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Saturday, August 30, 2014

RotM: Interview with Dr. Steven Churchill

Prof. Steven E. Churchill
In continuation of our newly introduced, Researcher of the Month (RotM) series, we spoke to Professor Steven Churchill, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University

Prof. Churchill specializes in human paleontology and his research interests include studying archaic and modern humans of the Middle and Late Pleistocene era.  In his recently published paper in Current Anthropology, Prof. Churchill and his team discuss the 'feminization' of human skull and origins of the life that we live today.  Here's Prof. Churchill, telling us more about his findings. 

CTS: For the benefit of our readers, please tell us about the fresh perspective that your recent findings have provided on the origins of Behavioral modernity? 
SC: Humans are remarkably socially tolerant compared to most other animals.  We often gather with strangers in large numbers without violence (something that would not happen with chimpanzees, for example), and we are exceedingly cooperative.  Social learning, including the transmission of new skills and technology, is greatly facilitated by our social tolerance and cooperative nature.  It is also the case that about 50,000 years ago cultural evolution began to speed up.  The rate of new technological innovations increased rapidly at that time (producing the transition from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age in Africa, and from the Middle Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and Asia), items of art and personal adornment began to appear, and populations of modern humans appear to have been growing. 

In our recent paper we argue that part of this technological revolution involved an increase in social tolerance around this time, which facilitated social learning and cultural transmission (and which itself may have been brought about by increasing population density, which may have produced situations in which less tolerant individuals found themselves at a disadvantage, either because they could not enjoy the benefits of cooperation or they were punished or ostracized by groups of cooperators).  We further argue that this increase in social tolerance can be seen in the fossil record of our species over the last 200,000 years.

Fossils of Homo sapiens pre-dating 50,000 years ago tend to have very large brow ridges and long upper faces, whereas these features are much less pronounced in humans after 50,000 years ago.  These features develop during puberty as a result of circulating testosterone, and differentiate (on average) males from females in living populations today.  Because males today have facial skeletons that are most similar to those of female Homo sapiens prior to 50,000 years ago, we have referred to this shift as one of feminization.  Thus the fossil record seems to denote a reduction either in levels of circulating testosterone, or the reactivity of target tissues to that testosterone.  Androgens like testosterone provide one physiological axis that mediates aggressive behavior, and thus we think that the trends we see in the fossil record are reflecting a reduction in aggressiveness and a corresponding increase in social tolerance during the end of the Pleistocene.

Feminization of modern human skull on the right side as
compared to 110-90 Ka old skull on the left.
Image source and copyright: .
Interestingly, in animals that are selected for tameness (such as domesticated animals, or the Siberian silver foxes that were the subject of a study on tameness), male skulls become more like those of females, which parallels what we are seeing in the human fossil record.   

CTS: If males today have facial skeletons that are similar to females that roamed the Earth 50,000 years ago, what differences can one see between facial skeletons of females today and those that existed 50,000 years ago.

SC: Both sexes have become more "feminized" over the last 50,000 years.  Females today have smaller brow ridges and shorter faces than did females between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.  For example, there is an ca. 90,000-year-old female skeleton from Qafzeh Cave in Israel (the specimen is called Qafzeh 9). We can tell the skeleton is that of a female based on the morphology of her pelvis.  But if her skull were found in a modern context, most anthropologists would conclude that the skull was that of a male.

CTS: When we say that the human males lost their ‘robustness’ over a period of time, would that be to accommodate the more modern way of life  or could it be that the more organized way of life did not demand that he remain that robust/ aggressive?

SCAnthropologists use "robustness" to mean different things.  Mainly the phrase refers to the relative mechanical strength of the skeleton, and in this regard humans have become less robust as we have increasingly relied on technology to perform jobs that we once had to do with muscular strength.  Less commonly, anthropologists may use the term to refer to the ruggedness of features of the face and cranium (for example, a skull with large browridges may be referred to as "robust").  But to be clear, in our paper we are not talking about robustness of the overall skeleton, but rather testosterone-linked facial features (this is why we prefer to think of this as a change in facial masculinity [feminization] rather than a change in robustness).  At present we can't see any reason that faces would become more feminine as a by-product of technological evolution that was not related to changing temperment. 

CTS: If males become more feminized in the past and continue to do that even today, would you say that that someday, humans might become sexually monomorphic?

SC: While it isn't really prudent to speculate about what course evolution may or may not take, it seems unlikely that humans would ever become monomorphic.  Testosterone is important to male sexual functioning (and to that of females as well, but at lower levels), and it seems more likely that continued selection for greater social tolerance would like operate on neurological mechanisms that allow individuals to suppress non-cooperative tendencies, rather than continuing to select against androgens.

CTS: In the wake of wars being fought in many places around the globe today, would you say that the social tolerance is low now? How does anthropology explain such a scenario when our population is booming?

SC: Just because we are remarkably socially tolerant doesn't mean we can't act in aggressive ways.  War involves lots and lots of cooperative behavior (soldiers act as teams, follow orders, train together, coordinate movements, etc), and soldiers don't shoot at one another because they lack social tolerance.  Just to be clear, we are not arguing that humans became totally non-aggressive 50,000 years ago, just that they became more socially tolerant than they had previously been. 

CTS: There is scientific evidence that the Y chromosome has been shrinking. Along with your findings that males became more feminized, is this leading us to a possible future where males might no longer be required at all?

SC: This is really outside of my area of expertise.  The Y chromosome doesn't carry much genetic information (mainly things like testes determining factor, which are important in producing male sex), so one might ask how necessary males are even now!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Do free energy magnetic motors really work?

Magnetic Generator
The internet is rife with websites that promote generators that are capable of providing electricity without using any fuel. Built largely with magnets, these 'free energy generators' promise to cut your electricity bills and provide a much greener alternative to the electricity that is largely generated out of fossil fuels. Elaborate videos that give you estimates of how much money you can save without revealing any details of how to go about it, manage to keep the audience hooked on for a while, but $40 price tag, the loads of freebies and the instant $10 discount for not leaving the page, make the product and its seller highly suspicious. So, we decided to find out if these free energy magnetic motors really work?

The Principle

The magnetic motor works on the simple principle that we all already know, 'Like poles repel each other while opposite poles attract each other'. By arranging the magnets in a fashion where only like poles face each other, one can simply set the motor into motion like in the video below. (You can skip to the important part by jumping to the 4th minute of the video)

Once the motor is set into motion, one can treat it like a turbine and extract electrical energy out of it. That's how simple this is!

The Working 

The device can be made to work a little better if a electromagnet replaces the opposing magnet in this setup. This is because, one can quickly switch the poles of an electromagnet. Although, this will require some amount of electricity to make the electromagnet work, the output of the magnetic motor will be much higher than the power used to operate the electromagnet.

Efficiency of the device can be further increased by changing the design of the motor and positioning magnets in a way where the motor can run easily. In the amateur video below, this guy from Pakistan has made his own version of magnetic motor and you can see how it works!

The Problem 

But there is one major flaw in this whole setup. The electrical energy that can be generated out of such a system seems to be created out of no fuel at all and that is stumbling everybody. So far, all we know is that to generate electricity, we need some sort of a source, rays of the sun, kinetic energy from flowing water, or at least some fuel to be burnt so that the turbines can move and generate electricity. But the magnetic motor challenges this notion and tells us that all you need is an arrangement of magnets (like in the first video above) to put the motor in motion and generate electricity. And for many people, this seems to be breaking 'the law of conservation of energy' making this concept very difficult to accept!

But in reality, it is the magnetic energy that is being used to put the motor into motion and over a period of time, the magnets will lose their magnetism and the motor will stop. But again, all one needs to do is replace the magnets and the motor will be workable once again. There is some work that has been put into the type of magnets that can be used for such motors and Neodymium magnets have been claimed to offer the best results.

The Scam

If you do a simple search for magnetic motors, you will find a lot of websites promising free electricity for the rest of your life and all that for $40 or less, one time investment (with free home delivery too). It is difficult not to get suspicious about the tall claims made by such sellers and one would have to be extremely gullible to fall for a scheme like that. Even if you have fallen prey to scheme like this before, you might find solace in being not the only one. This guy named Mike Brady was arrested for pilfering a sum close to 1 million Euros that came from 61 Germans who believed that he could deliver them a magnetic motor that would generate electricity. There is some evidence to say that Brady's motor did work but there have been quite a few other companies who have been tried to perfect this motor for a while and rid us of our energy woes. Unfortunately, these companies have closed down or gone into hiding for reasons that are varied but also because they have not been able to deliver on their promise of a free energy generator that can scale a town or a city.


Even though scammers promise free electricity, the fact remains that there will be a set up and maintenance cost and somewhere even the cost of replacing the magnets, which is not going to be cheap. Still, if we can get a motor that can generate energy which reduces on dependence on fossil fuels and does not harm the environment as much, then why shouldn't we go for it? Yes, it needs to be perfected and explored more scientifically but that's the case with all discoveries.

If you have found this post interesting, you might want to visit the Free Energy Quest to know about other such inventions!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

5 reasons that make Rosetta a SUPERSTAR!

Image Source: ESA
For the next few days (and probably many many years), you are likely to come across people speak of the greatness of 'Rosetta' and about her achievements and before you start thinking that the Rosetta is some entrepreneur, social worker, sportswoman or the worst, a movie star, let us make it very clear that Rosetta is actually a spacecraft. and still a Superstar!

Here are 5 things that have make Rosetta famous!

  1. Rosetta, is a spacecraft built by the European Space Agency, at a cost of 1.3 billion Euros, with the aim to study the comet 67P/ Churyumov- Gerasimenko. Discovered in 1969, the comet orbits around our Sun every 6.6 years and Rosetta's mission to understand what this comet is made up. The mission will give us scientists further information on how our Solar System originated and evolved, since our Sun, planets and all the comets are made up of the same pre-solar nebula that existed over 4.6 billion years ago. 
  2. Approved in the year 1993, the mission was launched in March 2004 with the aim of rendezvousing the comet in the year 2014. Meticulous planning and complex calculations were an integral part of this mission, since no rocket could have been deployed to put Rosetta directly near the comet. Instead, the spacecraft performed four flybys, three around our Earth while one around Mars to get itself into the right trajectory and speed to get to the comet 67P. This 10 year long journey also involved a 31 month hibernation (between June 2011 to January 2014) where all electrical systems were put off, except for radio communication to conserve fuel. 
  3. After waking up from hibernation, Rosetta was 9 million kilometers away from its target, the 67P comet and travelled this distance between January & August then slowed down in 10 extremely delicate maneuvers to match its pace with that of the comet. 
  4. On the 6th of August 2014, Rosetta was moved to a triangular orbit around the comet at a distance of about 30 kms from the surface. Over the next few months, the spacecraft will closely monitor the comet, take pictures of its surface and identify areas for landing its probe, Philae. 
  5. Philae, is the probe will attempt to make a landing on the 4 kilometre wide comet 67P in November later this year depending on the data that Rosetta manages to gather in the coming few months. The probe is laden with three spectroscopes to investigate the core of the comet and also a microwave radio antenna along with a radar. 
While Philae carries out its investigations, Rosetta will continue to orbit the comet as it moves towards our
Artist's rendering of Philae on 67P. Image source: ESA
Sun at a speed of 55000 kilometers per hour. Researchers at the European Space Agency are hopeful that the spacecraft and its probe will continue to work even when the comet nears the Sun and bring us information of the changes that a comet undergoes while orbiting closer to the Sun and help us understand them better. The project is scheduled to end in 2015, but will continue investigating the comet further, if sufficient fuel is available after this time. 

For all those who are interested, below is a short video of Rosetta's journey so far and for all other information, keep following our blog or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus to stay updated. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

RotM: Interview with Dr. Justin Boddey

As part of our continuing effort to bring to you the latest developments in the field of science, we are proud to introduce a new section to our blog, Researcher of the Month (RotM), where we will speak about ground breaking research findings and to the researchers behind the work. 

In our first RotM interview, we spoke to Dr. Justin Boddey, a researcher at the Infection and Immunity Division at the Walter and Eliza Hill Institute, Australia. Dr. Justin recently published his findings regarding Plasmepsin V in PLoS Biology, which has shed new light on our understanding of malarial parasite, Plasmodium, and how we can prevent its spread. 
Here's Dr. Justin telling us more about his findings. 

CTS: For the benefit of our readers, please tell us about the fresh perspective that
Dr. Justin in his lab at WEHI
your recent findings have provided to tackling malaria.

JB: Malaria parasites are very clever; they invade red blood cells and change them by delivering more than 300 proteins into them. This is required for the malarial parasite to survive in our body but this is also what makes people feel sick. We have developed a drug-like compound that blocks a parasite enzyme, called Plasmepsin V (PMV), which controls protein delivery into red blood cells. This prevents malaria parasites from sufficiently changing the cells and they die.

CTS: How does the compound that you have developed block PMV?
JB: We developed PMV inhibitors, called WEHI-916, by copying the general shape of malaria proteins that PMV can recognise. The inhibitors bind to PMV and block its activity due to which malaria causing proteins cannot be transported correctly. If you think about PMV as a lock in a door, we developed a very small key that fits inside the lock and blocks any other key from gaining access. So the lock is now useless, and nothing can go through the door.

CTS: From your publication, we have found that WEHI-916, has a small window to be effective (20-30 hours after erthyrocyte invasion). How do you envisage the inhibitor to be successful in treating malaria?
JB: Actually, the inhibitor WEHI-916 blocks protein transport very early in the parasite's lifecycle. However, it takes some time for the parasites to die from the blockage. Many antimalarial drugs have a specific window of activity, so this is not a big concern. Compounds based on WEHI-916 could be useful for prophylaxis, in addition to treatment of malaria.

CTS: What happens next? How does WEHI-916 become a drug against malaria?
JB:The development of WEHI-916 is the first step toward a new drug. However,  WEHI-916 cannot become a marketable drug. It is a peptide. Its value lies in the demonstration that inhibition of Plasmepsin V kills the parasite. So future drugs that have the same activity would be possible drugs. We aim to work with people like the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) to help in development of the drug and take it through clinical trials.

CTS:What are the hurdles when it comes to combating infectious diseases such as malaria?
JB: Drug resistance is a major hurdle since parasites evolve to overcome drugs that are effective against them. So, we have to constantly work on identifying new targets that may be suitable for inhibition by antimalarial drugs. For this, we study the molecular mechanisms underlying essential processes in parasites, such as how they survive inside the human cells they infect. That is why the demonstration that PMV is a valid antimalarial drug target is so exciting.

CTS: Of all diseases and disorders, why did you choose to study malaria?
JB: Malaria has plagued humans for over 100,000 years and is still an enormous global health problem today. So I believe it is a very important cause. I am also fascinated by the way malaria parasites manipulate their human host to ensure their own survival and am driven to understand this at the molecular level.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Living with malaria

Everyone in India, at some point in their lives, may have been infected with malaria. Now this may sound a little out there, but may not be something far away from reality. Just recently, Times of India reported that 67 people died in Tripura of malaria in the last month alone, and 55 among them, were children. The north eastern state of our country is amongst one of the most gravely hit regions when it comes to malarial outbreaks, along with the other red zone regions, Andaman and Nicobar islands and Pondicherry. 

Malaria has been around in India for quite a while now. In fact, the discovery of its vector- the mosquito was done here in India by Sir Ronald Ross who bagged the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery. There are about 250 million people affected every year with the malarial parasite, out of which nearly 2 million succumb to the disease. In India, alone we face a daunting number of around 30,000- 50,000 deaths caused due to malaria each year, most of them being children. This is very different from what is officially released by the government which is hugely down playing the numbers to a mere 1,023 deaths in 2010 and 440 deaths in 2013. (True number of malarial deaths in India)

But it is not just recently that the malarial parasite has been causing havoc. Estimates are that the malarial parasite, Plasmodium, is the single most deadly organism known to the human race. If numbers are to be believed it has done more damage to humanity that any war, or natural calamity, making it the deadliest parasite ever. Vasco da Gama, Genghis Khan, Alexander the great are just a few names out of the many who succumbed to the malaria.

Since the dawn of humanity itself, malaria, has been at the periphery of our existence. The first documented case of malaria comes from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who described the symptoms. It is believed that the co-relation that was made between stagnant water and the spread of the malarial disease, prompted the Romans to build the drainage system. But the very fact that the parasite has been around for a while and managed to survive changes in its environment says quite a bit about its evolution, doesn’t it?

In the past, we had effective drugs to curb the disease, but the parasite soon grew resistant to the drug, which is why even today, we face a threat that malaria might turn into a global pandemic. Arteminisin, has been one of the most effective drug developed against the malarial parasite till date. But recently, cases in Cambodia have surfaced, where in the most deadly of the malarial strain- Plasmodium falcipuram, has shown resistance to the drug. This is not only an interesting development; in terms of evolution, but also in terms of global health, where there can be absolutely no sure shot way we could combat the spread of the disease.

But this is not where the weirdness of the evolution and smartness (if I may add) of the parasite ends. Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University have observed that infection of Plasmodium in hosts that have been exposed to some malarial vaccines before results in the parasite launching a deadlier attack on the host. This is not to say that the parasite comes up with some novel way of attaching the host, it simply multiplies more aggressively, overwhelming the host immune system rendering the vaccine useless. The parasite even manages to modify its vector, the mosquito's behaviour, who show greater affinity for human blood, after being infected by Plasmodium. 

Luckily, the evolutionary adaption is not just one sided. According to a malaria hypothesis, put forth by J. B. S. Haldane in 1949, the prominence of red blood cell disorders, in the tropical regions was an indication of natural selection at work. Red blood cell disorders like sickle cell anaemia and thalassemia discourage the infection of red blood cells. This was later confirmed by A.C. Allison who showed that the mutation in the sickle cell mutation (in the beta hemoglobin gene) was geographically confined to Africa, where malaria is most wide spread. 

But the bottom line remains, that even though we seem to evolve ourselves and our methods to combat malaria, the rate at which the plasmodium is evolving is much faster and we need to come up with a better understanding of the parasite and novel techniques to combat the disease.

For the interested reader, here is an interesting Ted Talk from Prof. Andrew Read on Evolutionary Medicine.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fish on Wheels

7:21 PM Posted by Editor CTS , , No comments
For all those who pet lovers, who would love their pet fish to be with them at all times, Studio Diip, a Netherlands based startup lets you buy a unique aquarium that will let your fish steer in any direction it wants.

By using advanced computer vision technology, entrepreneurs at Studio Diip, were able to design an aquarium with wheels which moves in the same direction as the fish moves in the tank.

Here is the video of how the technology works!

Unfortunately, the company could not find enough investors for this crazy idea and the project has been stalled for a while. But in case you have deep pockets and the zeal to let your fish drive around the house, do contact the team at Studio Diip to get this project started once again!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can you hear a caterpillar munching on leaves? Well, plants can!

Image source: Wikimedia
How often have we seen a caterpillar silently eat away an entire leaf of a plant to feed its hungry stomach. What if we told you that every time you thought the plant was helpless against the over-eating caterpillar, you were wrong? A recently published study in the journal Oecologia tells us that plants can actually hear the tiny vibrations that the caterpillar emits whilst feeding and prepare themselves for a similar event if it occurs in the future. Sounds interesting? Read on!!! 

We have all heard of tales where listening to soothing music (acoustic energy or sound) has helped plants grow. But researchers, Heidi Appel and Reginald Cocroft at the University of Missouri, set out to investigate how plants responded to sounds that were relevant to their survival. To test this, the researchers allowed caterpillars to feed on Arabidopsis plant, while they recorded the vibrations of the leaf during the process of feeding with the help of a laser. 

Video source: MU News Bureau

The recordings were then played to set of plants (lets call them Set A) while another set of plants (Set B) were played something like a blank cassette. Later on, caterpillars were allowed to feed on both these plants and interestingly, Set A plants recognized the vibrations that were reaching them now and started producing more mustard oils, a compound that deters the caterpillars from further feeding and naturally caterpillars crawled away. What the researchers found even more interesting was that the plants were able to differentiate the sound of feeding caterpillars from that of say another winged insect or leaf fluttering due to wind. 

While further research is needed to understand how exactly plants perceive these vibrations and respond to them, the initial findings offer a glint of hope in the years to come, we will move away from our dependence on insecticides! 

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like our article about how maize plant attacks its herbivore pest.