to maneuver into orbit, reducing its speed to 18,000 kph from over 121,000 kph.
The control room full of Emirati engineers held their breath as Amal disappeared behind Mars' dark side. Then it re-emerged from the planet's shadow, and contact was restored on schedule. Screens at the space center revealed that Amal had managed to do what had eluded many missions over the decades.
“Anything that slightly goes wrong and you lose the spacecraft,” said Sarah al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology and the chair of the UAE’s space agency.
The success delivers a tremendous boost to the UAE's space ambitions. The country's first astronaut rocketed into space in 2019, hitching a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. That's 58 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. launched astronauts.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, tweeted congratulations, saying: “Your bold endeavour to explore the Red Planet will inspire many others to reach for the stars. We hope to join you at Mars soon” with Perseverance.
In developing Amal, the UAE chose to collaborate with more experienced partners instead of going it alone or buying the spacecraft elsewhere. Its engineers and scientists worked with researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of California at Berkeley and Arizona State University.
The spacecraft was assembled at Boulder, Colorado, before being sent to Japan for launch last July.
The car-size Amal cost $200 million to build and launch; that excludes operating costs at Mars. The Chinese and U.S. expeditions are considerably more complicated — and expensive — because of their rovers. NASA's Perseverance mission totals $3 billion.
The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, is looking for Amal to ignite the imaginations of the country's scientists and its youth, and help prepare for a future when the oil runs out.
“Today you have households of every single age group passionate about space, understanding a lot of science,” said al-Amiri, the chair of the space agency. “This has opened a broad realm of possibilities for everyone in the UAE and also, I truly hope, within the Arab world.”
Generally the flowers lose their value if they get spoilt either due to rain or delay in harvest. But the new variety of marigold developed by the Hessarghatta-based Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR) are of value even if they get spoilt after full bloom as they can be used for extraction of crude carotene.
“All marigolds have carotene content that ranges up to a maximum of 1.4%. However, the Arka Shubha variety of marigold has high carotene content of 2.8% which is the highest content from plant source,” said Dr. Tejaswini P., principal scientist in the IIHR’s Division of Floriculture and Medicinal Plants, who led the team of scientists that developed this variety.
These flowers could be sold for ornamental purpose too like other marigold varieties. But there is also an option of using them for extracting crude carotene, she pointed out. As carotene is mainly used in pharmaceutical sector, there is always a high demand for it. Presently, India imports most of its carotene from other countries, including China. Dr. Tejaswini suggested that farmers consider this variety purely for extraction of carotene. However, it is better to take up the venture through farmers’ groups as it needed a large area for cultivation and investments on extraction, she pointed out. This also provides scope for exports, she said.
Arka Shubha variety is used in the poultry sector. Its petals could be used as poultry feed to get quality yolk, she said.
“News of the Padma Shri award was a great moment for someone who grew up in a rural community during the 1950s,” says Prof Rattan Lal over email. The academic born in West Punjab, Pakistan, was accoladed the prestigious award this year for his contributions to environmental science.
He is one of Ohio State University’s beloved professors for teaching Soil Science, and is Director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Centre, and his extensive work and research have taken him around the world to places including Australia, Brazil, and Nigeria. He also won the World Food Prize-2020, and in 2019, he was awarded the Japan Prize.
The 76-year-old believes Soil Science holds industries across the board accountable for their impact on the environment. He explains that the global issues of the present era are climate change, food and nutritional security, water scarcity and renewability and world peace and stability. “Solutions to these and other issues lie in soil, both directly and indirectly. With regards to climate change, soil is the largest reservoir of carbon among the terrestrial pools. Globally, ice-free lands contain 1,500 billion tonnes of organic carbon and 750 billion tonnes of inorganic carbon. The permafrost soils contain another 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon In comparison, while the atmosphere contains around 880 billion tonnes of carbon and all vegetation about 620 billion tonnes,” he sums up.
The aforementioned in mind, he adds, “Soils of the world have lost about 135 billion tonnes of carbon since the beginning of agriculture. Thus, restoration of soil carbon stocks in degraded and depleted soils of the world is an important strategy to mitigate global warming. Sequestration of atmospheric carbon in soil (and trees) is the most cost effective option to mitigate global warming. It is a win-win option with many co-benefits. It is a bridge to the future until no-carbon fuel sources take effect.”
As the fight for a greener future is catalysed by various NGOs’ works and collective public scrutiny, more startups are moulding themselves towards an equally conscious business model. And Prof Lal brings up the value of a potential carbon market, “Farming carbon in soil (growing carbon stocks in soil by retention of crop residues and recycling of biowastes) is a new commodity that can be traded like grains, milk, meat and other products. There is a need to develop a carbon market. In addition, farmers can also be rewarded through payments for ecosystem services at a societal value of soil carbon estimated at US$30 to US$35 per tonne of carbon dioxide.”
Being an educator, he agrees that the coming generations have to uphold great responsibility, not just through action but through communication and commitment too. “Translating science into action to reverse the degradation spiral implies a strong and an objective dialogue between scientists, and the general public and the policy makers,” he insists, “The goal is to promote awareness about the importance of soil by revising the school curricula at all levels and include education about soil and environments from primary school onward. There is also a need to enhance environmental laws to respect quality of soil, water and air.” Ultimately, he concludes, soil protection resolution is needed on local, state, national, continental and global scale.
The scientist believes that the planet’s soil is like a bank account wherein you cannot withdraw — nitrates, phosphates, potassium and nutrients — more than what you put in and that the balance must be carefully calibrated. If you do not replace these precious resources, it is an example of ‘taking the Earth for granted’ while depleting the natural reserve for nutrients. In this context, Prof Lal says, “The biggest challenge is the mindset about the importance of soil… There is a need to change our values and thinking with regards to the importance of soil and the environment. Education in soil, agriculture and environments must be respected as much as or more than the traditional subjects.”
The inherent values of soil
Prof Lal developed his love for Soil Science from an early age, when such a subject was considered trivial and non-rewarding. He is well-aware of the skepticism he received but he stays persistent and patient through it all, elaborating, “Persistence, hard work, sincerity, transparency and professional courtesy are the only strategy. Skepticism must not lead to frustrations. These are challenges which must be overcome through dialogue and commitment to excellence. The world is already changing. Policy-makers are taking note of soil and its management. Soil Science and agriculture have bright futures ahead. More positive changes will happen between now and 2050 than ever before.”
Delving into the work of One Health Initiative Task Force’s One Health concept — that the health of soil, plants, animals, people, environment and the planet is one and indivisible — Prof Lal states that when the health of soil is degraded, that of everything else follows a domino effect. “People are mirror images of the land. When people are desperate, hungry and miserable, they pass their sufferings to the land, and the land reciprocates. The vicious cycle can only be broken by reversing the degradation spiral and promoting soil health through judicious management of soil resources.”
Scientists have found that an experimental antiviral drug can significantly speed up recovery in COVID-19 patients who do not need hospitalisation, an advance that may lead to better interventions to treat those infected with the novel coronavirus.
The study, published in the journal Lancet Respiratory Medicine, noted that patients who received a single injection of the drug peginterferon-lambda were over four times more likely to have cleared the infection within seven days compared to a group treated with placebo.
"This treatment has large therapeutic potential, especially at this moment as we see aggressive variants of the virus spreading around the globe which are less sensitive to both vaccines and treatment with antibodie," said study co-author Jordan Feld from the Toronto Centre for Liver Disease in Canada.
According to the researchers, people who were treated with the drug cleared the virus quickly with the effect being most pronounced in those with the highest viral levels. "We also saw a trend towards quicker improvement of respiratory symptoms in the treatment group," Feld explained.
Patients with higher viral levels were much more likely to clear the infection following treatment with the drug than those who received the placebo — 79% in the treatment arm compared to 38% in the placebo group.
The researchers added that the virus levels decreased quickly in everyone in the treatment group.
They explained that rapid clearance of the virus has several benefits, particularly in those with high viral levels, as such cases are associated with more severe disease and a higher risk of transmission to others.
Among the 60 patients followed in the study, the researchers said five went to emergency rooms with deteriorating respiratory symptoms. And of those five, they said four were in the placebo group, while only one was in the group which received the actual drug.
"If we can decrease the virus level quickly, people are less likely to spread the infection to others and we may even be able to shorten the time required for self-isolation," Feld said.
The scientists said interferon-lambda is a protein produced by the body in response to viral infections with the ability to activate a number of cellular pathways to kill invading viruses.
Since the novel coronavirus prevents the body from producing interferons as means to avoid being controlled by the body's immune system, the study said treatment with the drug activates those same virus-killing pathways in the cells.
According to the researchers, the drug peginterferon-lambda is a long-acting version of the drug developed by Eiger BioPharmaceuticals, adding that it can be given as a single injection under the skin with a tiny needle. They hope to conduct a phase 3 trial in the near future to find the efficacy of the drug in a much larger population.
The COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German biotechnology company BioNTech can neutralise variants of the novel coronavirus that were first reported in the U.K. and South Africa, a new study suggests.
The research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, noted that the vaccine is effective against coronavirus variants carrying the N501Y and E484K mutations.
According to the scientists, including those from the University of Texas in the U.S., these variants have a substitution of the amino acid building blocks that make up the viral spike protein — the part of the virus which enables it to enter human cells.
They said these mutations in the 501st and 484th positions of the protein's amino acid molecule chain appeared in the U.K. and the South African variants, and could potentially increase the affinity of the viral spike for the receptor on the human cell through which the virus enters cells. In particular, they said the N501Y mutation may also expand the range of hosts the virus can infect to include mice.
In the current study, the scientists, Pei-Yong Shi and his colleagues engineered combinations of mutations found in these circulating variants and tested a panel of human sera from 20 participants.
They said the sera were obtained from their clinical trial of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine obtained two or four weeks after immunisation with two doses spaced three weeks apart. When they tested the serum against the coronavirus strains, the authors found evidence of neutralisation of the mutant viruses by the sera panel, with slight variation.
According to the scientists, neutralisation against the E484K mutation was slightly lower than that against the N501Y mutation.
Commenting on the research, virologist Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick in the U.K., said the findings confirm previous studies indicating that the Pfizer vaccine is very likely to be effective against the U.K. variant. "It shows that the mutations found in the South African variant reduced the efficiency of virus neutralisation by 50% but only in six out of the 20 sera examined," said Young, who was not related to the study.
Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham in the U.K., also noted that the findings are promising. "This is important work and provides reassurance that the antibody response generated by the Pfizer vaccine is able to neutralise coronavirus genetically engineered to carry some of the mutations seen in the variants of concern first identified in the UK and South Africa," Ball, who was also unrelated to the study, said in a statement. "However, we suspect that the effects of these mutations can be influenced by mutations occurring in other parts of the spike protein, so it will be important to validate these promising findings using viruses engineered to carry all of the mutations found in each variant."
Due to the ongoing evolution of the coronavirus, the study authors called for continuous monitoring of vaccine efficacy for emerging variants.
(Subscribe to Science For All, our weekly newsletter, where we aim to take the jargon out of science and put the fun in. Click here.)
Kalyani-based scientists have found the biological mechanism behind the significantly faster spread of a variant with D614G mutation in Europe and North America but not in East Asia.
The variant with the D614G mutation seeded large outbreaks in Europe in early 2020 and subsequently dominated the outbreaks in North America, thereby largely replacing previously circulating lineages. The variant also spread worldwide.
A team led by Dr. Nidhan K. Biswas and Dr. Partha Majumdar from the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani found that the variant with the D614G mutation introduced an additional cleavage site on the ACE-2 receptor for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to gain entry into cells.
However, the presence of an additional cleavage site alone does not automatically lead to better efficiency in entering the cells. For the virus to enter the cells more efficiently, the additional cleavage site has to be opened. “The site is opened by a human protein called the neutrophil elastase. This protein is available in plenty in the lungs,” says Dr. Majumdar. “When the level of neutrophil elastase is high in an individual, the additional entry point created by the mutation opens up in a larger number of cells thus allowing more cells to be infected. Thus, the variant with the D614G mutation is able to spread better from one infected individual to another.”
But an excess amount of the protein neutrophil elastase can damage the lung tissue. Hence, the amount of neutrophil elastase produced is naturally kept under check by a protein called AAT (alpha1-antitrypsin). In other words, the AAT protein inhibits neutrophil elastase production.
However, some naturally-occurring mutations in the AAT-producing gene result in deficiency of the AAT protein, explains Dr. Majumdar. The AAT protein deficiency thus results in a higher level of neutrophil elastase and hence enhanced ability of the virus to infect human cells and spread among people.
“Compared with Asians, we found a large proportion of Caucasians in European countries and North America carry natural mutations in the gene that leads to deficiency in AAT production,” says Dr. Majumdar. “This is the reason why the variant spread widely in Europe and North America but not in Asia.” The results of the study are published in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.
According to the paper, at 18.7 per 1,000 individuals, the AAT deficiency is the least in Poland while in Portugal as many as 75.9 per 1,000 individuals have AAT deficiency. Spain has the second highest deficiency of AAT protein at 67.3 per 1,000 individuals while it is 51.9 per 1,000 individuals in the case of France. Canada and the U.S. have 32.1 and 29 per 1,000 individuals with the protein deficiency, respectively.
In contrast, in the case of East Asia, Thailand has the highest at 19.9 per 1,000 individuals while it is just 8 and 5.4 per 1,000 individuals in Malaysia and South Korea, respectively.
“Even the lowest AAT protein deficiency level seen in the population in the U.S. and Poland is much more than the highest level seen in East Asia. This explains why the variant with the D614G mutation spread widely in Europe and North America and not in East Asia,” concludes Dr. Majumdar.
The first Arab interplanetary mission is expected to reach Mars' orbit on February 9 in what is considered the most critical part of the journey to unravel the secrets of weather on the Red Planet.
The unmanned probe — named "Al-Amal", Arabic for "Hope" — blasted off from Japan last year, marking the next step in the United Arab Emirates' ambitious space programme.
Here are some facts and figures about the oil-rich nation's project, which draws inspiration from the Middle East's golden age of cultural and scientific achievements.
Discovering there's intelligent life beyond our planet could be the most transformative event in human history — but what if scientists decided to collectively ignore evidence suggesting it already happened?
That's the premise of a new book by a top astronomer, who argues that the simplest and best explanation for the highly unusual characteristics of an interstellar object that sped through our solar system in 2017 is that it was alien technology.
(Stay up to date on new book releases, reviews, and more with The Hindu On Books newsletter. Subscribe here.)
Sound kooky? Avi Loeb says the evidence holds otherwise, and is convinced his peers in the scientific community are so consumed by groupthink they're unwilling to wield Occam's razor.
Loeb's stellar credentials — he was the longest-serving chair of astronomy at Harvard, has published hundreds of pioneering papers, and has collaborated with greats like the late Stephen Hawking — make him difficult to dismiss outright.
"Thinking that we are unique and special and privileged is arrogant," he told AFP in a video call. "The correct approach is to be modest and say: 'We're nothing special, there are lots of other cultures out there, and we just need to find them.'"
Loeb, 58, lays out the argument for the alien origins of the object named 'Oumuamua — "scout" in Hawaiian — in "Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth."
The facts are as follows.
In order to explain what happened, astronomers had to come up with novel theories, such as that it was made of hydrogen ice and would therefore not have visible trails, or that it disintegrated into a dust cloud.
"These ideas that came to explain specific properties of 'Oumuamua always involve something that we have never seen before," said Loeb. "If that's the direction we are taking, then why not contemplate an artificial origin?"
'Oumuamua was never photographed close-up during its brief sojourn — we only learned of its existence once it was already on its way out of our solar system.
There are two shapes that fit the peculiarities observed — long and thin like a cigar, or flat and round like a pancake, almost razor thin.
Loeb says simulations favour the latter, and believes the object was deliberately crafted as a light sail propelled by stellar radiation.
Another oddity was the way the object moved — compounding the strangeness of its passage.
Before encountering our Sun, 'Oumuamua was "at rest" relative to nearby stars — statistically very rare. Rather than think of it as a vessel hurtling through space, from the object's perspective, our solar system slammed into it.
"Perhaps 'Oumuamua was like a buoy resting in the expanse of the universe," writes Loeb. Like a trip wire left by an intelligent lifeform, waiting to be triggered by a star system.
Loeb's ideas have placed him at odds with fellow astronomers.
Writing in Forbes, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel called Loeb a "once-respected scientist" who, having failed to convince his peers of his arguments, had taken to pandering to the public.
Loeb, for his part, protests a "culture of bullying" in the academy that punishes those who question orthodoxy — just as Galileo was punished when he proposed the Earth was not the center of the universe.
Compared to speculative yet respected branches of theoretical physics — such as looking for dark matter or multiverses — the search for alien life is a far more commonsense avenue to pursue, he said.
That's why Loeb's pushing for a new branch of astronomy, "space archaeology," to hunt for the biological and technological signatures of extraterrestrials.
"If we find evidence for technologies that took a million years to develop, then we can get a shortcut into these technologies, we can employ them on Earth," said Loeb, who spent his childhood on an Israeli farm reading philosophy and pondering life's big questions.
Such a discovery could also "give us a sense that we are part of the same team" as humanity confronts threats ranging from climate change to nuclear conflict. "Rather than fight each other like nations do very often, we would perhaps collaborate."
Scientists have identified a pattern of mutations in the novel coronavirus which enable it to evade the immune system’s antibodies, findings that shed light on how the virus may possibly escape existing vaccines and therapeutics.
According to the researchers, including those from the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S., the coronavirus undergoes selective deletions in parts of its genetic sequence that encode for the shape of its spike protein.
The spike protein is the part of the coronavirus which enables it to infect host cells, and is also the segment of the virus against which the body produces neutralising antibodies.
The study, published in the journal Science, assessed nearly 1,50,000 gene sequences of the spike protein collected from many parts of the world, and found that in variants possessing the deletion mutations, formerly neutralising antibodies cannot grab hold of the virus.
Based on the analysis, the scientists identified a form of virus “escape” that resulted from a common, strong selective pressure for the coronavirus to undergo such a change.
They found at least nine instances where such variants arose in patients whose COVID-19 infections were persistent.
According to the study, the scientists first came across these neutralisation-resistant mutations in a sample from an immunocompromised patient, who was infected with coronavirus for 74 days before ultimately dying from COVID-19.
The researchers believe this long time of “cat and mouse” play between the immune system and the coronavirus in such patients gives “ample opportunity” to initiate a “co-evolutionary dance”.
They said this competition results in “worrisome mutations” in the viral genome that are resulting in variants of the coronavirus such as the ones first reported in the UK and South Africa.
“Evolution was repeating itself. By looking at this pattern, we could forecast. If it happened a few times, it was likely to happen again,” said Kevin McCarthy, a co-author of the study from the University of Pittsburgh.
While it is yet to be determined how far these mutations erode protection, McCarthy said "At some point, we're going to have to start reformulating vaccines, or at least entertain that idea."
Improving on techniques for testing cancer drugs, researchers from IIT Guwahati have come up with silk-protein–based tumour models. An alternative to testing cancer drugs using patient-derived cell lines or animal models, the research involves fabrication of a bio-active composite of silk proteins from two species of silk moths and building a scaffolding that provides a three-dimensional base for growing tumouroids.
A recent study (Scientific Reports) from Germany found that the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) plant is capable of generating small magnetic fields. When these plants send electrical signals to trigger the closure of their traps, to catch an insect, a biomagnetism phenomenon was observed. The leaf stalk, or petiole, is not excitable and is electrically insulated from the trap.
The first author of the study Anne Fabricant explained in a release that the magnetic signals in plants are very weak and it was extremely difficult to measure them with the help of older technologies. Using new and advanced atomic magnetometers, the team was able to measure the magnetic signals, which had an amplitude of up to 0.5 picotesla, which is millions of times weaker than the Earth's magnetic field. “The signal magnitude recorded is similar to what is observed during surface measurements of nerve impulses in animals,” explains Fabricant.
Interestingly, the trap is electrically excitable in a variety of ways: in addition to mechanical influences such as touch or injury, osmotic energy, for example salt-water loads, and thermal energy in the form of heat or cold can also trigger action potentials.
Though biomagnetism has been studied in humans and animals, it has not been explored much in plants and the team now aims to measure these small signals from other plant species. They hope that this can help in identifying how the plant responds to sudden temperature changes, chemicals, and pest attacks.
An automated computational tool – Infectious Pathogen Detector (IPD) – developed earlier by researchers at the Mumbai-based ACTREC, Tata Memorial Centre, to identify the presence of 1,060 different pathogens in any genome sequence sample and perform mutation and phylogenetic analysis has become even more useful with the addition of a module for SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The IPD tool has been already designed to perform analysis of diverse genomic datasets, which came handy while analysing diverse data sets of SARS-CoV-2 genome that have been uploaded to the GISAID database from across the globe. The diversity of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence data in the GISAID database arises because of different sequencing platforms being located across the world. Different sequencing platforms being used generate either high-density but shorter read-length or low-density but higher read-length.
“To parse this plural kind of dataset requires distinct downstream pipelines which make the analysis complicated and difficult to compare against each other,” says Dr. Amit Dutt from the Tata Memorial Centre and the lead author of a paper published in the journal Briefings in Bioinformatics. “But we have automated the entire process thereby allowing users to analyse in a stringent and statistically disciplined manner the SARS-CoV-2 genome data without being restricted by the platform used to generate the data.”
Explaining the uniqueness of the IPD tool, Dr. Dutt says that it can automatically determine the abundance of SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences, carry out mutation analysis with respect to the Wuhan sequence and finally, based on the mutations seen in each sample, assign it to the respective phylogenetic clade. Assigning a sample to a phylogenetic clade is based on the complete profile of mutations seen in the sample.
“Researchers can either upload sequence data to the IPD server which then automatically analyses the data for mutations and then assign the sample to the respective phylogenetic clade or download the tool before using it for bulk analysis,” says Dr. Dutt. Using the tool, the researchers analysed over 2,00,000 SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences available in the GISAID database. Only those with high-quality sequence data were included for analysis as the tool automatically rejects those with inferior quality. In over 2,00,000 sequences analysed, they found 2.58 million mutations in all with 6.6 nonsynonymous mutations (that do not alter the amino acid sequence) and five synonymous mutations (that alter the amino acid sequence) per sample. The results are posted on bioRxiv preprint server. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed.
“Our analysis revealed 13 hotspot residues across the SARS-CoV-2 genome that occur at least in 40,000 or more samples. This includes the D614G, one of the first mutations described in the spike protein,” says Dr. Dutt. “Interestingly, none of the more recent spike glycoprotein mutations — N439K, S477Y, E484K, and N501Y — were found to be significantly abundant in the current variants in Britain, Brazil and South Africa.”
The 13 hotspot mutations are occurring at a high frequency as seen in their presence in at least 40,000 samples. “So there is some kind of repetitive convergent evolution taking place. The 13 hotspot mutations which have been selected for are occurring independently,” he cautions. “Besides hotspot mutations, we also see mutations in specific sub-clades. So there is adaptive and convergent evolution.”
They found that the mutation rate of both nonsynonymous and synonymous mutations in 3,361 Indian COVID-19 sequence samples was comparable with the global rate. They also found 4,422 unique mutations that have not been reported outside India. “The hotspot mutations were seen in the Indian samples as well, including the D614G spike protein mutation. However, no significant occurrence of N439K, E484K, or N501Y mutations were found, except in two samples that harboured the S477Y spike protein mutation,” he says.
According to Sanket Desai, the first author of the journal paper and the preprint, mutations are taking place randomly and selection will happen over time. It is just a matter of time before mutations that give the virus better fitness emerge. Viruses with such mutations will have either more transmissibility, as seen in the Britain variant or immune escape as seen in the South African variant.
Chances of the rise of dangerous mutations that render the virus greater fitness are high due to persistence of the pandemic in some countries. With just over 5,100 sequences from India, of which only 4,041 are complete and high-coverage, there is no way of knowing if new variants first reported in Britain, Brazil and South Africa are already present in India and whether new mutations so far unreported elsewhere that render better fitness to the virus have already emerged here.
Despite the COVID-19 task force mandating 5% of positive samples to be sequenced from all the States and Union Territories, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) is far from reaching the target percentage.
With the SARS-CoV-2 genome being just about 30 kb in size, it is possible to pool up to 1,000 samples into one and carry out the sequencing at high coverage of 1,000x in one go and still be far less than 15 Gb sequencing capacity of platforms routinely used in Indian labs. High throughput will also help cut down the sequencing cost per sample and help have the data after analysis in about 10 days.
Chinese scientists have found a natural mutation in the African swine fever virus they say could be less deadly than the strain that ravaged the world’s largest pig herd in 2018 and 2019. The findings, published in the Chinese Journal of Veterinary Science, come amid intense debate.
Reuters reported last month that at least two new strains of African swine fever had been found on Chinese pig farms, which appeared to be man-made. The strains are causing a chronic form of African swine fever that is impacting production on sow farms, industry insiders have said.
The researchers at the Military Veterinary Institute in Changchun said there appeared to be a growing trend of lower mortality from African swine fever with more clinical symptoms that are not easy to detect and difficult to control.
Such characteristics have also been attributed to strains believed to have been made for use in illicit vaccines. But the researchers said that with the prolonged period of swine fever circulating in China, natural variants would inevitably appear. Less virulent variants have also been found in Latvia and Estonia in recent years.
The new strain, called HuB20, was isolated from pork sampled at a market in central Hubei province, said Hu Rongliang and colleagues at the institute under China’s People’s Liberation Army.
The new strain had a partial deletion of the CD2v gene and an adjacent 8CR gene. Earlier research in Russia has suggested that deleting the two genes could protect against African swine fever.
The genes are different to those missing from virus isolates described previously to Reuters by industry participants.
“This variant does not contain any known marker genes,indicating that natural variants of ASFV are occurring in China and this may be related to the sub acute epidemic of ASF in the country,” the authors wrote.
The coldly white snowpacks and glaciers of the Himalayas that make for a picturesque panorama are also important sources of water for about a billion people who live in the basins of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. But with rising global temperatures, these snowpacks and glaciers, which are highly sensitive, are affected.
This, in turn, affects the Himalayan hydrology. India, Nepal, Pakistan and China hugely depend on these Himalayan rivers for their daily needs and energy production.
A new paper published last month studied how these Himalayan rivers are affected by the different components – rainfall-runoff, snow-melt and glacier-melt – and notes that if drier and warmer scenarios continue in the near future (2031–2050), we are more likely to face water stress in these catchment areas. They also note that if there is increased rainfall, this could lead to a water surplus situation.
The team studied five basins in the central Himalaya – Sutlej, Thulo Bheri, Kali Gandaki, Dudh Kosi and Arun. They analysed the daily precipitation, maximum and minimum daily temperatures, wind speeds, land cover, elevation and soil properties. “We developed a new glacier melt model and integrated it to the currently used land surface model. The currently used land surface model – used even by the Ministry of Earth Sciences – does not take into account glacier melt. This could lead to serious errors in the study of north-Indian rivers. Our model helps make the current one complete and turns it into a more advanced and better one,” explains Subimal Ghosh, the corresponding author of the paper published in Water Resources Research. He is from the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
The results show that the glacier-melt increases about 15% to 70% in a warmer environment with its present volume, but then decreases to 3%–38% substantially when the glacier volumes shrink. However, such a decrease can be compensated if there is increased rainfall and if a wetter scenario persists.
“Snowpacks and glaciers are two important water storage units in the Himalaya. Though snow is lower density and will melt easily in a warming climate, the reduced snowfall will in turn reduce the amount of snow-melt. Though glacier melt will increase initially, they will shrink in size quickly and the amount of glacier melt will also decline in the latter end of the century,” adds Vikram S. Chandel, first author of the paper. He is a research scholar of Interdisciplinary Program in Climate Studies, IIT Bombay. The future study will focus on understanding the predictability of the land-atmospheric processes.
The team notes that proper water-management and governance are urgently required. “Changing patterns of precipitation systems — Indian Summer Monsoon and Western Disturbances — are important for the future situation of water resources in Himalayan catchments,” adds the paper.
The spider Strigoplus moluri and the freshwater fish Pethia sanjaymoluri share a bond. They are both named after Sanjay Molur, a conservation biologist based in Coimbatore.
The 52-year-old, who has been working in this field for the past 28 years, recently won the Wildlife Service Award from the Sanctuary Nature Foundation. “I was in Coorg as part of my work when I got a call from Bittu Sahgal, founder of the organisation. I was surprised as I did not know that I was even nominated for this. I am happy and consider it a great honour,” he says.
Sanjay’s journey as a conservation biologist started in 1993 after he joined the Zoo Outreach Organisation (where he is now the executive director and trustee).“I was inspired by the works of Sally Walker, its founder. She has mentored me and I owe her all my knowledge in the field of wildlife and conservation.” Sanjay focusses on studying amphibians, reptiles, fungi and little-known plants. “They are actually running the real show. They play a very important role in the ecology and without them, life as we know now would collapse. Their function is sometimes more important than that of the larger animals,” he says.
So far, Sanjay has assessed and derived the IUCN status to more than 10,000 species from South Asia. “I was a core member that developed the IUCN Red List category and criteria from 1998-2000. Since 2001, these criteria are used to analyse the status of different species. It involves workshops with experts in the field from around the world.” There they understand the distribution, the threat to the species etc to do the risk assessment and conservation planning of wild species. “The information collected is sent to the team in Cambridge who then uploads it on the IUCN website,” he explains.
Sanjay was also involved in bringing out the monthly Journal of Threatened Taxa, along with Sally Walker. It is a monthly peer-reviewed open-source journal published from Coimbatore. “During the workshops, we realised that most of the information that we got was from the notes and observations of experts. There was only minimal data available as scientific publishing, and this inspired us to bring out the journal in April 1999.” The first issue had 12 pages; over the years, it has grown to become 160 pages long. “All the publications can be done free of charge. We have had studies from more than 100 countries so far,” says Sanjay.
While he finds all the species that he has studied interesting, he particularly enjoyed his research on the Arboreal tarantulas. “They are big-bodied spiders that live on trees, and are found only in Sri Lanka and India. Not much was known when I started learning about them in 2000 and it was fun to know about their distribution and status,” he states.
Sanjay agrees that it is challenging to work in conservation, adding, “Nothing happens here overnight. It needs a lot of perseverance and patience. It is a field that people get into for passion and most of the work is voluntary. Getting financial assistance is difficult and this will change only when more people get involved. If the public understands what is happening to Nature, I am sure that this field will be taken more seriously.”
(Subscribe to Science For All, our weekly newsletter, where we aim to take the jargon out of science and put the fun in. Click here.)
China's Tianwen-1 probe has sent back its first image of Mars, the national space agency said, as the mission prepares to touch down on the Red Planet later this year.
The spacecraft, launched in July around the same time as a rival U.S. mission, is expected to enter Mars orbit around February 10.
The black-and-white photo released late Friday by the China National Space Administration showed geological features including the Schiaparelli crater and the Valles Marineris, a vast stretch of canyons on the Martian surface.
The photo was taken about 2.2 million kilometres from Mars, according to CNSA, which said the spacecraft was now 1.1 million kilometres from the planet.
The robotic craft ignited one of its engines to "make an orbital correction" Friday and was expected to slow down before being "captured by Martian gravity" around February 10, the agency said.
The five-tonne Tianwen-1 includes a Mars orbiter, a lander and a rover that will study the planet's soil. China hopes to ultimately land the rover in May in Utopia, a massive impact basin on Mars.
After watching the United States and the Soviet Union lead the way during the Cold War, China has poured billions of dollars into its military-led space programme. It has made huge strides in the past decade, sending a human into space in 2003.
The Asian powerhouse has laid the groundwork to assemble a space station by 2022 and gain a permanent foothold in Earth orbit.
But Mars has proved a challenging target so far, with most missions sent by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and India to the planet since 1960 ending in failure.
Tianwen-1 is not China's first attempt to reach Mars. A previous mission with Russia in 2011 ended prematurely as the launch failed.
China has already sent two rovers to the Moon. With the second, China became the first country to make a successful soft landing on the far side.
All systems on the Tianwen-1 probe are in "good condition," CNSA said Friday.
Not only are humans changing the surface and temperature of the planet, but also its sounds – and those shifts are detectable even in the open ocean, according to research published Thursday.
Changes in the ocean soundscape affect wide swaths of marine life, from tiny snapping shrimp to huge right whales, the researchers found. “Sounds travel very far underwater. For fish, sound is probably a better way to sense their environment than light,” said Francis Juanes, an ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada and a co-author of the review paper in the journal Science.
It fits on a human fingertip, but this chameleon could make a big splash.
Scientists from Madagascar and Germany say a newly discovered species of chameleon is a contender for the title of world’s smallest reptile.
Frank Glaw, who was part of the international team of researchers that classified the new species and named it Brookesia nana said the body of the male specimen appeared to be just 13.5-millimeters-long (a little more than a 1/2-inch.) That’s at least 1.5 millimeters smaller than the previous record holder, another member of the Brookesia family.
Glaw, a reptile expert at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich, said the tiny male and a slightly larger female were spotted on a mountainside by a local guide during a 2012 expedition.
“You really have to get down on your knees to find them,” Glaw told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.
“They are obviously camouflaged and they move very slowly.” Glaw and his colleagues performed a CT scan of the female and discovered that it harboured two eggs, confirming that it was an adult.
For the male, the researchers took a close look at its “well-developed” genitals, which in chameleons come in pairs known as hemipenes.
They found that the genitals of the Brookesia nana specimen were almost one-fifth of its body size, possibly to allow it to mate with the larger female.
“I have few doubts it’s an adult male,” Glaw said. “If we had a pair mating it would obviously be better proof.” Confirming Brookesia nana as the smallest reptile species will require finding more of them, which might take several years, he said.
The team’s research was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Chameleons are threatened by deforestation on Madagascar, which is home to numerous species.
The Oxford vaccine appears to protect people against the new, more transmissible variant (B.1.1.7) first found in Britain in end-November and has since become the dominant one in the U.K. The efficacy of the vaccine against the U.K. variant is comparable with the efficacy against other SARS-CoV-2 virus lineages. The results were posted in a preprint server. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals.
No studies were carried out to examine the efficacy of the vaccine against the variant found in South Africa.
Also read: Coronavirus | Updated efficacy results show benefits of delaying second dose of Oxford vaccine
The vaccine efficacy against primary symptomatic disease caused by the new variant was 74.6% as against 84.1% against symptomatic disease caused by other lineages, the preprint says.
“Data from our trials of the Oxford vaccine in the U.K. indicate that the vaccine not only protects against the original pandemic virus, but also protects against the novel variant,” Andrew Pollard, Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity, and Chief Investigator on the Oxford vaccine trial, said in a release.
Also read: Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine should be effective against new variant: Report
Based on blood samples taken from trial participants who had been vaccinated, they found a nine-fold reduction in the neutralising activity levels of the vaccine-generated antibodies against the U.K. variant compared with other lineages.
While neutralising antibody titres generated by vaccination with Oxford vaccine are lower for the new variant, clinical efficacy of the vaccine against symptomatic COVID disease is similar for both the new variant and other lineages. “These findings suggest that either lower neutralising antibody titres are sufficient to provide protection or that other mechanisms of immunity may be responsible for protection from disease in vaccinated individuals,” the preprint says.
According to the researchers from Oxford University who conducted the study, though there is a reduction in the live neutralising activity of sera from vaccinated people, the “efficacy of the vaccine after a second dose was preserved against the new variant, and is “similar to previously published efficacy results” from cases prior to the emergence of the new variant.
Besides neutralising antibodies, certain antibodies mediating other functions may be recognising and binding to alternative sub-units on the spike protein explaining the observed clinical efficacy against the new variant, they postulate. There is also the likelihood that cellular immune responses to the vaccine have been sustained against the U.K. variant independently of neutralising activity, which might also be playing a role in clinical efficacy of the vaccine against the new variant.
Between October 1, 2020 and January 14, 2021, the researchers used swabs taken from nearly 500 participants with both symptomatic and asymptomatic infection enrolled in a phase-2/3 trial to find out if they were infected with the new variant or other lineages after receiving either the vaccine or the control. Of these, 34 (28.3%) who developed symptoms were infected by the new variant, while 86 (71.7%) were infected by other SARS-CoV-2 lineages. And 14 (32%) asymptomatic infections were due to the new variant and 30 (68%) due to other lineages.
A team led by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) based biometric application to continuously monitor and accurately detect the identity of a home quarantined COVID-19 patient.
The mobile application, dubbed LakshmanRekha, uses a combination of biometric verification, geofencing and AI so that no patient can breach the assigned quarantine space. Geofencing technology uses GPS signals to determine when a person enters a certain boundary.
"We have developed a pilot version of LakshmanRekha mobile application and tested it over small datasets," Aditya Nigam, Associate Professor, School of Computing & Electrical Engineering, IIT Mandi, said. "The obtained results are very good and now we are working to add more functionality, scalability and usability to make it ready for deployment.”
The results of the research have been published in the IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine.
The team noted that in existing quarantine management mobile applications, individuals under self-isolation are enforced to share their instantaneous position routinely via geofencing technology. They are also required to upload a face selfie every hour or ten times a day, according the, researchers, including those from IIT Delhi and BITS Pilani, Rajasthan. However, these geofencing applications fail to ensure the user identity throughout the time because individuals can leave cell phones in isolation zones and move in or out, leading to breach of the self-isolation rules, the researchers noted.
The idea of uploading a face selfie every hour also cannot ensure the patient’s stay in a geofenced area as they can also try to fool the system by using a photo containing its registered face, they said.
To counter these limitations, the new app developed by the team matches the quarantine location of the individual with the place from where they have uploaded the biometric data.
Using AI, the application continually computes an authentication score that can measure how certain it is that the quarantined user is also the one using the mobile, the researchers said. If the application detects any action indicating that the user identity has been changed, it will directly notify the authorities for necessary action, they said.
Published in Nature Microbiology
How does a goat manage to eat the fibrous parts of a plant and extract the nutrients locked behind thick cell walls? To understand this process, researchers from the University of California collected their fecal samples and carried out about 400 experiments. The team found over 700 novel microbial genomes which included rare fungi playing important roles in this cellulose degradation. Also, if you blame goats and cows for methane emissions, it is time to stop and start blaming these microbes, as the study found them to be behind methane production.
Published in Advanced Materials
Inspired by origami, MIT engineers have developed a medical patch that can be used to treat internal injuries. The patch can be folded around surgical tools and delivered through airways or intestines. The patch is foldable and paper-like when dry and becomes a stretchy gel when it reaches wet tissues. The team is now working with surgeons to optimise the design.
Published in Nature
An international team of scientists has discovered the remains of a fungi-like microfossil from Guizhou Province in South China. The team notes that it lived about 635 million years ago and is the oldest terrestrial fossil ever found. More studies on the fossil will help understand the paleoclimate change, the early life and plant evolution.
Published in Nature Electronics
Do you love ‘The One Ring’ from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ which rules them all, bring them all? Then meet this single cryogenic chip that can control thousands of qubits or the building blocks of quantum computers. It was designed using a custom silicon chip and was coupled to a quantum system. The device also helps get away with unwanted cables. “With just two wires carrying information as input, it can generate control signals for thousands of qubits,” Microsoft Senior Hardware Engineer, Kushal Das, a joint inventor of the chip, explains in a release.
Microscopic marine life forms help in generating oxygen and taking up carbon dioxide just like rainforests on land. But how do they know when it is day or night? Can they see? By analysing RNA from seawater samples, researchers have now identified four main groups of photoreceptors (cells that are triggered by light). The team notes that the discovery could help in the field of optogenetics, where light is used to control a cell's functions.
On December 30, 2020, the U.K. granted emergency use approval to the Oxford vaccine based on interim efficacy results from 131 COVID-19 cases. The U.K. regulator approved the second dose of the vaccine to be given 12 weeks after the first. Now, a preprint with updated efficacy results after a further month of data collection that includes 332 COVID-19 cases shows that delaying the second dose beyond four weeks increases the level of protection.
The data in the preprint show that vaccine efficacy was high when the interval between the two doses was two months and continued to increase with a longer dose interval. Vaccine efficacy after two standard doses increased from 54.9% when the second dose was administered less than six weeks after the first dose to 82.4% when the gap between the two doses was more than 12 weeks.
India began the mass vaccination of healthcare workers on January 16 and the expert committee set up by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) has recommended that the second dose should be administered between four and six weeks after the first dose.
According to the latest study, the longer interval between the first and second dose provides better protection without any compromise in the three-month period until the second dose is administered. They found that the vaccine efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 after a single standard dose of the vaccine was 76% from day 22 to day 90. The antibody levels were maintained during this period with no evidence of significant waning of protection.
However, the first dose did not provide protection against asymptomatic infection in the same period. But the overall cases of PCR positive reduced by 67% after the first dose, suggesting the potential for a substantial reduction in transmission.
Participants aged 18-55 years who received the second vaccine more than 12 weeks after the first had antibody titres that were two-fold higher than those participants who received the second dose within six weeks of the first dose. The researchers also found that neutralising antibody titres measured by pseudovirus were higher after a longer interval before the second dose.
Based on the results, the researchers conclude that “vaccination programmes aimed at vaccinating a large proportion of the population with a single dose, with a second dose given after a three-month period may be an effective strategy for reducing disease, and may be the optimal for rollout of a pandemic vaccine when supplies are limited in the short term”.
The researchers have, for the first time, explained the circumstances that led to studying the efficacy of a single dose and benefits of delaying the time before the second dose is administered. Trials involving the Oxford vaccine were initially planned as single dose studies but were later changed to include a second dose when substantial increase in neutralising antibodies were seen when a second dose was administered during the phase-1 trial. Some of the participants who initially consented to a single dose study did not choose to receive the second dose, providing a self-selected cohort of single-dose recipients.
They also report that due to the time required to manufacture the second dose, there were “delays in administration of the second dose for a large number of trial participants who received the two-dose schedule”.
“These two situations provide an opportunity to explore the immunogenicity and efficacy of a single dose of vaccine, and the impact of an extended interval before delivery of the second dose. In addition, data from an additional month of follow-up is now available for inclusion in the analysis, providing greater precision in estimates due to the larger number of cases for analysis in comparison with the previous report,” they write.
In the updated analysis, no additional hospitalisations or severe cases from 10 days after the first dose were seen in the group that received the vaccine, compared with a total of 22 in the control group.
The data cut-off date for cases to be included in the current analysis was December 7, 2020. Data to measure efficacy were taken from all four trials from the U.K. (about 8,950), Brazil (about 6,750) and South Africa (about 1,475). Totally, 17,177 participants were included in the efficacy analysis — 8,597 who received the vaccine and 8,580 control participants.
“These new analyses provide important verification of the interim data that underpinned the emergency use authorisation of the vaccine in the U.K.,” they write.
Following the approval by the U.K. regulator, many other countries, India included, approved the vaccine for emergence use.
Crickets and the birds that snack on them are not natural allies, but they do have a common enemy, according to a pair of studies published Wednesday: roadside noise pollution.
Vehicle traffic makes it much harder for at least one species of bird to solve problems, and sharply compromises the ability of some crickets to mate, lab experiments showed.
"Hearing the noises of cars driving by is enough to inhibit cognitive performance in songbirds," Christopher Templeton, a biologist at Pacific University in Oregon and senior author of a study in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, told AFP. "This has significant implications for how well they can get along in life."
There is mounting evidence that traffic noise — on the rise in most parts of the world — can have serious negative effects on animals, disrupting their ability to communicate, avoid predators, and attract mates. The new research is the first, according to the authors, to detail how noise pollution impairs cognitive ability.
Kerala should take advantage of new tools such as gene editing and nanotechnology-based solutions in its efforts to bridge the yield and position agriculture as a driving force for the State’s progress, speakers at the Kerala Looks Ahead conclave organised by the State Planning Board said on Tuesday.
Genome-edited crops can aid Kerala’s efforts to increase crop yield in addition to reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and cutting down on post-harvest losses, Kathleen L. Hefferon, professor of microbiology at Cornell University, U.S., suggested.
Prof. Hefferon was speaking at the session on ‘Role of New Technologies in Bridging Yield Gaps’ with special reference to the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology. Gene editing involves the controlled ‘tweaking’ of genes present in an organism. CRISPR is one of the tools used in gene editing. Genomic editing is more accurate, faster, and less expensive compared to genetic modification.
Prof. Hefferon underscored the need for new breeding technologies if global crop production is to double by 2050 to meet the rising food demand. Yield increases of 2.4% per year are required to meet the demand without putting more land under cultivation. The annual production of cereals would need to go up by 50% to about three billion tonnes to provide for the 2050 population demand.
CRISPR-Cas9 technology was set to revolutionise medicine — in treatment of diseases such as sickle cell anaemia, for instance — and agriculture. Genome-edited crops had the potential to lower chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, reduce post-harvest losses while at the same time producing climate-resilient, nutrient-dense, and higher-yield crops, she said.
Underlining the need for sustainable agriculture, Trilochan Mohapatra, Director General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), said Kerala should leverage its strengths in plant genetic resources and policy support for developing agronomically superior germplasm lines. Kerala had tremendous potential for value addition of agricultural produce such as coconut oil, Dr. Mohapatra said.
K.S. Subramaniam, director of research, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), who spoke on nanotechnology in agriculture, said TNAU was prepared to assist Kerala in developing nanotechnology solutions for the farm sector. “Nanotechnology is an emerging field that Indian agriculture, especially Kerala, has to take into consideration,” he said.
Agriculture Minister V.S. Sunil Kumar, who addressed the session, said Kerala’s cooperative sector had tremendous opportunities in value-addition in agriculture. In fact, the State lacked adequate value-addition enterprises, which had been the main hindrance to agricultural development. Kerala needed qualified entrepreneurs and high-end technology for boosting value addition. The important goal was to make agriculture the driving force for the transformation of the State from a consumer State to a productive one.
Scientists have developed new protein-based biosensors that glow when mixed with components of the novel coronavirus or specific COVID-19 antibodies, a breakthrough that could enable faster and more widespread testing for the disease.
When mixed with fluid from a nasal swab or blood sample, these protein sensors emit light within minutes, according to the research published in the journal Nature.
Current coronavirus diagnosis relies mostly on a technique called RT-PCR, which amplifies genetic material from the virus so that it can be seen. This technique requires specialised staff and equipment, and also consumes lab supplies that are now in high demand all over the world.
In order to directly detect coronavirus in patient samples without the need for genetic amplification, researchers led by David Baker, a professor at the University of Washington in the U.S., used computers to design new biosensors.
These protein-based devices, described in the journal Nature, recognise specific molecules on the surface of the virus, bind to them, then emit light through a biochemical reaction. Antibody testing can reveal whether a person has had COVID-19 in the past. It is being used to track the spread of the pandemic, but it too requires complex laboratory supplies and equipment. The same team also created biosensors that glow when mixed with COVID-19 antibodies.
They showed that these sensors do not react to other antibodies that might also be in the blood, including those that target other viruses. According to the researchers, this sensitivity is important for avoiding false-positive test results.
"We have shown in the lab that these new sensors can readily detect virus proteins or antibodies in simulated nasal fluid or donated serum," said Baker. "Our next goal is to ensure they can be used reliably in a diagnostic setting. This work illustrates the power of de novo protein design to create molecular devices from scratch with new and useful functions."
Bhavya Lal, the Indian-American scientist who oversaw NASA’s transition under President Joe Biden’s administration, has been appointed as the Acting Chief of Staff of the U.S. space agency.
According to NASA, Ms. Lal brings “extensive experience” in engineering and space technology, serving as a member of the research staff at the Institute for Defence Analyses Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) from 2005 to 2020.
There, she led the analysis of space technology, strategy, and policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Space Council, as well as federal space-oriented organisations, including NASA, the Department of Defence, and the intelligence community, the U.S. space agency said in a statement on February 1.
Ms. Lal served as a member of the Biden Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for the agency and oversaw the agency’s transition under the administration of President Biden.
She is an active member of the space technology and policy community, having chaired, co-chaired, or served on five high-impact National Academy of Science committees.
Ms. Lal served two consecutive terms on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Federal Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing and was an External Council member of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program and the Technology, Innovation and Engineering Advisory Committee of the NASA Advisory Council.
Before joining STPI, Ms. Lal was president of C-STPS LLC, a science and technology policy research and consulting firm. Prior to that, she was the director of the Centre for Science and Technology Policy Studies at Abt Associates, a global policy research consultancy based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She co-founded and is co-chair of the policy track of the American Nuclear Society’s annual conference on Nuclear and Emerging Technologies in Space (NETS) and co-organises a seminar series on space history and policy with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
For her many contributions to the space sector, she was nominated and selected to be a Corresponding Member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the statement said.
Ms. Lal earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in nuclear engineering, as well as a Master of Science degree in technology and policy, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and holds a doctorate in public policy and public administration from George Washington University.
She is a member of both the nuclear engineering and public policy honour societies.
SpaceX announced Monday it's aiming to launch this year the first all-civilian mission into Earth's orbit, led by a tech billionaire who plans to raffle off one of the spots aboard the craft.
Entrepreneur Jared Isaacman is to be joined by three other novice astronauts for a multi-day journey into space, including one lucky winner of a drawing.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: a journey into outer space on the first all-civilian space flight," according to a website dedicated to the mission.
SpaceX, the company started by Elon Musk, said Isaacman is "donating the three seats alongside him... to individuals from the general public who will be announced in the weeks ahead."
Launch of the Dragon spacecraft is being targeted for "no earlier than the fourth quarter of this year", the firm said.
One seat will go to a worker from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which treats childhood cancers and pediatric diseases, and the second is to be drawn from those who enter the raffle and are encouraged to donate to the hospital.
Also Read | SpaceX launches record spacecraft in cosmic rideshare programme
A third will be picked by a panel of judges from entrepreneurs who use an e-commerce tool from Isaacman's company, Shift4 Payments.
All three crewmembers "will receive commercial astronaut training by SpaceX on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft," as well as orbital mechanics and stress testing, including operating in micro- or zero gravity, the statement said.
SpaceX says that during the multi-day mission, the astronauts will orbit Earth every 90 minutes.
After the mission, the spacecraft will reenter the atmosphere for a water landing off the Florida coast.
In mid-November 2020, four astronauts were successfully carried into orbit by a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and boarded the International Space Station.
The Dragon capsule had just a week prior become the first spacecraft to be certified by NASA since the Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago. Its launch vehicle is the reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
At the end of its missions, the Crew Dragon deploys parachutes and then splashes down in water, just as in the Apollo era.
NASA turned to SpaceX and Boeing after shuttering the checkered Space Shuttle program in 2011, which failed in its main objectives of making space travel affordable and safe.
Also Read | SpaceX launches its 13th Starlink mission. What does the company plan to achieve?
The agency will have spent more than $8 billion on the Commercial Crew program by 2024, with the hope that the private sector can take care of NASA's needs in "low Earth orbit" so it is freed up to focus on return missions to the Moon and then on to Mars.
In addition to the first commercial mission, SpaceX is scheduled to launch two more crewed flights for NASA in 2021, including one in the spring, and four cargo refueling missions over the next 15 months.
Following months of interdisciplinary research assessing tens of thousands of lung cells infected with the novel coronavirus, scientists have created one of the most comprehensive maps to date of the molecular activities that are triggered inside these cells at the onset of the viral infection, an advance that may lead to the development of new drugs to combat COVID-19.
From their analysis, the scientists, including those from Boston University in the U.S., discovered close to 18 existing drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that could potentially be repurposed to combat COVID-19 soon after a person becomes infected. They said five of these drugs could reduce the spread of the coronavirus in human lung cells by more than 90%.
In the research, published in the journal Molecular Cell, the scientists simultaneously infected tens of thousands of lab-grown human lung cells with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and tracked what happens in these cells during the moments after infection.
They said these engineered cells are not completely identical to the living, breathing cells inside our bodies, but are the "closest thing to it." "What makes this research unusual is that we looked at very early time points [of infection], at just one hour after the virus infects lung cells. It was scary to see that the virus already starts to damage the cells so early during infection," said study co-author and virologist Elke Muhlberger from Boston University (BU).
According to the researchers, "the virus does wholesale remodeling of the lung cells." "It's amazing the degree to which the virus commandeers the cells it infects," said Andrew Emili, another co-author of the study from BU.
Since viruses cannot replicate themselves, they hijack the host cell machinery to make copies of its genetic material. In the study, the scientists found that when SARS-CoV-2 takes over, it completely changes the cells' metabolic processes. The virus even damages the cells' nuclear membranes within three to six hours after infection, which the team said was very surprising.
In contrast, "cells infected with the deadly Ebola virus don't show any obvious structural changes at these early time points of infection, and even at late stages of infection, the nuclear membrane is still intact," Muhlberger said.
The scientists explained that the cell's nuclear membrane surrounds the nucleus, which holds the majority of the genetic information, and controls and regulates normal cellular functions.
With the nucleus compromised by the coronavirus, they said "things rapidly take a bad turn for the entire cell." The lung cells — which normally play a role in maintaining the essential gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that occurs when we breathe —die under this siege, the study noted. According to the researchers, the cells also emit distress signals which boost inflammation as they die, triggering a cascade of biological activity that accelerates more cell death.
This eventually leads to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, and lung failure, they explained. "I couldn't have predicted a lot of these pathways, most of them were news to me. That's why our [experimental] model is so valuable," said Andrew Wilson, one of the study's senior authors.