Posted by: yashada | April 3, 2010

Evidence

Check out this cool website created by the Exploratorium for science education:

http://www.exploratorium.edu/evidence/

Evidence: How Do We Know What We Know? examines the scientific process, revealing the ways in which ideas and information become knowledge and understanding.  This is done by a case study of human origins.

I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be. -Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-1992)

Posted by: yashada | February 7, 2010

To B(t) or not to B(t) ?

The Bt brinjal debate, the sufferings of science and my encounter with a man of power.

As the world debates over the GM issue and as the Government of India prepares its verdict on Bt Brinjal, my post on GM sits patiently in the draft box of my blog. But after attending a public hearing held by the Union minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, I felt this blogpost has waited in the drafts box far too long. Time to let the words (and emotions) flow.

Part I- Unweaving the rainbow: the funda of GM for a non-science person

Part II-The glitches

Part III- A personal account of a public hearing on GM held by the Union minister for Environment

Part IV- Possible Solutions

Part I- Unweaving the rainbow: the funda of GM for a non-science person

As this is my ‘science’ blog and as I feel very strongly for educating the lay person of the techniques and beauties of science, what else could Part I of this string of posts be other than the fundamentals of the science of GM?

Disclaimer- Although I am anti-GM, this post may indicate otherwise. This is because I am also a researcher and cannot help but appreciate the science behind it.

In the past few decades loads and loads of cool new stuff happened in the field of biology. What was so cool about it? Well, we found out a lot about how organisms do all the things that organisms do, that the secret of life resides in a molecule that resides in all of our cells-DNA. A few years later, we got really good at working with DNA to the extent that we could remove a piece of DNA from one organism and put it into another organism. Now that is some awesome stuff. Why? Because certain pieces of DNA called genes are the ones that are responsible for all the characters an animal or a plant has. They are the ones that decide if the plant will bear yellow flowers of green ones, or whether we’ll have black hair or blonde. Genes can decide a whole host of other characters. They are the ones that give a scorpion its venom and a rose its fragrance.  Now if we could take these genes and put them in another organism then that organism can produce whatever the gene codes for. Theoretically, we could make a scorpion smell like a rose and a rose sting like a scorpion. Imagine the possibilities! Well the scientist guys didn’t just imagine the possibilities they set to work and started doing something about this new found technique.

They turned their attention to a number of problems plaguing the world.  But we will be focusing only on the problems of agriculture.

POINT 1: Pesticide free food

Crops the world over are sprayed with pesticides to protect them from insects that eat the crops. The ingredient used in some pesticides is derived from a certain bacterial strain that lives in the soil called Bacillus thurengensis (or Bt). It contains a gene that allows it to make a certain kind of poison. The poison made by this bacterium has been used to kill insects since the 1950s. But the problem with this poison is that it does not last for long. The poison degrades rapidly after exposure to sunlight. So it needs to be sprayed many times. The spraying of pesticides on crops causes enormous damage to the environment.

What if we make crops that don’t need spraying of pesticides on them? What if we insert a poison gene into our crop of interest? The  pests that eat it will die after eating the crop! So no spraying of pesticides at all! We won’t have to eat pesticide-laden food and the farmer’s work will be reduced!

Well the obvious question that comes to mind is- what will happen to the people who eat this brinjal? Won’t they too be poisoned? Now the people who have conducted research on this Bt poison tell us that this is where the beauty of the Bt poison lies. We needed to spray the pesticides often because its efficacy is reduced after exposure to sunlight. Since it degrades very easily, we don’t have to worry about it. When it gets heated, in other words, cooked, the poison disintegrates and is not longer functional. Well this is what the scientists say, and this is where some of the concerns lie. (To read more on it go to Part II).

POINT 2: Round-up

On a crop field there is competition between the crop we want to grow and some unwanted crops that grow along with our crop of interest. These unwanted crops are called weeds. If we spray herbicides on the field, the weed dies, but our crop of interest also dies. This is because the herbicide cannot differentiate between a plant we want and a plant we don’t want. It is basically a plant killer, kills any plant that comes its way. Well then, could we not insert a gene into our plant of interest? A gene that gives our plant resistance to the herbicide, so that after the spraying of the herbicide, the weeds die but our plant does not. Again, a very good concept. So the genticists, molecular biologists and biotechnologists set to work and created plants that are Round-up Ready. Roundup is a commonly used herbicide all over the world. Now we have soy and maize that does not die even if we spray herbicides on them.

POINT 3: Golden rice

People the world over, especially those from poorer regions of the world do not get adequate supply of nutritious food. For example, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in Asia and Africa. What if we created a crop that is eaten as a staple that has vitramin A in it? So scientists made what is called Golden rice. Rice that is enriched with vitamin A. You eat the rice, and you automatically eat vitamin A. Novel. Then there are other possibilities as well, enrich some other vegetable like tomatoes with vaccines etc.

So you see the science in itself is not bad, and it does have potential. However, there is more than meets the eye. Hence, part II:

Part II- The glitches

GLITCH 1:

If we insert a poison gene into our crop of interest to kill the pests that eat it, then won’t we too eat the poison gene when we eat the plant? Well, duh! But, the GM companies say that the poison disintegrates when the crop is cooked. So if we eat cooked food, we won’t be affected. Now what if we go to a large party or a roadside dhaba where they haven’t cooked the food well? Won’t we be injesting poison-laden food? I have heard that Ayurvedic preparations require raw brinjal. What happens to the poison then?

GLITCH 2:

Organisms have a tendency to become resistant to things that can kill them. That’s the reason pharma companies have to come up with new antibiotics all the time. Because pathogens gain resistance to our medicines. So in the world of agriculture, the pests can become resistant to the poison, or the weeds can become resistant to the herbicide. Then we’ll again have to knock on the doors of the Agri-companies to give us an even more potent killer and the cycle shall continue. You see, this will not solve any of our problems because new problems will emerge. We are doing this with antibiotics and now we will do this with our food as well.

GLITCH 3:

Genes can get transferred from one organism to another. It is called horizontal gene transfer. This, according to me is the most dangerous aspect of the whole business. First of all, horizontal gene transfer can allow the ‘weeds’ to gain herbicide resistance if the genes from our crop enter into the weed. Such horizontal gene transfers have been recorded before. So then you’ll have weeds that are resistant to our herbicides.

And let us not forget another important point here. India is home to two biodiversity hotspots- the western ghats and the forest of the North-east. There are thousands of species of plants and animals found in these parts that are found nowhere else on earth. – they are endemic to these regions. What if the gene coding for the Bt poison enters a plant found only in the western ghats? Won’t that plant then become poisonous? And what if the plant happens to be the only larval host plant of say, an endemic butterfly? Won’t the butterfly larvae die if they eat the plant? After all, Bt is designed for pests belonging to the lepidopteran family- the same family that includes all butterflies. You may agrue that when you eat fish, the fish genes enter your stomach but you don’t turn into a fish. So the genes will not transfer into another organism. I am not talking about a gene transfer occurring tomorrow. I am talking about consequences that may show themselves hundreds of years from now. That’s how evolution works. Pollen from a Bt crop getting transferred to its cousin in the phylogenetic tree, from there to yet another cousin and so on. Can the scientists who designed Bt plants assure us, can they cross their hearts and tell us that never ever will the foreign gene ever be transferred in this way? ‘Never’ as in never in their life time, my life time, my children’s life time or my children’s children’s lifetime?

GLITCH 4:

The companies that have been promoting GM crops (Like Monsanto, Du Pont, Syngenta) have been telling us that GM will give us better yields. GM increases yields – well, not really. What it does is, the farmer does not loose any crop to the pests and thus, gets a higher yield. But what if in a given season there isn’t any outbreak of a pest at all? Then the yield from a GM crop will be the same as the yield from a non-GM crop!

Another thing: there have been reports that the component in the herbicide- gyphosate is playing with the roots of the plants. So even if our crop is herbicide resistant, there is a side-effect. Our plant is unable to absorb nutrients from the soil in the presence of the herbicide. This is because it is causing the growth of some disease causing bacteria to grow in the soil which don’t allow the plant to absorb nutrients. So what do we get? Well, we sure don’t get higher yields!!

GLITCH 5:

How much vitamin A does  Golden rice have anyway? It will contribute to only 8% to 12.5% of the vitamin A requirements of children of age groups 1to 3 yrs,  12.5% to 18% for children 4 to 6 years, and 18% to 23%, and 15% to 23 % for adult males females respectively. Do we spend so much energy and effort for a technology that does not really deliver then?

People are sceptical of genes from various organims being present in their food. Most people would not be too happy to learn that their cauliflower has scorpion genes in it.

Well, I am not against scorpion genes in my cauliflower. A gene is a gene is a gene. It does not matter where it is coming from. When you eat fish, the fish genes enter your stomach but you don’t turn into a fish. But what is the use of a scorpion gene if it’s not helping me or the farmer or the world at large at all??

Part III- Meeting a man of power- A personal account of a public hearing on Bt held by the Union minister for Environment

Jairam Ramesh the Union Minister for Environment and Forests has been traveling country-wide and listening to people about the Bt issue. The last of a the series of hearings was held in Bangalore on the 6th of February, 2010. The meeting was scheduled for 10 in the morning. I arrived at 8 for fear of not getting a seat in the auditorium. I was greeted by a sight I had only seen on TV so far- people chanting slogans, carrying posters and displaying brinjals. A charged atmosphere!

Finally I felt I was doing something other than just writing blog posts.

Although I have been a citizen of this country, practicing my right to vote I have never felt any attachment towards the people who run this country. The babus belonged to another world, for me they were only two dimensional figures from the news channel.

The audi gates opened and we rushed in. Noise, chaos, pandemonium; and a man who sat silently watching us all, hiding a smile.

After a lot of time spent in calmingpeople down, the meeting began. Not knowing kannada, telegu, malayalam or tamil I could not understand a lot of the things being said, and I lost out on a lot of points. But the man beside me was kind enough to interpret many of the things people spoke. Then I was given my 5 minutes of fame. I spoke about the potential danger to the Western ghats. Then I sat back in my chair and looked at a minister who was interacting with the public, who knew papers from journals like Nature, who knew the names of the people that addressed him and recalled “Oh so you are the one who has sent me those hundreds of emails”, “You have misquoted so-and-so report in your email ma’am”, in short a man who had done his homework. Call me naïve, but I felt for the first time that the Bt issue was in just hands, for once.

I agreed with his observations about the meeting itself- People really believe that they are right. But they don’t want to listen to the other side! The farmers and the scientists are not talking to each other! Scientists should not be arrogant and the common man should not fear science. It strengthened my conviction that science education in this country needs a radical facelift.

In case you need more convincing ask yourselves this:

In case Monsanto had conducted long term trials and done everything in the book to get a clean chit. Would the people then welcome the GM company into our country? Or would the feeling of distrust still continue?

At the end of the meeting I realized I don’t need to be an activist, I don’t need to be part of an NGO and I can still make a difference. People can say all that they want, everything from the Minister being a Monsanto man, the hearings being only a farce, that the decision for the Bt issue has already been taken and this is only a circus.  People can continue saying “So what if he heard you out, who heard you out? God?”I can only shrug my shoulders and say, hey well, at least I tried.

Part IV- Possible Solutions

I think a lot of possibilities emerged from the meeting. I agree with people who said we need to conduct long term field trials on GM before we release it in the market.  Pharma companies do it, so why not do it for GM? The reason why long term studies have not been conducted so far on GM is because our laws have not caught up with technology yet. Nowhere in the law book does it say that a food item should undergo the strict trials conducted at the scale of clinical trials. So the food companies haven’t done it!

Then lets make a law that says GM food should undergo the stringent safety regulations before it hits the market.

There was news in the meeting that the Indian Institute for Horticultural Research has produced Bt brinjal as well. This would mean we don’t have to pay people sitting overseas for our seeds. The fact that such seeds are being produced in India itself was news for the Minister himself and I am sure he will look into the issue.

Posted by: yashada | September 17, 2009

Math from Scratch For Biologists

While trying to read up on biostats today, I found an interesting website that clarifies a lot of fundaes about stats. It also has good sections on other aspects of science that we tend to forget with the passage of time, such as dilutions and conversions.  The website is actually maintained by the author of  Math from Scratch for Biologists whose name is by Alan J. Cann

Here is the link for the website that focuses on the math section:

http://www.microbiologybytes.com/maths/index.html

The site also has sections on microbiology, virology etc but I didn’t like them as much as the one on Math from Scratch for Biologists.

Also you may want to check out their  About page to get more info about the website.

Posted by: yashada | September 9, 2009

Mine is Better than Yours

Yesterday I learnt that my ex-boyfriend has been seeing someone, in fact he has been seeing someone soon after we broke up.

This was news to me. Big News. Because my predictions about how he may behave after our break-up couldn’t be more off the track. From whatever jazz that had happened during the course of the break-up, I doubted if he may go into a relationship soon. So it was a shocker to know he has been up and running!

There was pain. The news didn’t go down too well with me. Pain melted into anger, anger slowly transformed into jealously, a jealousy that grew and finally surged up to a point where I zealously wanted to be in a relationship of my own. And not a relationship with just any guy, but a guy who is better than him. As if it’s a competition that has to be won.

But then the moment passed and I became my old self again. However, a stray thought took a new direction in my head and this is what I asked myself, “Could such jealousy be a driving force in the human species to seek out better mates? Could such jealously actually help a human find a better mate? Could knowing a fact that somebody else has a better mate, drive you enough to find a mate of your own who is better than what your competitor has landed up with?

Society or culture, of course would denounce such jealous thoughts of mine as morally wrong. But if you were in my shoes wouldn’t you have felt the same if you heard about your ex hooking up with someone else? Isn’t this a rather fundamental human emotion? I think it is, and so much so that people do recognise it as one. In fact many forms of media from  sitcoms to bestsellers have used such scenarios as fodder for an episode or a chapter.

Anyway the question I am throwing at you all is – – If this kind of jealousy is indeed such a basic emotion and it leads to a predictable response, then is it strong enough to shape evolutionary trends in the human species?

P.S. Even though this post started out on a personal note, it moved on to a larger question, which, it seems from the comments I have been receiving, is being ignored. Since, this is my “science” weblog, I request you all to leave a comment only if it pertains to the evolutionary question and kindly spare me the therapist’s couch. I have deleted all the comments that did not directly address the question I asked. I am sure your comments were well intentioned, but they were a little out of context in this case. Hope, no hard feelings, ok?🙂

Posted by: yashada | September 1, 2009

Wither thou will to learn?

Senior College Teachers across Maharastra had gone on strike recently, their demands being among other things, parity for teachers appointed between 1991-99 without a NET/SET qualification.

This is a quote from a report in Express India: Professor C Sadasivan of  Maharashtra Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisation (MFUCTO)  said, “All teachers, who were appointed between September 1991 and July 4, 2000, have been brought under the NET SLET. However, at the time of their appointment, NET SLET was not mandatory. Hence this should not be made compulsory for all these teachers now and they should be given all benefits.”

NET or National Eligibility Test is an examination that determines the eligibility of canditates for Lectureship positions in Indian Universities/Colleges. In other words one has to clear this exam if one wants to  be a lecturer in India. But this wasn’t the rule when teachers were appointed between 1991 to 2000. So even those who haven’t cleared this exam are teachers in Senior Colleges today.

Now before I begin to tell you what this post is about, let me tell you what this post is NOT about. This post does not attempt to fall into the debate of whether NET really is necessary; or if NET-cleared teachers are better than the ones who have not cleared NET. Rather, this post is about the sheer lack of will on part of the teachers to at least try a hand at the exam. Our teachers are the ones who prepare students for an examination. Then why are they themselves shying away from an exam, now that its their turn to sit on the other side of the bench?

If a woman who takes ballet classes refuses to perform on stage in front of an audience, or if a man who runs karate classes refuses to take part in a tournament, won’t she/he loose her/his credibility as a ballerina/karate champ?

So what sort of a lecturer are you, if you are not willing to sit for an exam of the very subject you teach?

Granted, NET is a very tough exam. I have heard that a mere 2% of all those who attempt it, clear it. I have myself attempted it once before in order to test the waters, to get a jist of what I am dealing with. Even though I didn’t clear it in the first attempt I developed a reverence for the test. It really does test your skills in your subject, not your mugged up knowledege about it.  And it tests your ability, not just as a researcher or lecturer but as a human being capable of clear, logical, and independant thought.

Why couldn’t the body of teachers have asked the government to set up preparatory classes for them, or extra consessions like short study leaves, or asked for a consession to sit for the exam more than once? Why a complete and downright refusal to take the test at all? Where is the spirit to try? Where is the spirit to learn? I am sure our teachers are  over-worked what with all the lectures and the correcting of papers;  our professors they have no time to sit and study. Which is funny isn’t it? Because they have to attempt an exam about the very subject they spend time teaching, or correcting papers.

And these are the very people who are preparing younger minds to give examinations in our colleges today.

Posted by: yashada | July 24, 2009

Interesting Article

Do check out this article on Edge.

It tries to figure out what makes us human drawing from work on Bonobos to Silver Foxes; and suggests some insights that I was not aware of, previously.

Posted by: yashada | July 20, 2009

Nice Article

Just read a good article on possible migration of Dragonflies.

Here is the link:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8149000/8149714.stm

Enjoy!

Posted by: yashada | June 29, 2009

MXC10441

This is one of my first tries at fiction, I have publised it elsewhere earlier but since I no longer use that blog, I don’t mind posting it again here. I’m not going into the details of whether is really is science-fiction or just plain fiction and will just go ahead and post it here. So here it is:

MXC10441

“You guys actually caught one of them?”
“Yes! It is at the Security Centre right now.”
“What? What does it look like? Does it talk? Does it eat? How big is it? Is it hideous? Its hideous isn’t it? Gigantic and slimy?”
“Wo! Wo! Cool it! Now don’t go telling stories to your friends to get some spot light on you, this information is not public yet.”

Tishka looked at his elder brother with amazement in his eyes. “You have actually managed to capture one of the invaders and you plan on keeping this a secret? This is what everybody wants to hear! This is what will bring morale back to our defeated armies!”

“We will go public with it when the time is right.” said Malekh.

“Time is right? This is the right time! The masses have lost their will to fight! This is a gigantic victory; we have actually managed to bring home a prisoner!”

“Yes I know Tishka, we all at the Security Centre know that, but…”
“But what?” Tishka urged him.
“Well there are…things to be taken care of”, said Milekh vaguely.
“C’mon, go public with it Malekh!”

“Go public with what? The fact that we have just managed to capture one of them? So what? The masses will ask for more, they will want information. They will want to know everything about the invaders. You know how it’s been, theories and speculations everyday. Not a day goes by without some lunatic proclaiming they have seen one of the aliens or they have had ‘visions’ or have been contacted by the aliens in their sleep!” exclaimed Malekh.

This was true. Self-proclaimed extra terrestrial experts were in the spotlight these days, they were the only breed that had actually gained something ever since the invasion had begun.

“Look..” began Malekh, but Tishka only gave him a disappointed look. He had hoped this would mean the turning of the tables for them.
“Look…” , Malekh tried again to explain. He hunched up and spoke in a lower tone, “we are, or we think we are developing some form of communication with this thing. We might actually get answers to the millions of questions everyone is asking”.

Tishka looked up. “What kind of communication?”
“Well its crude so far, but it could improve..”
“What have you learnt so far? And what does it really look like?” asked Tishka, his enthusiasm rising.
“Well they are not that big, for one thing” answered Malekh with a smile.

“And? Are they really smart? They must be. Where are they exactly coming from? Some planet far? How are they traveling?”

His elder bro smiled slightly, and began.

“As I said, its not that big but it has these weird tentacle-like things that it uses for practically everything. But there has to be some kind of brain or ‘think-organ’, but we think it lies somewhere else”
“Somewhere else? It doesn’t carry its brain with it?”
“Well, we don’t know, it may probably be in the sphere-like object that we think is its head. Our rays still have to pass through that part of its body to know whats inside. But it could be keeping it someplace else, someplace safer, because its body looks so fragile. But that’s still not proven yet.”
“And you know what? It is slimy sometimes! It secretes some kind of substance. We think it does that either as a response to external temperature changes or it could even act as a mood indicator.”
“Wow!”
“But the best part is, we think we know where it’s coming from, we may actually know their home planet!”
Tishka knew what that meant. If they knew where the home planet was, they could actually launch an attack on the invaders. The invaders could become the invaded.
“We think they have plundered their planet and they are now searching for another habitable place.”
“So they come from a planet very much like our own? That narrows it down to only a few! So which one is it?” asked Tishka eagerly, thankful he had not skipped astronomy classes.
“Well, it might be MXC10441.”
“Which one is that? Is it the small dot you sometimes see in the southern hemisphere?
“Yeah”
“Oh! Wow! So its MXC10441…thats their home planet..” said Tishka more to himself that his elder bro.
“Well of course, that’s the name we have given it, they themselves don’t call it that. We think they refer to their home as ‘earth’…”

Posted by: yashada | June 17, 2009

Of Research Reports & Pop-up Art

Last summer I had the opportunity to write a research report on a small research project we carried out in our lab.  When I look at that report all hardbound and golden embossed or similar such reports written by my seniors in our lab, it somehow reminds me of domineering old English men with monocles sitting on their high backed chairs and a smug expression on their faces.

Intimidating.

And then I watch videos on TED such as this, that explained to me a complex concept of mathematics that I’m sure I would not have understood if I was sitting in a room with a blackboard or reading it in a peer reviewed journal.

This particular video is consilience raised to infinity! Who would have thought a single talk could merge crochet, maths and coral reefs and make meaningful conclusions out of it? I also loved their idea of Play Tanks, or Kindergarten for Adults.  It opened up my mind in a way a research paper could never have. And yet if I am to carry out research it will have to involve the task of presenting it in the conventional humdrum research paper-form. Another addition to the growing stacks of old English men. If only I could use crayons or cartoons or little animated clips or humour… Imagine such a research paper! Imagine opening a peer-reviewed journal with pop-up art in!!  Not only will such alternative modes of presentation help a researcher to express himself but they will also go a long way in recruiting more scientists and exposing students to the beauty of science.

But I am aware of where the problem lies. A research paper or the language in it  should be in a purely objective form. Science is, after all, not an entity wih emotions and feelings. Each researcher is but a mere contributor to a vast and rapidly growing body of knowledge and there is no place for an individual’s opinion or emotions. What a pity though. Since a scientist most probably has chosen to be a scientist of his or her own accord; he is not a scientist out of compulsion, but choice! Such a person will feel for the work he has performed, but sadly he can’t express it in a research paper because the current norms go against such an act.

But should a research paper be the only path of communication between scientists? If a researcher wants to talk about his work in a more lucid fashion, maybe he could do it using a blog or platforms like TED. And yet it won’t be the same, it won’t be the same as a peer reviewed journal which has a comic sans font. Such a journal could never be taken seriously and no one would want to publish in it.

Alternative ways of presentation  is a novel idea in itself. Pity we are not making full use of it.

Posted by: yashada | March 28, 2009

TED Video for Today

Hunting for new viral threats, before we become the hunted.🙂

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/nathan_wolfe_hunts_for_the_next_aids.html

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