1. Nobel for deciphering the science of touch

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

The five senses through which human beings perceive and experience the world around them are well known. The internal mechanisms inside the human body through which we become aware of, and respond to, light, sound, smell and taste have been fairly well-understood for several decades. The understanding of how we sense through touch – the perception of hot or cold, squeeze or strain or the feeling of physical pain – eluded scientists for long.

Until David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, working independently in the United States, made a series of discoveries in the late 1990s and early 2000s to figure out the touch detectors in our body and the mechanism through which they communicate with the nervous system to identify and respond to a particular touch. For their ground-breaking research, which is still continuing, 66-year-old Julius and 54-year-old Patapoutian were declared joint winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology on Monday.

The Physiology Nobel is the first one in sciences to be announced. The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced on Tuesday, followed by the one in Chemistry a day later.

Sensors

Julius and Patapoutian have been awarded the prize “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch”. Simply put, they discovered the molecular sensors in the human body that are sensitive to heat, and to mechanical pressure, and make us “feel” hot or cold, or the touch of a sharp object on our skin.

Artificial sensors are familiar in today’s world. A thermometer is a very common temperature sensor. In a room, a table or bed would not be able to perceive changes in temperature even when they are exposed to heat, but a thermometer would. Similarly, in the human body, all the molecules do not sense heat when they are exposed to it. Only very specific proteins do, and it is their job to relay this signal to the nervous system, which then triggers an appropriate response. Scientists knew that such sensors must exist, but were not able to identify them until Julius discovered the first heat receptor.

“It was a very fundamental discovery. The identification of heat receptor by Julius in the late 1990s came through a very tedious scrutiny of hundreds of genes for their sensitivity to temperature. Today, we have very efficient computers and models that can reduce the work, and fast-track the process, but in those days a lot of painstaking research was required. That first discovery led to identification of several other receptors. Just like there are receptors sensitive to heat, there are others that can sense coldness. And yet others, that can sense pressure. We now know several of these,” said Dipanjan Roy, a neuroscientist at National Brain Research Centre in Manesar.

The mechanism

The human ability to sense heat, or cold, and pressure is not very different from the working of the many detectors that we are familiar with. A smoke detector, for example, sends off an alarm when it senses smoke beyond a certain threshold. Similarly, when something hot, or cold, touches the body, the heat receptors enable the passage of some specific chemicals, like calcium ions, through the membrane of nerve cells. It’s like a gate that opens up on a very specific request. The entry of the chemical inside the cell causes a small change in electrical voltage, which is picked up by the nervous system.

“There is a whole spectrum of receptors that are sensitive to different ranges of temperature. When there is more heat, more channels open up to allow the flow of ions, and the brain is able to perceive higher temperature. Similar things happen when we touch something extremely cold,” said Aurnab Ghose, a neuroscientist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune.

Ghose said that these receptors were sensitive not just to external touch, but could detect temperature or pressure changes inside the body as well.

Nobel for physiology or medicine

“When our body temperature deviates from the optimum level, for example, there is a reaction. The body makes an effort to revert to the optimum, or core, temperature. That happens only because the heat receptors are able to sense a change in temperature, and the nervous system tries to restore that,” he said.

“But that is not all. When our urinary bladder is full, for example, the pressure in the bladder increases. This change in pressure is sensed by the pressure receptors and relayed to the nervous system which creates this urge to relieve oneself. Changes in blood pressure is sensed in a similar fashion, and remedial actions initiated… That is why the discoveries of these receptors are so fundamental to our understanding of how our body functions,” Ghose said.

Therapeutic implications

Breakthroughs in physiology have often resulted in an improvement in the ability to fight diseases and disorders. This one is no different. As Sneha Shashidhara, a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, pointed out, the identification of these receptors opens up the possibility of regulating their functioning. For examples, there are receptors that make us feel pain. If these receptors can suppressed, or made less effective, the person had feel less pain.

“Chronic pain is present is a number of illnesses and disorders. Earlier, the experience of pain was a mystery. But as we understand these receptors more and more, it is possible that we gain the ability to regulate them in such a way that the pain is minimised,” she said.

Ghose said, in fact, research in this field was already underway. “It is possible that the next generation of pain-killers would work in this fashion,” he said, adding that there were several other therapeutic implications as well, including interventions that might be useful in treatment of diseases like cancer or diabetes.

Source: The Indian Express

2. Uttar Pradesh’s ‘Punjabi’ farmers: history, contribution

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper I; Social Issues

The four farmer protesters killed in Lakhimpur Kheri of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday had Punjabi names — Lovepreet Singh, Daljeet Singh, Nachattar Singh and Gurvinder Singh. This may have come as a surprise to some, but Punjabis have settled in UP and Uttarakhand since Partition when they were allotted land in the Terai region, then a thickly forested region unwanted by locals.

Despite their long association with the land that they have tamed and cultivated, they are sometimes stereotyped as “outsiders”, especially when trouble breaks out.

Districts in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand with a significant population of settlers from Punjab after Partition.

Post-Partition migration

The first wave of farmers who settled in the region were from Shekhpura and Sialkot regions of East Punjab, Pakistan. They were allotted land in the Terai by the Indian government following Partition. In the initial years, they struggled to cultivate the land, then mostly forested and inhabited by wild animals. Later, as they made the land cultivable, it attracted farmers from Punjab, where agricultural land was becoming scarce and expensive. A farmer in Punjab could buy 10 acres in Terai after selling his one acre back home.

Punjab was the first state to adopt novel farming techniques to increase crop production as part of the Green Revolution. Many small farmers migrating from Punjab to Terai grew new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice with the help of machines.

Sikhs in UP

There are Sikhs in UP who have no link to Punjab. Sikh Gurus travelled through UP and Uttarakhand, and both states are the site of many historical gurdwaras. Many Sikhs today have ancestors who had adopted Sikhism when the Gurus had visited.

Many Sikhs from Punjab had migrated to UP during the 18th century, too. However, mass migration from Punjab only for farming started after 1947. This peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, but never stopped completely.

Political representation

The first Mayawati government acknowledged the importance of Punjabis by naming a district after Shahid Udham Singh of Punjab, a martyr of the Freedom Movement. The district, which has a significant Sikh population, now falls in Uttarakhand.

The Assemblies of both UP and Uttarakhand have Sikh representatives. Baldev Singh Aulakh is a minister in the UP government. The Samajwadi Party had made Punjabi politician Balwant Singh Rammowalia a minister in Akhilesh Yadav’s government.

Proposed eviction

Last year, the UP government had asked police to remove migrants from Punjab from their homes and lands in parts of UP due to land-related issues. Then Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) eventually raised the issue with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Jasbir Singh Virk, president of Sikh Sangathan, UP and Uttarakhand, says around 33,000 acres cultivated by migrants in 36 villages is at stake. “Most of them were allotted this land during Partition, and now it is being cultivated by the third or fourth generation. Some of them have lost the allotment papers,” he said. “In those days, this was unwanted land and no one had imagined it could be used for farming. These migrants gave their sweet and tears to cultivate this land. Today it is developed. So now government and locals want to grab this land by making legal excuses. We protested and the state government responded to our plea. A decision is pending but we are hopeful that the government will decide in our favour.”

Lakhimpur Kheri

Lakhimpur is the one of farthest districts of UP to which farmers from Punjab migrated. It’s not the first time that farmers from the Terai region have taken part in the farm agitation. On January 26, Navreet Singh from Rampur had died during violence in Delhi. A farmer from Pilibhit had committed suicide on the Delhi border during the agitation.

Navreet’s grandfather Hardeep Singh Dibdiba, who is also a writer, said, “Although migrant farmers responded to farmer unions’ call, the latter disowned Navreet after January 26. They realised their mistake later. The unions must weigh the long-term impact of their actions on farmers who have migrated to UP.”

Source: The Indian Express

3. Adopt proven solutions over smog towers

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment

Two new smog towers have been recently inaugurated in Delhi. Bengaluru and Chandigarh also installed smog towers this year. Mumbai’s clean air plan indicates a financial requirement of ₹25 crore for installing air filtration units at major traffic intersections in the city. While these efforts indicate that governments are taking cognisance of air pollution, the deployments are often driven by symbolism rather than science. For example, the Delhi government claims that the newly installed smog tower in Connaught Place could reduce air pollution levels by 80%. But there is no scientific evidence of smog towers or any other outdoor air filtration units improving air quality in cities. The smog tower installed in China’s Xi’an and another one installed in Beijing did not prove to be effective and were not scaled up.

Smog towers create an illusion of progress towards clean air while diverting crores of public money away from proven solutions. Moreover, they misdirect policymakers and citizens by deflecting attention from areas that call for urgent action. Therefore, governments looking at investing in outdoor filtration systems should defer their deployment plans.

Further, the data on the effectiveness of the newly installed smog towers should be made available publicly for independent evaluation. Until there is scientific consensus on their effectiveness, every new tower installed is just a violation of taxpayers’ money and citizens’ trust.

What we can do

Meanwhile, governments must ramp up investments in proven solutions to reduce air pollution. First, policymakers should expand air pollution monitoring in areas with limited or no air quality monitoring and strengthen forecasting capacity across cities. Of the 132 cities in the country that currently don’t meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, 75 do not have a single real-time monitoring station. For areas with no monitoring infrastructure, alternatives like low-cost air quality monitors in combination with satellite observations should be explored to plug the existing data gaps. Simultaneously, cities should strengthen their air quality forecasting systems by collaborating with scientific institutions that are transparent about their approach and findings. These forecasts should be used in rolling out preventive measures such as travel restrictions, pausing commercial activities or encouraging working from home, on anticipated high pollution days.

Second, city-level emission inventories must be updated periodically. Until last year, over 75% of our city clean air plans did not contain vital information on emissions from different polluting sources. These data are critical to identify key sources of air pollution and design effective clean air plans as per the local context. While several academic institutions carry out emission inventory and source apportionment studies, these studies should not become a one-time exercise.

Third, targeted efforts must be made to improve air quality for urban slum dwellers who have no access to clean cooking energy. In a recent study, we found that nearly half the urban slum households in six States still rely on biomass and other polluting fuels for their cooking needs. Also, household emissions increase during winter, especially when fuel requirement for non-cooking tasks like space heating increases. This increases exposure to indoor air pollution and poses health risks. Hence, policymakers must focus on providing LPG connections to these households along with ensuring sustained usage of LPG as the primary fuel.

Finally, and most importantly, cities should strengthen their enforcement capacity by investing in people and systems that can keep a round-the-clock watch on both egregious and episodic polluters. India is witnessing a rising democratic demand for clean air. But this cannot be met by unproven technological fixes. Instead, we must vigorously pursue solutions that are rooted in science to bring back blue skies.

Source: The Hindu

4. Looking at ‘bigger umbrella’, Personal Data Protection Bill likely to include non-personal data

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill of 2019 is likely to meet this month to formally adopt a resolution to widen the ambit of the Bill to include non-personal data as well, sources in know of the development said.

The next meeting, likely to happen on October 20 under the Chairmanship of P P Chaudhary, will deliberate upon this proposal, sources said, adding that other changes to the proposed Bill such as amendments to Section 91 (2), which so far says that the provisions of the PDP Bill would not apply to anonymised data.

Following the changes, the new Bill is likely to be called just the Data Protection Bill of 2021 instead of Personal Data Protection Bill, a source in the know of the development told The Indian Express.

Rationale behind adding Non-personal data

“The idea to include non-personal data is to have a bigger umbrella, which will act as sort of an architecture if any amendments are to be made in the future. The inclusion of provisions for non-personal data will mostly be done on the basis of the recommendations of the Ministry committee,” an official said. Mails to the Parliamentary panel seeking details of the proposed changes remained unanswered.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has in September 2019 constituted a panel, chaired by Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan, to deliberate upon and discuss various aspects of non-personal data. In its report submitted in July 2020, the panel had suggested a data-sharing regulation to shift data’s “economic benefits for citizens and communities in India” as well as help the government in policy making and service delivery.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, first proposed by the government in 2018, has been pending for nearly 3 years now. It has seen several changes to the original draft drawn by retired Supreme Court judge Justice B N Srikrishna.

However, in certain categories such as data related to national security or strategic interests such as locations of government laboratories or research facilities, even if provided in anonymised form can be dangerous. Similarly, even if the data is about the health of a community or a group of communities, though it may be in anonymised form, it can still be dangerous, the panel had said.

“Possibilities of such harm are obviously much higher if the original personal data is of a sensitive nature. Therefore, the non-personal data arising from such sensitive personal data may be considered as sensitive non-personal data,” the panel had suggested.

The JPC may call industry experts on non-personal data for submissions and explain the aspects before taking a final call, one official said. “There are some concerns that there is no standard definition for non-personal data, or that who will be in charge of non-personal data and whether there will be a separate regulator. All these issues will be discussed in upcoming sittings,” the official said.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, first proposed by the government in 2018, has been pending for close to three years now. It has seen several changes to the original draft drawn by retired Supreme Court judge Justice B N Srikrishna, who also said that the revised Bill was “a blank cheque to the state”. The latest version of the bill, in complete contrast to earlier 2018 draft, says that a committee for selection of Data Protection Authority, will include the Cabinet Secretary, the Law Secretary and the IT Secretary.

Source: The Indian Express

5. Two Pfizer vaccine shots stay effective against hospitalisation for all Covid-19 variants

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

A new study has reconfirmed the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (BNT162b2) as far as hospitalisation is concerned, and across all variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The study from Kaiser Permanente and Pfizer, published in The Lancet, has found that two doses are 90% effective against hospitalisations for all variants, including Delta, for at least six months.

It was conducted on subjects in the United States.

The findings

Effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine against all SARS-CoV-2 infections declined over the study period, falling from 88% within one month after receiving two vaccine doses, to 47% after six months. However, effectiveness of the vaccine against hospitalisation remained at 90% overall and for all variants, the study found.

These findings are consistent with preliminary reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and those of the Israel Ministry of Health, which had found reductions of BNT162b2 against infection after approximately six months, the study authors noted.

The analysis

Researchers analysed 3,436,957 electronic health records from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California (KPSC) health system between December 4, 2020 and August 8, 2021. During the study period, 5.4% (184,041 people) were infected with SARS-CoV-2. Among those infected, 6.6% (12,130) were hospitalised. The average time since being fully vaccinated was between three to four months.

A whole genome sequencing and viral lineage analysis of 8,911 PCR-positive SARS-CoV-2 samples from the study cohort determined that the Delta variant comprised 28% of the overall proportion of positive sequences. During the study period, the proportion of positive cases attributed to the Delta variant increased from 0.6% in April 2021 to nearly 87% by July 2021, confirming the Delta variant had become the dominant strain in the United States.

Vaccine effectiveness against the Delta variant infections at one month after two doses of BNT162B2 was 93% and fell to 53% after four months. Effectiveness against other variants at one month after receiving two doses was 97% and declined to 67% after four months. Effectiveness against Delta-related hospitalisations remained high (93%) for the duration of the study period.

The authors, however, note that analyses with longer follow-up to measure the rate of waning for Delta compared to other variants are warranted.

The takeaway

The researchers say the study underscores the importance of monitoring vaccine effectiveness to determine which populations should be prioritised to receive booster shots. “While this study provided evidence that immunity wanes for all age groups that received the vaccine, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has called for additional research to determine if booster shots should be made available to all age groups eligible for this vaccine. In line with the recent FDA and CDC recommendations and considerations for booster shots should take global Covid-19 vaccine supply into account as people in many countries around the world have not yet received a primary vaccination series,” the study’s lead author Dr Sara Tartof, from Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement.

Source: The Indian Express