It’s becoming increasingly hard for American women to get abortions

A bill introduced in Republican-controlled Wisconsin to ban abortions 20 weeks after conception is likely to become law in the next few weeks. That would make it the 38th new law across 11 US states set this year to restrict women’s access to abortion.

Republicans’ slow attack on the right to abortion is working. Find out how on Quartz, published May 11, 2015.

Image by ashley rose under CC-BY-NC-ND

Marine biology: Flea market

A newly discovered virus may be the most abundant organism on the planet

What is the commonest living thing on Earth? Until now, those in the know would probably have answered Pelagibacter ubique, the most successful member of a group of bacteria, called SAR11, that jointly constitute about a third of the single-celled organisms in the ocean. But this is not P. ubique’s only claim to fame, for unlike almost every other known cellular creature, it and its relatives have seemed to be untroubled by viruses.

As Jonathan Swift put it in a much-misquoted poem, “So, naturalists observe, a flea/Hath smaller fleas that on him prey”. Parasites, in other words, are everywhere. They are also, usually, more abundant than their hosts. An astute observer might therefore have suspected that the actual most-common species on Earth would be a “flea” that parasitised P. ubique, rather than the bacterium itself. The absence of such fleas (in the form of viruses called bacteriophages, that attack bacteria) has puzzled virologists since 1990, when the SAR11 group was identified. Some thought the advantage this absence conferred explained the group’s abundance. But no. As they report in this week’s Nature, Stephen Giovannoni of Oregon State University and his colleagues have discovered the elusive phages. Swift’s wisdom, it seems, still holds good.

Tracking down a particular virus in the ocean makes finding a needle in a haystack look a trivial task. A litre of seawater has billions of viruses in it. Modern genetic techniques can obtain DNA sequences from these viruses, but that cannot tie a particular virus to a particular host.

To do so, Dr Giovannoni (pictured) borrowed a technique from homeopathy: he diluted some seawater to such an extent that, statistically speaking, he expected a 100-microlitre-sized aliquot to contain only one or two viruses. The difference between his approach and a homeopath’s was that what homeopathy dilutes almost to nothing are chemicals, and thus cannot breed. A virus can, given a suitable host. So he mixed each of several hundred aliquots into tubes of water containing P. ubique. Then he waited.

The race is to the Swift

After 60 hours, he looked to see what had happened. In most cases the bacteria had thrived. In a few, though, they had been killed by what looked like viral infection. It was these samples that he ran through the DNA-sequencing machine, in the knowledge that the only viral DNA present would be from whatever it was had killed the bacteria.

His reward was to find not one, but four viruses that parasitise P. ubique. He then compared their DNA with databases of DNA found in seawater from around the world, to find out how abundant each is. The upshot was that a virus dubbed HTVC010P was the commonest. It thus displaces its host as the likely winner of the most-common-living-thing prize.

That does depend, of course, on your definition of “living thing”. Some biologists count viruses as organisms. Some do not. The reason is that a virus relies for its growth and reproduction on the metabolic processes of the cell it infects. This means viruses themselves are hard to parasitise, since they do no work on which another organism can free-ride. Which is why the next two lines of Swift’s poem, “And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em/And so proceed ad infinitum”, are wrong—and why, because HTVC010P itself can have no parasites, it probably really is the commonest organism on the planet.

First published in The Economist.  Also available in audio here.

References:

  1. Zhao et al., Abundant SAR11 viruses in the ocean, Nature2013.
  2. Brown et al., Global biogeography of SAR11 marine bacteria, Mol Syst Biol2012.
  3. Swift, Poetry: A Rhapsody, 1733.

Image credit: Lynn Ketchum

The God of the gaps

One side of the debate over God’s existence focuses on the notion that what science cannot explain today must be the doing of God. Neil deGrasse Tyson neatly explains this God to be “an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance”. 

But what’s funnier is that the God of the gaps argument was actually used by Henry Drummond, a 19th century evangelist, to decry the scientifically oriented Christians from believing in this argument.

Crowdfunding science: Many a mickle makes a muckle

Necessity, so the proverb has it, is the mother of invention. And science is nothing if not inventive. So, as conventional sources of money get harder to tap (the success rate enjoyed by those applying for research grants from the National Institutes of Health, America’s biggest science-funding agency, has fallen from 30% in 2003 to 18% in 2011), some of science’s more creative minds are turning elsewhere.

Philanthropic sponsorship of science, particularly in the form of expensive pieces of kit such as large telescopes, or sponsorship for expeditions to far-off places, has been around for centuries. But the internet now permits what might be thought of as microphilanthropy. Through a technique called crowdfunding, in which members of the public donate small sums to projects they like the look of (sometimes in the knowledge that the donation will be taken up only if sufficient other pledges are made to surpass a stated target), the possibility of scientific philanthropy has been extended to those of more slender means.

On October 4th, for example, Ethan Perlstein, a pharmacologist at Princeton University, launched a bid on a site called RocketHub to collect $25,000 to study the effect of drugs such as methamphetamine on the brain. He has until November 18th to raise the money.

Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist at the University of West Florida, has already raised over $12,000 on RocketHub to examine the DNA of Roman skeletons. And on another crowdfunding site, Petridish, the California Academy of Sciences (CAS) offered to name any new species of ant discovered during a conservation project in Madagascar after those who donate more than $5,000 to the enterprise.

Although the crowdfunding of science is not raising the sorts of sums sometimes attracted by those with ideas for things like video games, it has already spawned a couple of specialised platforms of its own. Petridish is one. Another is called Microryza. And academic institutions are starting to follow the lead taken by the CAS. The University of California, San Francisco, has made a deal with a site called Indiegogo that will allow the university’s charitable status to make money donated via Indiegogo tax deductible. It will launch the first such project later this month.

Donors can expect no revenue if a crowdfunded science project is successful, of course. But they can expect to be kept up to date with progress. Dr Perlstein has promised to upload all data from his experiments onto a website, for his sponsors to look at. And even those who are not immortalised in the myrmicine literature, as the CAS proposed, may still get a warm glow from the feeling that they are making a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in a way which was previously open only to philanthropists with rather fatter wallets.

First published in The Economist. Also available in audio here.

Image credit: VentureBeat

Sparking young minds

Last year I helped organise a science essay writing competition in my high school. This year, with the help of teachers, a similar competition was organised at Rasbihari International School in Nashik (where I also gave a talk earlier this year). The topic for the students this year was ‘A scientific discovery or invention that changed the world.’

Selected essays that I read had covered these subjects: aeroplanes, electricity, E=mc^2, medicine, space, and computers. Among those the winners of this year’s competition are:

  1. Vaishnavi Maniyar
  2. Saloni Lodha
  3. Shruti Tarle

You can read the essays by clicking on their names. My criteria for judging these essays was imagination, accuracy, flow of ideas, and use of language. The winners are being given the following books:

  1. What Einstein Told His Cook – Robert  L. Wolke
  2. How to Fossilise your Hamster – Mick O’Hare
  3. Why Can’t Elephants Jump – the New Scientist

I am grateful to Piyushee Amrite, Suchitra Sarda, my mum and others who helped organise this. The school has agreed to hold this competition annually, and I am looking forward to reading more such interesting essays.

Failing again and again

Hugh McLeod never gets it wrong

There was some frustration in the undergraduate labs yesterday. A particular experiment has been failing to give the desired product more number of times than we’d like. When it happens a few times, we have no qualms in blaming students’ poor skills. But when it happens too many times, it is usually a sign that we need to revisit the procedure.

When one of the student doing that experiment left us with a fallen face yesterday, my senior remarked, “After a long day in the lab, it’s not nice to leave with nothing.”

My immediate response to that was, “What will happen to them if they think of doing organic synthesis for their PhDs!”

As I write my thesis I realise that it’s mostly a narrative of what did not work. A long list of negative results with some positive spikes. Yet, at the end of three and a half years, I feel I have done something – placing a handful of atoms together to make something that no one has made before. In the process, I have learnt from my failures and added a few bricks to this large construction called science.

One thing they don’t tell those who are thinking of going to grad school is that you need patience, a lot of it. The undergraduate’s frustration reminds me of my own. But in the name of science, I failed, got up, and failed again. I persevered.

As I look to enter one of the toughest markets for a graduate student (science journalism), I realise that I will need patience and perseverance in large doses. The stories of science writers aren’t those of indulgence, fortune, and success but those of moderation, hardship, and failures. Yet those stories are inspirational because whatever little fame and success came their way was worth it’s weight in gold.

When (and not if) I fail, I will need to be reminded of all these stories. Failure will have to become my muse, again.

Picture credit: gapingvoid

The missing red line

I chose to do a PhD because I had a dream. A dream that probably every PhD student has when they start – to change the world by doing great science. And for a while I truly believed that I could do that. In the few years of work that the PhD requires, I thought I could change the world.

Nothing wrong with that. After all, greater the goal higher the motivation!

The bubble did not last very long. Reality hit me. Changing the world is a very difficult task indeed. Many have come and perished. Those few who did change the world had greater ability and a lot more luck. And at that moment of realisation, as all graduate students do, I entered a phase of depression. Falling prey to the imposter syndrome (everyone else is way better than me) is very easy.

What the cartoon above is missing is a red line, which I believe should be inversely related to the blue line and it should denote the rising level of ambition in non-research careers. 😉