A Sunderbans denizen staves off extinction
The Northern river terrapin has clung on tenaciously
•A critically endangered resident of the Sunderbans is set to get a new home, beginning a slow journey to recovery from a disastrous decline in the wild. It is more threatened than the Bengal tiger, but far less known.
•Before winter this year, three fresh water ponds in the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve will house the rare Northern river terrapin ( Batagur baska ), whose presence in the wild in West Bengal and Odisha had declined to undetectable levels a decade ago.
•Batagur baska , the 60-cm-long turtle that is presumed extinct in several Southeast Asian countries, is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) in its Red List of threatened species. The tiger, by comparison, is endangered.
•For the past ten years, officials of the Sunderban Tiger Reserve with support from experts at Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), have coordinated a recovery program for what is described as the world’s second most endangered turtle, through captive conservation breeding. The Yangtze giant soft shell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei , is considered the most endangered freshwater turtle.
Needs other homes
•While conservation breeding to save the Northern river terrapin is ranked among the best programmes, Ravi Kant Sinha, Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, West Bengal, said it would be bad management to put all eggs in one basket. Having more sites to breed is a natural extension of the ongoing effort, he said.
•The terrapin, which has a river estuarine habitat, has had a lucky spell in recent years. Nilanjan Mallick, the field director of the Sunderban reserve said there was not much early success in the breeding programme, but things looked up after 2012.
•“The number of turtles at Sajnekhali is well over 200. This year alone we got 87 hatchlings,” Mr. Mallick said.
•The field director of STR said the decision to get a new enclosure for the breeding programme would protect the species against natural risks, and also facilitate genetic management. Last year, forest officials and the TSA reintroduced ten turtles into the wild, using acoustic transmitters to monitor their progress.
China media set much store by NSA visit
In a shift in tone, state media said both countries ‘need to enhance communication and nurture trust’
•In a shift from the harsh rhetoric of the past weeks, Chinese state media on Friday hoped that next week’s visit to China by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval will help end the Doklam crisis and advance China-India ties.
•“Despite concerns on possible military clashes, Chinese experts reached by the Global Times on Friday said they hoped that the upcoming visit of Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval would serve as an opportunity to ease the tension,” an article in the state-run tabloid said, quoting Ma Jiali, a research fellow from a Beijing-based think tank, China Reform Forum.
•Mr. Ma is a veteran academic, who has been engaged in Track-2 diplomacy with India following former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988.
•Mr. Doval will participate in a two-day BRICS event starting on July 27.
•The NSA’s visit will be key to solving the current dispute and if the two sides failed to reach some agreement on the issue, the China-India ties would be severely damaged, Mr. Ma observed.
•The daily prefaced the anticipation of Mr. Doval’s visit by slamming remarks by BJP leader R.K. Singh, who had reportedly opposed changing the status quo in Doklam, on grounds that it would endanger India’s vital interests.
•But striking a remarkably conciliatory note ahead of Mr. Doval’s visit, a commentary by state-run Xinhua news agency underscored that both countries “need to enhance communication and nurture trust between them, first by recognising that the two are not born rivals and that harbouring ill will against each other is dangerous”.
•The focus on enhancing communication echoes recent observations by former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. In a recent interview with The Hindu , Mr. Menon stressed that India and China “since the ’80s been rubbing up against each other in the periphery we share”.
•Mr. Menon added: “So we do need a new strategic dialogue to discuss how we should sort out problems.”
•The Xinhua commentary pointed out that the recent border issue “shows a lack of strategic trust on the Indian side”.
•However, it highlighted that as “the two countries are the world’s biggest potential markets, each with over a billion people, they could develop complementary industries and cooperate in protecting common security”.
•“Working together, China and India could build something unprecedentedly wonderful for not just themselves, but the whole region and the world.”
•The write-up pointed out that the Asian continent would be a big loser if the China-Indian rivalry cements. “Obviously the two would pay a heavy price first of all. Even Japan, the U.S. ally who relies heavily on the Chinese market, would suffer an economic blow, which could turn into a domestic crisis.”
•“Most economies, including those in the West, will find themselves negatively affected by an India-China war in a globalised and intertwined world today,” it observed.
•“The only beneficiaries (of a conflict), sadly, will be opportunists, short-sighted nationalist politicians who don’t really have the people’s interests in heart. And the dream of an Asian century would become a puff of wind.”
is Iran growing its presence in Iraq?
What is Iran doing in Iraq?
•After the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011, Baghdad became increasingly dependent on Tehran on various avenues, from trade to security, which raised Iran’s global profile. Iran established a Shia corridor stretching from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to southern Lebanon where Hezbollah operates. But Iran’s strategic calculations came under threat when the Islamic State made inroads into north-western Iraq.
•The IS, which is anti-Shia, captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014 and was marching towards Baghdad. Had the IS taken over Baghdad, Iran would not only have lost a friendly regime, but also felt the heat of an anti-Shia jihadist group closer to its borders. Its focus immediately turned to building Shia militia groups, along with the Iraqi government, to fight the IS in Iraq. These groups, known as Popular Mobilisation Unites, or Al-Hashd al-Shaabi, have played a major role in the liberation of Iraqi cities, such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, from IS rule.
How did Iran gain entry?
•If there’s one country in West Asia that benefited from the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was Iran. For the Islamic Republic, which fought an eight-year-long war with Iraq in 1980-88, Saddam Hussein’s regime remained a security concern. In the pre-Iraq war scenario, Syria was the only stable ally of Iran, but both countries were separated by a hostile Iraq. Iran had started building influence inside Iraq through its cross-border cultural and religious links, but even that had limitations as the Saddam regime turned against Iraq’s Shias in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The U.S.-led invasion removed this hostile regime and practically opened the gates of Iraq to an ambitious Iran ruled by Shia clergy.
•Iraq is a Shia-majority country, which Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath party ruled for decades with an iron fist. When the post-Saddam Iraq held the country’s first free elections in 2005, Shia parties, most of which had had long-standing relations with Iran, rose to power. Ever since, Iran’s influence in Iraq has only grown — first as a counterforce to the American occupation and then as a security provider to the Iraqi government.
Why is Iraq crucial for Iran?
•Iran doesn’t have many allies in a region which is dominated by hostile Sunni powers. Iran counters this asymmetry in geopolitical leverage by building influence with non-state actors. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, is one of its greatest strategic assets in West Asia. With a friendly government in Baghdad, Iran not only got a buffer between itself and the Sunni bloc, but also direct access to Syria, which has been a conduit for Iranian supplies for Hezbollah. But in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, it was not clear whether Tehran would be able to successfully cultivate dominance in Iraq. The presence of over 1,00,000 U.S. soldiers posed a direct challenge to Iran’s ambitions.
•The George Bush administration had also lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea as the “axis of evil” and had threatened it with military action. Against that context, the Iranian strategy was to make the U.S. occupation costly. It supported Shia militias in Iraq’s south, while Sunni terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq attacked both Shias and U.S. soldiers in the north. The Iranian strategy was partly successful as the U.S. eventually withdrew most of its troops from Iraq, but only after the invasion and the subsequent sectarian civil war ravaged the country.
Will Iran pull back?
•Now that the Iraqi government has declared the defeat of the IS, will Iran withdraw its militias and let Baghdad run the country on its own? Given Iran’s strategic ambitions and the recent history of its dominance in Iraq, it’s unlikely to happen. On the contrary, at a time when the U.S. and the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf are teaming up against Iran, Tehran would try to deepen its relations with countries such as Iraq and Syria and non-state militias such as Hezbollah and Hashd al-Shaabi. Al-Shaabi, comprising some 40 militia groups that are loyal to Tehran, could translate its military influence into political clout, which will be crucial as Iraq goes to the polls next year. This explains why the Iraqi political leadership hardly expresses any views critical of Iran.
The mimetic, the mythic and the theoretic
Those immersed in myths, rituals should value the social uses of reason, but secular rationalists must also acknowledge the role of myth and ritual in their lives
•One of the least understood functions of critical reflection is to reconcile conflicting viewpoints, to find common ground between positions that appear to be polar opposites. One such opposition exists between the secular and the religious. Since religion is usually associated with myth and ritual, and the secular with science and reason-directed theory, I wish here to question the polarity between myth and ritual on the one hand and science/theory on the other.
•To do so, I take help from the work of the evolutionary psychologist, Merlin Donald. He argues that over time, sequentially, human beings have developed three distinct cultural capacities by which to understand the human and non-human world. The first such capacity, called mimetic, developed almost two million years ago, stored directly in skills and is largely performative. Here, we use our bodies not only to communicate with each other by expressive gestures (anger or joy on our face; eyebrow and head movements to say ‘no’) but also to collectively enact past, present and future events (the coronation of the king, the shraddha ceremony for ancestors, wearing white clothes in mourning rituals).
•A second capacity that developed 1,00,000-2,50,000 years ago is our ability for grammatical language and to construct oral narratives. To tell stories, folk tales and moral fables; to freely use our imagination to make sense of how we and our world originated and what might happen to us when we or our world dies; to imagine ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, utopias or dystopias on or beyond earth. These are fact-defying, imaginative constructs, replete with fictitious events, fantasy, archetypical figures, heroes and villains. Donald calls this capacity mythic.
•Finally, a third capacity developed 3,000-5,000 years ago, with which we are able to step back and look beyond what we experience and live, conceive a world outside or deep within us, a world unearthed by disengaged reason, free of our own personal, subjective properties — an objective world. It is a form of abstract thinking that takes us beyond our immediate context and allows us to think with a greater degree of generality. Dependent on the written word, it encourages us to think about thinking: to discern the internal structure of arguments, to unearth the assumptions and presuppositions of our thought. This is thinking with controlled imagination, with constraints of evidence and rational argument. In short, the world of science, argumentative philosophy, and abstract reasoning — which Donald calls ‘the theoretic’.
Compartmentalising our lives
•That these three capacities can sometimes work against each other is not in question but what creates polarity between them is an ideology that makes them mutually exclusive, which claims that each succeeding capacity is superior and properly emerges when the previous, inferior capacity is abolished. Thus a move to a higher theoretical stage of reason-based science and philosophy necessitates leaving behind a lower mythic and mimetic stage. A theoretic culture is achieved by eliminating the vestigial elements of the mythic and the mimetic.
•Despite this ideology, some of us try to resolve this conflict by compartmentalising our lives. This has taken two forms. One is found in the lives, for instance, of some scientists, engineers, doctors and economists. In their research or techno-professional life, they allow the supremacy of hard-nosed reason. In their personal, social and political life, they let religious myths and rituals rule. The other is found in educated, anti-religious, secular-minded persons. They dismiss myths and rituals as features of a bygone era and live most aspects of their life as if governed by reason alone, but they allow the mimetic to survive in sport, theatre and dance and the mythic to endure in novels, poetry and films, in art and entertainment.
•But such solutions are patchy and unsatisfactory. They continue to be mired in deep misunderstanding. In fact, as Donald tells us, these three capacities have emerged sequentially — one came after and on the shoulders of the other but without destroying its predecessor. It modified, not replaced it. Moreover, they are not hierarchically related. Each makes a distinctive and complementary contribution to human understanding. The truth is that all of us, regardless of whether we are religious or secular, partake in all three cultures — mimetic, mythic and theoretic. Each one of us deploys these three cultural capacities to varying degrees. The modern mind remains a complex mix of mimetic, mythic and theoretical elements.
•Take the mimetic. We have wedding rituals to reinforce mutual commitment; commemorative rituals such as keeping a two-minute silence at 11 o’clock on January 30 each year to not forget Gandhi’s sacrifice. Why? Because rituals play a crucial role in underlining the collective significance of an act or bring stability in human interactions that are ephemeral and may otherwise fall apart. Ever seen a singles tennis match ending without the ritual of players hugging each other or shaking hands to express that their rivalry is over and they are friends once again? Modern, secular lives are also governed by myths. Our popular culture is mythic — it cares two hoots for reason or evidence, fictitiously connects disparate events, and influences us by heroic exemplars such as the mythical angry young man. Why, even ‘scientific’ economics generates myths such as that of the rational economic man!
•In short, secular rationalists — theoretically minded scientists and professionals — would do well to acknowledge the continuing hold of myths and rituals in their lives. But equally, those immersed in religious myth and ritual must value not only scientific reason but also the social uses of reason in clarifying meaning, unearthing beliefs and pictures that have receded into the background, finding or generating common ground for discussion and mutual understanding, for reconciliation.
The space between belief and disbelief
The concept of an unknowable god roots us in our humanity, but also makes it possible for us to strive for more
•I recently witnessed an acrimonious debate between a New Atheist and a couple of religious people (a Muslim and a Christian, actually). The New Atheist wanted to prove that god did not exist, and the Muslim and Christian believers were just as adamant that god existed. Finally, as often happens, all three turned to the non-participant in the room, and asked him to adjudicate. That was, alas, me.
•I did not want to answer them. It is usually my policy not to comment on matters of belief and disbelief, both of which tend to be put in highly reductive terms. But they insisted. So, I gave them an honest answer: “You cannot disbelieve in god without having the concept of god, and you cannot have any conception of god without disbelieving in god.” Thankfully, they thought I was being facetious and continued their discussion without me.
•But I am convinced that the main divide runs not between religion and atheism but through each of them. Thinking atheists and thinking religious believers actually share a lot, just as half-thinking atheists and half-thinking believers share a lot too.
•While all religions finally deal with some personification of deity — incarnation, son of god, names or attributes of god, etc. — all religions also have a similar concept of god as beyond human comprehension of form-time-space, and as unchanging and impossible to fully define. Even so-called ‘primitive’ tribes worshipping totems have this concept, for the totem is not just a plant or an animal but something more than just that plant or animal.
•In other words, the concept of god eludes human imagination and language. One of the first modern thinkers to try to go beyond the unnecessary antagonism of religion and science was the German Oxford University don, Friedrich Max Müller. In the 1870s, he explained the concept of gods, ranging from those in Vedic India to classical Greece, by arguing that these were powerful forces of nature that got personified in language over the centuries. So, initially, Apollo meant just the Sun, but later Apollo got constructed as a male god, with increasing human (and superhuman) attributes.
•Max Müller’s version has long been dismissed in intellectual circles, but he had made a valid incidental point: the concept of god eludes human constructions, including those of language. Whatever we say about god does not exhaust the concept of god, and hence our beliefs can only be personal. They cannot be imposed on others. As the medieval Sufi poet, Rumi, suggests in one of his poems, any person’s conception of god can be valid only for that person; to pass it on to another person (by persuasion, argument or force) is to pass on what cannot be communicated, what is bound to be reduced in language. Many major religious thinkers have seen this too: the Muslim Avicenna or Ibn Sina (11th century) and the Christian Thomas Aquinas (13th century), among others.
•The opposition to images of divinity that we find in iconoclastic religions, most obdurately Islam, is a consequence of this realisation. The divine, such religions argue, cannot be given a human shape. Hence, we have the Taliban blowing up the ancient statues of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. Incidentally, though, this does not get us out of the conundrum: there is not that much of a difference between imagining god in human or animal shapes and attributing human (or animal) attributes to god.
•When we say that god is merciful or loving, we use a human concept to talk of god; it is not entirely different from saying that god is blue or wears a crown of thorns. This was the hidden gem in Max Müller’s perception: we can imagine anything only through language and our own experiences, and hence there is a tendency to personify the concept of god. It is a bit like saying that a quantum particle is both wave and particle and neither wave nor particle. What we mean is that we cannot really imagine quantum particles except by using what we have experienced in life and language: waves and particles.
•The concept of god is exactly this point, which escapes our imagination. We need it for two main reasons. One, because it is only by situating ourselves between the knowable and the unknowable that we become human. Two, because to let go of the concept runs the risk of reducing everything to the known (which is sacrilege for the truly religious and hubris for the truly scientific) or to give up our claim on that which exceeds our current understanding. The concept of an unknowable god roots us in our humanity, but also makes it possible for us to strive for more — including more knowledge, which only comes with the knowledge that we do not and cannot have perfect knowledge (which belongs only to ‘god’).
•That is why thinking atheists cannot do away with the concept of god. That is also why the religious cannot claim to know god. We become human in exactly that space where we are not animals (whose possibility of knowledge is restricted to what they already know) and where we are never ‘god’ (whose possibility of knowledge is complete and infinite).
Chunna Miyan ka Mandir
The everlasting story of Bareilly’s Fazlur Rahman
•In 1889, a baby was born in Bareilly, a town in present-day Uttar Pradesh, on Janmashtami, in the house of Maulana Mohammed Hussain Ilmi, a religious scholar. The Maulana’s grandson was named Fazlur Rahman and lovingly called Chunna.
•Little Chunna lost both parents at a very young age and was taken by his relatives to the village. They were living in straitened conditions but the heart and mind was rich. A burning desire to be independent led the boy back to Bareilly. Seeing a spark in him, his neighbour, Lala Gujartai Lal, whom he called Dadaji, gave him two rupees to start some venture. The boy started selling small items in a basket hanging from his neck. According to his grandson Shamsur Rahman, he sold matchsticks, beedis and candles, and was soon in a position to return the loan, though Lalaji didn’t take it back, encouraging him to aim higher.
•Fazlur Rahman soon went into the beedi business himself, and went on to become a millionaire with properties all over Bareilly.
Land for refugees
•Chunna, now Seth Fazlur Rahman aka Chunna Miyan, also owned a large piece of prime land in Katra Manrai, near Bara Bazar. In the wake of Partition in 1947, many refugees came to Bareilly. The Bara Bazar area is an old market and residential area. They settled there and set up a small temple on the empty land nearby.
•When Chunna Miyan came to know of this, he first asked them to vacate. When those attempts failed, he filed a case against them.
•Around the same time, a priest, Muni Harmilap ji Maharaj, from Haridwar held a satsang , which he attended. The Muniji emphasised, “There is only one Parmatma and every human is His santan (offspring), whether they be male or female, Hindu, Muslim, Bodh, Jain, Sikh, Christian or Jew or Shinto (Japanese).” These spiritual words found a connect with Chunna Miyan, and he had a change of heart. He not only withdrew his case, but also compensated the refugees for the cost incurred by them in litigation so far.
•Along with the land, he donated Rs. 1,10,001 for its construction, as is enshrined in the marble tablet that has a list of donors. In fact, he leads the list with “Chacha Chunna Miyan” written in brackets next to his given name. He would come here daily to do shram dan (physical labour) and it was he who put in the first basket of mud when the foundation was dug.
•Last year, I was in Bareilly for Muharram, when the world over the followers of Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, mourn his martyrdom in various ways, including by wearing black clothes. In between attending the various functions organised during the first ten days of the month of Muharram, I also visited a Lakshmi Narayan temple nearby about which I had heard much. A beautiful and colourful façade met me. A replica of the Ashoka lion capital is installed at the entrance.
•I entered a serene, spacious and beautifully built hall. The garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) housing Lord Lakshmi Narayan and his consort was closed as pujatime was over, but I wandered around elsewhere till I found a priest who showed me around and told me its history.
•When I told the pandit I had come from Delhi to visit the mandir (I was dressed completely in black, so easily identifiable), he asked, “Inki wajah se (because of him)?” He pointed to a photograph of an impeccably dressed man in a sherwani and a topi, carrying the idol on his head, a tilak on his forehead and garlands around his neck, which occupied pride of place in the temple. I smiled and said, “Yes.”
•Panditji then told me about Chunna Miyan and how he went personally to Jaipur to get the idols of Lakshmi Narayan and his consort and brought them to the temple.
•The temple was inaugurated on May 13, 1960 by the President of India, Rajendra Prasad. It is a beautiful symbol of our syncretic culture.
•Chunna Miyan was, as his grandson Shamsur Rahman, tells me, “not just a charming face, but someone who had a heart full of compassion and always ready to extend a helping hand to the needy.” He went on to fund the Fazlur Rahman Islamic College and established the commerce block for Bareilly College. He also built a road in front of Asia’s first women’s hospital, Clara Swain Mission Hospital, and gave land for a gurdwara on Nainital Road when he heard the local Sikhs wanted to build one there. The Sikh community was insistent they pay for it, so he took a nominal token.
•Chunna Miyan, often called ‘Bareilly’s Gandhi’, was indeed Ekta ka Prakash , as a biography on him by Dr. Nirmal, and shared with me by his grandson Shakeb Rahman, is titled.
•He left the world poorer on December 23, 1968.
‘Huge opportunities in healthcare in next 25 years’
‘IPO funds will be used for new projects in India’
•Aster DM Healthcare plans a large IPO later this year to scale up Indian operations.
•“We will treat you well” is the tagline promise of Aster DM Healthcare, which runs several hospitals, clinics and pharmacies in nine countries — mainly in West Asia and India. The Dubai-based Azad Moopen , the founding chairman and managing director of the company, said he believed the trust of patients, employees and governments was the key factor behind the group’s success. The soft-spoken Dr. Moopen, 64, hails from Kerala’s Malappuram district. A Padma Shri and a Pravasi Bharatiya Samman winner, he is now one of the most prominent Indian businessmen in the Gulf. The Arabian Business magazine ranks him among the 50 richest Indians in the Gulf. To scale up its operations in India, Aster is planning an Initial Public Offering later this year.Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why should cash-rich Aster go for an IPO?
•We are planning a massive expansion of our healthcare network in India. We have a dozen hospitals, a medical college and a nursing college in India, mainly in the South. We want to build as well as acquire more multi-speciality hospitals in the metros and major cities across the country. As of now, 80% of the group’s revenues comes from outside India. We now want to focus on India. The entire proceeds from the IPO will be used to fund new projects in India.
What will be the issue size?
•At this stage, I can’t give out the specifics. But it will be a large issue reflecting at least one tenth of the market capitalisation of the company.
•The issue could be upwards of $200 million. It will be listed on the BSE. Foreign bankers to the issue will be Merryll Lynch and Goldman Sachs, apart from the Indian banks Kotak Mahindra and Axis.
You have a large healthcare network in the Gulf where the business environment is friendlier than in India. Why, then, the focus on India?
•We see huge opportunities in the healthcare sector in the next quarter century in India. As the country progresses economically and technologically, people want better, advanced treatments. Purchasing capacity is also going up.
•Medical insurance coverage is expanding rapidly. The self-pay mode is fast changing. The government is stepping up healthcare coverage. All these are increasing affordability.
•On the other hand, morbidity is increasing. Even small villages are in the grip of lifestyle diseases. Infectious diseases are making a big comeback even in States like Kerala. And, longevity is rising.
•The longer you live, your healthcare costs will be disproportionately higher. And, the population is expanding, too.
•So, in the next 25 years, there will be a sharp rise in the demand for medical care in the country.
How did the Aster brand evolve?
•When I went to Dubai in 1987 after teaching medicine at Calicut Medical College for some years, I set up a one-doctor clinic called Dr. Moopen’s Clinic. I had a flourishing practice.
•Then, I set up a string of clinics and a large number of pharmacies in the UAE and other Gulf countries. These had different names. In 2007, we decided on rebranding these companies under a single brand. I was keen on a neutral name with a universal appeal. ‘Aster’ sounded great. Thus was born Aster DM Healthcare (DM stands for Dr. Moopen’s).
•The brand established itself very quickly. The tagline ‘We will treat you well’ came later. People trust us, our promise and the brand.
•You have a reputation of being a philanthropist…
•I have set apart 20% of my assets and income annually for helping others. We have a family foundation that mainly channels the aid.
•We also did our bit in helping Syrian refugees in Jordan and in food shipments to Sudan.
A quicker, novel approach to cancer drug discovery
Molecules that bind to DNA nanotemplates were chosen for further study
•Scientists at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Jadavpur, Kolkata, have used a novel approach to drug discovery by attaching or linking a DNA sequence of interest to gold-coated magnetic nanoparticles and picking those molecules that target and bind to the DNA sequence for further study. This approach helps in rapid identification of potential DNA binding molecules for cancer therapy. The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.
•G-quadruplexes are four-stranded DNA structures found in human genome, for example, the presence of G-quadruplexes in cancer-causing gene c-MYC. Since G-quadruplexes are involved in regulation of the gene expression, there is increased interest in finding molecules that target them.
•The traditional approach is to synthesise compounds and study their interactions with drug targets before choosing the best drug molecules. This is both time consuming and laborious.
•So a team led by Prof. Jyotirmayee Dash from the Department of Organic Chemistry at IACS first immobilised the G-quadruplex DNA on to gold-coated magnetic nanoparticles and left the target in a solution containing azide and alkyne functional groups.
•The azide and alkyne fragments that are capable of binding to the adjacent sites of the G-quadruplex react with each other to produce triazole products. Theoretically, the combination of azide and alkyne fragments can generate 66 triazole products. “Since the G-quadruplex itself selects the azide and alkyne building blocks, only three triazole compounds were formed that can interact with the G-quadruplex target. The unreacted fragments could be easily removed,” says Prof. Dash who is the corresponding author of the paper. Prof. Dash is a recipient of DST’s Swarnajayanti Fellowship and carried out this work using this funding.
•When the nanoparticles are heated, the triazole products that are bound to the G-quadruplex target get detached and get into solution. Since the DNA-linked, gold-coated magnetic nanoparticles (DNA nanotemplates) are used, they can be separated from the solution using magnetic separation. “The DNA nanotemplates can be reused up to five times,” she says.
•The researchers found that of the three triazole compounds that selectively bound to the G-quadruplex target, one (Tz 1) was found in large proportion and was the only molecule that was obtained when the nanoparticle was recycled for the fourth and fifth time.
•“We found the Tz 1 molecule has remarkable anti-cancer properties. The molecule binds to the G-quadruplex and is able to switch off the c-MYC gene that gets over-expressed in breast, colon and lung cancer. This leads to inhibition of cancer growth and ultimately leads to death of cancer cells,” Prof. Dash says. “The molecule preferentially binds to the G-quadruplex DNA and not the duplex DNA. Further, the molecule selectively kills the cancer cells, without doing any harm to the normal cells.” “Based on the extremely high cellular activity of identified drug compound, we can conclude that this methodology using DNA nano-template allows easy synthesis of high-affinity drug molecules for the target DNA without performing any conventional drug synthesis procedures,” she says.
•“Though this study is a proof-of-concept, this approach can be used for economical and fast screening of potential drug candidates for other DNA targets, RNA and even proteins.”
With increasing urbanisation, invasive ants take over sacred groves
There was a significant variation between ant populations in the rural and urban groves
•As urbanisation spreads, battles are raging on holy lands: invasive ants are taking over the leaf litter in sacred groves.
•Sacred groves, known as devaru kadu in Kannada and kavu in Malayalam, are fragments of forests protected by local communities. Hunting and logging are not permitted here. The result is that many sacred groves still stand tall in urban areas as well. While these islands of forest are crucial refugia for local wildlife, are they still untouched by the effects of urbanisation around them?
•To find out, a team of scientists from the Central University of Kerala studied ant species richness and abundance in five sacred groves in both urbanised towns and rural villages in the Kannur and Kasargod districts of north Kerala. They set up pitfall traps – small containers embedded in the ground that ground-dwelling ants fall into – at specific locations, and listed the species and numbers of ants that fell in.
•The sacred groves were home to 32 ant species in total. Ant assemblages varied between urban and rural groves; while only five ant species were exclusive to urban groves, nine were exclusive to rural ones. Urban groves were home to larger numbers of ants, and habitat generalists as well as invasives (like the Yellow Crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes ) dominated leaf litter here, a clear indicator of human disturbance in the habitat.
•“Urban sacred groves supported greater numbers of the Yellow crazy ant,” Sinu P. A., who conducted the study says in an email to The Hindu
• “These do not bite us but damage our crops, are a pest of household items and prey on insects, bird hatchlings, crabs and other native species. In short, they replace native biodiversity.”
•Why could urban groves be showing such a significantly different pattern? New residents who migrate from elsewhere and live near sacred groves often dispose waste in the groves, says Sinu. “This might have been a reason for the increased abundance of generalist and invasive ants in urban sacred groves,” he says. Educating the local community about the value of forests could be crucial for conservation of sacred groves and their native biodiversity including minuscule ants, he adds.
Tiger reserves: Economic and environmental win-win
While commodifying nature may hurt our sensibilities, economic analysis helps determine the quantity of goods to be extracted by locals
•The headline in a recent PTI report “Saving 2 tigers gives more value than Mangalyaan”’ was intriguing, since it said that saving two tigers yields a capital benefit of Rs 520 crores, while Mangalyaan cost us Rs 450 crores. The headline was both exciting and hurtful. Excited by it, I contacted Professor Madhu Verma of the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal, and she shared with me both a detailed report of 2015 titled: “Economic Evaluation of Tiger Reserves in India: A VALUE + Approach” (available free on the net as NTCA_Report 2015.pdf) and their recent research publication: “Making the Hidden Visible: Economic Valuation of Tiger Reserves in India” which appeared in the journal Ecosystem Services; 26 (2017): 236-244. Both were eye openers!
•Putting a price on Nature and commodifying it may hurt our sensibilities. On the other hand, the authors of the above paper point out that an economic analysis helps in determining the quantity of goods such as fuel wood, and fodder that can be allowed for extraction by local communities, based on trade-offs with other services. Such economic analysis also highlights why such “large” areas are reserved for preserving fierce animals like the tiger, when we need more land for human use.
•What is the total amount of land set apart for the 18 ranges as tiger reserves? It is 68,000 square km, which is about 2% of the area of India – set apart for the nation’s pride animal. A tiger reserve is not just for the tiger. The six reserves (Corbett, Kanha, Kaziranga, Periyar, Ranthambore, Sunderbans) that the team has studied house many other animals such as the elephant, rhino, langur, barasingha, mongoose, river dolphin, olive ridley turtle, crocodile — not to speak of the millions of herbs, plants and trees.
What is the point in saving tigers?
•Why save this ferocious animal at all? Tigers are what conservationists call “umbrella” species. By saving them, we save everything beneath their ecological umbrella – everything connected to them – including the world’s last great forests, whose carbon storage mitigates climate change. Vidya Venkat has written more about it in this newspaper of April 17, 2016.
•What all does a tiger reserve offer? The 2017 paper above lists the following: (1) employment generation, (2) agriculture (incidentally the famous IR-8 rice was discovered from the wild rice plants found in one such reserve), (3) fishing, (4) fuel wood, (5) fodder and grazing, (6) timber, (7) pollination of plants, (8) kendu leaves, (9) carbon storage and sequestration (vital for climate protection against global warming), (10) water and its purification by filtering organic wastes, (11) soil conservation, (12) nutrient cycling, and (13) moderation of extreme events such as cyclone storms, flash floods. Add to these cultural ones like tourism, education, research and development, and spiritual ones (like visiting temples within some of them).
•The approach, termed VALUE+, that the group uses has two components. The VALUE part indicates that the annual cost of putting together and maintaining the above six tiger reserves is about Rs 23 crores. But then, what about the “flow benefits”? Take the Periyar Tiger Reserve as an example. VALUE estimates that this Reserve generates Rs 17.6 billion (or Rs 1.9 lakhs per hectare) per year. How? For example it helps provide water to Tamilnadu districts, amount to Rs 4.05 billions /year. Or, take the famous Corbett Park (which is supposed to have the “maneaters of Kumaon”). Its flow benefit per year is Rs 14.7 billion (Rs 1.14 lakhs per hectare). And it provides water to some parts of Uttar Pradesh (at Rs 1.61 billion per year) and Delhi (Rs 530 million per year). In effect, the ratio of benefits to management costs is anywhere from 200 to 530. It is worth investing and managing reserves! And the + sign part in the study highlights benefits for which a monetary number is currently not possible (such as the “umbrella” mentioned above).
•Eye-openers, aren’t they? The should be made compulsory reading and analysis material for students in economics, business management, environmental sciences and biology. School children in cities should be taken to interact with children and parents near (and in) the reserve areas, and learn from (and respect) them. And we must support efforts to increase and sustain the budget for such reserves – after all they cost but a few crores of rupees per reserve per year. Let us express our deep appreciation to the scientists and conservationist (the unsung heroes and heroines) at the IIFM and similar agencies for their outstanding work!
•Now, why the hurt by the PTI headline which said that saving 2 tigers gives more value than Mangalyaan? I felt that this bizarre comparison mocks at ISRO’S efforts. In this connection, I am reminded of the remark made by the famous biochemist Professor Erwin Chargaff during my PhD viva voce exam. He said: “Young man! Why are you studying protein structure when you should be back in India, making sulfuric acid from hay?” What we need in India is both protein structure and sulphuric acid —both Tiger Reserves and Mangalyaan. The latter may not directly help the reserves, but ISRO’S satellite surveys certainly do. Thank you ISRO!
Phobos imaged by Hubble Space telescope
•NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has beamed back images of the tiny Martian moon Phobos in its orbital trek around the red planet. Over the course of 22 minutes, Hubble took 13 separate images, allowing astronomers to create a time-lapse video showing the diminutive moon’s orbital path.
•The Hubble observations were intended to photograph Mars, and the moon’s cameo appearance was a bonus, scientists said. A football-shaped object of size just 26x21x17 kilometres, Phobos is one of the smallest moons in the solar system. The moon completes an orbit in just seven hours and 39 minutes, which is faster than Mars rotates. Rising in the Martian west, it runs three laps around the Red Planet in the course of one Martian day, which is about 24 hours and 40 minutes. It is the only natural satellite in the solar system that circles its planet in a time shorter than the parent planet’s day.
•About two weeks after the Apollo 11 manned lunar landing on July 20, 1969, NASA’s Mariner 7 flew by the Red Planet and took the first crude close-up snapshot of Phobos.