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Science & Technology - September 2021

Lucy will launch on October 16 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station

NASA is poised to send its first spacecraft to study Jupiter's Trojan asteroids to glean new insights into the solar system's formation 4.5 billion years ago, the space agency said September 28.

The probe, called Lucy after an ancient fossil that provided insights into the evolution of human species, will launch on October 16 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Its mission is to investigate the group of rocky bodies circling the Sun in two swarms, one preceding Jupiter in its orbital path and the other trailing behind it.

After receiving boosts from Earth's gravity, Lucy will embark on a 12-year journey to eight different asteroids -- one in the Main Belt between Mars and Jupiter and then seven Trojans.

"Despite the fact that they really are in a very small region of space, they're very physically different from one another," Hal Levison, the mission's principal scientist told reporters, about the Trojan asteroids, which number more than 7,000 in total.

"For example, they have very different colors, some are grey, some are red," he added, with the differences indicating how far away from the Sun they might have formed before assuming their present trajectory.

"Whatever Lucy finds will give us vital clues about the formation of our solar system," added Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division.

Lucy will fly by its target objects within 250 miles (400 kilometers) of their surfaces, and use its onboard instruments and large antenna to investigate their geology, including composition, mass, density and volume.

The ship was built by Lockheed Martin and includes over two miles of wire and solar panels that, placed end-to-end, would be as tall as a five-story building.

It will be the first solar-powered to venture this far from the Sun, and will observe more asteroids than any other spacecraft before it. The total mission cost is $981 million.

The researchers who discovered Lucy the fossil in Ethiopia in 1974 named her after the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" which they were playing loudly at the expedition camp.

In a nod to this heritage, the official logo of the NASA mission is diamond shaped.

Water is essential for life, on Earth and other planets but Mars has no liquid water on its surface today. New research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests a fundamental reason: Mars may be just too small to hold on to large amounts of water.

The study (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

used stable isotopes of the element potassium to estimate the presence, distribution and abundance of volatile elements on different planetary bodies. Potassium is a moderately volatile element, but the scientists decided to use it as a tracer for more volatile compounds, such as water.

They measured the potassium isotope compositions of 20 previously confirmed Martian meteorites and determined that Mars lost more potassium and other volatiles than Earth during its formation.

The researchers found a well-defined correlation between body size and potassium isotopic composition. The finding of the correlation of potassium isotopic compositions with planet gravity is a novel discovery with important quantitative implications for when and how the differentiated planets received and lost their volatiles, Dr. Katharina Lodders from Washington University and a coauthor of the study said in a release.

The early-stage trial, conducted in the United States, will test the vaccine in healthy adults ages 65- 85.

Pfizer Inc said on Monday it had dosed the first patient in a trial testing a flu vaccine based on messenger RNA, the same technology used in the COVID-19 shots made by the U.S. drugmaker and BioNTech.

The early-stage trial, conducted in the United States, will test the vaccine in healthy adults ages 65- 85.

"The COVID-19 pandemic allowed us to deliver on the immense scientific opportunity of mRNA. Influenza remains an area where we see a need for vaccines," said Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer.

The study will test the safety and immune responses of the vaccine, compared to another FDA-approved influenza vaccine.

The ease and effectiveness of the new vaccine may lead to a new way to deliver vaccines that is painless, less invasive than a shot with a needle and can be self-administered.

Scientists have developed a three-dimensional (3D) printed vaccine patch that provides greater protection than a typical immunisation shot.

The team at Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in the US applied the vaccine patch directly to the skin of animals, which is full of immune cells that vaccines target.

The resulting immune response from the patch was 10 times greater than vaccine delivered into an arm muscle with a needle jab, according to the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The technique uses 3D-printed microneedles lined up on a polymer patch and barely long enough to reach the skin to deliver vaccine.

"In developing this technology, we hope to set the foundation for even more rapid global development of vaccines, at lower doses, in a pain- and anxiety-free manner," said lead study author Joseph M De Simone, professor at Stanford University.

The ease and effectiveness of the new vaccine may lead to a new way to deliver vaccines that is painless, less invasive than a shot with a needle and can be self-administered.

Study results show the vaccine patch generated a significant T-cell and antigen-specific antibody response that was far greater than an injection delivered under the skin.

That increased immune response could save vaccines doses as a microneedle vaccine patch uses a smaller dose to generate a similar immune response as a vaccine delivered with a needle, the researchers said.

"Our approach allows us to directly 3D print the microneedles which gives us lots of design latitude for making the best microneedles from a performance and cost point-of- view," said lead study author Shaomin Tian, researcher at the UNC School of Medicine.

The study overcomes some past challenges - through 3D printing, the microneedles can be easily customised to develop various vaccine patches for flu, measles, hepatitis or COVID-19 vaccines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the difference made with timely vaccination. However, getting a vaccine typically requires a visit to a clinic or hospital.

The researchers said there are issues that can hinder mass vaccination - from cold storage of vaccines to needing trained professionals who can give the shots.

The vaccine patches, which incorporate vaccine-coated microneedles that dissolve into the skin, could be shipped anywhere in the world without special handling and people can apply the patch themselves, they said.

The ease of using a vaccine patch may also lead to higher vaccination rates, according to the researchers.

The team is now formulating RNA vaccines, like the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, into microneedle patches for future testing.

The lessons learnt have raised the confidence of ISRO scientists for taking up future interplanetary missions.

India's Mars Orbiter spacecraft has completed seven years in its orbit, well beyond its designed mission life of six months.

"Indeed, a satisfying feeling," K. Radhakrishnan who as the then Chairman of Indian Space Research Oranisation (ISRO) led the Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) team told PTI on the milestone.

MOM is the maiden interplanetary mission of ISRO. Launched on November 5, 2013, the probe was successfully inserted into Martian orbit on September 24, 2014 in its first attempt.

MOM is primarily a technology demonstration venture and all the mission objectives were successfully met, according to officials of Bengaluru- headquartered India's national space agency.

The main lessons learnt were in the field of design and realisation of systems and subsystems, launch for interplanetary mission, insertion into other planet's orbit, operation of the spacecraft and scientific instruments around Mars orbit, they said.

The lessons learnt have raised the confidence of ISRO scientists for taking up future interplanetary missions.

ISRO has been continuously monitoring the spacecraft and its five scientific instruments, and officials said scientific analysis of the data being received from MOM spacecraft is in progress.

On the health of the spacecraft, M. Annadurai, who was the Programme Director of MOM, said the spacecraft's "moving elements are facing some issues and some of the redundancies we have to switch over." "The spacecraft's health is reasonably good considering that we are in the seventh year," Mr. Annadurai told PTI.

He expects the spacecraft to have a mission life of probably another one year.

On the reasons for the long mission life, Annadurai said ISRO had done corrections after learning lessons from the Chandrayaan-1 venture, in terms of reconfiguring the spacecraft and optimisation of fuel management, among others.

Noting that Earth remote-sensing satellites typically have a mission life of seven to nine years, he said it was a very satisfying moment that India could establish that around Mars also, a spacecraft can be in operation for such a long period.

On some criticism in some quarters that scientific output of the MOM was "low",Mr. Annadurai said it was more of a technology-demonstration mission.

He pointed out that the spacecraft was launched by PSLV as GSLV was not in operational condition then. ISRO could apportion only about 15 kg for scientific instruments, and the time available for scientists to develop them was only 18-19 months.

"I don't think we could have done better than what we have done," Annadurai said.

ISRO officials said the spacecraft has already covered three Martian years (one Martian year is about two earth years).

"We have seen how changes happen on the Mars from one season to another, one Martian year to another Martian year," they said.

Mr. Annadurai said: "We have good inputs on seasonal affects on Mars atmosphere...surface. The mission has provided meaningful data also".

Each bat in the colony has its own network of social bonds

When one thinks of the blood-feasting vampire bats, friendship and cooperation may not be among the qualities that come to mind But perhaps they should.

Scientists have shown how those bats that have forged “friendships” with others will rendezvous with these buddies while foraging for a meal.

Studying female bats

Researchers attached small devices to 50 vampire bats to track night time foraging in Panama, when these flying mammals drink blood from wounds they inflict upon cattle in pastures. The study involved female bats, known to have stronger social relationships than males.

Among the bats were 23 wild-born individuals that had been kept in captivity for about two years during related research into bat social behaviour. Social bonds already had been observed among some of them. After being released back into the wild, the bats were found to often join a “friend” during foraging,possibly coordinating the hunt.

“Each bat maintains its own network of close cooperative social bonds,” said behavioral ecologist Gerald Carter of the Ohio State University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, who led the research published in PLoS Biology.

Social bonds

Social bonds among vampire bats as they roost in trees include grooming one another and regurgitating blood meals for hungry pals. The study showed that the social bonds formed in roosts extended into the hunt.

The researchers suspect that the bats, while almost never departing on foraging forays with their “friends,” link up with them during the hunt for mutual benefit. They hypothesise the bats might exchange information about prey location or access to an open wound for feeding.

Live in colonies

Vampire bats, which inhabit warmer regions of Latin America and boast wingspans of about 18 cm, are the only mammals with a blood-only diet. They reside in colonies of thousands.

“Even besides their social lives, vampire bats are quites pecial: specializing in a diet of 100% blood is already quite rare among vertebrates,” said co-author Simon Ripperger, a post-doctoral researcher from Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “They are amazing runners, which you wouldn’t expect in a bat. They have heat sensors in their snouts that help them find a spot to make a bite.”

The collaborative research can fix faulty chips, cut wastage

IIT Bombay researchers have developed a “memory technology” that can, in principle, revolutionise Indian industry and the many applications that need semiconductor chips, such as in the defence sector, automobiles and future aspirations in cell phone manufacturing. Hard disks, flash memory, etc, are examples of memory technology. There is also another form of memory called the one-time programmable memory (OTP) where the memory is written once, stored for a lifetime, and retrieved and used many times. This finds varied uses, one of which is in correcting faulty chips that have been mass produced for specific applications.

Correcting offsets

For instance, think of a chip that helps read off the temperature. Due to a manufacturing defect, the chip may read 100 degree Celsius as 101 degree Celsius. This “offset” of 1 degree may be corrected by storing the error correction parameter in the OTP memory. This is done uniquely for each chip and once stored, the memory corrects the chip’s output for its lifetime.

“OTP memories are also used for other purposes, mainly three: chip identity, secure information storage and chip calibration for error correction,” says Udayan Ganguly, professor at IIT Bombay, who holds the patents for the invention along with A. Lele, S. Sadana and P. Kumbhare.

Storing values

To store the correction value, the researchers used eight memory cells, each of which would store one “bit” (that is a value of zero or one). Each of the memory cells consist of an ultrathin silicon dioxide layer which is 10-15 atomic layers thick. This is deposited uniformly over a dinner plate–sized eight- inch silicon wafer to form millions of nanoscale capacitors. “The pristine silicon dioxide layer is insulating, passing a very low current [which in digital electronics is read as a “0”]. A nanoscale lightning is generated of 3.3 volts to blow the capacitor, leading to a short circuit that produced high current [this is a “1”],” says Prof. Ganguly. Thus, the OTP memory remembers either the “0” state or “1” state through its lifetime.

The group, in collaboration with the Semi-Conductor Laboratory, Mohali, Punjab (SCL), has successfully demonstrated CMOS 180-nanometre–based, production-ready, eight-bit memory technology, according to a press release from the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser to Government of India. Reiterating this, Prof Ganguly says, “We have shown that the memory cells and arrays pass all the specifications for the trimming application when manufactured in the SCL 180-nanometre CMOS line. These include successful operation between minus 40 degrees C to 125 degrees C and reliability to ensure excess of 95% yield on eight-bit memories.”

According to him, a large fraction of manufactured chips may need to be discarded for faults that can be corrected using this technology. This technology is the first indigenous semiconductor memory technology adoption to manufacturing at 180-nanometre node. Thus, this is a major national milestone for semiconductor innovation, says Prof Ganguly.

Better process

There exist other methods of achieving OTP memories than described above. However, these demand challenging engineering techniques and also require high voltage, which comes with a large area penalty.

“In contrast, we use a dedicated insulator material which is specially engineered silicon dioxide at 2.5-nanometre thickness to breakdown at 3.3 volt without any special structures along with a standard transistor. Thus, the transistor is not disturbed, and no special high voltage generation is needed,” says Prof. Ganguly, pointing out the attractive features of the technology.

First customer

Semi-Conductor Lab (SCL), Punjab, is the first customer to try and use this technology for internal purposes. Apart from collaborating with SCL, the team at IIT Bombay partnered with IIT Delhi, SETS Chennai and Defence Research and Development Organization for hardware encryption.

“The concept came out of a PhD Thesis in IIT Bombay… This is the first indigenous 180-nanometre memory technology to have successfully graduated from lab to fab in 2021. It has taken six years in the process of translating research to manufacturing,” says Prof. Ganguly.

Changing patterns of low pressure, fluctuations in moisture distribution may cause rainfall variation

For the first time since 2010, India is poised to see three consecutive Septembers with excess rainfall. Experts say that this is a sign of a change in monsoon patterns though it is too early yet to demonstrably prove that is a lasting consequence of global warming.

As of September 24, monsoon rainfall for the month is nearly 19 cm. The normal for the entire month is 17 cm, and there is still a week’s worth of rainfall to come.

Spikes in rain

While September is usually the month that marks the beginning of the end, for the monsoon’s four month sojourn over India, both 2020 and 2019 have seen spikes in rain. In 2019, September rain was a staggering 152% or close to 25 cm. To put that in perspective, that is close to what the country gets in August (26 cm), usually the second rainiest of the monsoon months. That year saw India get the highest monsoon rainfall since 1994. Last September’s rainfall was 17.7 cm which was not too high but more than what is normal.

From 2013 to 2018, September rainfall has been less than normal save for 2014, when it was 18 cm, or 1 cm above normal.

From 2010–2012, the three years of extra-rainy Septembers did not do much to boost the total rainfall India received. India only got 2% more monsoon rain in 2010 and 2011, and ended up with an overall 7% deficit in 2012 (largely due to weak rains in June and July).

However, both in 2019 and 2020, India received close to 10% more monsoon rain than normal.

When August ended, India appeared to be dangerously close to a rainfall deficit and almost 9% short of what is normal from June–August end.

Narrowed deficit

This year, with weak August rainfall, the India Meteorological Department said that September rainfall would be stronger than usual but India would still end up with only around 96% of what's normal. However, rainfall this month has significantly narrowed the deficit from 9% at the beginning of the month to 2% at the last week of September.

A rain-bearing circulation is forming in the Bay of Bengal— unusual for this time of the year—and is expected to bring significant rain over several parts of India for most of the coming week.

“The most obvious reason is that the monsoon is withdrawing much later than usual,” said Mahesh Palawat, Chief Meteorologist, Skymet, a private weather forecast agency, “This means more September rainfall. But why it's staying on for longer is still to be understood.”

Delayed withdrawal

The monsoon normally starts to withdraw by the 1st of September and completely exits by October. Last year, to reflect the increasingly delayed withdrawal of the monsoon, the IMD updated the beginning of the withdrawal date to September 17th. In both 2019 and 2020, the monsoon began its withdrawal in October and the same is expected this year too.

“Overall global warming is increasing moisture levels during the monsoon period but this is affecting the distribution of the rain,” said KJ Ramesh, former Director General, IMD, “July and August see periods of active rains and breaks. June and September because they have low base rainfall, even the slightest increase shows up big percentage gains.”

A study by scientists at the Central Water Commission published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 2018 analysed changes in monsoon patterns and concluded that the monthly variability of the summer rainfall was due to changing patterns of low pressure over the Indian landmass as well as fluctuations in moisture distribution.

Moderna said it will not enforce patents related to its vaccine during the pandemic, but it is yet to transfer technology to the South African hub

While many low- and middle-income countries have received by far insufficient supply of vital COVID-19 vaccines so far, vaccine inequity has been most striking in Africa. Of the nearly 6 billion doses administered globally, only 2% have been in Africa. And less than 3.5% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated till date.

In contrast, 54% of the total population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated. After approving booster shots for the immunocompromised people, on September 22, the U.S. FDA greenlighted booster shots for people older than 65 years, adults between 18 and 64 years who are at high risk of severe disease and those at high risk of getting infected and at high risk of serious complications of COVID-19 including severe disease.

Facilitating manufacture

With attempts by the African Union to buy vaccines being unsuccessful, the continent has to wait for donations. It is to correct this anomaly and ensure that low- and middle-income countries can have easy access to vaccines to fight the pandemic that, in April, the WHO and COVAX wanted these countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines themselves. For this, the global health body is facilitating the establishment of technology transfer hubs to transfer necessary technology to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines and provide training to interested manufacturers in these countries.

The initial focus has been on developing vaccines using the mRNA vaccine platform and expanding to other technologies in the future. According to Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore, the reason why WHO zeroed in on mRNA vaccines is that such vaccines have been found to be extremely efficacious in protecting against COVID-19, and protection is maintained to a large degree against variants. Second, the technology needed to manufacture mRNA vaccines is very flexible and allows relatively rapid adaptation of the vaccine to variants, if needed. Third, such vaccines can be produced by manufacturers of medicines and medical active substances, and finally, the availability of several technical features that are free of Intellectual Property Rights in many countries of the world.

Dr Kang is also the vice-chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) which the is part of COVAX that is identifying technology partners for the hub

The WHO, a South African consortium — Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities and the Africa CDC — and COVAX partners are working to set-up the first technology transfer hub in South Africa. The assumption is that companies such as Pfizer and Moderna will show a “willingness to transfer technologies”.

As early as October last year, Moderna announced that it will not enforce patents related to its mRNA vaccine during the course of the pandemic. “We feel a special obligation under the current circumstances to use our resources to bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible. Accordingly, while the pandemic continues, Moderna will not enforce our COVID-19 related patents against those making vaccines intended to combat the pandemic,” Moderna said last year.

Promises unkept

However, according to an exclusive Reuters report, the promise made last year by Moderna is not translating into reality as the company is yet to reach a deal to transfer the technology to the South African hub. The New York Times quoted Dr. Martin Friede, a WHO official and Charles Gore, who runs a United Nations-backed nonprofit organisation, Medicines Patent Pool as saying that they have had “trouble getting Moderna to the negotiating table”.

“We would love to get a discussion with Moderna, about a license to their intellectual property — this would make life so much simpler, but for the moment all attempts have resulted in no reply,” Dr. Friede told The New York Times.

It also reported a Moderna spokeswoman saying that the company was “willing to license its intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines to others for the post pandemic period.” In effect, contrary to the promise made last year, the company is unwilling to license its mRNA vaccine IP during the pandemic and transfer technology to the South African hub. Vaccination is one sure way to protect people from severe disease and death and end the pandemic.

Research funded

Incidentally, unlike Pfizer that did not take any funding from the U.S. government to develop its vaccine, Moderna was given $1 billion as part of Operation Warp Speed to specifically fund its research efforts. Moderna’s vaccine was in part developed by National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and Georgetown University Law Center tweeted on September 22: “LMIC companies are ready & able to produce mRNA vaccines, but Pfizer-BioNTech & Moderna are refusing to share technology & know-how. LMICs are fed-up with going hat-in- hand to rich countries for donations, which never come in time or at the scale needed.” He then added: “Biden can legally compel mRNA manufacturers to sign technology transfer contracts in exchange for reasonable compensation. The DPA [Defense Production Act of 1950] confers vast powers to act for the national defense. The DPA specifically includes “emergency preparedness.”

Under pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden to enter into joint ventures to contract manufacture the vaccines in low- and middle-income countries, Pfizer took an easy route. It entered into an agreement with the U.S. to sell an “additional 500 million doses at a not-for-profit price for donation to low- and lower-middle-income countries and the organisations that support them”, according to a Pfizer release. The company had agreed to sell the first lot of 500 million doses in June. However, deliveries of the initial 500 million doses began only in August 2021 and only 300 million are expected to be shipped this year. The total one billion doses are expected to be delivered only by next September.

In July, Pfizer signed a deal with South Africa’s Biovac Institute to help manufacture around 100 million doses annually of the mRNA vaccine for distribution exclusively to 55 member States of the African Union. However, as per the Pfizer press release, the drug substance will be manufactured in Europe and shipped to Biovac. Clearly, the agreement is for “fill and finish” of the vaccine, which does not require technology transfer. Also, manufacturing of finished doses will commence only next year.

Reaching targets

Even as President Biden wants 70% of the global population to be vaccinated by September next year, much of the low- and middle-income countries may not come anywhere close to the target unless companies freely share their technology and know-how.

“I see no reason why only one or two companies should be considered when there are several companies that work on mRNA products,” Dr. Kang says. “Moderna is not the only company with the technology to transfer — it was just potentially the easiest. I have no idea why Moderna is not willing to participate given that they have set up contract manufacturing on other continents. However, WHO and COVAX have other potential partners with whom engagement is being explored.”

Changing patterns of low pressure, fluctuations in moisture distribution may cause rainfall variation

For the first time since 2010, India is poised to see three consecutive Septembers with excess rainfall. Experts say that this is a sign of a change in monsoon patterns though it is too early yet to demonstrably prove that is a lasting consequence of global warming.

As of September 24, monsoon rainfall for the month is nearly 19 cm. The normal for the entire month is 17 cm, and there is still a week’s worth of rainfall to come.

Spikes in rain

While September is usually the month that marks the beginning of the end, for the monsoon’s four month sojourn over India, both 2020 and 2019 have seen spikes in rain. In 2019, September rain was a staggering 152% or close to 25 cm. To put that in perspective, that is close to what the country gets in August (26 cm), usually the second rainiest of the monsoon months. That year saw India get the highest monsoon rainfall since 1994. Last September’s rainfall was 17.7 cm which was not too high but more than what is normal.

From 2013 to 2018, September rainfall has been less than normal save for 2014, when it was 18 cm, or 1 cm above normal.

From 2010–2012, the three years of extra-rainy Septembers did not do much to boost the total rainfall India received. India only got 2% more monsoon rain in 2010 and 2011, and ended up with an overall 7% deficit in 2012 (largely due to weak rains in June and July).

However, both in 2019 and 2020, India received close to 10% more monsoon rain than normal.

When August ended, India appeared to be dangerously close to a rainfall deficit and almost 9% short of what is normal from June–August end.

Narrowed deficit

This year, with weak August rainfall, the India Meteorological Department said that September rainfall would be stronger than usual but India would still end up with only around 96% of what's normal. However, rainfall this month has significantly narrowed the deficit from 9% at the beginning of the month to 2% at the last week of September.

A rain-bearing circulation is forming in the Bay of Bengal— unusual for this time of the year—and is expected to bring significant rain over several parts of India for most of the coming week.

“The most obvious reason is that the monsoon is withdrawing much later than usual,” said Mahesh Palawat, Chief Meteorologist, Skymet, a private weather forecast agency, “This means more September rainfall. But why it's staying on for longer is still to be understood.”

Delayed withdrawal

The monsoon normally starts to withdraw by the 1st of September and completely exits by October. Last year, to reflect the increasingly delayed withdrawal of the monsoon, the IMD updated the beginning of the withdrawal date to September 17th. In both 2019 and 2020, the monsoon began its withdrawal in October and the same is expected this year too.

“Overall global warming is increasing moisture levels during the monsoon period but this is affecting the distribution of the rain,” said KJ Ramesh, former Director General, IMD, “July and August see periods of active rains and breaks. June and September because they have low base rainfall, even the slightest increase shows up big percentage gains.”

A study by scientists at the Central Water Commission published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 2018 analysed changes in monsoon patterns and concluded that the monthly variability of the summer rainfall was due to changing patterns of low pressure over the Indian landmass as well as fluctuations in moisture distribution.

Chinese company BGI had reportedly developed and improved a prenatal screening test sold in at least 52 countries in collaboration with People's Liberation Army hospitals

A European Union-funded project to build a genomic map of Poland plans to drop gene-sequencing technology from China's BGI Group over concerns about data security, one of the project's leaders told Reuters.

The Genomic Map of Poland's concerns stem from questions over how Polish genomic data may be used that relate to national security, said Marek Figlerowicz, a Professor at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry at the Polish Academy of Sciences who steers the project.

Mr. Figlerowicz said the concerns were initially raised by a report earlier this year from the U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) which said BGI may be serving as a "global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases."

BGI told Reuters in response that the U.S. report was "disinformation, not borne out by the facts;" China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called it "groundless accusations and smears."

An NSCAI spokesperson said it stood by its report, and has recommended the United States and allies double-down on techniques to better protect patient privacy. Since 2015, Beijing has restricted foreign researchers from accessing gene data on Chinese people.

In August, a human genetics committee at the Polish Academy of Sciences said a "lack of compliance" by what it called "Far East companies" with the principles of genetic testing ethics raised serious doubts. It did not name any companies or countries but urged labs and scientific institutions that sequence genetic material abroad to stop using biotechnology companies there.

It said about 100,000 complete Polish genomes may already be in "Far Eastern" laboratories, citing a rough estimate which Reuters could not verify. Poland has no control over thatsensitive personal data, the committee said.

Mr. Figlerowicz said the Genomic Map, which is expected to cost over 100 million zlotys ($25.35 million) and is about halfway through its programme of sequencing 5,000 Polish genomes, has outsourced the work to a third party since 2019.

That company, Bialystok-based Central Europe Genomics Center sp. z o.o. (CEGC), started using BGI's technology last year. Mr. Figlerowicz said the Genomic Map of Poland had decided not to send any genetic data out of the country and is likely to cancel the contract it has with CEGC. He added that the final decision, still to be approved by the funding institutions, is expected within the next week or two.

As the technology to sequence genetic data has advanced and become cheaper, Mr. Figlerowicz said, the mapping project plans to bring the remaining sequencing in-house. The project wants to ensure Poland has genomic "independence" so it can ensure data security.

CEGC did not respond to requests for comment. Poznan-based biotech company Inno-Gene S.A., which holds a minority stake in CEGC, said it did not know of a possible cancellation.

The European Union, which provided about 65% of the total funding for the Genomic Map, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Poland's Ministry of Education and National Information Processing Institute, also involved with funding the project. Poland's special services declined to comment.

National security

Reuters reported in July that BGI had developed and improved a prenatal screening test sold in at least 52 countries in collaboration with People's Liberation Army hospitals.

The privacy policy on the test's website says data collected can be shared when it is "directly relevant to national security or national defence security" in China, although BGI says it hasn't been asked to do that. BGI uses the pregnant women's genetic data for research into the traits of populations. It also collaborates with the PLA in other areas of research.

BGI rejects any suggestion that it developed the test, branded NIFTY, in collaboration with the military, and says working with military hospitals is not equivalent.

"BGI takes all aspects of data protection, privacy and ethics extremely seriously," the company said in a statement on the Polish decision, adding it complies with all applicable data protection laws and regulations.

"We value the business and research relationships we have with all our partners and customers in Poland and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with them."

WSJ’s report also prompted some U.S. lawmakers to launch a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research.

Internal researchers at Facebook-owned Instagram have found the app poses serious mental health danger to many teen girls, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, citing internal company documents. Facebook hasn’t made the research public or available to academics or lawmakers who have asked for it.

Facebook is also said to have acknowledged that it makes body image issues worse for one in three girls, according to the report. Additionally, several teen users also blamed Instagram for increasing rate of anxiety and depression, it noted.

WSJ’s report also prompted some U.S. lawmakers to launch a probe into Facebook’s lack of transparency around internal research.

Instagram countered the report stating it focuses on “a limited set of findings” and that the company stands by its research. “It demonstrates our commitment to understanding complex and difficult issues young people may struggle with, and informs all the work we do to help those experiencing these issues,” Instagram said in a statement.

The image-sharing platform added that social media’s impact on the wellbeing of people is “mixed” and depends on the state of mind when people use it. According to the company’s research, many users said Instagram makes things better or has no effect, but it may make things worse for those who are already feeling down.

“Issues like negative social comparison and anxiety exist in the world, so they’re going to exist on social media too,” Instagram noted.

The company continues to face criticism for its plan to create a separate app for children, with several U.S. attorneys and advocacy groups stating it could cause harm to the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of minors who may not be equipped to handle the complexities of social media.

The company said it will continue to develop features to help users protect themselves from bullying, including the latest feature to hide like counts. “From our research, we’re starting to understand the types of content some people feel may contribute to negative social comparison, and we’re exploring ways to prompt them to look at different topics if they’re repeatedly looking at this type of content,” it added.

Botanical Survey of India says 202 new species were discovered across the country in 2020

The Botanical Survey of India, in its new publication Plant Discoveries 2020 has added 267 new taxa/ species to the country’s flora. The 267 new discoveries include 119 angiosperms; 3 pteridophytes; 5 bryophytes, 44 lichens; 57 fungi, 21 algae and 18 microbes.

In 2020, 202 new plant species were discovered across the country and 65 new records were added.

With these new discoveries the latest estimate of plant diversity in India stands at 54,733 taxa including 21,849 angiosperms, 82 gymnosperms, 1310 Pteridophytes, 2791 bryophytes, 2961 lichens, 15,504 fungi, 8979 algae and 1257 microbes.

“The year 2020 will remain marked in global history for the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, with the havoc it caused and still continues in 2021. This overwhelming addition of 267 plant taxa to the Indian Flora, which were discovered as either new species or as new distributional records for India, is nowhere less than the average number of new plant discoveries made from India during the past one and half decade,” said Director of Botanical Survey of India, A.A. Mao.

Among the new discoveries this year, nine new species of balsams (Impatiens) one species of wild banana (Musa pradhanii) were discovered from Darjeeling, one species each of wild jamun (Sygygium anamalaianum) from Coimbatore and fern species (Selaginella odishana) were recorded from Kandhamal in Odisha. There are 14 new macro and 31 new micro fungi species recorded from various parts of India.

An assessment of the geographical distribution of these newly discovered plants reveals that 22% of the discoveries were made from the Western Ghats followed by Western Himalayas (15%), Eastern Himalayas (14%) and Northeast Ranges (12%). The West coast contributed 10% while East Coast contributed (9%) in total discoveries; Eastern Ghats and South Deccan contribute 4% of each while Central Highland and North Deccan added 3% each.

Ravi Agrawal, Additional Secretary, MoEF&CC, who released the publication said India being a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is committed to work towards the prime objective of Global Strategy of Plant Conservation and the newly discovered species may offer potential source of wild edible plants, traditional drugs, cosmetics and wild relative of crop plants.

Another scientist from the BSI, S.S. Dash who played a crucial role in the discoveries, said 45% of novelties published in various national and international journals are of seed plants, 21% fungi, 8% algae, 16% lichen and 7% microbes while 2% are bryophytes and 1% pteridophytes. This year one new monogeneric family Hanguanaceae has been recorded for the first time from India, he added.

Sanjay Kumar, botanist with the BSI, associated with the compilation work of plant discoveries since 2012, explained that during the last decade a total number of 3,245 taxa of plants from different plant groups have been discovered from India. Most discoveries have been made from seed plants, with 1,199 (37%) taxa, followed by fungi 894 (27%), he added.

The invention is titled, A process for the extraction and purification of tetrandrine

Mangalore University has obtained its first patent for an invention by its two plant researchers K.R. Chandrashekar and Bhagya Nekrakalaya relating to anti-cancer compound.

The invention is titled A process for the extraction and purification of tetrandrine.

Tetrandrine is an anti-cancer compound.

The invention describes a process for the extraction and purification of tetrandrine from methanol extract of Cyclea peltata, which is commonly known in Kannada as Haade balli, collected from the natural forests of Dakshina Kannada and Kasaragod district of Kerala.

The Patent Office granted the patent (No 369124) to the researchers on June 11, 2021. It is valid for 20 years from May 8, 2017 since they applied for the patent when doing research at Mangalore University. At present, the two researchers are working in the Yenepoya Deemed to be University in Mangaluru.

Mr. Chandrashekar, who retired as Chairman and Professor of Botany, Department of Applied Botany, Mangalore University, told The Hindu that Cyclea peltata (Lam.) Hook. f. Thoms. (Menispermaceae) is an ethnomedicinally important plant used in the treatment of various health problems.

It is reported to have anti-toxin function besides playing a role in improving diabetic disorders of skin, like boils and carbuncle and in the treatment of small pox and stomach ache. Pharmacological studies also proved the bioactive potential of Cyclea peltata with antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, cytotoxic activities and protection against nephrotoxicity and oxidative damage.

He said that an alkaloid, small organic molecules containing nitrogen usually in a ring, tetrandrine was previously isolated from Stephania tetrandra, a highly cited ethnomedicinal plant in China which has been reported to show anti-cancer, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antioxidant, immunosuppressive, cardiovascular and calcium channel blocking effects. Several studies have showed the effective in vitro and in vivo anticancer mechanism of tetrandrine against different cancers by acting on multiple pathways.

The two researchers working on the tissue culture and bioprospection of Western Ghats plants found the presence of tetrandrine in Haade balli. They tested its anti-cancerous potential using cancer cells. Further, they developed a simple process for its extraction from the plants and purification into a single molecule from a complex mixture using simple glass column chromatography technique.

“Recrystallised fractions yielded tetrandrine with a purity of 98.63%. Further work on this molecule with respect to increasing its solubility in aqueous medium and clinical trials may lead to the development of a potent anti-cancer drug from a local plant,” the researchers said.

Ms. Nekrakalaya is a UGC Women Scientist Post-Doctoral Fellow at Yenepoya Deemed to be University, Mangaluru, and Mr. Chandrashekar is an advisor, Internal Quality Assurance Cell, and a professor of Botany at Yeneopoya Deemed to be University.

A recent eBird list from the Kelambakkam backwaters south of Chennai has shades of Pulicat to it

For local birders, the ruddy turnstone is a “Pulicat bird” — period. The winter migrant keeps its date with the lagoon with almost monsoonal punctuality. Birders flocking to Pulicat for its stone-turning performance do not have too many cancelled matches to rail about.

The winter migrant does put in an appearance on a few other sections of the coast around Chennai, but it is just what it is said to be — an appearance, fleeting and unpredictable, on this winter and off for the next three. So, ruddy turnstone occurrences around Kelambakkam are received with the excitement that surrounds breaking news.

In the early hours of September 12, when Sundaravel Palanivel and Sivakumar Shanmugasundaram began exploring the Kelambakkam backwaters and adjacent sections that are ecological extensions of it, for signs of early migrants, they did not have the ruddy turnstone on the list of probables.

Not that the species has never before been recorded on sections of these backwaters. However, on the question of being attractive to the ruddy turnstone, Kelambakkam backwaters’ record looks deplorably poor when juxtaposed with Pulicat’s. The chasm is as wide as the difference between Dilip Doshi’s batting averages and Virat Kohli’s — so you get the picture.

When the day had sunk on the landward side, these two birders were mighty chuffed to have experienced Pulicat south of Chennai. Sundaravel Palanivel uploaded a checklist on which were parked three ruddy turnstones. The surprise did not begin with this species; nor did it end there. The biggest of those wow encounters was a flock of around 60 lesser sand plovers.

It was the size of the flock that made the birding duo feel being whisked away to Pulicat.

“We had the sense of encountering all the Pulicat birds. Besides the ruddy turnstones, terek sandpipers are readily associated with Pulicat. We found three of them on that Sunday trip,” says Sundaravel.

Who gets there first?

  • Any discussion that pivots around early winter migrants in Chennai would inevitably extend to the question of who gets there first. It is a question that cannot be answered conclusively, nor even convincingly, but it can lead to something that approximates to the truth.
  • There are three species that seem to breast the tape consistently ahead of the others: common sandpiper, wood sandpiper and barn swallow.
  • Ornithologist V Santharam bestows the title on the common sandpiper, adjudicating the winner on the basis of observations spanning six winters on the trot at the Adyar Estuary.
  • “Their numbers would usually be small, but you see them consistently. Later on, their numbers build up. Based on my observation, you get to see the common sandpiper as early as the third week of July. Barn swallows start coming in by August in tricles and the large numbers come in by mid-September or the second week of September,” says Santharam. “I used to live at the Santhome the beach, which helped me see these birds. I think most of the shore birds and other migrants fly along the coast.”
  • However, by August, many migrants start coming in, in small numbers, notes Santharam.
  • There could also be migrants that have stayed back from the last season and are mistaken for early arrivers.

“It is a great pleasure to observe early migrants, especially when you encounter them in an unexpected place. There was much human activity not far from where the birds were. But these waders, not in the thousands that one would expect them to see later, did not seem affected by it. We could observe them go about their business from a good distance. The sand plovers, pacific golden plovers, terek sandpipers, the lone curlew sandpiper, the busy turnstones and the godwits were all a pleasure to watch and record,” is how Sivakumar describes the experience of watching an impressive number of migrants as early as September.

While the list put up on eBird clearly has a whiff of Pulicat, one has to go through the entire season to arrive at a reliable picture of whether the Muttukaddu-Kelambakkam- Kovalam backwater ecosystem can “sustain” the Pulicat experience through an entire season.

In fact, one has to be at least a couple of more winters older to be wiser in this matter. Meanwhile, it would help chew on an observation made by birder E Arun Kumar, who has done synchronised bird surveys at Pulicat for the last three years for the forest department.

Arun Kumar notes: “Sometimes, around the Kelambakkam side, you will get to see the ruddy turnstone because of the presence of the estuary at Muttukadu. Sometimes, the birds regularly sighted at Pulicat during the winter season are sighted around the Kelambakkam backwaters. They use it as the stopover point: At Kelambakkam, you will not see them for a long time. They will stay for just two or three days and then move on to Yedayanthittu estuary and Mudaliarkuppam backwaters or to Pulicat. When they come to Pulicat, they would stay on for months. In contrast, Kelambakkam would be just a pitstop. As Pulicat and Yedayanthittu are relatively untouched by development and are more expansive habitats, the species that are sighted at Kelambakkam will be found there in larger numbers. To give an example, you will see a few Pacific golden plovers in Kelambakkam, and thousands of them in Pulicat. In fact, the Pacific golden plover is also known to head to freshwater lakes which was corroborated by the sighting of 40 Pacific golden plovers at the Mamandur freshwater lake last wintering season.”

(‘Migrant Watch’ follows feathers that show up during winter in and around Chennai)

Experts stressed on the need to strike a balance between bio-security bubbles and the avoidance of "excessive" mental health costs to the players

Cricket Australia medical experts have found that stress associated with strict bio-secure bubbles have "cumulative impact" on players' mental wellbeing and said there is a need to strike a balance to avoid "excessive" mental health toll.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, CA's mental health lead Matt Burgin and chief medical officer Dr. John Orchard made the observations in an article for the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine.

"The stress associated with competition hubs may have had a cumulative impact, and it is possible that the negative effects were experienced weeks and months after the event," they wrote.

"Athletes, often lauded for high levels of resilience, are being challenged to adapt and develop new ways of coping to maintain their mental health and wellbeing.

"While much of the reported symptoms associated with bio-security hubs can be sub- clinical, there is a limit to the players resources and tolerance of this way of life.”

"Players anecdotally reported the avoidance of 'hard quarantine' [14-day hotel quarantine] as a factor in decision-making for involvement in further cricket competitions," they added.

Both the experts stressed on the need to strike a balance between bio-security bubbles and the avoidance of "excessive" mental health costs to the players.

"Should there be a silver lining to a bleak situation, it has been the confirmation of players taking ownership for their mental health," Mr. Burgin and Dr. Orchard wrote.

"The widespread acceptance of players making personal decisions to prioritise their mental health is a cultural shift for Australian sport and is supported by Cricket Australia.

"Players seeking to have 'time at home' is the preferred opportunity cost to further involvement in cricket. These breaks are temporary and illustrate a welcomed balance in the player's self-awareness." The duo hoped that "following seasons will see vaccination of players and staff and a gradual relaxation of necessary protocols that will allow players a return to relative normality." "Until then, there will need to be a balance of protocols to keep COVID out of the sport, but with a level of rigour that does not take an excessive toll on the mental health of participants." While cricketers around the globe have spoken about mental health issues in COVID-19 times, the conversation gathered more steam after it emerged that top English players could boycott the upcoming Ashes as they don't want to be confined to their hotel rooms close to four months.

“I don’t think people truly understand what it’s like to be in a bio-secure bubble and the commitment that is needed, until you’ve been in that bubble,” Professional Cricketers Association director of development and welfare services, Ian Thomas said.

"I sat on a call yesterday where there was a study done into this by the ECB and I think the burnout and almost imprisonment of players in these bio-secure bubbles shouldn’t be underestimated."

Studying the humanities offers a way to understand the complexity of society

The introduction of the humanities and social sciences have added value to technological institutions such as the five (originally started) IITs at Kanpur, Kharagpur, Mumbai, Chennai, and Delhi. This is an outstanding example of what can be done if faculty members with expertise in the humanities are added and encouraged to offer courses there. They add values to the entire institution and through them to the nation itself. Study of the humanities and social sciences not only adds values but is a way of understanding the complexity of society, its culture and developing a historical perspective. It makes the students take on a more socially conscious attitude, which lasts through their career as technologists.

An outstanding example is the recruitment of the late Professor Usha Kumar as a full-time faculty member at IIT Kanpur (IITK) and offering of courses in the humanities, and encouraging students and the faculty to take these courses and take semester-long projects. Many did so and found these useful later in their profession as well. Such semester projects left a deep impression on these young minds and paved the way to the path they took in their future careers. This has come to be known as the Usha Kumar Model. Exemplifying this model, IITK set up a high school in its campus to help its employees, but also admits students from the Kanpur city. In addition, IITK is currently offering relief services to the city’s poor people.

The alumni, current faculty and students at IIT Delhi (IITD) work closely with the local eye hospitals and eye specialists. One of its earlier alumni initiated “Project Prakash”, which offers free eye care facilities (cataract surgery, spectacles and drugs for the needy ) in Delhi and its neighbourhood. Project Prakash is an ongoing project, and several current students of IITD take part in it. Also, on a different note, it was from an alumnus of IITD that the project called SPICMACAY or the Society for the Appreciation of Classical Music, Arts and Culture Among Youth got initiated, which has now spread across the country, offering annual events. SPICMACAY has made students and the general public aware of and appreciate the musical heritage that we in India can be proud of.

Study of Sanskrit

Likewise, at IIT Bombay (IITB) in Mumbai, the recruitment of professors in the humanities (ancient mathematics, languages and other themes) has triggered some students to discover ‘the wonder that was India’. Some students went on to learn and study Sanskrit. To their delight and pride, they realised why Sanskrit is called the perfect language that humans have created in the world, and how many ‘modern’ languages are derived from their parent, Sanskrit. Some other students who did not think highly of ‘pandits’ who publish yearly calendars in a variety of Indian languages, with data on eclipses, periodic extra months, and draw horoscopes for people who wish to have them. This practice that has been going on for centuries, using traditional methods of calculations. Some students at IITB decided to test this accuracy by using their laptop computers and appropriate programming software. Guess what? They found the results to coincide with what the pandits have been doing all these years! Also, thanks to the values they had learnt as students at IITB, several of its graduates now do not look down upon the illiterate and poor customers, but run their profit-making companies, each with a humane and human touch.

Similarly, at IIT Madras (IITM), based in Chennai, one of its alumni decided to start his own public health initiative at a town near Pune, which offers its services to the local population. Faculty members and students at IITM have been working regularly with the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in seawater studies and on forestations. IITM biology group interacts closely with the local medical centres and doctors. They also work with the KRM university and interact with the Cancer Centre of the KRM University nearby, working with cancer specialists. Further, they collaborate in research with the Diabetes Foundation Madras, working with its diabetologists.

The oldest of all the IITs, the one at Kharagpur (IITKGP) has been offering its technology to the local medical personnel and doctors, since its very beginning. It has recently also come out with technological devices and products.

Black fungus

At the newest of them all located in Hyderabad, IIT Hyderabad (IITH), interaction with the LV Prasad Eye Institute has led to the production of corneal tissue of the eye and a hydrogel that can be used to replace the human corneal tissue. It is now marketed to a company in Bengaluru. Most recently, its scientists have devised an oral liquid solution that can treat patients suffering from black fungus that has recently affected a large number of people during the pandemic. The scientists are now ready to transfer their technology to suitable pharma partners for large-scale production. Also, at IITH, the introduction of a ‘Design Centre’ has led to some remarkable results from performing artists and designers. The students at this centre are delighted in listening to, learning and practising music and performing arts. In addition, IITH also has been supporting Hyderabad’s SPICMACAY group, by offering funding support and its auditorium when needed.

The government is keen on establishing a dozen more IITs in the coming years. Establishing the humanities and social sciences divisions in each of them is thus clearly needed in order that they too contribute to the welfare of the nation.

By combining non-edible oils and cellulose extracted from agricultural stubble, the researchers made biodegradable, multiuse polymer sheets

According to a report by Central Pollution Control Board of India, for the year 2018-2019, 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste are generated by Indians. The bad news is that this may well be an under-estimation of the problem. Another alarming statistic is that of all the plastic waste produced in the world, 79% enters the environment. Only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled. Accumulation of plastic waste is detrimental to the environment and when this waste finds its way into the sea, there can be major harm to aquatic ecosystems, too.

Researchers from Department of Material Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru (IISc) have found a way to make a substitute for single-use plastic that can, in principle help mitigate the problem of accumulating plastic waste in the environment.

Agricultural stubble

While plastic waste causes one type of pollution, agricultural stubble burning is responsible for air pollution in several States. In Delhi, for example, the air quality index dips to indicate “severe” or “hazardous” level of pollution every winter, and this is due in part to the burning of agricultural stubble in the surrounding regions.

Indranil Chakraborty, a Research Associate working in the labs led by Suryasarathi Bose and Kaushik Chatterjee, has, along with coworkers, developed polymers using non-edible oil and cellulose extracted from agricultural stubble. These polymers can be moulded into sheets having properties suitable for making bags, cutlery or containers. The material so made is bio-degradable, leak- proof and non-toxic.

Simple process

Non-edible Castor oil was used in this process of making the polymer which involves allowing them to react with the cellulose and di-isocyanate compound. “All precursors are mixed in toluene solvent and heated at 80 degree for 8 hours. Then [we] poured the solution mixture in a teflon sheet and allowed the toluene to evaporate. After 12 hours, nice polyurethane sheet is obtained because of the crosslink between the functional groups present in the precursors,” explains Dr Chakraborty, in an email to The Hindu. The sheets are then moulded in compression moulding to make the articles such as a bag or pieces of cutlery.

“We already used castor oil for our experiment. Currently, we are doing the same experiment with other non-edible oils such as jatropha oil and neem oil,” he adds.

The sheets of polymer made were subjected to a leaching test and were also tested for thermal stability and were found to hold against the tests. These preliminary tests suggest that the material can be used for food packaging. Further tests are on to establish the sheet as food-grade.

Tuning flexibility

In order to obtain sheets with properties like flexibility suitable for making different articles, the researchers played with the proportions of cellulose to non-edible oil. The more cellulose they added, and less non-edible oil, the stiffer was the material, so that it was more suitable to making tumblers and cutlery. The greater the proportion of oil, the more flexible was the material and it could be moulded into sheets for making bags.

While Indranil Chakraborty designed the experiment, synthesised the sheet, and moulded it to make the articles, Pritiranjan Mondal characterised the material. The group has already filed a provisional patent.

“As the material is bio- degradable and non-toxic, we are planning to use the material for healthcare applications also,” says Prof. Chatterjee. “We are in discussion with various companies for technology transfer.”

“Given the surge in the usage of single use plastics and the challenge of managing the landfills choked with SUPs, such alternatives could bring paradigm shift especially in packaging sector, the largest consumer of SUPs,” says Prof Bose.

Why do we make repeated eye contact while talking?

When two people converse, their eyes meet in moments of “shared attention”, with their pupils dilating in synchrony, according to a Dartmouth study (PNAS).

According to lead author Sophie Wohltjen at Dartmouth, when two people converse, eye contact signals that shared attention is high — that they are in peak synchrony. As eye contact persists, that synchrony then decreases. “We think this is also good because too much synchrony can make a conversation stale. An engaging conversation requires at times being on the same page and at times saying something new. Eye contact seems to be one way we create a shared space while also allowing space for new ideas,” she said in a release.

According to this study, eye contact is made when two people in conversation are already in sync, and, if anything, eye contact seems to then help break that synchrony. Eye contact may usefully disrupt synchrony momentarily in order to allow for a new thought or idea.

The researchers studied pairs of Dartmouth students who were in conversation for 10 minutes by making them wear eye-tracking glasses. The conversation was audio and video recorded. The researchers looked at how pupillary synchrony increases and decreases around instances of eye contact. They found that people make eye contact as pupillary synchrony is at its peak. Pupillary synchrony then immediately decreases, only recovering again once eye contact is broken. The data also demonstrated a correlation between instances of eye contact and higher levels of engagement.

According to the WHO, eight in 10 African countries are likely to miss vaccinating at least 10% of the population by the end of this month

On September 14, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus highlighted vaccine inequity globally, particularly in Africa, when he revealed that of the nearly 6 billion doses administered globally, only 2% of those have been in Africa; about 80% have been administered in high- and upper-middle income countries. Less than 3.5% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated so far compared with 54% of the total population in the U.S.

“This doesn’t only hurt the people of Africa, it hurts all of us. The longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will keep circulating and changing, the longer the social and economic disruption will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge that render vaccines less effective,” the WHO Chief said.

Vaccine inequity between high- and low-income countries is striking. More than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries. According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 60.1% of the people in the high-income countries have been vaccinated with at least one dose as on September 15, while in the low-income countries, it is just 3%.

The WHO has set an ambitious target of vaccinating at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year and 70% globally by the middle of next year. But according to the WHO, eight in 10 African countries are likely to miss vaccinating at least 10% of the population by the end of this month.

“Forty-two of Africa’s 54 nations — nearly 80% — are set to miss the target if the current pace of vaccine deliveries and vaccinations hold,” according to Africa’s WHO regional office. Just nine African countries, including South Africa, have already reached the global target set for September and three more countries are set to meet the target before the end of this month. In contrast, almost 90% of high-income countries have already reached the September target of at least 10% vaccination, and more than 70% have already reached the year-end target of 40%.

Promises unkept

In June, the G7 nations promised to share 870 million doses to COVAX but released just 100 million. Just about 4% of all vaccines produced worldwide have been channelled through COVAX.

According to GAVI, as on September 15, COVAX has so far shipped over 272 million vaccines to 141 countries. Though high-income countries had promised to donate more than 1 billion doses, less than 15% of those doses have materialised, says the WHO. Instead of increasing supplies to make up for the shortfall, vaccine supply to COVAX is only going to witness a further reduction.

On September 9, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Africa director said that for a variety of reasons including the demand for booster doses in the high-income countries, vaccine supply to Africa through COVAX will be 25% (about 150 million doses) less by the end of the year. As a result, Africa will face a shortage of almost 470 million doses in the global year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of its population. COVAX will be supplying only about 470 million doses by the end of the year, sufficient to vaccinate just 17% of the population.

In August, Africa received almost 21 million vaccine doses through COVAX. Another 95 million doses are expected during September. WHO expects more vaccine supplies through COVAX and additional supplies from the African Union, which is directly purchasing vaccines from manufacturers. African Union member States had come together to pool their purchasing power.

Reneging on deal

In end-March, the African Union placed an order to purchase 220 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccine, with the potential to order an additional 180 million doses. In addition, South Africa entered into a bilateral deal with J&J to procure 31 million vaccine doses; the fill and finish activities of the vaccine are in South Africa.

If initially J&J did not guarantee any supply to either South Africa or the African continent, just 9 million doses were set aside for South Africa after a protest. Yet, shockingly, while only a small quantity of the 9 million was supplied to South Africa, J&J exported doses to Europe instead. After a renewed protest and global outrage, J&J backed down, and began supplying vaccines to South Africa and the African Union.

The same pattern is now playing out in India. About 40 million doses of the vaccine that will be produced each month by Biological E, a Hyderabad-based company, are likely to be exported to Europe and the U.S. “The decision on where they will be exported, and at what price, is under the purview of J&J completely,” Mahima Datla, the Managing Director of Biological E confirmed to Nature magazine.

“We demand that any J&J vaccine doses made in India be supplied on priority to the Indian government, the African Union, and the COVAX Facility. Developing countries with large unvaccinated populations are witnessing a frightening rise in infections and deaths from COVID-19. J&J must prioritise them,” Indian Civil Society Organisations said in a letter to the Indian government and J&J.

Exports banned

Strive Masiyiwa, African Union’s special envoy recently said: “We are not asking for donations. We want to buy vaccines and that means we want access to purchase.” He wanted countries that have imposed restrictions on vaccine exports to lift them. “That would give us vaccines immediately,” he said.

Serum Institute had stopped supplying to COVAX since end-February, and Adar Poonawalla in a statement on May 18 said: “We continue to scale up manufacturing and prioritise India. We also hope to start delivering to COVAX and other countries by the end of this year.”

Though low vaccination coverage seen in many African countries is primarily due to lack of vaccine supply, vaccine hesitancy too has a role to play. “While many African countries have sped up COVID-19 vaccinations as vaccine shipments ramped up in August, [as on September 2] 26 countries have used less than half of their COVID-19 vaccines,” the WHO says.

Wasted doses

Besides additional doses required for booster, the high-income countries have also wasted millions of doses. Even while many countries in Africa and elsewhere are yet to vaccinate even the healthcare workers, over 15 million doses have been thrown away in the U.S. since March 2021. The US had already binned more than 1,82,000 vaccine doses by the end of March.

Over 0.8 million doses were wasted in the U.K. In August alone, nearly 0.1 million doses were binned as younger people were advised not to take the AstraZeneca vaccine. This was following reports of rare blood clotting events related to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The reason why the U.S. wasted over 15 million doses was because the priority was to vaccinate people when they show up without prioritising efforts to reduce wastage. Even the new advisory from CDC urges doctors “not miss any opportunities to vaccinate every eligible person who presents at a vaccination site, even if it means puncturing a multidose vial to administer vaccine without having enough people available to receive each dose.”

As per a 2019 paper from the WHO, there is 15-20% wastage in the case of 10-dose vials. But the amount wasted can be reduced through targeted action. A few States in India reported huge vaccine waste initially but quickly turned the table in April — they not only had zero wastage but also extracted additional doses from the given supply.

Tributes and condolences pour in from fellow colleagues, academics and science enthusiasts across the country

Eminent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Thanu Padmanabhan passed away, aged 64, here on Friday. According to sources, the Padma Shri awardee collapsed after suffering a massive heart attack at his Pune residence in the morning. He was rushed to the hospital but died on arrival.

Tributes and condolences poured in from colleagues, academics and science enthusiasts across the country.

K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, said in a tweet, “Shocked to hear of the passing of Professor Thanu Padmanabhan. His research linking general relativity and thermodynamics in new ways, and in other areas, has been widely recognized. Scholar, communicator, extraordinary scientist, friend to many. He will be much missed”.

From Thiruvananthapuram

Affectionately known to friends and colleagues as ‘Paddy’, Professor Padmanabhan, born in 1957, was a native of Thiruvananthapuram. He did his graduation and postgraduation from the University College, Kerala University, winning Gold medals in both for topping the varsity.

His brilliance and precocity in theoretical physics was evident right from the start when he published his first research paper in General Relativity at the age of 20 while being a B.Sc. student.

Following his Masters, Professor Padmanabhan joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for his PhD in 1979 and became a faculty there while still working towards his doctorate, which he completed in 1983.

Moved to Pune in 1992

After a stint at the TIFR, Professor Padmanabhan moved to Pune in 1992 and began his long and fruitful association with the city-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) where he became a Distinguished Professor and served as Dean, Core Academic Programmes, from 1997-2015.

A colossus in the realm of Indian astrophysics, Professor Padmanabhan’s influence at the IUCAA was second only to the great Jayant Narlikar, emeritus professor at the IUCAA.

“He [Prof. Padmanabhan] dreamt formulae. He never played to the gallery and did not believe in ‘dumbing down’ while demystifying abstract physics concepts for the layperson… his passing away is a great personal loss,” said eminent scientist, educationist and Padma Shri awardee Arvind Gupta, who ran the popular Science Centre at the IUCAA for several years.

Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Gupta, who is internationally famous as a ‘toy inventor’ and for his many books helping to popularize science in India, recounted the indelible impression that Professor Padmanabhan made through his column in the popular Science Age magazine, where Mr. Gupta used to contribute as well.

“Professor Padmanabhan used to write a column in the mid-1980s Science Age titled The Story of Physics - a two-page comic strip serial charting the thrilling history of physics for children and laypeople. The magazine, which regrettably folded up in 1988, was edited by Surendra Jha, who was the father of science journalism in India,” said Mr. Gupta, who contributed to Science Age as well with his column Little Science.

He recalled that on a visit to Pune in 2000, he knocked on Professor Padmanabhan’s door at the IUCAA and expressed the desire to translate The Story of Physics columns into Hindi in a book form.

“We had great regard for each other. He said how he relished my Little Science columns. I told him I enjoyed His Story of Physics columns and wanted to translate them. They totalled 48 pages… He [Padmanabhan] pulled out a photo copy and gave me the columns which I translated into Hindi. Later, they became so popular that they were translated into several regional languages, including Marathi and Telugu. Professor Padmanabhan’s only request was that he would not take any royalties,” Mr. Gupta said, recalling his former colleague’s deep humility.

Science populariser

A prolific writer and science populariser, Professor Padnamabhan authored several books which have become the standard texts, including the comprehensive three-volume Theoretical Physics (2000), the hugely accessible After the First Three Minutes: The Story of our Universe (1998), and a masterful exposition of quantum theory for the layman titled Quantum Themes: The Charms of the Microworld (2009).

Along with his wife Vasanthi, Professor Padmanabhan also authored the popular Dawn of Science (2019), a lively 24-chapter history of science whose narrative arc stretched from antiquity to the age of Newton that was translated into Chinese, Portuguese and Polish.

Notable among his many awards was the Infosys Science Prize, which was given to him in Physical Sciences by the Infosys Science Foundation in 2009. Professor Padmanabhan also won the First Prize in the prestigious Gravity Essay Contest in 2008 (awarded by the Gravity Research Foundation, USA) while his work won different prizes in this challenging contest for a number of years.

Somak Raychaudhury, Director, IUCAA, tweeted, “This is one of the saddest days in the history of the @IUCAApune and the Indian scientific community today. Professor Thanu Padmanabhan passed away this morning as a result of a cardiac arrest”.

In addition to being an adjunct faculty at several IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) across the country, Professor Padmanabhan served in various capacities at institutes abroad: he was the Sackler Distinguished Astronomer of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), Cambridge, U.K.; Visiting Faculty at Princeton University, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge; and the Pauli Center/ETH in Zurich.

The much-feted astrophysicist was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007.

He is survived by his wife and daughter Hamsa Padmanabhan, who is a Scientific Collaborator and principal investigator of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione Grant at the University of Geneva.

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert

A trio of Chinese astronauts returned to earth on Friday after a 90-day stay aboard their nation's first space station in China's longest mission yet.

Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo landed in the Shenzhou-12 spaceship just after 1:30 p.m. (0530 GMT) after having undocked from the space station on the morning of Septeber 16.

State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of the spacecraft parachuting to land in the Gobi Desert where it was met by helicopters and off-road vehicles. Minutes later, a crew of technicians began opening the hatch of the capsule, which appeared undamaged.

The three astronauts emerged about 30 minutes later and were seated in reclining chairs just outside the capsule to allow them time to readjust to Earth’s gravity after three months of living in a weightless environment. The three were due to fly to Beijing on September 17.

“With China's growing strength and the rising level of Chinese technology, I firmly believe there will even more astronauts who will set new records," mission commander Nie told CCTV.

After launching on June 17, mission commander Nie and astronauts Liu and Tang went on two spacewalks, deployed a 10-meter (33-foot) mechanical arm, and had a video call with Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

While few details have been made public by China's military, which runs the space program, astronaut trios are expected to be brought on 90-day missions to the station over the next two years to make it fully functional.

The government has not announced the names of the next set of astronauts nor the launch date of Shenzhou-13.

China has sent 14 astronauts into space since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to do so on its own.

China’s space program has advanced at a measured pace and has largely avoided many of the problems that marked the U.S. and Russian programs that were locked in intense competition during the heady early days of spaceflight.

China embarked on its own space station program after being excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections to the Chinese space program's secrecy and military backing.

China has simultaneously pushed ahead with uncrewed missions, placing a rover on the little-explored far side of the Moon and, in December, the Chang’e 5 probe returned lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.

China this year also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, with its accompanying Zhurong rover venturing out to look for evidence of life.

Another program calls for collecting samples from an asteroid, an area in which Japan’s rival space program has made progress of late.

China also plans to dispatch another mission in 2024 to bring back lunar samples and is pursuing a possible crewed mission to the moon and eventually building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.

On September 7, Colorado became the second State after Washington to allow human body composting

In a suburban Denver warehouse tucked between an auto repair shop and a computer recycling business, Seth Viddal is dealing with life and death.

He and one of his employees have built a “vessel” they hope will usher in a more environmentally friendly era of mortuary science that includes the natural organic reduction of human remains, also known as body composting.

“It’s a natural process where the body is returned to an elemental level over a short period of time,” said Mr. Viddal, who likened the practice to backyard composting of food scraps and yard waste. “This is the same process but done with a human body inside of a vessel, and in our case, in a controlled environment.”

On September 7, Colorado became the second State after Washington to allow human body composting. Oregon will allow the practice beginning July 2022. In Washington, the three businesses licensed to compost human remains have transformed at least 85 bodies since the law took effect in May 2020, and more than 900 people have signed up for the service as natural funerals become more popular.

Mr. Viddal, who co-owns The Natural Funeral in Lafayette, lobbied the Colorado Legislature for the option and started building a prototype vessel in an industrial area soon after the bipartisan bill was signed into law.

Based on a design being used in Washington, the insulated wooden box is about 7 feet long (2 meters), 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, lined with waterproof roofing material and packed with wood chips and straw. Two large spool wheels on either end allow it to be rolled across the floor, providing the oxygenation, agitation and absorption required for a body to compost.

Mr. Viddal calls the process an “exciting ecological option,” and in death, he also sees life.

“Composting itself is a very living function and it’s performed by living organisms. ... There are billions of microbial, living things in our digestive tracts and just contained in our body. And when our one life ceases, the life of those microbes does not cease," he said.

After about three months, the vessel is opened and the “soil” is filtered for medical devices like prosthetics, pacemakers or joint replacements. The remaining large bones are then pulverized and returned to the vessel for another three months of composting. Teeth are removed to prevent contamination from mercury in fillings.

The vessel must reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius) for 72 continuous hours to kill any bacteria and pathogens. The high temperature occurs naturally during the breakdown of the body in an enclosed box.

In six months, the body, wood chips and straw will transform into enough soil to fill the bed of a pickup truck. Family members can keep the soil to spread in their yards, but Colorado law forbids selling it and using it commercially to grow food for human consumption and only allows licensed funeral homes and crematories to compost human bodies.

“It accomplishes the conversion of the body back into a very beneficial substance — soil, earth,” said Mr. Viddal, who envisions building more than 50 body composting vessels.

The Natural Funeral charges $7,900 for body composting, compared with $2,200 for flame cremation, and Mr. Viddal notes that a traditional burial and service in the Denver area can run well north of $10,000. The company has not yet composted any bodies, but several people have signed up and paid for the service.

A.J. Killeen (40) of Boulder, has already expressed interest in having his body composted when he dies, even though he is relatively young. After a car accident a couple years ago, a doctor discovered that Mr. Killeen has a heart condition. That got Mr. Killeen thinking about what would happen to his body after he dies, and composting seemed like a natural fit.

“It’s what’s going to happen anyway, right? I mean, we’re all going to turn to dust, basically. So this is just a little more natural,” he said. "They’re going to control the humidity. They’re going to control the soil amendments and hopefully some worms and some mushrooms find a good home in me for a few months. And, you know, at the other end of it, I’ll be just a few bags of dirt.”

Mr. Killeen, who manages commercial real estate, said his concern for the environment played a large role in considering the option. Flame cremation burns fossil fuels that can contribute to climate change, and the process also releases toxic, mercury-laden fumes into the atmosphere. Traditional burial takes up space in a cemetery that will use additional resources to keep the plot constantly watered and mowed.

“I always joke that I hope I expire on trash day if that’s just easier for my family,” said Mr. Killeen, who composts food scraps and yard waste through the city's collection program.

Mr. Killeen is among a growing number of people considering more natural funeral options, especially since the pandemic began, and he thinks the option will become more accepted once people get over “the ick factor.”

The Colorado Catholic Conference, a group of bishops aimed at molding public policy, opposed the bill, saying body composting “does not promote human dignity." Some rabbis also are against body composting because they say it violates Jewish religious law. Other opponents are concerned there is not enough research on whether the compost contaminates soil and there is no way to prevent people from using it in home vegetable gardens.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with it if they take it all home,” said Stacey Kleinman, a board member of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. They helped craft the legislation, but the group's stance is neutral.

Even with the opposition, several States are considering the option as Americans become more open to afterlife alternatives.

According to a Choice Mutual Insurance Agency survey of 1,500 Americans this summer, when many were burying loved ones killed by the coronavirus, 21% said the pandemic changed how they want their body disposed off. Traditional burial and cremation remained the front-runners, but 11% said they would opt for burial involving natural decomposition without a casket. Only 4% said they would choose that option in a similar survey conducted in 2020.

Choice Mutual, which specializes in burial insurance, did not specifically ask about body composting, but the survey highlights an increased interest in more natural and environmentally friendly options.

Micah Truman, ceo and founder of Return Home south of Seattle, runs an 11,500-square-foot (1,068-square-meter) facility that includes 74 vessels. So far, his company has composted 16 bodies in what he describes as an “extremely precise scientific operation” that takes only 60 days.

Mr. Truman said that because the composting option is so new, "it's really a matter of changing hearts and minds right now.” But he has been surprised by how many young people are interested, including someone who recently signed up their 8-year-old child.

“Our young people are going to teach us how to die better. It’s been really powerful for us," Mr. Truman said. "I think what’s happened is that the younger generation really genuinely understands that we have to make sure that our Earth can stay whole.”

Scientists have developed a technology that addresses two important issues – conserving mined raw material resources and emission reduction.

Researchers have developed a technology to produce energy-efficient walling materials using construction and demolition (C&D) waste and alkali-activated binders, the Department of Science and Technology said on Thursday.

Called low-carbon bricks, they do not require high-temperature firing, and avoid the use of high-energy materials such as Portland cement. The technology will also solve the disposal problems associated with C&D waste mitigation.

Conventionally, building envelopes consist of masonry walls built with burnt clay bricks, concrete blocks, hollow clay blocks, fly ash bricks, lightweight blocks, and so on.

The envelopes spend energy during their production, thus incurring carbon emission, and consume mined raw material resources which lead to unsustainable constructions.

The masonry units are manufactured either through the process of firing or using high-energy or embodied carbon binders such as Portland cement.

The annual consumption of bricks and blocks in India is about 900 million tonnes. Besides, the construction industry generates vast amounts (70–100 million tonnes per annum) of construction and demolition waste (CDW).

In order to promote sustainable construction, two important issues need to be addressed while manufacturing the masonry units – conserving mined raw material resources and emission reduction.

Moving towards this target, scientists of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) developed a technology for producing alkali-activated bricks or blocks by utilising fly ash and furnace slag.

The team of researchers developed low embodied carbon bricks from CDW waste through an alkali activation process using fly ash and ground slag and characterising the thermal, structural, and durability characteristics of Low-C bricks and their masonry.

After ascertaining the physico-chemical and compaction characteristics of the CDW, the optimum mix ratios of the materials was obtained, and then the production process was evolved to produce low-C bricks. Based on the optimum binder proportions, the compressed bricks were manufactured. The bricks were examined for engineering characteristics.

The major beneficiary of this development undertaken by IISc Bangalore, with funding from the Department of Science and Technology, is the construction industry in general and the building sector in particular. This technology will also mitigate the disposal problems associated with the C&D wastes.

“A start-up has been registered which will be functional within 6-9 months to manufacture low-C bricks and blocks with IISc’s technical help.”

“The start-up unit will act as a technology dissemination unit through training, capacity building, and providing technical know-how for establishing such commercial units across India,” remarked Prof. B V Venkatarama Reddy, IISc Bangalore.

NCBS study of ‘black tigers’ has shed light on genetic mystery

More than half a century ago, when the tribals of Similipal in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha reported sightings of “black tigers” — their stripes almost fused together in patches threatening to obliterate parts of their burnished orange coats — nobody believed them at first.

But an estimated 37% of Panthera tigris in the Similipal Tiger Reserve (in eastern India) are pseudomelanistic, characterised by wide, merged stripes.

This is the result of a rare mutation in one gene, Transmembrane Aminopeptidase Q or Taqpep, recessively inherited variants of which are responsible for the marks in domestic cats and king cheetahs. What’s more, the mutation is rarely seen in tigers outside Similipal.

Genetic basis

The discovery of the genetic basis for the physical characteristics or phenotype in the wild is a culmination of years of research by a team of scientists led by the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS).

“Our results indicate that Taqpep p.H454Y is likely absent or extremely rare outside of Similipal,” said the authors in their paper published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS on September 14. Uma Ramakrishnan, molecular ecologist and professor at NCBS, likened it to watching evolution in action. “You can imagine it in bacteria or the SARS-CoV-2, but in tigers?”

Two factors are probably driving this change in appearance caused by the rare Taqpep p.H454Y: a founder bottleneck effect when a small subset of a large population, in this case tigers, establishes a new population, and the resulting genetic drift, where chance, more than natural selection, changes how common or rare genetic variants are.

With shrinking habitats, the tiger population becomes increasingly isolated. This causes inbreeding, resulting in a lack of genetic variation, making them prone to extinction.

Of the 12 unique individual tigers studied, four were found to be pseudo-melanistic. Vinay Sagar, a PhD student in Dr. Ramakrishan’s lab and the lead author of the paper said, “That 37% of tigers are showing a particular phenotype may not be very high. But coupled with the phenotype’s absence from everywhere else, this makes it a relatively high percentage.”

To gather information on wild tigers, researchers collected samples of their faecal matter, shed hair from scratch marks in the ground, and saliva from lick marks on a prey’s body suspected to be killed by a tiger. The DNA extracted from these samples, as well as two skins of tigers that had been seized, were compared with samples of five captive pseudo-melanistic tigers in the Nandankanan Biological Park, Bhubaneswar, and the Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Chennai.

Genetic rescue

The findings of this study offers a nuanced view of India’s tiger conservation efforts. For the endangered animal to survive and thrive in the wild, there needs to be more genetic variation. “The population at Similipal Tiger Reserve is small and potentially disconnected from other populations. It is likely that related individuals are mating with each other. That is why the driver of this evolutionary change is likely. But given the small population size, yes, Similipal tigers are undergoing inbreeding,” Mr. Vinay added.

In the paper, researchers said simulations suggest that one migrant tiger per generation would most likely result in the loss of the melanistic mutation from Similipal.

“Regardless of how the frequency of this mutation changes in the future, genetic rescue should benefit the population by increasing heterozygosity and decreasing the probability of inbreeding depression. Careful consideration would be required when selecting the immigrant,” the paper stated.

For Dr. Ramakrisnhan and her team, what began as a curiosity driven investigation — “What is the genetic basis of pseudo-melanism?” — has given them insight into the evolutionary trajectory of a small and isolated population of an endangered species, and solved a long standing mystery of why these tigers look the way they do.

The technology has resulted in the recuperation of 50% of the treatment cost incurred from conventional processes for water treatment

Indian researchers have developed an improved water management system that can completely reuse dye wastewater from textile industries, eliminating its toxicity and making it suitable for domestic and industrial usage, the Department of Science and Technology said on September 9. It can reduce water treatment costs and facilitate reuse of water in dry regions, it added. The current three-stage treatment process for wastewater consisting of primary, secondary, and tertiary treatment is unable to treat toxic industrial wastewater.

High cost

The stand-alone advanced oxidation process (AOP) treatment technique for colour and odour properties in industrial effluents (dye-based) may be insufficient to meet the set government standards and is also limited due to the high cost of AOPs involving continuous supply of chemical reagents.

It cannot remove the synthetic industrial dyes and the effervescent colour and odour, which have a long-lasting carcinogenic and toxic effect on the ecological balance, especially aquatic life. In order to remove this toxicity, an upgraded solution with the AOP technology is the need of the day, it added. Working towards this, researchers from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur along with Malaviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur, and MBM College, Jodhpur, have developed a modified AOP solution.

Modified process

This completely modified treatment process consisting of the primary dosing step, followed by the sand filtration step, another AOP and subsequent carbon filtration step.

It eliminates the need for the conventional primary, secondary, and tertiary processes, resulting in maximum colour removal, and meets the inland water discharge standards.

The DST – Water Technology Initiative (WTI), along with the Indian National Academy of Engineering (INAE) – supported the development of this technology at pilot-level in collaboration with Laxmi Textile Prints, Jaipur.

The much-improved AOP technology targeting zero discharge water management system is being utilised for complete reuse of industrial dye wastewater for domestic and industrial usage at a rate of 10 kilo litres/day. The treatment of toxic and highly carcinogenic industrial dyes of textile effluents is performed using this AOP technology for degrading and mineralising recalcitrant organic matter from effluent wastewater.

Low-cost solution

It is a direct replacement of the existing treatment plant processes and consists of a low-cost solution of dye adsorption on acid-modified soil, followed by a photochemical reaction step within a photocatalytic visible light filter and a unique carbon and PAN (polyacrylonitrile) nano-mat fibre filtration process. Having been set up on a pilot basis, it remediates industrial wastewater.

The technology has resulted in the recuperation of 50% of the treatment cost incurred from conventional processes for water treatment (especially due to the high cost of sludge disposability) in the water-scarce regions of Rajasthan. Further, scaling up of this plant to 100 kilolitres/day capacity to meet the current industrial requirement is underway, it added.

While several international guidelines do exist, many of them reflect the tertiary care perspective of high-income countries

The World Health Organization recently released guidelines for pharmacological treatment of hypertension. Though high blood pressure is a leading cause of disease, disability and death in all regions of the world, affecting an estimated 1.4 billion persons across the world, only 14% have it under control. This is because of three gaps in health system performance. Many who have hypertension are unaware, several of those who are detected are not on treatment and only half of those who are treated are effectively controlled on their prescribed treatment. If health systems do not improve their ability to detect and effectively treat hypertension, serious diseases of heart, brain, kidneys and blood vessels will mount.

Adopt healthy habits

All persons with raised blood pressure will need to adopt healthy living habits: reduced salt intake; consumption of more fruit and vegetables; avoidance or limited intake of alcohol; regular physical activity; maintenance of a healthy body weight; adequate water consumption, good sleep and stress reduction. In addition, several will need drugs for adequate control of blood pressure. The recent WHO guidelines, specifically addressing drug treatment, were framed by an international expert group chaired by me. Apart from assessing the strength of published scientific research, we also drew on the perspectives of policy makers, health system managers, healthcare providers, patients and communities.

While several international guidelines on management of hypertension do exist, many of them reflect the tertiary care perspective of high-income countries. Effective hypertension control must pivot on competent and continuous primary care, for both early detection and long-term management. Guidelines have also been divided over whether hypertension treatment should be initiated on the basis of blood pressure values alone or on a comprehensive risk assessment which takes into account age, gender, smoking status, body mass, prior cardiovascular disease, diabetes and blood cholesterol profile besides blood pressure values. While these measures are useful for customised future risk assessment, insistence on such detailed a priori assessment requiring various laboratory tests may delay initiation of treatment and increase loss to follow-up in primary care. Guidelines must maximise benefits and minimise harm and inconvenience to patients.

The benefit of drug treatment was assessed on health outcomes which included the following: blood pressure control, deaths from any cause, cardiovascular mortality, heart attacks, brain strokes, heart failure and advanced kidney disease. Recommendations were graded on the strength of evidence available and distilled with health system perspectives on feasibility of implementation. The aim was to develop evidence-informed, situationally adaptable, resource-optimising, operationally steerable and equity-promoting guidelines which can be implemented in all countries despite varying health system capacities.

Suggested thresholds

Initiation was recommended for all adults whose blood pressure readings, reliably measured, exceed 140 mm of mercury for the upper level (systolic) or above 90 mm for the lower level (diastolic). However, for persons with a prior history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, treatment should be initiated if the systolic pressure exceeds 130 mm. The same threshold is advised for persons with a high future risk of developing cardiovascular disease, based on clinical and laboratory assessment. Laboratory tests should be performed at the time of diagnosis of hypertension. However, if testing facilities are not readily available and tests are likely to be delayed, treatment may be initiated with a single relatively safe drug amlodipine (a long acting calcium channel blocker) and tests may then be ordered. When test results are available, they will help with choice of further treatments and in comprehensive risk assessment.

When tests confirm that there are no contraindications to certain drugs, three classes of drugs are offered to the prescribing physician on the strength of evidence. They are: thiazide diuretics and thiazide-like agents; angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (both of which act at different levels of the renin–angiotensin system) and calcium channel blockers. Better clinical outcomes are achieved in most persons when drugs from any two of these categories are initially used in combination, in moderate doses, rather than using a single drug in a high dose. This provides the advantage of combining two different but complementary modes of action and avoids the side-effects that accompany a high dose of any single drug.

Recommended targets

The target is to lower blood pressure values to less than 140/90 mm, in all adults. In persons with known cardiovascular disease, the target is a systolic value less than 130 mm. This is based on strong evidence. The same target is also recommended for persons at a high risk of cardiovascular disease or with co-existing diabetes or chronic kidney disease. Persons in whom treatment has been initiated should be followed up monthly, till the target level has been achieved. Once that has been reached, follow up may be once in three to six months, as feasible.

It has been recommended that non-physicians like nurses and pharmacists can provide drug treatment for hypertension if they receive proper training, have prescribing authority, follow specific management protocols and have physician oversight. Community health workers may assist in patient education, blood pressure measurement and delivery of medications, as part of a health team. Telemonitoring and home or community-based self-care are encouraged to improve blood pressure control, as part of an integrated management system.

These guidelines are positioned within a strong scientific frame of evidence, while accommodating the practical aspects of implementation across diverse health systems. Low- and middle-income countries, which have the highest health burdens resulting from uncontrolled hypertension, should find it easier to implement these guidelines rather than those tailor-made for high-income countries.

(Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, a cardiologist and epidemiologist, is President, Public Health Foundation of India ,. Views expressed are personal.)

Climate change affects not only humans but also animals. In adapting to a warming planet, some warm-blooded animals are shapeshifting and getting larger beaks, legs and ears to better regulate their body temperatures (Trends in Ecology and Evolution).

Strong shapeshifting has particularly been reported in birds. Several species of Australian parrot have shown, on average, a 4%-10% increase in bill size since 1871. This is positively correlated with the summer temperature each year. North American dark-eyed juncos, a type of small songbird, had a link between increased bill size and short-term temperature extremes in cold environments. There have also been reported changes in mammalian species. Researchers have reported tail length increases in wood mice and tail and leg size increases in masked shrews.

The researchers are next planning to investigate shapeshifting in Australian birds first-hand by 3D-scanning museum bird specimens from the past 100 years.

“The increases in appendage size we see so far are quite small — less than 10% — so the changes are unlikely to be immediately noticeable,” says bird researcher Sara Ryding of Deakin University in Australia Ryding in a press release. “However, prominent appendages such as ears are predicted to increase.”

“Shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is fine. It just means they are evolving to survive it — but we're not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving,” she says.

This aims at nearly zero daily fresh cases, using border-closing, quarantining entrants, extensive testing and Covid-appropriate behaviour

When SARS-CoV-2 virus began spreading globally early last year, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, like mainland China, adopted a “Zero COVID” strategy. The goal was to aim for almost zero daily fresh cases through a mix of border closing, quarantining people coming into the country, extensive testing and strict implementation of COVID-appropriate behaviour. This not only greatly reduced daily fresh cases, it also led to fewer deaths and health-care facilities not being stretched. But even with a large percentage of the population vaccinated, most of these countries have begun reporting a large number of new cases due to the Delta variant. Some countries have now abandoned the strategy.

In an email to The Hindu, epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu from Bengaluru’s Public Health Foundation of India explains why the Zero COVID strategy is impractical and difficult to sustain and what could be the best exit strategy to aim for.

Recently, despite over 83% of the population being fully vaccinated, Singapore made a dramatic switch from Zero COVID to COVID resilience strategy. Australia too has abandoned its Zero COVID approach. Even with over 61% fully vaccinated, Israel witnessed a surge in daily cases recently. Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong, too, have reported large cases. So, can any country achieve Zero COVID and remain so for long with the Delta variant spreading wildly?

Zero COVID cases is a myth as an accomplishment for a longer time. Countries might be successful only for a transient period, but this will not be sustainable. Many countries which set the ambitious and unrealistic goal of achieving Zero COVID have abandoned it, as each of these countries is vulnerable to the ever-evolving virus.

Considering that fully vaccinated people, too, can get infected with the Delta variant and spread the infection, can any country remain without any fresh daily cases for a long period after fully opening its borders and resuming all economic activities?

No country can permanently shut its borders; with any mobility of people, the virus can only reach the susceptible nations. Countries cannot remain without fresh cases if the borders are opened, and when economic activities are resumed. Only countries with islands and relatively restricted travel could keep the virus in check, at least for a short period. Having no new daily cases is not practical due to its constant evolution.

Even as other countries are struggling, how is China able to effectively stamp out outbreaks within a very short time and almost achieve Zero COVID?

China has adopted a very hard on itself policy by repeated mass testing (to find out the missing cases), a complete cut-off of Beijing from the rest of the country, stringent curbs barring the inflow of people from high-risk to low-risk zones and very strict home isolation. These tough measures have helped China have a low number of COVID cases, but not sure if this can be replicated anywhere else or be sustained in China.

Israel’s coronavirus czar, Salman Zarka has already warned of another wave with new variants. He is talking of a fourth dose and has said that considering the waning of protection from vaccines, additional doses may be needed every few months. Does this reflect the hollowness of the Zero COVID strategy?

While the Zero COVID strategy is impractical, the idea of additional doses of vaccines is not completely backed by science. The countries advocating booster doses have done so mostly because of the country's failing strategy of COVID-19 control, type and dose of vaccine used and its coverage, and failure to prevent the susceptible population against the evolving virus. Isolated and individual country-specific responses against the virus are bound to fail. These countries can keep the infection at bay only for a short time, only to be infected later due to mobility. People in these countries are always at risk of getting infected with newer variants of the virus.

There are multiple challenges with the implementation of booster doses. If the initial doses of a vaccine have not prevented the spread of infection, additional doses also won’t be successful in this goal. For now, ensuring that every eligible person gets two doses in every part of the globe is more important. Even when implemented, acceptance of a greater number of vaccine doses by the public would be a very big challenge. The reactive response to breakthrough infections and mostly mild cases leads to unjustified demand for booster doses. This is derailing the global agenda from what actually needs to be done.

Though not eradicated like in the case of smallpox, many countries have eliminated (reduced case transmission to a predetermined very low level) malaria and measles. Is it possible for any country to work towards eliminating COVID-19?

As long as the virus flourishes in any part of the world, no part of the world is safe. Isolated plans for COVID-19 elimination in a few countries through vaccination alone will not lead anywhere near elimination, even in those countries. We need a global control strategy and need vaccines available to scale to tackle the virus in every part of the world. Elimination of the virus in the short term is a difficult stand to take because even if a country manages to eliminate the virus, opening the borders will expose people to newer strains of the virus even if the country manages to strictly adhere to COVID-appropriate behaviour.

Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus has found new hosts in domestic and wild animals, can the virus be ever eliminated?

When elimination of this virus is infeasible, eradication is out of the question. Eradication of the virus means that it has to be completely exterminated; with the ever-evolving and virulent strains, we cannot rule out the virus finding new animal hosts. Adopting one health strategy to protect humanity against emerging zoonotic diseases should be an integral part of preparing for the future.

The virus is currently evolving to become increasingly more transmissible, lethal and reduce the protection conferred by vaccination or natural infection. So, under what conditions will we see the virus becoming endemic?

Once the combination of acquired immunity and vaccination is achieved in every part of the world, it is expected that most regions may become endemic to SARS-CoV-2. Endemic means sustained transmission at an expected or basal level, although it’s not desirable. I do not see an alternative other than targeting endemicity as the exit strategy.

Considering that even fully vaccinated people can get infected but are very unlikely to progress to severe disease, should we stop fussing about daily fresh cases and instead look at the number of people hospitalised, number of severe cases, ICU bed occupancy and deaths? Should daily cases be categorised as reinfections, breakthrough infections and cases in unvaccinated people?

Undoubtedly, WHO should begin with a newer case definition. The phobia surrounding the number of people who test positive should stop. It is time to revise the case definition to reflect those who need hospitalisation. Otherwise, the numbers will be inflated due to a combination of asymptomatic breakthroughs and false positives. Vaccination prevents hospitalisation and deaths. We need to continually monitor the breakthrough infections and hospitalisations among them in addition to recording reinfections. However, the goal of the newer case definition should be to prevent deaths and hospitalisation due to severe illness.

Released into the wild year ago, the Jatayu Conservation and Breeding Centre project brings some hope to conservationists

In October 2020, eight critically endangered Oriental white-backed vultures were released into the wild for the first time in India from the Jatayu Conservation and Breeding Centre (JCBC) situated at the Bir Shikargah Wildlife Sanctuary in Shivalik ranges of the Himalayan foothills in Haryana’s Pinjore. A year later, they have blended well into the untamed habitat outside the aviary, offering hope to conservationists. But the grave threats to the survival of vultures are far from over.

“The Oriental white-backed vultures that were released in the wild are resident birds and not migratory, so they largely stay within a radius of 50-100 km of the breeding centre. All eight vultures were deployed with satellite tracking devices on their back, and orange-coloured wing tags on both wings, so we are able to monitor them. They have been bred in captivity so they will gradually adjust in the wild. They are flying well and have managed to locate water. Also, they have managed to join the wild flock with other vultures such as the Himalayan griffon, which is surely an encouraging sign. They are not taking sustained flights as other wild birds do, but they are gradually increasing their time of flying, which is again good. We need to wait for another one year. If they survive, then it will be an indication that the environment is safe, after which we will release other raptors as well,” Dr. Vibhu Prakash, Deputy Director and Principal Scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), who heads the JCBC, told The Hindu.

As many as 378 vultures of three species are housed at the centre, of which 131 are Oriental white-backed vultures, 195 are Long-billed vultures, and 52 are Slender-billed vultures. The “founder stock” of birds at the centre was collected from various States, including Assam, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, to maintain genetic diversity.

In 2016, the centre released two Himalayan Griffon vultures, bred in captivity for 10 years, into the wild. “One of the birds could be monitored for 45 days, and within this period, it started flying strongly and could soar very high with other species of vultures. There was no tracking device on these birds, so they could not be followed beyond 45 days. This gave us confidence to carry out future releases,” said Dr. Prakash.

Once very common, vultures are on the verge of extinction in India. Uncontrolled veterinary usage of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), including Aceclofenac, Ketoprofen and Nimesulide, and the illegal use of the banned drug Diclofenac, are toxic to vultures if they feed on carcasses within 72 hours of the drugs' administration to such livestock.

The vulture population in India was estimated at 40 million once. Populations of three species of vultures — the Oriental white-backed vulture, the Long-billed vulture and the Slender-billed vulture — have declined by over 97% since the 1990s, and that of the Oriental white-backed vultures by a drastic 99.9%. It has been established that the vulture population was decimated by the veterinary usage of Diclofenac in India.

“In 2006, the veterinary use of Diclofenac was banned. Later, in 2015, after the Government of India placed restrictions on the size of Diclofenac vials for human consumption to just 3 ml, the prevalence of Diclofenac in cattle carcasses was reduced to less than 2%, which is safe for vultures. But while the use of Diclofenac has gone down, its unlawful usage is still reported. Moreover, the continued use of vulture toxic drugs, including Aceclofenac, Ketoprofen and Nimesulide in livestock treatment, could pose a major impediment to the reintroduction programme,” said Dr Prakash.

Aceclofenac is a “prodrug” of Diclofenac, which rapidly metabolises into Diclofenac after it’s administered to livestock. Dr. Prakash said the continued use of Aceclofenac adds to the availability of Diclofenac in the ecosystem. “We have urged the Drug Controller General of India to ban the veterinary use of Aceclofenac,” he added.The other two drugs — Ketoprofen and Nimesulide — also need to be banned, Dr. Prakash said.

Navjit Singh, secretary of the non-profit Avian Habitat and Wetland Society, said the key reason behind the use of Diclofenac is the fact that it’s a very low-cost drug. “Governments need to ensure that alternative drugs are subsidised to be cheaper than Diclofenac,” he said.

The VCBC was established in 2001 to investigate the devastating declines in India’s Gyps species of vultures. It’s a collaborative initiative between the BNHS and the Haryana Forest and Wildlife Department, to save the three resident Gyps species of vultures in the State — the Oriental white-backed vulture, the Long-billed vulture, and Slender-billed vulture — from looming extinction.

Earlier this week, ISRO opened up its scientific discussions on Lunar Science to the people of the country, to engage the Indian academia, institutes, students, and people from all disciplines and walks of life

The observations of the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads have yielded discovery-class findings, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

There were eight scientific payloads hosted on the orbiter craft. They are: Chandrayaan-2 Large Area Soft X-ray Spectrometer (CLASS), Solar X-ray Monitor (XSM), CHandra's Atmospheric Compositional Explorer 2 (CHACE 2), Dual Frequency Synthetic Aperture Radar (DFSAR), Imaging Infra-Red Spectrometer (IIRS), Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC 2), Orbiter High Resolution Camera (OHRC), and Dual Frequency Radio Science (DFRS) experiment.

Earlier this week, ISRO opened up its scientific discussions on Lunar Science to "the people of the country, to engage the Indian academia, institutes, students, and people from all disciplines and walks of life", in the form of a two-day 'Lunar Science Workshop & Release of Chandrayaan-2 Data'.

The workshop commemorated the completion of two years of the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter in the lunar orbit. The events were conducted in virtual mode.

ISRO Chairman and Secretary in the Department of Space (DoS) K. Sivan inaugurated the workshop and released the documents on Chandrayaan-2 science results and data products for utilisation by the scientific community.

"The lunar workshop delivered the big news of bunch of discovery-class of findings by Chandrayaan-2," the Bengaluru headquartered India's national space agency said.

The mass spectrometer CHACE-2, in its pursuit to conduct first-ever in-situ study of the composition of the lunar neutral exosphere from a polar orbital platform, detected and studied the variability of the Argon-40 at the middle and higher latitudes of the Moon, depicting the radiogenic activities in the mid and higher latitudes of the Lunar interior, it said.

The discovery of Chromium and Manganese on the lunar surface, which are available in trace quantities, by the CLASS payload was announced.

The observations of microflares of the Sun, during the quiet-Sun period, which provide important clues on the coronal heating problem of the Sun, were made by the XSM payload.

The first-ever unambiguous detection of the hydration features of the Moon was achieved by Chandrayaan-2 with its infra-red spectrometer payload IIRS, which captured clear signatures of Hydroxyl and water-ice on the lunar surface, ISRO said.

The DFSAR instrument could study the subsurface features of the Moon, detected signatures of the sub-surface water-ice, and achieved high resolution mapping of the lunar morphological features in the polar regions, it was stated.

"The observations (of Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads) have been yielding intriguing scientific results, which are being published in peer-reviewed journals and presented in international meetings," Mr. Sivan said.

Chandrayaan-2, ISRO said, has the feat of imaging the Moon from 100 km lunar orbit with "best-ever" achieved resolution of 25 cm with its OHRC.

The TMC 2 of Chandrayaan-2, which is conducting imaging of the Moon at a global scale, has found interesting geologic signatures of lunar crustal shortening, and identification of volcanic domes, the ISRO said.

The DFRS experiment onboard Chandrayaan-2 has studied the ionosphere of the Moon, which is generated by the solar photo-ionisation of the neutral species of the lunar tenuous exosphere, it was noted.

The science data archived in Indian Space Science Data Centre (ISSDC) at Byalalu, near here, are being disseminated to public through its 'PRADAN' portal.

The questions received from the academia, institutes and students were addressed by the ISRO scientists during the two-day deliberations.

A panel discussion provided the opportunity to academia, institutes and students to interact with the ISRO scientists on lunar science and Chandrayaan-2, ISRO said.

Chandrayaan-2 is the second spacecraft in the Indian series of Lunar exploration satellites. It comprised an orbiter, lander named Vikram and rover named Pragyan to explore the unexplored South Polar region of the Moon.

It was launched on July 22, 2019 from the Sriharikota spaceport by GSLV Mk-III. It was inserted into a lunar orbit on August 20, 2019, with firing of thrusters on the orbiter.

The orbiter and lander modules were separated as two independent satellites on September 2, 2019.

Later, Vikram lander's descent was as planned and normal performance was observed up to an altitude of 2.1 km from Lunar surface on September seven, 2019. Subsequently, communication from the lander (with the six-wheeled Pragyan rover accommodated inside it) was lost and the lander had a hard landing on the lunar surface.

A successful soft-landing would have made India the fourth country after the erstwhile Soviet Union, the United States, and China to do so, according to ISRO officials.

The orbiter, placed in its intended orbit around the Moon, will enrich our understanding of the Moon's evolution and mapping of minerals and water molecules in polar regions, using its eight advanced scientific instruments, according to ISRO.

The precise launch and optimised mission management have ensured a long life of almost seven years for the orbiter instead of the planned one year, it said.

The order comes in the light of space sector reforms initiated by the govt.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been directed to put on hold the recruitment of scientific and technical personnel until further orders in the light of the space sector reforms initiated by the Central government.

In a September 3 letter to the directors of the various ISRO centres, the Department of Space (DoS) stated that the manpower requirement in the scientific and technical categories was being reassessed in view of the sectoral reforms, highly placed sources said.

Multiple modes

The DoS decision is applicable to recruitments made via multiple modes, including direct recruitment by the centres, centralised recruitment and campus recruitments through the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). The centres have also been directed to cease the hiring of personnel on contract until further orders.

The decision is binding on all ISRO centres and units, including the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), ISRO Propulsion Complex (IPRC) and the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) at Sriharikota.

Reorganisation of staff

A senior ISRO official said recruitments had been ‘temporarily’ put on hold as the establishment of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) and NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) under the DoS had necessitated reorganisation of existing staff.

“A committee has been formed to study the reassessment of manpower, and the recruitment will be resumed as per its recommendations,” the official said.


Meanwhile, the DoS directive has sparked off protests, with the ISRO Staff Association strongly denouncing the move to privatise the space sector. The association staged demonstrations outside the VSSC and the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit (IISU) in Thiruvananthapuram, and the Ammonium Perchlorate Experimental Plant (APEP) at Aluva, on Wednesday.

The “recruitment ban is the second stage of the privatisation process in the ISRO, akin to other public sectors,” the association said, adding that it would adversely impact space missions.

AIIMS to conduct study to ascertain presence of COVID-19 in various parts of eye

Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu on Tuesday called for dispelling myths and false beliefs on eye donation and suggested launching of massive multimedia campaigns in local languages in every State by involving celebrities and icons to create awareness among the people.

Speaking at the 36th National Eye Donation Fortnight celebrations, he referred to the huge gap between demand of donor cornea tissues and supply. “It is unfortunate that so many people are suffering from corneal blindness because of lack of donor cornea tissues for transplant. The need of the hour is to increase awareness among people about the importance of eye donation”, he added.

Observing that many people are not coming forward to donate the eyes of their deceased family members due to myths and false beliefs, Mr. Naidu said that people should be made aware that the noble act of donating their eyes would enable people with corneal blindness to see the beautiful world by restoring their vision.

Meanwhile, the R.P. Centre for Ophthalmic Sciences at AIIMS has initiated a study to ascertain the presence of COVID-19 in parts of the eye of those who have died due to the infection, the centre’s chief J.S. Titiyal said.

He said the study will help ascertain the presence of the virus in the cornea, optic nerve and retina of COVID-19 infected deceased. Doctors noted that there is no proven evidence so far which establishes any direct link between COVID-19 leading to blindness.

Eye banking services have been one of the worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Titiyal said.

Namrata Sharma of the R P Centre said that tissue retrieval is performed only from COVID-19 presumed negative donors, according to established eye banking guidelines.

“To ensure maximum safety, we perform a post-mortem nasopharyngeal swab RT-PCR testing for all our potential donors. Of the tissues retrieved by us between July 2020 and July 2021, we found that 5.5% of the presumed COVID-19 negative donors tested positive for SARS-CoV2,” Dr. Sharma said.

The tissues from these donors were not used for corneal transplantation and were subjected to further microbiological analysis, she added.

How does it spread? Is there a cure for this ‘emerging zoonotic disease’?

The story so far: Kerala has reported a fatality from a case of infection by the Nipah virus in the northern district of Kozhikode bringing back memories of the chaos in May-June 2018 when the same district reported 18 confirmed cases of which there were 17 laboratory-confirmed deaths. It’s the high mortality associated with the virus that triggered panic across the State and the country and when it was controlled the State’s healthcare surveillance system came in for praise though, as it turned out, it was only a test-run for the pandemic of 2020. This time, of the 274 people identified as being among the primary contacts of the 12-year-old boy who died, 68 have tested negative. Close to 15,000 people who live within a three-kilometre radius of the boy’s family, too, are being surveyed for symptoms.

Have outbreaks been frequent?

The human Nipah virus, as it is called, is classified as an “emerging zoonotic disease”, meaning that it can transfer to people after being incubated in other species. It was first recognised in a large outbreak of 276 cases in Malaysia and Singapore from September 1998-1999.

Editorial | Nipah amidst a pandemic

Prior to the Kerala outbreak of 2018, there have been several Nipah virus outbreaks in Bangladesh with spillovers into India particularly in 2001 and 2007 at Siliguri and Nadia in West Bengal. During the outbreak in Siliguri, 33 health workers and hospital visitors became ill after exposure to patients hospitalised with Nipah virus illness. At least 70 people died in the outbreaks in these two districts. In the 2018 outbreak in Kerala, four from the family of the first person confirmed with the infection succumbed to the viral disease.

Where does the virus originate?

The Nipah virus (NiV) is classified as a “highly pathogenic paramyxovirus”, and handling it requires the highest grade of facilities called BS-4. The natural reservoir for the virus is large fruit bats of the Pteropus genus. From here the virus may pass on to pigs which may be infected after eating fruits that are bitten on by infected bats. It’s also possible for the virus to have jumped to humans from bats without pigs being involved, as in previous outbreaks in Bangladesh, via direct contact or through fruits contaminated by bats. Kerala has several fruit plantations that host several species of bats. While investigations are on to determine if there are infected bats in the districts, so far no evidence has emerged. In 2018 too, the animal source of the virus wasn’t established. The virus takes 6-21 days to incubate and manifest as disease. Unlike in the case of the coronavirus which is airborne and can spread across great distances, Nipah does not transmit efficiently. Contact with body fluids and an infected person’s respiratory droplets are the most common ways to catch an infection which explains why those who share a house or hospital facilities harbouring the infected patients are at the greatest risk.

What are the symptoms and how is it diagnosed?

Fever, delirium, severe weakness, headache, respiratory distress, cough, vomiting, muscle pain, convulsion and diarrhoea are the main symptoms. Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or respiratory diseases are common too, hence the 40%-75% fatality rate. Because of the lethality of the virus, very few Indian laboratories like the Pune-based National Institute of Virology are equipped to isolate the virus using cell culture methods. However, the virus’s presence in blood or saliva samples can be determined — like coronavirus tests — in commercial antibody tests that detect the presence of antibodies in the serum. Tests like RT-PCR, undertaken by commercial laboratories, can also be used to detect the virus.

Currently, there is no known treatment or vaccine for either people or animals. Ribavirin, an antiviral, may have a role in reducing mortality among patients with encephalitis caused by the Nipah virus disease, according to a fact-sheet by the National Centre for Disease Control. The thrust of treatment relies on managing symptoms. There are, however, immunotherapeutic treatments (monoclonal antibody therapies) that are under development and evaluation. One such monoclonal antibody, m102.4, has completed Phase 1 clinical trials, and has been used on a compassionate use basis. In addition, the antiviral treatment Remdesivir has been effective in non-human primates when given as post-exposure prophylaxis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are no approved vaccines but recent studies have shown that a Covishield-like vaccine fully protected a small group of primates (Green African monkeys). Another vaccine candidate has been in preliminary human trials, with the results expected later this year.

The eight payloads onboard Chandrayaan-2 are conducting scientific observations of the Moon by remote sensing and in-situ techniques, ISRO said.

The Chairman of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) K. Sivan on Monday inaugurated a Lunar Science Workshop 2021, to commemorate the completion of two years of operation of Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft around the lunar orbit.

Chandrayaan-2 data product and science documents were released by Sivan, also Secretary in the Department of Space (DoS), along with data from Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads, Bengaluru-headquartered ISRO said in a statement.

The eight payloads onboard Chandrayaan-2 are conducting scientific observations of the Moon by remote sensing and in-situ techniques, it said.

“The science data are being made available for analysis by academia and institutes, for a greater participation to bring out more science from Chandrayaan-2 mission,” ISRO said.

The two-day workshop, organised by ISRO, is being live-streamed on the space agency’s website and Facebook page, for effectively reaching the students, academia and institutes, and to engage the scientific community to analyse Chandrayaan-2 data.

The science results from the eight payloads are being presented by the scientists in the workshop being held virtually.

In addition, there will be lectures on the Chandrayaan-2 mission, tracking, operations, and data archival aspects.

Along with the scientists from ISRO/DoS, there will also be lectures on lunar science to be delivered by scientists from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, it was stated.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have discovered a new pathway in the human brain that processes the sounds of language. They found that auditory and speech processing occur in parallel (Cell).

For decades, scientists have thought that speech processing in the auditory cortex followed a serial pathway. It was thought that first, the primary auditory cortex processes simple acoustic information, such as frequencies of sounds. Then, an adjacent region, the superior temporal gyrus (STG), extracts more important features, like consonants and vowels, transforming sounds into meaningful words. But direct evidence for thishas been lacking.

Nine participants who underwent brain surgeries had arrays of small electrodes to cover their entire auditory cortex to collect neural signals for language and seizure mapping. The recordings were analysed to understand how the auditory cortex processes speech sounds.

When short phrases and sentences were played, the researchers found that some areas located in the STG responded as fast as the primary auditory cortex, suggesting that both areas started processing acoustic information simultaneously.

When the participants’ primary auditory cortex was stimulated with small electric currents, they experienced auditory hallucinations but were still able to clearly hear and repeat the said words. But when the STG was stimulated, the participants reported that they could hear people speaking, but couldn’t make out the words, the press release says.

When the first malarial vaccine (named RTS,S) was used along with drugs, the efficacy went up to 70%, or more

When the World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) considers, on October 6, evidence to decide on the roll out of the first malarial vaccine (RTS,S), the latest body of research – testing a vaccine combination with antimalarial drugs which demonstrated efficacy in preventing hospitalisations from severe malaria and deaths – is likely to bolster the case for voting aye.

Without drugs

According to a paper recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study measured the efficacy of vaccination with or without chemoprevention (drugs). The authors noted: “The combination of these interventions resulted in a substantially lower incidence of uncomplicated malaria, severe malaria, and death from malaria than either intervention alone.”

One of the authors of the paper, Daniel Chandramohan, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says: “In the phase III trial, vaccine RTS,S was 50% efficacious in children more than one year old and 25% in infants, compared to a control vaccine during an 18 months follow up period.”

When the vaccine was used along with chemoprevention, efficacy went up to 70%, or over. The protective efficacy of the combination as compared with chemoprevention alone was 62.8% against clinical malaria, 70.5% against hospital admission with severe malaria and 72.9% against death from malaria. The protective efficacy of the combination as compared with the vaccine alone against these outcomes was 59.6% , 70.6%, and 75.3% respectively, the study notes. “We were surprised by this incredible effect of the combination of vaccine plus chemo. That is the reason these results are likely to shift the WHO’s position on using this combination,” he says.

Dr. Chandramohan who is from Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, qualified in medicine at the Madurai Medical College, is a professor of public health with special interest in malaria, pneumonia and meningitis. He goes on to explain that the Malaria vaccine was first authorised in 2015 by the European Medicines Agency for use in Africa in infants and children. However, WHO requested for more safety data and a large pilot study was done in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana involving 7,50,000 children. The results of this study will be presented to WHO expert committee on October 6, he explains.

The instant study involving a combination of the vaccine and drugs was done among 6,861 children (five to 17 months of age) in the Sahel and sub-Sahel regions of Africa, seasonally, with three groups randomly receiving just the drugs, the vaccine alone, and the vaccine and drugs together. They were followed up for three years. “We have now shown that indeed in seasonal transmission areas in Africa this vaccine is safe and is more efficacious when given along with chemoprophylaxis during the transmission season,” he adds.

The malaria vaccine prevents the parasite developing in humans. However, some break through infections could happen. When there is a vaccine break through infection, the antimalarial drug kills those parasites. In addition, each course of the drug has chemoprophylactic effect for at least 3 weeks and during that period the vaccine and drugs together prevent any new infections, Dr. Chandramohan explains further. “The results of this trial are applicable to Africa only,” he says, “We don’t know how effective it will be in India, as we have not yet tested this vaccine outside Africa.”

Logistical issues

Are there logistical issues delivering a five-dose vaccine and additional antimalarial drugs in resource-poor countries? For the five-dose vaccine, the first three doses can be given to infants through Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) and the annual booster doses can be given either through EPI or in campaign mode. “In Africa, the seasonal malaria chemoprevention that involves the administration of antimalarial drugs four times a year, has been successfully given to around 25 million children in West Africa. So I think it is feasible to deliver the combination at scale, though there may be logical challenges,” says Dr. Chandramohan.

Indian and global data suggest that the risk of severe disease and death are low in adolescents and children younger than 12 years

At least six States in India reopened schools in mid-August, while schools in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan reopened on September 1. However, contrary to scientific evidence and ICMR recommendations, except Bihar where classes for primary and middle-school students have reopened on priority, all other States did the reverse — first reopened classes for secondary school students.

“States prioritising schools for higher classes and not reopening primary schools reflects many things. One, scientific and epidemiological evidence is not what is used for decision-making. Two, policy makers go by assumption that older children are more likely to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour. Finally, the decision is also influenced by fear and apprehension among parents that younger children may be at higher risk,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist.

Relative risks

“Based on Indian as well as global data, the risk of severe disease and death are low in adolescents and children younger than 12 years. Adults have almost 15 times higher risk of death and severe disease compared with children below 18 years,” Dr. N.K. Arora, a senior member of National COVID-19 Task Force had earlier told The Hindu. While children can get asymptomatic infection or have very mild disease, the risk of severe disease or death is rare.

Even susceptibility to infection is low in younger children. According to epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu from Bengaluru’s Public Health Foundation of India, 15 contact-tracing studies indicate that children and adolescents have lower susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection than adults. “If you examine the data carefully, lower susceptibility is mostly confined to children younger than 10-14 years,” he says.

J-shaped curve

In an email, Dr. Lahariya says: “The available global data on age distribution of COVID-19 indicates that all children are naturally at low risk from COVID-19. The age distribution of moderate to severe illness and mortality follows a ‘J’ shaped curve, where at the base of the ‘J’ are 10-year-old children who are at the lowest risk among all age groups.”

He adds: “Children aged 6-14 years or the age group in the primary and upper primary schools form the base of the ‘J’ and have the lowest risk of COVID-19. Amongst other reasons, this is why primary schools must be the first to resume classes.”

The fourth serosurvey of ICMR did indicate that seroprevalence in children was comparable to adults. Seroprevalence among children aged 6-17 years was about 60% (57.2% among children 6-9 years and 61.6% among children 10-17 years), while unvaccinated adults had 62% seropositivity. According to Dr. Lahariya, independent serosurveys undertaken in a few cities have found seropositivity around 75% for children. Thus, the notion that children have been largely sheltered leading to low seroprevalence and thus have elevated risk of infection and disease once schools reopen is not supported by data.

Especially when daily cases are well under control in most parts of the country, the risk of reopening schools is minimal precisely because seropositivities from prior infection exceed 50% currently across the country and in a number of States this number is in excess of 60-70%, says Dr. Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University and co-author of COVID-19 modelling studies. “There should be no major impact of opening schools and colleges in terms of setting up a large second wave, although cases will rise,” he says.

Transmitting the virus

However, even when children may not suffer from serious illness, they are very likely to spread the virus to adults leading to an increase in cases particularly in areas with lower seroprevalence. This is particularly of concern when they transmit the virus to adults older than 60 years and those with comorbidities who are more vulnerable to severe disease and even death.

This brings the focus back to targeted vaccination of teachers and non-teaching staff at schools and parents of school-going children. Any plan for reopening schools should include strategies to mitigate the risk to parents, teachers, and all other contacts to enable children's safety bubbles, says Dr. Babu. This strategy of providing a protective ring around children helps in reducing their risk of getting infected and spreading the infection to adults. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had started vaccinating teachers on priority some time back. Dr. Menon says that in modelling, there is certainly some mitigation that results from targeted vaccination of parents and teachers.

The States that have already reopened schools have recorded new cases among children but no large outbreaks have been reported. There has also been a concomitant increase in testing of school children in States where schools have reopened. “These cases in children are the outcome of improved testing and reporting. What we need to remember is that infection is common in children and that is not an immediate concern at this stage of the pandemic,” says Dr. Lahariya.

Role of testing

Will regular testing in schools and colleges help prevent or minimise outbreaks? “There's never been a test of this in any evidence-based way, so we don't really know. While some US-based campuses, such as Cornell, do this and have been successful in controlling outbreaks, the levels of prior exposure and seropositivity there are considerably less than in India, so the same intuition might not apply,” says Dr. Menon.

Dr. Lahariya doesn’t see any particular benefit accruing from regular testing in schools.

“It could be a good idea to conduct testing in schools. However, knowing the fact that children do get infected and do not develop severe disease, it is not very clear what purpose it would serve,” he says.

The priority should be on making sure COVID-appropriate behaviour is strictly adhered to at all times both by teachers and students. Important in this is mask-wearing. The Health Ministry has recommended masks for anyone older than five years, and this should be followed in schools as well. According to Dr. Babu, Karnataka COVID-19 Technical Advisory Committee has recommended masks for children older than two years.

Increased ventilation, reduced crowding by limiting the number of students in a class, increased physical distancing, reduced mixing of different cohorts, and more outdoor activity can further reduce the risk of virus spread.

When cases in children get reported, how should schools decide when to shut down? In nearly all countries, reporting of a case or a few cases in the schools does not mean school shutdown. Children are already exposed and that’s why classes may continue,” Dr. Lahariya says. “However, if a few clusters of cases are reported or cases are reported from more than one class, then other measures need to be taken. However, I repeat, finding one or a few cases does not mandate school or class closure.”

A new and fascinating aspect to hybrid vigour is the rhizomicrobiome

Plants appear to be simple enough in their organisation. Whether small shrubs or tall trees, all they seem to be made up of is leaves, flowers, fruits, stems and roots. But simple they are not. Being rooted to one spot has required very special personality traits. The ability to make food from sunlight and the carbon dioxide in air has given them a central position in life forms on earth. They cannot run, but ably defend themselves. A fascinating aspect of their abilities lies out of sight, in the soil from which they sprout, and from which they derive water, micronutrients, and a host of other benefits.

Ancient association

The association between plants and fungi is ancient. Fossils of plants from about 400 million years ago show the first evidence of roots, and these roots are fungus associations – rhizoids – suggesting that roots co-evolved with fungi. One good example is species of Penicillium, the fungus from which Alexander Fleming isolated the antibiotic penicillin. Fungus–root associations, called mycorrhizae, appear at first glance to be simple mutualisms that are beneficial to both. The root-invading fungus gains nutrients made by the plant, and the plants get difficult-to-find minerals like phosphorus from the microbe. But the association is deeper.

The Wood Wide Web

Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, working in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, made an interesting finding. In carefully controlled experiments with saplings of birch and fir trees enclosed in clear plastic bags that contained some radioactive carbon dioxide gas, she showed that the birch converted this labelled gas to radioactive sugars by photosynthesis, and within two hours, traces of this radioactive sugar appeared in the leaves of the fir saplings growing nearby. The exchange is mainly though the mycelia of fungi, and may extend through the whole forest, with young trees that are struggling on a dry patch being helped out by carbon transfer from their luckier counterparts. A reviewer writing in the journal Nature called such systems as the Wood Wide Web.

Bacteria that associate with roots are called rhizobacteria, and a very wide range of these species are plant growth promoters. Like the fungi, mutualism operates in these relationships too. In exchange for sugars, these bacteria offer plants a wide range of benefits. They may help plants ward off pathogens that cause diseases of the root. They may even trigger systemic resistance to a pathogen throughout the plant.

Hybrid vigour

The green revolution brought a sea change in the growing of agricultural produce in our country. The key to this was the establishing of hybrid varieties of crop plants. Today, a vast majority of commercially grown crops are hybrids, where two inbred lines are crossed, with their first-generation hybrid offspring exhibiting a vigour that is lacking in either of its parents. The property of hybrid vigour, called heterosis, has been known for centuries, but remains only partly understood.

Root cause

A new and fascinating aspect to hybrid vigour has been found in the rhizomicrobiome – the rich collection of microbes that surround the roots of every plant. Maggie Wagner of the University of Kansas (at the heart of one of the great corn-producing areas of the world) addressed heterosis from the viewpoint of plant–root microbe interactions. Using maize as the model crop, her group has recently shown that the rich biomass of roots in hybrid maize, as well as other positive traits, is reliant on appropriate soil microbes (PNAS, Volume 118(30), July 27, 2021). In laboratory-sterilised soils that are totally devoid of microbes, both the inbred parents and hybrid offspring grow equally well, there being no sign of vigour in the latter. Then they started to ‘rebuild’ the soil environment, one bacterium at a time.

They could attain the normal parent–offspring difference in vigour by introducing just seven species of bacteria into the sterile soil. The experiment could be extrapolated to the fields too: Fumigating, or steaming the soil in one experimental plot led to decreased heterosis, because this soil was depleted of microbes.

Agronomists estimate that depending on the fertility of the soil, hybrid maize requires 180–225 kg of artificial fertilizer for a yield of nine tons of grain per hectare. Producing this fertilizer is an energy intensive task.

As our nation strives towards lofty goals for sustainable agriculture, using simple microbial ways of improving crop quality (and quantity) would be a small step in that direction.

(This article has been written in collaboration with Sushil Chandani who is a professional computational biologist,

A collaborative effort by Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, National Central University, Taiwan, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and IIST, the small satellite is set to blast off aboard ISRO’s upcoming PSLV mission

INSPIRESat-1 CubeSat, developed under the International Satellite Program in Research and Education (INSPIRE), is ready for launch, the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) has said.

The small satellite that weighs less than 10 kg will be launched aboard an upcoming Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) mission of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

INSPIRESat-1 is a collaborative effort by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder in the U.S., the National Central University, Taiwan, and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, apart from the IIST.

The satellite, which will be placed in a low earth orbit, is equipped with a Compact Ionosphere Probe for studying the earth's ionosphere. A constellation of earth and space-weather observation satellites is envisaged under the INSPIRE programme.

IIST role

IIST students were responsible for the design and development of the onboard computer and the electrical power supply for INSPIRESat-1.

S. Somanath, director, IIST, and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), said on Saturday said that INSPIRESat-1 has been fully integrated, tested and is awaiting launch on a PSLV mission.

''It gave the IIST students hands-on experience in the areas of design, development and also miniaturisation since these are small satellites,'' said Y.V.N. Krishna Murthy, Registrar, IIST. The students also gained valuable experience from the global collaboration.

The INSPIRESat-1 mission was originally planned for 2020, but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the collaboration, IIST students also attended training programmes hosted by LASP.

Sands of time: The giant finds in western Rajasthan are estimated to be 200 million years old

In a major discovery, footprints of three species of dinosaurs have been found in the Thar desert in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer district, proving the presence of the giant reptiles in the western part of the State, which formed the seashore to the Tethys Ocean during the Mesozoic era.

The footprints, made in the sediment or silt of the seashore, later become permanently stone-like. They belong to three species of dinosaurs — Eubrontes cf. giganteus, Eubrontes glenrosensis and Grallator tenuis. While the giganteus and glenrosensis species have 35 cm footprints, the footprint of the third species was found to be 5.5 cm.

Virendra Singh Parihar, Assistant Professor, Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, a member of the team of palaeontologists that made the discovery recently, told The Hindu on Friday that the footprints were 200 million years old. They were found near Jaisalmer’s Thaiat village.

The dinosaur species are considered to be of the theropod type, with the distinguishing features of hollow bones and feet with three digits. All the three species, belonging to the early Jurassic period, were carnivorous, said Dr. Parihar.

Eubrontes could have been 12 to 15 metres long and weighed between 500 kg and 700 kg, while the height of the Grallator is estimated to have been two metres, as much as a human, with a length of up to three metres.

Careful geological observations enabled the scientists to interpret ancient environments in which the rocks of the footprints, which were once soft sediments, were deposited. Geochemical analyses and calculation of weathering indices showed that the hinterland climate was seasonal to semi-arid during the deposition of the footprints.

Fieldwork in the Kutch and Jaisalmer basins has suggested that after the main transgression during the early Jurassic period, the sea level changed several times. Spatial and temporal distribution of sediments and traces of fossils and post-depositional structures provided an indication to this phenomenon.

Dr. Parihar said some features of the Grallator tenuis footprint, involving a wide angle of digits, very narrow toes, and long claws, had strong similarities to the early Jurassic ichnogenus of Stenonyx. There could be taxonomic variation between the Grallator tracemakers from North America and the findings in Rajasthan, he said.

Jan Schlogl of Comenius University in Slovakia and Grzegorz Pienkowski from Warsaw University in Poland were the first to discover dinosaur footprints in India after the ‘Ninth International Congress on the Jurassic System’ was held in Jaipur in 2014.

Dr. Parihar said the possibility of finding more evidence of dinosaurs in the Jaisalmer and Barmer districts, forming part of the mighty Thar desert stretching to both the sides of the India-Pakistan border, is very strong. “It is just the beginning of the findings of dinosaur remains in Rajasthan. More discoveries of dinosaur fossils will be made in the near future,” he said.

A month ago, Perseverance drilled into much softer rock, and the sample crumbled and didn’t get inside the titanium tube.

NASA’s newest Mars rover has successfully collected its first rock sample for return to Earth, after last month’s attempt came up empty.

The Perseverance rover’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, called it a perfect core sample.

“I’ve never been more happy to see a hole in a rock,” he tweeted on September 2.

A month ago, Perseverance drilled into much softer rock, and the sample crumbled and didn’t get inside the titanium tube. The rover drove a half-mile to a better sampling spot to try again. Team members analysed data and pictures before declaring success.

Perseverance arrived in February at Mars’ Jezero Crater — believed to be the home of a lush lake-bed and river delta billions of years ago — in search of rocks that might hold evidence of ancient life. NASA plans to launch more spacecraft to retrieve the samples collected by Perseverance; engineers are hoping to return as many as three dozen samples in about a decade.

“Be patient, little sample, your journey is about to begin,” Mr. Steltzner said.

A month ago, Perseverance drilled into much softer rock, and the sample crumbled and didn’t get inside the titanium tube.

NASA’s newest Mars rover has successfully collected its first rock sample for return to Earth, after last month’s attempt came up empty.

The Perseverance rover’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, called it a perfect core sample.

“I’ve never been more happy to see a hole in a rock,” he tweeted on September 2.

A month ago, Perseverance drilled into much softer rock, and the sample crumbled and didn’t get inside the titanium tube. The rover drove a half-mile to a better sampling spot to try again. Team members analysed data and pictures before declaring success.

Perseverance arrived in February at Mars’ Jezero Crater — believed to be the home of a lush lake-bed and river delta billions of years ago — in search of rocks that might hold evidence of ancient life. NASA plans to launch more spacecraft to retrieve the samples collected by Perseverance; engineers are hoping to return as many as three dozen samples in about a decade.

“Be patient, little sample, your journey is about to begin,” Mr. Steltzner said.

China landed a Mars rover in May in its first-ever mission to the planet, becoming the second country after the United States to do so. NASA's most advanced rover, Perseverance, landed on the planet in February.

China has developed a prototype miniature helicopter for surveillance work on future Mars missions, according to its space science agency, following the historic landing of a robotic rover on the Red Planet a few months ago.

The prototype is similar in appearance to the robotic helicopter Ingenuity, developed by NASA for its Perseverance mission this year, according to a photograph posted on the website of China's National Space Science Center on Wednesday.

The agency said the helicopter could be a tool for China's follow-up exploration on Mars, but it did not give details.

China landed a Mars rover in May in its first-ever mission to the planet, becoming the second country after the United States to do so. NASA's most advanced rover, Perseverance, landed on the planet in February.

From the NASA rover, Ingenuity made its inaugural flight in April, rising about 3 metres (10 feet) above the surface, in humankind's first successful deployment of a powered aircraft in a world other than Earth.

The challenge for the 1.8 kg (4 pound) Ingenuity is the planet's thin atmosphere, which is just 1% as dense as Earth's.

To compensate for the lack of aerodynamic lift, NASA engineers equipped Ingenuity with rotor blades that are larger -1.2 metres (4 feet) tip to tip - and spin more rapidly than would be needed on Earth for an aircraft of its size.

Like Ingenuity, the Chinese prototype sports two rotorblades, a sensor-and-camera base and four thin legs. But thereis no solar panel at the top like Ingenuity, according to thephotograph.

Ingenuity has made more than 10 outings since April, covering an overall distance of more than 2 km (1.2 miles) with flight time of about 20 minutes in all.

China is planning its first crewed mission to Mars in 2033.

China's Tianwen-1 Mars mission will be inactivated for about 50 days from mid-September due to an expected disruption of its communication with Earth caused by the solar electromagnetic radiation, the mission's chief designer has said.

Tianwen-1, consisting of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, was launched on July 23, 2020. It was the first step in China's planetary exploration of the solar system, with the aim of completing orbiting, landing and roving on the red planet in one mission.

The rover had been operating on the red planet for the last 100 days as of Monday, while the orbiter has been circling Mars since February.

During the disruption, which will end in early November, the Zhurong rover and the mission's orbiter will suspend their working mode, Zhang Rongqiao of the China National Space Administration told reporters on Monday.

"During that time, the Earth, Mars and the Sun will almost be in a straight line and the distance between the Earth and Mars will be farthest," Mr. Zhang said.

"The sun's electromagnetic radiation will greatly affect the communication between the rover, the orbiter and ground control," state-run China Daily quoted him as saying.

After they resume operation, the rover will continue traveling southward toward an ancient coastal area on Utopia Planitia, a large plain within the largest known impact basin in the solar system, for scientific exploration while the orbiter will enter a new Mars orbit to carry out a remote-sensing global survey of the red planet and will continue relaying signals between Zhurong and the Earth, Mr. Zhang said.

As of Monday, Zhurong had traveled 1,064 meters on the Martian surface and was in a good condition with sufficient energy, Mr. Zhang said.

The core component of the Tianwen 1 mission, the country's first interplanetary adventure – the 240-kilogramme Zhurong – has outlived its three-month life expectancy with all of its predetermined tasks completed.

The lander carrying the rover touched down in the southern part of Utopia Planitia, a vast plain on the northern hemisphere of Mars, on May 15, this year.

Chinese spacecraft landed in Mars three months after the successful landing of the U.S. space agency NASA's Perseverance rover which is busy exploring the red planet's surface.