Tuesday, July 22, 2014

OCD and the malleable brain

The 2004 film ‘The aviator’ tells the real life story of Howard Hughes (1910-1976), the American business tycoon. Played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hughes was a filmmaker, investor, inventor, aerospace engineer, real estate magnate and one of the richest man in the world of his time. An unparalleled aviator who held many flying records, he was one of the pioneers of the aviation industry.
Hughes’ later years however were spent suffering in the grips of a terrible disease – the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD for short. He lost his health and reputation and spent most of his time alone. He degenerated so much that he was unrecognisable when he died under mysterious circumstances – this 6’4’’ tall man weighed only 40 kg at death!
A cruel and unforgiving mental disease, OCD affects one in every 40 people. The patients of OCD experience two types of mental activity. The first is called the Obsession. These are disturbing and intruding thoughts like – ‘My hands are dirty’, or ‘I haven’t locked the door’. The feeling of something being wrong is very strong and it possesses the patient’s mind completely.
The second kind of mental activity is the ‘Compulsion’. Harried by the obsessive thoughts, the patients gets an overwhelming feeling that they must do a specific action to undo the wrong. Under the influence of this belief, the patients do things like washing their hands or checking the lock. But the relief in obsessive thoughts that this action brings is short. The thoughts strike again, and patient is forced to act one more time. This cruel cycle goes on. Patients loose peace of mind, many are unable to keep a job or relationship and some think of suicide.
The thoughts like hand being dirty or not having locked the door are well known examples of obsessions, but there are numerous more forms that these thoughts can take. Strong violent, sexual or religious urges, doubts of a cheating partner, mistakes in documents, neatness of clothes… there is long list of obsessive thoughts that doctors of OCD patients have noted. Similarly, compulsive actions also range from washing and checking to saying specific words again and again. The man in our case study- Howard Hughes- was known to be obsessive about many things, including neatness of blouses of his film heroines. As an example of compulsion, he is supposed to have watched the movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’ 150 times!
In the 1990’s scientists found that OCD is caused by a faulty wiring of the brain. Two parts of brain – the Orbito-Frontal Cortex or OFC and the caudate nucleus, become locked with each other in such a way so as to produce extra activity. This hyperactivity gives rise to the feeling of ‘something is terribly wrong’ and ‘I have to do such-and-such’.
Dr. Jeffrey Shwartz of University of California at LA (UCLA) formulated a therapy called the ‘Four Step Therapy’ for OCD in 1996. This therapy is based on the Mindfulness Meditation practiced by the Buddhist monks. In short, the four steps are:
Relabel – when the obsessive thoughts come into your mind, recognise them as OCD thoughts and not facts. ‘This is OCD, not me’.
Reattribute – understand the brain mechanism (the OFC-caudate nucleus embrace) behind the thoughts and learn to attribute the thoughts to that mechanism.
Refocus – instead of compulsive action, learn to do something else, such as gardening or walking. Do not suppress, just postpone the compulsive action, and focus instead on another task.
Revalue – after a few months of this therapy, the patients learn not to give importance to the OCD thoughts, in effect, revalue the thoughts as not important.
It was found that after the patients went through this therapy, not only their thoughts and behaviour changed, but their brains actually rewired! The hyperactivity that was seen in PET scans (a kind of medical imaging technology, like CT or MRI) had reduced a lot. This proved that the wiring of the brain was not fixed, but changeable. This phenomena, called ‘neuroplasticity’, broke the century old belief that brain is wired only up to the tender age of 5, and then remains unchanged throughout life.
We will take this thread further in the next article, where we will see how the brain gets wired in the early age, and what can make it change.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What we are doing to the bumblebees

The bumblebee is a relative of the familiar honeybee. The bumblebees usually live in high altitudes and colder climates than other bees. Like other bees, they visit flowers and collect nectar as their food. While doing so, they also collect pollen and drop them on other flowers, a process we call pollination. All bees and many other insects are pollinators, but bumblebees have a special trick up their sleeve. It makes them much better pollinators, and this has put them in danger.
Bumblebees do what is called as buzz pollination. They vibrate their flight muscles at a particular frequency which some plats like tomato and cranberries like to hear. As a response to the buzz music, these flowers release their pollen. This makes bumblebees the best pollinators for tomato and such other crops.
Enter man. Clever men noticed this and started raising bumblebees in artificial environment. These cultivated bumblebees are used in greenhouses to pollinate tomatoes. Bumblebees hibernate in winter. Since the farmers needed grown up bumblebees in summer, the growers discovered how to turn of the hibernation so that enough bumblebees will be available in summer. The business of growing bumblebees came to be known as bombiculture. Bombiculture is now a 70 million dollar (400 crore rupees) business in Europe, Japan and other parts of the world.
This was good for humans, but bad for the bumblebees. Bombiculture puts a lots of bees together, which is not how they naturally live. Infectious diseases became common in the commercial colonies of bumblebees. Sometimes, these cultivated bees escape to the wild and infect the wild population too. The infections has led to a decline in wild bumblebee population.
There were other factors to the decline of the bumblebees – habitat destruction, pesticide use, climate change added to the woes of the bees. Today, 16 or 88 species of bumblebees in Europe are facing the risk of extinction. In North America, some populations of the bumblebees have dwindled by 87%!
The extinction of bumblebees would result in serious damage to many landscapes. There are many plants which are pollinated only by bumblebees, and they will risk extinction too. In our search for bigger and juicier tomatoes, we have probably pushed the humble bumblebee and many other plants to oblivion.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Best movies about Sustainability

Sustainability in popular culture

Whenever a problem assumes threatening proportions for a society, its appearance in popular culture goes up. Books, music, movies, television and painting have always reflected the concerns of the society in which they are born. Be it oppression, slavery, drugs, women rights, war, terrorism – they all find there way into popular culture.  Even our own Bollywood has graduated from smuggling in the 70’s and early 80’s to the non-resident Indians of 90’s to terrorism in the first decade of 21st century!

The works of popular culture spread ideas quickly and influence minds in a way that academic works cannot. Who can underestimate the influence of Voltaire’s works in French Revolution or the pivotal role of ‘Vande Mataram’ in India’s freedom struggle?

I want to do a quick survey of sustainability concerns in popular culture, and I am going to focus on the movies. The first movie I describe is however, a non-fiction work, a documentary. ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is an absorbing, disturbing and thought provoking documentary film on Global Warming made by form US vice president Al Gore. It won two academy awards in 2006 and a commercial success on the box office! The presents scientific viewpoint on Global Warming and also it present and future effects. One of its purpose is to refute those who claim that effects of global warming will be negligible. In one scene, Al Gore discusses the possibility than a major ice sheet in Greenland or Antarctica might collapse, causing a 20 feet rise in sea levels, flooding coastal areas and producing 100 million refugees.

In the end, Al Gore gives a message for us:

"Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each one of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, the electricity we use, the cars we drive; we can make choices to bring our individual carbon emissions to zero. The solutions are in our hands, we just have to have the determination to make it happen. We have everything that we need to reduce carbon emissions, everything but political will. But in America, the will to act is a renewable resource.”

Erin Brockovich is a next item on my list. It’s a 2000 film based on the real life of Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk in California. The movie shows how working as a legal clerk, Erin comes across a case of Water Contamination by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The residents of Hinkley, California are troubled by various health problems, including tumours and  Hodgkin Disease. She spends a lot of time uncovering the origin of the water contamination, which turns out to be the pollutant hexavalent chromium. Erin convinces her employer and they file a class action suit against the giant company Pacific Gas and Electric. Even though not trained in law, Erin plays a pivotal role in the lawsuit, especially in managing the 634 plaintiffs during the proceedings. The movie exposes the ugly side of big corporations- bribing the residents by paying their medical expenses, destroying key documents and using delaying tactics. Erin Brockovich brought forward the darker side of economic prosperity, in an eminently watchable format. It should be noted that the pollution of hexvalent chromium in Hinkley was assessed once again in 2010 and 2013, and was found to be spreading to wider areas.

A movie based on similar theme is ‘A Civil Action’, which tells the story of a flamboyant, ambulance chaser lawyer whose life changes while working on a water contamination case. His fight becomes a personal one as he refuses to settle out of court and keeps on fighting. He loses all his and his firm’s money and goes bankrupt while fighting the case against big corporations. The case is then taken up by the Environment Protection Agency, a government agency fighting against ecosystem damage. Once again, the apathetic attitude of the industry towards the damage they are causing is depicted in no uncertain terms here.

We are probably the last generation who can do something to avoid the impending calamity of ecological disaster. A movie called ‘The Age of Stupid’ builds this theme to perfection. The story of the movie happens in 2055, when earth is already devastated. Many cities are under water, desert has advanced and eaten cities like Los Angles, fires are consuming parts of world. A researcher find an archive of old recording in a repository somewhere in the Arctic. He watches footage, mostly from the years 2000-2008. What he finds is that ‘those people did not act while there was still time’. The footage he watches is real, taken from interviews and news items. The movie thus switches between fiction and reality. This movie was made entirely from crowdfunding, and is available for free screening for anyone. 

Many movies are being made for children too. Happy Feet is a movie for children, that tells the tale of habitat destruction and melting of ice in Antarctica. Lorax and FernGully are about deforestation. 

The list grows and grows. Wall-E is a movie about waste management. The robot Wall-E is assigned the task of clearing a waste covered earth of future. The Japanese movie Muro Ami is about illegal and unregulated fishing. The horror movie The Happening tells the dark story of the revenge by plants. Anyone who does not know about ecological concerns can probably glance at this list and safely deduce about the growing severity of the problem in the minds of the people. The day is not far when Bollywood makes a movie with an ecological disaster in background. It will be a scary day!

The last movie I want to talk about is of course the James Cameroon director blockbuster Avatar. While being a typical Hollywood adventure flick with lots of special effects, it is really a story of exploitation of the planet, in this case the distant Pandora. It touches the issues of exploitation of earth capital, learning from indigenous people, a planet that functions as an organism (Gaia theory). Native people protect their forests from attacking human beings, a thinly veiled metaphor for the commercial interests destroying ecosystems on earth.

I think that movies is a good medium to propagate ideas far and wide. Recommending a good environmental movie (such as those I have talked about) is an easy and effective way to spread the word.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ecosystem sciences Part 5 : Flood control

In the last part we came to the sobering realization that stretching ecosystem too far is dangerous for our own future. In this part, I want to introduce another such regulating service of ecosystem- the control and mitigation of floods.

Every year, an enormous amount of rain falls on earth’s surface. The water from rain is enough to cover the entire land area to the height of one meter! Most of this water gets absorbed in soil. Some flows into streams and rivers, and finally to the oceans. When the rain falls slowly, the soil and streams contain the water to normal levels. But sometimes a lot of water falls rapidly. At such times, the soil gets saturated, rivers get full and water level rises in the surrounding areas. This is what we call flooding.
The damage caused by floods throughout the world is enormous. Flood is the most common natural disaster. As many as 40% of natural disasters are floods. The economic loss from floods averaged 190 billion dollars a year in the period 2001-2010. The loss of and disturbance in every kind of life is of course incalculable. The instances of flooding have been increasing in the last fifty years. While there were 51 large floods in the 150 years from 1800 to 1950, there have been 31 floods in the ten years from 2000 to 2009, and as many as 17 floods in the two years 2010-11. We can now easily imagine the value of controlling floods.
Ecosystem is responsible for all the floods that DO NOT happen. As we have seen, the soil is responsible for absorbing most of the water that falls on surface. Because of the various kind of vegetation like grass, plants and trees, the speed of water flowing over soil is reduced, so more water is absorbed, preventing water-logging. The area around a river containing soil, vegetation and small water bodies is called floodplain. The floodplain acts like a giant dampener for the flowing water. It slows down the flowing water and absorbs it. The role of vegetation here is very important. If the vegetation in floodplain is destroyed, for example to build houses, the water speed will be high and soil will be loose. Then the soil will form mud, which will flow with the water. The mud fills the gaps in the earth. This reduces the water absorption even more and makes the flood more severe. It is the vegetation in the floodplain that stops this damaging process. The erosion of soil from deforested land, such as crop planted on hillside, is as much as 150 times that of similar forested land!
The flowing mud goes and deposits in the rivers, dams, lakes and other water reservoirs. This reduces the quality of drinking water and capacity of the reservoirs. India for example cannot draw water from 81 of its most important dams, as the silt deposits have accumulated. The Upper Vaitarana reservoir near Mumbai has lost 22% of its capacity due to silt deposit. We then have to spend big money on desilting the lakes and rivers or increasing the height of the dams. While we pay our taxes and fund these projects, it would be worth while to remember that it is the ecosystem that has saved all the money that we did NOT spend.
So much about the flood control ecosystem service. What the flowing mud carries away is probably the most precious commodity mankind ever had, or will ever get. It is called the topsoil. It is so important that I will dedicate the next part to the various services provided by only the topsoil.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 4: Climate Control

In the previous part of this series we saw that ecosystem provides us various goods like food and drugs. We focused more on discovery of new foods and drugs. I plan to write an entire part on how ecosystem services are important to agriculture a little later. Right now, lets turn to the second type of ecosystem service – Regulating.
The most well known regulating service is climate control. It was not really so popular till a few years ago, when it started to fail in its job. As a rule in this series, I am not writing about how we are destroying the ecosystem, but focusing on what it does for us. But I will make an exception for the climate, because it is a widespread concern, and a good example of how we don’t realize the value of ecosystem till it begins to fail.
First thing to learn about climate is that it has been literally tailor made by our ecosystem, especially the biosphere (biosphere, as you know, is made up of all living beings on earth). Billions of years ago, when the earth was young, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. It was dominated by nitrogen, CO2 and methane. We would have found it rather difficult to breathe in this paleoatmosphere, as it is called.
Some of the early living beings, called cynobacteria, started using CO2 to make food and release oxygen. In 2 billion (200 crore) years, the oxygen levels rose to current levels or even higher. This made it possible for animals like us to evolve and survive.
Other than oxygen, the most important ingradients of the atmosphere are the Green House Gases (GHG). Yes, you read it right. Green house gases are supposed to the villains. But they are not. They are just like the good guys in movies who get exploited beyond limit.
A lot of energy from the sun falls continuously on earth’s surface. It should usually hit the surface, bounce and vanish in the vast space. This is what happens on most of the other planets. But not on earth. The green house gases (like CO2, methane, water vapour and ozone) absorb the energy that comes packed in infrared rays in sunlight, and emit it in form of heat. This is why the average temperature of earth’s surface is about 14 ⁰C. If the GHGs did not do this, the surface temperature of our earth would be a freezing -19 ⁰C, which would be a good thing for the makers of warm clothes and heaters, but a certain disaster for life in general.
What this means is, if the amount of green house gases in the atmosphere goes up, it will absorb more heat from sun rays. So the temperature of earth will go up. Our ecosystem has stabilized the green house gases and thus the temperature for hundreds of thousand of years. CO2 is a major green house gas. Scientists have found data of CO2 concentrations in atmosphere for the last 450,000 years. It shows that the concentration has always been between 200 and 300 parts per million, or 0.02 to 0.03% for all this time. Oxygen breathing creatures release CO2, agriculture frees up a lot of CO2 from land, natural events like volcanoes and earthquakes also fume large quantities of the gas. But the trees and plants absorb the CO2 from atmosphere. The vast oceans dissolve vast amounts of it. Thus the ecosystem keeps the CO2 in atmosphere nearly constant. Or so it used to keep, till around 70 years ago.
Since 1950, man started burning fossil fuels with particular enthusiasm. Fossil fuels- like coal, oil and gas- emit CO2 when they burn. Additionally, man started cutting down forests in a big way. Deforestation releases CO2 in two ways – the carbon stored in the plants is released as CO2, and the carbon stored in the land also frees up. The emission of CO2 went up very quickly to very high amounts. The ecosystem tried its best, in fact, the absorption of CO2 by trees, plants and land went up substantially in last 20 years. But it is not enough, there is no way ecosystem can absorb all this extra CO2. As a result, the concentration of CO2 now stands at 400 parts per million, higher than any time in human history.
The surface temperature of earth is increasing as a result of increase in CO2 in atmosphere. So far, the rise is mainly in the temperature of ocean. In the last 100 years, the average temperature has gone up by 0.8 ⁰C, and by the turn of this century, it is expected to rise by a further 2.4 ⁰C.
We might not worry about such small changes in our room temperature, but when the average temperature of entire earth goes up, it is a very large scale change. Some of the bad things that are expected to happen are – rise in ocean levels, food and water scarcity, large scale flooding, acidification of oceans and resulting death of marine life and extinction of many species.
This is the story of the climate control ecosystem service, or rather its failure. It might be failing now, but it has been working quietly for hundreds of thousands of years, till we decided to push it to its limits. In the light of this grim knowledge, we might be able to better understand the regulating service I cover in next part – Flood Control.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

On Waste Management - from our guest writer

Today is World Environment Day and I am happy to have a guest writer on Yours Sciencely. My friend Aparna Parsekar is trained in Environment Sciences and has even worked for few years in the field. Following is the message from Aparna to all of us:
On waste management:
It is the duty of each one of us to contribute to the effort of reducing garbage. Here are a few things we can easily do:

1. Carry your own cloth or jute bag when you go shopping.
2. Reduce the use of paper bags. Say no to all plastic bags. Reuse
them whenever it is possible.
3. Segregate the waste in the house. Keep two bins and ensure that the biodegradable and non - biodegradable wastes are put into separate bins and disposed off separately.
Remember the four R’s of managing waste.....
- Refuse things that increase garbage
- Reduce garbage by consuming less and throwing less
- Reuse wherever possible
- Recycle.
On conservation of natural resources-
Here are two news from last few days that should worry us all-
1. Polluted Chembur on verge of loosing its last green lung …Mumbai Mirror 5 June
2. Bandra society kills 80 migratory birds while snipping trees …Mumbai Mirror 5 June
Life on earth depends on resources like soil, water and air and energy from the sun. The atmosphere maintains the right temperature for life to exist on the earth. Pollution of air , water and soil affect the quality of life and harm the biodiversity. We therefore need to conserve our natural resources and use them in a sustainable manner. Our father of the nation rightly said -" our environment can provide for human need but not for human greed”.
- Aparna Parsekar

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 3: Medicines

In the previous part, we read about how earth provides us our food and helps us to create new foods. Just like the crops, Drugs are the gifts of biodiversity to human kind.
Natural remedies have been used to fight diseases from ancient times. Old medicine systems like the Indian, Islamic and Chinese made extensive use of plant and animal derived substances in treatment. The forefather of Western Medicine, Hippocrates, has listed about 400 herbs for their therapeutic use. Apart from the established medicinal systems, local knowledge of medicinal properties of plants has been conserved by common people for thousands of years. As an example, the Korku tribe in Central India relies on traditional knowledge of herbs for treating diseases. They use around 40 different herb in their medical practise. Like the Korkus, around 3.4 billion or 50% of the world’s people are dependent on plant based medicines even today.
Modern medicine uses chemically synthesized compounds as drugs. But an astonishing number of these drugs have been discovered using natural products. Most of the pharmaceutical compounds are naturally occurring in organisms like fungi, bacteria, plants and others. The natural substances removed from these sources are processed and used in making a drug. In some cases, a chemical having the same structure as the natural substance is prepared artificially. Penicillin, the first important drug to be discovered, was isolated from a fungi. Out of the 150 top selling prescription drugs in the US, 118 are based on natural resources. In fact, nine out of top ten best selling drugs are based on a natural product. And this is despite the fact that only 10% plants and 0.1% microorganisms (like bacteria) have been examined for possible medicinal property. Just like the superfood, our superdrugs in future may also be coming from the nature.
As an example, let’s see the story of an important cancer drug. In 1960, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the USA started a program to screen 1000 plants a year in search of an anti-cancer drug. In 1963, they found a possible ingredient in the bark of the Pacific yew tree. It took a further four years of research and in 1967, the efforts were rewarded in form of a drug called Taxol (current name paclitaxel). Taxol is used in the treatment of ovarian, breast and lung, bladder, prostate and many other cancers. For twenty years, its production was dependent on the Pacific yew tree. It was only 1993 that production without the tree bark was achieved, but it still uses a microorganism called endophytic fungus.
It is estimated that as many as 40% of all drugs have their origins in natural products. Knowing that the world pharmaceutical market is 300 billion dollars a year, we can quickly link it with the value of the natural ecosystem. New Drug Discovery from natural resources is an ongoing process today. The diversity of compounds found in nature is huge and it provides ‘leads’ for discovering new drugs to the pharmaceutical industry. Sophisticated methods like High Throughput Screening (HTS) are used to screen more than 100,000 substances per week. But it is needless to mention that these efforts are based on the biodiversity in the ecosystem. The variety in nature gives us two of our most important substances – food and drug.
We have seen a few examples of the Provisioning ecosystem service. We have begun to realize that the ecosystems are providing us with goods that are extremely valuable in money terms. In the next part, we turn to the next type of ecosystem service – Regulating.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences Part 2 - The Gifts of Earth

In the first part, we heard that ecosystem provides us with various services that are extremely valuable. Ecologists have classified the services into five types. We start with the first type- Provisioning.
Provisioning is the most easily understood kind of ecosystem services. The ecosystem provides us with lot of goods- such as food, water, clothing, medicines and so on. Take fish, for example. The worldwide production of fish is worth about 200 billion dollars. 20% of the world population is dependent on fish as their primary source of proteins. Seafood is not just for us humans, but our pets also eat food that majorly contains fish.
Grasslands are the source of food for our animals like sheep, cattle, horses, asses and camels. Some of these animals provide labour- such as horses and mules. Many provide useful products like meat, milk and wool. Take the cattle for instance. There are about 1.5 billion cattle in the world today, one for nearly five human beings. About 27% of the world’s land is dedicated to cattle. In 2007, 65 million tons of beef was eaten by the people of the world. The beef and dairy industry is worth more than 200 billion dollars. The livelihoods of millions of people are dependent upon these animals that are fed by the grasslands.
Natural ecosystems in forest lands and woods provide goods like fuel. About 15% of the world is dependent on natural wood to provide energy. In some parts of the word, the dependence on wild wood as fuel is as high as 40%. Apart from wood we use many forest products like fruits, nuts, honey, mushroom, fiber, spices and so on. The value of such goods is difficult to estimate, but is definitely huge.
Croplands provide us a large part of our food including the grains, oils and vegetables. Similarly they also supply us with clothing like cotton and linen and also fulfill our vices like tobacco and wine. But croplands should be considered as human activity. They do not occur naturally. Human beings started agricultural activity about ten thousand years ago, instead of depending on nature for food like other animals. Ecosystem services continue to play irreplaceable part in agriculture, as we will see in later parts. But right now, lets consider a property of nature without which agriculture wouldn't have been possible – biodiversity.
Biodiversity simply means that there are so many varieties of living beings in nature. You take any particular specie of grass, and there will be many varieties similar to it in the wild. Even in the same specie, every individual is different from another, due to genetic variation. This fact helped the development of agriculture. The ancestor of apple in nature did not produce the large and juicy fruits that we eat today. They were much smaller in size and not that delicious. But there were a lot of varieties of pro-apples in nature. Our ancestor chose the variety that he thought was best for consumption and planted sampling of that breed. When the next generation of apples grew, he again selected the best sample. This process, called Artificial Selection, created all the agricultural products that we eat today, like the big apples and long ears of corn.
(See my earlier post on the subject of Artificial Selection -http://www.yourssciencely.in/2013/10/dog-corn-and-almond-how-man-changed.html)

The root of this development were in the biodiversity. The same biodiversity continues to help us in creating new foods. If we want to create new crops that are more productive, resistant to pests or need less water, we must turn to nature once again. Natural habitats are a storehouse of a vast array of varieties of vegetation, from where our next superfood might come.
We currently cultivate only about 100 species of plants that supply bulk of our food requirements. But there are more than 70,000 plant species that can be used as food. Some of these may be more suitable for us than the current crops. More and more of our usable land is getting salinized (salty) and droughts are becoming a frequent occurrence because of climate change. In this situation, our current crops may not serve us well. We might need different crops that can withstand these difficult conditions and fulfill our growing need for food. Biodiversity is the only resort if this happens.
The advances in biotechnology can certainly help in creating new foods, by combining the characteristics of more than one specie. But the biodiversity itself must remain. The variety cannot be conserved by protecting a few individuals in zoos or botanical gardens. There must be enough population of each specie in its natural habitat to provide the variation. So the next time we hear of a piece of natural ecosystem being lost to development, we must remind ourselves that we may have lost some variety of grass that could have become our next rice or wheat.
In the next part, we continue with Provisioning Services that give us our medicines.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ecosystem Sciences – Part 1

In the part of India where I stay, a new international airport is coming up. The airport will be spread over around one thousand hectares now occupied by croplands, small lakes, grassy areas, forest and seven little villages. The project is expected to speed up development in this area. Residential areas are already under construction, commercial and industrial areas are sure to follow.
The farmers and villagers who own the land in the seven villages are called Project Affected Persons (PAPs). Their land is being acquired by the government. But it’s not only the PAPs who will be selling land. Anybody who owns land in the neighbourhood of the upcoming airport will get good price for it. The crop fields, empty moors, grass patches where cattle and herd graze, water bodies, marshy lands will soon give way to neatly planned town sectors with their perpendicular streets, residential complexes called Greens, Gardens and Meadows and supermarkets on the corners.
A residential complex or a commercial building is of course a very valuable piece of property. A small corner in such an establishment might cost you around ten million rupees, if it is near a centre of commerce. So it is not unjustified that the farmer who sold the land got a handsome compensation.
Scientists want us to believe that the land, if kept as it is, will be worth much more. They claim that the natural habitats on earth provide us what they call as Ecosystem Services. The combined value of ecosystem services provided by entire earth is three times the world GDP, according to the researchers. It means that if we destroy a natural habitat for human development, we are losing heavily.
It is really difficult to believe. We can understand some uses of wild land of course. Trees make oxygen. They are also somehow responsible for rainfall. Good fertile land can be used for agriculture. Also the green patches are pleasing to the eye. We need a few gardens around, so that we can jog and take our kids there in the evening. But placing such high price on a empty patch of grassy land or a strip of mangroves really seems unreasonable.
It is probably because of our inability to value the ecosystem that we are destroying them at an alarming rate. The example given above is a real one, and it is not a rare one. All over the world, human development is coming at the cost of the ecosystem. Not only that the services provided by the ecosystem are worth trillions of dollars, but most of them are not replaceable by technology. If we continue to harm the earth’s natural habitat at this rate, we will cause irreparable damage to these services that are vital to our well being.
This is the reason why it is so important to understand the value of the ecosystem services. A residential complex or a factory built on a piece of land is easily valued and traded in markets, but the ecosystem that existed on the land is not, thus it gets ignored by the commercial world. Science is trying to fill this gap by evaluating the ecosystem services and linking them to a commercial value.
In the next few parts we will get familiar with some of these Ecosystem Services (ES), understand their value in monetary terms and see how they are getting depleted due to human activities.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sleep Inertia

If you are a busy professional, chances are that you don’t wake up naturally, instead an alarm clock wakes you up. There is also a good chance that you feel groggy just after waking up. You might be finding it difficult to do simple tasks like finding a light switch.
There is no reason to worry. This is called Sleep Inertia. It happens because our brains get into the action slowly after we wake up. No matter how much you have slept, there is always some inertia. But it is harsher when you wake up suddenly, like waking up by alarm.
Scientists have estimated that during the first moments after sleep, reduction in brain power is equivalent to drinking four bottles of beer!
This early slump typically lasts for less than 30 minutes. For people like doctors on emergency calls, it is a big concern.
Now there are alarm clocks available that monitor your sleep cycle and wake you up in the right stage of sleep. This can reduce the sleep inertia and make your mornings better. To find out more, just search on ‘Sleep stage alarm clocks’.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Update on Mission to Mars

A quick update on our own Mission to Mars - the Mangalyaan. When we last saw, on 1st December, Mangalyaan had successfully taken turn towards Mars. On last Wednesday, 12th February, it completed 100 days in space. It has traveled about 19 crore kilometers out of its 68 crore kilometers journey so far. All instruments are functioning normally. The signal from the spacecraft now takes 55 seconds to reach earth.
Mangalyaan with complete its journey on 24th September, when it will be inserted into Mars orbit. I will keep you posted.
Source: Press release by ISRO.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Wake up Jade

In the last twenty days, science enthusiasts experienced an excitement usually reserved for watchers of Pixar films like Wall-E. In such movies, there is a machine that behaves like a person. Viewer fall in love with the machine. An evil power attacks and the machine is broken. We watch, filled with grief, the final moments of the machine. And suddenly, the machine moves its arms – it’s alive!
In December 2013, China sent a machine to Moon. It is called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, after the Chinese moon goddess. It even has its own account on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Yutu’s name and cute tweets on Weibo gave it a human like personality. Chinese people grew fond of their Yutu.
On Moon, a day or night lasts for 354 hours, or about 14 earth days. Yutu worked properly for the first lunar day. In the 14 day long lunar night, it was put on sleep mode. It woke up on 11th January 2014, and started afresh for the second lunar day.
But something went wrong as the long and tiring day came to an end. On 25th January, Yutu developed a fault and stopped communicating with its Chinese home. The Weibo account posted some touching messages –
"I thought I could hop around here for three months, but if this trip ends prematurely, I'm not afraid,"
"I'll tell everyone a little secret: I'm actually not that sad. I'm just on my own adventure and like any protagonist, I have encountered a little problem. Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humans."
Since the communication was broken, scientists could not properly put it to sleep during the lunar night. It was supposed to contact home after waking up on Wednesday, 12th February. No signal came. The Chinese space agency declared Yutu as inoperative. Everybody who was following it felt sad for the unfortunate end.
And then suddenly, yesterday (13th February), a signal from Yutu was caught by some amateur space observers. ‘Yutu has come back to life!’ declared the spokesperson of the Chinese lunar program.
Delighted admirers cheered Yutu's coming to life on internet.
"It's alive!! The rabbit is still alive!! The rabbit's awake!! It's really awake!!", one Yutu lover wrote on Weibo.
It is to the credit of the Chinese space agency that it has been able to get involvement of common people in what is strictly a scientific project. The agency however does not put much information in the open, and so we may not fully know what actually happened to Yutu. But it was a good movie!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Fifth Sense

Do you know what Anosmia is? It’s a disorder in which the patient loses the sense of smell. Medical science and society hasn’t paid much attention to this disorder. The lack of awareness and support for the sufferers of anosmia is so much, that a patient in UK started an organization called Fifth Sense to promote awareness and offer support to anosmiacs.
It is easy to understand why society does not pay much attention to anosmia. After all, losing the ability to smell does not sound like a big disaster, right? People should be able to get on with life, with a little inconvenience. We all experience this when we get bad cold. Smell seems to be the least important of the five senses, after taste.
Nothing is further from truth. The ability to smell, called Olfaction, has a very important place in our life. It is true that it does not seem to have much significance is our daily routine. But it is because we take it for granted. Let’s see the place olfaction plays in our life.
Smell bonds us to our close family. A newborn baby gets locked to the smell of the breast of its mother. This smell has a soothing effect on the baby. This might be the reason why crying babies calm down when held by their mother. The odor of close relatives, like parents, children or siblings, does not appear to us as smell. Brain processes these odors differently to create a feeling of familiarity and comfort in us.
Olfaction helps us in choosing our food. We detect the quality of our food from its smell. Remember how we feel disgusted if the food has gone a little bad? It is a built in mechanism to protect us from dangerous food, triggered by smell. It seems we can also detect the content of the food by smelling it. In an interesting piece of research, scientists have found that people can detect which food has more fat in it by its smell.
Thus in important matters of family bonding and food, olfaction is vital. But apart from this, it has a strong connection with emotions and mental health. Anxiety and fear can be triggered by disagreeable smells, and pleasant smells can trigger a sense of well being. Smells have a special memory facility in the brain, called Olfactory Memory. This memory gets linked to other memories, both good and bad. This is the reason why certain smells invoke past memories and strong emotions. A smell sometimes fills us with joy or moves us to tears, seemingly without reason. We have forgotten the incident but have retained the olfactory memory.
Researchers have found that the ability to smell gets affected in mental diseases like Schizophrenia. On the other side, losing ability to smell affects mental health adversely. We have seen above the disorder anosmia. The patients of anosmia experience depression and difficulty in social bonding. Most of the flavour of food comes from the sense of smell. Thus these patients lose interest in food, lose weight and even become anorexic.
Such is the important but neglected fifth sense – smell. So far, the research on this sense has been very limited. In 2004, a Nobel prize was awarded to two scientists for finding out how sense of smell works. A lot of research is now going on. I am sure it will bring up a lot of sweet smelling surprises.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mood Repair

Scientists have found that passing ultrasound waves through the brain can improve mood of a person.
Last July, researchers conducted trials on 31 chronic pain patients. The ultrasound probe was held to their heads so as to pass the sound waves for about 30 seconds through the brain. The patients experienced improved mood for up to 40 minutes. This technique can be very useful for those suffering from mood disorders, such as Depression.

Depression is quite common in the world today. About 8 percent of the world population (60 crore people!) are suffering from depression. It is one of the major causes of suicide.
But even for those of us not suffering from any mood disorder, mood plays a very important part. Most of us find ourselves in a bad mood now and then. This negative mood affects our daily life in many ways. It changes our perception of the world. People in negative mood tend to label most things as negative. If you get an email when you are in a bad mood, you will find yourself thinking more about the sender than the mail. The negative mood makes us less energetic, stressed and can interfere with sleep.
Doctors use Mood Repair Strategies to treat mood disorder patients. The name may sound impressive, but the strategies are really common sense, and we can adapt them for our own use. Some useful strategies are:
Recalling positive memories: Usually bad mood makes us remember bad memories. You have to force yourselves to retrieve good memories, such as that first prize you won in school.
Music: Listening to music that you normally listen when you are happy can trigger change in mood.
Social connect: Talking to family and friends can be a great way of getting out of bad mood.
Meditation: If you have learned to meditate, it’s a powerful technique for repairing mood.
Exercise or play: Physical activity releases chemicals called endorphins in the brain, which induce a nice feeling. This can provide the right trigger for improving mood.
Sleep: If you are not getting enough sleep lately, that will be the first thing to correct. A peaceful 7-8 hours of sleep can do wonders.
Humor: Laughter is the best medicine for mood improvement. It increases levels of a chemical called Serotonin, which bring a feeling of contentment. So, an hour of Comedy Nights with Kapil can be useful.
Disclaimer: The Mood Repair Strategies part of this article gives a few recommendations. Please use your own judgement while using them. Also, if you do not want to take recommendations from a non-doctor, please ignore this part.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Black Silicon: a violent nanotechnology

In the month of September 1928, a scientist called Alexander Fleming returned home after enjoying a holiday with his family. Fleming was a brilliant but untidy researcher. Before going on holiday in August, he had stacked his experiment material carelessly on a bench. In the material were some dishes in which Fleming was growing a bacteria of the weighty name Staphylococcus aureus.
Fresh from vacation, he pulled out the culture dishes. In one of the dishes, a mould was growing, just like what we see sometimes growing on a piece of bread forgotten in a corner. Before throwing it out, Fleming had a good look at the dish, and was rewarded with a wonderful sight. The bacteria around the mould had vanished. The mould had killed it. This was the discovery of penicillin, and beginning of the antibiotics industry. Man had won, bacteria had lost.
But Staph aureus, the bacteria that causes diseases like pneumonia and meningitis was not going to give up so easily. By 1960, it developed resistance and could no longer be killed by penicillin. More and more powerful antibiotics with cracking names were discovered – Methicillin, Oxacillin, Streptomycin. But Staph kept on developing resistance. Today, Staph infections is a major menace in Hospitals, and most infections require expensive and risky treatment.
It has happened not only with Staphylococcus aureus, but with many other bacteria. The most famous example is the TB bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. These bacteria are no longer responding to common antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is one of the major problems for public health in 21st Century. We are going to need alternate ways of fighting bacteria.
One ray of hope has arrived in form of a interesting research story. It’s a thrilling case of nature teaching us a thing or two.
Scientists found that the wings of Wandering Percher dragonfly (‘Chatur’ in Hindi - do a google search and see the images) can kill bacteria. They examined the wings and found something unique. The wings of dragonfly have very small needle-like structures. The needles are only 250 nanometre long. These knives actually stab the bacteria and leave them harmless!
(To understand what a nanometre is, take a one millimetre long needle and cut it into 1000 parts. Now, grab hold of one of those invisible parts, and again cut into 1000 parts. One of the parts that you are now holding is a nanometre long.)
Researchers got an excellent idea to work with. They identified a material called Black Silicon. This material is made by processing the surface of normal silicon in a certain way. It has nano-needles on its surface that are even longer than the dragonfly.
Black Silicon was tried on the Staph aureus bacteria, and it came out victorious. A one centimetre by one centimetre piece of Black Silicon can kill 4,50,000 bacteria per minute!
Even though the cost of this material is high today, this gives us a whole new weapon in our battle with bacteria. In future, we may be able to protect ourselves from the oldest enemy of mankind with antibacterial clothes!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The green network

Somewhere in Canada, a little maple plant is under attack. It’s attackers are the greenflies, also called plant lice. The insects have bitten into the maple’s stem and are drinking the sap, it’s life juice. There is not much the plant can do for itself. But already, it has started sending signals that are going to save many of its friends around.
The signals are molecules of certain chemicals. They will reach the plants around the one that is under attack. As soon as the surrounding plants receive the signals, they will start preparing their defense. They will emit chemicals that will repel the greenflies. They also have in stock scents that attract wasps who eat the greenflies. The plants even know a method to make an insecticide. All these defenses are going to come handy against the attackers. Even though some little maples will be damaged, many are going to survive the attack.
No, this is not a science fiction tale. Researchers have found that plants actually communicate and alert each other of dangers like attack of herbivores, the plant eaters. They do so with the help of chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOC. VOCs are nothing but chemicals that can produce smells, like the perfumes that we use.
These signals are transmitted between plants in two ways – one is through air as we have seen. Another is through the soil. The roots of plants are in touch with each other, through which the chemical signals travel. But there is another interesting network under soil.
Some types of fungi make long threads that connect the roots of various trees and plants, making a vast underground network. The fungi get sugar from the roots, and give nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. This network is used to carry the plant messages too.
To ignorant observers like us, the plants appear to be just sitting quietly. Only now we are beginning to understand that they have a solid social network to exchange gossip, rumors and news. Remember that next time you pluck a casual flower from the bush.