How mass surveillance can actually help us

Edward Snowden
The face of Edward Snowden is etched in history as the man who brought out in the open the mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency of the United States. While the very idea of mass surveillance raises questions about the government's right to mine data, keep its programs classified for purposes of national security and also our right of privacy in this digital age, there is also the other side of the coin, which we are failing to look at, the side where mass surveillance can be used in a positive manner, to help people. This is the kind of surveillance, Telenor did in Pakistan.

Surveillance of phones in Pakistan 

For those who might not be aware, the city of Karachi in Pakistan has been afflicted with the deadly disease of  dengue for many decades. At the time of writing this post, there are 2896 dengue fever cases reported in the province of Sindh in Pakistan this year, of which 2829 are reported in Karachi alone. It is only a matter of time, before the virus manages to spread elsewhere and becomes a full blown epidemic in the country, The effective method to counter this would be to take precautionary measures during monsoon but predictions on how the virus might spread can also help in concentrating efforts in high risk areas to avoid major outbursts. To do this, the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health collaborated with Telenor, a Norwegian telecom company offering telephony services in Pakistan and monitored call records of about 40 million telephone subscribers between the period of June 1 to December 31 of 2013.

To clarify, call records, mean anonymised and aggregated data of telephone subscribers that would give enough data to know where users were usually located (home) and where they travelled to, incase they moved away from the home locations and not actually phone transcripts. (For data privacy buffs reading this, no data actually left the country during the entire research process). Based on the data, the researchers were able to create a map of travel that mobile phone users took during the period of the study. 

Figure shows mobility data in Pakistan in terms of population density (A). Preferred routes of travel for mobile users whose data was collected during the study. Lines indicate more than 20,000 trips were taken between the cities during the city period (B) and (C) shows relative direction and volume of travel .
Image and text credit : Wesolowski et al PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1504964112

Other data such as model for spread of virus, temperature conditions suitable for spread of the disease and estimation of travel undertaken by affected individuals was overlaid on this data to arrive at estimates of how the disease could spread.  Ground data was then analysed to see how the prediction actually fared and has been summarized in the image below. 

Image shows prediction of dengue spread based on mobile phone data, without the data using an alternate model and difference in the predictions between these models.
Image and text credit : Wesolowski et al PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1504964112

The model used by the researchers was able to get the timing of the fresh case right ( within reasonable error limits) in the city of Lahore and even remote areas of Mingora correctly,. Additionally, the mobile phone data also allowed researchers to correctly predict locations that carried higher risks of epidemic outbreaks, an important piece of information for healthcare professionals when combating diseases such as dengue. 

Surveillance of WikiPedia in 9 countries

It is amazing what we are comfortable telling our computers but not our near and dear ones. Your family physician might not be aware of the mole you are developing on your skin, but your computer has clarified has some doubts for you, when the fact is that you are better off talking to your physician about it rather than interpreting suggestions from WebMD

Researchers Nicholas Generous and his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory questioned whether this frankness to our computing devices, to our search engines, could actually be used positively. Harvesting three years of search queries on Wikipedia, in nine different countries, the researchers wanted to know if search queries could be used to predict the onset of a disease in a particular location. Using a combination of 14 disease to location combinations, the researchers surveyed health related queries in 8 languages to create a model of how the disease was progressing and later matched it to the official records of progression as monitored by local health agencies. 

This comparison worked successfully in 8 out of the 14 tested scenarios. 

The above image shows how model of disease progression from Wikipedia based data coincides with local health records.
Image credit: Nicholas Generous et al  DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003892

Amongst the scenarios, where this model could not be applied is the spread of HIV/AIDS. Although, the disease is lethal, its spread is much slower when compared to dengue,  other diseases and the model could not be applied for prediction.  

Another reason for failure of models in certain areas would be lack of internet connectivity available to all users. Therefore, the model derived for the disease-location combination is skewed towards a certain set of population and does not agree with data gathered at the ground level. 

Surveillance of Social Media

Image credit:
Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and others are often outlets for users to inform their family and friends about their well being. While a tweet about being sick from an individual may seem pointless, tweets from hundreds of users around a similar time period can be quite useful for purposes of disease surveillance.  In Chicago, the Department of Public Health analyzes tweets from the city to determine incidents of food poisoning in the city and accordingly carries out inspections to zero in on non hygienic places to eat. 

Taking it a step further HealthMap analyzes content from social media, blogs,chat rooms and even mainstream media and monitors trends of emerging diseases and makes it freely available for all. 

Image credit:

With continuing research and developing technology, disease surveillance will only get better from here on. All we need to do is support such 'mass surveillance' and encourage our governments to do the same. 

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Wesolowski A, Qureshi T, Boni MF, Sundsøy PR, Johansson MA, Rasheed SB, Engø-Monsen K, & Buckee CO (2015). Impact of human mobility on the emergence of dengue epidemics in Pakistan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112 (38), 11887-92 PMID: 26351662

Generous, N., Fairchild, G., Deshpande, A., Del Valle, S., & Priedhorsky, R. (2014). Global Disease Monitoring and Forecasting with Wikipedia PLoS Computational Biology, 10 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003892

Schmidt CW (2012). Trending now: using social media to predict and track disease outbreaks. Environmental health perspectives, 120 (1) PMID: 22214548

Hummingbirds : Now a model for micropumps too!

Humming Bird Maneuverability. Image source:

For many years now, scientists have been studying the hummingbird for its flying abilities. Their acrobatic flight is a great model for aeronautical engineers to develop air-crafts for the the future. While everybody concentrated on the wing action, dynamics of the air flow below and over them and the structural differences between humming birds and other fliers to figure out what makes these birds such special fliers, there was something that we had wrongly presumed many years ago, waiting to be discovered about these wonderful birds. 

Since the year 1833, we have been assuming that humming birds feed themselves using capillary action. This means, that bird dips its beak into the flower nectar and waits for nectar to slow rise along its longish beak, much like what happens when you sip a cola with a straw, except that you are actually using your mouth to sip in the cola but the humming bird simply waits for the nectar to reach its mouth. 

There are two issues with this theory. One Scientific and other non-scientific. Let's go to the scientific one first. Lapping up nectar using capillary technique would take a lot of time, something that simply does not fit in, given the fact we have seen humming birds never ever dwell on a flower for very long. The second one being that waiting for capillary action is a lazy man's job, a route probably a sloth would take. If you have seen the effort these little beings put into flying, there is no way you would expect them to take the capillary route to feed themselves. 

It is strange that nobody noticed these anomalies earlier but researchers at the University of Connecticut decided to look into this with the best tool that modern technology can currently offer, the slow motion cameras. Led by researcher Alejandro Rico-Guevara, researchers used slow motion cameras to analyze the feeding styles of different humming birds in Connecticut, Texas, California, and even Ecuador and Brazil. The set up of the experiment involved creating transparent artificial flowers (a process that took five long years) that would allow cameras to capture the events inside the flower. What the researchers found can be summarised in this short clip below. 

A humming bird's tongue works very much like a straw but instead of using sucking air like we do, the tongue itself contracts to pull the nectar up. This action is so quick that the bird manages to consume up to 10 drops of nectar in less than 15 milli seconds. In scientific terms, the term would be called an elastic micro pump, and the frequency of the micropump in humming birds would be around 20 Hz or 20 to and fro motions in a single second. Needless to say, hummingbird tongues will now become models to bring in improved efficiency  to the micro pumps we are currently using.

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Rico-Guevara A, Fan TH, & Rubega MA (2015). Hummingbird tongues are elastic micropumps. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 282 (1813) PMID: 26290074

Buying plants online is not a good idea. Here's why?

Bart and Bull Frog Image credit: www.taringa.netCan you recollect the episode from The Simpsons where Bart takes a bull frog to Australia and unconsciously ends up introducing an entirely new species in the ecology. Bart's innocent act invited the anger of the island nation but ended in Bart mooning the Australians that had gathered around the American embassy and the Simpson family needing a bail out to save their lives. If you remember further, the episode ended with a koala piggying back a ride on the helicopter that was taking the Simpson's home but like most Simpson's episodes the end is not followed through (what happens next is left to the imagination of the viewers and also quickly forgotten before the next episode airs). What deserves special mention is that this episode aired in 1995 managed to highlight the major issue that is facing the connected world today, the loss of native habitats.

As we move towards a society that is well connected and where movement of people and goods occurs seamlessly, we are also facing new challenges where changes to our ecology are occurring more rapidly than before. Take for instance the 2009 flu pandemic. What started off as community out break in April 2009 in the United States spread to 171 countries by the end of the year and led to deaths of thousands of people. Similar are the turn of events with spread of infections such as SARS, Ebola and even antibiotic resistance. As the world gets smaller, we are constantly increasing occurrences of such events and if you need evidence, read my previous post about house mites travelling globally with us. 

Flu pandemic 2009 Image credit:
Countries affected during the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic
Time taken by the pandemic to spread < 1 year

But it's not the microbes alone, who are doing this. Fungi, crabs, snails, fishes, cats, rodents, macaques  have found their way to different habitats around the world and made their presence felt by harming and even endangering local ecologies. For the interested reader, there is the list of the 100 of the World's Worst Invasive Species available on the ISSG website and if you have a quick look at this list, you will be surprised that plants are not naive as they seem and have been invading other habitats for thousands of years as well. But a recent study shows that suddenly, plants have a new trick that is rapidly changing the pace at which they are invading new areas. Scientists have carefully researched about this new technique and they call it 'E-commerce'.

That's right, E-commerce is the new advantage that plants have gained in our newly connected world and have been smartly using it to expand their horizons, with our help, of course. In a study conducted by Christopher Kueffer and his team at the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich, the researchers found out that E-commerce platforms such as EBay allow the sale of plant seeds on their site and the ability to ship these products globally only adds to the woes of ecology conservationists since there is very little information of where these seeds end up and their impact on the local ecology.

Image credit:

In a short 50 day study, published in Conservative Biology,  Kueffer and his team monitored the sale listings on e-commerce platforms using a special algorithm and found out that 2,625 different plant species were offered for sale on EBay alone. Of these, 510 species were known invasive and a 35 of them even featured on the 100 Worst Invasive Species list, we shared it with you earlier. Additionally, the team studied nine other online trading platforms that offered plant species for sale. Overall, they found that dealers for plant species originate from 65 different countries and this includes Australia. So, although the country has restrictions on what you can get in (ask Bart Simpson), apparently no body is looking at what is being sent out. (Once again, the koala bear).

Koala Bear image credit:

But it's not just Australia which erring here. Rules regarding invasive species exist in all major countries around the globe but nobody seems to be bothered by this free movement of plant species that is taking place. To reiterate, we really do not fully understand the impact of invading species for few a decades post the invasion and usually, invasions ring bells only when local ecology is severely threatened. To quote International Union for Conservation of Nature

Hundreds of extinctions have been caused by invasive alien species. The ecological cost is the irretrievable loss of native species and ecosystems.

There is a urgent need for authorities to take notice of this study and swiftly act on the arresting the spread of invasive species through online platforms. From you dear reader, we hope that you will investigate a little to find out about the origins of the plant before you decide to buy an exotic variety, the next time. Simply do not buy it, just because it is available.

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An Elevator that's 20 kilometres high

20 kilometer high elevator Image
The Burj Khalifa is the currently the world's tallest building at 829.8 metres and has the world's third fastest elevator. You might have seen a few YouTube videos that showcase how the elevator travels from ground to Floor 124 in just under a minute and many think that its an amazing feat. But, did you know that the Burk Khalifa elevator travels at modest pace of 10m/s whereas the elevator at the CTC Finance Centre doubles this speed with quite an ease. Check this nice graphic from the Financial Times which takes you through the transit times in the elevators in the high rise buildings

But today, we will not be talking about how fast can elevators go. Instead, we are going to look at how tall an elevator can we build? Going back to the graphic from the Financial Times, we know that tallest elevator shaft award will go to the Burj Khalifa for its public/ high speed elevator travels just under 600 metres, if you count from the Ground Floor. So, to break this record, one would look to build an elevator that is 700 or 800 metres high. But a Canadian company has recently earned a patent to make an elevator that's an astounding 20 kilometres high. We are not joking, it is going to be 20 kilometres high. It's not really an elevator to ferry people up and down a tall tower, but an elevator that will ferry up smaller rockets so that they can fired into space. 

Thoth Technology, that now owns the patent for what might sound like a bizzare idea, points out to the current methods of using rockets to send satellites and spacecrafts in inefficient, since we spend most of the energy from the rockets to escape Earth's gravitational pull. Thoth Technology, will build a high tower that will be able to fly small space planes into low Earth orbit and place satellites and other payloads in space and return back to the tower, thereby completely by passing, the use of inefficient rockets for the initial launch phase. The company estimates that the effective fuel savings using their technology would be around the 30 per cent mark. 

The company's next goal is to build a 1.5 kilometer tall tower to test the concept and invite other companies involved in space research to take the concept towards reality. In addition to functioning as a launch pad for future space missions, Thoth Technology also plans to use their towers for capturing wind energy, communications and even tourism. The estimates for building the 1.5 kilometer tower stands between $ 5-10 billion and will take around three years to complete and another three years to complete the entire tower. 

If you were told that a 20 kilometer high elevator existed and was open to visitors, would you go visit? Do let us know if the comments section below. 

Why do fish need sunscreen? [Coffee-byte]

Danio rerio, better known as the zebrafish
Danio rerio, better known as the zebrafish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you remember your last trip to the beach and try to list out the things you took for this trip, chances are that the sun block or sunscreen will feature in there. Why just the beach, using a sun screen is almost a part of our daily routine, whenever we know we will be spending time under the sun. But, as you might have noticed, it is only humans who wear a sun block while the rest of creatures walk, swim and fly on the planet, unprotected. As much as we, humans, like to think that we are the smartest on the planet, we actually are not. The fact is that we have to manufacture our sun blocks in factories, whereas fishes can do it on their own. Why just adult fishes, even fish eggs can do this nifty trick that protects them from harmful sunrays.

Research conducted at the Oregon State University, shows that zebrafish can produce this magic chemical called gadusol, that can protect it from UV-B rays of the sun. Before this research was published, it was believed that fishes take up gadusol from the bacteria and algae that they consume as food and stock it for their own use. But then the questions arises, why would a fish produce a sun block. Before, we I give you the answer, let me tell you that the genes responsible for producing gadusol, named EEVS and MT-Ox are found not only in zebrafish but also in amphibians, reptiles and birds. So, in a way, most animals on the planet can produce their sun block. So, a better question would be, why are all these animals doing this?

More than a sun block

Gadusol is more than just a sun block. It has properties of an anti-oxidant that can help in combating stress and plays a role in embryonic development too, hence the presence in embryonic cells. Scientists are also looking at compounds that are similar to gadusol and could potentially be used to tackle diabetes and fungal infections.

Researchers were able to transfer zebrafish genes into a strain of yeast and produce gadusol in the lab. In the future, this modified yeast could be used to make sun blocks in large quantities and since the product is naturally formed and found, the next generation sub blocks, could even be ingested without any harm.

But its not just the sub block that we are bothered about. Life under the sea hold vital clues to longevity and prevention of cancer too. I can only hope that we unearth these secrets soon.


Osborn AR, Almabruk KH, Holzwarth G, Asamizu S, LaDu J, Kean KM, Karplus PA, Tanguay RL, Bakalinsky AT, & Mahmud T (2015). De novo synthesis of a sunscreen compound in vertebrates. eLife, 4 PMID: 25965179

The Science of Success!

A good player rarely makes a good coach

I never quite understood what it tried to say, till I discovered this whole new genre of Hollywood
Cool Running- Coach and team
movies, where a bunch of skinny, dorky looking teenagers come together to beat the star players of the school in a game of baseball, or football, basically any team sport. This whole feat is however impossible, without the guidance of a rather obscure (career wise, of course) coach who has been ousted by the community or who just knows the game too well to be bothered by some trophy that other coaches crave for. But don’t be fooled by their rather tragic past, or even their rude, unkempt demeanour there is something that makes you root for them despite the fact that their track record is not very good. Logically speaking, they have far too much experience losing, which is why we as the audience is always eager to dismiss them as backbenchers, let alone a team to have potential to win. Why is it, (if not for the empathetic angle created by the brilliant director) that we presume when a team or person has the maximum wins, he is bound to win every time? We even go a step further and presume that if we replicate their story, we are bound to win as well. This is what psychologists like to call a Survivorship Bias.

Abraham WaldConfusing, I know, which is why I hounded the internet for some place that could break it down for me, and I found this TEDX talk by David McRaney - of “You Are Not So Smart”. He starts off talking about the American Operational Research Team that was set up to solve mathematical and statistical problems during the Second World War. During a war you are constantly looking out for your troops trying to have the highest number of survivors, which was what the American Operational Team was set up for. Fighter planes were precious and so were their pilots, and getting them back in workable condition after a bombing was pivotal, except, that their numbers were steadily dwindling. The crafts that came back were asked to mark the areas that had hits, and soon a pattern formed.  There was a concentration of hit in particular areas and the General saw this and immediately ordered those areas to be reinforced with metal. This was exactly the kind of thinking you and I would do, but it was  Abraham Wald, a noted statistician, who also happened to be on the team saw it differently, he intervened and asked for the area that was not hit to get further reinforcement (WHAT!!!).  
His explanation - The aircraft that made it safe and sound came back despite getting hit terribly, meaning that those regions were not vital for the aircraft’s survival. The aircrafts that didn’t return, probably suffered hits in those important places, which is why they didn’t return. This slight change in where the metal reinforcement was added proved extremely valuable to the American Air force, increasing the number of surviving aircrafts dramatically. This bias that you and I or even the General had for that matter is what statisticians like to call, Survivorship bias.     
That was the war; David also spoke about how we see this bias in our everyday lives.  Where we seek advice or consciously listen to those who have made it big in a particular field, or have achieved success in some way. While they tend to give excellent advice on how to succeed, they fall flat when you have to know the details on how not to fail. David further mentions that it is the losers, the failures, and the not so successful stories that we ought to follow and meticulously note to actually gain some useful knowledge, because that is where wisdom truly is.
What did you say
This brings us back to the proverbial English saying ‘the best players rarely make for the best coaches’. When you are a success, you don’t tend to realise the intricacies of what makes for a good player, what works in the case of a good player or a success story, is seldom what can be mapped out into a template for potential candidates to follow. What a coach brings in is mastery, which comes with not just succeeding, but, and most importantly with a lot of failing.
Take for example a simple act of making an omelette. You love how your mom makes it, you observe, get the recipe, and think well let’s do this and you get it right the first time. You try it another time and well, let’s just say, it misses something, and the third time it just refuses to rise. You getting it right once does not guarantee your success the next time around as well.  After a few successes, when you encounter one bump, you tend to cloud yourself by going over all your success, when what you should be doing is going over your failures, or what you did wrong- overcoming the survivorship bias. You may tend to repeat your actions keeping your success in mind, but it is the failure that you need to take notes of. May be you didn’t beat the eggs, may be you put in salt or cheese at the wrong time or your pan was not hot enough. It is through the process of elimination or the errors that you get to succeed, and that’s what Mastery teaches you, and in essence, elimination of the survivorship bias.
So in pursuit of becoming a master of something, you invariably, come across failure and in turn learn how to overcome it in order to produce similar, successful results.

omlette- mouth watering, still perfect
Mouth-watering image taken from
So the moral here is to look at anything without having any sort of bias of your own. It is very VERY difficult, given we are human and not machines, but look at it like this. Say that you look at the whole thing as a set of data. What you have with a player who has kept winning all his life without struggle is limited data, as in something that just gives you one side of the story and what you have with experience and someone who has fallen down a couple of times is a huge bag of data, that gives you both sides of the picture, giving you very valuable set of information you can work with. It is up to us, the people interpreting the data, how to use that information, because in the end it is just a set of random data. So what a really good coach, or a master truly does is looks at the set of data and uses it to his advantage. A master has over the years collected so much information that he can successfully predict, repeat and in the truest sense of the word master the subject of his study.  
I leave you with two extremely interesting ted talks about what I have ranting on about – Missing what's missing - David McRany

Sarah Lewis on How to Embrace the near wins

How many trees does the Earth have?

We have always been told about the importance of forestation, the need for trees and how deforestation is causing climate change. Many of us are willing to and also actively participating to revert climate change.

Keep your world clean and green. 

Save trees,Save the environment!! 

Clean city,Green city!! 

To have a good scenery, there should be little greenery! 

are everywhere and we are all eager to see a greener Earth. But like any other goal that we chase, shouldn't we know where we are starting and what are we aiming at? How many trees does the Earth have and is there a tree census done every decade.

Recently, New York City took up the initiative to map and catalogue every tree on every street of the city. Called, TreesCount!2015, it is a crowd sourced program, looking for the task to be completed through voluntreers. If you would like to be one, you can sign up here. But other than a few instances where cities or organizations such as Terracon or SmartSurvey have tried to use GPS/GIS based systems to carry out a tree census, there are no real global or even country wide efforts made to know the number of trees on our planet.

Estimates of tree have always been made though, with some claiming that the Earth has 400 billion trees. With a population exceeding 7 billion, we have a tree to human ratio of around 60:1. A recent study used satellite imagery and combined it with actual tree counts in various places on the globe and come up with a better estimate that there are actually three trillion trees on our planet, taking the tree to human ratio to an amazing 422:1. 

Thanks to the revision, the Earth might look much greener to you suddenly, but the truth is that thanks to deforestation these forest covers are declining rapidly. Consider the image (courtesy Nature .com) that shows the rapid decline of forest area in South East Asia alone.

Declining forest area in South East Asia. Photo credit:

The estimate from T.W.Crowther and colleagues estimates that since the dawn of human civilization (200,000 years), the Earth has lost 45.8% of its tree cover. As per their current estimate, we are cutting down 15 billion trees annually and at this rate we would deforest the entire planet in 200 years! Not very far is it. 

If you know someone who still needs a reason to save the planet, show him/her this post and if the person is still not convinced, there is no need to spend more time on him. You are better off using your time for something more useful.


Crowther, T., Glick, H., Covey, K., Bettigole, C., Maynard, D., Thomas, S., Smith, J., Hintler, G., Duguid, M., Amatulli, G., Tuanmu, M., Jetz, W., Salas, C., Stam, C., Piotto, D., Tavani, R., Green, S., Bruce, G., Williams, S., Wiser, S., Huber, M., Hengeveld, G., Nabuurs, G., Tikhonova, E., Borchardt, P., Li, C., Powrie, L., Fischer, M., Hemp, A., Homeier, J., Cho, P., Vibrans, A., Umunay, P., Piao, S., Rowe, C., Ashton, M., Crane, P., & Bradford, M. (2015). Mapping tree density at a global scale Nature, 525 (7568), 201-205 DOI: 10.1038/nature14967

Genetically Modified Plant can help clear TNT from soil

TNT explosion image credit:

As a species, humans hardly grasp the ramifications of their actions. Whether it be the rapid climate change or the shattering effects of war. Even though we realise that we are the main culprits in both these cases, under no circumstances do our actions look like we are on the course of correction. The snail's pace of climate talks or our outright refusal to contribute to dialogue and engage in wars instead are proof enough to show that left to politicians, sooner or later our Earth's environment will soon turn hostile for our own survival and bring our end nearer. 

Plants, on the other hand, are entirely different. Slow yet sure in their approach, these silent beings are always trying to maintain the balance that is being disturbed, thanks to human activities. Since the beginning of our civilization, plants have always provided for us, whether in the form of naturally available fruits or planned growth of crops as our ancestors turned agrarian. As we are also aware, plants have also been the suppliers of valuable oxygen for millions of years, something that keeps us alive every single day. But as our habits changed and we started using fossil fuels, plants quickly adapted to that as well and continued to clean up the air of volatile organic compounds. Studies such as the one done by Thomas Karl and colleagues at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) showed that plants absorb up to 40% these volatile organic compounds (pollutants) and even increase their intake, if the environmental stress is higher. 

Their behaviour in presence of other pollutants such as TNT (2,4,6 - Trinitrotoluene) is unbelievable. TNT is an explosive compound and heavily used in explosives to cause maximum damage. Areas affected with war often turn barren because of the heavy dosage of TNT that is left behind in the soil. When TNT is taken up by the plant, it enters the mitochondria (the power house of the cell) and reacts with atmospheric oxygen to form a reactive superoxide that damages plant cells and restricts their growth. Yet, plants do not give and continue to uptake TNT and break it into substances that they can use.

Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at the University of York, recently studied the reaction in the mitochondria that leads to the formation of the superoxide. Their study found that MDHAR6, short for monodehydroascorbate reductase 6, enzyme is essential for formation of the superoxide and causes damage to the plants. Johnston and her colleagues went a step ahead and created a plant with a mutant MDHAR6 gene so that the enzyme created is faulty and does not react with TNT. Since the superoxide is not formed, plants continue to grow normally, even in the presence of TNT and slowly work towards clearing the contaminated land of explosive compounds.

Mutant Plants growing in soil containing TNT. Image credit:
Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at University of York have created a genetically modified plant that can grow in soil containing explosives like TNT

Another exciting outcome of this research is the potential to develop new herbicides for use on farm lands. Since, we now know how compounds like TNT can stall vegetative growth, we can experiment with various compounds that can potentially be used to control growth of weeds on farmlands. The study was published in the Science Magazine and is referenced below for further reading.

This finding is also important in the wake of rising resistance to everything that is genetically modified. Asking for a blanket ban on everything genetically modified is not helping our growth. Instead, we must consider each modification on a case to case basis and outweigh the pro and cons before deciding to support or oppose the use of the technology.

If you would like to read more of these interesting stories from the world of science, subscribe to our  blog and we will send you an email every time we post something new and interesting. Alternatively, you can follow us on social media such as FacebookTwitter or Google Plus!


Karl T, Harley P, Emmons L, Thornton B, Guenther A, Basu C, Turnipseed A, & Jardine K (2010). Efficient atmospheric cleansing of oxidized organic trace gases by vegetation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6005), 816-9 PMID: 20966216

Johnston EJ, Rylott EL, Beynon E, Lorenz A, Chechik V, & Bruce NC (2015). Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science (New York, N.Y.), 349 (6252), 1072-5 PMID: 26339024