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Mumbai Monday, 6 August, 2018 - 08:25

If there is one aspect that is common to musical instruments, ocean waves, gravitational waves, antennae, and pendula, it is that all of these are related to oscillations. An important question to ask is what happens when several oscillators are coupled, i.e., they are put together in a situation where one influences another. A mathematical study by Mr Tejas Kotwal, from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, collaborating with Dr Xin Jiang at Beihang University in China and Prof. Daniel Abrams at the Northwestern University, has found a simple mathematical explanation of the origin of a special situation known as the Chimera State of these coupled oscillators.

Before the turn of the twenty-first century, it was widely believed that a collection of identical coupled oscillators, would either oscillate randomly or in complete synchrony with one another. However, it was later found that under some conditions some of them synchronise in little groups, while others swing at random, as though each of these groups has a different identity. This paradoxical behaviour, discovered in 2002, has been dubbed the “chimera state”, named after a fire-breathing monster, composed of parts of more than one animal, in Homer’s Iliad. In their study published in the journal Physical Review Letters, researchers have shown how we can understand the origin of the “chimera state” using known mathematical equations (model) of coupled oscillators.

The starting point of their analysis is the Kuramoto model. “The Kuramoto model has been around since the 1970s and has been used by thousands of researchers to understand why things in nature tend to synchronise with each other, such as fireflies may flash in unison, crickets may chirp in sync, cells in the heart contract together to pump blood, etc. While the model has the necessary complexity, it can also be solved using pen-and-paper”, explains Prof. Daniel Abrams from Northwestern University, who is an author of the study. Such a rare combination of “strongly nonlinear and exactly solvable” equations are a dream come true for theoretical mathematicians.”

The researchers studied how the Kuramoto model behaved when different parameters like the natural frequencies of the oscillators, the coupling strength between them and the phase lag between them were varied. "The key highlight of this paper is that the chimera state can be achieved via a pitchfork bifurcation off of the well-understood Kuramoto synchronised state. Our analysis reveals that the formation of the chimera state is indeed a case of symmetry breaking,” says lead author Tejas Kotwal from IIT Bombay.

The term ‘bifurcation’ is used in a mathematical sense to describe a sudden, dramatic change in a system when some controlling input is gradually changed. For example, if you slowly change the temperature of water, it will suddenly go from liquid to gas when that temperature passes 100 degrees Celsius. In a pitchfork bifurcation, as you slowly change the control input beyond the bifurcation threshold, the system goes from having one equilibrium state to having two equilibria, both different from the original one.  The original equilibrium behaviour disappears (it is no longer stable). “In our coupled oscillator example, as we slowly change a control parameter, we go from a single equilibrium--the fully synchronised state--to having two different stable equilibria--two types of chimera states,” explains Prof. Abrams.

One can also understand ‘symmetry-breaking’ using a simple example. Imagine a pencil balanced on its tip. It is perfectly symmetrical but bound to topple one way or the other although the laws of nature do not prescribe a particular direction. But once it topples, it does so in a particular direction and we say that the symmetry has been broken. In previous works, it was unclear whether the formation of a chimera state is a case of symmetry breaking and there was no explicit connection found between the chimera state and the fully synchronised state. However, this study presents an intuitive understanding of chimera states and where they originate from.

Discussing the potential applications of this paper, Mr Kotwal says, “The formulation of this model can be used to describe the behaviour of systems of chemical and biological oscillators, lasers and mechanical pendula. It is also of widespread use in neuroscience and heart cell dynamics.”

Section: General, Science, Deep-dive Source:
Guwahati Thursday, 2 August, 2018 - 15:47

Small as they are, microbes have a considerable presence in our lives—some help us, a few don't bother about our existence, and some others can cause fatal infections and diseases. One such type of microbe that is favoured by India’s tropical weather conditions are fungi, which cause many diseases.  Invasive Aspergillosis, the world’s most invasive fungal infection, is caused by the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus. The fungus infects the lungs and severely affects immunocompromised patients. However, early diagnosis can save many lives.

In a new study, researchers from CSIR – Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati and MNR Dental College & Hospital, Hyderabad have developed an electrochemical nanobiosensor that can efficiently diagnose invasive aspergillosis. The study was published in the International Journal of Biological Macromolecules and was supported by grants from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB), Government of India.

Currently, diagnosis of aspergillosis involves microbial cultures and tests that are invasive, painful, labour-intensive and time-consuming, and can take up to three days for diagnosis. The biosensor, developed by the scientists of the current study, addresses these problems. “Our developed biosensor provides onsite and rapid detections (less than 20 minutes), allowing early-stage detection”, says Dr Pranjal Chandra of Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, who is the lead scientist along with Dr. Ira Bhatnagar from CSIR-CCMB, Hyderabad.

The researchers used gold nanoparticles, a polysaccharide called chitosan, a gold electrode and a chemical called 1,6-Hexanedithiol (HDT) to assemble the biosensor.  It works by detecting ‘gliP’—a gene found exclusively in the Aspergillus species. The gene encodes an enzyme essential for the production of gliotoxin—a fungal toxin that harms the immune system of the host and allows the growth of the fungus in the body. Thus, detection of gliP is an indication of the presence of the gliotoxin producing Aspergillus and helps determine the specialized antifungal treatment required against the disease.

The researchers tested the new biosensor under different parameters—different gliP concentration, temperature, reaction time and the concentration of the toluidine blue dye used for detection. They found that the sensor could detect the gliP gene in a solution of various other substances, thus demonstrating its high sensitivity and accuracy. Also, since the materials used to make the biosensor do not readily degrade, the sensor can be used multiple times and can remain stable for about seven weeks. These properties make the sensor very cost-effective and affordable.

According to Dr Chandra, the sensor has the potential to be a “miniaturised hand-held device for onsite gliP detection”, indicating that the sensor can be implanted into a small device that can be used on patients in hospitals. Such a device could make detection of infection quicker and easier than the current process that involves waiting for test reports from labs. The researchers also claim that the biosensor can also be applied to detect other genes and genetic biomarkers of other diseases. As a next step, the researchers are trying to create a prototype of the hand-held device. “We anticipate the optimised system will be ready for the prototype stage very soon”,  shares Dr Chandra.

The biosensor developed by the researchers is quicker and cost-effective as compared to the existing methods, allowing early detection and affordability to patients. The researchers hope that they can soon have a market-ready product. “The establishment of any product is an utterly complex process which requires the participation of both academia and industry for mass production”, says Dr Chandra. Even though it may take a while, the new biosensor could help save many lives as seven in every 1000 patients in intensive care units in India develop fungal infections.

Section: General, Science, Health, Deep-dive Source:
Bengaluru Thursday, 2 August, 2018 - 07:20

The devastating tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean goes into history as one of the worst tragedies in recent times. It killed close to 2 lakh people and rendered 17 lakh homeless, across 14 countries. During the massive scale of rescue and relief operations that followed, satellite images that captured details of the affected areas, including the most remote islands were of great help. However, manually searching through these images to find the closest hospital or a safe building to stay in can be tedious and time-consuming, slowing down the rescue work. In a new study, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay have developed a better method to search satellite images with commonly-used search phrases in English.

Today, India has about 23 remote sensing satellites that continuously collect data and add to a massive database, which is used in the time of crisis. The images captured here contain low-level features like colour, texture and shape, which are understood by the system, but hardly make sense for the user. For example, a user may be interested in a search for ‘flooded residential areas’. Since the images capture the flooded areas with a different colour or texture, the system fails to understand the meaning of it and hence the user is forced to form a query like ‘show me all the grey coloured regions’. This gap in understanding is called the semantic gap.

The researchers of this study have developed a ‘semantic’ framework that one can query and receive information about a region based on its spatial and directional relationship with surrounding areas. Semantics refers to meaning or connection of meanings of a set of signs. Their approach links the high-level thinking of the user with the low-level representation of the images, which could speed up the analysis time.

“A semantics-enabled framework facilitates understanding about a domain, like how humans process information, and converts it into knowledge”, says Prof. Surya Durbha from IIT Bombay, who is also an author of the study published in the IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Applied Earth Observations and Remote Sensing.

The new framework provides information about the contents of an image like identifying a building, farmland or empty land, along with its spatial and directional relationship with its surroundings. In a post-flood disaster scenario, such information can be used to find all buildings that are surrounded by water and has a road that is unaffected or partially flooded. The researchers have used a specific computer language that can represent this knowledge and have developed a domain-specific database of concepts that make the implicit knowledge explicit.

The framework has two components—an offline module and an online module. The offline module extracts the features like colour, texture and shape from satellite images. The various spatial and directional relationships between regions are also encoded and later retrieved while searching using a reasoning engine. The online mode uses a graphical user interface to facilitate selecting different land use and land cover categories such as a river, cropland, partially-flooded cropland and so on. Users can also choose the required spatial configurations in the images and search them to retrieve relevant images.

“Our system can not only rapidly identify the affected areas but also identify the areas based on their spatial and directional relationships. This enables a rapid search of the contents of huge archives of remote sensing imagery based on specific needs”, says Prof. Durbha, highlighting the effectiveness of the framework.

Is the use of the framework limited to rescue operations? No, say the researchers, pointing out that it can be used by anyone to find images that satisfy their purpose. The users can install it on any computer and specify the location of the images. Post this, the framework processes the data and makes it ready for querying. Also, the system can be customised to handle different disaster situations.

The study is a step in the right direction when the world is facing a rise in the number of natural calamities. The developed framework can help to evolve appropriate management strategies, enabling the agencies to rapidly process post-disaster data and facilitate quick responses that could save many lives.

Section: General, Science, Technology, Society, Deep-dive Source:
मुंबई Wednesday, 1 August, 2018 - 09:41

ग्लोबल क्लायमेट रिस्क इंडेक्स अनुसार जलवायु परिवर्तनाचा ज्या देशांत सर्वाधिक प्रभाव पडतो, त्यात भारताचे स्थान सहावे  आहे. भारतात पूर, चक्रीवादळ व दुष्काळ पडण्याचे वाढलेले प्रमाण याची प्रचिती देते. भारतातील कृषिक्षेत्र नैऋत्य मॉनसूनवर अवलंबून असते, आणि जलवायु परिवर्तनाचा प्रभाव मॉनसूनवर पण पडतो. क्षेत्रीय पातळीवर हवामानाचा काय प्रभाव पडतो ह्यावर अनेक अभ्यास केले गेले आहेत पण त्या अभ्यासांच्या आधारावर निर्माण होणारी धोरणे जिल्हा पातळीवरील कृषिक्षेत्राच्या समस्या सोडवण्यात यशस्वी झालेली नाहीत. भारतीय तंत्रज्ञान संस्था, मुंबई येथील संशोधकांनी केलेल्या एका जिल्हावार अभ्यासात महाराष्ट्रातील कृषिक्षेत्रावर जलवायु परिवर्तनाचा काय प्रभाव पडतो ह्याचा शोध घेतला.

नैऋत्येकडून इशान्येकडे वाहणारे, आर्द्रता असलेले मोसमी वारे पाऊस घेऊन येतात. भारतातील जवळजवळ ६०% खरीफ शेतीसाठी हा मॉनसून अत्यंत महत्त्वाचा असून मॉनसून वारे सुरू होण्याची वेळ आणि तीव्रता यांवर शेतीचे वेळापत्रक अवलंबून असते. प्रत्येक हंगाम, वर्ष आणि दशक ह्यात वार्‍याचे प्रमाण बदलत राहते आणि ह्या बदलत्या प्रमाणाला मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलता म्हणतात.

'सायन्स ऑफ द टोटल एनवायरनमेंट' नियतकालिकात प्रकाशित झालेल्या ह्या अभ्यासात संशोधकांनी जलवायु परिवर्तनाचा मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलतेवर काय प्रभाव पडतो हे समजून घ्यायचा प्रयत्न केला. १९५१ पासून २०१३ ह्या ६२ वर्षांच्या अवधीसाठी महाराष्ट्रातील ३४ जिल्ह्यातील रोजच्या पर्जन्यमानाच्या माहितीचे त्यांनी विश्लेषण केले. सलग काही दिवस पाऊस न पडलेल्या घटनांची (ड्राय स्पेल) वाढलेली संख्या व सलग काही दिवस किमान आवश्यकतेपेक्षा अधिक पाऊस झालेल्या घटनांची (वेट सपेल) घटलेली संख्या हे सुद्धा संशोधकांनी लक्षात घेतले. रोजच्या पर्जन्यातील बदल व अतिवृष्टीच्या घटना ह्यांची पण नोंद केली.

ह्या सगळ्या माहितीच्या आधारावर संशोधकांनी प्रत्येक जिल्ह्यासाठी "मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलता निर्देशांक" परिगणित केला. ह्या अभ्यासाचे प्रमुख, भारतीय तंत्रज्ञान संस्था, मुंबई येथील प्राध्यापक देवनाथन पार्थसारथी म्हणतात, "महाराष्ट्रातील ज्या जिल्ह्यात जलवायु परिवर्तनाचे सर्वाधिक परिणाम दिसतात तिथे मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलता निर्देशांकाचा प्रमुख पिकांवर  प्रभाव कसा पडतो हे समजून घेण्याचा प्रयत्न ह्या अभ्यासात केला आहे. या अभ्यासात वापरलेल्या पद्धती जगभरातील इतर अनेक प्रशासकीय विभागांत  उपयोगात आणता येऊ शकतात."

संशोधकांना असे लक्षात आले की अभ्यासात समाविष्ट केलेल्या सर्व जिल्ह्यात मागील काही वर्षात ड्राय स्पेलची संख्या वाढत गेली आहे. मात्र अतिवृष्टी, वेट स्पेलची संख्या, आणि पाऊसाच्या पॅटर्नमधील बदल हे मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलता निर्देशांक प्रत्येक जिल्ह्यासाठी वेगवेगळे होते.

मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलता निर्देशांकाच्या आधारावर जिल्ह्यांची क्रमवारी लावल्यानंतर संशोधकांच्या लक्षात आले की जलवायु परिवर्तनाचा सर्वाधिक प्रभाव विदर्भ आणि मराठवाडा क्षेत्रावर पडला आहे. संशोधकांच्या मते मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलतेमुळे पिकांचे सरासरी उत्पादन कमी होते आणि पीक अयशस्वी होते. म्हणून, राज्यातील ह्या दोन क्षेत्रात शेतकरी आत्महत्येचे प्रमाण सर्वाधिक दिसते यात नवल नाही.

सुश्री दीपिका स्वामी, ह्या अभ्यासाच्या लेखिका म्हणतात, "सिंचन सुविधा नसणे, हवामानातील बदल, अकार्यक्षम कृषि बाजार आणि सरकारी योजनांबद्दल जागरूकता नसणे ह्या सगळ्या कारणांमुळे ह्या क्षेत्रात उत्पादनक्षमता कमी होते."

विविध क्षेत्रातील हवामानातील फरकाचे मूल्यांकन करणे आवश्यक आहे असे संशोधक विशेषकरून नमूद करू इच्छितात. वर्तमानात राज्य पातळीवर 'स्टेट अॅक्शन प्लान ऑन क्लायमेट चेंज (एसएपीसीसी)' ही संस्था कृषि क्षेत्राची धोरणे ठरवते. मात्र क्षेत्रीय पातळीवर बरीच विविधता असल्यामुळे जलवायु परिवर्तनाविषयी एक व्यापक कृती योजना निर्माण करणे ही काळाची गरज आहे असे संशोधकांचे मत आहे.

कृषि क्षेत्रावर जलवायु परिवर्तनामुळे होणार्‍या दुष्परिणामावर मात कशी करता येईल ह्याविषयी बोलताना डॉ. पार्थसारथी म्हणाले, "हवामानातील परिवर्तनाचे बदलते कल लक्षात घेता आपण प्रत्येक क्षेत्राच्या परिस्थितीचा स्वतंत्रपणे अभ्यास करायला पाहिजे. संपूर्ण राज्य किंवा मोठ्या क्षेत्रासाठी उपाय प्रस्तावित करणे उपयोगी ठरणार नाही."

जलवायु परिवर्तनामुळे सर्वाधिक प्रभावित होणार्‍या पिकांची यादी संशोधकांनी तयार केली आहे. मॉनसून परिवर्तनशीलतेमुळे ऊस, ज्वारी, शेंगदाण्यासारख्या पारंपारिक पिकांवर सर्वाधिक प्रभाव पडतो. ह्या विपरीत कापूस आणि तुरीच्या पिकांवर सगळ्यात कमी प्रभाव पडताना दिसला.

राज्यातील शेतकर्‍यांचे हित जपण्यासाठी काही उपाय संशोधकांनी सुचवले आहे. डॉ. पार्थसारथी ह्यांच्या मते, "जलवायु परिवर्तनामुळे होणार्‍या प्रभावांशी जुळवून घेण्यासाठी प्रचलित कृषी पद्धती बदलून पर्यायी पद्धती अवलंबिल्या पाहिजे, पेरणी/कापणीचे वेळापत्रक पुढे/मागे हलवले पाहिजे, बियाणांची विविधता वाढवली पाहिजे, सिंचनाचे इतर पर्याय शोधून काढले पाहिजे, उपजीविकेची नवीन साधने शोधली पाहिजे, आणि कृषि बाजारावर नियंत्रण आणले पाहिजे."

Section: General, Science, Ecology, Society, Deep-dive Source:
मुंबई Wednesday, 1 August, 2018 - 08:44

भारत की बढ़ती हुयी आबादी के लिए शहरी क्षेत्रों में किफायती आवास इकाइयों की कमी है। मुंबई और कोलकाता जैसे शहरों में अचल सम्पत्ति की कीमतों में भारी बढ़ोत्तरी हुई है, जो मध्यम वर्गीय परिवारों को इन बड़े शहरों से​ नज़दीकी क्षेत्रों की ओर स्थानांतरित होने के लिए मजबूर कर रहें है। आज सभी इस बात से सहमत हैं कि इन 'नये शहरों' जैसे मुंबई के निकट नवी मुंबई और कोलकाता के पास राजारहाट  का विकास न केवल मूलभूत बुनियादी ढांचों के दबाव को बल्कि आम जनसंख्या की आवासीय समस्या को भी संबोधित कर सकता है। किंतु, किफायती आवास की समस्या को सुलझाने में यह नए शहर कितने प्रभावी हुए हैं?

भारतीय प्रौद्योगिकी संस्थान मुंबई (आईआईटी मुंबई) में शोधकर्ताओं के एक अध्ययन से पता चलता है की विभिन्न नीतियों तथा रियल एस्टेट बाजार की बढ़ती कीमतों के चलते  मध्यम आय के परिवारों लिए आवास की समस्या अभी भी पूर्ववत है।

मुंबई जैसे शहरों में, ज्यादातर लोग बस्तियों में मूलभूत सुविधाओं की कमी में जीते​ हैं।  आईआईटी मुंबई के प्राध्यापक अर्नब जाना का मानना है कि "भारतीय शहरों में अनौपचारिक  (अशासनिक) बस्तियों की तेजी से बढ़ती संख्या को काफी हद तक अनियोजित शहरीकरण के लिए जिम्मेदार ठहराया जा सकता है, हाउसिंग बोर्ड प्राधिकारियों द्वारा शहर की आबादी की आवास मांग को पूरा करने के लिए रणनीतिक योजनाओं को सक्रिय रूप से पूरा करने के लिए कम प्रयास किये गए है”। अंतराष्ट्रीय जर्नल “सिटीज्” में प्रकाशित प्रोफेसर जाना के इस अध्ययन का मुख्य निष्कर्ष यह है कि यदि हम आवास की समस्या का एक संभव समाधान चाहते है तो हमें उपनगरों को योजनागत शैली से विकसित करना होगा।

किंतु इस शहरी आवास संकट की का मूल क्या है? इसका एक कारण शहरों की बढ़ती प्रवासियों की संख्या एवं उसी तेज़ी से बढ़ती हुई आवासों की ज़रूरत है। हालाँकि, शोधकर्ताओं ने पाया कि यह तथ्य केवल आंशिक रूप से सही था। वास्तव में, शहरों में ज़्यादातर मकान निजी बिल्डरों की रणनीतियों की वजह से ख़ाली हैं, चूँकि उनका ध्यान उच्च-लागत वाले अपार्टमेंट्स के निर्माण पर केंद्रित है, जो मुख्य रूप से उच्च आय वाले समूहों के लिए ही होते हैं।

प्रोफ़ेसर ​जाना कहते हैं कि, "हालाँकि आवास के मुद्दे को हल करने के लिए कई सरकारी योजनायें बनायी गयी हैं, किंतु इन में से किसी भी योजना का प्रभाव संतोषजनक नहीं रहा है। इसका मुख्य कारण आवासीय क्षेत्र में अचल संपत्ति की अत्यधिक महँगी क़ीमत है, जिसके चलते शहरों में निर्मित आवास आम जनता के सामर्थ्य से बाहर होते है एवं खाली रह जाते है।” इन सब अनियमितताओं से मध्यवर्ग के लोग सबसे अधिक प्रभावित रहे ​क्योंकि वे सरकार की अधिकांश योजनाओं के लिए  अयोग्य हैं और निजी बिल्डरों द्वारा बनाए गए घर आम जनता ​उनकी सामर्थ्य से कहीं अधिक महँगे होते हैं।

नवी मुंबई में शहर और औद्योगिक विकास निगम (सिडको) किफायती आवास के निर्माण के लिए जिम्मेदार है। उन्होंने यह अनुमान लगाया था कि नवी मुंबई की अनुमानित आबादी २० लाख  तक पहुंच सकती है। हालांकि, २०११ की जनगणना के अनुसार शहर की जनसंख्या केवल ११ लाख थी। यही स्थिति कोलकाता के पास राजारहाट में भी पायी गयी। इसलिए, कई आवास इकाइयां या तो खाली रह गईं या बहुत कम लोग उन आवासों में रह रहे हैं।  प्रोफेसर जाना ने टिप्पणी करते हुए कहा कि, “उपनगरों की मजबूत आर्थिक खिंचाव उत्पन्न करने में असमर्थता उनकी असफलता का कारण है।” वह यह भी कहते हैं कि यही हाल किसी अन्य बड़े शहर का भी हो सकता है।

तो क्या हम वास्तव में इन उपनगरों को सफल बना सकते हैं? शोधकर्ताओं के अनुसार योजना ​ही ​सफलता की कुंजी है। एक सुनियोजित  सुव्यवस्थित शहर न केवल शहरी विकास की प्रक्रिया को आसान बनाता है, बल्कि आवास संकट को भी कम करता है। शोधकर्ताओं का कहना है कि लोगों के लिए उपयुक्त परिस्थितियां बनाने की जगह “शहरी क्षेत्र” को कंक्रीट का जंगल बना देने पर केंद्रित रहना शहरी व्यवस्था में असंतुलन पैदा कर सकता है, जो वीरान शहरीकरण को बढ़ावा देता है।

प्रोफेसर जाना व उनके सह-शोधकर्ताओं के अनुसार उपनगरों का सकारात्मक रूपांतरण हो सकता है। वह मानते हैं कि " योजनाबद्ध तरीके से नए शहरों में आवास की मांग और आपूर्ति में अंतर को कम करने तथा लंबी अवधि के लिए शहरी अनौपचारिकता की समस्या से निपटने के लिए भारी  सम्भावनाएँ ​ हैं”| इस अध्ययन में शोधकर्ताओं ने देखा कि कुछ निजी भवन निर्माता किफायती आवास बनाने पर भी ध्यान केंद्रित कर रहे थे।

शोधकर्ताओं ने सुझाव दिया है कि नीतियों को लागू करने के लिए, घरों और जमीन की सट्टा खरीददारी को नियंत्रित करना अति आवश्यक है। इसी के साथ किफायती आवास बनाए जाने के लिए संभावित स्थलों के रूप में नए शहरों को नामित करना, अच्छा सार्वजनिक-निजी​ साझेदारी नीति लागू करना और नए विकास क्षेत्रों में सस्ती कीमतों पर आवास उपलब्ध कराना हमारे शहरों में आवास संकट को हल करने में एक अत्यंत महत्वपूर्ण महत्त्वपूर्ण कदम होगा। यदि इन सुझावों का पालन किया जाए तो वह निश्चित रूप से ​ हम ​हमारे उपनगरों को प्रगतिशील तथा उन्नत बनाने में सक्षम हो सकते हैं।

Section: General, Science, Society, Deep-dive Source:
Rajgir Wednesday, 1 August, 2018 - 07:48

The modern day’s rush gives us little time to be well-informed before we buy and use the zillions of thing available at the supermarket. Hence, we rely on certifications from regulatory authorities that vouch that the product is safe, durable, and is of high quality. In India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) sets the quality regulations for various products—from gold to a bottle of water. It has a whopping 19000 standards in force with an average 350 new and revised ones per year—almost one per day!  However, how many of them are followed and implemented by manufacturers?

A recent study by Dr Aviram Sharma at the Nalanda University, Rajgir, Bihar, has analysed the regulatory governance of the standards set by BIS on bottled water quality in India. Bottled water is under the mandatory certification since 2001, meaning it is illegal for any firm to manufacture it without the BIS licence. The study, published in Current Science, concludes that the enforcement and implementation of mandatory quality standards for bottled water in India are ‘weak’.

“During 2008, when I started working on quality issues of drinking water, very few scientific studies were available in India. Besides, lack of uniform drinking water quality standards in India intrigued me. So, I started looking into the bottled water quality standards”, says Dr Sharma, talking about the motivation behind his research.

In a startling discovery, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reported the presence of pesticides in the bottled water in 2003.  An intense debate following this episode raised many questions over the relevance, implementation and reliability of BIS standards. However, studies have demonstrated that a majority of people continue to trust BIS standards.

“The 2003 controversy led to the formation of a parliamentary committee to address the issue as a public health concern.  Measures like the involvement of public and manufacturers in the standard-making procedure were introduced”, says Dr Sharma. “However, the many recommendations of the committee are not implemented effectively even after 15 years, and systemic issues still prevail in the drinking water quality regulation”, he rues.

The current study analysed the issue of implementation of bottled water standards using the fieldwork carried out in New Delhi, Jaipur, Patna, Kolkata and Bengaluru during 2010 to 2014. It included interviews with scientific experts, government officials, technology suppliers, bottled water manufacturing firms and around 200 consumers.

So, what is the bottleneck in the implementation of the standards? The study points to the lack of formal procedure for involving various stakeholders in formulating these standards. Except for Bengaluru, the bottled water manufacturers from across the country refute the claims of BIS that it regularly engages with them.

“BIS has included the industry to a certain extent, but mostly the big firms. The concerns of smaller firms rarely come up in mainstream discussions.  The disconnect between academia and BIS is much deeper.  While the institute heads of public research organisations are invited to take part in the standard-making, the limited involvement of individual ground level researchers often makes the standards less effective”, elaborates Dr Sharma.

Another factor that could be responsible, according to the study, is a lack of accountability and coordination among multiple regulatory authorities involved in setting and enforcing the standards. For example, the responsibility of BIS is limited to ensuring compliance of licensed manufacturers while the Public Health Engineering Department deals with illegal manufacturers. These two organisations must work in tandem to ensure strict compliance and implementation of standards.

The study also highlights the indifference of BIS towards the source of the raw water and its quality. The author says that the use of technologies like Reverse Osmosis (RO) in water-stressed areas have been creating havoc as they waste 3-4 litres of water for every one litre of treated water.  However, there is no one to control or restrict this!

“The problem is not limited to standards implementation as we tend to think, but it is a broader system level concern. The BIS is facing an acute shortage of workforce, forcing them to outsource even inspection. Without enough infrastructure, how can one expect the effective implementation of standards”, asks Dr Sharma. This shortage of workforce has led to the unabated production of bottled water by many small illegal firms without the BIS license, as they find no incentive in adhering to the standards, says the author.

The inadequate laboratory facilities also play a role in the weak implementation of standards. For ensuring compliance with BIS standards, a platoon of laboratories is required who can reliably test the water quality.  In reality, there are less than 40 BIS recognised laboratories to check the quality of bottled water for around 3000 firms having BIS license.  Out of these, only three are capable of testing parameters like radioactive residues in drinking water.

The study also suggests a few solutions to tighten the implementation of standards which includes incorporating the views of diverse stakeholders, creating an appropriate regulatory environment, and developing regulatory infrastructure such as many better laboratories. While the study puts the spotlight on the failing governance in the implementation of standards in India, will the authorities wake up?  Only time can tell.

Section: General, Science, Health, Society, Policy, Deep-dive Source:
Bengaluru Tuesday, 31 July, 2018 - 07:57

Ever wondered how is it that a bulb lights the moment you switch it on? Every time we switch on an appliance, some power station burns a little more fuel to supply the energy demand from the appliance. Any imbalance in the supply and demand can lead to to a power cut or power loss. In a recent survey article published in the Journal of Philosophical transactions, Dr Ankur Kulkarni of Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has put together a novel theoretical framework to handle this problem. In the article, he has collated relevant results from game theory, a field of mathematics that studies ‘games’ as the name suggests.

The power grid is a network of interconnected power lines and substations and used for distribution and transmission of electricity. Effective operation of the power grid is the key to minimise energy loss, making power grid management one of the most researched topics in energy production and distribution. A new dimension is added to these studies with the increasing deployment of renewable sources like solar and wind energy. The energy generated from these sources is unpredictable, prompting the design of new models where demand is adjusted based on supply. It is well established that renewable energy sources are the ones for the future. But effectively tapping on to their potential is no easy task. One of the hurdles is the unreliability of the sources themselves. For instance, we need not have the wind at a desired speed or sunlight at the desired intensity at a certain time of the day. A way to overcome this challenge is to adjust the consumption based on production. That is to produce and use electricity when sunlight or wind is available.

Game Theory emerged during the early part of 20th century as an attempt to mathematize social sciences. In a game, players try to effectively use available resources to their advantage. Often the strategies of a player should take into consideration the fact that other players must also be devising counter strategies. Game theory is widely used to model problems involving many players, especially when each of them tries to maximise their benefit, independently or otherwise. Nash equilibrium, named after Prof. John Nash (seen the movie A Beautiful Mind?), is an important property of games. It is a condition in which no player can extract any advantage by changing their strategies unilaterally. Knowing a Nash equilibrium of a game can help us design the rules in such a way that the game leads to scenarios which are desirable for all those involved. For instance, in the case of power grid management, a desirable scenario will be characterised by optimal profit for the supplier, minimised cost for the consumers and reduced wastage of power. A Nash equilibrium is difficult to compute, especially if the game has a large number of players and possible moves and may exist only under certain conditions.

In the article, citing known results in the field of game theory Dr Kulkarni demonstrates that the reversed problem of adjusting demand of power as the supply changes can be fit into a game-theoretic framework. The problem can be modelled as a game where each player (the consumer, at the demand end) is bound by constraints like the total energy available and price per unit of power dictated by the supply side.  What is remarkable is that a Nash equilibrium is possible for such a system even under fairly generalised assumptions regarding the number of consumers, price, the total power available etc.  Once these parameters are set in such a way that the game is in equilibrium, a steady state of ‘consumption based on supply’ emerges. This steady state makes an optimal and integrated operation of next-generation power distribution systems possible. So, in other words, it is possible to design a distribution system in which the optimal strategy for the end users would be to adjust their usage based on supply or information provided by the supplier. Any attempt at deviating from it would result in a loss for the consumer.

This article proposes a theoretical framework for designing next-generation power distribution systems. This is an instance of how abstract mathematical theories can help the  development of technology and accelerate progress. But putting it into practice would require fine tuning of the mathematical results and also development and design of necessary technology including one which will ensure two-way communication between demand side and supply side.

Section: General, Science, Deep-dive Source:
Mumbai Monday, 30 July, 2018 - 16:05

In the recently announced AYUSH awards presented by the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS), an autonomous body of the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy), a research group from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has won two top prestigious awards.

The Vice President of India, Shri Venkaiah Naidu, conferred the Lifetime Achievement award on Prof. Jayesh Bellare, a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay in an event organised to mark the World Homeopathy Day.  In the same event, one of Prof. Bellare’s student, Prashant Chikramane, has been awarded the AYUSH Young Scientist Award for his work on providing a scientific basis for homoeopathic medicines. Both awards consists of a certificate, a memento and a cash award.

The awards recognised their path-breaking research on the structure of homoeopathic remedies in the realm of nanotechnology and the extensive studies on the hormetic biological effects of nanoparticles. The research group, along with the two awardees, includes Prof. A K Suresh, Dr. S G Kane, Dr. Mayur Temgire, Abhirup Basu, Neha, Neelakshi, Dhrub and others.

Contributions by the award winners

The research by this group at IIT Bombay, over the last decade, has shown that drug delivery through nanoparticles is efficient and is important in allopathy, as well as in Ayurveda and Homoeopathy. In one such research on the application of nano-biology in allopathy, Dr. Bellare and his colleagues (Kalita, Shome, Honavar and others) have used nanoparticles of carboplatin—a drug commonly used to treat ovarian cancer—to show how quickly they could reach the retina of the eyes in humans. This work could inspire new drugs to treat retinal tumours (retinoblastoma).

Extending their interest into alternative medicinal systems, the research group led by Prof. Bellare in another study has shown the nanotechnology basis for Ayurvedic bhasma and has demonstrated that nano-particulates are present in bhasma (an ash-like Ayurvedic medicine), are much more active biologically.

Curious to apply their findings in the field of Homoeopathy, Prof. Bellare's research group used electron microscopy to show the presence of nanoparticles in homoeopathic medicines—a proof that could put to rest some of the debate in this controversial field of medicine. Their findings provide a material basis for their therapeutic action, without needing recourse to any mystic energy or supernatural powers that some believe. In a series of five internationally published papers in peer-reviewed journals, they have shown that despite the apparent extreme dilution used in preparing homoeopathic medicines, there are detectable amounts of original drugs present in the form of nanoparticles. They have also demonstrated that the concentration of these drugs, though small, is measurable.

Also, Prof. Bellare’s group has been successful in demonstrating that the coating of silica used in homoeopathic medicines may provide a controlled-release mechanism—a widely exploited mechanism in new forms of drug delivery. The researchers have also studied the process of manufacture and have provided an engineering perspective on how the process generates, stabilises and retains nanoparticles. Interestingly, these nanoparticles, when fed to cell lines, have biologically stimulating effects that can be explained as a hormetic or biphasic response in which small doses stimulate whereas larges doses inhibit.

The research outputs from Prof. Bellare’s lab has created a broader impact globally and have inspired independent medical practitioners and regulators to use randomised clinical studies and other clinical research to see if the group's fundamental research can impact medical practice and the manufacture and regulation of such medicines.

Section: General, News, Events Source:
Bengaluru Monday, 30 July, 2018 - 08:05

Macaques are now a common sight in the cities of India. Perhaps, you have seen more monkeys in the cities than in the wild! But, how did they get to the cities? How do they survive in the cities amidst people and how did they learn to forage for food? Are they different from their wild relatives? Finding answers to these questions can not only satisfy our curiosity but can also help develop policies that can help us coexist with these ‘urbanised’ animals. In one such attempt, a new study by Dr Anindya Sinha from National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore and Dr Maan Barua from University of Cambridge, UK, explores these questions to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the lives of urban animals.

Animals survive in our cities depending on their experience-based knowledge, speed, and rhythm, which is sometimes against the grain of urban societies. While urban geographers tend to examine the human-centric influence of urbanisation on animals by asking questions like ‘how do the lives of these animals affect human societies’, animal behaviourists take a different animal-centric perspective by exploring ‘how animals behave in urban spaces and interact with humans’. This study marks a start to a conversation on what urbanisation means for the animals by studying the semi-urbanised macaques.

About half of the 5 lakh macaques in northern and north-eastern India live around human habitats and have become an essential part of the 'urban living'.  However, how did they become ‘urbanised’, you wonder? If you have ever fed them while visiting sanctuaries, you have contributed towards this ‘urbanisation’ of nature. Urbanisation is not something that merely takes place in the cities, any space with heavy human traffic often transform animal lifeworlds, the authors argue.

“In the 1980s, troops of wild bonnet macaques in the Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks were made up of multiple males and females. But, in 2000, the macaques had smaller troops with a single male and multiple females”, say the authors about the observed effects of such urbanisation. The newly available but scattered food provided by the tourists, they believe, is one of the reasons for this change. Similarly, in the cities, regularly feeding fruits and other food to the macaques has contributed to an increase in their population.

The process of urbanisation has a slew of consequences for the macaques, ranging from behavioural to metabolic. Obesity from feeding on junk food, increased aggression between males and frequent migration of females due to lack of mates are some of these. In fact, a previous study by Dr Sinha shows that bonnet macaques employ gestures to ask for food from humans in urban settings, a behaviour that is absent in their wild relatives. “Macaques learn unusual behaviours such as bipedal begging for food from tourists, by mirroring human behaviours that generate sympathy. Such beneficial behaviours then spread rapidly within a group”, explains Dr Sinha.

However, not all macaque troops learn and spread the same behaviours nor to the same extent, the study found. While some troops raided homes for food, others did not. Even between troops in the same locality, there are differences in the ways they consume the same food, and the ways they interact with humans. “Paying attention to such differences is perhaps critical for future interventions to regulate macaque populations in Indian cities”, the authors say.

In 2017, when the monkey menace became intolerable in Delhi, one ‘solution’ that was adopted was to relocate the macaques to rural and semi-rural areas closer to forests. However, as an unexpected consequence, the macaques carried with them the behaviours they had learnt in the cities and other macaque troops soon learnt to raid houses and neighbourhoods by imitating them! The researchers cite this as an example to point out that such proposals should recognise that animals do not heed 'human' policies, and hence policymakers should consider aspects of animal behaviour.

The researchers also argue that we need to dispel the idea that animals ‘encroach’ upon urban spaces and that humans alone are not entitled to occupy the cities. “Many macaque troops choose their home territories based on the availability of human-provisioned food sources. They negotiate these territories with other troops while forming strong attachments to specific areas in the territories”, say the researchers, pointing out that animals are equally involved in transforming the urban world as humans.

The current study argues that ethological understanding, in combination with the geographers’ knowledge of the power relations in urban spaces, will translate to a deepened understanding of the world shared by animals and humans. Animals no more live only in the wild; we have seen them share our spaces in the cities. It is time that we include this evidence when forming urban policies, and welcome the emerging conversation.

Section: General, Science, Ecology, Society, News Source:
Bengaluru Friday, 27 July, 2018 - 07:52

Think of fruit flies, and a picture of tiny, brown insects sitting on a rotten banana comes to mind. Think a little further. Have you ever seen these flies hovering around anything that tastes bitter? Perhaps, not! A fruit fly, or Drosophila, decides to eat or not eat something just like we do—by tasting it. Once it lands on potential food material, information is passed from the receptors on its body surface to its brain, helping it decide whether the stuff is good to eat. If it is found suitable, the fly extends its proboscis, the tube-like organ it uses in feeding, and drinks up the food juices.

So, how does the Drosophila distinguish between tastes and identify edible food? This question got researchers from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) thinking, which resulted in a study identifying the neurons involved in making the flies avoid bitter substances. “We always wondered if a fly uses different neurons for processing different types of taste, or if there was a common neural circuit for all”, shares Mr. Ali Asgar Bohra, a research scholar at NCBS and an author of the study.

Although surprising, it is true that the Drosophila has a taste profile very similar to ours; it can detect chemicals in food like carbohydrates, acids, and salt. Hence, scientists use it as a ‘model organism’ for studies on taste reception and processing. In insects, the gustatory information is processed in a part of their brain called the ‘suboesophageal zone’, located below the oesophagus. This region has neurons which control eating and extension of the proboscis. We know how the Drosophila brain processes sweet taste, but not much is known about how it handles other tastes.

Fruit flies extend their proboscis when water or a sweet substance such as sugar stimulates the tips of their legs. However, when presented with unwanted or offensive material, such as quinine, they do not extend their proboscis. The researchers of this study hypothesised that neural circuits in the suboesophageal zone help to transfer information from taste receptor neurons to motor neurons that control the proboscis. Experiments showed that when flies were presented with a bitter substance, one or more of a group of neurons, labelled by a transgenic line of flies called VGN6341, were activated. This inhibited the proboscis from extending. Deactivating these neurons enabled the proboscis to extend even to aversive substances.

The researchers found that a majority of the VGN6341 neurons were located in the suboesophageal zone. They belonged to a class of neurons which connect groups of neurons in one region of the brain with those in the other areas. Such neurons, called ‘interneurons’, communicate between sensory and motor neurons. Further, they found that the bitter taste receptor neurons indeed lay close to the VGN6341 interneurons, making signalling between the two likely. They saw that there was no signalling between these interneurons and receptors of other tastes (such as sweet and water)—an observation that implied that the interneurons were specific to bitter taste and that the flies possessed a separate neural circuit for bitter taste processing.

“The connection between bitter sensory neurons and interneurons labelled by VGN6341 was surprising and a little unexpected. The most difficult part of the study was to identify one interneuron that is involved in bitter taste processing. Since the VGN6341 labels many neurons in the brain, we were trying really hard to identify the one interneuron that gave us that behavioural phenotype”, remarks Mr. Bohra.

To obtain indisputable proof that functional connections exist between the extension of proboscis and the neurons of interest, the scientists employed a technique known as CaMPARI, which allows imaging of cellular activity in real time. In this technique, a fluorescent sensor changes from green to red upon neural activity, thus helping to trace the neurons involved in that particular behaviour.  When the flies tasted a bitter mixture of caffeine and quinine, the researchers observed intense red colour in only one cell in each half of the suboesophageal zone. This observation confirmed that just a single, bilaterally homologous pair of interneurons was involved.

This study is the first to report that a local interneuron in the suboesophageal zone of Drosophila is involved in processing bitter taste. Understanding the neural circuit of the processing of taste modalities will help in discerning how flies and other insects perceive their environment. It could also prove helpful in understanding how insects such as mosquitoes sense chemicals and could help create better repellents and pesticides.

“The gustatory systems of insects and mammals have similar anatomical features and use similar molecular mechanisms for taste coding. This study is significant for understanding how gustatory stimuli are perceived and responded to by the brain in mammals, including humans”, signs off Mr. Bohra, explaining the implications of the study. 

Section: General, Science, Deep-dive Source: