Friday, September 27, 2013

The boy who got the first vaccine.

A young mother once bought to Louis Pasteur, her son, so mangled by a rabid dog that he could barely walk. The mother was in distress because those days the only result of such a bite would be certain death. Louis Pasteur (after whom pasteurisation is named) treated the boy with a rabies vaccine tested only on animals. Pasteur wasn’t a licensed doctor, and he administered the vaccine despite the threat of criminal prosecution if he failed. The vaccine worked and the boy lived. You may have heard this story before, but what happened next is probably much more moving. The boy’s name was Joseph Meister, and he grew up and became the groundskeeper for the Pasteur Institute. Poignantly, he was still the groundskeeper in 1940 when the German soldiers overran France. A company of German soldiers arrived at the Institute and one officer demanded that Meister, the man with the keys, open up Pasteur’s crypt so that he, the officer could view Pasteur’s bones. Meister committed suicide rather then be complicit in this act. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The most interesting and the least ambitious living organisms on earth.

For me, the most interesting living organism on earth may give us a glimpse of how life may have evolved on earth. The creature is the ‘Slime mold’ formally called myxomycetes. When the environment is conducive to slime mold, they exist as single celled organisms like amoebas. However, when the conditions turn unfavourable, they crawl to a central gathering place and turn into a slug- much like a horror movie! The slug, the slowly chugs along to a slightly better exposed position and transforms itself yet again. This time it takes the form of a plant. Some of the cells, reconfigure themselves and move on top to the plant to form a bulb, known as the fruiting body. Inside the fruiting body are millions of spores that at the right moment are released into the wind, to spread out and become single-celled organisms, and continue the cycle all over again.

The least ambitious living creatures on earth (as per David Attenborough) are also the hardiest- Lichens. They grow anywhere from old buildings, to windy mountain tops and in the Arctic wasteland where nothing else but rocks exist. In Antarctica, where nothing grows, there exist 400 hundred types of Lichens. For a long time no one knew how lichens managed to grow on rocks, without any nourishment or without producing any seed. Now we know that Lichens are a partnership between fungi and algae. The fungi excretes acids that dissolve the surface of rocks, freeing minerals that the algae convert into food, sufficient for both. There are an astonishing twenty thousand species of lichens on earth, and they thrive in harsh environments. They grow very slowly, and if you spot one the size of a dinner plate they are “likely to be hundreds if not thousands of years old” according to Attenborough. We humans need a point, a goal or a desire to exist, but “life even at it simplest level occurs apparently just for its own sake” Attenborough adds.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Heavy water ( Noble prize for rat piss)

99.9 % of the Hydrogen in our Universe has a proton and an electron in its atom. But a few hydrogen atoms have an additional neutron, which make that hydrogen a wee bit heavier. This is deuterium, and any water, composed of this hydrogen is called heavy water. In early 1930’s Harold Urey discovered deuterium, a sure shot Nobel Prize winning discovery. Another scientist, named Gilbert Lewis decided to piggy back to this no-miss prize by investigating the biological effects of water made by deuterium. University of California at Berkley, where Lewis worked, had a well equipped physics department, which incidentally had the world’s largest supply of heavy water (a few ounces’s mixed with lots of normal water). Heavy water is very scarce, and the department’s head, Ernest O. Lawrence was reluctant to part with it. Lewis begged and finally Lawrence relented on the condition that Lewis gave it back after the experiments. After isolating the heavy water, he decided to give it to a mouse and see what happened. Heavy water cannot be metabolised by the body, hence the more you drink, the thirstier you feel. Lewis’s mouse, gulped down all the water in a few hours and ended up dead. The experiment was of course hardly Noble prize worthy; but Lawrence went ballistic when he learnt that a mouse had pissed away all his precious heavy water.
Gilbert, Lewis worked in the Chemistry department of University of California for over forty years and made it one of the best in the world. His biggest contribution to science is the discovery of how acids and bases work and react. It is said that no one has ever received more Nobel prize nominations than Lewis- and was probably the best scientist never to win a Nobel Prize.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Virus that gets infected by a virus.

In 1992, a microbiologist named Timothy Rowbotham, was searching for the cause of a pneumonia outbreak in Bradford, England. During his hunt, he took some water from a hospital’s cooling tower and put it under a microscope. In this water he found a promising candidate; a sphere of bacterial size, sitting inside an amoeba. Rowbotham believed he had found a new bacterium and called it Bradfordcoccus. He then spent years trying to figure out if it was the cause of the pneumonia outbreak. Budget cuts then forced Rowbotham to abandon his study and close his lab in 1998. He handed over his samples to his French colleagues for storage. For five years ‘Bradfordcoccus’ languished in obscurity, until Bernard La Scola of Mediterranean University, decided to take another look at it. La Scola, found that Bradfordcoccus did not have the smooth surface of spherical bacteria. Instead it was made of made of interlocking plates and hair like protein threads were radiating from its outer shell. The only thing in nature with such shells and threads were viruses. Until then no one had known any virus which was as big as Bradfordcoccus, it was hundred times too big to be a virus. La Scola discovered that it reproduced by invading amoeba and forcing it to build copies of itself. Only viruses behave this way. La Scola, gave Bradfordcoccus a new name to reflect its viral nature- Mimivirus (in honour of its ability to mimic bacteria).Genetic study of Mimivirus, provided more surprises. It had 1,262 genes. It was as if someone took the genomes of flu, the cold, smallpox and hundred of other viruses and stuffed them all into one protein shell. It had more genes than some species of bacteria. Mimivirus, was breaking all the rules of the virus world. Scientist found Mimivirus, in the lungs of patients suffering from pneumonia, but they are unsure if it causes pneumonia or colonise in people who are already sick. Scientist also do not know what mimivirus do with all their genes. In 2008, La Scola discovered that Mimivirus can be infected by a virus of its own. This is the first time anyone has found a virus of a virus. We humans are a blend of mammal and virus. Remove our virus derived genes and we would be unable to reproduce. A mimivirus, in an amoeba, functions just like how a human cell would function, probably giving us a peek into how first life evolved on earth.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

How to make brinjal fry less oily.

Brinjal, aubergine, mad apple, garden egg or eggplant these are the various common names for brinjal. Probably the many shapes, sizes and colours have contributed to this name. Despite all the varieties, all brinjals have a spongy interior, with many tiny air pockets between cells. When cooking the air pockets collapse and the flesh is consolidated into a creamy mass. Hence when cooking, as the air pockets break, a large brinjal shrinks into a small volume. Also these air pockets have another consequence, when frying brinjal, it soaks up large amount of oil making any brinjal dish very rich. Unless, you are cooking the Arabic Turkish dish “Imam bayaldi” (the priest fainted) which requires brinjal to be soaked in oil, cooks can employ two tricks to reduce the oil absorption. Precook the brinjal (microwaving will suffice), this breaks the air pockets or salt the brinjal, this draws water from the cell, into the air pockets.

On a totally unrelated note, I just remembered a very interesting fact. The bitterness of cucumber is caused by a bitter chemical called ‘cucurbitacins’. This is a defect in cucumber and such cucumbers are disposed. Amazingly the same chemical, cucurbitacin, gives ‘bitter gourd’ its prized trait- the bitter flavour!! Cucurbitacin, is a water soluble compound, and blanching bitter gourd, before cooking can reduce its bitterness to a large degree.

P.S. : Thank you Lloyd, for pointing out that dish was Turkish. Though the controversy on its origin still reverberates in kitchens around the middle east; Ill stick to Turkey until its conclusively proven otherwise.