Category Archives: Science

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Vaccines Combine to Form Infectious Virus

Two vaccines that are used to prevent diseases in poultry have found to have combined to produce a new infectious strain of the virus that they were designed to protect against.

Weak Viruses Used as Vaccines

Infectious laryngotracheitis is a respiratory disease in poultry that can kill as many as 1 in 5 infected birds. To combat this disease, farmers in Australia have been using what are called live-attenuated vaccines. This means that the vaccines are a weak form of the virus which cannot cause infections but can still be recognized by the chicken’s immune system so that the chicken is protected from future infections.

In 2006, a new European vaccine which contained a different strain of the virus was introduced into the country. A year later, a new, more infectious, strain of the virus became dominant in the Australian poultry industry. Scientists at the University of Melbourne have sequenced these new viral strains and found that they have been formed by a combination of the European and Australian strains used in the two vaccines.

How two viral vaccines could combine to form a new deadly strain. Image Credit: Australian Science Media Centre
How two viral vaccines could combine to form a new deadly strain. Image Credit: Australian Science Media Centre

When Vaccines Become the Enemy

When a virus infects our body, it enters the cells in our body and uses the machinery inside the host cell to produce more copies of itself. In this case, two viral strains must have entered the same cell, leading to a process called DNA recombination between the DNA sequences of the two viruses. Thus, a new strain with a new genome was formed.

“While recombination has been recognised as a potential risk associated with live virus vaccines for many years, the likelihood of it happening in viruses like this in the field has been thought to be so low that it was considered to be very unlikely to lead to significant problems,” said Professor Glenn Browning, who was a part of this research.

The herpesvirus causing the disease is not infectious in humans. However, live herpesvirus vaccines for other diseases are widely used in humans and other species. This science-fiction-like incidence of viral recombination is definitely something that should make scientists and health-care professionals sit up and examine the possible repercussions of a poorly implemented vaccine.

Found: The Most Complete 2-Million Year Old Human Fossil in the ‘Cradle of Humankind’

The dead do speak. And it is the paleontologists who go around trying to eavesdrop on such a silent conversation. Most of the times, the sentences are broken. Once in a while, a whole sentence is found and much jubilation follows. One of these sentences, which I use as an euphemism for ‘skeletons’ here, has been found in the so-called ‘Cradle of Humankind’, north of Johannesburg. The question: what does it really say?

The skull of the A.sediba individual. Look at the white spot on the rock – that’s the hominid tooth.

Where the individual fits – in space and in time

The skeleton, nestled lightly between hard rock, is a hominid skeleton and is the “most complete early human ancestor skeleton ever discovered”. It is about 2 million years old, which puts it right at the beginning of the time when the species of the genus Homo – whose members walked on two legs and had less hair than the apes – were beginning to emerge. The oldest known members of the Homo genus are Homo habilis, whose skeletons date back to 2.3 million years ago. Homo erectus, the first species of the Homo genus, to walk upright emerged later around 1.6 million years ago.

The skeleton is that of Australopithecus sediba species. It is widely believed that one of the species of the Australopithecus genus evolved to give the Homo genus, which leads to us. One of the species is our ancestor. A. sediba is probably not!

Skeleton – such a completeness was never there before

The skeleton reveals that the individual was learning to walk upright, fitting right into that snug spot on the evolutionary ladder between becoming merely bipedal and becoming bipedal and upright. The individual is an infant aged between 9 and 13 years and it could be of either gender. This is actually the completion of an expedition that revealed part of this same fossil way back in 2009.

Prof. Berger, a lead scientist in this expedition is thrilled:

We have discovered parts of a jaw and critical aspects of the body including what appear to be a complete femur [thigh bone], ribs, vertebrae and other important limb elements, some never before seen in such completeness in the human fossil record.

The discovery was a stroke of luck, it seems. The team spotted a piece of hominid tooth embedded in black stone. They excavated further to reveal a complete skull!


The critical question remains: was A.sediba a direct ancestor to us? The skeleton hasn’t started singing out its secrets yet. It will soon!

The Cradle of Humankind, as romantic and innocent as it might sound, is actually a deep pit containing many caves, where a large number of individuals of A.sediba and some other species are had fallen and died. For scientists studying human origins, this is a goldmine. The site has been the continuous paleontology site and has now been declared a World Heritage Site.

Now, just to wait to hear the dead speak…

Moon Race Team Recruits Google VIP

Moon Express, a “privately funded lunar transportation and data services company”, announced today that Dr. James (Jimi) Crawford has joined their team as Chief Technology Officer and Software Architect. Crawford had been the Engineering Director for Google Books since 2009.

Moon Express Logo

As CTO, Dr. Crawford will guide Moon Express’ technology to fulfill the company’s long term goals. He will also serve as a software architect, where he will develop software for the company’s space missions including the race to win the Google Lunar X prize. The Lunar X project is giving $30 million dollars to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. Moon Express is one of several teams that are competing for the illustrious prize.

In their press release, Moon Express co-Founder and CEO Bob Richards said, “We are thrilled to have Jimi join us as CTO and Software Architect…With Jimi’s combined space mission and software experience, our technical team just took another giant leap forward.” Dr. Crawford’s resume is quite impressive and one could see why the Moon Express team is encouraged to have him on board. This guy is not a newbie when it comes to space technology. He spent three years at NASA’s Ames Research Center as lead for Autonomy and Robotics. His teams “delivered the optimized activity planner used by both the Opportunity and Spirit Mars rovers, demonstrated next generation rovers with much higher levels of autonomy, and created optimized spacecraft antenna using genetic algorithms.”

For more information about the Google Lunar X competition, see the embedded video below.

[Video Link]


Hubble Space Telescope Discovers Pluto’s Fifth Moon

Tiny Pluto has a lot of followers. Being relegated to being a ‘dwarf planet’ from being a ‘planet’ has apparently not hurt Pluto’s chances of capturing a moon. It already has four moons, all of them tiny. Now, a fifth one has been discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The fifth moon. Pluto is somewhere in the darkened area.
Image courtesy: NASA, Hubble Space Telescope, ESA and M. Showalter from SETI.

New Moon!

We covered the news of the discovery of the fourth moon of Pluto here and it was called P4. This new one has been provisionally christened S/2012(134340)1, but it already has gained the title ‘P5′. The other moons of Pluto are Charon (biggest), Nix and Hydra, apart from P4.

The announcement of the discovery came through Twitter when principal investigator in NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft Alan Stern said:

Just announced: Pluto has some company – We’ve discovered a 5th moon using the Hubble Space Telescope.

Oh, and the New Horizons spacecraft project plans to fly by Pluto in a bid to discover new horizons and study the dwarf planet. The launch is scheduled in 2015.

Difficult to see

Pluto and its moons are notoriously difficult to see. They tend to be blips of light, in the midst of a background made up of blips of light. The only difference is that the moons of Pluto go around Pluto, rather than the Sun, which the blips of light in the background do. The moons are quite small. Charon is the biggest, measuring about 1000 km across. The scale falls sharply with Nix and Hydra measuring about 80 km or lesser. P4 is about 30 km across.

It turns out that P5 is even smaller. It’s about 20 km across, but at places it measures less than 10 km, indicating that it is highly irregular. It was Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 which caught the 5th moon.

Many believe that Pluto might ‘capture’ planetary debris from their irregular orbits around the Sun and make them its moons.

Why Do We Remain Still While We Sleep?

Why does our body remain inactive during sleep? We often experience vivid dreams which the brain encounters as real experiences. Yet, we remain still while we are busy fighting James Bond in our heads.

Scientists are closing in on the mechanism that prevents our muscles from being active during REM sleep, termed ‘sleep paralysis’. If you have ever twitched or kicked in your sleep, you have experienced an instance of a temporary loss of sleep paralysis (though this is usually experienced in periods of light sleep). Researchers at the University of Toronto have now discovered two chemicals that ‘switch off’ regions of the brain that activate muscle cells during deep sleep.

Some Brain Biology

Our muscles are ‘paralysed’ during sleep to protect the body from potential injury.

How does the brain transmit signals? Chains of brain cells, called neurons, are arrayed from head to tail from the origin of the brain signal to the destination. Each neuron releases chemicals called neurotransmitters which then activate the next neuron. This neuron in turn activates the next neuron, and so on till the signal reaches the target region (for example, motor regions that activate muscles).

In this experiment, receptors for two neurotransmitters—GABA and glycine— were blocked in trigeminal neurons of mice. These are the neurons which activate facial muscles. On blocking these receptors, the mice were found to exhibit muscle activity even during deep sleep, meaning that these two chemicals are essential in maintaining the passivity of muscles during sleep. Moreover, both these chemicals had to be blocked simultaneously for the muscles to start moving. This also means that these two chemicals work independently of each other.

Potential for Treating ‘Sleep Paralysis’ Disorders

This result could play an important role in the research on REM sleep disorders in which patients act out their dreams. We potentially have molecular targets that could be aimed at to treat these disorders. Moreover, “understanding the precise mechanism behind these chemicals’ role in REM sleep disorder is particularly important because about 80 percent of people who have it eventually develop a neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s disease,” study author Peever said.

Massive Vortex Discovered on Saturn’s Moon Titan

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is capturing stunning images of a high altitude vortex on the south pole of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Titan Storm
True color image captured by NASA’S Cassini spacecraft before a distant flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on June 27, 2012 Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

When Cassini first arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it observed a “hood” of high altitude haze and a swirling  gaseous vortex on Saturn’s north pole. In what appears to be a changing of the seasons, the vortex has shifted toward the southern pole of Titan.  According to a NASA press release “the structure inside the vortex is reminiscent of the open cellular convection that is often seen over Earth’s oceans,” said Tony Del Genio, a Cassini team member at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y. “But unlike on Earth, where such layers are just above the surface, this one is at very high altitude, maybe a response of Titan’s stratosphere to seasonal cooling as southern winter approaches. But so soon in the game, we’re not sure.”

Cassini’s visible light cameras saw the haze forming near the southern pole back in March. Using specialized infrared instruments abbreviated VIMs, it was able to capture false color images on  May 22 and June 7.

“VIMS has seen a concentration of aerosols forming about 200 miles [300 kilometers] above the surface of Titan’s south pole,” said Christophe Sotin, a VIMS team member at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We’ve never seen aerosols here at this level before, so we know this is something new.”

Below you can see an embedded video showing the rotation of the vortex.


Future observations will shed light on the composition of Titan’s atmosphere and the effects of seasonal change.  Titan is the only known satellite to have a dense atmosphere and is important for study as many feel it has all the makings to host life. For more information about Cassini’s mission to Saturn, visit

New Species Named After Bob Marley

A recent study, funded by the National Science Foundation, has resulted in the discovery of a new coral reef species which was given the name Gnathia marleyi as a tribute to the late reggae legend, Bob Marley.

Bob Marley
Bob Marley (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Sikkel, an assistant professor of marine ecology and a field marine biologist at Arkansas State University initially discovered the species 10 years ago in the  U.S. Virgin Islands, but they were so common, Sikkel assumed the species had been named already. It turns out he had a hunch and decided to consult fellow researchers and the next thing you know, he’s naming a brand new species. Gnathia marleyi is a gnathiid isopod and is a parasitic blood feeder in its juvenile stages. It infests certain fish that inhabit the coral reef and is the first new species to be named out of the Caribbean for years.

Juvenile Gnathiids
Juvenile gnathiids that have recently fed on fresh blood. Only juvenile gnathiids are parasitic.
Credit: Ann Marie Coile, Department of Biology, Arkansas State University

Sikkel’s research is primarily focused on the health of the reef. Recent reports say the reef is degrading in the Caribbean. According to the NSF press release, Sikkel says,”we are currently researching the relationships between the health of coral reef communities and gnathiid populations”. It appears that as the reef degrades the parasites that infest them gain ground. Sikkel likens the gnathiids to mosquitoes, which are known to carry blood born diseases. “Our current work is focused on how changes in coral reef environments, such as coral bleaching, influences interactions between hosts and parasites,” said Sikkel. “We’re including in our studies any effects on cleaning organisms that remove parasites from hosts.” As it turns out, there are “cleaner fish” that rely heavily on these parasites as food. Sikkel believes these little guys may be playing a large role in transmitting disease in the reef.

As to why these little guys were named for Marley, Sikkel said,”I named this species, which is truly a natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley’s music. Plus, this species is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley”. The study was published in the June 6th issue of Zootaxia.


Inventor, Futurist, Genius: Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

His coolness is unmatched, but the man himself is far more enigmatic than cool. Nikola Tesla is known for being as awesome as scientists get. He was and remains the ultimate mad scientist – calm, mysterious with a will-get-the-job-done attitude and an insane futurist. He conceived of transferring energy wirelessly when people had just about gotten to know about conduction through wires. His great dream of intercontinental wireless transmission of power is still unfulfilled and remains extremely futuristic. Tesla, fulfilling his archetypical mad scientist image, died penniless and in debt.

Happy birthday sir!

Too Far Ahead of His Times

Time and time again, and the world is realizing this now, Tesla has been proven too ahead of the time. Tesla himself knew:

My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.

Tesla is the pioneer of the modern alternating current generator and the transmission/supply system, the critical components of the worldwide power grid that we see today. He was the greatest electrical engineer the world has ever seen. Not only that, he was the founder of the field of electrical engineering.

Let’s go a level deeper. He wasn’t just an electrical engineer who pioneered the electrical supply system – he created the item that was to be supplied through the lines. In other words, he was the father of Alternating Current. The next time you switch on any electrical device connected to the main power supply of your house/office, say a small thanks to Tesla. He had won the ‘War of Currents’ with Thomas Edison, who wanted DC power to be circulated. Edison, Edison…

Enter Edison

Yes, Edison was no stick in the mud – he wasn’t called a genius for no reason. And he has been vilified in popular culture for no small reason either. Tesla’s famous tussle with Edison meant that Tesla’s genius never got its true value and recognition, unable to come out from under Edison’s clout. And really, Tesla didn’t try hard enough. Tesla and Edison never saw eye-to-eye ever again.

I often doubt whether truth always triumphs. Even if it does – and always – does it do so in time? Not so for Tesla. His genius, once recognized, was never again accepted. Maybe the world can see only so much of a good thing. Maybe being born twice is not for one lifetime.

Living in the Future

Tesla, a genius? What genius?

He identified – and made a source for – X-Rays way back in 1887, a full decade before the year which the world thinks X-Rays were officially discovered. Why the silence then? Primarily because most of his research work was lost in a March 1895 fire and also because he didn’t want to publish anything. He even sent X-Ray photos of his own hand to Roentgen.

Too much for the world in that era. A reconstructed Tesla coil, it measures 18 meters in diameter and can send electricity through 27 meters.

Unfortunately, and this has been demonstrated over and over again, science is not meant for people staying mum.
He felt disgusted by the newer crop of researchers:

That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.

Tesla built the first radio transmitter in 1897. But wait, he then built a radio-controlled boat for the military. The military didn’t recognize the significance.

He spoke futuristically on Edison’s bulb:

I predict that very shortly the old-fashioned incandescent lamp, having a filament heated to brightness by the passage of electric current through it, will entirely disappear.

Tesla’s obsession with long distance telegraphy increased with years. He experimented with lightning, and spectacularly so. His meticulous notes in his diaries reveal his level of planning – and his level of daring. Of his many setups, probably the most terrifying – and the most popular – is the ‘Magnifying transmitter’. Transferring millions of volts across several meters, while still ensuring safety is what Tesla was going in for. The world didn’t recognize him. It was too naïve.

Magnifying transmitter. Taken by Tesla himself. The shot was taken using multiple exposure times. (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

No, Tesla was no peace advocate. He built the ‘death ray’, a weapon capable of directed energy release. The death ray would …

send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.

Madness to Senility

This madness would continue, but it was eating into Tesla himself. He began to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) manifesting in many ways, such as his extreme fondness for the number 3. He would circle his lab 3 times before entering. His hatred – and probably irrational fear – for round objects or clinking jewelry is well-known. Even professionally, he was faltering. He criticized Einstein’s relativity on grounds which were sometimes quite irrational. They weren’t taken into account in the science circles. Tesla had run aground of his ‘genius’ tag. He had simply gone mad.

Tesla would feed a flock of pigeons, of which one – a beautiful white pigeon – was his favourite. His OCD grew worse, as can be easily seen from what he says:

I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.

Hardly a statement from someone who is called the greatest electrical engineer of all times. Tesla’s duration on this planet was over, just the formality of death loomed over his head.

That came peacefully enough on the 7th of January, 1943 in the midst of a global conflict – the Second World War – which he had predicted would be inevitable. Like most of his life, he died alone.

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla, the genius. We’ll meet again in the future.

Researchers Create “MRI” of the Sun’s Interior Motions

A team of researchers from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and its Department of Physics, Princeton University, the Max Planck Institute, and NASA have created an “MRI” of the sun’s interior motions.

MRI of Sun
Image of the sun’s surface taken by the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) onboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (courtesy NASA)

Looking for Some Hot Stuff

The sun’s inner core creates heat through a process called nuclear fusion. The heat moves to the outer surface of the sun through convection. Since the sun is opaque, not much has been learned about how the process works. Scientists have had to rely on studies of fluid models and then try to apply those observations to the sun.

The sun is primarily composed of hydrogen, helium, and plasma. Plasma according to Princeton’s website is “a fourth state of matter distinct from solid or liquid or gas and present in stars and fusion reactors; a gas becomes a plasma when it is heated until the atoms lose all their electrons, leaving a highly electrified collection of nuclei and free electrons”. It is also the primary contributor to the sun’s magnetic fields. This study sought to grasp a better understanding of phenomenon such as sun spots and magnetic fields. A fantastic NASA video showing activity on the surface of the sun is embedded below.

Smile! Say Cheese

To get their “MRI” the researchers relied on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory to get a high definition picture of the sun’s surface. The Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager measures the effects of convection on the sun’s surface using a 16 million pixel camera. No hiding any sun spots or blemishes with a camera like that!

The end result of the research showed that many of our assumptions about the sun were incorrect. Current theory about the sun’s magnetic field rely on assumptions about the speed and magnitude of the sun’s inner motions. According to an NYU press release, study author Shravan Hanasoge, an associate research scholar in geosciences at Princeton University and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences said, “our results suggest that convective motions in the Sun are nearly 100 times smaller than these current theoretical expectations” Hanasoge continued saying “If these motions are indeed that slow in the Sun, then the most widely accepted theory concerning the generation of solar magnetic field is broken, leaving us with no compelling theory to explain its generation of magnetic fields and the need to overhaul our understanding of the physics of the Sun’s interior.”

As so often happens in science, further research sometimes opens more questions and challenges the theories of the day. This research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Editorial: Creation vs. Evolution and the Fear That Drives Both

In 1859 Charles Darwin turned the world on its side by publishing the book On the Origin of Species. This book outlined his observations on evolution and introduced the concept known as natural selection. Darwin’s theories have since gained wide acceptance in the scientific community and have laid the foundation for evolutionary biology. His theories have also been used to drive a solid wedge between the religious and scientific communities. This unfortunate result can be seen playing out even today as my esteemed colleague, Debjyoti Bardhan, points out in his article “South Korea’s Scientists Strike Back At Creationism; Force Withdrawal of Omission of Evolution“. To me the fundamental problems at the heart of this debate are that of power, fear, and lack of mutual respect.

Origin of Species
(Courtesy Wikipedia)

He Didn’t Start the Fire

Contrary to the noise you hear on both sides of the creation vs. evolution debate, Darwin didn’t set out to stick it to Christians when he published his theories. Some may be surprised that early in Darwin’s life, he actually considered going into the clergy. As a matter of fact, Darwin struggled with his thoughts on God his entire life and in a letter to John Fordyce he proclaimed, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.” But the fire that burned between science and the church started long before Darwin’s time. One could point to the debate between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo correctly observed that the earth was not the center of the universe. He supported the heliocentric view meaning the earth was just a planet that circled the sun. This view got him in a lot of heat with the Roman Catholic Church. His views were deemed heretical and didn’t agree with church authorities of that day. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the tools he needed to really prove his argument. On the flip side, Galileo wasn’t entirely correct either. The sun was the center of our solar system however, as we know now it was not the center of the universe.

All of this history reminds me of the saying “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One of the things I observe in this whole debate is that both parties involved seem to get drunk with power. Nothing is more unbecoming of science than when scientists wield their power and influence to push a social or political agenda. How many studies have I seen lately funded by some special interest group with the “surprising” result that the “scientific” conclusion agrees with those of the group. In the same line of thought, nothing can be more opposite of the life that Jesus lived than these so called “Christians” who would threaten the very lives of scientists with whom they do not agree.