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Science & Technology - MARCH 2021

The U.S. space agency NASA has exchanged data of its current Mars mission with its counterparts in China, India, the UAE and the European Space Agency to lower the risk of a collision as their spacecraft were also currently hovering the red planet, a media report said on March 31.

The purpose of exchanges was to lower the risk of a collision, as their spacecraft are orbiting the red planet, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported, quoting a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) statement as saying.

“To assure the safety of our respective missions, NASA is coordinating with the UAE, European Space Agency, Indian Space Research Organisation and the China National Space Administration, all of which have spacecraft in orbit around Mars, to exchange information on our respective Mars missions to ensure the safety of our respective spacecraft,” NASA’s statement said.

“This limited exchange of information is consistent with customary good practices used to ensure effective communication among satellite operators and spacecraft safety in orbit,” the report said.

ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, spacecraft remained in Mars orbit since it entered there in 2014.

India is the first Asian country to successfully send a spacecraft to Mars. NASA’s Perseverance has landed on Mars last month and its rover is currently exploring its surface, while China’s Tianwen-1 consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, entered the parking lot of orbit around Mars on February 24 and expected to land there in the next few months.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) spacecraft, Hope, is also orbiting the Mars planet. There are two spacecraft from the European Space Agency in the Martian orbit, the report said.

For information exchange cooperation with China, NASA had sought approval from the U.S. Congress and spoke to CNSA, the U.S. space agency confirmed on Monday, the Post report said.

Previously the U.S., Russia, EU besides India have succeeded in sending spacecraft to Mars regarded as the most complex space mission.


Deep-sea secrets

Published in Molecular Biology and Evolution

How does the deep-sea clam (Archivesica marissinica) survive thousands of metres below sea level? Scientists collected these clams from a cold seep in the South China Sea and decoded its genome to understand its adaptations. They also studied a bacteria (Candidatus Vesicomyosocius marissinica) that lives in the epithelium cells of the clams. They noticed that symbiosis between these two helps the clam to thrive in deep-sea environments.

Pesticide menace

Published in Nature Geoscience

A study on 168 countries has revealed that 64% of the studied agricultural land was at risk of pesticide pollution. Watersheds in South Africa, China, India, Australia and Argentina were identified as “high-concern regions because they have high pesticide pollution risk, bear high biodiversity and suffer from water scarcity,” writes the team.

Mummified parrot tale

Published in PNAS

Twenty-seven mummified and skeletonised parrots from five archaeological sites in the Atacama Desert, now tell a story of capture and transport of at least five parrot species. Researchers write that macaws, amazons, and conures were kept as pets between 1000 and 1460 CE and their feathers were used for various ceremonies.

Algae analysis

Published in Nature Communications

"Being stuck at home was a blessing in disguise, as there were no experiments that could be done. We just had our computers and lots of time," says Professor Paul Curmi from UNSW Sydney in a release. By analysing several microscopy images of proteins, he was able to identify and reconstruct a key protein that helped evolution of cryptophyte algae billions of years ago. This find serves as a missing piece in the puzzle of the evolution of photosynthetic algae.

Catch a comet

Two papers published in Nature Communications

This image was taken with the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in late 2019, when comet 2I/Borisov passed near the Sun. Credit: ESO/O. Hainaut

This image was taken with the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in late 2019, when comet 2I/Borisov passed near the Sun. Credit: ESO/O. Hainaut 

The comet 2I/Borisov was first discovered in August 2019 and was confirmed to have come from beyond the Solar System. Two papers published last week used high-resolution observations from different telescopes to study the comet and found that the comet most likely never passed close to any star other than our Sun. This means the comet is pristine and has a “composition very similar to that of the cloud of gas and dust it — and the rest of the Solar System — formed from some 4.5 billion years ago,” explains a release. Studying the comet can tell us more about the origin of our Solar System.

Scientists in Argentina have unearthed the well-preserved skull of a meat-eating dinosaur that roamed northern Patagonia about 85 million years ago — a beast with a short snout, keen hearing and stout bite strength that made it a daunting predator.

The dinosaur, named Llukalkan aliocranianus, measured roughly 16 feet (5 meters) long and was a member of a carnivorous group called abelisaurids that prospered in South America and other parts of Earth’s Southern Hemisphere during the Cretaceous Period, researchers said on Tuesday.

Llukalkan, meaning “one who causes fear” in the local native Mapuche language, may have competed directly against a cousin that was equally impressive and slightly larger. Only about 700 meters away from where Llukalkan’s fossilized skull was found, scientists previously had dug up the remains of another meat-eating dinosaur called Viavenator exxoni.

Both were abelisaurids, a group of two-legged predators with short skulls, sharp and serrated teeth, extremely short arms with tiny fingers and heads sometimes featuring unusual ridges and small horns. Abelisaurids generally were medium-sized compared to huge carnivorous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex, which lived in North America approximately 15 million years after Llukalkan, and Giganotosaurus, which lived in Patagonia about 15 million years before Llukalkan.

“Yes, it is very unusual to find two abelisaurids that lived in the same locality and at approximately the same time,” said paleontologist Federico Gianechini of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and the National University of San Luis, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“Llukalkan was a little smaller than Viavenator, although, if they lived together, they surely shared the same ecological niche and fed on the same prey, so they would have competed with each other and — why not — even eaten each other,” Gianechini added. “Today, predators of different species but from the same family co-exist in the same ecosystem, such as lions, leopards and cheetahs.”

Llukalkan’s skull measured about 50 cm long. A large percentage of the cranial bones were found, including a nicely preserved braincase.

“A peculiarity of this dinosaur is that it has cavities in the ear area that other abelisaurids did not have, which could have given this species different auditory capacities, possibly a greater hearing range,” Gianechini said. “The good preservation allowed us to make studies of the internal part of the braincase through tomography and thus infer the shape of the brain.”

Llukalkan had a powerful bite, based on the musculature of its jaws, and its teeth could tear flesh from its prey. Unlike some abelisaurids, its skull was not bumpy.

No bones from the rest of its body were found, though the researchers have a good idea of its body plan based on other abelisaurids. They estimate Llukalkan weighed between one and five tons.

Patagonia has produced important dinosaur finds in recent decades. Llukalkan’s discovery allows for a deeper understanding of northern Patagonia’s ecosystems during the Cretaceous, the final chapter of the dinosaur age. Llukalkan inhabited a semi-arid environment with a seasonal climate, hunting a variety of plant-eating dinosaurs.

Whew, now here's some good cosmic news: NASA has given Earth the all clear for the next century from a particularly menacing asteroid.

The space agency announced this week that new telescope observations have ruled out any chance of Apophis smacking Earth in 2068.

That’s the same 1,100-foot (340-meter) space rock that was supposed to come frighteningly close in 2029 and again in 2036. NASA ruled out any chance of a strike during those two close approaches a while ago. But a potential 2068 collision still loomed.

First detected in 2004, Apophis is now officially off NASA's asteroid “risk list.”

“A 2068 impact is not in the realm of possibility anymore, and our calculations don’t show any impact risk for at least the next 100 years,” Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, said in a statement Friday.

Scientists were able to refine Apophis' orbit around the sun thanks to radar observations earlier this month, when the asteroid passed within 17 million kilometers.

Apophis will come within 32,000 kilometers on April 13, 2029, enabling astronomers to get a good look.

“When I started working with asteroids after college, Apophis was the poster child for hazardous asteroids,” Farnocchia said. “There’s a certain sense of satisfaction to see it removed from the risk list."

Squids adeptly change the colour and patterns on their skin for camouflage and communication. Like their cephalopod cousins the octopus and cuttlefish, Squids have specialised pigment-filled cells called chromatophores that expand to expose them to light, resulting in various shades of pigmentary colour. Squids shimmer and flicker, reflecting different colours and breaking light over their skin. Researchers have found that proteins called reflectins are responsible for their iridescence. Now, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found (Applied Physics Letters) what allows squids to tune the reflected light.

Daniel Morse’s team from the University had already found that structures (subwavelength-wide grooves) and mechanisms by which light-reflecting cells (iridocytes) in the skin can take on virtually every colour of the rainbow.

The grooves are formed by a cell membrane that folds into nanoscale accordion-like structures called lamellae. The colour reflected depends on the width of the groove, which corresponds to certain light wavelengths (colours).

The width of the grooves can be changed – widened or narrowed – at will by the action of “osmotic motor” driven by reflectin proteins. The researchers then found that the reflectin proteins can not only tune the colour but can also tune the brightness using the same mechanism.

Reflectins are normally very strongly positively charged and so they repel each other. But neural signal causes the reflectins to bind to negatively charged phosphate groups that neutralize their positive charge. Without the repulsion they fold and attract each other, accumulating into fewer, larger aggregations in the lamellae.

Aggregations of the reflectins exert osmotic pressure on the lamellae causing water release from the cells. The release of water in turn collapses the accordion so the thickness in spacing between the folds gets reduced. This causes the light that is reflected to shift progressively from red to green to blue, says a release. At the same time, the membrane's collapse also concentrates the reflectins, causing an increase in their refractive index, amplifying brightness.

Two new species of seaweed have been discovered by a group of marine biologists from Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. Named Hypnea indica (after India) and Hypnea bullata (because of the blisterlike marks on its body – bullate), the seaweeds are part of the genus Hypnea or red seaweeds.

They grow in the intertidal regions of the coast, namely the area that is submerged during the high tide and exposed during low tides. The discovery was recorded in the journal Botanica Marina.

Adding to the number

The genus Hypnea consists of calcareous, erect, branched red seaweeds. “There are 61 species of which 10 were reported in India. With our two new species, the total number of species now would be 63,” says Felix Bast, from the Department of Botany, in the University, who led the research.

While Hypnea indica was discovered Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and Somnath Pathan and Sivrajpur in Gujarat, Hypnea bullata was discovered from Kanyakumari and Diu island of Daman and Diu.

To rule out the possibility that the species had been around earlier, but that now had been documented, the researchers compared characteristics of these specimens with all the 61 currently accepted species of Hypnea one by one.

“Comparison not only included morphology, but also DNA sequences. Such a polyphasic approach combining morphology (traditional) with DNA sequencing (modern) is the gold standard in species discoveries in taxonomy these days,” says Dr. Bast.

Chance discovery

The researchers were on a routine survey and collected a large number of species. “Our heuristics involve making a checklist of obviously known species (by carefully examining the morphology) and shortlisting unique specimens that do not conform to existing species descriptions. Such unique specimens would be subjected to DNA barcoding to check homology with other sequences worldwide (to reduce the costs).” Dr. Bast explains.

Food industry

Species of Hypnea contain the biomolecule carrageenan, which is widely used in the food industry.

As the two species have been found on the west and south east coasts of India, it suggests good prospects for their cultivation which can be put to good use economically.

The study also reports one other species of Hypnea for the first time in Indian coasts, Hypnea nidifica.

The extensive calcareous deposits on the body that has been observed also provides room for thought. Several recent studies have shown that algae with calcareous mineral deposits are prone for the damage from ocean acidification – an aftermath of climate change.

As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets dissolved in ocean waters, the seawater becomes more acidic. Algae like Hypnea cannot survive in acidic seawater, hence, the only way to help these species is to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by adopting sustainable lifestyle choices.

While all COVID-19 vaccines administered through the intramuscular route have been found to reduce the chances of symptomatic disease and death, attempts are being made to develop vaccines that can potentially prevent or at least greatly reduce the chances of being infected and also stop the spread of the virus. Such vaccines are typically administered at the site of infection, and the most efforts are at developing vaccines that can be administered intranasally either as drops or as a spray.

Developed by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the vaccine has been licensed to Bharat Biotech to carry out human clinical trials, manufacture the vaccine and distribute them in all countries except the U.S., Japan and Europe. Bharat Biotech has already begun the phase-1 clinical trials at four sites in India – Hyderabad, Nagpur, Patna and Chennai.

Clinical trial

According to details posted on the U.S. clinical trial registry, the vaccine will be tested on 175 participants as single and double doses in the phase-1 trial. There will be three arms – single dose, double dose and placebo. There will be 70 participants each who will get a single dose and double dose (day 0 and 28), and the placebo arm will have 35 participants.

Much like the Oxford vaccine, the intranasal vaccine has been developed using the vector-based platform and uses a chimpanzee adenovirus (Ad 36) to ferry the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A single dose of the intranasal vaccine has been found to induce robust mucosal immunity, which prevents SARS-CoV-2 infection in the upper and lower respiratory tracts of mice when challenged with the virus a few weeks after vaccination. Robust humoral and cell-mediated immune responses were also seen. In the case of hamsters, a single dose of the vaccine provided “superior protection” of the nasal cavity and upper respiratory tract, which may confer protection against both infection and transmission. Even in the case of rhesus monkeys, a single intranasal dose of the vaccine induced neutralising antibodies and T cell responses and was found to limit or prevent infection in the upper and lower respiratory tract once challenged with the virus.

Even if the vaccine is unlikely to confer sterilising immunity, the local mucosal immunity is likely to reduce the possibility of infection and in all probability might prevent transmission. “Whether it confers sterilising immunity or not will become clear only during human trials. But it is more likely to reduce infection though the extent of reduction remains to be seen,” says immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath, formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi and now a visiting faculty at IISER Pune.

“The intranasal vaccine is very unlikely to confer sterilising immunity. So far, only the HPV vaccine has been found to confer sterilising immunity,” says virologist Dr. Jacob John, formerly with CMC Vellore. “The vaccine may also not prevent infection but can surely reduce the speed of transmission.”

Duration of protection

While Dr. Rath is unsure how long the duration of protection conferred by local mucosal immunity might last and thinks that it might be the same as when the vaccine is administered through intramuscular route, Dr. John says the local mucosal immunity will be short-lived, perhaps for months to a year.

Dr. John also points out that for diseases where transmission is either by respiratory or faecal-oral route, vaccines administered through the intramuscular route have been equally effective in either preventing infection or disease onset. In contrast, the oral polio vaccine has to be administered repeatedly to confer continued protection.

A typical example is HPV, where sterilising immunity at the site of infection is achieved even though it is an intramuscular vaccine. “Even if one cell is infected, the process of chronic infection and malignancy continue. This is the only vaccine that prevents even one cell from getting infected, and it is due to sterilising immunity,” says Dr. John.

Case of measles

In the case of measles, which is highly contagious, a vaccinated child can get infected but may not suffer from disease. “Measles spreads only after disease sets in. Since the vaccinated child does not suffer from disease the child does not spread the virus through the nasal route,” he explains.

In the case of whooping cough, it’s the toxin and not the bacteria per se that causes disease. A child can get infected despite being vaccinated intramuscularly, but the vaccine-induced immunity reduces the chances of disease even when infected, says Dr. John.

In the case of diphtheria, where the infection will be sub-clinical, for the disease to get worse large-scale multiplication of the bacteria on the mucosal surface is needed, which is facilitated by the toxin. When the toxin is not effective due to the presence of toxin antibodies, the growth of the bacteria is compromised and disease onset is prevented.

The biggest advantage that intranasal vaccine offers is the ease of vaccine administration, particularly when the vaccine is administered as drops. There will be no need for trained health workers for intramuscular administration. Just like in the case of oral polio vaccination, the use of a cheap dropper to administer the vaccine to multiple people will make the vaccination drive easy, simple and cost-effective.

If any intranasal vaccine is found to be safe and highly efficacious even against variants, and if the vaccine is available in large quantities, the possibility of administering the vaccine to large populations within a short time to check the spread of the virus may be possible. Dr. John is even optimistic of eradicating the virus if the world comes together to administer an efficacious intranasal vaccine within a short time frame. “It all boils down to a design issue for eradication,” he says.

Once in a way, the world of physics is in a state of upheaval – experiments are carried out that reveal limitations to older, established theories, and new physics is born. In this manner, on March 23, a wave of excitement propagated through the particle physics community when researchers from the LHCb experiment at CERN, situated in the Franco-Swiss border, announced the results of their latest analysis of data.

Verge of discovery

While the findings were not sufficiently strong to be counted as a discovery, CERN scientists were excited enough to reveal that if the anomaly they had detected was confirmed, “It would require a new physical process, such as the existence of new fundamental particles or interactions.” Spokesperson for LHCb, Professor Chris Parkes from the University of Manchester and CERN qualified this by saying, “More studies on related processes are under way using the existing LHCb data. We will be excited to see if they strengthen the intriguing hints in the current results.”

What was this excitement all about? It is necessary to delve into the world of elementary particles to understand this.

Particle zoo

Broadly speaking, elementary particles are classified into the particles called baryons – which include protons, neutrons and their antiparticles the antiprotons etc. The “middle mass” particles, roughly speaking, are called the mesons and they include members such as the K and B particles.

You then have the leptons, which include the electron and its cousins the muon and tau particles and the anti-particles. At a still smaller scale, there are tiny particles called quarks and gluons. There are six flavours of quarks: up, down, truth, beauty, charm and strange. They too have antiquarks associated with them.

In this particle zoo, while the baryons are made up of combinations of three quarks, the mesons contain two quarks, more accurately a quark and antiquark pair, and the leptons are truly fundamental and are thought to be indivisible.

Until now it is believed that the electron, muon and tauon and their antiparticles, though they differ in mass, behave similarly in particle interactions.

Colliding particle beams

By interactions here, is meant the following: If a huge particle accelerator such as the LHC were to accelerate beams of hadrons (such as protons) to very high speeds, a fraction of that of light, and then cause them to collide. Basically, smash through the repulsive nuclear forces and shatter them, the hadrons would break up into constituents which would recombine to form short-lived particles, which would decay into stabler states. Roughly speaking, during this process, they are imaged in a huge multistorey detector and the number of specific processes and particles are counted.

One such process that was measured was the decay of a meson B (which contained the beauty quark) into K-meson (which contains the strange quark) and a muon-antimuon pair, and this was compared with the decay of B into K and an electron-antielectron pair.

The expectation is that the ratio of the strengths of these two sets of interactions would be just one. This is because the muons are not essentially different from the electrons as per the Standard Model, the presently accepted theoretical model of all elementary particle interactions. This is called the lepton universality principle.

Anomaly or fluke?

However, what the LHCb has seen is that the ratio is not 1, but it is approximately 0.846. However, the discrepancy is only at the level of 3.1 sigma, which is a measure of the chances that it might be due to a fluke. Scientists have agreed that in order to declare something a discovery, it should have a significance of 5 sigma or more (which is a much lower chance of a fluke).

Commenting on what would happen if, with analysis of more data, this significance was found to increase, Prof. Rahul Sinha of The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, says, “The standard model will no longer be a complete description of particles and their interactions. It assumes as a starting point that electron, muon and tau interactions are universal and hence of the same strength.”

Prof. Rahul Sinha and collaborators have worked on these so-called flavour-changing neutral current penguin decays since the mid 1990s. “These interactions are highly suppressed in the standard model, and they were understood to be important even in the late 1970s,” he says.

According to Prof. Sinha, “It was realised by mid-1990s that they are small but not vanishingly small because of the very heavy top quark… In 1996, we realised that the decay b (quark) to s (quark) and lepton-antilepton pair can result in many observables because of the rich kinematics. Hence, we realised that this was great mode to look for new physics. It took several more years before they were observed.”

Scientists have assessed the course of evolution of seasonal human coronaviruses (HCoV) and predicted that COVID-19 vaccines currently in use across the world may need regular updates to counter new variants of the virus which are capable of escaping the body's protective antibodies.

The results were published in the journal Virus Evolution.

In the research, virologists from Charite-Universitatsmedizin Berlin in Germany studied the genetic evolution of the four currently known 'common cold' coronaviruses, particularly the two longest-known viruses, HCoV-229E and HCoV-OC43. They traced changes in the spike protein of the these coronaviruses, which enable them to enter host cells, approximately 40 years into the past.

Based on the analysis, the scientists found one feature which was common to both the coronaviruses and the influenza virus — all three had a pronounced ladder-like shape in their evolutionary paths.

"An asymmetrical tree of this kind likely results from the repeated replacement of one circulating virus variant by another which carried a fitness advantage," explained the study's first author, Wendy K. Jo.

According to Jo, this is evidence of 'antigenic drift', a continuous process involving changes to surface structures which enable viruses to evade the human immune response. "It means that these endemic coronaviruses also evade the immune system, just like the influenza virus. However, one also has to look at the speed with which this evolutionary adaptation happens," she added.

The scientists said the novel coronavirus genome is currently estimated to change at a rate of approximately 10 mutations per 10,000 base molecules per year, meaning the speed at which it evolves is substantially higher than that of the endemic coronaviruses.

p align='justify' > "This rapid genetic change in SARS-CoV-2 is reflected in the emergence of numerous virus variants across the globe," explained study co-author Jan Felix Drexler. "This, however, is likely due to the high rates of infection seen during the pandemic. When infection numbers are so high, a virus is able to evolve more rapidly," Drexler added.

Based on the rates of evolution seen in the endemic common cold coronaviruses, the scientists believe SARS-CoV-2 will start to change more slowly once infections start to die down.

"Once a large proportion of the global population has developed immunity either as a result of infection or through vaccination. We expect therefore that COVID-19 vaccines will need to be monitored regularly throughout the pandemic and updated where necessary," Drexler explained.

According to the virologists, vaccines are likely to remain effective for longer once the pandemic reaches this stable situation.

Ultra-fine plastic particles can become 'hubs' for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pathogens to grow once they wash down household drains and enter wastewater treatment plants, a new study says.

According to the scientists, including those from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in the U.S., these plastic particles less than five millimeters in length, called microplastics, allow the formation of a slimy layer, or biofilm, on their surface which allows bacteria and antibiotic waste to attach and mingle.

The research, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters, noted that certain strains of bacteria have elevated antibiotic resistance by up to 30 times when living on microplastic biofilms that form inside sludge units at municipal wastewater treatment plants.

"A number of recent studies have focused on the negative impacts that millions of tons of microplastic waste a year is having on our freshwater and ocean environments, but until now the role of microplastics in our towns’ and cities’ wastewater treatment processes has largely been unknown," said study co-author Mengyan Li from NJIT. "These wastewater treatment plants can be hotspots where various chemicals, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pathogens converge and what our study shows is that microplastics can serve as their carriers, posing imminent risks to aquatic biota and human health if they bypass the water treatment process."

In the study, the scientists assessed batches of sludge samples from three domestic wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey, U.S., inoculating the samples in the lab with two widespread commercial microplastics — polyethylene and polystyrene.

They then identified the species of bacteria that tend to grow on the microplastics, tracking genetic changes of the bacteria along the way.

The researchers found that three genes in particular — sul1, sul2 and intI1— known to aid resistance to common antibiotics, sulfonamides, were found to be up to 30 times greater on the microplastic biofilms than in the lab's control tests using sand biofilms after just three days.

When the scientists added the antibiotic, sulfamethoxazole, to these samples they found it further amplified the antibiotic resistance genes by up to 4.5-fold.

"Previously, we thought the presence of antibiotics would be necessary to enhance antibiotic-resistance genes in these microplastic-associated bacteria, but it seems microplastics can naturally allow for uptake of these resistance genes on their own," said Dung Ngoc Pham, another co-author of the study from NJIT. "The presence of antibiotics does have a significant multiplier effect however."

Of the eight different bacterial species that the scientists found growing on the microplastics, they found two emerging human pathogens typically linked with respiratory infection.

"We might think of microplastics as tiny beads, but they provide an enormous surface area for microbes to reside," Li said.

According to the researchers, when microplastics enter the wastewater treatment plant and mix in with sludge, bacteria can accidentally attach to the surface and secrete glue-like substances.

"As other bacteria attach to the surface and grow, they can even swap DNA with each other. This is how the antibiotic resistance genes are being spread among the community," Li explained.

The scientists said further studies are needed to better understand the extent to which such pathogen-carrying microplastics may be bypassing water treatment processes.

The octopus is an extraordinary creature — and not only because of its eight limbs, three hearts, blue blood, ink squirting, camouflage capacity and the tragic fact that it dies after mating.

A study by researchers in Brazil published on Thursday shows that this animal, already considered perhaps the smartest invertebrate, experiences two major alternating sleep states eerily similar to those in humans — and it even might dream.

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The findings, the researchers said, provide fresh evidence that the octopus possesses a complex and sophisticated neurobiology that underlies an equally sophisticated behavioral repertoire, while also offering broader insight into the evolution of sleep, a crucial biological function.

Octopuses previously were known to experience sleep and change colours while slumbering. In the new study, the researchers observed a species called Octopus insularis in a laboratory setting. They found that these colour changes are associated with two distinct sleep states: "quiet sleep" and "active sleep."

During "quiet sleep," the octopus remains still, with pale skin and eye pupils contracted to a slit. During "active sleep," it dynamically changes its skin colour and texture and moves both eyes while contracting its suckers and body, with muscular twitches.

A repeating cycle was observed during sleep. "Quiet sleep" typically lasted roughly seven minutes. The subsequent "active sleep" typically lasted less than a minute.

This cycle appears analogous, the researchers said, to the alternating "rapid eye movement," or REM, and "non-rapid eye movement," or non-REM, sleep states experienced by people, as well as other mammals, birds and reptiles.

Vivid dreaming occurs during REM sleep, as a person's eyes move rapidly, breathing becomes irregular, the heart rate increases and the muscles become paralysed to not act out the dreams. Non-REM sleep features more deep sleep and less dreaming.

Study lead author Sylvia Medeiros said the findings suggest octopuses may be dreaming, or experiencing something similar. "If octopuses indeed dream, it is unlikely that they experience complex symbolic plots like we do," said Medeiros, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the Brain Institute of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte.

"'Active sleep' in the octopus has a very short duration, typically from a few seconds to one minute. If during this state there is any dreaming going on, it should be more like small video clips, or even GIFs," Medeiros added.

Scientists are seeking a greater understanding of the origins and evolution of sleep.

Because the last common ancestor of vertebrates, including humans, and cephalopods, including octopuses, lived more than half a billion years ago, it seems unlikely their similar sleep patterns were established before their evolutionary divergence, the researchers said.

That would mean, they added, that this similar sleep pattern arose independently in the two groups, a phenomenon called "convergent evolution."

"The investigation of sleep and dreaming in the octopus gives us a vantage point for the psychological and neurobiological comparison with vertebrates, since the octopus possesses several sophisticated cognitive features that are only seen in some vertebrate species but with a very different brain architecture," said study co-author Sidarta Ribeiro, founder of the Brain Institute.

Ribeiro noted that previous studies showed that octopuses, with the most centralised nervous system of any invertebrate, possess exceptional learning abilities, including spatial and social learning, as well as problem-solving capabilities.

"The understanding of how organisms as different as humans and octopuses can share fundamental traits such as the sleep cycle opens new avenues for the investigation of animal cognition and for the understanding of the general principles that shaped brain design in these groups of highly intelligent animals," Medeiros said.

Published in Neuron

What is happening inside your brain as you are reading this? Which areas and which neurons are active? A less-invasive technology called functional ultrasound has now shown the ability to map brain activity even from regions deep within the brain. It produces detailed images of the neural signals that could not be seen with other non-invasive techniques like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).

The giraffe puzzle

Published in Science Advances

The tallest land animal has kept biologists busy for years as they struggled to decode its peculiar anatomy and evolutionary adaptations. Now a study of the giraffe’s whole genome has shown that a particular gene known as FGFRL1 may be responsible for its unique features. The team writes that this gene has undergone many changes in the giraffe compared to other animals.

Penguin blood study

Published in PNAS

Penguins are known to contain more haemoglobin in their blood compared to other land-dwelling birds. A new study that looked at ancient and modern penguins found that the haemoglobin evolved such that it can increase the pick-up and drop-off of available oxygen. This is vital for the bird as it has to spend more than 30 minutes holding its breath while hunting.

New basalt from the ocean

Published in Nature Communications

The ocean floor of Amami Sankaku Basin near Japan has yielded a new type of rock. Studies on samples collected from 1.5 km into the ocean floor showed a new type of basalt that had a different mineral composition compared to those found so far on Earth and Mars. The team says that it may be created during volcanic eruptions.

Denisovan DNA

Published in Nature Ecology and Evolution

By studying the genomes of over 400 modern humans and ancient human cousins, researchers have now noted that two cousin species, Homo luzonensis and Homo floresiensis, were present in Island SouthEast Asia when modern humans arrived. Island Southeast Asia includes Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and the new nation of East Timor. Further studies revealed that there were no interbreeding events.

The team also found DNA evidence for our mysterious ancient cousins called Denisovans from the region. These findings could tell us more about human evolution and migration across the globe.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX will be landing its Starship rockets on Mars well before 2030, the billionaire entrepreneur said in a tweet on Tuesday.

The private space company had raised about $850 million in equity financing in February even as a prototype of its Starship rocket exploded during a landing attempt after a high-altitude test launch.

The SN9 prototype was a test model of the heavy-lift rocket being developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.

Musk, who leads several futuristic companies, including Tesla Inc, Neuralink and Boring Co, said on Tuesday the “really hard threshold is making Mars Base Alpha self-sustaining.”

A first orbital flight is planned for year’s end. Musk has said that he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with the Starship in 2023.

The four cosmonauts shortlisted for Gaganyaan, India's first manned space mission, have completed their training in Russia, according to an official Russian statement here on Tuesday.

The ₹10,000-crore ambitious project is expected to be launched in 2022, the year of the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence.

The Four Indian Air Force fighter pilots are likely to be potential candidates for the Gaganyaan project.

Dmitry Rogozin, General Director of the State Corporation Roscosmos, on Thursday held a meeting with Indian cosmonaut candidates who successfully completed general space training, the agency said in a statement.

The meeting was also attended by the Ambassador of India to Russia, D.B. Venkatesh Varma and representatives of subsidiaries of the State Corporation Roscosmos, who took part in the training of Indian candidates for astronauts.

The contract for the training of Indian candidates for space flight between the Glavkosmos company (part of the Roscosmos State Corporation) and the Manned Space Flight Center of the Indian Space Research Organisation was signed on June 27, 2019.

Cosmonaut Training Center named after Yuri Gagarin on February 10, 2020 began the planned training of Indian cosmonaut candidates.

The training was paused in the end of March due to the outbreak of COVID-19 infection. It was later resumed in May.

The entire process of preparation and training included a number of elements necessary for future cosmonauts, such as medical and physical training, studying the Russian language, studying the design, layout and systems of the Soyuz transport manned spacecraft.

Russia on Monday put 38 foreign satellites into orbit after a succesful launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan following delays due to technical issues.

Video published by the Russian space agency Roscosmos showed its Soyuz rocket launching against grey and cloudy skies at 0607 GMT.

"The Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket with the Fregat upper stage and 38 spacecraft from 18 countries took off from the Baikonur cosmodrome," Roscosmos said on its Twitter account.

Later Monday, Roscosmos said in a statement that the rocket had successfully placed into orbit the 38 satellites from more than a dozen countries, including South Korea, Japan, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy and Brazil.

Among them was the Challenge-1, the first satellite made completely in Tunisia, which was created by the Telnet telecommunications group.

The launch was twice postponed from Saturday after a surge in voltage was detected.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian space sector has lagged behind international competitors, plagued by corruption scandals and technological stagnation.

In 2018, a Soyuz rocket carrying a Russian cosmonaut and a NASA astronaut failed mid-flight, forcing the crew to carry out an emergency landing. Both survived without injuries.

At least one in three patients hospitalised with COVID-19 suffer long-term health issues including multiple organ problems and deteriorated mental health, according to a review of studies looking at the lasting impact of the disease.

Published in the journal Nature Medicine on Monday, the review looked at the frequency of symptoms among COVID-19 "long-haulers", the most common of which include fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Authors of the research said the data pointed to an underappreciated health emergency that governments needed to study more closely and find ways to manage.

"Given the millions of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 globally, the long-term cost on physical, cognitive and mental aspects of health still remain to be seen," lead author Kartik Sehgal, a medical oncologist at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told AFP. "We may be capturing only the tip of the iceberg."

While severe COVID-19 infects patients' lungs — leaving many with long term breathing issues — studies have shown that the virus also attacks other organs, leading to a variety of complications including cardiovascular illness and chronic inflammation.

Sehgal and colleagues reviewed nine long-term studies from Europe, the United States and China and found that several patients reported multiple organ problems months after they were discharged from hospital.

Overall, they found that 30% of patients studied reported at least one symptom, such as fatigue, shortness of breath and psychiatric conditions.

One study in Italy of 143 patients found that nearly 90% reported lingering symptoms 60 days after they recovered from initial Covid-19 infection.

The most common symptoms were fatigue (53.1%), shortness of breath (43.4%), joint pain (27.3%) and chest pain (21.7%). In total, more than half of patients experienced multiple symptoms two months after leaving hospital.

Three studies from France, Britain and China showed that between 25-30% of patients reported sleep disturbances weeks after recovering from COVID-19.

And approximately 20% of patients had reported hair loss, according to results from multiple studies.

'Medical needs don't stop'

The results regarding mental health were perhaps equally concerning.

In a cohort of 402 survivors in Italy one month after they were hospitalised, 56% tested positive for at least one psychiatric condition such as PTSD, depression or anxiety.

The authors said that around 30% of patients had developed PTSD after being hospitalised with COVID-19.

"It is important to not forget about the mental health effects of long-COVID-19, while taking care of the physical symptoms, as they can be easily missed," said Sehgal, who is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

The researchers called for further investigation into long-COVID-19, and the wider establishment of clinics to treat people with lingering, life-altering symptoms.

Sehgal said he hoped the research showed that simply surviving COVID-19 is not necessarily a satisfactory health outcome.

"Although preventing deaths remains the most important goal, it is also important to recognise the multi-organ morbidity of COVID-19," he said. "The medical needs of patients with COVID-19 don't stop at the time of hospital discharge and they also don't necessarily stop after three to four weeks."

Over two weeks at sea, scientists spotted pilot whales and spinner dolphins, orcas and more. But not a single sperm whale had crested the choppy waters of the western Indian Ocean.

Then, an underwater microphone picked up a series of unmistakable clicks and squeaks. A large pod of the endangered whales was nearby. And from the sound of it, they were feeding.

The scientists are on a month long quest to document whales and other marine mammals living around the Mascarene Plateau, hoping to bolster arguments for protecting the remote 2,000-km underwater ridge to both fight climate change and protect ocean wildlife.

“We’re actually generating some of the first baseline data for this area on marine mega fauna, and that feels quite exciting,” said Exeter University biologist Kirsten Thompson, one of the scientists on the Greenpeace research expedition.

For sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whale species, “the only data from this area comes from the whaling days,” she said. The group of researchers hopes also to draw attention to the U.N. campaign aimed at persuading countries to protect at least 30% of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

The plateau is a conservation target partly for the world’s largest seagrass meadow carpeting its Saya de Malha Bank, which absorbs climate-warming carbon dioxide and provides a vast wildlife habitat. Whales, meanwhile, are also key to combating global warming. They release tonnes of iron a year in their faeces, which feeds CO2-absorbing phytoplankton.

The Mascarene research is timely. A March 17 paper in thejournal Nature maps out marine areas teeming with life as conservation targets, and suggests that guarding these zones from fishing, shipping, deep sea mining and other human interference would protect more than 80% of endangered marine species’ habitats.

It would also increase global fish catches by more than 8 million tonnes, according to the study. Most of the target areas are within territorial waters of over 100 countries around the world. But a few like the Mascarene are in international waters.

Protecting the Mascarene, which is larger than the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, would help safeguard fisheries more than 2,000 km (1,242 miles) away in East Africa,another group of researchers argued in a 2019 study in the journal Marine Policy.

“These protected areas do become a bit like savings accounts. It’s not just about protecting turtles and sequestering carbon,” said Douglas McCauley, a former fisherman who is now a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Rising from the ocean depths, the Saya de Malha shelf provides a unique shallow habitat in the middle of the high seas, hosting an estimated 3,900 marine species from the square-nosed sperm whales to molluscs, analysis by McCauley and colleagues for a 2020 study in Marine Policy shows.

“Very little is known about the animals that live and feed here,” said marine biologist Tim Lewis, who is running the acoustic surveys on the Greenpeace voyage.

Finding the sperm whales is equivalent to finding much more, he said, “If there are sperm whales around, it means that they’re feeding on squid, and squid are feeding on plankton.”

Creating a global network of marine sanctuaries is not likely to be easy. For coastal waters, governments need to commit and prioritise areas with abundant marine life — those very same areas favoured by fishing interests.

Further out in the no-man’s land of the open ocean, creating a successful conservation area requires countries to give some authority to a central body for its management, said Kristina Gjerde, an advisor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, who is involved with negotiations over a planned treaty to protect international waters.

“The big challenge is some of the fishing states - will they end up trying to water down the treaty so much that it won’t have the same scope or ambition?” said Ms. Gjerde, who did not name specific countries which may attempt to stymie those efforts.

The United Nations has been working to broker deals on protecting both international and territorial waters. But the coronavirus pandemic has frustrated both sets of negotiations, and has twice delayed the U.N. Biodiversity conference, now set for October in Kunming, China.

The United Nations has held interim discussions on the high seas treaty to help delegations better understand others’ negotiating positions as they wait for formal talks to resume in August.

Nevertheless advocates worry about the loss of momentum.

“There’s more time for certain industry interests to also mobilise” against the effort, said Liz Karan, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’s high seas conservation project.

But experts warn that ring fencing specific ocean areas for protection may not be enough. Underwater species are also being challenged by climate change warming the water and making it more acidic, with some fish species already shifting to new ranges to cope.

“I have a concern that we identify areas today that we think are important, and just draw a line around them, and then say: ‘okay, now everything’s fine’,” said Peter Tyack, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Chances are, some species will move out of that range.

Back on the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, the crew is still scanning the vast ocean horizon through binoculars for evidence of life, while also sampling water for future DNA testing to determine which species frequent the plateau.

Three days after the team eavesdropped on the sperm whales hunting squid, the ocean became glassy flat. Watchers on the bridge spotted a burst of spray — a sperm whale was ploughing through the sunlit waters. It raised its distinctive V-notched tail toward the sky before disappearing back into the depths.

Patrolling and anti-poaching activities in the tiger reserves contiguous to Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu will be intensified with greater coordination among Forest Department personnel in these areas.

This was decided at a meeting involving senior officials and field staff drawn from Bandipur, Nagarahole, BRT, Mudumalai, Sathyamangalam, and Wayanad tiger reserves besides representatives from the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamarajanagar and held at Bandipur last week.

The outcome of the meeting is significant as it entails greater protection to what is recognised to be the world’s largest tiger habitat that spans across the three States and supports nearly 700 tigers in the wild.

Intelligence gathering mechanism will be stepped up and the information shared among the field staff for greater efficacy in curbing poaching and other illegal activities in the region.

With greater coordination and information sharing, anti-poaching activities will receive a thrust and be more effective. In the past, poachers used to strike in one area of a State and slip away into an other area, taking advantage of lack of coordination among the forest staff. It has been decided to intensify joint patrolling operations along the forest boundaries that span the three States.

Bandipur in Karnataka shares boundary with Mudumali in Tamil Nadu while Nagarahole shares borders with Wayanad in Kerala. The Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary abuts the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve and it was in this part of the landscape (Cauvery–Sathyamangalam) where poachers had a free run owing to lack of patrolling.

The meeting also decided to conduct a special operation or a drive entailing the staff of the three States and crack down on smugglers of wildlife derivatives and poachers suspected to be operating in these regions and strengthen protection to forests and wildlife. This will entail confiscation of unlicensed weapons and it was resolved in the meeting to crack down and seize such weapons, including guns without licence, in possession of people living in the villages bordering the forest region spanning across the three States.

S.R. Natesh, Director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, said a meeting of senior officers would be held once in two months at the tri-junction — where the borders of Bandipur, Nagarahole, and Wayanad meet — to review their activities and progress. Besides, field staff of the three States where the forests are contiguous would support each other in firefighting operations, he added.

Vijai Kumar Gogi, PCCF (Wildlife), Karnataka; N.S. Murali, IG Forests, NTCA (South); Nihar Ranjan, Chief Conservator of Forests, Satyamangalam; K.K. Koushal, Field Director, Project Tiger, Mudumalai; Manoj Kumar, Chief Conservator of Forests, Chamarajanagar Circle; officers and other fields staff of the three States attended the meeting.

India needs to strive towards mastering reusable rocket technology, give thrust to global marketing and learn from SpaceX founder Elon Musk's business model to tap full potential in the space field, eminent space scientist G. Madhavan Nair has advocated.

The former Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said there is a vast scope to launch foreign satellites and also provide space-related services in the global market.

"We (India) have basic technology, capability to launch earth observation and communication platforms. But we have missed the opportunity in global marketing," Nair told PTI.

India offers satellite launch services at 30% to 40% lower costs compared to international prices, according to him.

"Naturally, there is a good potential for capturing more and more of launches from countries which have no such capability", he said. "So, there one has to go aggressively and get that market share".

He said Musk has revolutionised space technology by going in for reusable launch vehicle system.

"In fact, India has been talking about it (reusable launch vehicle) for the last 15-20 years, but we have not made headway into it", Nair said. "Unless we go for recoverable and reusable launch systems, we cannot reduce the (space transportation) cost. That's one area which needs a thrust".

India cannot be complacent in the field of space, where technology is changing very fast — in earth observation and communication systems and launch services, he said. Lot of innovations and concepts are emerging and India needs to keep abreast of them. "If we don't use these opportunities, we will lag behind. Living on past glory is not going to help us," he added.

Communication areas such as higher band and digital connectivity needs lot of technology development in which India is somehow not able to pump in resources, he said.

Nair praised Musk for his leadership, vision and innovative management techniques and said India can learn from his business strategy. He said Musk's life-story reminds him about his early professional days when Vikram Sarabhai, regarded as the father of the Indian space programme, used to dream big and motivate youngsters to put in extra efforts to reach the goal.

"But today that type of scenario is not there and more of a bureaucratic control is coming in", Nair said.

On reforms in the space sector initiated by the Government in June last year, he expressed the view it's no more than reconfiguring of ISRO structure. "Somehow, people get carried away by so-called commercialisation, forgetting the research and development part of it", Nair added.

The largest asteroid to pass by Earth this year will swing closest on Sunday, giving astronomers a rare chance for a good look at a space rock that formed at the dawn of our solar system.

While in astronomical terms this marks a close encounter with the asteroid — called 2001 FO32 — NASA says there is no threat of a collision with our planet "now or for centuries to come".

The nearest it will get will be two million kilometres away, according to the U.S. space agency.

That is roughly 5.25 times the distance of the Earth from the Moon but still close enough for 2001 FO32 to be classified as a "potentially hazardous asteroid."

"We know the orbital path of 2001 FO32 around the Sun very accurately," said Paul Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

NASA says 2001 FO32 will pass by at about 124,000 kilometres per hour faster than the speed at which most asteroids encounter Earth.

The asteroid is estimated to be about 900 metres (3,000 feet) in diameter and was discovered 20 years ago.

Astronomers are hoping to get a better understanding of the asteroid's size and a rough idea of its composition by studying light reflecting off its surface.

"When sunlight hits an asteroid's surface, minerals in the rock absorb some wavelengths while reflecting others," NASA said. "By studying the spectrum of light reflecting off the surface, astronomers can measure the chemical 'fingerprints' of the minerals on the surface of the asteroid."

The asteroid will be at its closest to Earth at around 1600 GMT on Sunday, according to the Paris Observatory, France's largest astronomy research centre. Amateur astronomers in some parts of the globe should be able to conduct their own observations. The asteroid will be brightest while it moves through southern skies, Chodas said.

"Amateur astronomers in the southern hemisphere and at low northern latitudes should be able to see this asteroid using moderate-size telescopes with apertures of at least eight inches in the nights leading up to closest approach, but they will probably need star charts to find it," he added.

NASA said more than 95% of near-Earth asteroids the size of 2001 FO32 or larger have been catalogued and none of them has any chance of impacting our planet over the next century.

NASA says the next time 2001 FO32 will be close to Earth will be 2052.

Sixty-six million years ago an asteroid roughly twice the diameter as Paris crashed into Earth and wiped out 75 percent of life on the planet.

Scientists have discovered a new species of ancient winged shark, which fed on plankton eons before the emergence of giant manta rays, according to new research published Thursday.

The species, Aquilolamna milarcae, which lived around 93 million years ago, was discovered in the north east of Mexico. The specimen in question measured around 1.65 metres in length and has a fin span of 1.9 metres.

Like modern-day rays, the species, nicknamed "eagle shark", had extremely long pectoral fins reminiscent of wings.

Authors of the study, published in the journal Science, said the "bizarre" creature probably swam very slowly and was unlikely to have been able to hunt for food.

"You could make the analogy of a glider... it wasn't at all adapted to swimming fast and following prey," said Roman Vullo, lead study author from France's National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Rennes.

Coupled with a large head and no teeth found on the skeleton — suggesting they were very small or missing entirely — Vullo said "it was more a plankton eater than predator".

Until the discovery, scientists had only known of one category of large plankton feeders in the Cretaceous period, a group of large bony fish known as pachycormidae.

The eagle shark is now the second known plankton eating fish discovered from the last epoch when dinosaurs still stalked the Earth. Pachycormidae died out in the extinction event following the Chicxulub meteor strike 66 million years ago.

"Eagle sharks were little by little replaced by manta rays and devil rays, which developed at the beginning of the Tertiary period" after the extinction, Vullo told AFP.

The specimen in the study was found in 2012 in the Mexican region of Vallecillo, which is renowned for its well preserved fossils.

The launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket with 38 foreign satellites on board has been postponed until Monday, the Russian space agency Roscosmos said.

The launch of satellites from more than half a dozen Asian, Arab and European countries, as well as Canada and Brazil, was originally scheduled for 0607 GMT on Saturday.

It was initally postponed until Sunday, but Roscosmos later said it would take place Monday.

Space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said the launch was delayed after a surge in voltage was detected.

"Having heard reports from the work managers, the State Commission decided to conduct the launch on the morning of March 22, 2021," Roscosmos said in a later statement.

The rocket was due to place in orbit 38 satellites from 18 countries, including South Korea, Japan, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Italy and Brazil.

Among them are the Challenge-1, the first satellite made completely in Tunisia, which was created by the Telnet telecommunications group.

The hummingbird gets its name from the sound it makes when it hovers in front of flowers to feed. The humming sound is generated by the bird's wings.

A new study (published in eLife) noted that the wings beat rapidly at 40 beats per second. The hum originated from the pressure difference between the topside and underside of the wings.

Unlike other species of birds, the hummingbird’s wing was found to generate a strong upward aerodynamic force during both the upward and downward wing stroke. The researchers explained that most birds are relatively quiet because they generate most of the lift only once during the wingbeat at the downstroke. Hummingbirds and insects are noisier because they do so twice per wingbeat.

Using high-speed cameras and over 2,000 microphones, the team from the Netherlands, studied the hummingbirds drinking sugar water from a fake flower in a special chamber. They precisely recorded each wing-beat while the bird hovered in front of the flower and found that the wings generated sounds in a fashion similar to how insects do.

Understanding the hum of the hummingbirds may also help engineer new devices and also improve aircraft and drone rotors.

Bharat Biotech began the phase-3 trial of Covaxin on November 11, 2020 and completed the enrolment of all 25,800 volunteers on January 7, 2021. The last of the phase-3 trial participants received the second dose in the third week of February.

The company had planned to continue the phase-3 trial until 130 study participants developed the disease. The first and second interim analyses of phase-3 trial are planned to be conducted when 43 and 87 cases get reported. On March 3, Bharat Biotech announced the interim analysis of 43 cases; the vaccine was found to have an 80.6% point estimate of vaccine efficacy.

High efficacy

There are a fairly large number of participants in each group — 12,900 people in each arm — and as against 36 cases in the placebo group, there were just seven cases in the vaccine arm. “This is an unambiguous reflection of high vaccine efficacy, calculated as 80.6%. We will have to wait for the announcement of the 95% confidence range, but eyeball assessment is that it has to be fairly narrow on account of the huge denominator,” says virologist Dr. Jacob John, formerly with CMC Vellore.

The next interim analysis will be carried out when the total number of symptomatic COVID-19 cases reach 87. With the phase-3 trial beginning only on November 11, nearly two months after the pandemic had reached a peak in India, it took nearly four months for the first 43 cases to accrue.

“The total number of cases in the 25,800 study participants happened to be only 43 after nearly four months, which is a reflection of the relatively low prevalence of infection in the country during the trial period. The original expectation was that there would be 130 cases by end-February,” says Dr. John. “The epidemic in India peaked on September 16 and the trial started two months later. Hence, the lower-than-expected numbers are no surprise.”

Though an uptick in daily cases has been reported from 21 States, 10 States are witnessing a surge — Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Chandigarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Delhi and Tamil Nadu. Of these, the situation is particularly concerning in Maharashtra, Punjab, Chandigarh and Gujarat. The 39,687 cases reported on March 18 is higher than what was reported on November 29 last year (39,036 cases). “There is a sustained and steady increase in cases in these 10 States, making it clear that the second wave has set in,” says Dr. Rijo John, Health Economist and Consultant based in Kochi. The seven-day average of daily cases has more than doubled from 10,986 on February 8 to 29,334 on March 18, a 167% increase; the test positivity rate has doubled from 1.6 to 3.2% during the same period.

There is a good possibility that the spike in cases in a handful of States would get reflected in the infection/disease frequency in the trial sites and trial participants. Though Bharat Biotech has 25 trial sites spread across 11 States, there are no trial sites in Punjab, Chandigarh and Kerala, which is still reporting high numbers. The company has five trial sites in Maharashtra (two in Mumbai alone), two sites in Tamil Nadu (including one in Chennai), Karnataka (Bengaluru being one), and Haryana but just one trial site in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.

Impending surge

With daily cases increasing spiking in many States, Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at PHFI, Bengaluru feels that many more States might witness a surge. How much the increase would be in each State would depend on numerous factors including daily testing rate, adherence to COVID-19 precautions and vaccination rate.

It would have probably taken four-six months for another 43 cases to accrue, but due to the spike currently seen in 10 States that endpoint would be reached earlier. According to reliable sources in Bharat Biotech, the company is expecting to reach 87 symptomatic cases end point earliest by April or latest by June. Dr. Babu thinks the final target of 130 cases too can be reached soon, considering the way the cases are spiking in many States.

Considering that recruitment and complete vaccination of all trial participants has been achieved, the drug regulator has to take a decision on the number of cases required for licensing. It could be either currently available cases, second endpoint of 87 cases or 130 cases as originally planned, for which the trial will have to continue for a longer time.

The challenge

The challenge will be in continuing the trial with the original number of participants when there is a surge in many States. Four priority groups are already eligible for vaccination. “It will be unethical to withhold information from participants about the priority groups that are eligible for vaccination. The participants falling in the priority groups can be requested to continue in the study for the successful completion of the trial but participants should be free to withdraw at any point of time,” says Dr. Anant Bhan, global health and bioethics researcher based in Bhopal. Besides healthcare workers, over 2,400 participants over 60 years and 4,500 people with comorbidities have been included in the trial.

“The vaccine was approved for restricted emergency use under a ‘clinical trial mode’ even when no efficacy data was available. When the first interim analysis of 43 cases showed nearly 81% efficacy, the ‘clinical trial mode’ was removed. Since the vaccine is already rolled out to the priority groups, efficacy data from 87 or 130 cases is only of academic interest. It doesn’t make any difference on the ground,” says virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel, Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University. “It will be unethical to deny the vaccine to those participants in the placebo group who fall under any of the priority groups and thus eligible to receive the vaccine.”

Dr. Babu too feels it will be unethical to deny the vaccine to trial participants who are eligible to receive the vaccine, particularly when many States are reporting a spike in daily cases.

Second endpoint

Dr. V. Ravi, neurovirologist formerly with NIMHANS says the second wave has already begun in India. He therefore expects another 43 symptomatic cases among the trial participants to show up by end-April. “We should wait for the second endpoint — 87 cases — before unblinding the trial,” he says. “Waiting for 130 cases, especially when cases are surging in many States, will unnecessarily put the trial participants who have received a placebo at great risk. It is unethical.”

“For feeling confident about high vaccine efficacy (80.6%), the available data are sufficient, but whether DCGI will feel confident to license the vaccine or not is a call the drug regulator alone can make,” says Dr. Jacob John.

Helium is colourless, odourless, tasteless, inert and a noble gas. Yet, it finds many applications, mainly in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, in rockets and in nuclear reactors. India imports helium for its needs, and with the U.S. appearing set to cut off exports of helium since 2021, Indian industry stands to lose out heavily. What is the solution? Can India become self-reliant towards its needs of helium gas?

About 180 million years ago, India separated from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana and took a long northward journey of about 9,000 km to join Eurasia. During this journey, the subcontinent moved from the southern hemisphere, crossed the Equator to reach its current position in the northern hemisphere. Due to these changing latitudes, it experienced different climatic conditions, and a new study has now tried to map these climatic variations using leaf fossils.

“The evolution of the monsoonal climate in India is still debatable and not fully understood. Though recent data indicates that the monsoon system we experience now dates back to about 25 million years, it is still unclear how the climate was during its long voyage,” says Gaurav Srivastava from Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, corresponding author of the paper recently published in Gondwana Research.

The team analysed the morphological characters of fossil leaves collected from Deccan Volcanic Province, East Garo Hills of Meghalaya, Gurha mine in Rajasthan and Makum Coalfield in Assam. The four fossil assemblages were found to be from four different geological ages and helped to study the climate during 65, 57, 54, and 25 million years ago respectively. “It has been observed from across the globe that plant leaf morphological characters such as apex, base and shape are ecologically tuned with the prevailing climatic conditions to adapt for all the seasons throughout the year. We applied this model to characterise the past monsoon from fossil leaves,” explains Dr. Srivastava.

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Fossil truths

The results indicated that the fossil leaves from India were adapted to an Australian type of monsoon and not the current Indian monsoon system during its voyage. The reconstructed temperature data show that the climate was warm (tropical to subtropical) at all the studied fossil sites with temperatures varying from 16.3–21.3 degrees C. All the fossil sites experienced high rainfall, which varied from 191.6 cm to 232 cm.

Dr. Srivastava explains that since India was the only subcontinent to have crossed from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, it is a laboratory to study biogeo changes and understand how the flora and fauna changed accordingly.

“Our future plan is to better understand the evolutionary history of Indian monsoon and its role in the evolution of biodiversity hot spots in South and Southeast Asia. This will help in the conservation of modern biodiversity hot spots. Understanding the past dynamics of Indian monsoon will also help in climate modelling for future monsoon prediction,” he adds.

Since the first detection of the merger of black holes dated September 14, 2014, by the two gravitational wave detectors at LIGO in the U.S., the field has witnessed important developments. The LIGO detectors have been joined in their search for gravitational waves from various sources by the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan. The Indian detector LIGO India is being developed and is expected to join these in their search. In the meantime, Indian scientists have been involved in many aspects of the research and data analysis, especially in gravitational wave radiometry, which is a way to measure gravitational waves from hitherto unknown sources and detect their presence in the sky.

Background hum

Until now, the number of mergers detected by LIGO, VIRGO and KAGRA detectors is minuscule compared with the number of mergers actually taking place in the sky. The idea that the gravitational waves arising from the collection of all these mergers should be present like a background signal has been around for some time. As suggested by Sanjit Mitra of IUCAA Pune, who has worked in this area, take the analogy of people watching a football game: When you observe individual members among the spectators, you can see their actions, hear their comments etc. But when you look at the crowd as a whole, you may observe the roaring sound of the applause and the cheering which is quite different from observing individuals. The background gravitational waves are like watching the stadium from far, while detections made by the detectors so far has been like observing individuals. Dr. Mitra and a team of researchers have contributed significantly to building up an algorithm that is geared to detect such a so called stochastic gravitational wave background. Their recent work has been published in Physical Review D.

Just as studying the cosmic microwave background tells us about the early universe, its formation, the stochastic gravitational wave background would reveal the structure of the universe around us. Detections till now have been of events that were relatively close to us. Distant binary coalescences, milli-second pulsars, etc are expected to produce a background, and detecting any of this would be a great breakthrough.

Radiometer algorithm

The radiometer algorithm which Indian researchers played a key role in developing, comes in useful as a tool for detecting hitherto unknown sources: “So far what we have detected gravitational waves from binary mergers, which are well-modelled sources. If we have to detect an unknown source which is persistent, such as the stars which are unlike supernovae which are momentary, it is like scanning every direction of the sky and making a map,” says Dr Mitra. With recent algorithms developed in India, the radiometer analysis has been made hundreds of times faster and they are now being used by the international collaboration for the official analysis.

The gravitational wave background consists of an isotropic component and an anisotropic component. The isotropic component is constant when you look in different directions and the anisotropic component depends on the direction. In the football field analogy, suppose the home team scores, there is a uniform applause and cheering emanating from all over. This is what the isotropic component is like. On the other hand when a player whose fans are gathered in a small corner of the stadium make noise to support him or her, or a wavelike disturbance is set up in the crowd, this is like the anisotropic component.

The present results are not that the isotropic component has been detected, we are still far from that, but that the group has successfully shown that it must be below a certain level as otherwise it would have been detected. Future improved versions of the detectors will have to work below this level to detect the background.

“If the gravitational wave background is discovered, it will be a major discovery in astronomy, probably one of the most celebrated ones,” says Dr.Mitra. “It will primarily tell us about the distant astrophysical sources and the early universe. Disentangling these pieces of information and extracting scientific inferences from those measurements will become a very hot topic.”

Scientists have developed a novel method for growing mouse embryos outside the womb during the initial stages of development, an advance that can provide fresh insights into how genes influence the process, and may lead to new tools for understanding birth defects.

According to the researchers, including Jacob Hanna of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, current methods to study mammalian embryonic development involve either observing the process in non-mammals, like frogs or fish that lay transparent eggs, or obtaining static images from dissected mouse embryos and adding them together.

In the current study, published in the journal Nature, the scientists could finally grow early-stage embryos outside the uterus through trial and error over a span of nearly seven years, fine-tuning and double-checking the process.

The researchers came up with a two-step method in which they were able to grow normally developing mouse embryos outside the uterus for six days – around a third of their 20-day gestation period – by which time the embryos have a well-defined body plan and visible organs.

“To us, that is the most mysterious and the most interesting part of embryonic development, and we can now observe it and experiment with it in amazing detail,” Mr. Hanna said.

In the first step – which lasted around two days – the scientists started with several-days-old mouse embryos right after they would have implanted in the uterus.

At this stage, they said the embryos were balls consisting of 250 identical undifferentiated stem cells, and were placed on a special growth medium in a laboratory dish, and the team got the balls to attach to this medium as they would to the uterine wall.

With this step, the researchers duplicated the first stage of embryonic development, in which the embryo doubles and triples in size as it differentiates into three layers — inner, middle, and outer.

Following this, as the embryos entered the next developmental stage, which involves the formation of organs from each of the layers, they needed additional conditions.

In this second step, the scientists placed the embryos in a nutrient solution in tiny beakers, which were set on rollers that kept the solutions in motion and continually mixed, the study noted.

According to the researchers, the mixing helped keep the embryos, which were growing without maternal blood flow to the placenta, bathed in the nutrients.

With further experiments, the scientists said they learned to closely control the gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide – not just the amounts, but the gas pressure as well.

In subsequent steps, they inserted into the embryos genes that labelled the growing organs in fluorescent colours — an attempt whose success suggested that further experiments with this system, involving various genetic and other manipulations, would produce reliable results.

“We think you can inject genes or other elements into the cells, alter the conditions or infect the embryo with a virus, and the system we demonstrated will give you results consistent with development inside a mouse uterus,” Mr. Hanna said.

“If you give an embryo the right conditions, its genetic code will function like a pre-set line of dominos, arranged to fall one after the other,” he added.

Using this method, the scientists hope to answer such questions as why so many pregnancies fail to implant, why the window for implantation is so short, and which conditions in gestation may later lead to developmental disorders.

The researchers believe the new method will also lower the cost and speed up the process of research in the field of developmental biology and reduce the need for lab animals.

India and France are working on their third joint satellite mission, even as the bilateral space collaboration is entering into multiple domains, including human spaceflight programme, ISRO Chairman K. Sivan said.

Mr. Sivan, also Secretary in the Department of Space, said many French companies are keen to tap into opportunities thrown up by recent reforms injected into the space sector by the Government.

"France is the biggest partner of India in space", he said at the DST (Department of Science and Technology) Golden Jubilee Discourse on 'unlocking India's space potential - geospatial data & mapping', an event presented on virtual mode by the National Council for Science and Technology Communication and 'Vigyan Prasar' on Friday.

According to ISRO officials, ISRO and French space agency CNES (Centre National dEtudes Spatiales) have undertaken two joint missions 'Megha-Tropiques', which was launched in 2011, and 'Saral-Altika' in 2013.

"Currently, we are working for the third one (mission)", Mr. Sivan said.

Also read | India, France in discussion for Mission Alpha-like equipment for Gaganyaan astronauts

Officials said ISRO and CNES have completed the feasibility study to realise the earth observation satellite mission with thermal infrared imager, TRISHNA (Thermal infraRed Imaging Satellite for High resolution Natural resource Assessment) and are working towards finalising an implementing arrangement for the joint development.

Mr. Sivan said India is also working with France on joint experiments and accommodation of scientific instruments in space missions.

"Indo-French space collaboration is expanding into multiple domains including space exploration and human space flight programme," he said.

ISRO officials said the two space agencies have also finalised all interface control documents for accommodating CNES's 'ARGOS' instrument in ISROs OCEANSAT-3 satellite.

ARGOS instrument has been delivered at Bengaluru for integration with the satellite.

"Discussions on establishing 'NavIC' (an independent regional navigation satellite system developed and maintained by India) reference station in France and CNES 'Scintillation' receivers in India are also progressing well", they said.

ISRO-CNES HSP (Human Space Programme) Working Group had a number of discussions on medical aspects of human spaceflight and finalising an implementation arrangement to formalise cooperation in the field of space medicine, it was noted.

Mr. Sivan said with the recent reforms initiated by the government in the space sector, the Indo-French space cooperation is expected to grow further involving industries, academia and research institutes.

He said many French companies want to "make use of" reforms in the sector and "they are going to involve".

So, the reforms would not only strengthen space cooperation at government-to-government level but industry-to-industry interaction is going to get a "fresh relook" in the changed environment, Mr. Sivan added.

For the first time, scientists have used human cells to make structures that mimic the earliest stages of development, which they say will pave the way for more research without running afoul of restrictions on using real embryos.

Two papers published on March 17 in the journal Nature detail how two teams of scientists independently made such structures.

Also read | Best from science journals: Million-year-old plant fossils beneath Greenland

They stressed that their work is only for research, not reproduction, but it likely will pose new ethical questions.

“Studying early human development is really difficult. It’s basically a black box,” said Jun Wu, a stem cell biologist at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center. “We believe our model can open up this field,” he said, if “you can test your hypothesis without using human embryos.”

Dr. Wu’s team used embryonic stem cells and the second team used reprogrammed skin cells to produce balls of cells that resemble one of the earliest stages of human development.

These balls, called blastocysts, form a few days after an egg has been fertilised but before the cells attach to the uterus to become an embryo. To differentiate their models from blastocysts created through fertilisation, the researchers refer to the structures as “iBlastoids” and “human blastoids”.

“They shouldn’t be considered as equal to a blastocyst, although they are an excellent model for some aspects of biology,” said Jose Polo, an epigeneticist at Monash University in Australia who led the second research team.

Both groups stressed that the structures they made were not the same as naturally occurring embryos, and it’s unclear whether they could develop into viable embryos.

“The blastoids are less efficient in terms of generating structures mimicking later stage human embryos,” said Dr. Wu, whose team stopped growing the structure in a culture after four days.

Scientists previously generated similar structures of mouse cells in a lab, but this is the first time they have been made from human cells. The new models correspond to about three to 10 days after fertilisation, Dr. Wu said. In 2020, researchers unveiled structures that model cells 18 to 21 days after fertilisation.

Research involving human embryos and blastocysts is currently ineligible for federal funding in the U.S., and several States prohibit it outright.

Some scientists now use blastocysts donated from fertility clinics for research into the causes of infertility and congenital diseases. The new work should allow them to do such research at much larger scales, Dr. Polo said. “This capacity to work at scale will revolutionize our understanding of these early stages of human development,” said Dr. Polo.

The scientists stressed that their creations were not intended to be used for human reproduction.

“There is no implantation,” said Amander Clark, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who co-authored the paper with Dr. Polo. “These structures are not transferred to a uterus or uterus-like structure,” she said. “There is no pregnancy.”

The distinction between blastocysts derived from fertilisation and the structures created in a lab may not be so clear-cut, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a human embryologist at Oregon Health and Science University who was not involved in the research.

“Both groups show how closely they resemble real embryos,” he said. “If they are really as good as embryos, should they be treated as embryos?”

“This brings new ethical issues,” he said. “Are they going to be covered as human embryos? Should restrictions apply?”

Scientists previously tried to turn the lab-generated mouse cell structures into embryos, but they were not successful.

The optimal scenario for research is to “get as close to a real embryo as possible so you can learn from it, but not a real embryo so you don’t get into debates about the moral status of embryos,” said Alta Charo, a professor emeritus of law and bioethics at University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the papers.

India, with its long coastline, has a major opportunity to boost fisheries yield by expanding Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along its Exclusive Economic Zone, and in parallel, protect the ocean’s capacity to capture carbon and boost biodiversity, says a large scale study reported on Wednesday by a group of scientists in the journal Nature.

Expanding the realm of MPAs in the world’s oceans presents a big opportunity to raise food production, enhance carbon storage and preserve a lot more of threatened biodiversity for all countries, the authors argue. They stress the need for greater international cooperation to extend the boundaries of protection.

Although 7% of the world’s oceans are earmarked or designated as MPAs currently, in practice, that figure drops to 2.7% enjoying full or high level of protection, the team led by Enric Sala of the Pristine Seas project of the National Geographic Society said. Although many countries lower protection levels because of the view that protected areas prevent extraction of food and materials, the scientists contend that expanding MPAs would actually produce overflow effects in other parts, which would raise the yield of food.

The report assumes significance as the scheduled 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, later this year will consider the “30 by 30” target, which is to protect 30% of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030.

Growing biodiversity

In conserving biodiversity, Dr. Sala and his colleagues think countries have a major opportunity to make a difference, since 90% of the top 10% priority areas for marine biodiversity protection are located within the 321 km (200 mile) Exclusive Economic Zone of countries.

According to the research paper, 90% of the potential biodiversity benefits could be realised by strategically safeguarding 21% of the world’s oceans - 43% of EEZs and 6% of the high seas. The estimate is that such an expansion of area would raise protection for endangered and critically endangered species from the current 1.5% and 1.1% of their ranges to a staggering 82% and 87% respectively.

Dr. Boris Worm, a study co-author and Killam Research Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia said, "Smart ocean protection will help to provide cheap natural climate solutions, make seafood more abundant and safeguard imperiled marine species - all at the same time.”

India fully protects 0.2% of its EEZ, as does the European Union, while corresponding figures for the U.S. are 22.1%, Chile 28.3%, Australia 8.9% and zero for Great Britain, Japan, China and Germany, to name a few.

What is more, in spite of the impact of climate change on the distribution of species, 80% of the areas within the top 10% global biodiversity priorities today will remain valid until 2050, based on the high greenhouse gas emission scenarios of the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios.

Among the seas recommended for enhanced protection are Antarctica, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the Mascarene Plateau, the Nazca Ridge and the Southwest Indian Ridge.

Protection through MPAs brings important benefits in the form of carbon capture that is otherwise released through deep sea trawling by fisheries, and an increase in the level of food availability.

A food surplus

A modelled increase in food stocks achieved through strategically placed MPAs covering 28% of the global ocean could touch 5.9 Million Metric Tonnes (MMT), assuming that existing fisheries move to new areas and use the same effort, as opposed to no action and a continuation of current practices. One of the effects of new MPAs would be a potential spillover of larval and adult fish from protected areas to sites outside, under the right biological conditions.

Such an intervention could address the issue of overfishing, which has depleted stocks in many seas. Even without any additional effort being taken by fisheries in the areas outside the new MPAs, there would be an estimated increase in food stock, of a marginally less 5.2 MMT.

India's potential

To a question on whether India has the potential to benefit more from protection in overfished areas along its EEZ, Francesco Ferretti, Assistant Professor, Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Tech, U.S., and a co-author of the paper told The Hindu, “Yes, there is. It depends on the recovery potential of the stocks in that area and this newly protected area's capability to affect fishing production outside.”

“In general terms, India ranks relatively low among Asiatic nations in terms of the fraction of EEZ in the top 10% of priority areas, even though its contribution would be substantial in absolute terms. That means that India would benefit relatively more than others for reaching global conservation objectives. That is, more from the overall effect of protection at the global scale by pushing for the protection targets described in this paper,” Dr. Ferretti said.

“Because of such variable costs and benefits for nations, in the paper, we stress the importance of international collaboration, which should ensure a fair distribution of costs among all nations that would benefit from a healthy ocean,” he added.

Reniel Cabral, Assistant Researcher, Bren School of Environmental Science, and Management and Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, U.S., said in response to a question that MPAs especially worked best if located in overfished areas.

“Fish stocks and biodiversity in overfished areas are expected to positively respond to protection. Our earlier work shows that India is one of the top countries that will benefit greatly from fisheries reform and MPAs definitely can help improve fisheries in India, in addition to improving biodiversity and protecting carbon stock,” according to Dr. Cabral.

A carbon question

Governments may not be paying attention to the damage done to the ocean by deep sea trawling in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. The study estimates that 1.8% of the world’s ocean, equating to 4.9 million sq. km. is deep-trawled each year by industrial trawlers and dredgers, destabilising the sediments containing organic carbon and leading to remineralisation of the sedimentary carbon into CO2 and thereby acidification of the ocean.

This potentially reduces the capacity of the ocean to absorb atmospheric CO2, the authors contend, affecting the effort to stop dangerous climate change.

The estimates were arrived at on the basis of satellite imagery of activity involving industrial trawlers and dredgers. The research paper calculates that in the first year of trawling, 1.47 Petagrams (1,470 megatonnes) of CO2 emissions from the water represents 0.02% of total marine sedimentary carbon, which might appear to be low but is equivalent to 15–20% of the atmospheric CO2 absorbed by the ocean each year. This is comparable to estimates of carbon loss in terrestrial soils caused by farming. Continued trawling uses up the entire sedimentary carbon in the top metre over time.

India’s bottom trawling for fisheries is thought to be responsible for annual CO2 emissions of the order of 28,83,128 tonnes. For comparison, it is 4,77,26,031 tonnes for Britain, and 76,92,94,185 tonnes for China.

Creating MPAs would stop large-scale dredging up of the carbon-laden sediments, with potential to reduce emissions.

According to the researchers, the areas with the highest priority are found where carbon stocks and present threats from human activity are the highest. These include China’s EEZ, Europe’s Atlantic coastal areas, and productive upwelling areas. Moreover, countries with “the highest potential to contribute to the mitigation of climate change through protection of carbon stocks are those with large EEZs and large industrial bottom trawl fisheries,” they write.

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Deep secrets of Greenland

Published in PNAS

By studying sediments and twig fossils collected from northwestern Greenland, researchers note that the ice in the region entirely melted at least once within the past one million years and was covered with plants and trees. The authors say this shows Greenland is much more sensitive to natural climate warming than previously thought and it can quickly melt and pour into the oceans drowning major coastal cities.

Plastic bags into fabrics

Published in Nature Sustainability

MIT engineers have converted polyethylene, the plastic used to make bottles and wrapping, into weavable fibers. The silky and lightweight fabric was found to absorb and evaporate water more quickly than cotton and nylon. The team is now exploring ways to incorporate this new fabric into cooling athletic apparel and even next-generation spacesuits.

Published in Nature Communications

The human mouth and esophagus have a slightly alkaline environment, while our stomachs are strongly acidic, followed by the intestine which is pH-neutral. How do bacteria adapt to these changes in the environment? A new study found that pathogenic bacteria can quickly change the structure of their injection apparatus according to external conditions, thus helping them survive.

47 million-year-old fly

Published in Current Biology

Researchers from Vienna have found a previously unknown fossilised fly species in the lake sediments of the Messel Pit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany. What surprised them more was that the fly had a bulged abdomen filled with the fly’s last meal. A detailed study showed that it was pollen from different plants and the team has tried to reconstruct the ancient environment it lived in, the flowers it visited and its feeding behaviour.

Published in Nature

A new holography method called tensor holography can craft 3D holograms from images in mere milliseconds, says a new study. It requires less than 1 MB of memory and can run on a smartphone. The team hopes that it could enable the creation of holograms for virtual reality, 3D printing and medical imaging.

The life of the orbiter of Chandrayaan-2 was initially envisaged for a year but the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) expects it to last for seven years, Union Minister Jitendra Singh said on Wednesday.

In a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha on India's second lunar mission, Jitendra Singh, the Minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office, said Chandrayaan-2 was a highly complex mission to develop and demonstrate the key technologies for end-to-end lunar mission capability, including soft-landing and roving on the lunar surface.

The mission comprised an orbiter, lander and rover.

Planned to land on the South Pole of the Moon, Chandrayaan-2 was launched on July 22, 2019. 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.

"But for achieving soft landing at the intended spot, the other objectives of the mission have been significantly attained. So much so, that against an initially envisaged one-year life of orbiter, we expect it to be serving for seven years," Mr. Singh said.

The mission has accomplished the objective of expanding lunar scientific knowledge through detailed study of topography, mineralogy, surface chemical composition, thermo-physical characteristics and tenuous lunar atmosphere leading to a better understanding of the origin and evolution of the moon, it added.

In August last year, Mr. Singh had announced that Chandrayaan-2 orbiter has captured the images of craters on the Moon. They were christened "Sarabhai crater" after Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian space programme.

The Sarabhai Crater captured in 3D images shows that it has a depth of around 1.7 kilometres, taken from its raised rim, and the slope of crater walls is in between 25 to 35 degree. These findings will help space scientists to understand further the process on the lunar region filled with lava, Singh had said.

ISRO's missions are known to have an enhanced life than what is earlier envisaged.

The planned life span of Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM)/ Mangalyaan after its insertion into the Mars orbit on September 24, 2014 was six months and it was to complete on March 24, 2015. However, the MOM is still functioning and sending pictures.

Astronomers have spotted a supermassive black hole (SMBH) moving on its own. That is, the SMBH is moving with a velocity different from that of its surrounding galaxy.

This is surprising because supermassive black holes usually are not expected to move with respect to the galaxies in whose centres they reside, according to what is known about them so far. Supermassive black holes have masses millions of times the solar mass and inhabit the centres of galaxies. The one at the centre of the Milky Way is named Sagittarius A*.

Located at the centre of a galaxy named J0437+2456, this supermassive black hole, with a mass about three million times that of our Sun, is moving at a high speed. Viewing it from the safe distance of 230 million light years, the astronomers say in the paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, that this fact makes it seem as though the supermassive black hole has been disturbed. The reason for this is unknown, though there are guesses.

Billions of years ago, Mars was home to lakes and oceans — but where all the water went to transform the planet into the desolate rock we know today has been something of a mystery.

Most of it was thought to have been lost to space, but a new study funded by NASA proposes that it didn't go anywhere but is trapped within minerals in the crust.

"We're saying that the crust forms what we call hydrated minerals, so minerals that actually have water in their crystal structure," Eva Scheller, lead author of the new paper in Science, told AFP.

In fact, Scheller's model suggests anywhere between 30 - 99% of the initial water remains trapped inside these minerals.

Early Mars was thought to have enough water to cover the whole planet in roughly 100 to 1,500 meters (330 to 4,4920 feet) of ocean. Because the planet lost its magnetic field early in its history, its atmosphere was progressively stripped away, and it was assumed this was how it lost its water.

But the authors of the new study believe that while some of the water did disappear, the majority remained. Using observations made by Mars rovers as well as of meteorites from the planet, the team focused on hydrogen, a key component of water.

There are different kinds of hydrogen atoms. Most have just one proton in their nucleus, but a tiny fraction, about 0.02 percent, have both a proton and a neutron, making them heavier. These are known as deuterium, or "heavy" hydrogen. Because the lighter kind escapes the planet's atmosphere at a faster rate, the loss of most of the water to space would leave relatively more deuterium behind. But given how much water the planet is believed to have started with, and the current rate of hydrogen escape observed by spacecraft, the current deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio cannot be explained by atmospheric loss alone.

Permanent loss

The study's authors instead say there was a combination of two mechanisms: the trapping of water in minerals in the planet's crust as well as the loss of water to the atmosphere.

"Anytime that you have a rock and it's interacting with water, there's a series of very complex reactions that form a hydrated mineral," said Scheller.

This process, called "chemical weathering," also takes place on Earth — for example, in clay, also found on Mars.

But on our planet volcanoes recycle the water back into the atmosphere. Mars, however, doesn't have tectonic plates, making the changes permanent.

According to the teams' simulations, the planet lost between most of its water between four to 3.7 billion years ago, which means "Mars was pretty much like we see how it is today for the past three billion years," said Scheller.

She added she was excited about what the Perseverance rover, which landed last month for a multiyear science mission on the planet, might be able to contribute to the area of research.

The emergence of the Earth’s first living organisms billions of years ago may have been facilitated by a bolt out of the blue - or perhaps a quintillion of them.

Researchers said on Tuesday that lightning strikes during the first billion years after the planet’s formation roughly 4.5 billion years ago may have freed up phosphorus required for the formation of biomolecules essential to life.

The study may offer insight into the origins of Earth’s earliest microbial life - and potential extraterrestrial life on similar rocky planets. Phosphorus is a crucial part of the recipe for life. It makes up the phosphate backbone of DNA and RNA, hereditary material in living organisms, and represents an important component of cell membranes.

On early Earth, this chemical element was locked inside insoluble minerals. Until now, it was widely thought that meteorites that bombarded early Earth were primarily responsible for the presence of “bioavailable” phosphorus. Some meteorites contain the phosphorus mineral called schreibersite, which is soluble in water, where life is thought to have formed.

When a bolt of lightning strikes the ground, it can create glassy rocks called fulgurites by super-heating and sometimes vaporizing surface rock, freeing phosphorus locked inside. As a result, these fulgurites can contain schreibersite.

The researchers estimated the number of lightning strikes spanning between 4.5 billion and 3.5 billion years ago based on atmospheric composition at the time and calculated how much schreibersite could result. The upper range was about a quintillion lightning strikes and the formation of upwards of 1 billion fulgurites annually.

Phosphorus minerals arising from lightning strikes eventually exceeded the amount from meteorites by about 3.5 billion years ago, roughly the age of the earliest-known fossils widely accepted to be those of microbes, they found.

“Lightning strikes, therefore, may have been a significant part of the emergence of life on Earth,” said Benjamin Hess, a Yale University graduate student in earth and planetary sciences and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Unlike meteorite impacts which decrease exponentially through time, lightning strikes can occur at a sustained rate over a planet’s history. This means that lightning strikes also may be a very important mechanism for providing the phosphorus needed for the emergence of life on other Earth-like planets after meteorite impacts have become rare,” Hess added.

The researchers examined an unusually large and pristine fulgurite sample formed when lightning struck the backyard of a home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, outside Chicago. This sample illustrated that fulgurites harbor significant amounts of schreibersite.

“Our research shows that the production of bioavailable phosphorus by lightning strikes may have been underestimated and that this mechanism provides an ongoing supply of material capable of supplying phosphorous in a form appropriate for the initiation of life,” said study co-author Jason Harvey, a University of Leeds associate professor of geochemistry.

Among the ingredients considered necessary for life are water, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus, along with an energy source.

Scientists believe the earliest bacteria-like organisms arose in Earth’s primordial waters, but there is a debate over when this occurred and whether it unfolded in warm and shallow waters or in deeper waters at hydrothermal vents.

“This model,” Hess said, referring to phosphorous unlocked by lightning, “is applicable to only the terrestrial formation of life such as in shallow waters. Phosphorus added to the ocean from lightning strikes would probably be negligible given its size.”

Non-invasive skin swab samples may be enough to detect the novel coronavirus quickly, according to a study published in the E Clinical Medicine journal.

Researchers at the University of Surrey in the U.K. noted that COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented demand for testing — for diagnosis and prognosis — as well as for investigation into the impact of the disease on the host metabolism.

Sampling sebum — an oily, waxy substance produced by the body's sebaceous glands — has the potential to support both needs by looking at what the virus does to us, rather than looking for the virus itself, they said.

The most widely used approach to testing for COVID-19 requires a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which involves taking a swab of the back of the throat and far inside the nose.

The researchers collected sebum samples from 67 hospitalised patients — 30 who had tested positive for COVID-19 and 37 who had tested negative. The samples were collected by gently swabbing a skin area rich in sebum such as the face, neck or back.

The team analysed the samples by using liquid chromatography mass spectrometry and a statistical modelling technique to differentiate between the COVID-19 positive and negative samples.

The researchers, including those from the Universities of Manchester and Leicester, found that patients with a positive COVID-19 test had lower lipid levels — or dyslipidemia — than their counterparts with a negative test.

They noted that the accuracy of the findings increased further when medication and additional health conditions were controlled.

"Our study suggests that we may be able to use non-invasive means to test for diseases such as COVID-19 in the future — a development which I am sure will be welcomed by all," said Melanie Bailey, co-author of the study from the University of Surrey.

Matt Spick, co-author of the study from the University of Surrey noted that COVID-19 damages many areas of metabolism.

“In this work, we show that the skin lipidome can be added to the list, which could have implications for the skin's barrier function, as well as being a detectable symptom of the disease itself," Spick said.

Investigating new methods of diagnosis and surveillance in a new disease such as COVID-19 that has had such a devastating effect on the world is vital, according to George Evetts, Consultant in Anaesthesia & Intensive Care Medicine at Frimley Park Hospital. "Sebum sampling is a simple, non-invasive method that shows promise for both diagnostics and monitoring of the disease in both a healthcare and a non-healthcare setting," Evetts added.

Have you ever smelled a flower and been suddenly flooded with a childhood memory or did a certain smell of curry remind you of your grandmother? A new study has now decoded why and how the brain does this.

The researchers show that in humans there is unique connectivity between the hippocampus in the brain which plays a major role in learning and memory and the olfactory system (the sensory system used for smelling).

Guangyu Zhou, from Northwestern University in Chicago, explains the process in detail in an email to The Hindu: “During evolution, primate brains (including humans) massively expanded, developing the neocortex. Due to this expansion, direct connections between sensory areas and the hippocampus also expanded...In our study, we compared how the olfactory system connects to the hippocampus with how other sensory areas (vision, hearing and touch) do. We found that olfaction had stronger functional connectivity with the hippocampus than these other sensory systems.” He is the first author of the study.

The team writes that this strong connectivity is like a superhighway from smell to the hippocampus and may be the reason why odours can powerfully elicit memories. The results were published in the journal Progress in Neurobiology.

“Another fascinating finding from our study is that with every inhale, connections to our brain's memory centres strengthen. We found that the connectivity between the olfactory cortex and hippocampus changes rhythmically with natural breathing. This is interesting because it shows that something as fundamental and natural as breathing is intimately connected with how memory works in our brain,” says Christina Zelano, Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University and senior author of the study in an email to The Hindu.

The team hopes that this work will contribute to the development of treatments for smell dysfunction and loss which has gained special attention in the era of COVID-19.

“We plan to further investigate a special link between breathing rhythms and brain rhythms. Inhaling and exhaling, especially through your nose, generates rhythms that move through your brain and change how your brain works. We are interested in comparing nose breathing with mouth breathing, and better understanding how these respiratory rhythms affect the brain,” adds Guangyu Zhou.

Researchers at IIT Madras have demonstrated that by using Raman thermometry on fibre optic cables, they can achieve monitoring of power transmission cables. Interestingly, they achieve this by using the optical fibres that are already embedded in the power cables for establishing optical communication. The work is part of a larger ongoing project on distributed fibre sensors and has been published recently in IEEE Sensors Journal.


The seeds of the idea were sown about ten years back when Balaji Srinivasan of the Department of Electrical Engineering at IIT Madras was approached by a company that planned to implement overhead power lines across the country. The company had an intriguing request. They wanted Prof. Srinivasan to certify that the glass fibre they were planning to include for communication purposes along with their power cables was indeed an optical fibre. Such optical fibres are traditionally incorporated in cables and buried underground. This could cost up to 80% of the total expense in setting up the communication system. The company had figured that they would save this cost by intertwining a hollow tube with the strands carrying the power lines, and in this hollow tube, they would incorporate the optical fibres – about 48-96 in number – in a hollow tube intertwined with power lines and thereby save the cost of digging tunnels to accommodate them.

It was during this certification process that Prof. Srinivasan got the idea that one or two of the unused fibres could be used – owing to their proximity to the power cables – to keep tabs on the health of the power cables. This is based on the principle that any current flowing through a conductor would cause a temperature rise due to the Joule heating effect.

Raman effect

India’s first and so far only Nobel laureate in physics, C.V. Raman, won the prize for his discovery of Raman effect. This consisted of experimental observations on scattering of light. In the Raman effect, when light is scattered off an object, say a molecule, two bands are observed, with higher and lower frequency than the original light, called the Stokes and anti-Stokes bands, respectively. By studying the relative intensity of the two bands, it is possible to estimate the temperature of the object that scattered the light.

“The anti-Stokes component of Raman scattering is strongly dependent on the temperature that the material is subjected to. Thus, by measuring the intensity of the anti-Stokes scattered light we can estimate the temperature. This is Raman thermometry,” says Prof. Srinivasan.

He explains that the temperature measurement is performed in not just one location, but in a distributed manner using an optical fibre. To achieve this, a pulse of light is launched into the optical fibre and the backscattered radiation is observed. “The time of flight of the backscattered radiation provides an estimate of the distance from which the light is backscattered,This constitutes a distributed measurement as the pulse propagates all along the length of fibre,” he says. This can go up to tens of kilometre. This technique is married to Raman thermometry to get the results for actual measurements over tens of kilometres.

Cost-effective solution

Alternative methods of measuring the temperature of power cables include using a thermal camera to manually monitor their length, which is cumbersome. The present method devised by the team is both economical and provides real-time information.

Optical fibre-embedded power cables are already available across the country, but none of them are presently used for power monitoring. “We are presently working with a leading Indian power transmission and distribution company for implementing this technology,” says Prof. Srinivasan.

The team is exploring machine learning techniques to identify hotspots along the length of the cable with high accuracy. “Preliminary results show that our novel deep learning approach is able to provide enhanced temperature measurement accuracy as well as better spatial resolution compared to conventional filtering-based post-processing techniques,” he says.

Human eye colour ranges from black, brown to blue, green, and even red. Eye colour is primarily determined by melanin abundance within the iris pigment epithelium, which is greater in brown than in blue eyes. There are two forms of melanin – eumelanin and pheomelanin – and the ratio of the two within the iris as well as light absorption and scattering by extracellular components are additional factors that give irises their colour. Absolute melanin quantity and the eumelanin–pheomelanin ratio are higher in brown irises, while blue or green irises have very little of both pigments and relatively more pheomelanin.

The researchers from King’s College London also found that eye colour in Asians with different shades of brown is genetically similar to eye colour in Europeans ranging from dark brown to light blue. Previously a dozen genes (mainly HERC2 and OCA2) were found to influence eye colour.

The researchers have now identified 50 new genes for eye colour (Science Advances). Genetic analysis of nearly 0.2 million people across Europe and Asia helped the researchers to identify the new genes. The findings collectively explain over 53% of eye colour variation using common single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Overall, the study outcomes demonstrate that the genetic complexity of human eye colour considerably exceeds previous knowledge and expectations, highlighting eye colour as a genetically highly complex human trait, says a release.

These findings will help improve our understanding of eye diseases such as pigmentary glaucoma and ocular albinism where pigment levels play a role.

Unlike the mRNA vaccine platform used by Pfizer and Moderna, where vaccine efficacy reached 94% and 95%, respectively, the vector-based vaccine platform technology used by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have shown lower efficacy.

While vaccine efficacy is 66% for Johnson & Johnson vaccine, AstraZeneca vaccine showed 55.1% efficacy when the second dose is administered less than six weeks after the first but 81.3% when the gap between the two doses is over 12 weeks. In contrast, Sputnik V vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, Moscow has reported 91.6% efficacy in phase-3 interim analysis.

Pre-existing antibodies

Is the relatively low efficacy of adenovirus-based vaccine in some people because of pre-existing antibodies towards the vector? “Adenovirus-based vaccine platforms have been in development for decades. All through that time, the issue of whether pre-existing antibodies to the adenovirus vector will affect the development of antibodies against the new target the adenovirus is carrying as antigen has remained unclear. There are studies showing that there is a loss of potency if there are pre-existing antibodies, but there are also some other studies showing that there is no major potency loss,” immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath, formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi and now a visiting faculty at IISER Pune says in an email to The Hindu.

Dr. Rath adds: “Pre-existing antibodies against adenoviruses will stop the adenovirus particles from getting into cells and making the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein they carry the code for.” The presence of pre-existing antibodies against adenovirus and those developed after first and second dose of the vaccine becomes particularly important when repeat vaccinations are needed, as in the case of boosters against variants or yearly vaccination.

“There is always a group with fair levels of pre-existing antibodies. Sooner or later, anti-adenoviral antibodies will inevitably form, complicating the situation for subsequent vaccinations. But nobody has planned and tested a continuously variable panel of adenoviruses as vaccine vectors for long-term boosting, I am afraid!” says Dr. Rath. Virologist Dr. V. Ravi, formerly with NIMHANS also says there is no data available on how the antibodies against adenovirus subtypes will affect the efficacy of vaccines, especially with boosters.

While high levels of neutralising antibodies against adenovirus subtype Ad5 have been seen in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, neutralising antibodies against adenovirus subtype Ad26 were moderately common in the two regions. The amount of neutralising antibodies against subtype Ad26 was markedly lower than for Ad5, a 2011 study found. “If pre-existing immunity to a vector is high, you will expect low response to the cargo antigen. With a heavy dose of the vector that dampening effect can be overcome,” virologist Dr. Jacob John, formerly with CMC Vellore says in an email.

Dr. Rath agrees with Dr. John and says: “It is plausible that unless the anti-adenovirus antibodies are very efficient and are present at high levels, enough virus particles will get in to make the vaccine work well enough; 10-50 billion virus particles are injected into the muscle.”

Clever design

While Johnson & Johnson uses a single dose of Ad26 subtype, the Sputnik V vaccine uses a combination of Ad26 and Ad5 for the first and second dose, respectively. “That is a clever design,” says Dr. John about the use of two different subtypes for the first and second doses of Sputnik V. “Immunity against the first vector will not interfere with the second dose as it contains a different subtype,” says Dr. John.

The AstraZeneca vaccine uses chimpanzee adenovirus. Antibodies against the chimpanzee adenovirus are not prominent in people anywhere in the world. What then is the reason for the low efficacy of the Oxford vaccine? “My guess is the antigen mass (potency) may be relatively low, perhaps adjusted for relatively low cost of production. That is perhaps the reason for a two-dose regimen,” says Dr. John.

“Many issues are involved in determining how well a vaccine design will work. Exactly how the engineered virus was constructed is one factor, the actual number of virus particles given is another. It is not simply a matter of which adenovirus is used as the vector,” says Dr. Rath about the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Effective combinations

AstraZeneca vaccine is already being tested in combination with Pfizer and Sputnik V vaccines. “Is this to increase vaccine efficacy of the Oxford vaccine? “I think that these combinations are being tried for a variety of short-term goals – one is to try to overcome supply chain problems by mixing-and-matching, another is to keep giving a different adenovirus each time for as long as possible,” Dr. Rath says.

Dr. John too feels that a heterologous vector as second or third dose may improve vaccine efficacy. But one can be sure only when data become available. “Let me venture to say that no matter which vector was used for first immunisation, further boosters can be given using an inactivated virus vaccine (like Covaxin) or an mRNA vaccine(like Pfizer and Moderna.”

Dr. Krishna Ella, CEO of Bharat Biotech said during a press conference that people vaccinated with Covishield cannot be administered the same vaccine next year. Was he referring to antibodies that would have developed against adenovirus vector that would make repeat vaccination ineffective? “Dr. Ella might have been referring to a future third dose – which is unlikely to be useful as a booster dose because of immunity to the vector that will render the vector virus non-infectious, hence unable to deliver the cargo (spike protein) inside human cells. However, third or repeated periodic doses will be very effective using inactivated virus vaccine (Covaxin) or mRNA vaccine, which use non-immunogenic lipid vesicles,” says Dr. John.

While using the same adenovirus subtypes for repeat vaccinations might result in reduced efficacy in the case of vector-based vaccines, the inactivated vaccines do not face this problem, as seen in the case of rabies and inactivated polio vaccine. “Theoretically, repeat doses with inactivated vaccines will raise the height of immune response with no chance of any reduction of efficacy. If three doses are taken, especially with at least four months interval between second and third doses, there may not be any need for annual boosting. We will have to obtain data to confirm if the theoretical conclusion is correct in real life,” says Dr. John.

The recent rise in COVID 19 cases in six states, accounting for 85% of reported new cases, is disturbing. The concerned State Governments and the Union Ministry of Health need to seriously soul search and quickly arrive at a plan of action to quell the resurgence by vaccination. The resurgence is most likely due to: the general public throwing caution to the wind – discarding the disciplined use of masks, hand hygiene and physical distancing; and engaging in activities leading to mass gatherings – including weddings and funerals – that are conducive to spreading the virus. Opening up of transport services in general and suburban train services in Mumbai in particular, would have contributed to the resurgence.

Regulatory agency authorised emergency use of two COVID-19 vaccines on January 3. On January 16, both were made available to healthcare professionals, the first priority, followed by those in essential services. From March 1, the second phase has begun when senior citizens and those above 45 with co-morbidities are the next priority for vaccination; the Government is expanding the coverage in a phased manner, starting with selected segments of society and expanding to cover more. India’s COVID vaccination programme will be world’s second largest because we have the second largest population in the world. However in the face of the resurgence of cases in six states, should there not be a change in strategy?

The right goals

Setting goals for wide vaccination coverage systematically is an administrative activity. Health management approach would have a different goal. Since health management has two arms, public health and healthcare, each would have its own goal – a healthcare goal and a public health goal.

The healthcare goal is to mitigate adverse disease outcomes, the hierarchy is, for preventing: death; disease becoming severe to require intensive care; hospitalisation per se and finally, symptomatic disease. Here, need-based vaccine coverage has to begin on the basis of vulnerability to these outcomes – hence vaccination should be prioritised for oldest down to 65 years; all below 65 with co-morbidity – obesity, hypertension, chronic heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, people with malignancies whether or not on treatment, etc.

The public health goal is to reduce the speed of coronavirus transmission, thereby reducing the community burden of COVID-19. For this vaccination drive should be targeted to the six states in which the speed of transmission is highest – Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. In these States, vaccination ought to be undertaken on war footing, even taking the help of the army, for implementation. While vaccine-war progresses in these six States, other States should continue targeted healthcare vaccination of the elderly and the vulnerable.

Economic impact

To overcome the economic impact of the pandemic, civil administration should set up its own independent goals. Priority ought to be for step-wise and safe revival of all stalled activities in various systems – education, law and order, transport, sanitation and general administration. A systematic targeted vaccination plan and platform should be designed for this purpose in relevant locations. Economic revival demands the opening up of all industrial and agricultural activities, and India’s human personnel in these areas ought to be vaccinated systematically.

The attempt to meet this demand by having vaccination centres working 24/7 is a step in the right direction, but more innovative steps need to be taken in order to reach vaccination to the people in rural India. Countries like the U.S. have started using mobile vaccination centres and have established vaccination centres in supermarkets to rapidly cover the entire population. In India a similar approach, especially mobile vaccination units, can rapidly cover many villages.

Even now it is not too late to define goals for public health, healthcare and the administrative segment and plan appropriate strategy and tactics to achieve their respective goals. The three should function in a well-oiled, co-ordinated and seamless manner to achieve their targets.

The public, including healthcare professionals, apparently misunderstood that the vaccine roll-out was premature without stating its purpose or it was for political reasons – to showcase one of the world’s largest vaccination programmes by making it a well-orchestrated drill. But when unaccompanied by sharing of authentic and authoritative information, it led to wide-spread vaccine hesitancy. Public health programmes rely heavily on information-education-communication – after all if people understand that vaccination is for their own good and for the benefit of the entire nation, they will willingly cooperate.


So, concurrently with planning the revised strategy, there should be a health education blitzkrieg about the benefits of the vaccination for the individual and for the community – so that people may knowingly and willingly participate in it. It can easily be accomplished since we are well-versed in vigorous campaigns for various purposes.

If India demonstrates its ability to set-up this model, and execute the world’s second largest vaccination programme to perfection, it will be worthy of emulation in all countries of the world.

(T. Jacob John is retired professor of clinical virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore. M.S. Seshadri is retired professor of medicine (endocrinology), CMC and medical director of Thirumalai Medical Mission Hospital, Ranipet. )

In 2004, NASA’s Mars exploration rover ‘Opportunity’ found several small spheres on the planet, informally named Martian blueberries. Opportunity’s mini spectrometers studied the mineralogy and noted they were made of iron oxide compounds called haematites. This caused excitement, as the presence of haematites suggests that there was water present on Mars.

“The widely accepted formation mechanism of haematite concretion [hard solid mass] is precipitation from aqueous fluids. Haematite is known to form in oxidising environments, and based on our experience on Earth, we infer that water must have also played a crucial role in the formation of grey haematite on Mars,” explains Dwijesh Ray from the Planetary Sciences Division of Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad in an email to The Hindu. He has been studying haematite concretions in Kutch. His recent paper notes that the ‘blueberries’ in India and Mars share similar characteristics.

Jhuran formation

The team has been studying the Jhuran formation in Gujarat which is between 145 and 201 million years old. Detailed geochemistry and spectroscopic investigations of the haematite concretions in this area revealed that they resemble the ones on Mars. They have similar morphology – spherical, often doublet and triplet – and similar mineralogy – a mixture of haematite and goethite. The results were published in Planetary and Space Science.

“The haematites on Mars not just show the presence of water, they also indicate that the planet had an atmosphere with oxygen as haematites need oxygen to stabilise. We do not know if the concentration was high enough to permit lifeforms, but there was indeed more oxygen than the present day scenario,” explains Saibal Gupta from the Department of Geology and Geophysics at IIT Kharagpur, one of the authors of the paper.

About the age of the ‘blueberries’ on Mars, he explains: “The exact time correlation is not possible. Water is believed to have disappeared from Mars rocks about three billion years ago. Studies from the newly landed Perseverance rover may help find new clues and signs of life and other organic compounds, thus helping us paint a detailed picture of the history of Mars.”

Martian analogue

Several researchers have shown that the Kutch area is a potential Martian analogue locality. A 2016 paper argued that the occurrences of hydrous sulphate in the Matanumadh area of Kutch, resemble Martian surficial processes. It has been also argued that the transformation from the wet and humid to dry and arid environment on Mars is mimicked by the history of Kutch.

Dr. Ray explains that there may be several other localities in Kutch that share a geologic history of the surface to near-surface processes that appear to besimilar to ancient Mars. “The concretions in the Jhuran Formation of Kutch represent another data point that reinforces the need to use the Kutch area for further analogue studies of the Martian surface ,” he says. The paper concludes that the Kutch area could also be a potential testing site for carrying out future Mars exploration studies on Earth.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has launched a sounding rocket to study attitudinal variations in the neutral winds and plasma dynamics from Sriharikota spaceport.

ISRO has developed a series of sounding rockets called Rohini series, important among them being RH-200, RH-300 and RH-560, number in the name indicating the diameter of the rocket in mm, according to the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency.

“Launch of sounding rocket (RH-560) to study attitudinal variations in the neutral winds and plasma dynamics carried out today (Friday) at SDSC SHAR, Sriharikota,” ISRO tweeted.

Sounding rockets are one or two stage solid propellant rockets used for probing the upper atmospheric regions and for space research.

They also serve as easily affordable platforms to test or prove prototypes of new components or subsystems intended for use in launch vehicles and satellites.

More twins are being born now than ever before, largely due to rising use of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and other assisted reproduction techniques, the first global study of human twinning has found.

With about 1.6 million twins born each year worldwide, the global twinning rate has risen by a third since the 1980s, to 12 per 1,000 deliveries from 9 per 1,000 around 30 years ago, the study found.

This might well be “peak twins”, scientists behind the research said — particularly in high-income regions such as Europe and North America where there is now an emphasis on refining fertility treatments to minimise multiple births.

“We think we’re actually at the peak,” said Christiaan Monden, a professor at Britain’s Oxford University who co-led the review. “This is likely to be an all-time high. The relative and absolute numbers of twins in the world are higher than they have ever been since the mid-twentieth century.”

Monden’s research team, whose findings were published on Friday in the journal Human Reproduction, analysed data on twinning rates for 165 countries between 2010 and 2015 and for 112 countries for the period 1980 to 1985.

They found a 71% rise in twinning rates in North America, as well as significant rises in many European countries and in Asia. For Asia overall, there was a 32% increase, they said, and only seven countries saw falls of more than 10% in twinning rates over the study period.

The researchers noted that rates of monozygotic or identical twins — born from the same egg — were barely changed, stable at about 4 per 1,000 deliveries worldwide.

This meant the vast majority of the increase in twinning rates was due to high numbers of dizygotic or non-identical twins — twins born from separate eggs.

This was especially true in Africa, Monden said, and is most likely to be due to genetic differences between African populations and other populations.

“Most twins you’ll meet in Japan are identical twins,” he said, “while most twins you’ll meet in Africa are non-identical - and we think that’s genetic.”

While factors such as women choosing to start families later, greater use of contraception, and lower fertility rates might be playing some part in the increase in twinning rates, Monden said medically assisted reproduction techniques — which began in the 1970s — are the main drivers.

Such fertility treatments were originally available in wealthier regions, but spread to emerging economies in Asia and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching the relatively richer parts of South Asia and Africa after 2000.

HINGTON, March 13, 2021 12:31 IST
Updated:March 13, 2021 12:32 IST

Spaceships zipping at the speed of light or faster are a staple of science fiction. Think of the Millennium Falcon in the “Star Wars” movies and the starship Enterprise in “Star Trek.” Such travel sounds like fanciful speculation. But is it?

A new research paper authored by an American physicist offers a potential blueprint for superluminal travel — faster than the speed of light — using conventional physics rather than a construct based upon hypothetical particles and states of matter with exotic physical properties.

The paper, published this week in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, moves the question of superluminal travel a step away from theoretical research and a step toward an engineering challenge, according to physicist Erik Lentz, who did the work while at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

A huge hurdle remains, Lentz said, in finding a way to vastly reduce the immense amount of energy needed to power a theoretical ‘warp drive’ engine before any hope of building a prototype. “A ‘warp drive’ technology is principally envisioned to speed up transportation in deep space,” Lentz said. “It can be used to enhance current ambitions for interplanetary and interstellar travel by drastically shortening travel times and widening mission windows.”

The nearest star beyond our solar system is Proxima Centauri, located 4.25 light years away. Light travels at about 300,000 km per second and 9.5 trillion km in a year.

Using traditional rocket fuel, it would take about 50,000 to 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, and nuclear propulsion with proposed technology would get there in about 100 years, Lentz said. A light speed trip would take four years and three months.

Lentz’s blueprint envisions above-light-speed travel, which “holds the potential for one-way and round-trip distant interstellar travel within a human lifetime.”

“If we are limited to traveling at sub-light speed, then multi-generational spaceships must be used for destinations beyond the nearest stars, which is basically a glorified burial casket for at least the first generation of people. I do not find that prospect nearly as inspiring,” Lentz said.

His paper describes the theoretical construction of a class of soliton — a compact self-sustaining wave moving with constant velocity through space — capable of superluminal motion. These solitons are often referred to as “warp bubbles” and they would provide the basis for a propulsion system.

“Currently, the amount of energy required for this new type of space propulsion drive is still immense,” Lentz said. For a spacecraft of about 650 feet (200 meters) in diameter to exceed light speed, that could mean perhaps the energy equivalent of hundreds of times the mass of Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet - a preposterous amount.

A lot of work would be needed to bring this to fruition. Making it practical, Lentz said, would require lowering the energy needs drastically down to the range of modern nuclear fission reactors. A way to create and accelerate the solitons also must be devised, Lentz added.

Lentz views the task as difficult, but not impossible. He said the next phase of theoretical research and development work could unfold over the next several years, with a fully functional prototype drive possible within the coming decade.

“The first truly superluminal drives may come some decades thereafter,” Lentz said. “I would like to see this technology in use in my lifetime.”

Indian and Japanese space agencies on Thursday reviewed cooperation in earth observation, lunar cooperation and satellite navigation, and also agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in “space situational awareness and professional exchange programme”.

This was agreed during a bilateral meeting between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) held virtually.

“Both agencies signed an Implementing Arrangement for collaborative activities on rice crop area and air quality monitoring using satellite data,” an ISRO statement said.

India and Japan are already working on a joint lunar polar exploration (LUPEX) mission and the two space agencies have been working on the mission that aims to send a lander and rover to the Moon’s south pole around 2024.

Early this month, India and Italy decided to explore opportunities in earth observation, space science and robotic and human exploration.

Last month, India and Australia signed an amendment to the MoU which will build on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Both countries are also in discussions for Australia to host vital tracking infrastructure to support the Gaganyaan manned space flight mission.

Two decades ago, the coastal communities of Gujarat knew the ‘barrel,’ but not the whale shark. It was a commonly used name for the fish, not because of its size but because harpoons and barrels were used while hunting it. But today, they are referred to as vhali which means “dear one” in Gujarati. The change in perception is due to the conservation efforts of Wildlife Trust of India.

A recent study published in Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals, states that the global population of sharks and rays have crashed by over 70% in the past five decades. According to a report by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, India is now the second largest shark fishing nation in the world, following Indonesia. This makes present-day, grassroots conservation efforts — by NGOs and State Forest Departments alike — all the more worthy of the spotlight.

Starting steps

It was in 2001 that, in a conservation attempt, whale sharks were included in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India, 1972, rendering the capture and killing of the fish a cognisable offence. It was the first-ever species to be protected under this Act, after which the Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) and speartooth shark (Glyphis glyphis) were added to it.

Sajan John, head of marine projects at Wildlife Trust of India, adds, “However, enforcing the fishing regulations for these sharks was not straightforward, as whale sharks were usually hauled in as bycatch when fishermen were targeting economically benefiting species. The meat of whale sharks is not very edible, it is the liver that is the most important for commercial trade, while oil from the fish is used for water-proofing boats.”

Despite the protection, whale shark landings were common on India’s West coast, especially in Gujarat.

This is when Wildlife Trust of India, decided to launch awareness and conservation programmes in the State to educate the fishermen about the species. “The decision of protecting the species was taken at an apex level but the information never trickled down to the fishermen. That is why we launched our Whale Shark Conservation Programme in Junagadh in 2004 and thereafter spread to Gir Somnath, Porbandar and Dwarka,” explains Sajan.

Workshops were conducted in villages and street plays were written and enacted to convey the consequences of hunting whale sharks. “We also roped in leaders from local communities to head our campaigns so that we did not look like outsiders calling them out for their practices,” adds Sajan.

Due to the consistent efforts of WTI, whale shark landings in Gujarat reduced and fishermen started releasing the fish during accidental encounters. But, the sharks that were saved in Gujarat were hunted down South on the coasts of Maharashtra, Kerala and Lakshadweep. “Once we realised this, we launched awareness campaigns in Kerala and Lakshadweep. Like Gujarat, we have street plays in coastal villages and have been part of carnivals to raise awareness. It is due to these efforts that the last whale shark landing from Gujarat was reported in 2005 and the incidents have reduced drastically in Kerala and Lakshadweep. Since 2007, the fishermen in Gujarat have reported spotting of over 50 whale pups. We are now geo-tagging these fishes to know their whereabouts,” he adds.

Meanwhile, on the East coast, the Forest Department of Andhra Pradesh along with The East Godavari River Estuarine Ecosystem (EGREE) has been conducting awareness programmes and workshops to educate fishing communities since 2013.

“In 2015, a survey was conducted in almost 500 fishing villages and hamlets across the State about whale shark sightings. In the process, over 650 fishermen were interviewed of which 90% knew about the whale shark, 50% had seen the fish and over 11% had seen a pup,” says C Selvam, Deputy Conservator of Forests (WL), Eluru.

Kakinada, Visakhapatnam, Machilipatnam and Nizampatnam are major shark landing areas in the State.

Blacktip sharks, bull sharks, pelagic and big-eye thresher shark, smooth and scalloped hammerhead, and tiger sharks are the species that are hunted frequently on these coasts. “Of these, several species like smooth and scalloped hammerhead are classified as threatened species by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Scalloped hammerheads are categorised on the IUCN Red List as globally endangered,” adds Selvam.

Long road ahead

Irrespective of their size or habitat, humans have found a way to hunt most of the sharks and use every part of them.

The skin is used for leather which is made into boots and bags, and liver for oil. The fins were earlier harvested for shark fin soup, a sought-after delicacy in Southeast Asia and China. However, exporting shark fins was banned in India in 2015. It was easier raising awareness about whale sharks as the fish is protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act but this could not be done for others.

Adding to this Sajan says, “The basic question that fishermen ask is whether it is illegal to kill the fish and when the answer is no, we have lost the battle there. We need to have more species under the Act so that we can save them from extinction.”

The warming of worldwide oceans from climate change means baby sharks are at risk of being born smaller and without the energy they need to survive, a group of scientists has found.

The scientists, who conducted the work in connection with the New England Aquarium, studied epaulette sharks, which live off Australia and New Guinea. They found that warmer conditions sped up the sharks' growing process, and that meant they hatched from eggs earlier and were born exhausted.

The study has implications for other sharks, including those that give birth to live young, said John Mandelman, vice president and chief scientist of the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. The scientists published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports earlier this year.

“There's this perception they are very hardy. What it means is this very resilient species is more vulnerable than we thought, and this could be true of other sharks,” Mandelman said. “We need to be especially vigilant about managing them under these changing conditions.”

The scientists performed the work by using the aquarium's breeding program for the sharks. They raised 27 of the sharks under either average summer conditions, or about 27℃, or in temperatures predicted for later in the century, including about 29℃ and about 31℃.

They found that the sharks reared in the warmest temperatures weighed significantly less than those raised in average temperatures, and they exhibited reduced metabolic performance. The group wrote that epaulette sharks are well known among scientists for their hardiness, so the negative impacts of warming raises a troubling question: “If epaulette sharks cannot cope with, in this case, thermal stress, how will other, less tolerant species fare?”

Epaulette sharks are small bottom-dwelling sharks that can grow to be about 3 feet (1 meter) long. Harmless to humans, they’re named for large spots above their pectoral fins that resemble military shoulder ornaments. The sharks are listed as stable and a species of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

The situation is not so rosy for sharks worldwide. One study this year found that worldwide abundance of oceanic sharks and rays dropped more than 70% between 1970 and 2018. Overfishing is a chief concern, and climate change and pollution also threaten sharks.

The sharks in the epaulette study survived, but those raised in warmer temperatures emerged in poor shape to make it for long in the wild, said lead study author Carolyn Wheeler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia.

“If they are smaller, and they're hatching undernourished, they are probably going to have to start looking for food sooner — and they're going to have less time to adjust to their surroundings,” Wheeler said.

The findings shed light on the growing problem of how climate change will affect marine species, said Juan Rubalcaba, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University and a published marine science researcher who was not involved with the shark study. The sharks grew very fast, but to an ultimately smaller size, which is a problem for survival, he said.

“This is a very general pattern happening not only in sharks, but in many other fish,” Rubalcaba said.

The study should serve as a warning to ocean regulatory agencies that conservative management is needed to prevent losing more sharks, said Mariah Pfleger, marine scientist at conservation group Oceana.

“This study further exemplifies that sharks will not be immune to a warming ocean,” Pfleger said. “We need to know how climate change will impact species’ range, life history traits, and survivability in order to protect these already vulnerable species.”

Published in Current Biology

Catnip (Nepeta cataria), a garden herb known for its hallucinogenic effects on domestic cats, is also used to ward off insects, especially mosquitoes. A new study has now decoded how the plant does this. The researchers found that Catnip and its active ingredient Nepetalactone activates an irritant receptor called TRPA1.

Welcome to Bahamas

Published in PNAS

Who were the original inhabitants of the picturesque Bahamas? When did they arrive? A detailed study of the fire and vegetation (of the last 3,000 years) showed that indigenous people called Lucayans arrival in the northern Bahamas at around 830 CE. “While people were present in Florida more than 14,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, these people never crossed the Florida Straits to nearby Bahamian islands, only 80 to 105 km away...Meanwhile, the Caribbean islands were populated by people migrating from South American northward,” explains Peter van Hengstum, one of the authors in a release.

Published in Current Biology

To find a suitable partner, male frogs sit in one place and call loudly. But how does the female hear and select the male of her species among all the other background noise and overlapping calls of other frog species? Their lungs act as noise-canceling headphones says a new study. The lungs when inflated were found to reduce their eardrum's sensitivity to noise in a particular frequency range, making it easier to hear their mate’s calls.

Rocky super-Earth

Published in Science

Meet Gliese 486 b, a new exoplanet found orbiting the red dwarf star Gliese 486. The exoplanet is 2.81 Earth masses, 1.31 Earth radii and is a Super-Earth (exoplanet larger than Earth and smaller than Neptune). “The gravity is also 70% stronger than on Earth, making it harder to walk and jump. Someone who weighed 50 kg on Earth would feel like they weighed 85 kg on Gliese 486b, explains astronomer José Antonio Caballero in a release.

Oil spill cleaner

Published in Advanced Materials

A new resin membrane could soon help clean up beaches contaminated with oil spills. Named SAVER (superamphiphilic vitrimer epoxy resin) membranes, they can separate oil and water efficiently. The paper reports that it is similar to classical epoxy resins and “the blocked membrane can be easily recovered when contaminated...recycled, and re‐used.”

As NASA’s rover Perseverance explores the surface of Mars, scientists hunting for signs of ancient life on the distant planet are using data gathered on a mission much closer to home at a lake in southwest Turkey.

NASA says the minerals and rock deposits at Salda are the nearest match on earth to those around the Jezero Crater where the spacecraft landed and which is believed to have once been flooded with water.

Information gathered from Lake Salda may help the scientists as they search for fossilised traces of microbial life preserved in sediment thought to have been deposited around the delta and the long-vanished lake it once fed.

“Salda...will serve as a powerful analogue in which we can learn and interrogate,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, told Reuters.

A team of American and Turkish planetary scientists carried out research in 2019 on the shorelines of the lake, known as Turkey’s Maldives because of its azure water and white shores.

Scientists believe that the sediments around the lake eroded from large mounds that are formed with the help of microbes and are known as microbialites.

The team behind the Perseverance rover, the most advanced astrobiology lab ever flown to another world, wants to find out whether there are microbialites in Jezero Crater.

They will also compare the beach sediments from Salda with carbonate minerals — formed from carbon dioxide and water, a key ingredient for life — detected on the margins of Jezero Crater.

“When we find something at Perseverance we can go back to look at Lake Salda to really look at both processes, (looking at) similarities but equally importantly differences that are really between Perseverance and Lake Salda,” Zurbuchen said. “So we are really glad we have that lake, just because I think it will be with us for a long time”.

Samples of rock drilled from Martian soil are to be stored on the surface for eventual retrieval and delivery to Earth by two future robotic missions, as early as 2031.

Google Doodle today celebrates the 89th birthday of Indian professor and scientist Udupi Ramachandra Rao, under whose guidance, the first Indian satellite 'Aryabhata' was launched in 1975. He helped design and launch over 18 satellites for advancing India’s communication, and meteorological services.

He was the fourth Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) during its critical formative years between 1984 and 1994. He boosted the development of rocket technology leading to the successful launch of the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) and the operational Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Prof. Rao also initiated the development of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) and the development of cryogenic technology in 1991.

He had published over 350 scientific and technical papers and authored many books.

He was the recipient of many national and international awards. He was awarded 'Padma Bhushan' in 1976 and ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 2017.

Prof. U.R. Rao became the first Indian Space Scientist to be inducted into the “Satellite Hall of Fame” at Washington DC, the U.S. in 2013. He also became the first Indian Space Scientist to be inducted into the “IAF Hall of Fame” in Mexico.

He passed away in 2017.

Russia and China unveiled plans on Tuesday for a joint lunar space station, as Moscow seeks to recapture the glory of its space pioneering days of Soviet times, and Beijing gears up its own extraterrestrial ambitions.

Though Moscow was once at the forefront of space travel — it sent the first man into space — its cosmic ambitions have dimmed thanks to poor financing and endemic corruption.

It has been eclipsed by China and the United States, which have both clocked major wins in space exploration and research in recent years.

The Russian space agency Roscomos said in a statement that it had signed an agreement with China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) to develop a “complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in the orbit of the Moon”.

The CNSA, for its part, said that the project was “open to all interested countries and international partners” in what experts said would be China's biggest international space cooperation project to date.

Moscow is seeking to re-take the lead in the space race.

This year, it celebrates the 60th anniversary of Russia’s first-ever manned space flight — it sent Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961, followed by the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, two years later.

The United States NASA space agency launched its first manned space flight a month after Russia, in May 1961, sending Alan Shepard up aboard Mercury-Redstone 3.

But Moscow has lagged behind both Washington and Beijing in the exploration of the Moon and Mars in recent years.

In the meantime, China — which has sought closer partnership with Moscow — has started a successful space programme of its own.

‘Big deal’

Last year, it launched its Tianwen-1 probe to Mars that is currently orbiting the Red Planet.

And in December, it successfully brought rock and soil samples from the Moon back to Earth, the first mission of this type in over 40 years.

Chen Lan, an independent analyst specialising in China’s space programme, said the joint lunar space station was “a big deal”.

“This will be the largest international space cooperation project for China, so it’s significant,” Mr. Lan told AFP.

Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin wrote on Twitter that he had invited CNSA chief Zhang Kejian to the launch of Russia’s first modern lunar lander, Luna 25, scheduled for October 1 — the first lunar lander to be launched by Russia since 1976.

Eyes on Mars

The U.S. space agency NASA has now set its sights on Mars, with its Perseverance rovers last week conducting their first test drive on the planet.

NASA eventually intends to conduct a possible human mission to the planet, even if planning is still at a very preliminary stage.

Moscow and Washington are also collaborating in the space sector — one of the few areas of cooperation left between the Cold War rivals.

However, Russia did not sign the U.S.-led Artemis Accord last year for countries that want to participate in a lunar exploration scheme spearheaded by NASA.

Under the Artemis programme announced during the tenure of former U.S. President Donald Trump, NASA plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

In another blow to Russia’s space reputation, Roscosmos last year lost its monopoly for manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS) after the first successful mission of the U.S. company Space X.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become a key player in the modern space race and has announced plans to fly several members of the public to the Moon in 2023 on a trip bankrolled by a Japanese millionaire.

A SpaceX Starship prototype exploded after landing in Texas in March, after climbing to an altitude of 10 kilometres. The test flight was part of the company’s ambitious project to take people to Mars.

Covaxin, India’s indigenous COVID-19 vaccine, showed enhanced immune response as well as better reactogenicity (reaction symptoms) and safety outcomes in the phase 2 trial, interim results that have now been published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases said.

The publication comes days after Covaxin maker Bharat Biotech said the vaccine demonstrated an interim clinical efficacy of 81% in its later phase 3 clinical trial. Developed in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), it is a two dose vaccine, given 28 days apart.

Tracing the vaccine’s performance, the research article said in the phase 1 trial, Covaxin (BBV152) “induced high neutralising antibody responses that remained elevated in all participants at three months after the second vaccination. In the phase 2 trial, BBV152 showed better reactogenicity and safety outcomes, and enhanced humoral and cell-mediated immune responses compared with the phase 1 trial,” the study said.

However, the results from the Phase 2 study do not permit efficacy assessments, the authors said. “The evaluation of safety outcomes requires extensive phase 3 clinical trials. We were unable to assess other immune responses (that is, binding antibody and cell-mediated responses) in convalescent serum samples due to the low quantity,” they said.

The Hindu Explains | How effective are the two COVID-19 vaccines rolled out in India, and are there concerns about safety?

Besides interim results of the double-blind, randomised, multi-centre, phase 2 trial, the publication also covered a 3-month follow-up of the phase 1 trial.

One of the two vaccines given emergency use authorisation by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), it is being used immunisation programmes launched underway mid-January. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among those who took the vaccine in the second phase of the immunisation programme on March 1.

The publication in the Lancet journal said the phase 2 trial to evaluate immunogenicity and safety of the vaccine was conducted in 380 healthy children and adults (aged 12–65 years) at nine hospitals in India. Two-intramuscular doses of the vaccine were administered four weeks apart.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has completed development of a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capable of producing extremely high-resolution images for a joint earth observation satellite mission with the U.S. space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA-ISRO SAR (NISAR) is a joint collaboration for a dual-frequency L and S-band SAR for earth observation.

“NISAR will be the first satellite mission to use two different radar frequencies (L-band and S-band) to measure changes in our planet’s surface less than a centimetre across”, according to NASA.

NASA and Bengaluru-headquartered ISRO signed a partnership on September 30, 2014, to collaborate on and launch NISAR.

The mission is targeted to launch in early 2022 from ISRO’s Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district, about 100km north of Chennai.

NASA is providing the mission’s L-band SAR, a high-rate communication subsystem for science data, GPS receivers, a solid-state recorder and payload data subsystem.

ISRO is providing the spacecraft bus, the S-band radar, the launch vehicle and associated launch services for the mission, whose goal is to make global measurements of the causes and consequences of land surface changes using advanced radar imaging.

The S-band SAR payload of NISAR satellite mission was flagged off by the Secretary in the Department of Space and ISRO Chairman K Sivan on March 4 through virtual mode.

The payload has been shipped from ISRO’s Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre (SAC) to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena in the U.S. for integration with the latter’s L-band SAR payload, an ISRO statement said.

“NISAR would provide a means of disentangling highly spatial and temporally complex processes ranging from ecosystem disturbances to ice sheet collapses and natural hazards including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and landslides”, ISRO said.

NASA added that the mission will measure Earth’s changing ecosystems, dynamic surfaces and ice masses, providing information about biomass, natural hazards, sea level rise and groundwater, and will support a host of other applications.

“NISAR will observe Earth’s land and ice-covered surfaces globally with 12-day regularity on ascending and descending passes, sampling Earth on average every six days for a baseline three-year mission”, NASA said on the mission’s website.

“This allows the mission to observe a wide range of Earth processes, from the flow rates of glaciers and ice sheets to the dynamics of earthquakes and volcanoes”.

NISAR uses a sophisticated information-processing technique known as SAR to produce extremely high-resolution images. Radar penetrates clouds and darkness, enabling NISAR to collect data day and night in any weather.

“The instrument’s imaging swath the width of the strip of data collected along the length of the orbit track is greater than 150 miles (240km), which allows it to image the entire Earth in 12 days,” it was stated.

“Over the course of multiple orbits, the radar images will allow users to track changes in croplands and hazard sites, as well as to monitor ongoing crises such as volcanic eruptions. The images will be detailed enough to show local changes and broad enough to measure regional trends.”

“As the mission continues for years, the data will allow for better understanding of the causes and consequences of land surface changes, increasing our ability to manage resources and prepare for and cope with global change,” according to NASA.

“NASA requires a minimum of three years of global science operations with the L-band radar, and ISRO requires five years of operations with the S-band radar over specified target areas in India and the Southern Ocean”, it said.

For us, 365 days make up a year because Earth takes as many days to complete one orbit of the Sun. But have you ever wondered how many days make up a year on other planets?

What determines the length of a year?

The length of a year on any planet depends on where the planet is orbiting. Planets that are closer to the Sun than Earth will have fewer days in a year, while those rotating farther away will take many more days to make up a year. This is because of two reasons – planets that are closer to the Sun will take a shorter time to orbit it than those farther away, and the closer a planet orbits the Sun, the Sun’s gravity can pull on the planet, making the planet orbit faster.

Why should we care?

To send a spacecraft to another planet, we need to know where the planet is in orbit. This will help us plan and manoeuvre the spacecraft accordingly. Imagine not knowing where a planet is in orbit; we’d be looking all over the universe for that one planet!

How long each planet takes to orbit the Sun (in Earth days):

Mercury: 88 days

Venus: 225 days

Earth: 365 days

Mars: 687 days

Jupiter: 4,333 days

Saturn: 10,759 days

Uranus: 30,687 days

Neptune: 60,190 days

Neanderthal fossils from a cave in Belgium believed to belong to the last survivors of their species ever discovered in Europe are thousands of years older than once thought, a new study said Monday.

Previous radiocarbon dating of the remains from the Spy Cave yielded ages as recent as approximately 24,000 years ago, but the new testing pushes the clock back to between 44,200 to 40,600 years ago.

The research appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was carried out by a team from Belgium, Britain and Germany.

Co-lead author Thibaut Deviese from the University of Oxford and Aix-Marseille University told AFP he and colleagues had developed a more robust method to prepare samples, which was better able to exclude contaminants.

Having a firm idea of when our closest human relatives disappeared is considered a key first step toward understanding more about their nature and capabilities, as well as why they eventually went extinct while our own ancestors prospered.

The new method still relies on radiocarbon dating, long considered the gold standard of archeological dating, but refines the way specimens are collected.

All living things absorb carbon from the atmosphere and their food, including the radioactive form carbon-14, which decays over time.

Since plants and animals stop absorbing carbon-14 when they die, the amount that remains when they are dated tells us how long ago they lived.

When it comes to bones, scientists extract the part made up of collagen because it is organic.

"What we have done is to go one step further," said Deviese, since contamination from the burial environment or through glues used for museum work can spoil the sample.

Instead, the team looked for the building blocks of collagen, molecules called amino acids, and in particular selected specific single amino acids they could be sure were part of the collagen.

'Reliable framework'

The authors also dated Neanderthal specimens from two additional Belgian sites, Fonds-de-Foret and Engis, finding comparable ages.

"Dating all these Belgian specimens was very exciting as they played a major role in the understanding and the definition of Neanderthals," said co-lead author Gregory Abrams, of the Scladina Cave Archaeological Centre in Belgium. "Almost two centuries after the discovery of the Neanderthal child of Engis, we were able to provide a reliable age."

Genetic sequencing was meanwhile able to show that a Neanderthal shoulder bone previously dated at 28,000 years ago was heavily contaminated with bovine DNA, suggesting the bone had been preserved with a glue made from cattle bones.

"Dating is crucial in archaeology. Without a reliable framework of chronology we can't really be confident in understanding the relationships between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens," added co-author Tom Higham of the University of Oxford.

Certain stone tool use has been attributed to Neanderthals and has been interpreted as a sign of their cognitive evolution, said Deviese.

But if the timeline for Neanderthals' existence is being pushed back, Deviese added, then Paleolithic industries should be re-examined to determine if they really were the work of the extinct hominid species.

Some mutations in the novel coronavirus may not only enable it to evade antibodies, but also make the virus unrecognisable to the immune system's T-killer cells, says a new study which could aid in the further development of vaccines.

While antibodies dock directly onto viruses to neutralise them, the scientists, including those from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria, said the T-killer cells recognise viral protein fragments on infected cells and subsequently kill them to stop virus production.

In the current study, published in the journal Cell Immunology, the researchers sequenced 750 genomes of the novel coronavirus from infected individuals and analysed mutations for their potential to alter T cell epitopes.

These are regions on the virus recognised by the body's T cells.

"Our results show that many mutations in SARS-CoV-2 are indeed capable of doing this," said study co-author Andreas Bergthaler. "With the help of bioinformatic and biochemical investigations as well as laboratory experiments with blood cells from COVID-19 patients, we were able to show that mutated viruses can no longer be recognized by T-killer cells in these regions."

According to the researchers, there are several epitopes available for recognition by T-killer cells in most natural infections, and if the virus mutates in one place, other sites on its surface may still indicate its presence to T cells.

They said the spike protein of the virus, which it uses to enter cells and against which most vaccines are targeted, has, on average, one to six of these T cell epitopes.

"If the virus mutates in one of these regions, the risk that the infected cells will not be recognized by the T-killer cells increases," explained Johannes Huppa, another co-author of the study.

"Especially for the further development of vaccines, we therefore have to keep a close eye on how the virus mutates and which mutations prevail globally. Currently, we see few indications that mutations in T killer cell epitopes are increasingly spreading," added Judith Aberle, another of the study's co-authors from the Medical University of Vienna.

The scientists believe the findings provide important insights on how the novel coronavirus interacts with the immune system.

"Furthermore, this knowledge helps to develop more effective vaccines with the potential to activate as many T-killer cells as possible via a variety of epitopes," the scientists said. "The goal is vaccines that trigger neutralizing antibody and T killer cell responses for the broadest possible protection."

India plans to launch on March 28 an earth observation satellite that will provide it near real-time images of its borders and also enable quick monitoring of natural disasters.

GISAT-1 is slated to be lofted into space by GSLV-F10 rocket from Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh’s Nellore district, about 100 kms north of Chennai.

“We are looking to launch this Geo imaging satellite on March 28, subject to weather conditions”, an official of the Bengaluru-headquartered Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) told PTI on Sunday.

The rocket will place the spacecraft in a geosynchronous orbit. It will be subsequently positioned in geostationary orbit, about 36,000 kms above earth’s equator, using its onboard propulsion system.

The launch of GISAT-1 onboard GSLV-F10 rocket was originally planned for March 5 last year but postponed a day before the blast-off due to technical reasons.

Experts said positioning the state-of-the-art agile earth observation satellite in geostationary orbit has key advantages.

“It’s going to be a game-changer in some sense for India”, a Department of Space official said.

“With onboard high resolution cameras, the satellite will allow the country to monitor the Indian land mass and the oceans, particularly its borders continuously”.

Listing the objectives of the mission, ISRO has earlier said the satellite would provide near real-time imaging of the large area region of interest at frequent intervals.

It would help in quick monitoring of natural disasters, episodic and any short-term events.

The third objective is to obtain spectral signatures of agriculture, forestry, mineralogy, disaster warning, cloud properties, snow and glacier and oceanography.

GISAT-1 will facilitate near real-time observation of the Indian sub-continent, under cloud-free condition, at frequent intervals, ISRO said.

The planned launch of GISAT-1, weighing about 2,268 kg, comes close on the heels of the successful February 28 PSLV- C51 mission that orbited Brazil’s earth observation satellite Amazonia-1 and 18 co-passengers, including five built by students.

Secretary in the Department of Space and ISRO Chairman K Sivan told PTI last week that the technical issues that led to postponement of GISAT-1 mission have been resolved and the further delay in the launch was due to COVID-19-induced lockdown which affected normal work.

According to sources, GISAT-1 will be followed by the maiden flight of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, ISRO’s compact launcher, likely in April.

SSLV has been designed to meet “launch on demand” requirements in a cost-effective manner for small satellites in a dedicated and ride-share mode.

It is a three-stage all solid vehicle with a capability to launch up to 500 kg satellite mass into 500 km low earth orbit (LEO) and 300 kg into Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO).

By comparison, PSLV — the workhorse launch vehicle of ISRO — can take up to 1,750 kg payload into SSO of 600 km altitude.

With lower per kg launch cost, the mini launcher will have multiple satellite mounting options for nano, micro and small satellites.

Sivan had earlier termed the SSLV an innovative vehicle which can be assembled in just 72 hours.

“Instead of 60 days (for building a PSLV), it (SSLV) will be assembled in three days; instead of 600 people (needed to build a PSLV), it (SSLV) will be done by six people”, he had said.

Researchers from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru, have developed a small molecule that helps disrupt and reduce formation of amyloid plaques in the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s Disease. The group is planning to take this molecule, which is a potential drug candidate, forward for clinical studies. The results of their study were published in the journal Advanced Therapeutics.

Alzheimer’s worldwide

The World Alzheimer Report 2015 which was an analysis of the prevalence, incidence, cost and trends in Alzheimer’s Disease documented the fact that in 2015, over 46 million people worldwide were living with dementia. The report estimated that this number would increase to more than 131.5 million by 2050. Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive and irreversible disorder of the brain, which affects memory and thinking skills. One main feature of the disease is the deposition of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain.

Amyloid precursor proteins play a role in the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease by producing the Amyloid-beta peptides of which in particular Amyloid Beta peptide 42 is particularly toxic in the formation of the amyloid plaques. This was targeted by the researchers, using the small molecule TGR63. Usually, in people, the symptoms start manifesting when they are in their sixties, though the onset is much earlier.

In research that spans the course of a decade, the group led by T Govindaraju of JNCASR selected six candidate molecules TGR60-65, all of which had the same core structure, and put them through in vitro tests to see whether these could check the growth of amyloid plaques and also dissolve preformed ones. “All the designed compounds were screened through in vitro and cellular assays.

The data from these experiments revealed superior activity of TGR63 and hence we took this molecule forward for animal studies,” says Prof. Govindaraju, who heads the Bioorganic Chemistry Laboratory at the institute.

Effect on mice

Mice are often used as model animals to study Alzheimer’s Disease. When genetically modified to show Alzheimer’s, the disease starts manifesting at about 4-5 months, by 8-10 months there are mild symptoms and by 12-14 months they reach advanced stage of disease as indicated by amyloid plaques and cognitive decline and loss of memory. The experiment involved using transgenic mice which had Alzheimer’s Disease induced in them. The animals were subjected to three behavioural tests to verify that TGR63 really did reduce the amyloid burden and, furthermore, was not toxic to the mice. In one of the tests, the animals were let to swim in relatively large pool of water. A small plank was placed in a specific spot and the mice learnt to swim towards to spot and save themselves by climbing on to the plank.

Later the mice were made to repeat the task, but the plank had now been removed. The behaviours of four categories of mice were observed – mice without Alzheimer’s, mice without Alzheimer’s which had been treated with TGR63, mice with Alzheimer’s which were treated with TGR63 and mice with Alzheimer’s which had not been treated with TGR63. In the above task, while the first three categories of mice swam back to the spot where they had learned to find the plank, the last category – mice with AD and no treatment – did not remember the way back.

Brain analysis

“Further, reduction of amyloid plaques was studied by brain analysis,” says Prof. Govindaraju. The ten-year-long research broadly evolved in five stages, according to him: design of the set of molecules; in vitro evaluation, in cellulo evaluation, computational study and in vivo evaluation and cognitive assessment.

“I am in discussion with pharma companies to take TGR63 to clinical studies,” says Prof. Govindaraju.

Using brain organoids – mini brains developed in a lab – built using stem cells, University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers have been able to compare modern humans to other primates, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, which until now was not thought possible, particularly when the species is already extinct.

The researchers catalogued the differences between the genomes of diverse modern human populations and the Neanderthals and Denisovans, who lived during the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. Mimicking an alteration they found in one gene, the researchers used stem cells to engineer ‘Neanderthalised’ brain organoids.

The team initially found 61 genes that differed between modern humans and our extinct relatives (Science). One of these altered genes – NOVA1 – caught the researchers’ attention because it is a master gene regulator, influencing many other genes during early brain development. The researchers used CRISPR gene editing to engineer modern human stem cells with the Neanderthal-like mutation in NOVA1. Then they coaxed the stem cells into forming brain cells and ultimately Neanderthalised brain organoids, says a University press release.

Neural network changes in Neanderthalised brain organoids parallel the way newborn non-human primates acquire new abilities more rapidly than human newborns.

From mid-February, a spike in daily new cases was reported from a few States including Maharashtra. For days on end, the Health Ministry kept repeating the message that Kerala too was “witnessing an upsurge of daily new cases”. Even as recently as March 6, the Health Ministry wrongly implicated Kerala for the surge in cases when it said “Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka continue to report a surge in the COVID-19 daily new cases.”

Kerala continues to contribute a high number of cases on a daily basis. However, there has not been any surge or spike in daily cases, as seen in other States. In reality, Kerala has been witnessing a steady decline in daily cases since end-January.

“From a second peak of 6,078 seven-day moving average of daily cases as on January 23, we have been seeing a steady decline in cases in Kerala. There has been a 50% decline in the seven-day moving average of daily cases from the fourth week of January to March 4,” says Dr. Rijo John, Health Economist and Consultant based in Kochi, Kerala. “The seven-day moving average of daily cases in Kerala as on March 4 was 2,996. The absolute number of daily cases on March 4 was 2,616.”

While other States have reduced the number of daily tests in recent months, Kerala has been continuing with the same number of daily tests. “The seven-day average daily tests conducted was over 60,000 when the test positivity rate was 15% during the peak in the first half of October last year. Now, even when the test positivity rate is under 5% seven-day average, the average testing has increased to 70,000 since the first week of February,” says Dr. John.

“Keeping daily testing at high levels even when daily cases are declining inspires more confidence that the decline in daily cases is real and is not due to reduced testing,” Dr. John adds. Maharashtra and Gujarat have not increased testing despite reporting more cases on a daily basis.

While the rest of the country witnessed a peak in mid-September when the daily fresh cases touched nearly 98,000 on September 16, Kerala witnessed a peak a month later in mid-October. Unlike other States that witnessed a steady decline in daily cases, there were a reduced number of daily cases in Kerala since mid-October, but the numbers continued to stay high and did not steadily decline to low levels.

First wave

“The first wave is yet to decline in Kerala. The daily cases have plateaued in the State for a long time and are now seeing a decline,” says Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar, former chief epidemiologist of ICMR who was a part of the national COVID-19 task force till he retired in June last year. “There has not been any resurgence of cases lately [in Kerala].”

According to Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru, the decline in cases since late January could be due to high infection rate that is close to herd immunity needed for the decline to begin.

As on March 5, over 0.8 million people have been vaccinated in the State. “It is too early to say that vaccination could have contributed much to the decline. The number of people vaccinated is not large enough to have significantly contributed to the decline,” says Dr. Babu.

“If the seven-day average test positivity rate stays below 5% for a few weeks it indicates that the pandemic is under control,” says Dr. Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University and co-author of COVID-19 modelling studies. Dr. Menon attributes the decline in daily cases to the long duration of background seroprevalence across the State, and so new infections are only expected to decline.

“The long plateauing of cases has ensured a good fraction of people have experienced an infection. In the circumstances, one can expect a decline in daily numbers across the State. But the only way to check this is through serosurvey,” Dr. Menon adds. “My guess is that about 40% of the population would have been infected. This is just my guess.” Based on anecdotal evidence, Dr. Menon says aggressive tracing and quarantining would have contributed to the decline in cases. “Unlike Kerala, other States have not been able to pick up a steady increase in cases in the rural areas,” he says.

Herd immunity?

Refuting the possibility of widespread infection in the population taking it close to herd immunity contributing to the decline in cases, Kerala Health Secretary Dr. Rajan N. Khobragade says that as per the third countrywide serosurvey conducted by the ICMR between December 17, 2020 and January 8, 2021, the seropositivity in the State was only about 11.5%. “So nearly 82% of the population in the State have not got infected,” Dr. Khobragade says.

Dr. Khobragade’s assertion of low seroprevalence in the State is supported by Dr. Anurag Agrawal, Director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), a CSIR lab in Delhi. “The second serosurvey carried out across CSIR labs found Kerala had the lowest seropositivity,” says Dr. Agrawal.

National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) envisions establishing large multidisciplinary universities to promote research directed to solve contemporary national problems, and provides the option of setting up clusters of higher education institutes. Cluster-based universities would increase faculty strength, both in terms of numbers and diversity of disciplines, and facilitate conduct of research on real life problems.

Mainstay of research

Doctoral students are the mainstay of research in universities. In many countries including India, universities also conduct off-campus doctoral programmes in research laboratories. The Indian Institute of Science pioneered a variant of off-campus programme called External Registration programme which enabled employees working in laboratories or industries to register for a doctoral programme under the supervision of its faculty and carry out a major part of research at their workplace. The external registration programme has now been adopted by more higher education Institutes. The topic of research taken upunder off-campus programmes is always of relevance to the workplace. One could go a step further and make workplaces pursuing knowledge-based work a part of a cluster-based university.

Homi Bhabha National Institute (HBNI), Mumbai, established in 2005, by the Department of Atomic Energy, is a cluster-based university and I have had a long association with it. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California, U.S., is a federally funded research and development centre managed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The intellectual environment and identity of JPL are profoundly shaped by its role as a part of Caltech. A large laboratory, JPL has about 6,000 full time employees, and Caltech was placed eighth in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) by Shanghai Rankings in 2020.

SOKENDAI (the Graduate University for Advanced Studies) established in Japan in 1988 and running only doctoral programmes, brings together several research institutions and museums such as the National Museum of Japanese History.

The Paris-Saclay University received its legal status in 2019, though it has been functioning as a “university system” since 2015. The university shares 275 laboratories with several research organisations, including CEA (Atomic Energy and Alternate Energies Commission), INSERM (French Institute of Health and Medical Research) and others. Though just accredited, Paris-Saclay university was placed fourteenth in ARWU by Shanghai Rankings in 2020. It is now one of the Europe’s biggest research universities.

Common objective

All countries have their unique legal framework for establishing universities, and therefore, while there are differences in the structure of HBNI, SOKENDAI, Paris-Saclay University, and Caltech, the objective is to benefit from synergies. It enables conducting academic research on focussed areas. It also enables pursuit of academic research and post-academic research in the same university, and results in faster deployment of results of research. Benefits can be seen from the growth and success of HBNI, which was ranked fourteenth a,pmg universities by NIRF-2020. Nature Index ranked HBNI at second position among all academic institutions in India during the period October 1, 2019 to 30 September 2020. Another example of a cluster-based university in India is the Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research established in 2011. Nature Index has ranked it at eighth position in India.

Different concepts

India needs to earnestly pursue this model. Institutions for clustering in a university can be selected based on different concepts; some examples could be institutes managed by a Department or a Ministry or a Public Trust, institutes located in close proximity, institutes pursuing similar objectives etc. Many industry associations have established research centres and more could be encouraged to do.

I will like to add a note of caution as well. In a cluster-based university, the ‘rewards system’ has to recognise all aspects of talent and all knowledge-based output. One may recall the advice given by P. B. Medawar to young scientists that “technicians are colleagues in a collaborative research”, and “despite their paper degrees”, young scientists have a lot to learn about research. This advice is more important today when complexity of experimental facilities is growing, and need not only competent technicians, but highly competent engineers, called scientific officers in national laboratories, for their design, construction, safe operation and maintenance. Scientific officers have deep insights about research capabilities of facilities.

For moving away from single-discipline institutions to multi-disciplinary universities, clustering is a promising model to achieve a critical mass in a university to invigorate research.

(R. B. Grover is Emeritus professor, Homi Bhabha National Institute, Mumbai, and Member, Atomic Energy Commission, Government of India..)

NASA's latest Mars rover, Perseverance, performed its first test drive on the Red Planet, covering a distance of about 6.5 metres across the Martian landscape, a "major milestone" before it begins its science operations.

The drive lasted about 33 minutes, propelling the rover forward by four metres, where it then turned to the left by 150 degrees and backed up 2.5 metres into its new temporary parking space, the American space agency noted in a statement.

According to NASA, the drive served as a mobility test to check out and calibrate every system, subsystem, and instrument on the Perseverance rover, which it said is a major milestone before the science operations get underway.

Also read | Decoded: the secret message on Mars rover’s giant parachute

"When it comes to wheeled vehicles on other planets, there are few first-time events that measure up in significance to that of the first drive," said Anais Zarifian, the mobility test bed engineer of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

"This was our first chance to 'kick the tires' and take Perseverance out for a spin. The rover's six-wheel drive responded superbly. We are now confident our drive system is good to go, capable of taking us wherever the science leads us over the next two years," Zarifian said.

Regular commutes of over 200 metres are expected once the rover begins pursuing its science goals, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life, NASA said.

As part of its mission, the rover would characterise the Red Planet's geology and past climate, and pave the way for human exploration of Mars.

It is also expected to be the first to collect and cache Martian rock and soil.

Also read | Perseverance rover's exciting work to happen in coming weeks: NASA's Vishnu Sridhar

Since its landing on Mars on February 18, the rover has undergone several routine checks, including a a software update, replacing the computer program that helped land Perseverance with one NASA will rely on to analyse the planet.

On March 2, NASA said its engineers unstowed the rover's 2-metre-long robotic arm for the first time, flexing each of its five joints over the course of two hours.

All the while, the space agency said the rover continues to send down images from Mars using the most advanced suite of cameras ever to travel to the Red Planet.

"Every picture from Perseverance is relayed by either the European Space Agency's Trace Gas Orbiter, or NASA's MAVEN, Mars Odyssey, or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They are important partners in our explorations and our discoveries," said Justin Maki, chief engineer for imaging and the imaging scientist for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at JPL.

In 1926, a seventeenth-century trunk containing over 2000 unclaimed letters was bequeathed to the Dutch postal museum. The letters were closed using an ancient technique called letterlocking, in which the writing paper is intricately folded and secured to become its own envelopes. Now an international team of researchers has virtually unfolded and unlocked the contents of one of the letters and the findings were published on Tuesday in Nature Communications.

The team used a technique called X-ray microtomography. “The scanning technology is similar to medical CT scanners, but using much more intense X-rays which allow us to see the minute traces of metal in the ink used to write these letters,” explains one of the authors Dr. David Mills from the Queen Mary University of London in a release.

The team developed algorithms to virtually separate the different layers of the complicated folds in the letters.

“We were not interested in working on the project if the endgame was to tear open the unopened letters. The unopened letterpackets preserve invaluable letterlocking evidence,” explains lead author Jana Dambrogio in an email to The Hindu. She is from the Wunsch Conservation Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries, Cambridge, and has been studying the intricate details of letters for twenty years.

Content of the letter

The study revealed that the letter, dated July 31, 1697, was written in French by a legal professional named Jacques Sennacques, from Lille (a city in northern France), who requires a “legalised” death certificate for a relation, Daniel Le Pers.

“Jacques doesn’t say why he needs this document, but it’s clearly an urgent request as he reminds Pierre that he’s asked for it before. The letter is important because it shows that family members were able to communicate across borders thanks to an efficient postal system. It also sheds light on the worries of ordinary people – most letters we have are by the elites, but this mundane letter reveals the more day-to-day business of people at the time.” says one of the authors David van der Linden, from Radboud University (The Netherlands), in an email to The Hindu.

“This is a great example of the everyday business of a lawyer more than 300 years ago. The people whose lives are recorded in the trunk were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances - often separated from their friends, families, and patrons for reasons of religious persecution, or simply the enduring need to make money. These letters poignantly capture their attempts to maintain vital human connections across vast and sometimes dangerous distances,” adds Dr. Jana Dambrogio.

The studied letter required at least eight folding and locking steps to transform the flat sheet of paper into a compact letterpacket. Dr. Dambrogio explains that there are hundreds of folding sequences in the collection and the virtual unfolding pipeline has helped study them

She says that the team is also interested in using this X-ray technique to study origami. “A challenge in origami is to accurately measure folded objects so that we can better understand if they truly ‘exist’ from a mathematical standpoint - if they can be folded without stretching the paper in any way. Another area of interest is to study important origami works whose designers have long since passed away and we have no record of how they were constructed,” she adds.

The third time appeared to be the charm for Elon Musk's Starship rocket - until it wasn't.

The latest heavy-duty launch vehicle prototype from SpaceX soared flawlessly into the sky in a high-altitude test blast-off on Wednesday from Boca Chica, Texas, then flew itself back to Earth to achieve the first upright landing for a Starship model.

But the triumph was short-lived. Listing slightly to one side as an automated fire-suppression system trained a stream of water on flames still burning at the base of the rocket, the spacecraft blew itself to pieces about eight minutes after touchdown.

It was the third such landing attempt to end in a fireball after an otherwise successful test flight for the Starship, being developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.

For Musk, the billionaire SpaceX founder who also heads the electric carmaker Tesla Inc, the outcome was mixed news.

The Starship SN10 came far closer to achieving a safe, vertical touchdown than two previous models - SN8 in December and SN9 in February. In a tweet responding to tempered congratulations from an admirer of his work, Musk replied, "RIPSN10, honorable discharge."

The video feed provided by SpaceX on the company's YouTube channel cut off moments after the landing. But separate fan feeds streamed over the same social media platform showed an explosion suddenly erupting at the base of the rocket, hurling the SN10 into the air before it crashed to the ground and became engulfed in flames.

The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 394-feet (120metres) tall when mated with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is SpaceX's next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle - the center of Musk's ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.

A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year's end. Musk has said he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with the Starship in 2023.

Today, more than ever, we are quite aware of the significance of handwashing in disease prevention. We have Ignaz Semmelweis to thank for introducing this life-saving procedure in the mid-1800s.

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818 - 1865) was an Hungarian physician who discovered the cause of puerperal fever (postpartum fever) and was the first to propose an antiseptic policy for physicians. It involved handwashing before and after each medical examination.

Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Hungary. After receiving his doctor of medicine degree from Vienna in 1844, Semmelweis decided to specialise in obstetrics. He began work at the Vienna Hospital, Austria, in 1846. At the time, the maternal mortality rate in Europe was as high as 25–30%. The leading cause was puerperal fever, an infection of the female reproductive organs, that was killing postpartum women.

Semmelweis noticed that women delivered by physicians had a much higher mortality rate than those delivered by midwives. He concluded that the problem was that physicians were handling corpses during autopsies before attending to pregnant women.

Dr Semmelweis theorised that cadaverous particles — microscopic particles from the corpses — would have transferred from doctors’ hands to the pregnant women, who would then fall victim to the same disease. In 1847, he directed his colleagues to start cleaning their hands and medical instruments with a chlorinated lime solution before each examination.

No sooner than not, the mortality rates due to puerperal fever began to drop drastically. But his superiors refused to accept his theory and he was met with harsh criticism.

In 1855, he was appointed professor of obstetrics at the University of Pest. Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis' observations were largely dismissed. In 1861, he published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

In 1865, he suffered a breakdown and was taken to a mental health facility, where he died. It was not until two decades later, when Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur produced more evidence of the germ theory and antiseptic techniques, that the value of hand washing was appreciated.

Published in PNAS

How does the slime mold Physarum polycephalum, with no nervous system, save memories? How does it remember where it found food and which environments were harmful? Researchers found that the network-like tubes in the body of the organism encode this information. “These tubes grow and shrink in diameter in response to a nutrient source, thereby imprinting the nutrient’s location in the tube diameter hierarchy,” says the paper.

Of life and leafy vegetables

Published in Circulation

Do you want a long healthy life? Start eating five daily servings of fruits and vegetables (two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables). Green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, berries and carrots showed benefits; while peas, corn, fruit juices and potatoes were not associated with a reduced risk of death. Researchers arrived at this recommendation after studying over 100,000 adults for 30 years and also analysing 26 studies that included about 1.9 million people from 29 countries.

Flavour receptor

Published in Current Biology

Most people prefer their ice-cream to be creamy and not frozen. Though the flavour is the same, the change in texture makes it less appetizing. By studying fruit flies, researchers have now found that a family of proteins called OSCA/TMEM63 plays an important role in sensing particle sizes in food. These proteins are also found in humans and researchers say that the new findings could help shed light on some of the nuances of our own sense of taste.

Rice resistance

Published in Nature Communications,

Researchers from China have discovered a rice plant variant called astol1 that thrives in arsenic-contaminated fields. The team exposed about 4,000 rice variants to water containing arsenic and found that the grains of the astol1 plant accumulated far less arsenic than other plants.

Space hurricane

Published in Nature Communications

If you thought hurricanes on land were scary, meet space hurricanes that have been seen in the upper atmosphere of Earth. In 2014, using satellite data, researchers saw a hurricane several hundred kilometres above the North Pole. Now the team has created 2D and 3D images of the 1,000 km-wide swirling mass. The analysis revealed that the space hurricane was spinning in an anticlockwise direction and lasted almost eight hours before gradually breaking down.

Australian conservationists on Wednesday unveiled plans to build the world’s first refuge for the platypus, to promote breeding and rehabilitation as the duck-billed mammal faces extinction due to climate change.

The Taronga Conservation Society Australia and the New South Wales State government said they would build the specialist facility, mostly ponds and burrows for the semi-aquatic creatures, at a zoo 391 km (243 miles) from Sydney, by 2022, which could house up to 65 platypuses.

“There is so much to learn about the platypus and we know so little,” Taronga CEO Cameron Kerr told reporters.

“These facilities will be critical in building our knowledge so that we don’t let this iconic creature slip off the earth,” he said.

Concerns about the platypus going extinct have been heightened since once-in-a-generation wildfires devastated 12.6 million hectares (31 million acres) of bush, nearly the size of Greece, in late 2019 and early 2020.

Scientists estimate nearly three billion animals died in what the Prime Minister called the country’s “black summer”. A government inquiry found bushfires would likely occur more often because of warming temperatures.

A Himalayan mammal, somewhere between a goat and an antelope, has been confirmed as the newest creature to be spotted in Assam.

A couple of nature guides had spotted the Himalayan serow, a goat-antelope, in the 950-sq. km. Manas Tiger Reserve on December 3. The animal — a high-altitude dweller usually found 2,000-4,000 metres above sea level — was seen being chased by wild dogs.

“We have now confirmed the animal as the Himalayan serow, spotted close to the border with Bhutan in Manas’s Bansbari-Mathanguri forest. The sighting augurs well for the health of the tiger reserve,” Anindya Swargowari, additional principal chief conservator of forest for areas under the Bodoland Territorial Council, told The Hindu on Tuesday.

He said the serow has been spotted for the first time in the tiger reserve or anywhere else in Assam, but “this does not mean the animal never visited our forests before”.

According to Mr. Swargowari, the sightings of rare animals and birds in Manas is an outcome of better access to remote parts of the protected area where extremists and hunters once ruled.

“There are chances of more faunal species, found in the higher reaches, being spotted in the park.”

The Reserve is contiguous with the 1,057-sq. km. Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan.

After the serow, a medium-sized mammal with a large head, long and coarse hair and mule-like ears, the black-necked crane was sighted in Manas.

A pair each of such cranes was sighted on January 10 and February 18. The Buddhists revere the bird that nests in the Tawang region.

Officials in Manas said the critically endangered white-bellied hero was also seen a few weeks ago in the Latajhar area of the park.

In February, birders had sighted the colourful Mandarin duck in the Maguri-Motapung wetland near eastern Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. This duck was last spotted in Assam 118 years ago.

Sophisticated scanning technology is revealing intriguing secrets about Little Foot, the remarkable fossil of an early human forerunner that inhabited South Africa 3.67 million years ago during a critical juncture in our evolutionary history.

Scientists said on Tuesday they examined key parts of the nearly complete and well-preserved fossil at Britain’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source. The scanning focused upon Little Foot’s cranial vault — the upper part of her braincase — and her lower jaw, or mandible.

The researchers gained insight not only into the biology of Little Foot’s species but also into the hardships that this individual, an adult female, encountered during her life.

Little Foot’s species blended ape-like and human-like traits and is considered a possible direct ancestor of humans. University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke, who unearthed the fossil in the 1990s in the Sterkfontein Caves northwest of Johannesburg and is a co-author of the new study, has identified the species as Australopithecus prometheus.

“In the cranial vault, we could identify the vascular canals in the spongious bone that are probably involved in brain thermoregulation - how the brain cools down,” said University of Cambridge paleoanthropologist Amélie Beaudet, who led the study published in the journal e-Life.

“This is very interesting as we did not have much information about that system,” Beaudet added, noting that it likely played a key role in the threefold brain size increase from Australopithecus to modern humans.

Little Foot’s teeth also were revealing. “The dental tissues are really well preserved. She was relatively old since her teeth are quite worn,” Beaudet said, though Little Foot’s precise age has not yet been determined.

The researchers spotted defects in the tooth enamel indicative of two childhood bouts of physiological stress such as disease or malnutrition.

“There is still a lot to learn about early hominin biology,” said study co-author Thomas Connolley, principal beamline scientist at Diamond, using a term encompassing modern humans and certain extinct members of the human evolutionary lineage. “Synchrotron X-ray imaging enables examination of fossil specimens in a similar way to a hospital X-ray CT-scan of a patient, but in much greater detail.”

Little Foot, whose moniker reflects the small foot bones that were among the first elements of the skeleton found, stood roughly 4-foot-3-inches (130 cm) tall. Little Foot has been compared in importance to the fossil called Lucy that is about 3.2 million years old and less complete.

Both are species of the genus Australopithecus but possessed different biological traits, just as modern humans and Neanderthals are species of the same genus — Homo — but had different characteristics. Lucy’s species is called Australopithecus afarensis.

“Australopithecus could be the direct ancestor of Homo — humans — and we really need to learn more about the different species of Australopithecus to be able to decide which one would be the best candidate to be our direct ancestor,” Beaudet said. Our own species, Homo sapiens, first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago.

The synchrotron findings build on previous research on Little Foot.

The species was able to walk fully upright, but had traits suggesting it also still climbed trees, perhaps sleeping there to avoid large predators. It had gorilla-like facial features and powerful hands for climbing. Its legs were longer than its arms, as in modern humans, making this the most-ancient hominin definitively known to have that trait.

“All previous Australopithecus skeletal remains have been partial and fragmentary,” Clarke said.

A new study that links extreme rains with lower birth weights in Brazil’s Amazon region underscores the long-term health impacts of weather extremes connected to climate change, researchers said on Monday.

Exceptionally heavy rain and floods during pregnancy were linked to lower birth weight and premature births in Brazil’s northern Amazonas state, according to the researchers from Britain’s Lancaster University and the FIOCRUZ health research institute.

They compared nearly 3,00,000 births over 11 years with local weather data and found babies born after extreme rainfall were more likely to have low birth weights, which is linked to worse educational, health and even income attainment as adults.

Even non-extreme intense rainfall was linked to a 40% higher chance of a child being low birth-weight, according to the study, published on Monday in the Nature Sustainability journal.

Co-author Luke Parry said heavy rains and flooding could cause increases in infectious diseases like malaria, shortages of food and mental health issues in pregnant women, leading to lower birth weights.

“It’s an example of climate injustice, because these mothers and these communities are very, very far from deforestation frontiers in the Amazon,” Parry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They’ve contributed very little to climate change but are being hit first and worst,” he added, saying he had been “surprised by just how severe these impacts are”.

Severe flooding on the Amazon river is five times more common than just a few decades ago, according to a 2018 paper in the journal Science Advances.

Last week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited the neighbouring state of Acre in the Brazilian rainforest, which is under a state of emergency after heavy flooding.

Parry said local people had adapted their lifestyles to deal with climate change, but that “the extent of the extreme river levels and rainfalls has basically exceeded people’s adaptive capacities”.

The negative impacts were even worse for adolescent and indigenous mothers. The study said the “long-term political neglect of provincial Amazonia” and “uneven development in Brazil” needed to be addressed to tackle the “double burden” of climate change and health inequalities.

It said policy interventions should include antenatal health coverage and transport for rural teenagers to finish high school, as well as improved early warning systems for floods.

At least 1,500 deaths in Britain can be directly linked to climate change since 2000, as the country grappled with severe heatwaves, while four major floods caused billions in financial losses, Oxford University scientists said on Tuesday.

In a study, they analysed existing data from two deadly heatwaves in 2003 and 2018, as well as four floods between 2000 and 2016 that cost about an estimated $18 billion in losses.

They found that at least half of the total damages and deaths that occurred could be attributed to climate change.

Friederike Otto, acting director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and one of the study’s authors, said far more data needed to be collected and analysed worldwide for the true consequences of climate change to be understood.

If metrics were agreed, “I think it would become far more obvious to everyone that the impacts of climate change are real and not something that will happen in the future and to someone else ... but that they are upon us and costing lives here and now”, Otto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The authors looked at the two specific British heatwaves because the influence of climate change on them had already been analysed, although others also occurred in the time frame.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels, more than 190 countries must submit action plans setting out measures to combat climate change. They include not just targets to reduce climate-heating emissions but also ways to adapt to more extreme weather and rising seas, in a bid to limit losses and damage.

About 5.2 million homes and other properties in England are at risk of flooding, according to Britain’s Environment Agency, as sea levels have risen about 16 cm (6 inches) in Britain since 1990.

The new study, published in the scientific journal Climate Risk Management, said other countries also faced extreme weather costs exacerbated by climate change, both human and financial.

For example, in Puerto Rico the increased intensity of Hurricane Maria in 2017 led to the deaths of up to 3,670 people, it noted.

Separately, Stanford University researchers in January found climate change boosted the cost of flood damage caused by heavy rainfall in the United States by $75 billion over the past three decades, accounting for about a third of total losses.

Ben Clarke, lead author of the Oxford study, said he hoped the research would help governments think about how to reduce the impact of future extreme weather events. “There are deaths occurring as a result, and policy should be based on that,” he said. “It’s all about distributing resources to effectively mitigate that as much as we can.

An exotic and highly invasive earthworm — Amynthas alexandri of the Megascolecidae family has been collected and reported for the first time from Karnataka. Its original home is believed to be Southeast Asia.

It has been found to be distributed at four sites in the State — Hosabale and Hosanagara in Shivamogga district, Kaimara in Chikkamagaluru district, and Konaje in Dakshina Kannada.

Earlier, the same earthworm was recorded in 15 States/Union Territories in India, according to a study published in the January issue of the Canadian journal Megadrilogica, an international scientific journal devoted to publishing earthworm studies from across the world.

The study — Amynthas alexandri Beddarad, 1901 (Clitellata: Megascolecidae), a new addition to the earthworm fauna of Karnataka State, Southern India — was conducted and reported in the journal by four researchers, including two from Mangalore University.

They were Vivek Hasyagar, a research scholar in the Department of Applied Zoology, Mangalore University; K.S. Sreepada, chairman and researcher, Department of Applied Zoology, Mangalore University; S. Prasanth Narayanan, researcher, Advanced Centre of Environmental Studies and Sustainable Development, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala; and John W. Reynolds, research associate, New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.

Prof. Sreepada and Mr. Hasyagar told The Hindu that the distribution of Amynthas alexandri was also found at Puttur in Dakshina Kannada recently.

The four authors concluded in the journal: “…being large, fast-moving and highly invasive in nature, this species has practically inhabited all the districts of Kerala. As has happened in Kerala, soon it may invade the northern portions of the Western Ghats in Karnataka.”

Amynthas alexandri is a medium-to-large-sized worm and its colour is brownish in light and dark at dorsum. Its length varies from 132 mm to 169 mm, and it is 5 mm to 6 mm in diameter.

Earthworms are important for maintaining the soil fertility of forests, grasslands, and agro-ecosystems.

The origins

The original home of Amynthas alexandri earthworms is believed to be Southeast Asia, though the type of specimen observed for the first time in India by Beddard in 1901 had its origin in Kolkata.

Their distribution in Asia earlier was in China, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand, Europe and England.

Their distribution in India earlier was in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Assam, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal.

(Source: Megadrilogica, January 2021)

Vishnu Sridhar, a 27-year-old Indian-American lead system engineer with NASA's Perseverance rover, has said that the most exciting work on the awe-inspiring Mars mission will happen in the coming weeks.

Mr Sridhar, who is from Queens, New York, is a lead system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California for SuperCam on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which is on a mission to search for signs of past life on the Red Planet.

He said some of the rover’s most exciting work will be done in the coming weeks.

"We're going to be taking more images of Mars, we're going to be shooting lasers with the SuperCam instrument, we're going to be recording audio with our microphone, and eventually, soon in near future, we are going to deploy our helicopter, and do the first powered flight on Mars," Mr Sridhar told ABC7 channel.

SuperCam is a remote-sensing instrument that will use laser spectroscopy to analyse the chemical composition of rocks on the Martian surface. It analyses terrain that the rover cannot reach. It is an instrument designed to scan rocks and minerals-from up to 20 feet away-to determine their chemical makeup.

The Perseverance rover was launched on July 30 last year and successfully landed on Mars on February 18 this year. The rover, the SuperCam, and its other devices together will help scientists search for clues of past life on Mars. Its predecessor Curiosity is still functioning eight years after landing on Mars. The two-year Perseverance mission is NASA’s latest and most advanced mission to find evidence of past life on Mars.

Mr Sridhar said it was important that the mission was happening despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"NASA missions are clearly trying to explore and answer the basic question. Perseverance is also trying to seek that, and eventually answer the question that was there life on Mars, was there life outside Earth, and it was definitely a tough period for us during COVID-19 and for everyone else around the globe," he said.

"And that's why I love the name of Perseverance because we persevered through the pandemic and there was a paradigm shift, we learned a lot about how to do engineering remotely. And we went through all that we learned and now we are successful on Mars and it's a great achievement for humankind," he said.

Mr Sridhar’s time at JPL over the past five years has been dedicated to Mars and is currently the instrument engineer for SuperCam on the Mars 2020 Rover.

"Summer 2019 was when instruments came in from France and Los Alamos and when we physically integrated SuperCam with the Perseverance rover. That's something I will cherish for the rest of my life, to have touched and worked on a piece of hardware that's on its way to Mars,” he reminisced.

The US space agency on Monday released the first audio from Mars, a faint recording of a gust of wind captured by the Perseverance rover. 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.

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 US is aiming for an eventual human mission to the planet, though planning remains preliminary.

Mr Sridhar attended Aviation High School in Queens and grew up in Rego Park. He graduated in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech and has always been fascinated by flight and space exploration.

“One of the key events that sparked my interest in space and exploration was watching National Geographic. The Carl Sagan TV show Cosmos,” he said.

According to his NASA profile page, while in elementary school he wanted to become a National Geographic photographer and travel the world.

Indian-American woman scientist Swati Mohan had also played a key role in NASA Mars rover landing.

Ms Mohan, who leads the guidance, navigation, and control operations of NASA's Mars 2020 mission, was the first to confirm that the rover had successfully touched down on the Martian surface.

"Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life," Mohan announced, prompting her colleagues at NASA to fist-bump and break into celebrations.

“The pain we feel is real. It is not in the head,” says Dr Dr Deepak Ravindran who is set to launch his book The Pain-Free Mindset (published by Vermilion) shortly. Presently the Lead for Pain Medicine in Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading and Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust in Reading, UK, Deepak helped develop and lead the Longcovid (Post-COVID) Service for the county of Berkshire.

After he found himself giving 20-30 speeches and talks to general practitioners and allied health care professionals on pain management, Deepak realised the need to pen it all down.

“There is a huge knowledge gap amongst healthcare professionals and the public when it comes to understanding and treating pain because we are going by a 400-year-old medical model which is flawed and outdated, according to the latest advances in neuroscience. My book addresses that failed model and presents a more hopeful way forward,” says this alumnus of Hyderabad Public School and Little Flower Junior College, Hyderabad.

Over an email interview Deepak unravels the many variants of pain, its management and what the book has to offer.

Can you elaborate on the title of the book?

The Mindset is both an acronym and an indication of a need to reframe our way of thinking rather than just believing that it is “all in the mind”. Within social sciences, business, health and well being, we are aware of a concept of growth mindset where we can use the powerful capacity of the brain to rewire itself (neuroplasticity).

The pain that we feel is very real. It is not in the head. However, the pain we often refer to is a complex output rather than just coming from a part of the body.

I want to introduce to the general public this word called nociception, which is the sensation produced by released chemicals when we get injured/hurt physically.

If we learn that there is a difference between nociception and pain then we automatically become aware of so many equally powerful methods to overcome pain with fewer side effects.

One of the biggest mindset shifts that the general public and healthcare fields have to make (and are starting to make) is that pain is an evolutionary mechanism of protection and not a sign of danger.

How is longcovid (post-COVID) treatment different from other viruses?

Longcovid is a very different condition to present known viral diseases. We generally understand that some viral infections can leave people with post-viral fatigue syndrome. Longcovid is thought of being four different kind of problems — there are those who have been in ICU/hospital and been very sick; those with long-standing organ complications, the group with post-viral fatigue and finally, the large group of people with fluctuating symptoms coming from different organ systems that don’t seem to have a satisfactory explanation right now.

Has pain endurance and management been more of a challenge with the pandemic?

In the UK and the US, it has been difficult to see the primary care doctor because of restrictions and lockdown.

In India, things are much better, but the choices are endless and often it is restricted to mainstream options like surgeries because we are told that every pain can be seen on a scan and can be fixed which is unfortunately not true.

During the pandemic, people have been more cautious to go to hospitals and have been looking and reading around other options to self-manage. And the Internet can be a very confusing and worrying place for someone in pain.

This is where my book can make a difference in showing the positive aspects and can aid self-management and support in an evidence-based fashion.

How different is an anaesthetist from a pain doctor? Is pain medicine gaining ground now globally?

In the UK and EU and generally in the US and Australia, most pain docs have a background PG training in anaesthesia and then super specialise in Pain Medicine. The US is more advanced in having other specialities as well as taking up pain medicine.

In India, most pain doctors will have an anaesthesia background. Pain Medicine is an established speciality in most countries. In the UK and Australia, they usually have Royal Colleges, which will have the exams and they are run by faculty so you pass it and become a Faculty Fellow. India has the same level of accreditation, though recognised training schemes are still evolving. There is unfortunately a larger focus on giving injections or interventions as the reimbursement incentives are skewed in that direction. This is unsustainable in the long run, so holistic treatment options and integrated centres of care are the future.

Can you throw light on psychological stress manifesting in physical pain and how it is dealt?

Stress in the acute phase is good but chronic stress (physical or psychological like work pressures, worries related to health, family, anxiety/depression, bullying, isolation) will activate the protection mechanisms and make them hypervigilant. In that situation, even a trivial nociceptive problem can be amplified by the sensitised nervous system as a big pain experience. So if just nociception is there — which happens after acute pain or injury — then medications and interventions (M I) can help but when that is not the case, then understanding how the brain and nervous system works (N), what is the right kind of diet (D), sleep hours (S), specific exercises (E) and mind-body therapies (T), which also include traditional Indian modalities like yoga/meditation/Ayurveda/mindfulness. We also know that harnessing the power of the brain and using neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain and nervous system to be plastic and adapt) can be quite powerful and the right way forward for comprehensive pain control.

What are the challenges faced by a pain management doctor?

The biggest challenge is the lack of a common ecosystem and a similar outlook from all healthcare professionals. The broad theme is that often when a patient gets pain, we always assume that it must be coming from only one structure and then we spend lots of money hinting for that one structure when the issue can be managed from the beginning in a more integrated fashion. By the time, my patients come to see me, it has become more than 1-2 years and they have spent their money or insurance money with no idea of what all they could have done to make it better. By the time they see me, they are desperate or don’t have insurance/money for their care and that anxiety and anger only fuels the pain. I realised that this is a challenge faced by many pain doctors and clinicians hence this book is a way to address that challenge.

A colossal dinosaur dug up in Argentina could be the oldest titanosaur ever found, having roamed what is now Patagonia some 140 million years ago at the beginning of the Cretaceous period, scientists said Sunday.

The 65-foot lizard, Ninjatitan zapatai, was discovered in 2014 in the Neuquen province of southwest Argentina, the La Matanza University reported on its analysis.

"The main importance of this fossil, apart from being a new species of titanosaur, is that it is the oldest recorded for this group worldwide," a statement quoted researcher Pablo Gallina of the Conicet scientific council as saying.

Titanosaurs were members of the sauropod group — gigantic plant-eating lizards with long necks and tails that may have been the largest animals ever to walk the Earth.

The new discovery, the statement said, meant titanosaurs lived longer ago than previously thought — at the beginning of the Cretaceous era that ended with the demise of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago.

Fossils from 140 million years ago are "really very scarce" said Gallina, main author of a study published in the Argentinian scientific journal Ameghiniana.

The creature was named after Argentinian paleontologist Sebastian Apesteguia, nicknamed "El Ninja," and technician Rogelio Zapata.

Russia launched its space satellite Arktika-M on Sunday on a mission to monitor the climate and environment in the Arctic amid a push by the Kremlin to expand the country’s activities in the region.

The Arctic has warmed more than twice as fast as the global average over the last three decades and Moscow is seeking to develop the energy-rich region, investing in the Northern Sea Route for shipping across its long northern flank as ice melts.

The satellite successfully reached its intended orbit after being launched from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome by a Soyuz rocket, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, said in a post on Twitter.

Russia plans to send up a second satellite in 2023 and, combined, the two will offer round-the-clock, all-weather monitoring of the Arctic Ocean and the surface of the Earth, Roscosmos said.

The Arktika-M will have a highly elliptical orbit that passes high over northern latitudes allowing it to monitor northern regions for lengthy periods before it loops back down under Earth.

At the right orbit, the satellite will be able to monitor and take images every 15-30 minutes of the Arctic, which can’t be continuously observed by satellites that orbit above the Earth’s equator, Roscosmos said.

The satellite will also be able to retransmit distress signals from ships, aircraft or people in remote areas as part of the international Cospas-Sarsat satellite-based search and rescue programme, Roscosmos said.

“As more activity takes place in the Arctic and as it moves into higher latitudes, improving weather and ice forecasting abilities is crucial,” said Mia Bennett, a geographer at the University of Hong Kong.

“There is also an element of data nationalism that is feeding into all this. Countries, especially those that see themselves as space powers, want to be able to rely on their own satellites and data to inform their activities, whether commercial or military in nature,” she said.

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