Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Plants, Light & Excitons

Once in a while, the Economist publishes an article where the reader's comments turn out to be a lot more interesting than the original piece. Here is one  -


The main point of contention is this claim by the TE author -
"The very best photovoltaic cells, the kind seen on many roofs, convert sunlight to electrical energy with an efficiency of around 35%; for more affordable cells the figure is closer to 20%. Plants accomplish the same process with about 90% efficiency during the first stage of photosynthesis."

Are plants really so efficient?

A reader contests this claim by quoting three articles:

  • Scientific American (2011):
  • ScienceMag -
  • Current Opinion in Biotech (2008):

He then reiterates the original question - where did TE source the '90% efficiency' figure?

No answers yet from the Economist.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Treating Nephrotic Syndrome in India

Last week we learnt the difference between a Syndrome and a Disease.

Our hyperactive, skinny four-year-old son, Aki,  had just recovered from a cough & cold, when he suddenly started looking a lot healthier. His cheeks filled out and his clothes started getting tighter. We were rather pleased at first -- until we realized that he had been putting on about 300g everyday without any significant change in his diet.

Our pediatrician recommended three tests (blood, urine and chest x-ray), and told us  to immediately cut down on Aki's salt and fat consumption while increasing his intake of proteins  - especially egg whites. The tests soon confirmed what he suspected:  loss of protein in urine (proteinuria), retention of water within the body (edema), high cholesterol and creatine levels -- a classic case of Nephrotic Syndrome (NS).

A syndrome is a set of symptoms or conditions that suggest the presence of a disease. In the case of Nephrotic Syndrome, all the symptoms do not even point to a disease but merely signal the onset of  a sudden change in the functioning of one set of cells within our kidneys, the nephrons.

The nephrons contain two parts - a wool-ball shaped Glomerulus, and a long, coiled Tubule. Blood is filtered by the glomerulus and the filterate goes down the tubule which  takes back useful stuff and excretes the harmful ones as urine. Under NS, the glomeruli - quite inexplicably - start removing protein molecules from the blood. This is unusual, not only because proteins are usually large, heavy molecules, but due to the fact that proteins are rarely wasted; the body needs them build and repair tissues.

Aki's body had swelled up from 14kg to 18.5kg in less than ten days. So the doctor prescribed diuretics to reduce accumulated body fluid, and, rather disconcertingly, an extended three-month dosage of steroids. Sensing our alarm, the doctor said that we had two options: Prednisolone, a corticosteroid that had been tried & tested for the past 35 years. Possible side-effects included stomach pain, high BP, change in body appearance, increased hair and retardation of growth. The alternative was to go for a more recently developed drug with possibly milder side-effects.

So the Rx was:

  • Deflazacort - Defcort 18mg (twice a day * 7 days) - Glucocorticoid
  • Lasix 20mg (once a day * 2 days) - Diuretic
  • Multivitamins, calcium supplements, antacids

Two days later, when the swelling refused to subside, we went for a second-opinion to a specialist Pediatric Nephrologist at Apollo Hospital. The elderly doctor felt that the diagnosis was spot-on but the prescription had to be changed. He handed us a useful booklet titled "Nephrotic Syndrome in Children", and reverted to the tried-and-tested protocol:

  • Prednisolone (Omnacortil / Wysolone - 20mg morning; 15mg evening) - Glucocorticoid
  • Zylynix one 2.5mg  dose followed by Lasix 40mg (once day * 3 days)
  • Continuation of the multivitamins (Zincovit), calcium (Ostocalcium) and antacid (Digene)

The effects were immediate. Almost overnight, Aki's body-weight came down from 18.5kg to 16kg. The side effects too were just as we were warned, especially the stomach aches, the tendency to be "excessively happy, quiet or abnormally active".

We are now one week down with the drugs, with five more to go...

Unanswered Qs:

- How was NS treated before the discovery of steroids?
- Why are cortocosteroid tablets so cheap? (not that I'm complaining!) - The new corticosteroid, Defcort-18mg cost Rs.19/tab while the older formulation costs just few paise!
- How do the steroids plug the sieves in the Glomeruli? What else does it do within the body to other organs?
- What makes the tablets so bitter?


* Srivastava, RN (1975): Nephrotic Syndrome in Indian Children, Archives of Disease in Childhood, 1975 - url -
* Comparing Glucocorticoids: Prednisolone vs. Deflazacort -

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Beetles

Can't wait to get my hands on this -

Review: Wired - 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Fifth Dimension?

The movie has got rave reviews but I've just not been able to figure it out.

A farmer-cum-test-pilot leaves his dusty home, gets launched into outer space,  travels into a 'worm-hole' sitting next to Saturn, into another galaxy...only to turn up behind a bookshelf in his own house!


Wiki -

2014 November - Interesting Articles & Links

* On Credit: Lecture by Raghuram Rajan @IRMA -

* A runner with Multiple Sclerosis --

* My fight to save my daughter's skin --

* WWI Christmas Advt --

* Japan - Kanto vs. Kansai --

* JICA President interview --

* W3 - The Group that Rules the Web -

* Pesek,W: Japan should be more German --

* Shiv Vishwanathan on Nehru --

* NYT on the Gita --

* Mangos to Japan --

* Japan architecture award winners -

* Bangladesh - Blood Water (Salil Tripathi) --

* Landmark infra projects --

* How to use a Consultant --

* Pakistan - Informants behind the drone strikes --

* Steve Jobs, Kids and iPads --

Architect Sou Fujimoto's Futuristic Spaces --

* The Pierre Omidiar Insurgency --

* 36 People Who Run Wikipedia --

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Is There a Way Around Roundup?

Rapeseed / Canola (pic-Wiki)

Earlier this year, India's edible oil imports hit a record high. It has cost us over Rs. 60,000 Crores to import over 11.8 million tonnes of cooking oil. For the past few years domestic production has remained stagnant at around 7 mT.

Interestingly a significant portion of the imported oil comes from Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Soyabean oil imported from South America is GM, and so is the Canola oil imported from Canada and Australia. Recently the import of Canola has stalled, not because of GM/Healthcare issues, but because the Indian regulatory agency (FSSAI) wants it to be re-labeled as "imported rapeseed low erucic-acid oil".

Technically, this is exactly what Canola is - modified Rapeseed. It was Canadian scientists who managed to reduce the acid content in rapeseed through classical breeding, and then Monsanto went on to make it tolerant to certain herbicides ("Roundup Ready") through genetic interventions. They then went on to become the largest producers of oil, and gave it a name that sounds a lot more palatable than "Rapeseed".

In 2012, Canada exported 16,000 tonnes of canola. More than 80% of this oil crop grown in Canada is the herbicide resistant GM variety. Paradoxically much of this goes to countries that have officially banned GM crops for human consumption.

If we can import and consume GM edible oil, why are we so muddled about conducting field trials that can enable our own farmers earn more, while at the same time, cutting down our import bills?

Perhaps much of the suspicion and angst comes from the fact that most genetically modified crops (including Roundup Ready) are developed to be pesticide and herbicide resistant, rather than directly increase the yield of a given crop.

So the question is -- how do we selectively promote public funded, non-MNC-inspired GM crops that focus on increasing yield and drought resistance - things that really matter to local farmers?


* Edible Oil Imports 2014 --



- India has been importing canola oil since 2007
It is one of the largest selling oils in several countries, including US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, China and Pakistan
- FSSAI wants Canola oil labelled "imported rapeseed-low erucic acid oil"


Canada, the largest exporter of canola oil exported about 16,000 tonnes in 2012 from about 400 tonnes in 2011.
In India, canola oil is sold under brands such as Hudson, Jivo and Sattvic and the price ranges from Rs.170 to Rs. 395 a litre. 


In the late 1960s, plant scientists used traditional plant breeding methods to get rid of rapeseed's undesirable qualities - erucic acid and glucosinolates - to create Canola
about 80% of the canola grown in Canada has now been modified using biotechnology to make it tolerant to some herbicides.
When rapeseed oil is fully hydrogenated, its erucic acid becomes behenic acid - a natural saturated fatty acid found in peanuts and peanut butter. 

* Erucic Acid -

* MIT - Roundup Ready Crops --

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Half Marathon to Remember

 (ADHM 2014 - pic - BS)

"Chin-up!! Just 300 meters to go!" 

Music to my ears.

This was one of the best things I heard during during Sunday's Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM). The fact that it came from a co-runner speeding past us made it so much more... credible. Thanks to him, and to numerous other unknown runners who helped me keep pace, ADHM-2014 turned out to be my best race yet.

I finished the 21.095 km in 1 hour 55 minutes.

ADHM this year was memorable in other ways too. It was a lot better organised than the Mawana Half Marathon I ran last year.

Yesterday, at 5:30AM in the morning, the organizers had set in place adequate volunteers and security guards to facilitate a smooth flow of vehicles and participants into their respective enclosures. Plenty of portable toilets and water stations had been set in place. As more and more runners crowded into their designated enclosures, keeping themselves busy jogging, stretching and warming up, a knot of youngsters stood around an elderly gentleman, seated on a low platform, wearing a yellow t-shirt captioned "Born 1932". This was the well-known veteran marathoner, Wg Cdr. Dr. Ashis Roy.

At 83 years, Dr. Roy is one of the oldest runners in India. He had started running marathons after crossing 50, and had competed more than a hundred full-marathons. He joked about ADHM's pathetic obsession with "Elite Runners" when globally the sport was celebrated precisely because it was egalitarian. "Anybody, anywhere can do it! You don't even need shoes to run!... It is like a festival -- you can make so many friends - just like today!".

When somebody joked that the 21 km would be a breeze, he pointed out that age had been catching up with him. A recent spine injury had earned him four screws that held his vertebrae together. And thanks to arthritis, he now needed help "to warm-up till the start-line". So when the gates opened, we held hands and jogged till the start-line with its huge time banner flashing "07:11 AM", into a sea of swinging elbows.

Out of the stadium, on to the open roads, it was frustrating to be dodging and weaving through crowds. Many 'runners' had started walking even before the 2 km mark! The crowds gradually dwindled only after India Gate, and by this time the "Elite Runners" - mostly lithe African runners in graceful, long strides - were already touching the finish line.

The trick for inexperienced runners like me was to find the right group of 'pace-setters'. It was helpful to see runners with timing flags. I had passed the "2:15 Bus" flag around Purana Qila and kept close to the "2:00 Bus" until Parliament Street. From here on, sensing that my body could maintain a certain pace, I had selected two faster runners to track - one in a yellow-T sporting "Delhi Runner - Rahul" and a Japanese runner sporting a blue outfit. This worked quite nicely -- right until the finish line.

Across the finish line it suddenly hits you -- that heady, giddy feeling, just like when you're drunk. Your legs hurt and wobble but they keep going, taking you past other exhausted runners, sitting on the steps or sprawled in the Recovery Zone. They take you to the refreshments zone, and to the finishers medal around your neck.

For the next couple of days the legs hurt like crazy and you swear never to run like this again. Then, a few days later, it all seems like a forgotten dream and you are searching for your running shoes, once again.


* Ashis Roy - Marathon Man -

* Airtel Delhi Half Marathon --
* Timings - Bib no. 31605 --
* Results Link -
* Pics -

* ADHM-2014 Winner - Guye Adola (Ethiopia) -

In a different context, the graphic from the Economist nicely illustrated the problems during the first 5km of the half-marathon:

Friday, November 07, 2014

Going Bananas

A recent article in the EPW, titled "GM Crops and Global Trade" points out that - "one company controls two-thirds of banana germ plasm of the world, four companies have 30% global market of seeds, and just six multinationals account for 77% of the pesticide market."

This got me curious.

How is it possible for one company to control two-thirds of banana germplasm? Does this mean that it has a hold over the myriad banana varieties dangling at a fruit-vendor's stall in Kerala?

If something seems out of place, it probably is.

According to the International Musa Germplasm Transit Center (ITC-Belgium), the center is "home to the world’s largest collection of banana (Musa) germplasm". ITC has over 1400 sample of edible and wild species of banana, cryo-preserved at -196C. Most importantly, it is not owned by any company and is therefore "freely available for international distribution upon request".

Perhaps the EPW article meant to convey that two-thirds of banana trade is controlled by one company. But even this is contrary to a recent FAO report which states -

FAO's review of the three largest banana traders (Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte), shows that the combined market share of the top three companies was at its highest the 1980's, when they controlled almost two-thirds (65.3 percent) of global banana exports, while in 2013, their market share was slightly over one-third (36.6 percent).

The global banana market is worth US$ 7 billion. Amazingly, nearly all the trading happens in only one variety of banana: Yellow-skin Cavendish.

Contrast this with the amazing variety of bananas available in South India. Even the humblest fruit-seller would have on display, at least five different types of the fruit on any given day. India's National Horticulture Board lists more than 11 varieties of banana including - Robusta, Rasthali, Poovan, Nendran, Red-Banana (Kappa Pazham), Virupakshi, Panchanadan, Monthan and Karpuravalli!

So, far from controlling two-thirds of banana germplasm, the MNCs have only focused one single variety. It is as though all the florists in the world were stocking only roses or as though all the eateries were serving just burgers.

This also one reason why the supermarkets will never overrun the local  kirana shops and chaya-kada's -- they just cannot offer ten different types of bananas!



* Singh, Sukhpal (2014): GM CROPS AND GLOBAL TRADE, EPW, 18 October 2014 --

* ITC Belgium -

* (Reuters, 27 OCt 2914) --

* FAO - The Changing Face of Global Banana Trade -

- FAO Full Report (2014) -


* National Horticulture Board (NH‌B), India - Banana Varieties -

Wiki -
- Enset - -- 'False Banana' grown in Ethiopia for its edible roots!