Archive for April, 2012

The blood brain barrier

April 30, 2012 Leave a comment
The Human Brain

The Human Brain. (Picture from National Geographic)

Did you know that our brain was protected by a special cover to shield us from infections? But it is more in the news nowadays because it prevents drugs from reaching our brain. Read about that in my latest article for the New Indian Express. This is an article for which I learnt everything from scratch. I have heard about this barrier before, but had no clue about it. And there is no better way to learning something than writing about it.


My picks – 22nd April 2012

April 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Here are some links to keep your brain going.

James Randi says magicians could be very useful to scientists as associates. I am not entirely convinced, but go read the article.

Do gut microbes fall into 3 distinct classes? Not clear yet.

While James Cameroon dives to the deepest part of Earth, here is why it is important.

If you trace back the lineage of all modern domesticated cows, they would all lead to a small herd of 80 cattle 10,500 years ago.

Beyond racism. A student of psychology tries to understand the reasons behind increased suspicion towards black people. And another scientist talks about her own experiences as a black person doing science. Scary.

Here is a piece about Dolphin societies. All the more interesting to me, since I was just reading the book To touch a wild dolphin.

Incredible. Fossilised rain drops 2.7 billion years old and what we can learn from them.

The other side of science. “In cancer science, many ‘discoveries’ don’t hold up”.

A look at how single patients might not always be a good guide at understanding our brains.

The superluminal neutrinos, that turned out not to be superluminal, has taken its toll.

A longish piece on the questions surrounding uncontacted tribes in the Amazonian.

Counting penguins from pictures taken from satellites.

Saudi Arabia refuses to send female participants to Lonon Olympics. Ban them, I say.

Now now. This is the problem. Chinese traditional medicine does not have proper labelling. They also contain ingredients from endangered animals and toxic plants. Whoever said traditional medicine is safe.

GM Mosquitoes let out to outbreed wild mosquitoes that spread Dengue.

Here is how Rainbows work.

Why are humans capable of music? Here is a discussion.

The source of high energy cosmic rays is still not clear.

A new class of pesticides is killing bee colonies.

An interesting brain mapping debate.

Read all about the trouble with today’s science.

Categories: Links

The Indian who went to Mars and Jupiter

April 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I like to write about science, but I also like writing humour, as you can see from some occasional attempts. I do not know if it has happened to you, but when I see someone writing well about science or writing hilariously funny articles or books, I dream of a day in my life when I would achieve similar levels of expertise. This sometimes causes an inferiority complex too. But what am I to do, when a person combines Science and Humour so well.

But the problem with this person is that what he thinks is science is actually humour. So what we get is this unique combination of pseudo scientific comedy. I am referring to this website. This is the website of one Dr.P.V.Vartak. He claims to have gone to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on his own, the moment he heard that NASA was planning a manned Mars mission. Can you beat that? I am not joking. Here is what he lists as point No.71 of his achievements (he has listed 130).

Proved the existence of five subtle bodies by performing experiments of Astral travel to the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The reports found true when the spaceships gave their reports. The capacities of the five Koshas are well explained. Have travelled to another solar system by Anandmaya Kosh and saw a human being there on a planet.

If you too want to do it, read through his detailed expeditions to Mars and Jupiter. They have gems like

One day, late in July 1975, 1 went into ‘DHYANA’ (meditation) and then into ‘SAMADHI’ to get knowledge about the Mars. In this Samadhi I felt that I was standing on the Mars. But when I came out from Samadhi to the physical level I forgot everything. Only the impression of going to the Mars remained. Being a scientist I was not happy with this experiment, so I discarded this attempt.

The last sentence in the paragraph bugs me no end. He has also “Experienced the contraction of space and time due to high velocity in the space, on the planet Jupiter. ”

But about earthly matters too, he has made earth shattering discoveries.

  • Pandavas were reproduced parthenogentically.
  • It is proved that the twelve Signs of zodiac were known to the Rigveda and were in use.
  • Discovered that Kaikayi was a good natured woman, she really loved Ram, but taking part in the national conspiracy to defeat Ravan, she took the brunt on her and accepted bad name.
  • Sage Agasti knew electricity. He has described a modified Daniel cell. He describes electroplating and production of Oxygen and Hydrogen from water. Hydrogen was used to inflate a balloon, which could take a sedan into air.
  • Ravan was a good natured gentleman. Rama humiliated his sister, so he revenged by abducting Seeta. Ravan did not touch her, though she was in his possession for one year. On the last day he could have raped her and cut her nose, ears and breasts; but being a gentleman, he did not do that foul act.

Look at his sense of morals. Just because he did not raper he when he got a chance, he is considered a gentleman. What about not kindapping in the first place? Anywhere, why I am I getting into all these nonsensical arguments.

Moving on to the next one.

Discovered from Valmiki Ramayana that Hanuman was born on Amavasya and not on Pournima, as generally believed by all scholars and saints.

Give him Harry Potter and he will discover, Hermione is the mother of Harry Potter and not a friend as is widely believed. (My head is aching)

And this too.

Shown mistakes in the theory of evolution proposed by Darwin.

What have people got against Darwin. If you want to spend some time laughing out aloud, read through his list. It is incredibly theraupetic.

Categories: Uncategorized

Umbilical cord blood stem cells

April 13, 2012 1 comment

The different kinds of cells that Hematopoietic stem cells (the ones found in cord blood) can differentiate into. Source: FujiMan Production(Japan) via Wikipedia (

As my wife and I are on the cusp of parenthood, a little bit of Googling pointed us to cord blood banking. The umbilical cord, that is usually discarded at the time of delivery, contains stem cells that can specialise into different kinds of blood cells. It was this that led me to write an article on stem cells sometime back. The idea is that these stem cells could be preserved at a “bank”, so that in case the child (or even the parents) have a blood related disorder in future, these cells could be used. The cells will be a direct match for the children, but for the parents it will match with a 50% probability.

When I enquired further, I learnt that banking cord blood for a child costs somewhere in the range of 60,000 to 70,000 rupees. Though I am generally optimistic on what science will achieve in future with stem cells, Prabha and I felt this was something that we could not afford now. But we were also worried if we are putting pecuniary concerns ahead of the child’s welfare, even before it was born.

All is not lost though. It is not that you always need your own cells. There is a very small chance (somewhere in the range of 1 in of tens of thousands) that cord blood cells of another unrelated person matches yours. What I mentioned in my last paragraph, was about private banking, where you store cord cells for your own possible use in future. There is also the concept of public banking, where you just donate your cord blood to a bank. They will store this free of cost. Anybody who needs such stem cells, can search the public banks to find a match. And when they do find it, they can pay for it and get it.

What is more, if I donate my cord blood today to a public bank, and if I need it tomorrow, I can get my own cells back on payment, assuming it has not been given out to others in the meanwhile. It is not as if everybody will need their stem cells. So rather than wasting it, why not give it to a public bank, where it might end up being useful for others.

Considering all this Prabha and I went to Jeevan Blood Bank and Research Centre which has a public stem cell bank. It looks like this is the only public bank in India. There we met a person Kishore, who explained to us the details of the cord blood bank. When we talked to him, we learnt about the dismal donation levels of cord blood cells. He told us that every month, about 15 people donate cord blood, and that the bank now has about 400-500 samples. Considering the staggering odds of finding a match, this number looked insignificant. It is true that there is still lot of progress yet to be made on using these Stem Cells, but there are some disorders, like leukemia, where this is already being used for treatment. Kishore told us that today, if one has to get a unit of stem cells from abroad after finding a match it would cost about 14-15 lakhs, whereas if a match is found with Jeevan, the cost would be around Rs.50,000. Jeevan also donates the stem cells free of cost for people who cannot afford the payment.

He then showed us around the centre. We were shown the machine the extracts the stem cells from the blood, the huge cylinders, as wide as 2 people and reaching up to my shoulder’s height, which stores the cells at ridiculously low temperatures (I don’t remember the numbers now). It was all fascinating for us.

The key obviously is to build up a huge repository. This can be achieved only by increased awareness. Science has today achieved, what it could not have imagined 30-40 years ago (no doubt there have been some disappointments too). So I feel 30-40 years from now, we would be capable of using these stem cells really well, and it would be a shame if the only reason we are not able to cure somebody of , say, blood cancer is because we do not have a compatible sample. True, it could turn out that 40 years down the lane, not much progress has been made (I think that is very unlikely), but even then what do you lose? You would have anyway discarded the cord blood. Why not save it?

Private banking, is still dicey, as you are expected to invest so much on something that you are not sure will be useful to you. But I don’t see a reason why anybody would say to no to Public Banking. The procedure is safe and non-invasive. After the umbilical cord is removed from the mother, the blood from it is collected, and stored separately. There can absolutely be no harm to anybody involved. So if you know somebody about to have a child, spread the message, ask them to consider this. It is in some sense a social insurance policy we are taking out for our next generation.

Ants use vaccination to fight fungal infections

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Lasius Neglectus uses a process very similar to our own vaccination technique to reduce risk of infection by a fungus. Picture credit: April Nobile /

Vaccinations work on the principle that intentionally introducing weakened or dead infectious agents into the human body, triggers our immune system to generate the antibodies necessary to fight any actual infection that we could face in future. But a new study published in the open access journal PLoS Biology on April 3rd, has shown that such vaccination happens in ants too when a fungus infects their society.

Social immunization has been observed before in ant and termite colonies. Earlier studies by some of the authors of this current study, showed that uninfected ants exposed to fungus “treated” nest mates, had increased survival rates when faced with the same infection sometime later. But it was not clear whether that was due to active immunity, where the untreated, but exposed, ant itself generates the necessary antibodies to fight off pathogens, or passive immunity, where the antibodies generated by the treated ants were transferred to the exposed nest mates, or through some other means.

To answer that question, ants of the species Lasius Neglectus were “treated” with the fungus species Metarhizium anisopliae that was used as the infecting agent. Each of these “treated” ants were kept in contact with uninfected ants over a period of 5 days.

By using a red fluorescent label on the fungus, which helped the authors keep track of where the fungal spores traveled, this study established that uninfected ants who lick the treated ants to clean them, ended up with small doses of the fungus themselves. The fungus was found on the antennae and legs “suggesting that nest mates pick up the pathogen from the fungus-exposed individual during grooming”, the study says.

But to learn if it is indeed active immunity of the previously uninfected ants, rather than passive immunity, that led to increased protection, the team exposed some uninfected ants to a treated ant two days after the initial “treatment”, by which time the fungus loses the ability to be transferred. Such later exposed ants, showed no evidence of increased protection. This confirmed that it was the fungus itself that acted as a trigger for the immune system.

As a final confirmation that the immune system of the ants were activated, the study measured the gene expression of previously known anti-fungal and anti-bacterial genes. As expected, the expression of the anti-fungal genes increased significantly when compared to expression of anti-bacterial genes which did not show any change.

When queried as to the impact of the study in the human fight against diseases, “We have extended epidemiological models that are also used to model disease spread in human societies. By adding the effects of active and passive social immunisation in societies, these same effects can also be addressed in human societies by using our model.”, said Prof.Sylvia Kremer, one of the authors of the study, in an email response.

Reference: Konrad M, Vyleta ML, Theis FJ, Stock M, Tragust S, et al. (2012) Social Transfer of Pathogenic Fungus Promotes Active Immunisation in Ant Colonies. PLoS Biol 10(4): e1001300. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001300

The chicken-egg problem

April 3, 2012 1 comment

The question of whether the egg came firs or the chicken is what I address in my latest article for the New Indian Express. Although I knew that the egg must have come first (see the article as to why), I did learn something new about the chicken which clearly answers the question of which came first. But the question is not a straightforward, since it also questions our understanding of what a chicken is, which in turn, leads us to the problem of a species not being a group with clear boundaries (I have talked about that earlier). So read it and see if you are convinced of the answer.


Categories: Writing