A Bachelors degree in Botany and then a Masters in Wildlife Sciences: not many botanists are wildlife biologists. What drew you to wildlife biology?
I always liked plants, although wildlife sciences was definitely my first love. Professor Madhav Pendse, then the head of the Botany Department at Sir Parashurambhau College, was always supportive and encouraging of all my work on wildlife. I would say I finished my Bachelors degree and have come to appreciate plants much more than before, thanks to him. And the second person who influenced me is Milind Watve, currently professor at IISER Pune: because of him, I would say I finished my education and am into research. Looking back, I think the degree in Botany was one of the best things that happened to me in college. I started pursuing work on butterflies much more seriously during that time, though I did not dream that I would study butterflies for a living. Because I had a background in botany, learning about butterflies, their host plants and the forests where they fly became much easier. I put this knowledge to use in my butterfly studies now.
The international Human Science Frontier Program awarded a Young Investigator research grant to NCBS principal investigator Madhusudhan Venkadesan and his collaborators, Mahesh Bandi (Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Japan) and Shreyas Mandre (School of Engineering, Brown University, USA) last month. They received the three-year grant (of $350,000 per year), for a project titled "Foot in Motion: Materials, Mechanics and Control" which proposes to study how the human foot helps in stable, energy efficient locomotion.
At an international Biodesign competition, called BIOMOD, hosted by Harvard University every year, NCBS fielded a team - the DNA Maestros - in November 2012 comprising 7 students from NCBS and IIT-Guwahati. Their project was a great success, winning a Silver Medal. At the competition they received tremendous feedback on the quality of their presentation from several other team mentors. Following NCBS's invitation for a repeat performance here, the DNA Maestros will regale you on Friday 21.12.12 (to make sure your world DOES in fact end with their presentation!) for about 15-20 minutes with their prize winning entry.
It's on at 4 pm, in Safeda. The world ends at ~4.20 pm - come and attend your last scientific talk!!! The speakers are a bunch of young undergraduates, do encourage them with your presence and toughen them with your best questions. See you there at 4 pm on Friday.
The fastest carnivorous plant: a small aquatic species belonging to the bladderwort genus now holds that distinction. Scientists at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) filmed Utricularia stellaris trapping its prey and found that it was the fastest ever recorded for a carnivorous plant. The finding reaffirms that even organisms without muscle and nervous systems can evolve mechanisms that make them fast enough to outsmart prey with advanced sensorimotor capacities.
Satyajit Mayor, a professor in NCBS's Cellular Organization and Signalling Group, and the Centre's Dean, has been awarded the 2012 Infosys Prize for Life Sciences. According to the citation for the award, Mayor's work "provides new insights into regulated cell surface organization and membrane dynamics, necessary for understanding self-organization and trafficking of membrane molecules in living cells, and in signaling between cells." The Infosys Prizes, awarded annually in six categories and providing cash prizes of Rs 50 Lakh each, are highly regarded within the research community. The jury panel is chaired by six internationally acclaimed academics, and in 2012 it included the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen.
Like our own skin, the membrane of the cell plays a critical, but easily under-appreciated, role in the proper functioning of the organism. While Mayor and his colleagues have been researching the nature and activities of this membrane for several decades, the longer version of the Infosys citation suggests it is the work on the membrane's internal organisation that has most excited the judges. This line of research was brought to a culmination in a paper recently published in the journal Cell: Active Remodeling of Cortical Actin Regulates Spatiotemporal Organization of Cell Surface Molecules (Gowrishankar et al., 2012). It is not a coincidence that this work was done in Bangalore. It draws heavily on insights and approaches from a relatively new area of physics - soft active matter - which is actively studied at the Raman Research Institute (Madan Rao's group) and the Indian Institute of Science (Sriram Ramaswamy's group). Rao, who was a co-author on the paper, has had a long-standing and very fruitful collaboration with Mayor (and Ramaswamy). Ramaswamy's work on soft active matter led to him winning last year's Infosys Prize in the Physical Sciences category.
In March this year the Indian news media reported the onfield death, by cardiac arrest, of 28-year-old Bangalore footballer D. Venkatesh. Many young athletes die like this every year - recent victims have included stars of the European soccer scene and American basketball. In most cases, these deaths are due to an inherited form of the disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Basically, the heart muscle gets too big for its own good. Its muscular walls lose the flexibility needed for normal pumping, and when the demand for blood flow jumps too high - most commonly while exercising - the hypertrophic heart cannot keep up. And the problem is not limited to athletes. It can also strike the more sedentary among us.
Scientists at NCBS and inStem, Bangalore, are trying to understand the underlying biology of inherited cardiac hypertrophy (HCM), and also the converse disease, in which the heart muscles thin out (dilated cardiomyopathy, DCM). In each disease, the most common genetic cause is a mutation in one of the proteins that comprise the cellular machinery for muscle contraction (see figure). The net outcome of any individual mutation - either a hyper- or hypo-trophic heart - depends on whether muscle contraction is increased or decreased by the change in the mutated protein. But how that increase or decrease in efficiency is brought about remains unclear.
The world's largest population of the endangered Asian elephant Elephas maximus occurs in one of the world's most densely populated and poorest regions, India. The ever-increasing human population exerts tremendous pressure on the natural resources including the forests in which these giants live. Increasingly, the competition for land and food has driven the two mega-vegetarians into conflict. Human-elephant conflict (HEC) is fast emerging as the greatest threat to the conservation of our 'National Heritage Animal' in the 21st century, far greater than poaching.
Although the elephant is one of the most well known, loved and revered animals in this country, we are still grappling to address many an important issue related to its conservation, including HEC. We lack rigorous scientific studies into the behaviour of these highly social animals, and thus we are unable how to predict how they might engage with their habitat - and with us. Do they always just 'follow the herd' - or do these long-lived, intelligent animals make individual decisions? Knowing the answers to these questions is fundamental to informed management.
A cut finger calls into action a crew of repair cells - macrophages - that crawl amoeba-like towards the wound. To drag itself forward a macrophage repeatedly anchors, then detaches, its advancing membranous fringe, to and from, the surrounding matrix. This feat is just one of many activities made possible by the cell's ability to enrich selected areas of its outer membrane with specialized proteins. For example, the macrophage's moving fringe is enriched in the protein integrin, which can link the membrane to the matrix. How such localized enrichment occurs within the broad expanse of the cell's membrane has remained unclear. Now however a team of researchers at the National Centre for Biological Science and the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, believe they have the answer. In a recent paper in the journal Cell (Gowrishankar et al., 2012) they have proposed, and tested, a model that, unlike previous models, explains how enrichment could be an active process, and thus controllable by the cell.
A sweetener 100,000 times as sweet as sugar, carrying almost no calories.
Meet monellin, a super-sweet, low-calorie protein from the serendipity berry, a vine from the tropical forests of Africa. Like other proteins, monellin is made of amino acids, which are joined to form two chains, wound together like a braid. Monellin's special sweetness arises from a kink in the braid that somehow tingles the taste buds. But if any food that contains monellin is heated to over 50°C, the chains unravel, the kink disappears and the sweetness is gone.