Monday, April 25, 2011

Latent Tuberculosis: Indian TB germ not aggressive, says expert

By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, April 23: If the Lancet's recommendation on latent TB is to be implemented by the UK and other developed nations like the USA, every Indian, who wants to visit these countries, may have to undergo nine-month-long medication for latent TB.
According to bacteriologists, since 75 per cent of latent TB cases are difficult to be detected or likely to be mis-diagnosed, as a precautionary measure every Indian suspect would be made to consume latent TB medicines. This will put a heavy financial burden on individuals and create unnecessary resistance to TB, if the person does not carry latent TB germs. Moreover, even active TB germ in India is "shy" in the sense that it does not spread as aggressively as its counterparts in other countries.
"Suggesting that a person undergo tests for latent TB and putting him on medication is a gross violation of human rights. Unless you find the bacteria in the sputum or the lung damaged, you cannot ask him or her to take medication, which is highly toxic and cause harm to liver. Moreover, diagnosis and treatment of latent tuberculosis are both difficult and uneconomical," warns Dr Niyaz Ahmed, senior pathobiologist and Professor (adjunct), Institute of Life Sciences, University of Hyderabad.
Lancet's recommendation is easily said than implemented. A number of ethical and medical issues are involved in treating people with latent TB. According to Dr Niyaz Ahmed, the Monteux test based on skin reaction to mycobacterial protein components is seriously cross-reactive and could produce false positive and false 
negative results in case of 70 per cent of the Indians. Similar difficulties could be encountered with another test called Interferon-gamma test.
India has so far not experienced any institutionalised outbreak as against the famous fatal outbreaks of New York and Kwazulu Natal. That means the Indian strains are less aggressive and controllable. Indians enjoy a distinct natural protection from latent TB due to the facts that their genetic makeup is different, their strains are different and their immune system is already primed due to a saprophytic antigenic background and/or by 
Helicobacter infection.
The UK should therefore, not be worried for Indians. They should in fact be worried about the Pakistanis and Sri Lankans, who do not have the ancestral strains of TB bacteria (TbD1+) in their countries and could proceed to full blown TB more rapidly than Indians, he said.
Anti TB drugs are poisonous to liver in long course and low dosage or short course could select out drug resistant bacteria. Stating that it has become a fashion in the West to project India as a source of infection, he said the story is worst in case of countries that are dubiously known for their highly virulent multi-drug resistant and extremely drug resistant strains such as South Africa, Russia and the countries of the former USSR.
"In fact, the UK should happily give immigrant status to Indians because it is proved already that the Indian strains of Mycobacteria are of ancestral type (genotype TbD1+) and the treatment success rates of up to 95 per cent have been recorded under the DOTS program. These strains are theorised as ‘shy’ in terms of dissemination as compared to some of the very aggressive genotypes such as Beijing, Africa and Haarlem," Dr Niyaz Ahmed said.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Safety of nuclear power plants: India takes up seismic qualification programme

By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, April 22: The Department of Atomic Energy has finally taken up "seismic qualification" programme to find out in real scenario whether nuclear power plants in the country are capable of withstanding earthquakes of greater magnitude.
Though the technology has been in existence for almost 20 years, this is the first time that India is testing whether the nuclear power plants are of earthquake or seismic grade. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India has been claiming that its power plants have withstood earthquakes in the neighbourhood. But seismic qualification programme will enable the NPCIL to know whether its claim is true.
In seismic qualification, a prototype nuclear power plant is subjected to earthquake loading through artificial means i.e. put on an "earthquake shaking table" to find out if the nuclear safety parameters are under control. If the nuclear power plants pass the seismic qualification, they are safe from the point of earthquakes. Other methods adopted for seismic qualification are "numerical analysis" or reference to databases of 
previously qualified nuclear plants.
The DAE presented the safety status of its nuclear power plants, and its regulatory and safety review system at the Convention of Nuclear Safety (CNS) held recently in Vienna. Releasing the details of the presentation, the DAE points out that "the CNS was informed that India is developing a seismic qualification program by experience data base which is nearing completion. Contracting parties appreciated the work as a pioneering
effort by India".
An official statement by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board said India also informed the CNS about the initiatives taken to ensure safety in nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima accident. The measures include the  formation of a high level committee by AERB to re-examine the capability of nuclear power plants to withstand external events and adequacy of  provisions available to ensure safety in such events.
Once a nuclear power plant is seismically qualified, the reactor shut down safely in the  event of earthquake, and the residual heat is safely removed, thus preventing release of  radioactive substances into the atmosphere. The historical data on earthquakes within a  radius of 200 km is taken into account for seismic qualification studies.

TB in the UK being spread by Indians? Indian doctors take exception to Lancet's charge on latent TB

By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, April 22: City health experts take strong exception to the medical charge that Indians harbouring tuberculosis germ in its latent form are responsible for the spread of TB in the United Kingdom. The UK is regarded as the TB capital of the world and a team of researchers based there now blames it on Indians.
This is the third serious medical allegation against India by the Lancet, a UK-based peer reviewed medical journal, in the last eight months. Two earlier studies by Lancet have stirred up the medical and health authorities in the country forcing the Indian Council of Medical Research to take up a comprehensive research on the superbug, wrongly named New Delhi Metallo beta lactamase. The present study is on tuberculosis being allegedly spread by Indians visiting the United Kingdom.
"The Lancet team in a way wants all Indians visiting the UK to be screened for latent tuberculosis. Though there are tests to identify latent TB, the results are not always accurate. If the team prevails on the UK health authorities, then Indians visiting the UK may be asked to undergo special screening for latent TB, or asked to produce health certificates that they are free from TB," said senior microbial scientist Dr Niyaz Ahmed.
Tuberculosis is of two types, active and latent. In active TB, the disease is manifest and the infected person is capable of spreading it to others. A person carrying latent TB does not show the TB symptoms or infect others. About 15 per cent of people carrying latent TB bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, develop active TB some time in their life.
"The charge is baseless and deliberate attempt to defame India. The Lancet studies have not conclusively proved that India or Indians are responsible, either in the superbug theory or now on latent tuberculosis," observes Dr senior biologist Dr Duggaraju Srinivas Rao.
The Lancet study has targeted people carrying the latent TB bacteria, particularly those from Indian sub-continent, holding them responsible for the spread of the disease in the UK. "Continuing rises in tuberculosis notifications in the UK are attributable to cases in foreign-born immigrants. National guidance for immigrant screening is hampered by a lack of data about the prevalence of, and risk factors for, latent tuberculosis infection in immigrants," Prof Ajit Lalwani and his team pointed out in the latest issue of the 
The Lancet team suggested two "most cost-effective strategies" to screen individuals from countries with a tuberculosis incidence of more than 250 cases per 1,00,000, and more than 150 cases per 1,00,000. India falls under the category of more than 150 TB cases per 1 lakh people.
"It can be true in theory. But it needs to be closely analysed to generalise and say that Indians are the main reason for the spread of TB in the UK," argues Dr N Lavanya, infectious diseases expert.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Seismic qualification programme for all nuclear power plants in India

Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, April 22: The Department of Atomic Energy has finally taken
up "seismic qualification" programme to find out in real scenario
whether nuclear power plants in the country are capable of
withstanding earthquakes of greater magnitude.

Though the technology has been in existence for almost 20 years, this
is the first time that India is testing whether the nuclear power
plants are of earthquake or seismic grade. The Nuclear Power
Corporation of India has been claiming that its power plants have
withstood earthquakes in the neighbourhood. But seismic qualification
programme will enable the NPCIL to know whether its claim is true.

In seismic qualification, a prototype nuclear power plant is subjected
to earthquake loading through artificial means i.e. put on an
"earthquake shaking table" to find out if the nuclear safety
parameters are under control. If the nuclear power plants pass the
seismic qualification, they are safe from the point of earthquakes.
Other methods adopted for seismic qualification are "numerical
analysis" or reference to databases of previously qualified nuclear

The DAE presented the safety status of its nuclear power plants, and
its regulatory and safety review system at the Convention of Nuclear
Safety (CNS) held recently in Vienna. Releasing the details of the
presentation, the DAE points out that "the CNS was informed that India
is developing a seismic qualification program by experience data base
which is nearing
completion. Contracting parties appreciated the work as a pioneering
effort by India".

An official statement by Atomic Energy Regulatory Board said India
also informed the CNS about the initiatives taken to ensure safety in
nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima accident. The measures
include the formation of a high level committee by AERB to re-examine
capability of nuclear power plants to withstand external events and
adequacy of provisions available to ensure safety in such events.

Once a nuclear power plant is seismically qualified, the reactor shut
down safely in the event of earthquake, and the residual heat is
safely removed, thus preventing release of radioactive substances into
the atmosphere. The historical data on earthquakes within a radius of
200 km is taken into account for seismic qualification studies.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Leucoderma, a skin pigmentation problem characterised by white patches on the body, is not caused by genetic defect in South Indian population

By Syed Akbar
Leucoderma, a skin pigmentation problem characterised by white patches on the body, is not caused by genetic defect in South Indian population.

Leucoderma or vitiligo is prominently linked to the defect in a gene (CTLA-4) in different populations around the world, but a group of researchers from Hyderabad argues that the gene has nothing to do with leucoderma patients living in Southern India.

The research, carried out by the department of genetics attached to Osmania University, Mahavir Hospital and Research Centre, and the Central Research Institute of Unani Medicine, established that there were no significant differences between frequencies of CTLA-4 genotypes in patients and those in the control group (healthy individuals). There were also no significant differences between allelic (variant forms a gene) frequencies in patients and matched control groups

In people suffering from leucoderma, there is loss of functional melanocytes (cells that give black pigmentation to the skin) and melanin (the coloured protein) in the skin. This leads to appearance of white patches on the face and other parts of the body. The skin problem affected about two per cent of the people all over the world. In India leucoderma is seen in one out of every 200 people.

"One of the candidate genes that has a strong association with several autoimmune diseases including leucoderma is CTLA-4 gene located in chromosome 2q33 region. In our investigation we did not find correlation between genotypes of patients and disease type, and gender," according to
one of the researchers Dr Syed Rabbani.

The team studied as many as 175 unrelated south Indian vitiligo patients, besides 180 healthy individuals. None of the healthy individuals had any evidence of vitiligo and autoimmune diseases or a positive family history of vitiligo and autoimmune diseases.

The research showed that in South Indian patients, there was no difference in familial history among male and female patients. In contrast to earlier studies, the city team did not find any association between the gene (CTLA-4 exon 1 polymorphism) and the emergence of leucoderma or vitiligo.

"Lack of association between CTLA-4 gene polymorphism and vitiligo might therefore, suggest the involvement of other immune regulatory genes and/or reflect a different nature or multiple etiologies for vitiligo," he pointed out.

How to fight Climate Change: Here are some wacky ideas

By Syed Akbar

Injecting sulphur into the sky
What's the colour of the sky? Blue, of course. But if global warming turns worse shooting up temperatures, mankind may have to explore this option to keep the human planet cool: Inject sulphur into the sky. Temperatures will come down, but the sky will change its colour. May be to yellow. No matter how the sky appears, it will halt climate change.

Scientists the world over are now giving a deep thought to injecting sulphur or "global dimming" after Australian scientist Tim Flannery proposed this radical solution, which may no longer keep the sky blue.

According to him, climate change is taking place so fast that we may have to pump sulphur into the atmosphere if we want to survive on the earth. Sulphur when injected in its gaseous form into the earth's stratosphere will help prevent harmful sun rays from falling on us. It will also slow down global warming.

Flannery is confident that this technology will become a reality in the next five years. The process is quite simple. Add sulphur to the fuel of jet engines or aeroplanes. Since the exhaust contains sulphur, it will settle down in the stratosphere, reflecting back the sunlight.

As Flannery argues, adding sulphur to the atmosphere should be the last barrier to climate collapse.

Sulphur emissions through automobiles may have been harmful for human and animal health. But this pollutant may become a saviour of mankind, if scientists like Flannery have their way.

Feed the sea with iron
Human health and iron are synonymous. Iron keeps us alive by fixing atmospheric oxygen to the blood. In fact, our blood gets is red colour because of the presence of iron.

Now two different batches of marine biologists from the University of Hawaii and Oregon State University are exploring methods to feed the sea with iron. Not to boost its strength, but to save humanity from imminent fallout of global warming and climate change.

Dr Brian von Herzen of The Climate Foundation strongly believes that iron could play a major role in the blooming of phyto and zoo plankton. The blooming plankton will help in obsorption of a large quantity of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus bringing down the over all temperatures on the blue planet.

The plankton are capable of utilising large quantities of CO2 through photosynthesis. Aquatic plankton, particularly, phyto plankton, are known to obsorb many times more carbon dioxide than plants and trees that grow on the land. Just have a small bloom of phyto plankton through iron feeding and this simply equals the task of planting trees on scores of acres of land.

Oceanographers and marine biologists already know that iron will help in plankton bloom. The plankton works in several ways. After obsorbing the harmful CO2 from the atmosphere, it stores the gas in its cells. As the plankton dies it settles down in the ocean's bed, safely carrying the carbon dioxide. A bloom in plankton also means more aquatic life as many marine animals including fish feed on them.

The formula works well in oceanic areas where there's iron deficiency. Who said, oceans and seas are not anaemic, like we humans?

Space Umbrellas to the rescue
We have heard our leaders urging us to come under one umbrella. Though it's not literally possible for all to come under one single umbrella, geo-engineers believe it could be possible, scientifically.

Yes, these geo-engineers, a new breed of scientists who want to tinker with the Nature to save mankind from global warming and the resultant climate change, have conceptualised what they call space umbrellas to bounce back the harmful radiation from the sun.

Scientists from the University of Arizona argue that space umbrellas will gradually reduce earth's temperature, and thus the harmful effects of global warming.

The university wants to launch a trillion tiny umbrellas or sunshields into the outer space. Each umbrella will be a small, light spacecraft, weighing about a gram. It carries a sunshade with a diametre of 30 cms. When such mini space umbrellas come together, they act as a sunscreen, filtering harmful radiation.

The area such a sunscreen each covers will extend to one lakh square km. These umbrellas will hover around the earth at a safe distance of 15 lakh km. The geo-engineers believe that such mini space umbrellas will reduce the sunlight's intensity by 1.8 per cent, sufficient to fight global warming.

The university group, which is working on the model, says it could happen by 2035.

Power from snow
With the threat of global warming looming large on the future of humanity, environmentalists feel that snow-fed rivers can be easily tackled to generate electricity.

Most of the hydroelectricity plants in the world are located on rivers fed by rains. Since monsoons have been playing truant of late, upsetting the calculations of planners, eco-experts suggest that it's high time policy- makers turned their attention to rivers fed by glaciers and snow.

While rivers fed on rains in their catchment are seasonal, those securing supplies from snow-covered mountains and glaciers are perennial. The runoff from snow-fed rivers is comparatively quite high. If these rivers are harvested for hydel power, the dependence on thermal energy will gradually come down. This will ultimately check rising temperatures because of carbon emission from thermal energy plants.

As senior environmentalist R Ravi put its, India have a vast potential of energy generation from snow. All the rivers in the north India are fed by snow melt. If mini hydel plants are set up, the energy crisis in the country can easily be overcome.

Also experts in global warming warn of snow and glacial melt if carbon emissions are not checked. The time is now apt to act. Before the snow melts under influence of global warming, we should set up hydel plants all along the snow-fed rivers.

Chimneys that cool the earth
Ever heard of a chimney that's cool to touch. While conventional chimneys attached to our kitchen and industries are hot with pollutants loaded with carbondioxide and carbon monoxide and other gases, scientists in the United States have patented a chimney that consumes internal energy and reduces temperatures, thus keeping the earth cool.

The latest chimney device for houses and industries is being touted as one of the simple tools to fight global warming.

This patented chimney will also induce water precipitation and produces electricity. It helps in climate control, production of fresh water and energy that's needed to keep the house and industry cool. When set up in large numbers, such devices will ultimately bring down the global temperatures.

It sucks in warm air from the earth surface and lifts it to a height. Later, it expels the air into the upper atmosphere. The lifting of warm air to higher altitude causes the atmosphere to shed some of its heat. This keeps the earth cool.

"When the air is expelled from the chimney, it is oversaturated with water vapors. Therefore, when it mixes with surrounding air and cools down, water naturally precipitates causing precipitation in the surrounding area. The amount of that precipitation can be substantial enough to sustain agriculture in areas such as deserts," claim the inventors.

Bomb that explodes greenery
After nuclear bombs and human bombs, it's the turn of tree bombs. Unlike the nuclear one, the tree bomb does not cause destruction. It resurrects the barren earth with greenery.

The tree bomb is now seen as the simplest way of greening the deforested and barren lands to fight rising temperatures. US scientists have already trial tested the tree bomb in Louisiana mangrove forests after the Hurricane Katrina left a trail of destruction there.

Depleting forest wealth in the world can be checked through these tree bombs. Seedlings are dropped in a wax canister full of fertiliser. On hitting the ground, it explodes exposing the seeds, which later germinate. The growth rate here is faster than conventional manual planting of saplings.

Senior marine biologist D Srinivas says tree bombs can be used in mangrove forests in Krishna, Coringa and Sundarbans, the only forests in India where mangroves grow.

"It works with all types of trees. We can carpet bomb with plants of all types in denuded lands to regrow the greenery," he says. In deserts and sandy tracts like Rajasthan, xerophytes and other trees like phoenix and dates can be planted on a massive level using the technology.

Euthanasia: Country-wise scenario

By Syed Akbar

Countries where euthanasia is legal

1. Albania
2. Belgium
3. Luxembourg
4. the Netherlands
5. Mexico

Countries where euthanasia is partially legal

1. United States of America (States of Oregon and Washington)
2. Australia (northern territory - but repealed now)
3. Switzerland
4. Japan (No specific rules, but euthanasia is practised with restrictions)

Countries where euthanasia is hotly debated

1. Canada
2. India
3. the United Kingdom


1. India: There have been debates all over country on the need to legalise euthanasia in India. The Central government is yet to take decision on  recommendation by Law Commission to legalise euthanasia for patients, who are terminally ill. Supreme Court says passive euthanasia can be made legal.

2. The United States of America: Mercy-killing is partially legal in that the patient can refuse to take medication to keep his vital functions alive.

3. Canada: Euthanasia is still illegal in Canada and attempts to legalise it in September this year have met with stiff resistance. The debate on the private bill on mercy-killing has been put on hold till February next year.

4. Luxembourg: Euthanasia has been legal in Luxembourg since March 19, 2009 on the condition that terminally ill patients have to seek permission from a panel of experts on health and ethics.

5. Australia: Euthanasia was legal for a brief period in parts of Australia. It was legalised in the northern territory region 15 years ago. Later, the Act was withdrawn.

6. Albania: Albania is the first country to legalise mercy-killing a decade ago, despite protests from religious groups. Five years prior to legalisation, the Albanian government had partially legalised it in 1995, permitting family members to take the decision on euthanasia.

7. Belgium: Mercy-killing has been legal in Belgium since 2002. But the laws are quite strict and those undergoing euthanasia will have to pass through a number of complicated procedures.

8. The Netherlands: Mercy-killing is not a crime in the Netherlands. The country enacted the law in 2002.

9. Switzerland: Euthanasia is partially allowed by Swiss laws i.e. consent of the terminally ill patient is needed.

10. Japan: There are no clear-cut laws on euthanasia in Japan. But mercy-killing is practised in many parts of the country in the absence of specific legislation, either legalising or banning it. Of course, there are a set of guidelines which have to be adhered to before going in for mercy-killing.

11. Mexico: It is partially legal in Mexico in the sense that only passive euthanasia is permitted. In passive euthanasia the terminally ill patient is allowed to die without attending to his medical and health needs.

Take cloves to beat stress, keep away heart attacks

By Syed Akbar

We all know that laung or clove is good for teeth. Clove oil helps in fighting tooth decay and gives relief from toothache. But now Indian scientists have come out with a study that tells us that clove (Eugenia caryophyllus) is the best stress buster and keeps away heart problems. Stress is emerging as the major killer in the world and clove is the simplest remedy to the problem. Since stress and heart ailments are related, by taking cloves regularly one will not only beat the stress but also fights heart attacks.

Clove contains a special substance called hydro alcohol and this substance is known to give relief from stress. The scientific team studied the anti-stress effect of hydro-alcoholic extract of clove by evaluating it on cold restraint induced gastric ulcers, sound stress induced biochemical changes and anoxic stress induced convulsions.

As part of the research project the extract from the clove was given orally twice daily to mice. The first dose was of 100 mg/kg while the second dose was of 200 mg/kg. The team used zeetress, a known anti-stress formulation as the standard drug.

The scientific team comprised Anand Kumar Singh, Sunil S Dhamanigi and Mohammed Asad of Krupanidhi College of Pharmacy, Bengaluru. The researchers found that both the doses of clove extract showed good anti-stress effect in all the tested models. The clove extract reduced the development of cold restraint induced gastric ulcers and prevented the biochemical changes induced by sound stress such as increase in plasma levels of aspartate aminotransferase, alanine aminotransferase, alkaline phosphatase, glucose, cholesterol and corticosterone.

"Stress is a common phenomenon that is experienced by every individual. When stress becomes extreme, it is harmful for the body and, hence, needs to be treated. Stress is involved in the pathogenesis of a variety of diseases that includes psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety, immunosuppression, endocrine disorders including diabetes mellitus, male impotence, cognitive dysfunction, peptic ulcer, hypertension and ulcerative colitis," the study pointed out saying that clove, is one of the natural stress busters.

For the purpose of the study, the team selected albino Wistar rats weighing between 175 and 250 gm and Swiss albino mice weighing 25 to 40 gm. The experiment continued for 14 days. Stress was induced in the mice through chemicals and later clove extract was administered to them.

The team showed that hydro-alcoholic extract of clove possesses significant anti-stress activity. "The effect of clove may be due to its effect on the central nervous system or endocrines and it may also be due to its antioxidant effect as anti-oxidants are known to prevent stress induced damage due to generation of
free radicals," the study said.

The clove gets its medicinal properties mainly because of the presence of volatile oils like eugenol. The team however noted that the exact mechanism by which clove produces its anti-stress activity cannot be explained with the data collected during the study. "We speculated that the antioxidant effect of the clove buds might contribute at least in part to its anti-stress activity," the scientists said.

So, the next time you come across spicy food, do not complain. Ensure that the "spicy food" has a good number of cloves too. This will bust your stress, whether it is work-related or due to domestic problems.

Bacteria in space to throw light on origin of life

By Syed Akbar
In a major discovery which may ultimately throw some light on the origin of life, a team of Indian scientists has collected three new species of bacteria from the sky.

We all know that the Earth is filled with viruses, bacteria and micro-organisms, besides other life forms. Many, however, do not know that some of the micro-organisms live in the Earth's atmosphere, up in the sky. Scientists believe that a thorough study of these creatures living in the upper stratosphere (the area of ozone) will reveal the secrets of the origin of life on the human planet.

Incidentally, the three new species of bacteria discovered by the Indian group are not found on the Earth. Since these bacteria have made the stratosphere or ozone layer portion as their abode, they have developed resistance to the harmful ultra violent rays. That they survive in the dangerous radiation is in itself a marvel, and scientists want to unravel this marvel, mystery.

If we could know how these bacteria survive the intense radiation up in the sky, we can probably device some methods to keep ourselves free from the harmful effects of radiation. Then no nuclear war will hurt us at least bodily, with our skin being intact. Of course, the dangers of genetic damage due to radiation still persists in case of nuclear holocaust.

The new species of bacteria were found by scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. What the scientists from these two organisations did was to send atmospheric balloons from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad. The new organisms have been named after famous astrophysicist Fred Hoyle (Janibacter hoylei), ISRO (Bacillus isronensis) and after ancient Indian astronomer Aryabhata (Bacillus aryabhata).

According to ISRO scientists, the experiment was conducted using a 26.7 million cubic feet balloon carrying a 459 kg scientific payload soaked in 38 kg of liquid neon. The scientific equipment included a cryo (cold) sampler containing 16 evacuated and sterilised stainless steel probes. Throughout the flight, the probes remained immersed in liquid neon to create a cryopump effect.

These cylinders, after collecting air samples from different heights ranging from 20 km to 41 km, were parachuted down and safely retrieved. These samples were analysed by scientists at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, as well as the National Centre for Cell Science, Pune, for independent examination.

"In all, 12 bacterial and six fungal colonies were detected, nine of which, based on 16S RNA gene sequence, showed greater than 98 per cent similarity with reported known species on earth. Three bacterial colonies, namely, PVAS-1, B3 W22 and B8 W22 were, however, totally new species. All the three newly identified species had significantly higher UV resistance compared to their nearest phylogenetic neighbours," an official statement from ISRO said.

The scientists said the precautionary measures and controls operating in this experiment inspire confidence that these species were picked up in the stratosphere. "While the present study does not conclusively establish the extra-terrestrial origin of micro-organisms, it does provide positive encouragement to continue the work in our quest to explore the origin of life," they said.

Himalayas are twice older than believed!

By Syed Akbar
How old are the Himalayas, the snow-covered mountains that wall the northern India? Existing scientific records and evidence show that the Himalayas are less than eight million years old. But a group of scientists from India and the United Kingdom has negated this widely held belief and established with latest scientific evidence that the mountains are twice as older. In short, the Himalayas took their birth about 15 million years ago.

The Indo-British team has found evidence for early uplift of Himalayas within the central Indian Ocean. "The discovery that the Earth's strong outer shell - the 'lithosphere' - within the central Indian Ocean began to deform and fracture 15.4-13.9 million years ago, much earlier than previously thought, impacts our understanding of the birth of the Himalayas and the strengthening of the Indian-Asian monsoon," says Dr KS Krishna of the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography.

According to an official release from the National Institute of Oceanography,
India and Asia collided around 50 million years ago as a result of plate tectonics - the large-scale movements of the lithosphere, which continue to this day. The study was published in "Geology", a scientific magazine published by the Geological Society of America.

"The ocean floor has been systematically transformed into folds 100-300 kilometres long and 2,000-3,000 metres high, and there are also regularly spaced faults or cracks that are evident from seismic surveys and ocean drilling," points out Dr Krishna in the research study.

The onset of this deformation marks the start of major geological uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, some 4,000 km further to the north, due to stresses within the wider India-Asia area. Some studies indicate that it began around 8.0-7.5 million years ago, while others have indicated that it started before 8.0 million years ago, and perhaps much earlier.

This controversy has now been addressed by Dr Krishna and his British colleagues Prof. Jon Bull of the University of Southampton, and Prof. Roger Scrutton of Edinburgh University. They have analysed seismic profiles of 293 faults (vertical cracks in the ocean floor) in the accumulated sediments of the Bengal Fan. This is the world's largest submarine fan, a delta-shaped accumulation of land-derived sediments covering the floor of the Bay of Bengal.

The NIO statement points out that the team demonstrated that deformation of the lithosphere within the central Indian Ocean started around 15.4-13.9 million years ago, much earlier than most previous estimates. This implies considerable Himalayan uplift before 8.0 million years ago, which is when many geologists believe that the strong seasonal winds of the India-Asia monsoon first started.

"However," says Dr. Krishna, "the realisation that the onset of lithospheric deformation within the central Indian Ocean occurred much earlier fits in well with more recent evidence that the strengthening of the monsoon was linked to the early geological uplift of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau up to 15-20 million years ago."

Scientists believe that intensive deep-sea drilling within the Bengal Fan would provide better age estimates for the onset of deformation of the lithosphere in the central Indian Ocean and concretise the recent findings. There are more weighty geological questions related to the geodynamics of the Indian Plate yet to be understood.

Principal among these being the issue of how exactly did the ocean floor buckle and crack in space and time, and what will be the future course of this compressional activity in the central Indian Ocean.

The NIO statement said further scientists would like to gather new evidences for understanding of 1) why and how the central Indian Ocean region has now become site where mountains are rising up from the ocean floor and cracks are propagating within the crust; and 2) whether the present process could be a pre-cursor to the formation of a subduction zone in the central Indian Ocean.

Man settled on the picturesque Andaman islands 10,000 to 24,000 years ago and not 45,000 to 50,000 years ago as earlier believed

By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: Man settled on the picturesque Andaman islands 10,000 to 24,000 years ago and not 45,000 to 50,000 years ago as earlier believed.
Research studies based on population genetics by the Anthropological Survey of India showed that human settlement on Andaman islands was a relatively recent phenomenon, 24,000 years old at the most. This negates the popular belief that early humans migrated from Africa between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago and settled in Andamans before fanning out to other places including Myanmar and India.
Anthropological Survey of India director-in-charge Dr VR Rao told this correspondent that "the migration of people to Andaman islands took place tentatively around 24,000 years ago." The ASI scientists came out with the observation following an investigation of deep structure of mitochondria DNA sub groups M31, which is Andaman specific and M32 which is India specific. They used whole-genome sequencing methods as part of the study.
The mtDNA contains ancient signature of genes that are passed from mother to child. A study of mtDNA reveals when and how early humans migrated from Africa and settled across the Earth.
India, because of its strategic location on the proposed corridor of human movement from Africa to Australia, holds the key to the understanding of early human prehistory. Genetic studies conducted earlier, based on mitrochondrial DNA, showed that the relative isolation of the late Pleistocene colonisers, and the physically isolated Andaman Island populations was because of an early split between populations settled along the coast of Indian Ocean.
"The identification of a so far unnoticed rare polymorphism shared between these two lineage suggests that they are actually sister groups within a single haplogroup, M31'32. The enhanced resolution of M31 allows for the inference of a more recent colonisation of the Andaman Islands than previously suggested, but cannot reject the very early peopling scenario," Dr Rao said.
The ASI study further demonstrated a widespread overlap of mtDNA and cultural markers between the two major language groups of the Andaman archipelago. "Given the "completeness" of the genealogy based on whole genome sequences, and the multiple scenarios for the peopling of the Andaman Islands sustained by this inferred genealogy, our study hints that further mtDNA based phylogeographic studies are unlikely to unequivocally support any one of these possibilities," he said.
According to Dr Rao, the significance of the new finding is in terms of understanding the earliest genomic foot prints in the subcontinent. The implications are relevant in evolutionary biology. Adaptive traits which have implications in health and disease and their variation across human populations, can now be in a perspective.
He said the earlier Andamanese were known sea farers. "The story of human migrations is very complex. Even you go to Homo erectus stage, we have very complex scenario of migrations. The question why chimpanzees are not found in Africa is a million dollar question. Nevertheless, imagine all life forms sequencing of whole genomes is available," he said.

GM Egg plant: Are GM food crops safe for human consumption?

By Syed Akbar

There has been a lot of debate on the safety aspects of genetically modified crops. Those in favour of GM crops say they help farmers by reducing the costs on pesticides, while increasing the yields to feed the ever-growing population. But those who oppose GM crops, express doubts over their environmental safety and fitness for human or animal consumption.

In India the only GM crop that has been in mass cultivation for at least five years is Bt cotton. But cotton is a commercial and not a food crop. In the USA and other countries Bt maize and Bt Soya are in cultivation and most of the produce goes for animal feed.

Bt brinjal will be the first GM food crop to be permitted for human consumption.

Arguments against Bt brinjal

1. Those who eat Bt brinjal will develop resistance to antibiotics like neomycin and streptomycin.

2. The bacterial gene inserted in Bt brinjal releases crystal proteins, which are dangerous for human consumption.

3. Since Bt brinjal is a new product, it is now clear how it will react with human body over a long period of time.

4. Bt brinjal will upset the natural biodiversity, posing a major threat to ecological balance.

Arguments in favour of Bt brinjal

1. Bt brinjal will do away with the need for pesticide spraying.

2. It will increase productivity, thus helping farmers monetarily.

3. Bt brinjal is safe for human consumption.

GM Egg plant: What is genetically modified brinjal

By Syed Akbar

What is a Bt or genetically modified brinjal? India has thousands of varieties of brinjal. All of them are native to sub-continent. But they are prone to pests, so much so that by the time farmers harvest the crop, half of the produce or even more is lost to insects and worms. What farmers get is hardly half or one-third of the total produce.

To reduce the losses to insects or worms, farmers keep on spraying pesticides, spending huge amounts.

So a local private seed company with international links has genetically modified one of the varieties of brinjal to make it pest-resistant. To achieve this, it has inserted a toxic gene from a soil-thriving bacteria called Bacillus thuringenesis, or Bt for short. This gene makes the brinjal plant poisonous for its common pest. In other words, farmers need not spray pesticides. Studies have shown that the Bt toxin gains in potency about a thousand times when used in GM crops.

Sounds good. But farmers stand to benefit for a short time. The Bt seeds are not cultivable, unlike those of traditional brinjal varieties. Every season, farmers will have to look to the seed company for supplies. In other words, farmers will be at the mercy of the seed firms

GM foods: Brinjal or egg plant sheds its traditional flavour

By Syed Akbar
Four thousand years after it entered the Indian kitchen, all time favourite brinjal may soon shed its traditional flavour. With the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee giving its nod for the genetically modified or Bt brinjal for human consumption, doubts are being expressed about the very survival of the native brinjal varieties.

India is the home to about 2500 varieties of brinjal, all native to the land. Unlike tomato and potato, which entered the Indian soil in the last 100 years, brinjal has been under cultivation for about four millennia. When the Bt brinjal enters the mass cultivation phase in India, it will become the first GM food crop approved for human consumption.

"The mouth-watering bagara baigan or baigan ka bharta may not be the same again. Once the genetically modified or Bt brinjal is introduced, the centuries old Indian cuisine may undergo a change. GM crops, though give better yields, will rob off taste. There are other environmental concerns too," cautions senior geneticist Dr MM Khaja.

Though the USA and other Western countries have approved GM foods like Bt soya and Bt maize, they are primarily meant for animal feed. Those who are against GM crops argue that since GM crops are a new phenomenon, the long time side effects on human health are yet to be understood.

"Tinkering with Nature does have catastrophic effects not only on environment but also on the health of man and animals. The injection of Bt gene from a soil bacteria into food stuff may lead to mutations in human body, may be at a later date. The GEAC should have conducted safety studies for at least a decade before declaring Bt brinjal safe for human use," points out Ch Venkatasubbaiah, who runs an environmental group against GM foods.

Thanks to its ubiquitous use in the Indian kitchen, brinjal has the distinction of being the second highest consumed vegetable in the country, after potato. The crop is grown over 5.50 lakh hectares providing livelihood to a little over 15 lakh farmers and about 50 lakh vegetable vendors. Indians consume about one crore tonnes of brinjal, 25 per cent of the world's total consumption. At stake is about Rs 10,000 crore worth of native brinjal production and priceless biodiversity.

Those in favour of Bt technology argue that GM brinjal will become a boon for the average Indian farmer, since it will improve the overall production, quality and taste of the vegetable by preventing it from its common pest. There's no need of spraying of pesticide and this will enhance the quality of the product, besides improving its taste.

The private seed company that is coming out with Bt brinjal has selected some mammals and birds for poison studies and claims that no toxicity was found in the lab animals. It is yet to be used on humans and only time will tell whether it will prove toxic on human beings.

Internationally renowned biotechnologist Prof DR Krishna calls for proper checks on GM crops. "If proper checks and balances are not evolved to regulate the developments in the bio-technology sector, it will lead to more problems and complications resulting in the loss of our rich bio-diversity and threatening the public health."

Another concern about GM crops is the Bt toxin from bacteria, which some scientists argue, is about a thousand times more potent when injected into food stuff. Greenpeace, which has been spearheading world-wide campaign against genetic modification of food items, expresses concern that if Bt brinjal was allowed, other food crops like lady's finger and cabbage will be genetically tinkered. Studies on these crops are already in progress. There's a talk of even GM rice.