Burn some rocket fuel in your house! [Video]

If NASA and ISRO are sending rockets successfully into space every now and then and you are feeling a little bit left out, you can burn a little bit of rocket fuel yourself, using some packet pasta and dry yeast.



 Although this will not take you very far, it is definitely going to be be a lot of fun! 

You never travel Alone!

Travelling alone. Image credit. www.redcranetravel.com
If you are quite the traveller who likes visiting different countries and posting Instagram pictures of historic sites and tourist places you have been to, this is the probably the right time to tell you this

'YOU ARE NOT TRAVELLING ALONE'

Well, this is not about some stalker following you or the government that keeps an eye on each and every one of us. Instead, this is about the unknown baggage you are carrying with you while you are criss crossing continents in the comfort of an aircraft, viz., the many many bacteria and fungal spores and the microscopic creatures such as house mites.

The Finding 

In a recent study published by researcher Rubaba Hamid Shafique and her colleagues from the Pir Mehr Ali Shah Arid Agricultural University in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and University of Michigan, USA, the researchers studied two house mite populations from these two countries. On sequencing small parts of their genome, the researchers found these organisms had quite a few things that were common in their genome sequences. 

The Explanation 

House dust mite (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinu...
House dust mite (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinus)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ideally speaking sequencing should reveal that the sequence of nucleotide bases (building block of genome) for a specific region are the same. This is especially true if one is sequencing conserved regions of the genome, which are basically regions of the genome that code for proteins that are common across organisms. (This is another proof that we have all come from a common ancestor, something that could be discussed in another post on another day). 

What Rubaba Hamid and her colleagues found was that not only did these organisms had matching sequences, they even had matching mutations. Now, mutations in a population are random events. So, if a house mite population develops a mutation at say nucleotide position 10, then the chance that another house mite population in the United States at the same nucleotide position in extremely rare. However, what the study goes to say is that the author found such mutations in not one not two but 14 spots in the small bit of genome that she was looking at. Not only this, the sequence and the mutations therein found for house mite populations in Pakistan, exactly matched those that were reported in house mite populations in Thailand and China. 

Such similarities in the genome can occur, if and only if, house mite population from these countries have met each other before and mated to produce offsprings that carry their mutations. Since house mites are not capable of finding love internationally all by themselves, the authors say that it is obvious that are piggy backing our back packs as we travel. While these little beings are happy to hide in the sofas and mattresses for most part of their lives, a few of them are adventurous enough to make that extra effort to get into our travel clothes and end up in another country without any visa. Knowingly or unknowingly, these mites are capable of using man made technologies for their own benefit, progress and spreading themselves out in the world. 

Although it might seem a trivial thing at the outset, the issue of travelling microbes is quite serious and a major impediment in the global health care scenario. The recent scare of Ebola and its rapid spread over many nations is primarily due to the rapid means of transport available today and the frequency with which people travel for business or pleasure. 

So, the next time you take a flight to Hawaii or Switzerland for a vacation, do give a thought to what might be carrying from back and what you might be bringing back. 

Reference: 

Shafique RH, Klimov PB, Inam M, Chaudhary FR, & OConnor BM (2014). Group 1 Allergen Genes in Two Species of House Dust Mites, Dermatophagoides farinae and D. pteronyssinus (Acari: Pyroglyphidae): Direct Sequencing, Characterization and Polymorphism. PloS one, 9 (12) PMID: 25494056

Your handwash can give you cancer!

Liquid hand Wash
Smoking, alcoholism, exposure to radiation are well known causes of cancer but did you know that your hand wash is also a causative agent of cancer lurking around you in your everyday life. To be precise, its not the hand wash that causes cancer but an important ingredient called Triclosan that is the real culprit and unfortunately for us, it is being commonly used in most everyday products such as toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwashes and even deodorants. So, from the time you get up until the time you step out of your house, you are exposing yourself to a bunch of products that are carcinogens (substance capable of causing cancer) and when you step out, you know, you are no better either.

The obvious question then is, why are all these everyday products filled with such a harmful ingredient. To understand that, we need to first know why Triclosan is so popular among manufacturers of these products,

Why use Triclosan?

English: molecular formula of Triclosan
English: molecular formula of Triclosan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It all began with a small study about soaps which showed that soaps containing triclosan and similar other antimicrobial products performed better at getting rid of germs than soaps that did not. You can find the abstract of the story here. This study prompted manufacturers to start using triclosan in every day products such as deodorants, mouthwashes, toothpaste etc. to give me additional antimicrobial properties. While this might seem a very good idea to apply, the truth is that you that you need significantly large amounts of triclosan in your products for it to be extremely effective otherwise, they are not really better than regular soap. Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US has made this very clear on its own page about Triclosan and what consumers should know

Dangers of Triclosan

However, the page also states that FDA still has to review other studies about dangers of triclosan in every day products and one such study is that of Professor Robert Tukey from the Department of Chemistry and Pharmacology at the University of California, San Diego. Published in the journal PNAS, the study speaks about how mice that were exposed to triclosan for six months, roughly equivalent to 18 years of age in humans had compromised liver function and integrity. The researchers believe that presence of triclosan in the body causes additional stress on the liver, since the compound also affects the activity of constitutive androstane receptor, an important player in the process of clearing up of foreign substances from the body. Since this receptor's activity is being toned down by triclosan in the body, the liver tries to compensate for the lost function by making more liver cells than normally required, which ends up being fibrotic and causing cancerous growth. 

The greater revelation coming from this study was that 97% of breast milk samples collected from lactating mothers contained traces of triclosan, meaning that right from birth, we are being exposed to triclosan, irrespective of whether we use triclosan containing products or not. Since, triclosan cannot be broken down in the body, it is ultimately excreted out and begins accumulating in our sewage water, which finally ends up in the larger bodies, also affecting life forms there in. 

What can be done about this? 

While there are not many extensive studies done to confirm the findings of this study, we can definitely make a start by choosing to use triclosan only in products where it has be proven to be actually effective and then working towards eliminating it completely in every day use and finding a suitable alternative. 

Surely, nobody wants to be diagnosed with liver cancer for using toothpaste and mouthwash for 18 years. 



Educative Porn anyone ? [Coffee Byte Video]

Mating, has always been a subject curiosity and fascination. Capturing it however, can be a little tricky. While movies have managed to capture the emotional, more rambunctious, aspects of the process, documentaries, provide a more neutral observation that presents it as it is. But there is a lot more that is to the whole ritual of mating than what meets the camera. And that is exactly what Isabella Rossellini has tried to convey with her short films on animal sexual behavior. Here are a few of her videos

Sea Horse 


Bees

Oil Beetles


Dolphins


Bed Bugs

There are a ton of such Green Porn Videos by Isabella Rossellini, don't forget to check them out here



RotM: Interview with Dr. Daniel Zurek

Daniel B ZurekFor this month's Researcher of the Month (RotM) interview, we spoke to Dr. Daniel B Zurek, Neuroethologist and Sensory Ecologist and also the Post Doctoral Associate, studying tiger beetles in the Morehouse Lab. at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Daniel recently published his findings about how tiger beetles pursue their prey in the journal Biology Letters and frankly spoke about his study and his interests with us. 

CTS:  Why should we study hunting in tiger beetles? 
DZ: I am interested in the question of how visual systems of animals are adapted to their ecological needs. Tiger beetles are extremely fast running predators, which is a challenge for visual perception. Animals that are extremes in some way can make good study systems. Finding out where their limits are, and what ways nature has found to cope with these limits, can teach us a lot about general principles that might be common in other systems. It can also reveal interesting candidates for applications in engineering. 

CTS:How do we know that the beetle's vision blurs at high speeds?
DZ: Cole Gilbert (Dr. Daniel's Principal Investigator for the current publication) has discovered this in 1997, by analyzing their behavior when chasing fast prey. When the prey moves at high angular speeds (i.e. sideways relative to the beetle’s viewing direction), the beetle has to stop and relocate it. The duration of these stops is correlated with prey angular velocity.
video


CTS: Is it possible that from the tiger beetle's point of view, the world moves really slowly, which is why he gets more time decide to open or close his jaw?
DZ: Like many fast insects, tiger beetles can perceive fast movement better than we can. Whether that means things seem to move really slowly to them is hard to answer.

CTS: How difficult was it to work with tiger beetles? 
DZ: Tiger beetles are hard to catch because they’re so fast. You have to trick them by not presenting an expanding target when approaching - I crouch down as I sneak up on one, and then whip a butterfly net ahead of the beetle so that it flees into the net. Best is to find a mating couple, they can't fly away and you get a 'two for one deal'. 

A Tiger beetle relishing his lunch
A tiger beetle relishing his lunch.
Photo credit: Dr. Daniel B Zurek

CTS: Dung beetles are known to carry 10 times their body weight. What is the Biggest prey size that tiger beetles can take on? 
DZ: They usually attack prey smaller than themselves, but I wouldn’t put it past them to munch on a big caterpillar or so if they come across one. 

CTS: Tiger beetles can hunt when flying as well. Have there been any studies done to determine how they manage to do so, again at high speeds. 
DZ: I have not heard of any tiger beetles that do that. While some, but not all, tiger beetles can fly, they do this for dispersal or predator avoidance. They’re pretty bad fliers. 

CTS: Could you tell us a little about your interest in Jumping spiders!
DZ: They’re actually my main study system, I’ve worked on their fascinating visual system during my PhD, and am now researching their color vision in context of the diversity in male coloration in this family. You can see more about them on my website at danielzurek.com, or on this page about our (now successfully funded) crowdfunding project: bit.do/spiderdance

video


CTS: A final question, before we end this interview. The fastest predator on earth (tiger beetle), that chases its prey, to the jumping spider that slowly stalks overcomes it with the element of surprise, who do you think will win, if pitted against each other? 
DZ: I have asked myself the same question many times … If both are the same size, I think my money’s on the spider. A tiger beetle could easily kill a jumping spider if it surprised it, but these spiders are more intelligent and perceptive. If the spider sneaks up and attacks the beetle’s head he’d be paralyzed pretty quickly, but the spider would probably lose a leg. On the other hand, tiger beetle head armor is very thick … it’s really a pretty even match.

Reference
Zurek DB, Perkins MQ, & Gilbert C (2014). Dynamic visual cues induce jaw opening and closing by tiger beetles during pursuit of prey. Biology letters, 10 (11) PMID: 25376803

The dance of Pendulums- Pendulum waves (Video)


The beauty of science and the conception of art. Pendulum Waves are a great example of a kinetics sculpture working on simple harmonics.



Whats brilliant about these structures is that it runs on simple physics, that takes 15 balls and suspends them at different, well calculated lengths. The Pendulums are placed in increasing order of length of the pendulum, so while the longest completes 51 oscillations in 60 seconds, the shortest takes completes 65, producing a dance that is a visual delight. ENJOY!



How Jackie Chan helped make solar cells better?

Supercop (soundtrack)
Supercop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the world warms up to using solar panels and harnessing the immense energy that is reflected back from the Earth everyday, there are still some major hurdles that we need to overcome before we can rely on this technology for all our energy needs.

Cost of solar panels has been a major point of debate but as governments around the world are encouraging consumers to adopt this technology, there are considerable grants pouring in to reduce the cost of installing solar panels and that is welcome relief.

The efficiency of the solar panel itself has been questioned on many occasions. General estimates of efficiency of solar panels has been put at 10-15%, which basically means that

these expensive panels are only capable of converting 10-15% of light incident on them into electricity. 
Unarguably, this does sound quite low.  And has been picked up by detractors of renewable energy to ridicule. 

But did you know that the efficiency of gasoline powered engines stands at a meagre 30%. In spite of automobile companies pooling in millions of dollars every year to improve the vehicles, we are able to convert just 30% of fuel that we burn into usable energy and the rest is just spent off as heat (No doubt your car needs a good cooling system other wise you would be chicken tandoori every time you drive that four wheeler of yours) 

Never the less, solar panels still lag behind regular engines in terms of efficiency and there is definitely scope for improvement. Researchers Alexander J Smith and his colleagues at North Western University set out to change this and decided to work on increasing the absorption of the solar panels. As luck would have for them, they found a better method of making solar panels in technology that already exists and is already in common use, i.e. Blu Ray Discs. 

As you might already be aware, Blu-Ray discs are known for their superlative storage capacity and are currently serving us by storing our favourite movies in full HD. Blu Ray manage this by storing the 0's and 1's of the binary code in a more compact manner than regular CD's and DVD's and reading them more efficiently with a blue coloured laser. However, we do not really need to understand the nitty-gritty of how blu ray discs work here. What Smith and his colleagues found is that simply replicating the pattern of how data is stored on blu-ray discs also improves absorption in solar panels. 

In order to test their hypothesis, Smith and colleagues simply copied the code of Jackie Chan's popular movie Super Cop on a solar cell and observed that absorption in the modified solar cell was much better than a regular one and the efficiency of the solar panel rose way up to 21.8%. The researchers attribute this increase to data compression algorithm that is used in Blu-ray discs and While this was under test conditions and the efficiency might turn out to be a bit lower when used on the field, there is significant increase in efficiency of the solar panels, and one that brings it closer to machines that we use everyday. 

Since Blu-Ray technology is something that is well known, application of this finding to solar panels should neither be time consuming or expensive, bringing further cheer to users to solar technology and its supporters!

Reference:

Smith AJ, Wang C, Guo D, Sun C, & Huang J (2014). Repurposing Blu-ray movie discs as quasi-random nanoimprinting templates for photon management. Nature communications, 5 PMID: 25423591