Geoff Hyde

Stories from Geoff Hyde

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

The family tree of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which so far includes Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, will soon have a fourth major branch: TIFR Hyderabad. The foundation stone will be laid by PM Manmohan Singh on October 19, as reported recently in the Times of India. TIFR Director Mustansir Barma and NCBS Director Prof. K. VijayRaghavan welcome and encourage all interested parties at NCBS to join them in Hyderabad for the event. See below for more details.

For those at NCBS who cannot make it, the PM's visit will be covered in a webcast, and food and refreshments will help to mark the occasion.

Saturday, October 9th, 2010
Remember the last monsoon drizzle and the smell from the moist soil, or that moment when you discovered the gas was leaking in your kitchen? These examples tell us that we can differentiate between a variety of odors and their intensities. We possess this ability because olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs) in our nose can sense different odorants, just our tongue’s taste buds can detect different flavours. How does this smell sense develop? Do we ‘learn’ to smell and discern different odors and their intensities through experience or are these abilities that we are born with? Or is it a combination of both processes? If learning is involved, at which development stage do we ‘learn’? These are some of the questions central to understanding the experience-dependent modification of animal behavior.
Saturday, July 24th, 2010
In the last month three NCBS students added their names to the Centre’s honour roll of prize-winning conference presenters.  Manivannan S. from Gaiti Hasan’s calcium signaling group won one of the best poster awards at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Japanese Society of Developmental Biologists, held in Kyoto.  Girish Arjun Punjabi and Shivani Jadeja, respectively, won first and joint second prizes for best talks at the first Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS), Bangalore. They were reporting the results of research projects done within the M.Sc Wildlife Conservation programme run at NCBS in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India and the Centre for Wildlife Studies.
Monday, June 7th, 2010

A team of neuroscientists, led by Prof. Sumantra Chattarji at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore has identified  previously unrecognised synaptic defects in an area of the brain that is involved in the debilitating emotional symptoms of Fragile X Syndrome (FXS), the leading genetic cause of autism and mental retardation. The study is of potential therapeutic significance because it also shows that even a relatively brief pharmacological treatment is capable of correcting some of these defects in mice that were genetically engineered to model FXS. The work, done together with collaborators at New York University, will be reported in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of June 7-11.

Friday, May 21st, 2010

“In 2002, the world’s leaders agreed to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Having reviewed all available evidence, including national reports submitted by Parties, this third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook concludes that the target has not been met. Moreover, the Outlook warns, the principal pressures leading to biodiversity loss are not just constant but are, in some cases, intensifying.”
Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General United Nations, in the Foreword to “Global Biodiversity Outlook 3”, 2010.

Sunday, May 16th, 2010
Overlooking 1600km of the peninsula's west coast, the Western Ghats are the most striking geographical feature of south India. With their altitudinal range (average elevation of 1200m, highest point 2695m), a latitudinal spread  of 13deg, and a 70% drop-off in monsoonal rainfall between the western and eastern slopes, it is no surprise that the variety of plants and animals supported by the Western Ghats is also extraordinary. In the Western Ghats’ many habitats, ranging from montane and tropical evergreen forests, to dry deciduous forests, to montane grasslands, one can find about 5000 plant species, 139 mammal species and over 500 different birds. The Western Ghats’ ecological significance is underscored by its designation as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Sunday, May 9th, 2010
I must admit I have often doubted whether humans are psychologically equipped to take on challenges like overpopulation and global warming. These problems require cooperation on a grand scale, something that our evolutionary history, most of it spent living in tribes, might not have prepared us for. But I was heartened to find that this bleak outlook is out of sync with recent findings of Indian biologists, including some from NCBS, who have examined the nature and genetic basis of social adaptivity in some of our primate cousins, most particularly the Bonnet Macaques of southern India. Their results, including a paper just published in Behavior Genetics (see Abstract here), also made me aware of an idea that is now gaining momentum in human psychology: that as a species we possess more psychological flexibility than previously thought, and that many of our apparent weaknesses are actually indicators of our species’ remarkable capacity to cope with change. Maybe we are not as narrowly hardwired as many of us have believed.
Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

NCBS prides itself on the interdisciplinarity of its biology. Investigations in more traditional areas are enriched by contributions from researchers with strengths in physics, mathematics, informatics, chemistry and nanotechnology. The benefits of such cross-fertilisation were exemplified last year when a DNA-based pH probe developed by Yamuna Krishnan’s nanobiology team was quickly shown to actually work in living cells in collaboration with Jitu Mayor’s team. (see Nature News article). 

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Science seems to attract a naturally cautious breed. When you actually start doing research, however, you soon realise that an entirely new level of cautiousness is called for. The perils of "confirmation bias", Murphy’s Law, and the sheer technological complexity of even a routine experiment can quickly humble the researcher and drive home the value of taking every aspect of a project very, very seriously. Nature does not yield her secrets easily.

Scientists learn the many aspects of "taking things seriously" largely by trial and error, or via the informal advice of their colleagues. Last week however thirty NCBS researchers had the benefit of a more systematic approach to education in this area: a 3-day workshop that provided an introduction to a consolidated body of knowledge called Good Laboratory Practice (GLP).
Friday, April 9th, 2010
As the human population continues to swell, the world's supply of freshwater dwindles. We are drawing from an already limited pool: less than one per cent of the earth’s freshwater is directly accessible, most of it locked up in glaciers and polar ice. According to the Pacific Institute, humanity uses, on average, about 7% of the available freshwater every year, a percentage that climbs to 40% in India. The volume of annual rain in many countries, including India (~ 3,000 cubic km) luckily still dwarfs human water usage (by about a factor of five in India) but this of course makes local communities anxious hostages to the rain gods.
Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Can you remember running down a set of stairs really fast without thinking - and then wondering in amazement, “How did I do that?”. Well in a way “you” didn’t. Just as your breathing and heartbeat do not require your conscious input, the control of other rhythmic activities such as walking and running is largely automatic. This can free up your often already-overloaded conscious mind to think about more important things, for example where to run to! In any animal, the automatic component of each rhythmic motion is enabled by a specialised part of the central nervous system that functions as a “Central Pattern Generator” (CPG) for that particular motion. CPGs are a fascinating and important area of animal biology, and last year Gayatri Venkiteswaran and Gaiti Hasan of NCBS published a paper in PNAS that demonstrated a previously unrecognised feature of the nerves that directly influence the CPG that controls flight in the fruitfly, Drosophila. And, right now, the movie that illustrates the most significant findings of their study is a finalist in the competition for Drosophila Image Award of 2010, an honour awarded each year by the Genetics Society of America.

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

In an Indian tropical forest there are few things as distinctive and exciting as the swoosh of a hornbill flying overhead. The rushing sound of its heavy wings feels so loud and close that it captures all your attention, then leaves you relieved that the bird had no malevolent intent. Of course if you are lucky enough to also see one of India's nine hornbill species, there is excitement too, all of them being adorned with disproportionately large hooked bills, augmented yet again, in some species, by a striking bony casque.

Saturday, March 20th, 2010
“It was a warm day with early morning temperature around –16º C.” With such unaffected understatement so begins a description on Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi's blog of "a day at work in the Trans-Himalaya”, detailing some of the field work of a project reported last year in Oecologica, and which was done in an M.Sc Program that NCBS runs in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India and the Centre for Wildlife Studies.
Sunday, March 14th, 2010
Each weekend NCBS News puts together a new edition, and highlights the lead story of the week. A big part of the lead story is the accompanying graphic, which also adorns and refreshes the NCBS home page. You can check out all the graphics created so far by choosing "Lead Story Graphics!" from the main Navigation bar, top right of screen. Many of the lead story graphics have been the result of the graphic artistry of NCBS's own Shovamayee Maharana.

Skip to Lead Story Graphics II May-August 2010
Saturday, March 6th, 2010
Microscopists always want to look more closely, but up until quite recently biologists have been drastically restricted in what they can study with the light microscope. For a microscope used in traditional fashion, the laws of physics dictate that two objects need to be more than 200nm apart (i.e. about half the wavength of the illuminating light) or their images will blur together. This is fine for viewing cells – for example, a red blood cell is about 7000nm in diameter - but for many of a cell's most interesting features the so-called “diffraction barrier” does pose problems. The plasma membrane for example is about 7 to 10 nm thick, and cannot be resolved with light microscopy. These finer structures can be examined with electron microscopy, where the resolving power increases to less than a nanometre, but with this approach biologists cannot take advantage of a wide range of powerful specimen preparation techniques, most particularly the targeting of structures with fluorescent probes.
Saturday, March 6th, 2010

It does not take long for anyone starting up research in a big centre to realise how much their success depends upon the expertise and dedication of their institution's general staff. A centre like NCBS is no simple enterprise, often having to function much like a city in miniature. Innumerable services must run smoothly in the background not only to facilitate basic research activities but to enable a remarkable range of ancillary amenities available on campus: housing, dining, childcare, mail, transport, banking, sports and entertainment, travel assistance, conference hosting and medical care. Given the efficiency, reliability and friendliness of the staff who make this possible at NCBS, the Director K. VijayRaghavan took great pleasure at the recent Republic Day festivities in thanking and honouring, on everyone's behalf, some of the individuals and units that have provided truly superlative efforts in the last year. "Our Admin, Technical and Service Staff are true heroes, comparable to the best anywhere in the world." says Dr VijayRaghavan, "They are the unseen force which keeps our system running well. Honouring our colleagues once a year is very important and reminds us how necessary they are for the success of our science."

Saturday, February 27th, 2010
For all of January and February, and stretching even into March, Mukund Thattai, faculty member of NCBS, has been at the helm of a remarkable scientific meeting at the famous Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The meet, Evolutionary Perspectives on Mechanisms of Cellular Organization offers over sixty talks by many eminent thinkers in the field, including fellow NCBSians Satyajit Mayor and Madan Rao, and Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse.

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

This week on February 15 and 16 NCBS will host a meeting, “Learning about memory: cells, circuits and behaviour”, that brings together the world’s leading researchers on the neurobiological basis of memory. The six speakers, each of whom will give one talk each day, span the field, not only in terms of its scope – from molecular mechanisms right up to network dynamics – but also its entire history.

Tim Bliss, the first speaker, was the co-author, with Terje Lømo, of the 1973 paper that gave the initial detailed account of “long-term potentiation” (LTP) a phenomenom that provided, for the first time, evidence of a possible cellular foundation for memory. LTP describes a form of enhanced and enduring connectivity between neurons that develops if there is frequent electrochemical crosstalk across their junction (the synapse). Thus repeated experiences have a greater possibility of leaving a neural trace in our brains, and so, for better or worse, we are at least partly the products of our own individual history.

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Every August finds the NCBS campus brightened by its new students, and particularly so each second summer with the arrival of a small but particularly committed cohort - the fifteen enrollees of the Masters Course in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. The fourth batch, who will be the graduates of 2012, are being selected right now, to emerge as the success stories of a tough filtering process that sifts through about 400 candidates each time. And the difficulty of the process lies not just in the number of applicants but in their quality. Many of the wildlife students are giving up already successful careers as doctors, vets and engineers to switch to a profession where the promise of substantial financial reward can never be mistaken as a major lure.

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