Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why does our tomato, not taste like tomato? + 1 Cholesterol controlling tomato trick

For two reasons: A tomato has four different kinds of tissues. The outer thin skin, next to it is the fleshy fruit wall, then the central pith and finally a semi liquid jelly and juice surrounding the seeds. The fleshy fruit wall contains most of the sugars and amino acids but the aroma and flavouring compounds in a tomato are concentrated on its skin. So the flavour of a tomato will vary, on how much skin and flesh you peel or retain. Many chefs, remove the skin and the seed jelly of a tomato when cooking. This makes the tomato less watery, but changes the tomato flavour.

An important compound, that gives tomato its ripe flavour is 'furaneol'. Furaneol also contributes to flavours of ripe pineapples and strawberries. It has a savory-caramely taste. Furaneol, develops in a tomato, as it begins to ripen on the plant, but today most supermarket tomatoes are picked and shipped while still green and artificially stimulated to redden by treating with ethylene gas. Therefore, you end up with a flavourless product. So next time, in a supermarket if you see any thing red with tomato label next to it, don't expect it to be a real tasty tomato. For a real tomato dish, it should smell and taste like a tomato, not just look like one. Duh!!

For long people believed that tomato leaves are poisonous, but today we know that it is a myth. Tomato leaves contain an alkaloid called tomatine. Recent research has indicated that tomatine binds tightly to cholesterol molecules in our digestive system, so that body absorbs neither the alkaloid, nor the bound cholesterol. It thus reduces our net intake of cholesterol- So garnishing your food with tomato leaves is a good idea! A green tomato also contains tomatine and has the same effect like the leaves.


Monday, July 29, 2013

“Molly be damned”

In 14th century Japan, a master sword maker doped molybdenum into his steel. This steel was used to produce samurai swords, which never rusted on dulled. But this knowledge died with the sword maker until it was rediscovered during the First World War. After Germany's chemical weapons their 43 tonnes 'Big Berthas' were the most feared weapons. Their twenty foot steel barrels could hurl a 16 inch, 2,200 pound shell to a distance of nine miles. But the Big Berthas heated up and warped after a few shots. The Krupp armament company of Germany discovered that they could strengthen the steel of the Berthas by adding molybdenum to it. Molybdenum has a melting point thousands of degrees more than iron. Its atoms are larger and so get excited slower, and they prevent the atoms of iron from rearranging when the temperature changes. The Germans had one problem; Germany had no supply of Molybdenum. The only known supplier was a bankrupt mining company in Colorado's Bartlett Mountains.  Molybdenum was a metal, with very poor demand and the cost of extraction was more than the market price. The mines were purchased from a local, by a banker named Otis King. Otis had adopted a new extraction technique, with which he managed to extract nearly 3 tons of pure molybdenum in a year. But the world demand for Molybdenum was only about 2 tons and this new found Molybdenum sent the prices in the market crashing. But all these activities in a remote corner of US, did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Immediately, Metallgesellschaft, a German mining giant appointed it's US subsidiary 'American metal' to get its hands on the mine. Max Schott, who was managing the subsidiary, let his goons and lawyers loose, to get the mine from Otis King. The mine workers and their families were threatened. King himself was roughed and thrown off a sheer cliff (a well placed snow bank saved him). The Germans did everything short of downright slaughter to hinder the work of King's mine. The gritty workers took to calling the metal "Molly be damned". Although King had a faint idea, no one else in Europe or America knew, why the Germans were so desperate to get hold of Molybdenum. Finally in 1916, when a few captured berthas were reverse engineered by the British, by melting them down, did the allies discovered the secret of German 'wundermetall'.

Since the US did not enter the World War until 1917, they had no reason to monitor 'American Metal'. Finally when they did investigate the company in 1918, they realised that Otis King had sold the mine to Schott for a paltry 40,000$ and all the metal was already shipped to Germany. The US fed froze the companies stock and accounts, but it was too late. In 1918, Germany's molysteel guns were shelling Paris from an astonishing distance of 75 miles. After the armistice in 1919, Schott's company went bankrupt. King returned to mining and became a millionaire by persuading Henry Ford to use molysteel in engine cars.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Coincidence of lineage

King Edward VII of England was a notorious adulterer and was linked to more than fifty women during his lifetime (some how his wife Queen Alexandra tolerated it).
One of those women was Alice Keppel whose great-grand daughter Camilla Parker-Bowles became the mistress to Edwards great-great grandson, Prince Charles before becoming his official consort after their marriage in 2005.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Birth Control for Bacteria.

On a cold December of 1935, Hildegard, the daughter of microbiologist, Gerhard Domagk, tripped and fell down the stairs of their family home in Wuppertal, Germany. She was holding a sewing needle, which punctured her hand, eyelet and then snapped off inside her. The needle was medically removed, but Hildegard came down with severe streptococcal infection in her arm. Death was the common outcome of such infections those days. Once the bacteria began multiplying, nothing could stop them. Coincidently, Domagk was working on a red industrial dye, which he had been secretly testing in his lab on mice. 3 years prior to Hildegard's fall, Domagk had injected a lethal dose of streptococcal bacteria on a litter of mice. 90 minutes later he injected the red dye, prontosil, on some of the littler. Four days later, every mouse which had received prontosil had survived, while the others died. Prontosil is a ringed organic molecule, with a sulphur atom. Although prontosil was lethal on bacteria in mice, it had no effect on the same bacteria in a test tube and no one knew why. Domagk was keeping a vigil on his deteriorating daughter, contemplating whether to try prontosil on her. When the doctor announced that Hildegard's arm had to be amputated, Domagk, sneaked in some prontosil and began injecting the red dye into her. At first, her fever worsened, and then it alternatively spiked and crashed. Then one day, Hildegard stabilized and she lived with both her arms intact. Domagk decided to publish his results and his employers I.G. Farbenindustire, who were selling prontosil as a dye, filed for a patent extension on prontosil as a medicine and forced Domagk to hold back, until the patent came through. Sales figure jumped for IGF by five fold in 1936 and another five fold the next year. Pasteur institute, in France, decided to investigate how prontosil worked. They soon realised that the mammal cells, split prontosil into two, one part was sulphonamide, which killed the bacteria. This explained instantly, why the bacteria in the testube did not die- The prontosil was not activated. Sulphonamide's sulphur atoms, disrupts the production of folic acid, which is used to replicate DNA. Mammals get folic acid in their diet, but bacteria have to produce their own stock. So Sulphonamide is bacteria birth control! Pasteur institute published its results, giving others an opportunity to circumvent the prontosil patent. IGF lost millions in product investment as competitors swept in and synthesised other "sulpha drugs."
Trivia: In prontosil, sulphur shares one electron with a benzene ring, one with a short nitrogen chain, and two each with two greedy oxygen atoms. A total of 6 bonds, with 12 electrons! Sulphur can pull off such a trick, because it's large enough to hold more than 8 electrons and small enough to let everything fit around it in 3D arrangement. Nature's magic!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What’s wrong with mustard oil ?

Mustard oil is traditionally used in North Indian cuisine and many Bengali fish dishes. Unfortunately, mustard oil also frequents news, where adulterated mustard oil causes dropsy in its consumers. What probably many Indians are unaware is that in the west, the sale of mustard oil for food is illegal (US, Canada and EU), largely because of two compounds found in the oil. One is an irritating compound called isothiocyanate and the other one an unusual fatty acid called 'erucic acid'. Mustard oil, contains copious amounts of Erucic acid (about 42%), which is known to cause heart damage in laboratory animals.
Many scientists believe that Erucic acid can cause accumulation of triglycerides in heart, fibrotic lesions in heart and lung cancer. Its effects though on humans are unknown, as it is not studied. Hence, just to be on the cautions side, its best to avoid mustard oil, especially when many other oil alternatives are available.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

God was the first anaesthesiologist

In the days prior to the discovery of anaesthesia, prior the mid 19th century, if you had to undergo a surgery, the only meaningful choice a patient had when selecting a surgeon was to ask how fast he was. Some one like William Cheselden, an English surgeon could remove a kidney stone in 54 seconds. Dominique- Jean Larrey, Napoleon's chief surgeon could perform an amputation in 15 seconds. In the dark days of medicine, one of the important skill that one needed to have as an anaesthesiologist was a knack to crack various nuts based on the hardness of their shells. For one of the prescription directed "Place a wooden bowl on the patients head and knock him unconscious by striking the bowl with sufficient strength to crack an almond, but leave the skull intact." If nut cracking was not your thing, then one could practice the art of delicate strangulation. In this forgotten method on anaesthesia, practitioners asphyxiated their patients to the point of unconsciousness without, hopefully also killing them (today only practiced by Jack Bauer). The first chemical anaesthetic accepted by doctors was Ether, in 1846 (nitrous oxide, although was known, it was not widely used). Despite all its too-good-to-be-true properties, it was inflammable and had an unpleasant odour, which caused nausea in patients. However, as luck would have it, within a year of ether's use, a new anaesthetic was discovered - Chloroform. Although chloroform was synthesized in 1831, no one had tried it on humans. A Scottish obstetrician named James Simpson, decided to try it anyhow. So he bought some home and on September 4th 1847, shared it with his friends at a party. When Simpson later awoke on the floor, besides his unconscious guests, he became an ardent believer of chloroform. Unfortunately, although anaesthetics were rapidly accepted by medicine and society, its use remained highly controversial in one area- Childbirth. Many people held the religious view that pain of childbirth was God's just punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve. Simpson, though strongly advocated using anaesthesia for painless childbirth and on January 19, 1847 became the first person to administer anaesthesia- in this case ether- to ease the delivery of a baby to a woman with deformed pelvis. When Simpson faced angry opposition for his "satanic activities" he countered his critics by citing passages from the Bible, including suggesting that God was the first anaesthesiologist: "… and the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam… and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My wife is a supertaster.

My wife is a supertaster! I know it but she does not believe it. If I find a dish needs more salt, she says it's perfect. She can identify any missing spice from an aromatic recipe. When I tell her, you are a supertaster, she tells me, that I have burnt my taste buds drinking steaming hot tea. Just like variations in nose shapes, there are variations in taste receptors too. There is something called supertasting and it was accidently discovered by a DuPont chemist names Arthur Fox. Arthur spilled some phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) but did not notice it. However, a colleague of his complained of a bitter sensation from the dust kicked up in the air. Curious, Arthur started testing PTC on his family and friends. He found that about one in four could not discern any bitterness. Today we know that supertasters find PTC unbearably bitter, while others find it mildly so. So are you interested in knowing if you are a supertaster-, You can employ two ways. 1. Order for either PTC strips or 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) strips (you can buy it online). Place the strips on your tongue for 10 seconds. If you are a supertaster, you will experience such a bitter taste, that you will spit it out within 10 seconds. Medium tasters will sense mild, but tolerable bitterness and nontasters will enjoy pleasant sensation of the wet paper. 2. If online ordering is not your thing then try this method. Supertasters have more taste buds and by counting the 'fungiform papillae' on their tongue (since it contains the tastebuds) you can search for a supertaster. Take a thick paper and make 3, 8mm holes in it. Now take some food colouring (preferable blue or green) and stain your tongue with it. Now keep that paper on your tongue such that you or some one can see the stained tongue through the holes. Choose the area with the densest spots and count the number of spots (you can use a lens to aid, but you should not need it). Count the number of pink dots visible. Since the fungiform papillae are not stained, those spots indicate your tastebuds. If there are more than 30, you are a supertaster, if it's between 15-30 then you are a medium taster and less then 15 then you are someone like me, when it comes to tasting. Other than bitter, supertasters experience intense sweetness and sourness. They are less likely to smoke and avoid tea or coffee since it tastes bitterer (Wife, does not like sweets or raw mangoes, nor does she indulge in caffeine- more evidence for my supertaster theory).
Trivia: Stress too decreases the sensitivity of tastebuds- thanks to increased cortisol levels.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The world’s only natural nuclear fission reactor.

Not in the sun or the stars, but here right on earth, mother earth too has her little nuclear reactor. Constructed billions of years before man made the first one. Unlike our complicated reactors, earth only needed water, uranium and blue-green algae. Really! It's in Africa at a place called Oklo and scientist estimate it started about 1.7 billion years ago. Algae in a river near Oklo produced excess oxygen after undergoing photosynthesis. This excess oxygen made the water acidic. As the water seeped underground, it dissolved the uranium from the bedrock. Some underground algae filtered this water and this caused the uranium to concentrate in one spot, achieving a critical mass. A critical mass only is not sufficient to start a chain reaction, Uranium nuclei should be struck by neutrons and they must absorb these neutrons. When uranium fissions, the neutrons emitted are very fast and so they cannot be absorbed to cause a chain reaction. Oklo uranium went nuclear only because the river water slowed the neutrons down enough for the neighbouring nuclei to catch them. Without this water the reaction would never have happened. Now fission produced heat, this heat boiled the water away. With no water, the neutrons became too fast to absorb and the process came to a halt. Only when the Uranium cooled down, did the water trickle back, this slowed the neutrons and restarted the reaction. The reaction was so self controlled that there is no big crater, in Oklo today. The reactor has consumed 6000 Kilos of Uranium over 1,50,000 years, in on/off cycles of 150 minutes.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Cholesterol increases during rains.

With your diet being nearly the same, if you check you cholesterol levels during rainy season and summer season (in India); you may notice it to be higher during rains. Any guesses why. Cholesterol is a vital component of our body. It is required to make and maintain cell membranes, helps brain to send messages and assists the immune system in defending us. It also is a key ingredient in manufacture of various hormones like estrogens and testosterone. It also is the essential component in our manufacture of vitamin D. Unfortunately excess levels of cholesterols can clog arteries causing life threatening complications. Like a plant which photosynthesises sunlight into sugars, our body converts cholesterol to vitamin D when exposed to the right kind of sunlight. The sunlight necessary for this process is ultraviolet B or UVB. This is strongest when the sun is directly above us, that is more or less during noon. During rains, most of the days are cloudy and severely limit the amount of sunlight reaching us. Also to keep ourselves dry we spend a lot of time indoors or cover our entire body with raincoat or shield ourselves with an umbrella. All these actions reduce the amount of cholesterol that is being converted into vitamin D and thus keeps our test result elevated. What did you learn from this? To keep cholesterol levels in check, other than a healthy diet, get yourself lots of wholesome sunshine. A lifetime of outdoor activity is more fun than a lifetime of liver damaging statins.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

“…. I have only one Mendeleev”

Dmitri Mendeleev, the scientist who designed the modern periodic table, had rivals- At least six of them, who were designing Periodic tables of their own. When Mendeleev's table was complete, there were gaps in the table. These gaps were elements that were not yet discovered. But Mendeleev was so sure of the table, that he was known to taunt "Look harder, you chemists and geologists and you will find them." Mendeleev had even predicted the atomic weights and densities of these undiscovered elements. When some of these predictions came correct people were mesmerized. During this time, none of the noble gases (Argon, xenon, etc) were discovered. In 1890's when these gases were finally discovered, scientist only had to add an extra column to the table, to make place for the gases. In Mendeleev's table it could be easily done and now the table came to be widely accepted. Why did Mendeleev not keep a blank column? - Mendeleev denied that noble gases existed and he also refused to believe in atoms !! He refused to believe in anything he could not see with his own eyes and atoms for Mendeleev were an abstraction- a handy way of doing the accounting to design the Periodic table.
A few years later, Mendeleev now famous, divorced his wife and wanted to remarry. The local church required that he had to wait for seven years. So he bribed the local priest to go on with the nuptials. By law now Mendeleev was a bigamist, but his fame had made the law wary about arresting him. When a local bureaucrat complained to the tsar about the double standards applied to the case- the priest was defrocked. The tsar reportedly said "I admit, Mendeleev has two wives, but I have only one Mendeleev."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Can wheat flour cause diabetes?

The elastic and sticky properties of wheat and maida (refined white flour) make them a mainstay in making breads, cookies, cakes and countless other products. Wheat and its derivatives have these properties because of a protein called gluten. When wheat is freshly milled, the gluten is weak, and it poorly binds making a slack dough and a dense loaf. Bakers have known for a long time that, if they let the flour age for a few weeks in air, gluten regains its properties and the flour improves. This air-aging of flour has a visible side effect- Yellowish flour becomes paler as the xanthophyll pigments are oxidised and the flour becomes whiter. However, this process takes many months. Hence to make the flour look clean and white, quickly, the flour is bleached!! Yes, hard to believe, just like your white clothes, the flour too is bleached. We are all aware that refining wheat destroys nutrients. With the most nutritious part of the grain removed, white flour essentially becomes a form of sugar (starch). This is then treated with chemicals to make a bad thing worse.
The three most common additives used as bleaching agents are
Potassium bromate
Benzoyl peroxide
Chlorine gas (Also used in chemical warfare during the world war's)
The most commonly used bleaching agent is Chlorine. Chlorine also speeds up the maturing process I mentioned above, hence the flour manufacturers can quickly sell their product after milling. The chlorine gas undergoes an oxidizing chemical reaction with some of the proteins in the flour, producing alloxan as an unintended byproduct.
So what is so bad about alloxan? Alloxan, is a product of the decomposition of uric acid. It is a chemical that is used to produce diabetes in healthy experimental animals (rats and mice), so that researchers can then study diabetes "treatments" in the lab. Alloxan causes diabetes because it causes a large amount of free radicals to form in pancreatic beta cells, thus destroying them. Beta cells are the primary cell type in your pancreas and they produce insulin; so if those are destroyed, you get diabetes.
There is no other commercial application for alloxan, other than to produce diabetes in rats. Another interesting fact to note is that the xanthophyll oxidation I mentioned above, also forms alloxan- although the amount is very small compared to the one produced by chlorine. Scientist's believe that about 5 to 15 grams of protein in 100 gram of wheat may be contaminated by alloxan, although no large scale studies have been done to know its effect on humans. Many people change their diet to wheat and its products once they are diagnosed with diabetes. It may just happen, that this diet may actually make things worse than good. People having gluten intolerance, live on a diet free from wheat. Likewise, unless your wheat flour clearly states that it has not been bleached, it is best to avoid refined flour and maida; better safe than sorry.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Colour of life .Antioxidants.- part 2

Our eyes are special, they can see a range of colours and anthropologist today believe that we may owe this ability to leaves and fruits! Other than some tropical forest dwelling primates, we are the only animals who can distinguish red from green. Our ancestors like the primates had to detect their food against the green of the forest canopy. They had to distinguish the light green tender leaves from the difficult to digest older leaves. Without red vision, the carotenoid- coloured red fruits would have been difficult to find. The pleasure we enjoy today, of a colourful world was shaped by fruits and leaves. Today these pigments still play a vital role in our body and they are a key to a healthy life.
Green Chlorophyll, is probably the most well known of the pigments. ‘Chlorophyll  a’ is bright blue-green and ‘chlorophyll b’ is olive green in colour. In most leaves, the ‘a’ form is 3 times more than the ‘b’ form and as the leaves age; the ‘a’ form degrades faster, changing the colour of the leaves. Chlorophyll, is an antioxidant and protects the body from harmful effects of “free radicals.”
Yellow, red and orange carotenoids. The first member, of this large family of pigments, was first isolated from carrots, hence the name. They are responsible for most of the yellow and orange colours of fruits and vegetables (Zeaxanthin, xanthophylls and beta-carotene). The reds in watermelons, chillies and tomatoes are by capsanthin, capsorubin and lycopene respectively. The red colour of plants is due to anthocyaninis. These are fat soluble, stable molecules and hence stay bright when food is cooked in water. One of their main jobs is to protect the DNA and photosynthetic system of the plant during photosynthesis. Therefore, plants have one carotenoid molecule for every five or so chlorophyll molecules. Hence, dark green vegetables have lots of carotenoids. Eating a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables therefore douses our body with their goodness and protects us from various free radicals. About ten different types of carotenoids, are converted into Vitamin A in our intestine, the most well known among them is beta-carotene.
Red and purple Anthocyaninis and Pale yellow Anthoxanthins. The red, purple and blue colour of many berries, cabbage, potatoes, apples and radish are due to anthocyaninis. Anthoxanthins colour potatoes, onions and cauliflower, with their pale yellow hue. There are about 300 known anthocyaninis, and any given fruit and vegetable will have at least a dozen of them. These are water soluble and easily get diluted in water while cooking, so vegetables coloured by these pigments lose their colour while cooking. These pigments too have antioxidant properties
Red and Yellow Betains. About 50 types of red betains and 20 types of yellow betaxanthins are found in only a few vegetables. Some of the common ones are Beets, chard, amaranth and prickly pear. Our body cannot metabolise them efficiently, hence in large doses, like when eating beetroots, the excess is harmlessly passed off in urine, giving it a red tinge. The red betains are good antioxidants.
Nature is a riot of colours and incorporating it in our diet, will definitely go a long way in protecting us from the dangers that are lurking around us.     

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The colour of life .Antioxidants.- part 1

Breathing is one of the most essential activities of our survival mechanism. The oxygen that we inhale reacts with sugars and fats in our cells giving us energy to survive. Unfortunately, this energy generation has a bad by-product called "free radical." These are unstable chemicals, desperate to react with anything to make themselves stable. In their desperate quest, they react with and damage our own cells. This damage is called oxidative, and such damage to the DNA in our cells can cause the cell to multiply uncontrollably. Oxidative, damage to cholesterol carrying proteins in our blood can irritate our arteries, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Similarly UV from the sun creates free radicals in the eye, causing problems like cataract. But fear not, our body fights these 'free radicals' with antioxidant molecules, which harmlessly reacts with free radicals. Hence we need a continuous and abundant supply of antioxidants to maintain good health. The body does make a few important antioxidant molecules of its own, but the more help it gets, the better it is able to defend from the constant barrage of free radicals. Plants it turns out are a goldmine of anti-oxidants. Plants make their energy stores, by splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen atoms with the use of sunlight. These are high energy reactions and can easily damage plant DNA and proteins. To protect themselves, leaves and other exposed parts of the plants are chock-full of anti-oxidant molecules. Some of the famous one's are carotenoid pigments like orange coloured beta-carotene, yellow lutein and zeaxanthin and the red lycopene. Green chlorophyll itself is an antioxidant, so are vitamin C and E. Other than these, there are thousands of other anti oxidants; many not yet discovered. A single antioxidant generally protects against a certain kind of molecular damage. No single molecule can protect against all kinds of damage. So the best way to reap the full benefit of the antioxidant power of the plant is to eats lot of different vegetables and fruits and not to take manufactured supplements of a few prominent chemicals. The danger with these supplements is that an unusually high concentration of a single type of molecule can tip the balance the wrong way and cause more damage than good. An easy way to identify a vegetable or plant with large levels of anti-oxidants is by its colour. A dark green vegetable or leaf, does lots of photosynthesis and needs much more anti-oxidants to handle the energy output. Similarly, a darker colour means more pigments and more anti-oxidants. A simple trick for a healthy life. More about these colourful friends tomorrow

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Gold does not glitter after all

The only gold item I have is my wedding ring, a symbolic gesture of love and commitment from my wife. Had the ring not been given to me, it would not have made any difference whatsoever. I would have still loved her all the same and so would she. The ring though has made a difference somewhere and like this small ring gold is making a difference and most of us are unaware about it. Today most of the gold is used for making jewellery, something that we can easily not buy and make a difference. The gold ring that I wear has created about 20 tons of hazardous waste, most of which was probably dumped into the local rivers. The reason why gold is so toxic is because to get gold from ore, mining companies use a process called heap leaching. Gold containing ore is piled up into a heap and cyanide is poured over it. The cyanide slowly drips through, extracting the gold on its way. Along with gold, the cyanide also dissolved toxic metals like cadmium, lead and mercury. The cyanide and toxic metal ends up in a big pool of runoff, and from this pool, gold is extracted. The leftover cyanide and heavy metal mixture is then dumped into the local river and the cyanide containing heap of ore is just left behind. You probably are aware about cyanide, which is a deadly poison. One gram can kill a human and one-millionth of a gram can kill fish. The Aurul gold smelting plant at Baia mare in Romania, was spilling a hundred tonnes of cyanide-rich slurry into the Tisza river. When the dam on the banks of the Tisza river failed a wave of death swept from Romania into Hungary and onwards to the Danube killing fish and wildlife. Gold has become a part of many civil ceremonies and sometimes is difficult to forego it. Probably in such instances, it is prudent to use owned or recycled gold. Every piece of gold jewellery we own is a symbol of death and destruction of earth. Gold import is today crippling our current account deficit and is weakening our economy. However, for decades gold has been silently smothering Mother Nature and irreversibly weakening her. For ideas about clean gold visit www.nodirtygold.org

Monday, July 15, 2013

Being anaemic can be good for you sometimes!

John Murray, a physician and his wife were working in Somali refugee camps. Here they noticed that despite severe anaemia and repeated exposure to pathogens, like that causing TB, malaria and brucellosis, these refugees were free from these infections. So while treating anaemia, he decided to use caution and treated only part of the population with iron supplements. Suddenly the refugees being treated for anaemia started showing increased rate of infection. Though the anaemia was gone, infections had skyrocketed- What happened? Iron is one of the most important elements in every life form on earth (except for a few microbes). We need iron; to transport our oxygen in blood, to build enzymes that convert sugar into energy and for the proper functioning of our immune system. In nature, life thrives where iron is in abundance and the iron rich winds from Sahara keep the North Atlantic's marine life thriving. So when bacteria and other microbes invade our body, the first thing they seek is the life giving iron. Our body knows this and has devised mechanism to protect this all important liability. Our body has a protein called chelator on continuous patrol. Chelators lock up iron molecules and prevent them from being used by others. The natural openings in our body (eyes, noses, ears, mouth, genitals) are all rich with chelators. When we fall sick, our immune system prepares for a fight back with what is called 'acute phase response' a part of this response is to lock away the iron in the body, so that it is unavailable to anyone. Mother's milk contains lactoferrin - a chelator like protein that binds with iron, making it unavailable to bacteria and prevents infections in newborns. So when we give iron supplements to a person who is ill, it acts against all the hard-work the body is putting in to fight the infection. About forty years ago, doctors in New Zealand routinely injected Maori babies with iron supplements. They believed that Maori diet was lacking Iron and the babies would be anaemic. Maori babies who received these iron supplements were seven times more susceptible to deadly infections, including meningitis and septicaemia. Like all of us, babies have isolated strains of harmful bacteria in their system, but this is normally kept under control by their bodies. When doctors gave the iron supplements, they basically laid a buffet table for these pathogens. Iron supplements in food too can be bacterial banquet. Many infants have botulism spores in their gut (these are found in honey too- hence the warning not to feed honey to infants under the age of one). If these spores germinate, the results can be fatal. A study of infant botulism showed that babies who were fed with iron-supplemented formula instead of breast-fed, had 100% fatality. Today with this new understanding of iron- pathogen relationship, iron supplements are being reconsidered in medical treatments.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The white tan on my cold chocolate…

In 1911, Robert Scott the Englishman and Roald Amundsen the Norwegian were on a race with each other- To be the first human to reach the South Pole. Scott, sent his caravan in November 1911; it was a support team, which dropped caches of food and fuel on the way out so that the small final team that would dash to the pole could retrieve them on the way back. After an arduous, foot journey, which lasted for months, five men led by Scott, arrived at the pole in January 1912. They were shocked and disappointed to see a brown tent and a Norwegian flag, fluttering at the pole. Amundsen had arrived a month before Scott. Disappointed, Scott and his men started their return journey. For weeks they were pinned down by the Antarctic weather, and they began facing starvation, scurvy, dehydration, hypothermia and gangrene. To their horror, the fuel, dropped by Scott's caravan, had leaked and most of the foodstuff was tainted by it. Without kerosene, the men could not cook, melt water to drink and they took ill one by one. Finally, by March 1912, Scott and his men perished due to exposure, eleven miles from the British base. The root cause of their troubles was tin. Scott, in his previous Arctic expeditions had discovered that the leather seals on his kerosene canister leaked badly and he routinely lost half his fuel. So for the South Pole expedition, the team replaced the leather with pure tin solders. Tin has been used since ancient times to make containers, since it is easy to shape. But when tin is used in its pure form, whitish rust begins to form on it. This white rust weakens and corrodes tin. Unlike iron rust, this is not a chemical reaction, but a rearrangement of tin atoms. Tin atoms can arrange themselves in two ways and when they get cold they shift from their strong "beta" form to the crumbly "alpha" form.
Imagine a crate of apples; the bottom layer is evenly spread out. Now the next layer on top can be arranged in two ways; one is place the apple right on top of another apple and make the layer. In terms of tin's atoms, this is one form or crystal structure. The other option is to nestle the second layer of apples into the spaces between the apples of the bottom layer and this is another way atoms can arrange. Both these arrangements, give the same metal different properties. What Scott's men tragically discovered was that an element's atoms can spontaneously shift from a weak crystal to a strong one or vice versa. Generally it needs extreme conditions to promote rearrangement (a classic example is graphite becoming diamonds).Tin rearranges itself at 13 degree Celsius and colder temperature accelerate the process. This condition is called leprosy, and the alpha-beta shift also causes audible sounds called 'tin scream'. This tin leprosy, also affects chocolates (chocolate leprosy!) The white tan that you notice when you open a chocolate packet from the fridge, is caused by the same alpha-beta shift, which once doomed Scott.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Who ordered that pi ?

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a self-taught Indian mathematician, who worked as a clerk in Madras (now Chennai). One of Ramanujan’s contributions was the method to work out the infinite series of pi. His work shows an extraordinary intuition about the properties of numbers including pi and his most well know formula is:
The  ∞∑n=0 symbol indicates the sum of a series, starting with n equals zero added to the value when n equals one and so on to infinity. Even if you do not understand the notation, the beauty of the equation lies in the fact that the speed at which it approaches pi. When n is equal to zero, the formula has one term and gives a value of pi accurate to six decimal places. For each increase in the value of n, the formula adds roughly eight new digits to pi. Some call this formula an industrial strength pi-making machine. Today mathematicians have improved on this formula to churn out bigger and bigger values of pi.
Prior to Ramanujan, mathematicians were using formula devised by Leonard Euler (pronounced ‘oiler’) to derive the value of pi, to larger and larger decimal places. Euler was a prolific mathematician and a writer, publishing up to 886 books. Some of the mathematical notations we use today were devised by him, including e, π and i (root of-1) One of the equations he derived was:
eπi +1 = 0  
Known as Euler’s Identity, it links together what mathematicians call as the five most important constant in mathematics- e , i, π , 0 and 1. It also uses the operations of addition, multiplication and exponentiation exactly once each. Many publications have chosen this as the ‘most beautiful’ or ‘the greatest equation ever’.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A parasite that makes women shopaholics

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that can infect any warm-blooded animal, but does best in cats. T. gondii in cats undergoes sexual reproduction, producing new oocysts or spore cells. The amazing property of T. gondii is the technique it uses to spread from one cat to another. Infected cats distribute oocysts in their faeces and these oocysts can survive as long as a year. When rodents, birds or other animals ingest the oocysts they too become infected. Animals can then become infected by eating the flesh of an infected animal. Once an animal is infected, the T. gondii cells are distributed through the body by bloodstream and they pretty much say put inside muscle and brain cells. So how does the T. gondii re-enter its favourite host- The cat. When a mouse is infected by T. gondii, the parasite as usual moves into the muscles and brain of the mouse. Once inside the mouse's brain, the parasite alters its behaviour. The mouse becomes fat and lethargic and loses its fear of predators- Cats. Instead of fleeing away from cats, the mouse gets drawn towards it. So a fat, slow moving mouse makes an ideal cat food- and T. gondii gets to move into a new host. Scientist today believe that more than half the human population has T. gondii in them. It's mostly benign in humans, unless you have a compromised immune system, like people with HIV. Another group of people who should be careful are pregnant women. If a woman already has T. gondii infection in her then there is no risk, but if the infection is acquired during pregnancy then there is a 40% chance of the foetus getting infected and resulting in complications like blindness, damage to heart and liver and encephalitis. For these reasons pregnant women should avoid raw or partly cooked meat and cat litter boxes. There is also increasing evidence that past infection with T. gondii may trigger schizophrenia in some people, though this is not yet confirmed. T. gondii's influence on mouse brain, made scientist look closely in the human brain too. Now there is evidence that women infected with T. gondii spend more money on clothes, are more easy-going, warm hearted, had more friends and cared more about how they looked. They also were less trustworthy and had more relationships with men. Infected men on the other hand, tend to be less well groomed, likely to be loners and more willing to fight. They were also more likely to be suspicious and jealous and less willing to follow rules. So if you feel your lady is spending a lot on shopping, or if you think your man is shabby, blame it on the cat!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bountiful water.

A few days ago my wife sent me a research report on the depleting ground water in Goa. As the ground water depletes due to incessant usage, it is being replaced by sea water, which is slowly percolating in from the nearby Arabian Sea. In India since 1980's 21 million wells are drilled with a million added each year. This has helped in doubling of land irrigated by them, from 20 million to 40 million hectares. About 250,000,000,000 Cu. meters of water is extracted each year, which is 40% more than the water replaced by rains. Hence inevitably the water table is falling in every state of India. In Gujarat by 6 to 30 meters each year, some bore-wells, 400 meters deep are running dry. In Tamilnadu wells are drying up daily across the state and half the land has been lost in a decade. In Maharashtra, deep wells have taken ground water for sugarcane plantations and public wells have run dry. In Madhya Pradesh, the once water rich Malwa plateau is now dry and 9/10th of the wells drilled last year are not functioning. Food production is not yet faltering, mostly because dams are being built to compensate for the falling water table, and they supply water for irrigation. A few weeks ago, on a post here on Uttarakhand floods, when I mentioned 600 dams are being planned in that state, a friend of mine asked me, what was wrong with dams. Politicians and dam planners, ask people to give up land to build dams. Many a times this land is also occupied by pristine ecosystems and wildlife. The carrot here is the dams will do three important things- Generate electricity, prevents floods and yield water for irrigation. The problem with this promise is that a dam can't do all three at the same time. For electricity, the dam lake needs to be a full as possible, so maximum energy is available to spin the turbines. But if the lake is full, it will over flow if flood waters run into it and the flood will continue downstream. Irrigation water taken out of the lake, which will peak in summer months, when the lake is not full anyway is in direct competition with electricity generation. Dams which have the additional burden on preventing siltation have the silt deposited at the dam lake. So dam managers try to flush out the sediments by suddenly releasing water and the people living downstream are seldom warned, as has happened in Hirakud dam. With poor water management and lack of awareness among citizens, the situation can only worsen. Just to know where water is used here is a rough scale. It takes 2.8 tonnes of water to make a single cotton t-shirt, 1 tonne for 1 kilo wheat, 3 tonnes for sugar, 4 tonnes for milk, 20 tonnes for coffee and 24 tonnes for a kilo of meat. We cannot take water for granted anymore. Water will soon turn out to be more precious than oil.

Here is the link I mentioned  Seawater entering Goa's ground water

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The chemistry of addiction

Karl Scheele, the Swedish chemist, invented a method to commercially produce phosphorus. Prior to this phosphorus was produced by evaporating human urine. This invention of Scheele has made Sweden today the leading producer of matches. Well this is probably how much our books will tell us about Scheele. But Scheele, in spite of being poor and lacking proper apparatus had discovered eight elements "Chlorine, fluorine, magnesium, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen and oxygen" and got credit for none of them. He also discovered ammonia, glycerine and tannic acid all breakthroughs that made other people wealthy.
Scheele discovered Oxygen in 1772, but for complicated, heartbreaking reasons could not publish his paper in time and the discovery was credited to Joseph Priestly in 1774. Chlorine was discovered by Scheele 36 years before Humphrey Davy and all textbooks credit Davy for it.
Scheele's downfall was probably his insistence on tasting a little of everything he worked with, including noxious stuff like, mercury, prussic acid (another of his discoveries) and hydrocyanic acid. Scheele's habit eventually caught up with him and in 1786, aged 43 he was found dead in his workbench surrounded by an array of toxic chemicals.
Coming to Humphrey Davy, he too was a prolific discoverer of elements. One after another Davy discovered 'potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium and aluminium or aluminum (depending on which English stream you favour). His hoards of discoveries were because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to molten substances- electrolysis. With this he had discovered a dozen elements. Davy had developed the addiction of inhaling nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
Davy knew about the anaesthetic effects of nitrous oxide. His wisdom tooth pain was killed by nitrous oxide, but he was so fascinated by its psychedelic effects that he did not bother to propagate it and for another 50 years, people had still undergo, surgeries without anaesthesia. Davy grew so attached to nitrous oxide that he used to inhale it three to four times a day and eventually in 1829 it killed him.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

‘Cochon de lait’ or Pepperoni?

Well, you can choose either, but this is how the raw material is made.
In a modern piggery a sow will birth, nurse and raise an average of nine piglets. She will be kept pregnant as much as possible- most of her life that is. After her piglets are weaned away, a hormone injection makes the sow rapidly "cycle" so that she will be ready to be artificially inseminated again only in three weeks.
Four out of the five times a sow will spend the sixteen weeks of her pregnancy confined in a "gestation crate" so small that she will not be able to turn around. Her bone density will decrease because of the lack of movement. There is no bedding provided and blackened, pus-filled sores from chafing in the crate are common.
In nature, a sow would spend much of her time before giving birth foraging and would build a nest of grass, leaves and straw. This urge of a sow is curtailed in the crate making her very restless.
To avoid excessive weight gain and keep feed costs low, the crated sow is put on a restricted diet and is often hungry. In nature pigs use different areas for sleeping and defecating, this is prevented when the sow is crated.
As per a study by the European commission's Scientific Veterinary committee; pigs in crates show weakened bones, cardiovascular problems, urinary infection and a reduction of muscle mass so severe that it affects the pig's ability to lie down.
7 to 15% of the breeding sows typically die from this confinement. When the piglets are hatched, the mothers suffering has indeed transferred to them. They are born with deformities. Common congenital ones are cleft palate, hermaphroditism, inverted nipples, no anus, splayed legs, tremors and hernias. Inguinal hernias are routinely corrected during the time of castration. In the first forty-eight hours, their tails and "needle teeth" are cut off without any pain relief. The piglets are then injected with iron, since the mother's milk lacks it, because of intensive breeding. In 10 days the testicles of the male is torn off without pain relief (this apparently improves the flavour of the meat).
In nature, piglets wean from the mother in 15 weeks, in a factory farm; they are weaned in 12- 15 days. They are then fed dried blood plasma (waste product of the slaughter house) and since the piglets cannot digest the solid food properly, pharmaceuticals are fed to them to prevent diarrhoea.
These piglets are kept in cages stacked one on top of another. Faeces and urine from higher cages falls on the animals below. Once they are grown too big for the cages, they are moved to a tightly packed pen. Overcrowding ensures the pigs don't move and put on more weight with less feed. A barrage of antibiotics, hormones and other drugs keep the pigs alive till they are taken for slaughter.
Bon Appetite, hope you enjoy your, disease infested, medicine laced, chemical infused pork dish. You truly deserve to win fear factor.

Monday, July 08, 2013

When left is right and right is wrong.

If you smell spearmint and caraway seeds they smell different and you can easily pick one from the other. Amazingly the molecules responsible for the two aromas have the same structure, but they are mirror images of each other. This feature in chemistry is known as chirality or handedness.

Every amino acid, in every protein of your body has a left-handed twist to it. Infact every life form that ever existed on earth is left handed. If any one does find a right handed amino acid, you can be assured that it’s come from outer space. In 1849 Louis Pasteur was asked by a winery to investigate tartaric acid, a harmless waste from wine production. Grape seeds and yeast decomposes into tartaric acid and collects as crystals in the dregs of wine kegs. Tartaric acid born from yeast has a curious property, dissolve it in water and shine vertical slit of light through it, the beam will twist clockwise. Industrial, human made, tartaric acid has no such properties. Both the tartaric acids behave identically in reactions and the composition is the same. Louis Pasteur was determined to find out why. Pasteur examined the crystals of tartaric acid under a magnifying glass and found that crystals from yeast all twisted in one direction, while the industrial one had both right and left handed crystals. So Pasteur separated the left and right handed crystals with tweezers. He then dissolved them in water separately and passed a vertical slit of light. The yeast like crystals rotated the light clockwise while the mirror image rotated them anti clockwise. Pasteur had shown that there are two identical but mirror image types of tartaric acid. Chirality crops up in drug synthesis. When Ibuprofen is made, it typically consists of left and right handed versions (racemic mixture). Ideally, one of these will do its intended job and the other will harmlessly be eliminated from the body. But that is not what happened in 1950’s when a German drug company was marketing a remedy for morning sickness in pregnant women. The scientist could not separate the wrong handed form and the left-handed version created birth defects that included children born without legs or arms or their hands and legs stitched like turtle flippers to their trunks. The drug was thalidomide and became the most notorious drug of the 20th Century. Today though drug companies are paying a significant amount of attention to the different effects of chiral versions of the drugs they produce. Thalidomide though is making a comeback to treat diseases like leprosy and as an anti-cancer agent. By the way, the lovely aroma of lemons and oranges too is because of chirality.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Why I gifted my wife a piece of rock.

In 2008, my friend, Ashwin and I had gone cycling along the white chalky cliffs of the South British coast. On the way back I picked up a tiny 2 inch cube of chalk as a souvenir and gifted it to my wife. To many it may seem a pretty unremarkable piece of chalk, a boring gift, but continue reading and you will think differently. The Sun today burns about 25% more brightly than when the earth was just forming. So this should have resulted in a warmer Earth, and prevented life on earth from prospering. So what has kept the earth at such a conducive temperature? Trillions upon trillions of tiny marine organisms- foraminiferans, coccoliths and calcareous algae. These capture atmospheric carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, when it falls as rain and use it to make their tiny shells. The carbon gets locked up in their shells, and this prevents a dangerous build-up of it as a greenhouse gas. Eventually all the tiny foraminiferans and coccoliths die and fall to the bottom of the sea, where they are compressed into limestone. Today you can see them along the white cliffs of the English Channel, for example. The amazing thing about this process is the quantity of carbon they sequester. The tiny 2 inch cube that I gave my wife has more than three hundred litres of compressed carbon dioxide that would have otherwise been doing us no good at all. So that tiny little unremarkable rock, was the reason why we have life on earth today- the very essence of life in a way. It may sound a bit rhetorical, but for earth, it worked, until humans arrived. We have a careless predilection for tampering with natures balances. Since the beginning of the Industrial revolution we have put in much more carbon into the air, than that can be handled by nature's agents. Before the dawn of the industrial age the level of carbon dioxide in atmosphere was about 280 ppm (parts per million). By 1958, when scientist began to realise the effect of carbon dioxide, it had touched 315 ppm and today it's over 360 ppm. Today we are at that critical threshold, where the natural biosphere will stop buffering us from the effects of our emissions and will actually start amplifying it. The runaway temperature will kill many plants and trees and when these dying trees decay, they will release their store of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere adding to our problems. If you see Earth's history, it has dealt with such rising temperatures before and returned back to stability and happiness. Only that it took a mere sixty thousand years and a near total extinction of life on earth.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

How many people have you killed today?

Did you know that the phone in your pocket or your camera that makes such lovely memories is destroying a nation? Do you know that unknowingly, you have killed someone- There is blood in your hands (and in mine too). Tantalum and niobium are two elements that are in your phones (and other electronics). They are dense, heat-resistant, non corrosive and hold charges well- good qualities vital for the compact phones. Both these elements are extracted from a mineral called coltan and guess which country had the biggest reserve of coltan- Congo. In a decade from 1991 to 2001 the demand for mobile phones shot up, and so did the demand for coltan from cell phone makers. Unlike gold or diamonds, there was no major company here, people of Congo, could just get a shovel and dig for coltan. Congolese people had no idea what the mineral was used for, just that its cost increased every year and western nations were happily paying for it. In just a few hours a farmer could earn his entire years income by digging coltan. So farming was abandoned and to feed themselves Congolese people hunted gorillas, virtually wiping them out. Money pouring in increased blood killing and prostitution. The money funded arms to militia, fuelling genocide and a bloody civil war. Stories have circulated about proud victors humiliating their victims by draping their bodies with entrails and dancing in celebration. To their credit, by 2001 cell phone makers realised that they were funding anarchy and began to buy tantalum and niobium from Australia even though it costs more.
In 2006, the EU outlawed, lead solder in consumer goods and electronics and most manufacturers have replaced it with tin. Guess who happens to have a huge supply of tin- Congo.
More than five million people have died in Congo since the 1990's ; 2 million have been displaced and rendered homeless. Indian peace keepers (working on behalf of UN) regularly get shot. Unfortunately many electronic giants still source coltan, tin and gold from Congo. The money flowing there is fuelling an endless genocide. One of the biggest culprits is Nintendo, which sources all of its coltan from Congo. My favourite camera maker Canon is no saint either, so is Nikon or HTC. It's hurtful knowing that a part of my money has gone to kill someone. To know how much each company is depending on Congo still, check this link http://www.raisehopeforcongo.org/content/conflict-minerals-company-rankings. Awareness among consumers hurts companies, forcing them to make changes. Be a part and spread the word.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The town that was built of gold

Irishman Patrick Hannan, and two of his friends, were traversing the Australian outback in 1893. On the way, one of their horses lost a shoe and they went looking for it. Within days, without having to dig an inch into the dirt, they collected eight pounds of gold nuggets, just by looking around. Being honest, they filed a claim with territory officials. Unfortunately, this claim also put the location on public record and within a few days hundreds of gold prospectors were storming the place. The outpost came to be known as Hannan's find. During the initial days, gold was plentiful in the desert but water scarce. As more miners flooded the place, demand for water and food soared and so did the prices. In such a lucrative market some people found it profitable to construct small towns, breweries and brothels, than dig gold. These people used the excess rock and mud excavated buy the gold miners for their building projects. The miners were more than happy to have their rubble getting cleared as it was getting piled up. Gold it a pretty inert metal, it does not corrode or oxidise like other metals. You won't even find it mixed inside minerals and ores, because it doesn't bond with other elements. It's found in a pure state as flakes and nuggets. Or that is what the miners thought, what they did not know was gold combines with Tellurium and in Hannan's Find, that is what happened. Tellurium combines with gold to form Krennerite (Au0.8 Ag0.2)Te2, petzite, sylvanite and calaverite. These compounds vary in colour too; some look more like brass or iron pyrite (fool's gold). Most tellurium compounds also have a nasty odour, touch one and you will smell like garlic magnified a thousand times for one week!! The miners, who came across calaverite, were more than happy to get rid of this fake gold. So they dumped it in the rubble and kept digging for the real McCoy. As the place continued to get flooded with miners, there were shortages of food and water. One day there was a full scale riot over food supplies. As the news of the place spread around, rumours about the yellowish tellurium rocks they were digging and throwing too spread. Although miners were unaware about calaverite, geologist had known about it for years (Calaverite was found in Colorado in 1860's) and pretty soon news about calaverite spread to Hannan's Find. Finally hell broke loose in May 29, 1896, when people realised that the calaverite used to build the town contained 14 kilos of gold for every ton of rock. Miners attacked the refuse heaps, scouring for discarded rocks. When those were cleared they dug the roads and pavements. People it's said, tore down parts of their own homes and miners must have pulled down their chimney's and hearths too. Later, Hannan's Find was renamed Kalgoorlie, and became the biggest gold producer in the world.

P.S. : After I recited this story to my 2nd officer, he asked me to have it posted- this one for you Abinash.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

300,000 antibiotics that you can safely take- without a prescription!

On 24th August 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying alive, residents of two Roman cities- Pompeii and Herculaneum. 2000 years later- in 1980’s- archaeologists excavating the two cities, noticed something peculiar. In the skeletons recovered, they found people having skull lesions, rib damage, foot injuries and even scratching lice. What surprised the scientist was that they did not find any evidence of infections. Considering the poor hygiene and sanitation of those times, infections should have been common. So they wondered why the infections were so rare. A study of their diet revealed the answer. Examination of two particular foods- dried pomegranates and figs- revealed that the fruit was contaminated by Streptomyces bacteria. Streptomyces are a large group of harmless bacteria, found abundantly in soil. They release substances that play a critical role in the environment by decomposing organic matter. Streptomyces today, is known for its ability to produce an astonishing variety of drugs, upto 2/3rd of the antibiotics in human and veterinary medicines are produced by them- the most well known of which is tetracycline. When scientist tested the bones of the Herculaneum residents, they found clear evidence that they had been exposed to tetracycline. The Roman preserved their fruits by drying. To dry the fruits, they buried it in beds of straw. The fruit was contaminated by Streptomyces bacteria and by eating these fruits the ancient Romans unknowingly dosed themselves with tetracycline antibiotics and thereby protected themselves from general infections. Also in 1980’s anthropologists uncovered skeletons of Sudanese Nubian’s who lived on the west bank of Nile River in 350 AD. Their skeletons too were free of infections and traces of tetracycline were found in their bones. Scientist believe that they got their dose of Streptomyces bacteria from their diet of wheat, barley and millet, which they stored in mud bins. Mud storage bins provide the ideal environment for Streptomycetes. In 1915 Selman Waksman, decided to hunt for chemicals produced by soil bacteria to treat ‘tubercle bacillus’ which caused tuberculosis. After years of research he discovered two substances with antibiotic properties- actinomycin (1940) and streptothricin (1942) but both turned out to be toxic on humans. Finally in 1943, Albert Schatz, a PhD student in his lab hit “pay dirt” when he discovered two strains of Streptomyces bacteria that could stop ‘tubercle bacillus’ cold. The new antibiotic was named streptomycin and in a few years became the best selling drug, saving millions of people from TB.  Waksman and his team also isolated a number of other antibiotics from soil- including clavacin, streptothricin, grisein, neomycin, fradicin, candicidin and candidin. In 2001 issue of ‘Archives of Microbiology’, researchers claimed that they found Streptomyces bacteria may be capable of producing as many as 294,300 different antibiotics. So for your free dose of antibiotics (most of them undiscovered) get down and dirty. Dig a hole and plant a sapling, start gardening, get your hands dirty with some container gardening, grow your own organic fruits and vegetables and eat them raw and finally don’t mind when you child gets down and dirty. After all 500 species of Streptomyces are looking after you. Finally, do not use any pesticides and chemicals, that kills them- it’s the least we can do for our microscopic friends.
P.S.: Spread the word and let the world know that we have a pharmaceutical giant, right under out feet.

Trivia: In 2002, researchers announced in ‘Nature’ that they decoded the entire genetic sequence of a representative species of streptomyces, uncovering an estimated 7,825 genes. We humans have about 20,000 genes and our microscopic friend has about a third of what we have!! Quite a genetic engine it is!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Uttarakhand was just a starter; the main course is still not served.

Oceans cover 71% of our planet and these vast bodies of water influence every aspect of our life. Every day megatonnes of water evaporates from their surface and is added to the atmosphere. There was about 13 trillion tonnes of water in our atmosphere yesterday; this is six times more than the quantity of liquid in all the rivers of the world. The same 13 trillion tonnes of water exists today too and should be the case for tomorrow also. There is one little hitch though, the world is getting warmer each day. Do you remember the summer this year? Was it not hot and don't you feel the summers are getting hotter each year? New temperature records are broken each year in our cities. What happens when our climate gets hot is more water evaporates into the atmosphere from our oceans. So the 13 trillions tonnes of water I told you will increase. This vast amount of water vapour is carried by the wind and then condenses into droplets of water as rain, when the physical conditions of temperature and pressure and just right for it. So as our temperatures rise, more and more water is put in the atmosphere causing heavier rains, just like we witnessed at Uttarakhand.
Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Dehradun, said that 340 mm fell in a single day at Dehradun, a record not seen for five decades. Of course, the construction on river banks and the unplanned building of dams only exasperated the problem.
(A staggering 680 dams are in various stages of planning, or construction in Uttarakhand alone!) Uttarakhand, will not be the only one, we will have at least one such deluge every monsoon, or may be more. The question is will your home be the next in line.
Every gram of greenhouse gas we let out into the atmosphere increases the temperature ever so little, but when all our activity adds up the change is enormous.
Just before I finish: The hot temperature evaporates more water from the oceans and also from our land, rivers and lakes. So as years roll on we will have less and less water available and famines and droughts will get more and more common. Welcome to the 21st Century.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

A lesson from Easter Island

What happened in Easter Island, could very well happen to us. This is the story of why it was abandoned. Easter Island is 163 Sq kilometres in area and located 3,500 kilometres east of Chile. Despite its remote location, the Island was inhabited for 1600 years and was once a thriving society. But by the time it was discovered by the Europeans, on an Easter Sunday in 1722, the island was a barren, wasteland with a very small population. The island was destroyed because of superstition and deforestation. Easter Island is known for its massive 80 tons stone statues and for many years people wondered how these stones were carried across the ocean into the island to make the statues. Long time ago, Easter Island was a lush, sub-tropical paradise, covered with dense forest, with a rich assortment of wildlife. The islanders ate a varied diet, which included porpoises, dolphins and many varieties of sea-birds.
As the population grew, there was increasing pressure on the land. This was exacerbated by the islander's strange ritual of building enormous stone heads, known as 'Maoi'. These were supposedly a tribute to their Gods. Building Maoi, used up considerable resources, as massive quantity of timber and rope was needed to produce, transport and mount the statues, which were positioned around the island's coast, facing inwards. As the population grew, more and more of the forest was destroyed, to free up land for farming, to build bigger Maoi and use wood as fuel. As the forest shrank, there were fewer trees for the seabirds to nest in, which meant there were fewer seabirds, which was a key part of their diet. The birds also pollinated trees, flowers and dispersed their seeds. Now without the trees, the birds disappeared and food shortage increased. What about the dolphins and porpoises? Without trees to produce timber, they could not build canoes to hunt for porpoises. Without the forest, soil now started to erode and made it barren. A centralised and organised society now disintegrated into tribal warfare and cannibalism, with people living in caves for their own safety. As the food supplies had grown shorter each year, the islanders had believed that the solution would be to create ever-greater tributes for their gods, instead of managing their resources. As each year's famine turned out to be worse than the last, the islanders tore more forests to build bigger statues, hoping to please Maoi. Maoi had destroyed Easter Island. Can you relate this to what is happening on earth today? Can we ever learn from history?

Monday, July 01, 2013

All he designed was a hole.

Robert Bunsen did not invent the Bunsen burner, he merely added a hole, which let air mix in the flammable gas and create a clean hot flame. Bunsen has done much more that we probably know, to further our understanding of science. Naming an important equipment in a chemistry lab is probably the least we can do to honour him. Bunsen's chemical of choice was Arsenic based cacodyls, a malodorous, toxic spontaneously flammable liquid compound. Bunsen wrote that the compound caused him to hallucinate, produce instantaneous tingling, giddiness, insensibility and his tongue became covered with a black coating. Probably to protect himself, he developed what is today the best antidote to arsenic poisoning- Iron oxide hydrate. Despite this, Bunsen's experiment resulted in an explosion of a glass beaker and the arsenic made him half blind for the next sixty years of his life.
After the accident, Bunsen dropped Arsenic from his experiments and investigated geysers and volcanoes by hand collecting their vapours and boiling liquids. He discovered how geysers build up pressure and blow and built a model in his lab too. But his greatest invention was yet to come. In 1850's Bunsen worked at the University of Heidelberg and invented the spectroscope- his biggest contribution to the advancement of science. Every element produces sharp, narrow bands of coloured light when heated. For example hydrogen emits one red, one yellowish green, one blue and one indigo band. So if you heat up any substance and it emits those colours, you can bet you life, that it contains hydrogen. To build a spectroscope, Bunsen along with a student took a cigar box, and mounted a prism inside. Then they attached a broken telescope to peer inside and look for colours. The only thing he did not have is something to generate very hot flames, hot enough to excite elements. So he invented the device, for which we all know him so well. He took a primitive gas burner, and added a hole, with a valve to control air flow. In the old burner, air mixed with the flammable gas once it came out of the nozzle of the burner. By adding the hole, Bunsen's burner was mixing the air well before combustion and that made all the difference.
Using this spectroscope, Bunsen and his student discovered two elements;Caesium (Cesium in America) and Rubidium.
Just before we finish, Bunsen also mentored three personalities who made it big in chemistry. One was Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian who designed the modern Periodic table the second was Julius Lothar Meyer, a German who among other things discovered that red blood cells transport oxygen by binding it with haemoglobin and the third was French- Paul Emile Francois Lecoq de Boisbaudran, who discovered the element Gallium.
Before I finish, the student mentioned above with whom Bunsen, invented the spectroscope and discovered 2 elements was Gustav Kirchhoff. He also discovered the laws of electric charges in a network and the Kirchhoff laws are named after him