Achieving a Bose–Einstein Condensate from my living room during lockdown

During the COVID-19 lockdown which led to the closure of many labs around the world, Amruta Gadge, a postdoctoral researcher in the Quantum Systems and Devices group at the University of Sussex*, made headlines for remotely setting up a Bose–Einstein condensate from her living room. Gadge, an alumna of the University of Pune, tells us how she achieved that.

Amruta Gadge adjusting a laser before the lockdown in the apparatus put together to produce the Bose-Einstein condensates.

Rebecca Bond

When the UK government announced a national lockdown on 23 March 2020, my lab at the University of Sussex was forced to temporarily close its doors.  We had a strong inkling this was coming, and rushed to get ourselves in order before the lockdown. We were determined to keep our laboratory experiments going as best we could although we had never run them remotely before. Bar a few essential maintenance visits to the lab, the only way to continue our experiments was to use remote control and monitoring technology.

Pre-lockdown, our team was building an apparatus to produce Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs).  A BEC consists of a cloud of hundreds of thousands of rubidium atoms cooled down to nanokelvin temperatures using lasers and magnetic fields.  At such temperatures the cloud suddenly takes on different characteristics, with all atoms behaving together as a single quantum object. This object has such low energy that it can be used to sense very low magnetic fields, a property we are using to probe novel materials such as silver nanowires, silicon nitride nano membranes or to probe ion channels in biological cells.

Already a few months into assembling this system, we were looking forward to a big milestone – producing our first BEC. To run such an experiment from home was no easy feat — the large and complex laser and optics set-ups in state-of-the-art labs couldn’t just be transported. In the days leading up to lockdown, equipment, chairs, and computers were being ferried to various homes, deliveries of equipment were diverted and protocols for remote access and online control were put in place.

Ultra-cold atom experiments are very complex. Obtaining a BEC involves a large amount of debugging and optimising the experimental sequence. When not in the lab, at times it felt almost impossible to debug. We set up software control for the equipment, such as oscilloscopes, vacuum pumps, and others. However, the tool that played the most important role was our environmental monitoring system. Trapped cold atoms are extremely sensitive to variations in the environmental conditions. Changes in the ambient temperature of the lab, humidity, residual magnetic fields, vacuum pressure, and so on, result in laser instability, polarisation fluctuations or changes in the trapping fields. All of these effects lead to fluctuations of the number of trapped atoms, as well as their position and temperature.

Debugging the system is a long process, but this can be greatly helped by monitoring the environmental conditions at all times. This may sound elaborate, however with the rising popularity of time series databases and data visualisation software, it is possible to develop a convenient monitoring system. We made use of cheap and easily programmable microcontrollers for data collection, and two popular open source platforms, InfluxDB and Grafana, for storing and visualising the data, respectively. We set up a large network of sensors throughout the labs, aimed at monitoring all the parameters relevant to the operation of the experiments. If atom numbers fluctuated, or something wasn’t performing well, we could quickly narrow down the problem by looking at our Grafana dashboards. This meant that our experimental control sequence could be quickly tweaked from home for compensating the environmental fluctuations, and the monitoring system proved to be an extremely useful tool in achieving BECs remotely.

We were installing a new 2D magneto-optical trap atom source in the lab, and managed to see a signal from it just the day before the lockdown. I remember being worried that the lockdown was going to delay the progress of our experiment significantly. However, thankfully we could keep operating remotely, and managed to achieve our long-awaited first BEC from my home.

I was very excited when I saw the image of our first BEC. I had spent the whole day optimising the evaporation cooling stage. It was past 10pm, and I was about to stop for the day and suddenly the numbers started looking promising. I continued tweaking the parameters and in just few attempts, I saw the bimodal distribution of the atoms — a signature of a BEC. It was strange to have no one there to celebrate with in person, but we got together for a virtual celebration — something we are all getting used to now. I was really hoping to get the first BEC of our experiment before moving to my next post-doc, and having it obtained remotely turned out to be even more gratifying.

(*Amruta Gadge is now a post-doctoral researcher in the cold atoms and laser physics group at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.)

(Lightly edited and cross-posted from Nature’s onyourwavelength blog.)

Diaspora scientists gauge India’s pandemic ‘new normal’

What could be the challenges for Indian diaspora scientists wanting to explore career opportunities back home during the novel coronavirus pandemic? Sayan Dutta, a doctoral fellow in the Neurodegenerative Disease Research Laboratory at Purdue University, analyses the key learning from a recent global meet.

Sayan Dutta

Bappaditya Chandra

As the global economy took a hit with the coronavirus pandemic, and science job opportunities seemed up in the air, more than 400 diaspora Indian scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs got together in early September 2020 to make sense of what this ‘new normal’ might look like.

At the Science and Research Opportunities in India (Sci-ROI) annual meet – which was forced to go virtual this year, like many other conferences worldwide – this bunch of engaged scientists and researchers heard 40 eminent speakers over four days, keenly picking up nuggets on the current and future projections of the career landscape in India.

A volunteer-run organization established in 2015, Sci-ROI is a gateway for young scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the U.S. to access professional opportunities across academic, industry and private sectors in India. When we were wrapping up Sci-ROI’s annual event in 2019 at the University of Chicago, its founder Prof. Aseem Ansari prodded me gently about the new challenges we had vowed to undertake in 2020. I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that the “new challenges” would entail organising a full-scale virtual event amid a global pandemic.

Back in April 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic shook the world necessitating complete lockdowns, it seemed impossible to organise this year’s in-person event in September. After deliberations, the organising team became sure about two things – that the event should go virtual, and that no one had the slightest hint on how to host a virtual event. But soon enough, a diverse team got working overtime – countless hours of online meetings, event planning, programing, technical troubleshooting, media moderation and visual media creation (all by hidden talents in parallel to being postdocs), were unleashed.

Speakers from 39 Indian institutes joined the panels to address attendees from more than 150 institutes around the world. The deliberations revealed that there has  been no major setback in India’s research funding due to the pandemic yet. Most Indian academic institutions are still actively engaged in the hiring processes, and funding agencies have taken steps to mitigate the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, though in the long run things might slow down.

A session discussing perspectives of new faculty who have relocated to India saw high participation at the virtual event.

Unique sessions such as entrepreneurial seminars and careers beyond the professoriate spotlighted opportunities in both the sectors. India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to widen its support for new biotech start-ups and deep-science entrepreneurial ventures. The conference also brought forward India’s growing career landscape in the sectors of science communication, management, administration, and policy making available to researchers after Ph.D.

Through online polling, participants at the event, mostly from the diaspora, actively identified some major challenges they face while trying to transition back to India.  Among them were the age barrier of 35 years on entry level positions (such as assistant professorship), lack of a centralised and transparent recruitment process, and slow or no correspondence and follow-up emails on their application status from Indian institutes. In view of the pandemic, researchers also strongly advocated making academic applications completely paperless.

Although we did not realize it at the onset, the virtual format of the event turned out to be more informative and far-reaching (involving even the Indian diaspora outside the US) than the traditional format.

A global pandemic got us out of our comfort zones, and we found unique solutions for unforeseen problems. We realized that while in-person interactions are irreplaceable, enabling effective virtual communication is the need of the hour. Sci-ROI’s “by the scholars, for the scholars” event represented a model of such an emerging community, critical for global brain circulation. Alongside the annual event, a virtual recruitment week in October and a central STEM job portal will hopefully enable the growth of stronger collaborations between scientific communities within and outside India.

(Sayan Dutta coordinates collaborations at Sci-ROI, a U.S. based volunteer-run organisation, helping diaspora Indian scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs access professional opportunities in India. He can be reached at sayanm06@gmail.com.)

Why mental health discourse must transcend the pandemic

Mental health of societies is justifiably under the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, psychiatrist Debanjan Banerjee of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) Bengaluru is sceptical that the important issue may be pushed back into obscurity once the crisis ends.

Debanjan Banerjee

Being a psychiatrist, I have been overwhelmed with the explosion of data, discussion and debate on mental health from even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO in March 2020. Surprisingly, a virus has suddenly helped peak interest in an aspect of public health that has long been overshadowed in our societies by stigma and neglect.

In the last six months, there hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t been invited for webinars or media appearances on mental health or read a research paper or article around this. Various online fora discuss the ‘pertinent matter’ daily. I have discussed, debated and advised on topics ranging from psychiatric disorders to psychological effects  of COVID-19 on populations or special groups (based on age, gender or social status), as well as the future implications of the pandemic. Mental health journals are publishing special supplements related to psychiatry or psychological problems of COVID-19. Like many of my peers, the fertile ground created by the virus has resulted in several publications to my credit in these journals.

The rising curve of ‘COVID-19 related mental health’ provides a tough challenge to the slope of the COVID-19 case curve itself. But has it helped our service delivery and in estimating the mental health problem in this crisis? Perhaps not. Mental and psychosexual health has always been important. Did we need a pandemic to open our eyes to that?

“To worry or not to worry”

That is the most common question I face in public online discussions and media interviews. Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted psychological health, or are we overestimating the threat? –people seem to be quite confused about that.

So here’s a rational approach to unpack this question – unlike other natural or human-made disasters, pandemics are not ‘a one-shot’ events. The mortality and morbidity continue to rise for months to years, and the rippling effects span the socio-economic, political, psychological and psychosocial dimensions.

COVID-19 related fear, health, anxiety, stigma, stress and sleep disturbances have affected the world’s population. Added to that are financial constraints, disruption of social structure, the effects of physical distancing, lockdowns and the ‘misinfodemic’ (misinformation epidemic).

Population-based research in India, China, UK, USA, Brazil and Italy has established the worsening of psychological status due to the pandemic. Though limited data exists on people already suffering from mental disorders before COVID-19, hypothetically they might be more vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress and trauma. Besides, many of them might lack access to mental healthcare and medications due to travel restrictions. The other vulnerable groups are the frontline workers, the students, the children, elderly and socio-economically impoverished groups, including the migrants.

Interestingly, even though generic measures of ‘stress’ and ‘quality of life’ get reflected in classical quantitative research, the needs for mental wellbeing are mostly similar across the world.

One size does not fit all

I read somewhere that “COVID-19 is a great equalizer”. Of course, it is not.

The needs of a migrant labourer stranded in an overcrowded railway platform are far different from a rural healthcare worker with no access to personal protective equipment (PPE). The factors governing resilience vary widely between someone trapped with an abusive partner and suffering violence during the lockdown and an adolescent deprived of intimacy with his/her partner for months together. In short, COVID-19 has ironically highlighted the crevices in our understanding of what mental health constitutes, the same understanding that has surreptitiously governed the attitudes of the general population and physicians alike for a long time. Beyond the rigid diagnostic criteria of psychiatric disorders and the ‘medicalization’ of mental health, the pandemic displays that psychological wellbeing is as abstract as the ‘mind’ itself and also highly individualized.

It is natural to be worried or anxious during a pandemic. Anxiety is the natural defence to deal with the crisis, and being ‘perfectly composed’ is a myth. The grey but vital line of what constitutes ‘acceptable stress’ and what needs professional help can be markedly polymorphic, again depending on personal and social circumstances.

Contrary to common advocacy recommendations, no one suit fits all. When the socially unprivileged are deprived of basic amenities like food, water, shelter and security, these needs seek much urgent attention than anything else. Mental health is intricately linked with physical, sexual and social health. Divorcing these contexts and giving it a purely ‘psychological’ shape is an injustice to the human mind itself.

Mental health: A piece of the pie

Feeding off the confusion and anxiety around COVID-19 is an alarming new brigade of life-coaches, happiness experts, faith-healers, counsellors, motivators, speakers and theorists – each claiming that they are the best ‘distress-relievers’. This is of grave concern.

Some of these healing methods and their purveyors have been controversial and merit scientific scrutiny. Psychological health, seen as an accommodative arena, has traditionally been an attractive breeding ground for numerous such ‘professional experts’ in mental health. Improvement in any medical disorder (including psychiatric disorders) depends largely on the patient’s trust in the therapist or the doctor-patient relationship, and this factor is exploited many times in advertisements and endorsements about such professions.

Faulty advice can harm patients of psychological distress and disorders. The underlying societal stigma and marginalization against the mentally ill have only helped putting them “away from the society” for ages. The same stigma is prevalent against those testing COVID-19 positive or those working on the frontline exposed to viral risk. Stigma and prejudice are an integral part of the ‘collective mental health’ and are often under-detected, as they cannot be categorized as ‘disorders’.

Social problems that affect mental health – poverty, homelessness, gender-based discrimination, ageism, domestic violence, deprivation of human rights and social injustice – are often politicized or discussed for academic obligations but rarely addressed with sincerity, either at an individual or administrative level. These lacunae get unmasked during a biopsychosocial threat like COVID-19, further re-enforced by the socially-dissociated storm of sudden mental health promotion and awareness.

It is important to realise that mental health can only be conceptualized as holistic psychosocial and psychosexual health. A number of factors are involved in the genesis of stress and trauma during a crisis. That necessitates an assumption and bias-free approach, sensitivity, empathy towards the underprivileged, administrative enthusiasm and collective understanding of the importance of mental health irrespective of the pandemic.

Will it fizzle out?

Mental health, unlike many other disciplines, is quickly capitalised and politicised for short-term gains. My scepticism is that, like any other piece of popular news, the relevance of this ‘hot and in-demand topic’ will fizzle out soon after it has served its purpose.

The most recent example of such event-driven concern is that of a Bollywood film star’s death by suicide, which gave way to the usual conspiracy theories alongside online awareness drives around depression and suicide prevention. I received numerous calls with inquiries on the ‘psychological premise’ of suicide and how it can be prevented.

What we fail to understand is that like diabetes, hypertension, strokes or heart attack, psychiatric problems are also better prevented. The approach of prevention starts right when a child is born, or a family is started. Environmental influences, parenting, education, upbringing and social interactions have as much a role to play in the genesis of mental health problems as genetics. But unlike genetic influence, the other factors can be modified, which gives us a wider angle of interventions. It is rather pointless discussing and criticising suicides with hypotheses about how they could have occurred, as one can’t second guess or retrospectively prevent the premature ending of a life.

The debate around psychological wellbeing during the pandemic will continue enriching our academic and professional lives.  However, whether the numerous webinars, articles, guidelines, Ted talks and public lectures will penetrate the concrete social shell to destigmatize mental health is doubtful.

When the pandemic ebbs, this heightened sensitivity about psychological concerns should not. That might help global mental health and sharpen our preparedness for such crises in future.

Nature India’s latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.

Curating during a contagion

Almost 90 per cent of the world’s museums are facing closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aditi Ghose, an Education Assistant at Birla Industrial & Technological Museum in Kolkata, says museums will have to become emotionally intelligent and responsive to stay relevant through the crisis.

A COVID-19 themed exhibition at Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata.

BITM

In the middle of a pandemic, imagine planning a science exhibition that explains the contagion to people. What should it feature — test-kits, ventilators, surgical masks and PPE suits? Does the museum have enough supplies to create exhibits? Can the exhibits be sanitised and safely displayed for the audience? Will enough people turn up?

Museums are having to deal with all these imponderables in between frequent shutdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 90 per cent of the world’s nearly 60,000 museums are faced with full, partial or eventual closure. Most museum staff are working from home, cataloguing, processing and preserving artefacts.

Juggling to protect collections, absorbing financial blows and protecting staff and assets while staying engaged with the public, museums are still aspiring to stay relevant. The museums which have closed down due to poor financing, sponsorships or funding, are no less vulnerable than those partially open. On 29 March 2020, Vincent van Gogh’s famous work ‘Spring Garden’ was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in Netherlands during lockdown.

The International Council of Museums calls museums “institutions” owing their origins to the Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosities featuring collections of natural history specimens, artefacts and curiosities, amassed by princes, dukes and other men of stature, museums have always provided sources and spaces for scholarly communication and informative entertainment.”

Museums are repositories of cultural memory gathering material objects and information to guard against its anticipated losses. Around the world, the treasure troves of our times sit proudly among those preceding ours, in climate controlled environments, in glass boxes, on wooden shelves and under shaded lights.

In reality, however, only about 10% of museum holdings ever go on display. Also — just like the records of book in a library point to its location without revealing the full contents — objects in museums are kept separate from their catalogued details, often offsite. The COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity to narrow this gap through digitization of rare photographs, videos and other content.  Digital objects are the blueprints — collected, documented and interpreted well — allowing deeper and richer experiences for visitors, especially during lockdowns. They open the museum doors to a global audience, who neither had such an opportunity in the past nor may have in an uncertain future. To survive the crisis, museum professionals across the world must embrace the flexibility of opening up museums to the digital realm.

During the lockdown, explanatory multi-lingual programmes organised by museums are seeking to engage audiences online.

BITM, Kolkata

A one-dimensional transfer of knowledge from museums to its stake-holders — such as through overnight virtual museum tours or mobile applications — does more harm than good. The needs of audiences have changed, as has the audience composition itself. As crisis keeps people at home and they turn to museums for their science knowledge repositories, it is worth creating digital content. Instead of uploading digital copies of existing galleries online, making ample usage of the autonomy, multi-layered multimedia and linked content that the new medium provides might help museums reach entirely new audiences. A website doesn’t have walls, a gallery doesn’t have tabs. The faster we understand this difference  and stop replicating our gallery contents online, the easier it will be to contextualise information.

These are tough times – for museums as well the audience they cater to. Amidst the prevailing confusion, institutional body language could be the powerful unspoken and unwritten message that museums could convey. “In the mist of chaos, museums break the walls that keep us apart,” assures Beryl Ondiek, Director of National Museum in Seychelles. Museums that survive this pandemic will emerge with deeper connections to their audiences and communities. A well-defined, battle-tested sense of purpose, will make them stronger than ever – and also strengthen those they serve. As Anne Marie Afeiche, the Executive Director General of Lebanon’s Council of Museums points out,”We will come through this and we are keeping in mind, for after COVID-19, the reprogramming of activities in our museums, because by saving culture, we save society, it’s diversity, it’s vitality and it’s creativity”.

What’s missing in the global COVID-19 news reportage are the stories behind the stark numbers of those dead or infected. These stories should take centrestage while planning for an exhibition on COVID-19 — the oral histories and the first-hand experiences of people. When the intensity of the crisis needs to be conveyed in a public exposition several years from now, a well curated collection of empty cartons of PPE suits, a jumbo-sized sanitizer jar, a handmade mask or perhaps a hand-written shopping list of essential items will be telling. Likewise, by engaging our audiences emphatically in our closed musums, respecting their voices, allowing them choices and approaching a fresh, unprejudiced attitude towards opening our doors, shall go a long way in keeping museums exciting. The Smithsonian Museum is actually collecting such coronavirus ‘artefacts’ to document the pandemic and plans on letting oral history shape the exhibition.

Closer home, the National Council of Science Museums is also curating an interactive digital exhibition on the pandemic.

Creating, hosting or managing museums has never been fast, easy or cheap. Making them digital or interactive will also not be. Once museums have survived these uncertain times, they need to become more emotionally intelligent and responsive. Museums have to become good listeners.

(Aditi Ghose can be reached at aditincsm@gmail.com)

Nature India special issue on COVID-19 is out

For most of us, 2020 will be marked as the year of great imponderables. We seem to know as much about the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its effects on the human body and societies at large, as we don’t. Ever since the virus broke out, ‘uncertainty’ is one of the most commonly used words in conversation, news reportage and emails.

Across the globe, very few lives have been untouched by the direct or indirect effects of the novel coronavirus. China, the most populous nation on Earth, bore its brunt as the virus jumped into human populations in the country’s Hubei province in late 2019. Though China reacted quickly to contain it, the contagion had spread via international travellers.

India, the world’s second most populous nation, reported the first case of the novel coronavirus on 30 January 2020. The number of people becoming infected by the virus began to rise quickly, prompting the government to impose a two-month complete shutdown of the country – the longest ever in its history.

An enormous population, a weak healthcare system, and traditionally meagre investments in scientific research and development meant there was enough reason to worry. However, the severe economic and social fallouts, like elsewhere in the world, forced the government to allow a regulated easing out of lockdown.

Nature India started reporting on COVID-19 in India from the outset. As the pandemic began unsettling every facet of life from healthcare to education and community life to businesses, our coverage embraced a new normal, going beyond pure science to a parallel reflection of its links with society, culture and life.

Nature India’s special issue on COVID-19, therefore, seeks to consider answers from the future. In a rapidly evolving pandemic, some of the articles in this special issue bear a time stamp. However, they will hopefully remain relevant for a long time to come as chronicles of the biggest human crisis any of us has faced in our lifetimes.

As we scrutinize India’s response to the mammoth healthcare challenge, we also look at vaccines and drugs being tested across the world in a hope to arrest the respiratory infection. We dive into the science of how the immune system responds to the virus and question if submitting genome sequences to global repositories at record speeds makes any sense without accompanying patient data. We explore how the packaging of the future would look like, and explain how to care for the elderly and critically ill in times when hospitals are struggling to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

Everyone has a COVID-19 story to tell. We feature some extraordinary everyday stories — a doctor on the frontline handling COVID-19 patients in a Delhi hospital, a scientist in the southern state of Kerala who hasn’t been able to start her dream laboratory due to the lockdown, and an Arctic explorer who endured months of darkness and isolation in the north pole before coming back to a world struck by a new virus.

This special issue also features the story of Ayurveda, and why it is time for India to apply scientific rigour to the study of the ancient system of medicine. We talk of the importance of socially influential groups, scientists, and religious leaders, in spreading the right messages and scotching misinformation in a public health emergency.
In many countries including India, the pandemic is testing the limits of science and of human perseverance. It is taking a toll on our mental health – how we live, work and communicate are set to change for a long time to come.

Science will hopefully find a solution to this unprecedented human suffering soon.

[Download the Nature India special issue “COVID-19 Crisis” free here.]

(For Nature India’s continuing coverage on the the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 crisis, please visit our special page.)

Nature India 2019 annual volume is out

Cover design: Marian Karam

Critics of India’s space programme have, in the past, demanded justification for sending rockets into space while the urgent issues of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and poor health cry for attention and funding. India has maintained that her space programme runs on less than a tenth of NASA’s budget, making it one of the most economical in the world and producing development-based benefits for the country’s environment, weather predictions, education, agriculture, and health.

Therefore, it was surprising when India’s ambitious, but unsuccessful, voyage to the far side of the Moon in 2019 did not publicly reignite that discussion. Instead, most of the 1.3 billion-strong nation stood in solidarity with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when the Moon lander, Vikram, lost contact with the Earth station and later crash landed. A misty-eyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled a tearful ISRO chief K Sivan. The country grieved, hoping and praying there would be a successful run to the Moon in the coming years.

We capture these tears, tribulations, nail-biting drama, and the science behind India’s shoe-string-budget space programme in this year’s cover story.

Talking of the science-economy relationship, we also analyse in one of our features the direct macro-deliverables from government research funding and look at the best ways in which a resource-poor country such as India can ensure tangible benefits from each rupee spent on scientific research.

Gender issues in science have always been important in India. In this issue, we reflect on why a better balance of men and women in leadership positions could lead to higher profitability in scientific enterprises; and also shine a light on India’s gender-skewed science awards. Two stories, about an anthropologist who made important revelations about indigenous Andamanese tribes, and a biologist working on pheromones of snow leopards and tigers, offer fascinating insights into the lives of pioneering women scientists and their science. We also speak to biologist Chandrima Shaha, the first woman elected president of the 84-year-old Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in January 2020, about her vision for mentoring more women in science.

In 2019, we used the term ‘Day Zero’ for the first time to denote the dystopic water emergency that the world is facing today. That’s the day when a city’s taps dry out and people have to stand in line to collect a daily quota of water. Climate change-triggered extreme heat, drying aquifers and extreme weather events have become the new normal for much of South Asia. We look at what this might mean for children, who will continue to endure the toll of climate change for a long time to come. On a more positive note, we explore how some undaunted farmer citizen scientists are finding new ways of adapting to climate-resilient crops.

The Nature India photo contest themed ‘food’ saw breath-taking entries from across the world that demonstrate the deep links between food, health, environment, nutrition, and happiness of communities. We present some of the top entries.

Nature India annual volumes select the best research highlights, news, features, commentaries and opinion pieces published through the year. Through this thoughtful selection, the editors at Nature Research bring to our readers a ready reference of the latest in India’s science.

We look forward to your feedback.

You will find more on our our archival annual issues here: 20182017, 2016, 20152014 and 2007-2013. To subscribe to the Nature India annual issues, please see here or write to natureindia at nature.com.

Building blocks of life from space

Narendra Bhandari, a planetary scientist formerly with the Indian Space Research Organisation, recollects the time when he fortuitously became part of a meteorite detective team.

Narendra Bhandari with a meteorite fragment.

We spend crores of rupees trying to go to the Moon and other planets and bring back rocks. But nature is bountiful, even lugging space debris to our door step free of cost.

I regaled in one such gift a few summers back.

Just before sunrise at 5.15 a.m. on 6 June 2016, a rock of extraordinary type fell from the skies in the farm of Bishan Mehta of the Mukundpura village. The sound woke up the whole village, located in the outskirts of the pink city of Jaipur in Rajasthan.

I was driving down from Ahmedabad to Udaipur in Rajasthan when I heard about the meteorite fall on radio. I called Rajendra Prasad Tripathi, my friend who had recently retired from Jai NarainVyas University, Jodhpur and had settled in Jaipur. Tripathi immediately went to the site and surveyed the small foot-deep pit that the meteorite had created. To his dismay, the Geological Survey of India had swiftly collected all the pieces of the 2.5 kg meteorite. Not one to give up, Tripathi went home to fetch a kitchen sieve and filtered the sand from the bottom of the pit. He found two small pitch black chips, easily distinguishable as meteorite pieces owing to their colour.

Within a day, three of us – Tripathi, Ambesh Dixit of Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur and I – measured the pieces using Mossbauer spectroscopy- to be sure the rocks were a rare type of carbon-containing meteorite, somewhat similar to the famous rock that fell at Murchison, in Australia, in 1969. About 2.5 per cent carbon content made this black, fragile, coal-like rock a scientific treasure.

A fragment of the Mukundpura rock , about 3 cm x 2 cm. The greyish surface on the left is due to heating in the Earth’s atmosphere. Dark black colour of the interior suggests presence of carbon, which contains organic molecules including amino acids, the building blocks of life. Mineral grains appear white.

Anil Shukla

When we analysed the minerals and chemical composition, it became clearer that this was going to be an important rock to study. Soon, we embarked on a detailed study with N.G. Rudraswami and colleagues at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, and found several amino acids in it. Amino acids, the chemical molecules from which biomolecules can be formed, are the building blocks of life.

We found evidence of water activity on various silicate minerals indicating the presence of abundant water on the asteroid where this rock had been lying for most of its life time, till it was kicked off by another space rock to come to Earth. Isotopes of carbon and nitrogen confirmed its extraterrestrial origin from the interstellar space.

M. S. Kalpana at the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad soon joined the effort, bringing a different set of expertise and technically sophisticated machines to complete the description of the extraterrestrial rocks. The team work paid off and using many techniques of mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, we were able to identify over 40 organic molecules of polyatomic aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, including some fatty acids, and naphthalene.

These molecules are formed in the interstellar clouds from which our sun and planets were made 4.5 billion years ago. It is surprising that these organic molecules, easily destroyed at high temperature, survived the chaotic and complex processes in the severe environment that resulted in the formation of the Earth. Obviously the rock had not gone through much heating, may be it stayed below 100 degrees Celsius on the asteroid harbouring water, which saved the organic molecules, albeit with some alteration.

Hundreds of meteorites fall on the Earth every year, but what we received were among the rarest of rare rocks – only five such have fallen in India, the last one about 75 years ago. The Mukundpura rocks are now kept at Geological Survey of India museum in Kolkata.

These messengers from space packed with valuable information can tell us how life appeared on the earth. Together, we found over 15 heavenly rocks of different types in the past 30 years, many of which are described in my book Falling Stones and the Secrets of the Universe.

Strange rocks, like the ones that fell at Piplia Kalan and Lohawat in Rajasthan, tell different stories of their origin from different asteroids and their journeys to Earth. They increase our horizon of knowledge on space and fetch us extraordinary material for laboratory studies. These rocks tell us fascinating storiess of how it all began — the formation of the Sun, Earth, planets and life.

(Narendra Bhandari can be reached at nnbhandari@yahoo.com.)

COVID-19 fuels India’s biotech entrepreneurship

As the pandemic restricts imports of reagents and kits, India’s biotechnologists are making their own, writes Somdatta Karak* in this guest post.

The Addlagatta lab at CSIR-IICT in Hyderabad has been scaling up production of the key enzyme reverse transcriptase. 

S. Karak

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently called for self-reliance in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 crisis. Being a biologist by training, the question that came to my mind immediately was: are India’s biologists and biotechnologists self-reliant in their laboratories across the country?

I walked down to one such example-setting lab earlier this month – the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad – where chemist Anthony Addlagatta and his lab members have been working to scale up the production of reverse transcriptase (RT), an enzyme at the heart of the diagnostic test that detects the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.

RT was discovered in 1970 and it changed our understanding of how information flows in our living cells. Information does not flow in just one direction from DNA to RNA to proteins. RT makes the reverse possible – a conversion of RNA to DNA. Combined with the power of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), invented in the 1980s, the duo ‘RT-PCR’ became an indispensable tool in biology labs across the globe. PCR helps amplify minute stretches of DNA in micro test-tubes.

Fast forward half a century as the world struggles with COVID-19 and urgently needs enough diagnostic kits that use the RT enzyme and Taq DNA polymerase, a bacterial enzyme used in PCR for its ability to amplify short DNA segments.

Though India has been using these enzymes for a few decades now, there is not a single ‘Made in India’ kit in the market. With India’s ability to import reagents and kits for its fairly limited use, the motivation to make a completely home-grown kit has been missing. Now, in times of a pandemic when imports are restricted, we are forced to think of developing these reagents ourselves.

Anthony Addlagatta with the fermentor that is brewing bacterial culture to produce reverse transcriptase.

S. Karak

In Addlagatta’s lab, a 10-litre fermentor has been brewing a bacterial culture cloned to produce the RT enzyme. The lab procured this fermentor for one of their industrial projects. Armed with the know-how of producing RT and Taq DNA polymerase, they wanted to develop their own resources and found the right industry partners in Genomix Biotech, who provided oligonucleotides for an RT-PCR kit. Oligonucleotides are short stretches of DNA or RNA molecules that initiate a reverse transcriptase or PCR reaction. Together they are validating these tests and hope to be in the market with test kits soon. A few kilometres down the road at the Atal Incubation Centre of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Nasar Khaja is also developing RT-PCT kits at his company BioArtis, which manufactures oligonucleotides.

Many other companies across India are developing these diagnostic kits using RT-PCR as well as other methods. Are such home-grown RT-PCR kits going to be in demand only as long as COVID-19 lasts? Can they sustain even after the pandemic?

The quality of these kits will drive their demand when import bans lift. Limited funding and bureaucratic hassles to procure reagents is a huge deterrent for scientists in India to try newer products of unestablished brands. Biotechnologists like Khaja feel that it is the scientific community’s responsibility to groom the home-grown brands. The newer kits might need a bit more enzyme or a few extra steps as opposed to established brands but will give the exact same results at cheaper prices, he says. In the bargain, the scientific community will have supported new start-ups, fostering a culture of product development.

The current Indian market size for many of these home-grown products is too small for start-ups to sustain. Biotech companies in India will have to compete with their global counterparts in quality and price.  Another way of dealing with this challenge could be to attract multinational companies to set up manufacturing units in India. The downside here is that global businesses may not share India-centric goals.

Adversities have often shaped cultures and national objectives. In the 90s, India proactively boosted the vaccine industry to fight Hepatitis-B in the country. This industry is now at the global forefront and also actively participating in the race for a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. Would the COVID-19 crisis be able to spawn entrepreneurship in other areas of biotechnology in India?

[*Somdatta Karak is the Science Communication and Public Outreach Officer at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India.]

Lockdown unlocking technology for India’s farmers

Rural communities grappling with livelihood issues and looking for support for farming activities are increasingly embracing technology for survival. Jayashree Balasubramanian, who heads communication at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai, talks of her experience with farmers attending virtual ‘plant clinics’.

A virtual ‘plant clinic’ in progress.

MSSRF

It’s a Friday morning and Lakshmi, a farmer who grows paddy, maize and finger millet in central Tamil Nadu, is peering into her phone camera adjusting the webinar settings. From behind her, the top of her toddler’s head pops up on the screen as she navigates her way around the virtual ‘plant clinic’. “I can’t hear you sir, please unmute yourself,” Laxmi says several times in Tamil before the expert on the other side heeds.

‘Unmute’, ‘webinar’, ‘share video’, ‘chat message’ – the Tamil conversation is peppered with these English phrases. The e-plant clinic session is one of the ways in which farmers are getting technical advice and support amidst the world’s largest lockdown that India imposed in the last week of March 2020 to check the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Soon, 39 other farmers crowd up every inch of her phone’s screen. Many of these farmers are holding samples of pests or diseases that have affected their plants. Two ‘plant doctors’ are advising them online in this three-hour session. Some farmers are in their picturesque farms with mobile phones ready to zoom into on-site problems they need advice on.

During the ongoing lockdown, a survey found 227 million internet users in rural India, 10 per cent more than urban India. The increased use of internet at this time is opportune for the rural community grappling with livelihood issues and looking for technical support for farming activities.

Global farming communities have long advocated the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to empower farmers suggesting it may improve farmers’ livelihoods by as much as 500 per cent. The usual bottlenecks – lack of technology access, good connectivity, devices or capacity – suddenly seem to have eased under the pressure of the novel coronavirus crisis. The crucial need to connect is transforming how rural communities and holders of farming knowledge are working around these challenges.

For instance, the plant clinic which Laxmi sometimes attends alongside approximately 25 farmers every week, is rigged up in a physical venue and advertised beforehand so that farmers come prepared with their pest-disease affected plants to consult plant doctors. It also arms them against using any unscientific applications that may cause long-term damage to the soil or plants. A study by MSSRF found that e-clinics cost less than half of what a physical plant clinic would.

A farmer holding up a sample for the plant doctors to see.

MSSRF

Even before the pandemic struck, farmers have been part of such efforts where support is provided on phone or social media. “During the lockdown, farmers started video-calling us, and we realised their need for visual connection and advice,” says Ramasamy Rajkumar, who coordinates efforts across 150 villages in India since 2012. The first webinar on 16 April 2020 saw 82 farmers joining in. “It meant that this was a format we should continue,” he says. While physical clinics build knowledge and capacity, the virtual clinics are building technology skill and mutual support.

Losses from pests or disease attacks can have a devastating effect on crops causing huge damage. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that pest attacks account for 40 per cent of all yield losses prompting the United Nations designate 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, MSSRF has conducted five webinars in three states of India. They have not been without their fun moments. Farmer Kandasamy from Ramasamypuram, had multiple queries and also brought in a neighbouring farmer who had a volley of questions needing resolution. Subramanian, a farmer from Aayavayal helped himself merrily to a snack as he waited for his turn. Meanwhile, Muhammed Andakkulam altered his user name to ‘Beer’, to symbolically reflect reopening of liquor shops in his state of Tamil Nadu. The plant doctors patiently go through each query, sharing their recommendations in the chat box and promising support later on the phone.

Sometimes rural callers also glitch out but resurface miraculously and complete the call, to the envy of urban bandwith-squeezed callers. Most stay connected even after their query is answered, listening to other recommendations on a variety of crops from paddy to brinjal and black gram to coconut.

The farmers’ questions range from concerns over yellowing of groundnut leaves, discolouring of jasmine flowers, white-coloured pests on coconut tree leaves and withering of banana leaves. The common pests they report during the lockdown are whiteflies, thrips, aphids and green leafhoppers.

Purshothaman Senthilkumar, a plant doctor in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu, says the small farmers are facing issues in marketing their yields and report up to 40 per cent losses. “Those who did not have adequate labour to harvest have seen up to 20 per cent losses in the field,” he says. Seasonal pests and diseases have been compounded by shortage of labourers, maintenance, shop closures and non-availability of expert guidance.

E-plant clinics have not only been about technology and technical guidance, but also about moral support for the farming communities.