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Building Myself from Scratch

I was watching a sixties movie last week. Halfway through the black-and-white classic I remembered having heard from my father’s mouth that this was an outstanding movie. I was surprised that I had that insignificant and meaningless (to me then) one sentence film review in my memory because I must have been under 10 then. The movie really was very well made. It wasn’t a popular movie then and isn’t remembered much now either. It suited my taste and style though. I asked myself if I had acquired that taste from my father. This could be my wishful thinking. Yet it always amazes me to think how that half set of genes of each of my parents eventually shaped me to this day. How this 60+ kilos of my body with all its fully functioning organs emerged from that single tiny cell formed about 38 weeks before my birth? Read on …

Post-COVID-19 World: Is De-urbanisation on the Cards?

Cities emerged most likely as a consequence of the mankind’s shift to agriculture as the dominant occupation. Unprecedented urbanisation happened as an aftermath of the industrial revolution. So it’s basically the economic need that drove us here. Social needs hardly require us to live amidst hundreds of thousands of other people around. Now with internet connecting us without the need to be physically connected, it’s time we questioned the old, and still very much in vogue, model of city based services. Do we continue to allow the megacity dinosaur grow or let the small town/village birds fly? Here in this article I compare evolution of civilisation with evolution of life. Read on…

Lovelock Writes at 100

We are the “highest” species on the Earth, at least in our anthropocentric view. Would we continue to dominate in future? No, says the visionary James Lovelock. Who then is going to take over? When? Are we going to continue or become extinct? Read on… only 3 minutes long…

Game, set, match Mother, by design

Almost like a ritual before preparing to serve, a tennis player picks up three balls, looks at them once and rejects one. How efficiently could one reject a bad ball out of three with just a casual glance? Yet statistically this process makes sense. If not for one’s inability to grab more than three, the player has a better chance of ending up with the best two balls if there are more balls to reject. Anyway, this act passes off as a trivial routine – too mundane to register in our minds focussed on what is going to happen when the ball is in play. But this is exactly the process that mitochondria follow at a crucial stage in our lives and this has a huge impact on who we are.

A mitochondrion is technically an organelle – a tiny organ inside a cell. One of the curious features of mitochondrion is that, like a cell, it has its own DNA. This sure sets it apart from other functional organelles inside the cell and raises its status as something that might have its own life. Indeed it is now widely recognized that mitochondria were once free living bacteria that an ancient cell had engulfed. It has been living inside and producing offspring ever since. Mitochondria multiply and so do mitochondrial DNA. Cells too multiply and divide the mitochondrial population among themselves.

So far so good. But then something happens to certain cells as a result of organisms performing sex which disturbs this usual peaceful settlement process. These ‘sex-related’ cells are called germ cells. When an organism performs the act of sex, a germ cell from outside (sperm) fuses with the resident germ cell (egg) along with its genetic content. The two DNAs recombine and become DNA of the fused cell. Now think of the mitochondria inside each of the fusing cells. There are two sets of populations – one from Mars (sperm) and the other from Venus (egg). Too many individuals to accommodate in a restricted space. Some primitive form of sex had the two parties settle the score among themselves by trying to kill each other. Things are much streamlined in higher organisms like us humans. Not sure if this was a peaceful solution but one set of mitochondria completely vanishes from the scene and the individuals belonging to the other set occupy the newly formed cell. No prize for guessing which group sacrifices itself. The intruders – the mitochondria that previously belonged to the sperm cell – of course.

The offspring of mitochondria that belong to the mother organism’s germ cell occupy the newborn fused cell which eventually develops into a new individual organism. And life goes on. In all animals and most plants and other eukaryotes, only mother’s mitochondria are passed on to the next generation. The male’s only contribution is in providing sperm for sex. Everything else is a dead end for male. So much for the patriarchal society we are proud of!

Besides nurturing the egg and, in mammals, the pre-birth baby, the female body carries out some amazing processes inside the egg cell before and after sexual fusion that are beneficial to the offspring and to the living world in general. To be precise, to the mitochondria. One such process of great significance is called mitochondrial bottleneck. Let me explain.

The single biggest threat to life is damage to its DNA. Back in the times of early Earth, ultraviolet radiation from the Sun would do most of DNA damage. These days, a slow process of damage happens in the form of mutation during the process of creating copies. A few random mutations here and there are non-life-threatening. However, in bacteria such mutations tend to accumulate in the cells and over a period of time could potentially cause extinction of the species. The phenomenon has a popular scientific name – Muller’s ratchet. Mitochondrial bottleneck during the process of fertilization is a mechanism to mitigate the risk posed by accumulating mutations. Just like that tennis player, the egg cell sorts its mitochondrial DNA in clusters and then selects only a few to be passed along while rejecting the rest. Statistically, this process leads to reduced mutations in the mitochondrial DNA that is eventually passed on to the offspring thus ensuring a safer mitochondrial genome for the next generation.

You may be thinking, but that ‘purifies’ the mitochondrial DNA and not the DNA of the cell that in reality is the blueprint of an individual. How important are mitochondria to the overall functioning of the cell and eventually to the organism is a topic in itself – too big to cover here. From the obvious respiration which provides energy, to control of almost every aspect of the cell including sex, ageing and death, mitochondria have a critical role in our well-being. And in a yet another clever design by nature, a mother will pass on more mutational load to her male offspring (that cannot pass on the deleterious mutations further) than to her female progeny. This phenomenon – often referred to as mother’s curse – has been studied in the fly Drosophila – the most common guinea pig for genetics studies (Innocenti et al., 2011) and is likely to be present in all animals. If you are a male reading this, bad luck, but it’s just nature’s design to ensure the protection of what matters most – mitochondrial DNA!

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Innocenti et al. (2011) Experimental Evidence Supports a Sex-Specific Selective Sieve in Mitochondrial Genome Evolution. Science, 332, 6031.

Needless grapes

It took nature more than a billion years since the Earth was born to devise a mechanism for trapping Sun’s energy. This made life in the ocean self-sufficient. Then around half a billion years ago, it delegated the responsibility to plants and animals to carry life forward. To uncharted territories. Plants marched towards the land. Animals came along.

Passing the baton from generation to generation, life kept on conquering territories. There was a big deterrent on land though. In water based plants, male sperms swim to meet the female egg for fertilization. The fertilized egg then needs water to germinate. Water wasn’t as readily available on land as in the ocean. The very core of life’s survival – reproduction – was under threat.

After struggling for another 100 million years, nature invented pollens that carried the male sperms to the female egg using the wind. A neat strategy to overcome dependence on water. Sperms in the pollen and egg fertilize to produce seed which then germinates into a new plant on wet ground.

Now what if there’s not enough wind to carry pollens? Nature looked around and saw insects. They were feeding on pollen-bearing organs with no apparent benefit to the plant. Why not use these freeloaders to carry pollens? But they needed to be tricked into doing so. Thus came about one of the most effective innovations of nature – a rare combination of beauty and utility – flowers. Their colours and fragrance attracted the insects. They found nectar in there which they fed on unaware that the plants quietly loaded pollens onto them while they were busy feeding. This was a huge relief. Plants no longer needed to depend on natural agents – water or wind – to transport sperms to eggs. Reproduction was back on in full swing.

With plants going to far away places via this newfound reproductive strategy, a new challenge surfaced. The seeds that were produced as a result of fertilization still needed water to germinate. How do you carry the seed to wet grounds?

The plants went for the tried-and-tested strategy. They added an enticing structure called fruit around the seed. Again, it was not just a marketing ploy full of colours and fragrance. It did have value proposition too in the form of food. Many birds and mammals fell for it and inadvertently participated in dispersal of seeds.

And then came to this world a bipedal animal with specially modified thumb to easily pick fruits. This gave him advantage over other creatures. He did not however stop at helping the cause of plants by dispersing the seeds. He used the advantageous grip to pick and throw stones and other tools at fellow animals. He then began consuming the seeds on a large scale. Worse, he even invented seedless grapes!

Two sigmas ruin the bell curve

Campus of a premier national institute in India in the nineties. It was dark. Sounds of some people stomping next to the hostel building followed by glass shattering broke the eerie silence. There was a sudden surge of activity in the ground floor wing and everyone came out of their rooms. It was first year Science post-graduate students’ wing. Soon their seniors emerged from the upper floors. An extraordinary general meeting followed. It was a war-like situation. An Engineering graduate student had attacked the room of a Science post-graduate student.

It was not a personal feud. A full-blown inter-caste war it was. The echoes of which were felt decades later when the Engineering almuni left out the Science post-graduates from the celebration of 25 years of graduation. Such deep rooted was the strife.

Chevron fold at Ulverstone, Tasmania in December 2016

Superficial cause: Engineering students who held the majority decreed that a second year Engineering student was equivalent in ‘campus social status’ to a first year Science student. The right of ragging (hazing) a Science post-graduate fresher came with it.

Deep cause: An Engineering candidate was superior to a Science graduate because, ha, no brilliant student in his right senses would do a Science graduation ahead of Engineering and Medicine. So yeah, notwithstanding an altogether different discipline, Science graduates represented an inferior ‘caste’ and needed to be treated as such.

A classic case of conflict due to combined effects of majority-minority dichotomy and social stratification it was. One hopes the current generation is more sensible and that things are much better now.

Call it race, caste, tribe, religion, institutional loyalty, nationalistic pride, geographic superiority or “phylumbaazi” (a colloquial term frequently in use in the region) – excessive invocation by these groups of collective entitlement of their members render them nothing more than refuges of mediocrity. For people who do that are not contributors to the value of the group, but are exploiters of the current value. This applies as much to the “superior” group as to the “inferior” group. Fundamentally they are doing the same. One wants to continue to get the benefits by victimising others for the current perceived superiority of its group, and the other wants to continue to get the benefits of being the victim. None is bothered about the declining perceived value of their respective groups because of their frequent stake at entitlements.

True value-adders of either group do not need benefits of perception. On the other extreme, the bottom-dwellers of either group are content with what they have. It’s the mediocre people in the group who stake a claim to the cake without actually contributing to its making. Unfortunately, the statistical bell curve ensures that such mediocre people will be in the majority. So in the end whether this majority follow the value-adders or dictate their terms onto them determines the merits of the group. It’s not hard to see then why true value-adders sometime leave a group they naturally belong to.

We see people seeking entitlements for various reasons, often at the expense of true merit. One common scenario is: we stuffed it up and are now entitled to prevent others from stuffing it up further. Yet another: we once studied head-down-bum-up to acquire this highly coveted qualification or get into this universally revered institution and now will reap benefits for the rest of our lives. Or: we were treated unfairly when we were new and now that we have reached this position of dictating terms, why should the freshers have it easy? Or simply, we are the sons of the soil and therefore entitled to chew up all the resources here without being accountable to anyone. Whatever the cause, such claims of entitlements have one thing in common – the rhetoric usually comes from the mediocre in the business. And when they seek to extend such entitlements for their offspring, the caste comes in handy.

How to create in zero easy steps

Ever thought of writing a story or composing a piece of music? And wondered what training courses might help? Training helps. Not in creativity though. It might help you master the tools and techniques. But that’s it. It won’t help at all with the creative process.

The very fundamental requirement of training is existence. Of processes. Of tools. Of things. That’s what one will train on. And the very fundamental requirement of creation is non-existence. That’s what one will bring about. Did you see the contradiction?

Music is an arrangement of sounds into patterns. Sounds need to be produced using tools and knowing techniques on how to use the tools. The tools are, to name a few, a flute where wind has to be blown into, a guitar where the string needs to be plucked, or a drum that needs to be struck. Voice is also generated using our own biological tools. One can train on efficiently using any of these tools by mastering the techniques. Does that mean however one can produce music? No.

Learning to ‘use’ a tool to produce sound is similar to being literate. Mere learning to use a language can never make a creative writer. One may just know how to convey a message using a language. Some other may be expert in using the language with correct usage of syntax every time. Still, he or she is just ‘using’ the tool and not creating anything. As long as, of course, he or she is not ‘composing’ a new tangible using a new idea. Unfortunately there is no training for that. There cannot be.

Idea-to-tangible realisation does require the help of people trained in skills, but that’s further down the line. The first step is ‘generating’ the idea which requires one’s intuition to work. The second step of ‘composing’ something from the idea also is intuition-heavy though it may be assisted by learned skills. It is when one wants to convert the composition into tangible outcome that skills become important. Because this is where we are talking of tangible things, people become aware of things from this stage on. Unfortunately, many wrongly presume this to be the first step in creation. Without the first two steps of ‘generating’ and ‘composing’ the idea, there really is nothing new. It can at best be a smart rehash or at worst outright plagiarism.