Curious Bends – metal-plated insect syringes, white tigers, steppe eagles and more

1. Found: the first metal-plated syringe in a living creature

On a fig tree in the beautiful campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers have found a wasp that uses a zinc-plated “syringe” to pierce through the skin of unripe fruit and lay her eggs. What’s more, to reveal this intriguing adaption of nature, they used jury-rigged video equipment to capture close-ups of the wasps. Of course electron microscopy was needed to be sure… still a nice example of jugaad. (3 min read)

2. Everything you know about the white tiger is wrong

The white tiger is not really an endangered species. It’s an oddball animal produced purely for human entertainment. Its natural tropical habitat in India is not good for a predator that has lost its camouflage, and, if any existed in the wild, they would have died out. Instead, they remain in our zoos, suffering from the consequences of severe inbreeding, all because they bring in the crowd and, thus, money. (7 min read)

3. After devouring vultures, diclofenac is eating its way through eagles

After pushing vultures to the verge of extinction in South Asia, the veterinary painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac is turning out to be a threat to eagles as well. India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan have banned the drug’s veterinary use, but it is available for human use and hence gets used illegally to treat livestock. (2 min read)

4. One social enterprises’s attempt to provide sustainable clean water to rural India

Water ATMs are popping all over small villages outside India’s capital. Clean drinking water is available for ₹1/litre. If the ATM’s tank falls below a certain level, it triggers a text message to the control room to fix the problem. But the uptake of water purchase is nowhere near sustainable. People prefer the free option, even if it is not clean or easy. (5 min read)

5. The simple rule that is China’s weapon to win the war on malaria

From 26,000 cases in 2008, the incidence of malaria in China has dropped to 2,716 in 2012. The reason is that they follow a simple 1-3-7 rule. New cases must be classified within three days and risk to the local area evaluated within seven days. (3 min read)

6. Animated timeline: creation of Indian states from 1951 to 2014
India has a 29th state in Telangana. Economists argue that this is a good thing. New states grow faster than old ones. If they have their way, India may one day have 50 states.

Chart of the week

More than 2 million people responded to the “My World” survey run by the United Nations. They all unanimously agreed that education was their top priority, regardless of the economic background they were from. Action taken on climate change, on the other hand, sat right at the bottom, along with need for reliable energy at home. More from MSNBC here.


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Solar wind and space dust create new source of water

Water ice is the most abundant solid material in the universe. Much of it was created as the byproduct of star formation, but not all. John Bradley of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and his team may have discovered a new source of water in our solar system. His lab experiments reveal that the solar wind may be creating water on interplanetary dust.

The sun ejects high-speed charged particles in all directions. Bodies in the inner solar system get bombarded by this wind of particles, which continuously varies in intensity.

Small bodies, such as dust particles or tiny asteroids, can be eroded by these harsh winds. Larger bodies that do not have an atmosphere, such as the Moon, are bombarded by both the solar wind and tiny meteorites. This form of bombardment causes a phenomenon called space weathering. (Atmospheres protect planets from tiny meteorites, while a magnetic field can deflect solar winds.)

The lunar dust brought back by the Apollo missions showed for the first time the result of space weathering—though not immediately. A careful examination of the dust returned from the lunar surface had to wait until the 1990s when scientific instruments became good enough. When finally observed under sufficiently powerful microscopes, the dust particles revealed what have been called “rims.”

These dust particles are usually made of silicates—compounds of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen and few metallic elements. The rims are the result of chemical modification of the surface of the particle, caused by high energy impacts and the continuous bombardment of the solar wind.

The modification leads to an imbalance in the chemical structure of the particle, sometimes loosening the bonds holding oxygen and hydrogen atoms in the silicates. This made scientists speculate that there is a chance that water could be formed somewhere in these rims .

Water needs two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. If silicates provide one atom of each element, then only one more hydrogen atom is needed. Conveniently, hydrogen atoms are available in abundance in the solar wind, where they are found as high-energy protons (hydrogen atoms stripped off their electrons). If the conditions are right, this charged hydrogen atom can react on a dust particle’s rim to form water.

Plausible as this seems, past attempts to find water on these rims gave mixed results. The problem was that the reactions were happening at such tiny scales, and instruments weren’t good enough to unambiguously detect water.

That’s where Bradley’s work comes in. The team attempted to locate water using a highly-sensitive method of analysis called valence electron energy-loss spectroscopy. The method involves exposing a sample to a beam of electrons that, on hitting the material, will get deflected at different speeds. The deflection and the speeds can reveal how much energy was lost by the electrons in the process, which is based on the type of atom it hits. The instrument can identify the composition of a material at very small scales, just enough for Bradley to analyse silicate rims.

The best way to determine whether water forms on silicate rims is to do these experiments on the types of silicate material that exist in space. Bradley did this by using three types of these minerals: olivine, clinopyroxene, and anorthine. These were exposed to charged hydrogen and helium particles, which were a proxy for the solar wind.

If water is formed by the solar wind, it would only be found in the samples that were exposed to hydrogen—not in those exposed to helium. And that is what happened. As reported in PNAS, Bradley’s sensitive tests repeatedly found water, but only in the samples that were bombarded by hydrogen.

Martin McCoustra at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh finds the work convincing. He said: “I am not very surprised that water could be formed on silicates. However, now that they have shown that it can, it could be an important source of water.”

Bradley’s work implies that water molecules must have been forming for billions of years on interplanetary dust particles, on the Moon, and possibly on asteroids. However, McCoustra warns that “This source of water, albeit new, won’t be able to account for a large proportion of water in the solar system. Most of that water was formed during the process of star formation that our sun went through.”

Some have argued that water-rich comets planted water on our planet. But McCoustra reckons that a single-source is unlikely. And this study provides another potential source for the material that helps make our planet habitable.The Conversation

PNAS, 2013. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320115111First published at The Conversation.

Social entrepreneurs in India: Water for all

Nearly three-fourths of all diseases caused in India are due to water contaminants. Despite that, one in eight Indians still lacks access to clean drinking water. The poor now realise that paying for clean water can save much more in health-care costs later. It was this market that Sarvajal, a social enterprise in India, wanted to cater to.

Founded in 2008, Sarvajal—which in Sanskrit means “water for all”—now sells clean drinking water to more than 70,000 people in rural India. In bigger villages, it employs local people to man filtration plants and sell water. In small villages it installs solar-powered water dispensing machines (pictured) that use prepaid (or pay-as-you-go) smart cards that can be topped up just like a mobile phone. The machines send data to a central server via SMS, which helps Sarvajal ensure regular supply of clean water.

Sarvajal started with some help from the Piramal Foundation, a charity. And it is not alone: Water Health International was launched with an investment from the Acumen Fund and the Naandi Foundation’s not-for-profit company was backed by a charity with the same name. What sets Sarvajal apart is that it has stayed away from government subsidies while still keeping the price of water low. It sells 10 litres of water for four pence (or six cents), just as much or lower than its competitors.

“Subsidies are not a long-term solution,” says Anand Shah, Savajal’s founder, who grew up in America and moved to India to become a social entrepreneur. It took a healthy bit of tinkering to lower the price of installation and maintenance for its water supply infrastructure. It costs on average $2,500 to install a filtration plant, which is about half the expense of similar projects. Sarvajal claims to recover those costs within three years.

Setting up its project was not easy. Savajal needed to deal with things that few businesses in rich countries have to worry about: lack of proper roads in villages, irregularity of power supply, unreliability of water sources and devising a system of money transfer. Having reached a respectable size, Mr Shah is hopeful that scaling up his business further will be less challenging.

Apart from villages, Sarvajal’s other obvious market is the urban poor. Nearly 100m people live in very densely populated slums in India’s cities. They are more willing to pay a higher price for water than villagers who have a much smaller disposable income. But Mr Shah says that “water barons”, sellers of bottled-water, have been trying to block Sarvajal’s entry into cities. After many months of efforts, this time not without help from the government, Sarvajal will soon be launching its first filtration plant in Delhi.

First published on

Image credit: Sarvajal