Virtual visit to Tadoba

Tadoba National Park is one of the jungles I have on my list to visit. It isn’t open all round the year and that’s what makes it difficult to approach because before you know all of it is booked for the winters. And visiting a jungle in unbearable heat is not an option I would ever consider. So Tadoba visit stayed in the list and got pushed down until I was approached to work on an advertising based presentation for newly set up eco-friendly resort. The group of Red Earth resorts have been around already in Kabini, Karnataka and Wayanad, Kerala for a while now. As the content for the presentation poured in, I had one more reason added to the Tadoba visit. A stunning place and must visit place!


Minivet comes home

My recent work using coloured inks was the Brown Fish Owl and the finished artwork gave me the confidence to use them to paint birds. Not all bird sketches may look appealing in monochrome.

The first bird that came into mind to experiment further with coloured inks: a Toucan. Colorful birds with colourful beaks! While looking for pictures on instagram and google, I looked out of the window and spotted a bright orange bird on a tree outside the house. An extremely skittish bird, the orange minivet was flying and hopping around branches. In an instant, the far away toucans from a different continent and hemisphere took a back seat, and came home the Orange Minivet.



Resident by the stream

Living in the jungle has its ups and downs. Jungle is equivalent to wildlife in my case. And that includes the feathered ones apart from the gentle giants visiting us on and off. A stream right outside the gate rises to life in the monsoons. There is a steady flow through the year but it reaches the life-disrupting levels when the god of rains shower the blessings too much on us. Unlike the previous years, this monsoon has been overwhelming for us as well as the water levels in the stream. The rains bring along a whole new ecosystem to our doorstep. The area around stream is teeming with fishes and frogs and algae and snakes and everything else one can imagine associated with a wet ecosystem. Our winged resident is found stationed on one of the tree branches around the stream where direct access to the preys in water is available. The Brown fish owl is a permanent resident around the property but the flowing stream gets the big bird out into our sight.

Resident by the stream- Brown Fish Owl

Rotring pens with the limited coloured inks don’t make it a smooth run for any art piece but I did manage to get the colours that I desired. On a 5.5 X 8.5 inches sheet, this piece took me about 12 hours to finish.

Journey so far

Started on a whim, my love for stippling work has grown much deeper. I loved the outcome of the first piece (Bob Marley) and gave the tiger a shot. I didn’t understand the most important thing about stippling – patience and concentration. Those days I couldn’t focus on a single thing until the end because I had to multitask. The job demanded it then. But as and when I started working on different pieces, my attention span increased and I was loving the end results. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had moments where I wanted to give up half way through a sketch. And I realised later that if I let a sketch be without completion, I found it difficult to go back to it. I hope someday I finish the half done sketches that are lying on the side.

A great earthquake overdue in the central Himalaya

February 12, 2015

A team of scientists have been digging deeper into the central Himalayas, only to discover a previous pulse of great earthquakes followed by a long quiet period since the last great earthquake under the huge layers of rock and soil within those mountains.

The earth’s crust is broken into distinct regions, called “tectonic plates”. It is well known that Himalayas are the result of converging continental tectonic plates. There is an ongoing northward movement of the Indian plate towards Tibet at the rate of 20±3 mm/year and the southern part of Tibet that interfaces with India is absorbing about 80% of this convergence. This means that these regions are accumulating a large amount of strain, which they release in the form of great earthquakes (greater than magnitude 8).

The central Himalaya is considered to be historically a “seismic gap”..In the past centuries, only two earthquakes have occurred in this region whose magnitudes weren’t enough to release the strain that is building within the plates. So, are we missing some great earthquakes that occurred sometime in the past?

The excavation sites near Ramnagar in Central Himalaya suggested that there have been successive occurrences of two great earthquakes in the region in 13th and 14th centuries AD but none since then. It means that the strain is accumulating and the region is currently locked, only to get released anytime in a great earthquake. Longer the relapse time since the last earthquake, larger will the expected dimensions of the potential future slip and greater would be its damage potential.

A great earthquake in the central Himalaya will be most devastating and damaging for a wide swath of Gangetic plains of north India and the Himalayan hills. Mitigation of damage from future earthquakes is based on hazard scenarios developed from earthquake history; geological evidence from past earthquakes is an essential component in probabilistic seismic hazard assessment models. This study helps to fill that important gap in data for the earthquake history of the central Himalaya, a region, which several previous studies have postulated to be ready for a great earthquake.

Further work in the area is required to refine the results and tectonic models to understand the rupture segmentations along the arc. Dr. Rajendran said, “All the major cities in the region need to get ready for this major hazard, which is going to be economically and otherwise most devastating, as the risk has increased multifold over the centuries due to population increase and expansion of built environment. From the Government level serious thinking should go into evolving effective methods to meet such eventualities. Effective hazard reduction models may be available from the western United States and Japan. Urgent action plan should be put in place for public awareness and enforcement of building codes and related environmental laws – important hazard reduction steps in the current context of expanding urban centres with high-rise buildings. Heritage structures and monuments and the critical facilities in the region require reinforcement and retrofitting to withstand severe ground shaking”.

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Next Generation Sequencing Meets Traditional medicine

June 4th, 2015

Traditional knowledge in combination with modern scientific techniques could help unravel deep hidden mysteries. Scientists from NCBS, Bangalore, have revisited the age old knowledge of “Tulsi and its medicinal effects” in their labs, only to be overwhelmed by their scientific findings. Ocimum tenuiflorum or commonly known as Tulsi has been mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures and has found wide usage in the Indian traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda. Known for producing many aromatic compounds, Tulsi gained an informal name as the “Queen of Herbs”. It is considered sacred in Hindu households and mostly used for spiritual and religious purposes in India.

Tulsi grows extensively in tropical climate, hence found in most parts of Asia, Africa, Central and South America. It consists of a wide range of bioactive compounds which are known for their anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-pyretic and anti-cancer properties. These compounds or plant metabolites are very poorly understood because of absolute lack of genomic information. Prof. Ramanathan Sowdhamini and team have produced the first draft genome of O. tenuiflorum Krishna subtype which is a huge leap in understanding and identifying the genes responsible for production of metabolites with medicinal properties. Focussing on the important metabolite genes, the team used five different types of Tulsi, (Ocimum tenuflorium subtype Rama, O. tenuflorium subtype Krishna, O. gratissimum, O. saccharicum and O. kilmund) to collect the genomic data and compare it with the nearest genetically related species. “The genome sequencing projects involved generation of huge quantity of data. The genes were identified from this enormous amount of data using complex prediction models and then they were numbered for easy identification. This assembled genome and the set of genes served as a start point for all downstream analysis”, said Adwait Joshi, one of the team members.

Like every other plant, Tulsi also produces specialized metabolites as a part of its defence mechanism. Linalool, Linalyl, Geraniol, Camphor, Thymol, Safrol, Apigenin, Citral, Eugenol, Taxol and Urosolic acid are few examples among the important secondary metabolites of Ocimum species. “Apigenin, Taxol and Urosolic acid are implicated in anti-cancer properties of the plant, Citral for its anti-septic nature and Eugenol for its anti-infective properties and so on”, says Prof. Sowdhamini. Few metabolites have been used in the perfume and cosmetic industries. While others have been exploited in curing human ailments like malaria, bronchitis, diarrhea and dysentery, etc. The metabolic pathway concerning the synthesis of Ursolic acid was investigated as a case study. Studying mature roots, leaves, flowers, seeds and other parts of the plant, the team found that the precursors of these metabolites are synthesized in young tissues and retain their specific medicinal properties in their mature counterparts.

Owing to the 3000 years of cultivation of Krishna Tulsi and extensive descriptions in the Vedas and Puranas, it is assumed to be of Indian origin. The findings of the experiments at CCAMP, NCBS, reinstate the household knowledge passed on by grandma, even when prodded by the modern scientific techniques. Prof. Sowdhamini said, “This is the first report of draft genome sequencing of a plant species from NCBS and we hope to do more”. Convinced of the huge array of genes and their respective downstream compounds yet to be unraveled in further research, the team looks forward to working in collaboration with an independent parallel initiative by CAMP, Lucknow, to provide the next version of the draft of Tulsi genome.

Perfectionism on part of proteins in cargo delivery could save lives

August 2015

A minor fault in any member of the team of proteins carrying structural elements for melanin pigment maturation could deprive us of not just our colour, but could be fatal when combined with few other factors.

Trucks and lorries rule the world of cargo delivery. Any malfunction in them affects the timely delivery of the cargo at the destination and where and how they are used in the further processes. This chain of events is not very different at a cellular level. Our cells also have their own transport pathways responsible for the cargo delivery at the right destination at the right time. Any variations to that system shows up as symptoms to fatal diseases. Dr. Subba Rao and team from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, unravel the nitty gritties of one such transport pathway in animal cells where failure to deliver the cargo, in this case melanin synthesizing enzymes, could result in fatalities.

Melanin pigments are responsible for the colour of our skin and also play an important role in protection against radiations and any other damage from light. Melanin pigment is produced in cellular organelles called melanosomes which need melanin synthesizing enzymes transported from other organelles. The enzymes transported into premature melanosomes facilitate the maturation into fully pigmented melanosomes. The transport pathway is completed with the help of four multi subunit protein complexes, BLOC 1, 2, 3 and Adaptor protein 3 complex.

BLOC 1 consists of 8 subunits, functioning in the upstream of the pathway while BLOC 2, a 3-subunit protein complex, functions towards the end of the pathway in directing the transfer of molecules towards maturing melanosomes for subsequent reactions. It does so by the specific method of “tethering” or by stabilizing the intermediate molecules that need to be transported.

Mutations in BLOC 1 or BLOC 2 proteins result in inefficient delivery of melanin synthesizing proteins to melanosomes and thus failure in full expression of the melanin pigment. This malfunction manifests in the form of albinism of skin, ear and eye, also referred to as oculocutaneous albinism. This is one of the primary symptoms in Hermansky-Pudlak Syndrome (HPS). The other symptoms are lung infections, which are mistaken as Tuberculosis in most cases in India. Both the lung pathology and albinism put together result in HPS but the confirmatory diagnosis is genetic sequencing of the patient and the parents. HPS generally shows up in children within the age group of 4-6. Out of the 16 possible genetic mutations that can result in HPS, only 9 are known so far. Three out of those nine subtypes are a result of mutations to the BLOC 2 protein.

Even though BLOC 1 and 2 play their respective roles in the overall transport pathway, their molecular functions are not yet clear. There are additional proteins that are responsible for membrane trafficking throughout the cell in most transport pathways. These proteins are called Soluble NSF (N-ethylmaleimide sensitive fusion proteins) Attachment Protein REceptor (SNARE). SNARE proteins, a family of about 60 proteins has been known for their role in membrane fusion during transfer of information. For the first time, the team from IISc has identified two members from the SNARE family that are involved in the transport pathway to melanosome. Immortal melanocyte cell lines from mice, both wild type and mutated, were used for the experiments. The expression of these cell lines were estimated by their absorbance at certain wavelengths and compared with levels of protein expressions found in healthy cells. The team concluded that not only do SNAREs play a vital role in the endosome and melanosome membrane trafficking but are also responsible for maintaining the melanosomal proteins in their stable states until delivered to the maturing melanosomes. Very strong interactions between the SNARE proteins and BLOC 1 has been reported in the initial steps of the transport pathway.

Dr. Subba Rao and team intends to further work on uncovering the details of the interactions between the SNAREs and BLOC 1 and 2 complexes. It is important to understand the specific roles that BLOC 2 plays in the cell and would help in filling the gaps in the transport pathway. How and what delivers the cargo at the destination is yet to be understood. Whether the membranes actually fuse for the transport of the proteins or only the proximity of molecules with the opposite membrane to the surface completes the transport? What are the guiding proteins? If the SNAREs go back to their respective states after the transfer is completed? These are few questions the team is looking forward to resolve in their future research.


Learning from insect social networks

October 20, 2014

Insects like honeybees and ants live in groups that constantly communicate with each other. In fact, communication networks in some insect groups have been successfully compared to artificial technological information transfer networks. Drawing parallels between such highly coordinated processes in living organisms and their artificial counterparts, a team of scientists from IISc, IISER-Kolkatta and BITS-Pilani, seek a better understanding of network communication, to improve the existing information processing networks.

The survival of living organisms depend on the well-coordinated processes at different levels – the cellular and genetic levels, for example. Group living animals take coordination to a different level — schools of fish and flocks of birds rely on competent communication by every individual to all other members, at every point in time. Efficient transfer of information happens through communication systems, which hold good even when there are time or energy constraints.

Among non-human living beings, social insects like bees have some of the most complex societies. Scientists study them to understand communication between the members of a colony, which ensures division of labour between thousands of individuals. Different species of social insects have different modes of communication: bees in large colonies communicate using chemical cues or pheromones, while wasps in smaller colonies use direct physical interactions.

Anjan Nandi and colleagues have studied a tropical wasp Ropalidia marginata to understand the flow of information within a colony. They found that the flow of information between individuals is by pairwise physical interactions, like dominance behaviour, which plays a major role in the regulation of activities of the workers in a colony. For example, foragers that find food receive more dominance over the non foragers, and the extent of dominance varies depending on the circumstances (higher during starvation while lesser during excess food). Apart from dominance, wasps also use paired behaviours like grooming, soliciting and food sharing for flow of information.

There are also global structures that emerge from the two way interactions: the average path length for communication and the average density of interactions could be determined from individual interactions. In other words, the building blocks of a network formation is identified by studying the local structural elements.

The analysis revealed that networks constructed from dominance behaviour in Ropalidia marginata is structurally similar to different biological and technological regulatory networks. Further, the networks are sufficiently robust and capable of efficient information transfer. Even though one would expect a wasp colony to be less complex because it has fewer individuals, a comparison demonstrates that there is a common design principle involved in different biological systems who have evolved to perform similar tasks

The paper was published in the journal Royal Society journal Interface during second week of October 2014.

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