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Science Shots

In nature, survival and reproduction are the two of the most effective drivers that shape animal behavior. In evolutionary biology, the individual who makes a larger contribution to the gene pool of the next generation is said to be ‘fitter’ than other individuals. When reproduction plays such an important role in the life cycle of an animal, it is obvious that a lot of energy goes into attracting and securing mates. In many groups of animals like birds, anurans and orthopterans (a superfamily comprising of grasshoppers, locusts and crickets) intricate acoustic signals are performed by one gender to attract the other. Specifically for crickets it has been seen that the calling activity is a strong indicator of the male’s success. In a recent study researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore have studied the all important calling behaviour in a wild population of field crickets, Plebeiogryllus guttiventris. They studied the variability in the call the males made on different nights and also the position from which these calls were made. Through the study they found that the calls of individual crickets varied on different nights and the males frequently changed the location from where they made the call. The change in location even though large was not seen to be directional. The study also shows that the male crickets often used energetically expensive features of calls like high intensity and high chirp rate. The study successfully shows that the two major factors influencing signaling behaviour, calling effort and calling intensity, are independent of each other. Thus gives us an interesting insight into the trade-off decisions made by crickets and furthering our understanding of these small critters.

Section: General, Science, Ecology Source: Link

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one third of the world’s population is  infected with Tuberculosis (TB) . India accounts for the quarter of the world’s burden of TB and has the highest number of multidrug resistant TB  cases worldwide. While multidrug resistant TB poses a major challenge for healthcare providers worldwide, many steps have been taken to treat this form of disease and control its spread. Currently available tools for monitoring the treatment of TB depend on clinical assessments and traditional inflammatory markers like erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C - reactive protein and white blood cell count. These tests have to be performed multiple times to check the presence of the disease during and after the treatment.  While the absence of a Mycobacterium tuberculosis culture after 2 months of treatment is a reliable biomarker for adults. In the case of children, only 30% of children show positive Mycobacterium tuberculosis cultures at diagnosis. TB patients also show a high variability in the manifestation and the extent of the disease which makes treatment complicated. To tackle these problems, scientists from University of Bergen, AIIMS Delhi, Leiden University Medical Center and GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines have studied various biomarkers that can increase the predictability of the presence or absence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in a patient, 6 months after treatment. The team presented first of its kind results of 11 different biomarkers that can predict the presence of an infection. Testing these biomarkers on 99 Indian children with intrathoracic tuberculosis, they found that the abundance of these markers is correlated with the bacterial load in the body. BLR1 and FCGR1A biomarkers were seen to be correlated with treatment outcomes at 6 months after treatment, predicting the outcome with greater than 70% accuracy. These new biomarkers will surely help us take a step towards a TB free tomorrow.

Section: General, Science, Health Source: Link

Red blood cells (RBC) are the primary carriers of oxygen in all the vertebrates They pick up oxygen from the lungs, flow through the circulatory system and deliver the oxygen to the different cells and tissues. White blood cells (WBC), on the other hand, are the bodies primary defense system. Produced in the bone marrow, WBC helps the body fight invaders, like virus and bacteria. Tracking these cells, as they move within the body, has lead to a better class of treatments and medical procedures, while also helping us learn about the function of these cells in the body. Many of the currently available technologies use manual tracking methods where an operator must manually track the cells, which can be time and resource consuming and inaccurate in the case of overlapped cells. While many of todays automated software lack accuracy and spontaneity of the manual systems. Now a collaborative study by researchers from Indian Institute of Science, Georgia Institute of Technology and RVCE, Bangalore have developed an automated tool with a tracking accuracy of 95 % and can do so at 25 frames per second. The new technique makes use of a statistical tool called Kalman filter to distinguish the different blood cells and can then track these cells, whether they are moving slow or fast. The method also distinguishes two overlapped cells overcoming the flaws in many manual systems. The scientists also found the new technique perform much better when compared five other state-of-the-art automated tracking software and could potentially increase the efficiency in our hospitals.         

Section: General, Science, Technology, Health, Society Source: Link

The warming climate has made the world panic. Although some countries are still skeptical, most scientists agree about the inevitable rise in the temperature of the planet by the year 2030. Several countries have already started a shift towards renewable sources, like solar and with the Paris agreement, the world joined this movement. The Paris Agreement or the Paris climate change accord is an agreement signed by 195 countries with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and deals with the reducing the emission of pollutants and increasing greenery around the globe. The aim of the accord is the reign down the rising mercury and stabilize the warming to around 2 degrees Celsius. India, one of the 195 countries to sign the accord, has promised to bring down its greenhouse gas (GHG)emission by one third by the year 2020. This would include not only switching to renewable sources, but also increasing the forest cover of the country, which act as carbon sinks, absorbing enormous amounts of carbondioxide. To keep to its promise of bringing down the GHG emissions, the country needs to implement policies, investment in transformative technologies and vast amount of research to establish the right way forward. Scientists from IISc have detailed a roadmap to follow to successfully implement the accord. Operationalizing the agreement requires accurate climate modelling, monitoring and verification and also involves poverty alleviation, development and adaptation. The study points to a lack of data and highlights the need research, monitoring, data collection while also maintaining consistency, accuracy and completeness to keep to the goal of one third reduction. The work urges us to take the right measures to keep the country and the earth habitable.

Section: General, Science, Ecology, Health, Society, Policy Source: Link

In 1959, Luna 1, a Soviet Union mission to the moon, successfully landed on the surface of the moon, kickstarting the space race between America and the Soviet that lasted for decades. Today, many countries are looking beyond our moon, and at moons of other planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Although, twelve astronauts have walked on its surface, manned missions to the moon came to a close in 1972. But the urge to study our closest neighbor never receded. Number of countries launched probes and satellites to study the moon, including India’s Chandrayaan 1, the lunar orbiter, which launched a probe onto the lunar surface, as recently as 2008. Scientists at IISc have now developed a new algorithm that could make lunar landing safer. While probes can be shot to the surface, more delicate equipment like rovers and humans need to land carefully and softly on the surface. After travelling 384400 km at close to 30 km per second, the spacecraft then needs to slow down, with minimal changes in acceleration of the craft and hit the ground on the moon with very little impact force all to avoid causing jerks which could damage the equipment on board or harm humans. Using minimum jerk guidance, the scientists developed the acceleration command algorithm, which controls the acceleration of the spacecraft. In simulations, the new system not only achieved accurate landing but did it with minimum rate of change of acceleration, eliminating damaging jolts to the craft, enabling more studies of our closest cosmic neighbor.

Section: General, Science, Engineering Source: Link

Commons is defined as any natural or cultural resources that can be accessed by any member of a society. This includes the air we breathe, oceans and rivers, grazing lands, fish stock, forests and even an office computer. ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, a concept which emerged in 1833 and was later revived in 1968 by Garett Hardin in an article of the same name, explores the struggle for such commons. The tragedy occurs when individuals in a society, guided by their own self-interest, would act against the common good and deplete the common shared resource. If commons aren’t protected by laws, then individuals or industries could pollute the air and water resources, destroy forests and deplete other natural resources, like oil. Researchers from IIT- Roorkee and University of Perugia have extensively studied the problem with the help of computer models. They modeled a society with commons, populated by autonomous systems behaving differently; on one extreme individuals only acted on their self-interest, while on the other extreme individuals were only concerned about the welfare of the society. Different scenarios, where the individuals interacted with each other or didn’t interact, were studied. From their study, the researchers propose social cooperation as a key element for sustainability of the society and commons. The study showed sustainability of a city could be significantly increased, if individuals in a society were willing to sacrifice using a common for a short period of time. Previous such studies had considered all the agents in a society behaving on their self-interest alone, while the new study considers our ability for social cooperation for the benefit of the society. The study not only impacts the real world, where it facilitates efficient use of the commons, but also the digital world, by allowing us to design better autonomous systems, like robots and sensors, that can efficiently use commons in the digital world, like processors.

Section: General, Science, Society, Policy Source: Link

Cancer remains one of the most terrifying disease to face, despite decades of research and billions of dollars spent. They are a group of diseases that begins with abnormal cell growth, which then spreads to other parts of the body, causing huge damage to the tissues and cells. Once a patient has been diagnosed with cancer, doctors can only try and remove the spreading tumors or control their growth. Even if the tumors have been successfully removed, they are likely to return, making a visit to the doctors a regular affair. Cancer can be caused by internal factors like random mutations, but the main perpetrators remain to be external factors, like cigarette smoking, radiation, and poor diet, which makes it a challenge to detect the disease early on. Scientists around the globe have been looking at ways of predicting the growth of cancerous tumors, using the genetic and molecular data of humans. Now, a collaborative study by scientists from IISER – Kolkata, IIT – Kanpur and KIIT University has proposed a novel technique of identifying tissues susceptible to cancer. The spectroscopic signal from tissues were analyzed using a statistical tool called a recurrence plot (RP). Next, using Recurrence Quantification Analysis (RQA), another statistical tool that allows analysis of recurrence plots, the team could classify tissues into normal and precancerous grades based on certain features identified from the spectroscopic data. Further, they could validate their classifications of precancerous cells based on simulations. If validated with successful trials, RQA could serve as potential biomarkers for diagnosis of pre-cancer. The novel technique allows us to diagnose the susceptibility of tissues to cancerous tumors, allowing us to take measures before being diagnosed with the grave disease.

Section: General, Science, Health, Society Source: Link

The process of voting is the cornerstone of any democratic process. Be it selecting the leader of a nation or just deciding the laws that govern a nation, a democratic process allows the different participants and stakeholders of the election to have a uniform chance of having their choice win. The process of voting, sometime called the electoral system, can itself be carried out in many ways, sometimes depending on the outcome. A Plurality voting system selects the candidate with the highest number of votes as the winner. In a Borda voting system, the voters rank the candidates or ideas in order of preference, and the winner is the person or idea with the highest number of points. Other methods like Minimax and Copeland use more complex rules to arrive at a winner. Although various rules within each system could yield different outcomes, studies have shown the rules themselves to be in perfect agreement. In a new study, scientists from Indian Institute of Science, have attempted to provide a mathematical explanation for this agreement between the rules. As social behavior plays a major role in our voting preferences, the researchers also studied the different social parameters affecting choice. They considered a population as being comprised of small groups, each voting according to the preference of other in each faction. The study also revealed that in any population that was made of such smaller groups, more than half the voters preferred the winner of a Borda election to any other. The study allows us to better understand our voting systems, and by providing a mathematical explanation for the phenomenon, it also allows our computers to better understand them. 

Section: General, Science, Society, Policy Source: Link

The Smart Cities Mission of the Indian government aims to develop at least 100 cities around the country in to smart cities. Internet of Things and Cyber Physical Systems, the two technologies that will enable the smart city dream, still in nascent stages and require enormous efforts from researchers and engineers to set up the framework for such cities. Scientists are now looking to use crowdsourcing as an effective measure to collect the data and effectively implement certain smart applications. Researchers from the Transportation Research Board are now exploring using the crowd to create better smart transportation. The researchers developed an Android app and a web portal, which allows users to view, create and maintain mobility related data. The researchers conducted an initial three phase study of the tool inside the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay campus, where participants were given a survey after each phase. The feedback obtained from the surveys directed future developments of the system. The surveys also allowed the researchers to explore the effect availability of data had on the behavior of users. The new system has already proven its worth with a reduction in a user’s waiting time in bus stops. The availability of data allows the user to better schedule his trips while also prompting efficiency from the public transport sector. The users providing data and using the tool were found to do so due to a sense of social belonging and not due to any reward or recognition. The smart mobility system is a small part of the smart city initiative but one of the most important feature, and with the crowd participating, we can be sure of its effectiveness during implementation.

Section: Science, Technology, Society Source: Link

The fossil fuel crisis arising due to our increased use of oil leading to diminishing oil reserves, is giving rise to an increase in renewable energy generation. While solar and wind are preferred to produce electricity, biodiesel is preferred as a replacement to petrol and diesel. Biodiesels are produced from plant or animal matter, like vegetable oil, animal fat or even waste cooking oil. Although biodiesels still produce exhaust gases, they are much cleaner and safer compared to the toxic fumes coming out of fossil fuel powered engines. Scientists at Indian Institute of Science have been working on improving the efficiency and reducing the exhaust fumes in biodiesel engines. Their latest work looks at reducing the Nitrogen oxide (NO) released from the exhausts of biodiesel engines. While biodiesel produced from pongamia pinnata, a native Indian plant, powered a diesel engine, the scientists injected ozone into the stream of exhaust fumes. By doing so, the high amount of NO in the exhaust gets oxidized or to higher oxides of nitrogen, like Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). Next, this stream of higher oxides of nitrogen passes through pellets of lignite ash, an industrial waste produced in lignite coal fired power plants, where NO2 is adsorbed by the pellets. The two steps together effectively reduce around 95% of the amount of NO and NO2 in the exhaust. The researchers have also compared other techniques available, such as direct plasma treatment, at removing NOx from the exhaust. While the new method is as efficient as many techniques available today, it also manages to remain economical, with the use of industrial waste material -lignite ash.

Section: General, Science, Technology, Health, Society Source: Link