Finding glory in shitty matters

Shit is not that shitty these days. In our fast depleting world, this most despised human creation is becoming a promising resource and at last gaining its rightful status. As for example, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to reinvent toilet technology, maximise the utilisation of this so-called waste.

Estimated in 2013, globally about 1.8 billion people use pit latrines. This will rise steep, as ensuring sanitation for all by 2030 is one of the sustainable development goals of United Nation. Imagine the eventual huge production. However, safe and sustainable repurposing of this otherwise health hazard is a challenge to mankind.

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Biochar or charcoal could be a win-win candidate here. Besides improving soil quality, it reduces aerial carbon dioxide concentration and thus help in fighting climate change. Quick thermal processing of organic waste to make biochar, kills pathogens 100% and is a better option than time-taking composting. Plant remains are its main feedstock. But biochar made from animal faeces has already been reported to be successful.

Human excreta has long been used as fertilizer all over the world. But scientific analysis is very recent. The fertilizing potential of sanitised human excreta in the cultivation of maize has been affirmed by researchers in Zimbabwe in 2005.

A group of researchers from Ethiopia studied the effect of biochar made from human faeces on the growth of lettuce cultivated in silty or sandy loam soils. They also have compared the effect of nitrogen fertilizer to balance the nitrogen lost during the charring process. This study done in 2017 shows significant increase in yield and quality of lettuce in the less fertile sandy loam soil, irrespective of nitrogen fertilizers.

Open defecation is still a big problem in some parts of the developing world, specially in rural areas. So combining waste  and agriculture management is specially useful there. But no doubt today’s approach of waste management is going to be obsolete in near future. It will instead be a part of integrated resource management both in cities and villages. These pioneering researches are paving the way for those new age methods systematically.

So may be for us, ‘tis time to find a glorified title for shit!

 

After the break

First of all, a little belated but heartfelt best wishes for a happy 2019!

It has been a long time since I hit the publish button last time here. And that last post in 2018 was not even related to the genre of this blog. I think I felt some kind of self-imposed inhibition typical of  prisoners on earth (each of them is not behind the bars always!). Anyway I have been missing that fun experience of communicating discoveries, all these time.

Discovery is fascinating but researching is not all the time. At the end of my PhD, I was suffocated like many others. I always have loved writing and communicating. So the world of science communication seemed just perfect for me. Anyway, plunging into that other world was not possible at that time. I continued with a couple of postdoctoral stints.

After that I spent awhile to experience the reality of freelance science writing. It was rewarding as well as educating. Ironically by then I was missing the thrill of doing research hands-on.

My investigative business was not finished still. I went back to research.  Hereby also I begin my blogging attempts once again. And I must not say I hope to do so.

I want to quote here Georgio, from the 2016 documentary “Theatre of Life” directed by Peter Svatek,

I never say hope. Really it’s a big deal to me. I don’t want to waste time……we have to get up and say good morning…..Capito?

Looking forward, how go both of these real life experiments!

 

 

Pending discussions

I wish I didn’t have to write this post, as this post starts just where all fairy tales end or die. I am from India and every morning reading newspaper is shocking and too disturbing, because somewhere in the country at least a child is getting raped. Rape was not an easily uttered word by a regular Indian, but in December 2012 a brutal gang rape of a student in Delhi broke that inhibition overnight. Recently it seems like an epidemic. I must mention, this is the India so severely dangerous since around 2010 and more specifically after the spread of smartphones in India. So what might be the connection between them? If we have not forgotten, in 2013 Indian lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani (and the only person so far) filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court to ban all porn websites in India, as he believes that the ever-increasing sexual crimes on children and women are happening due to easy access to online pornographic contents. But he received least support from the public and eventually government had to revoke the ban on 800 websites, they did in response to his appeal. The case is still pending and Vaswani’s claim is becoming relevant day by day. I want to salute this guy for raising this step just. While many are viewing his case as a threat to open internet, eventually this case will lead to many discussions on how open and uncensored contents of internet can threaten a country’s culture and its most vulnerable population including children and younger ones. Continue reading

Jacklate

Now what the hell is that?? Imagine something close to chocolate, but made from jackfruit seeds instead of cacao seeds. I thought that, it should be better addressed as ‘Jacklate’! And I am not daydreaming. Recently a team of researchers from Brazil has discovered that, flours made from fermented seeds of local jackfruits can yield flavors resembling caramel, hazelnut or fruity aromas. Not only that, they also have identified specific chemicals associated with chocolaty aroma from the flour. It seems in this world nothing is indispensable. That’s a great relief. Especially when chocolate industry is experiencing growing demand for cacao seeds which can’t bear the load alone. In many parts of the world, jackfruit grows abundantly and even wasted because of that. Along with the large fruit unripe or ripe, the seeds are also eaten roasted following boiling. Have you eaten that? They are tasty like nuts and go well with curries and rice. I like the jackfruit seeds but don’t eat the ripe jackfruit itself, because of its strong sweet smell which is distracting for many like me. Who guessed that the subtle sweet flavor of the seeds could be metamorphosed into such a delicacy. The discovery is awesome. I found this news really shareable.

My post published outside wordpress

Wish you all a happy new year just as you wish!

Don’t be afraid about the not so happy picture below! Everything is fine, just check the clock (which one!) if it is really on time to avoid nightmares. My first post on picturesque Nautilus, the different kind of science magazine, as well as my first jargon free science writing endeavor (outside wordpress) is trying to say something about that. In the process, I learned a lot, both about the topic I wrote about and science writing in real life. I have embedded the tweet from Nautilus for archival reason. Hope you find the story there newsful! Cheers!

The monkey business of banana

Do you like to wear that same scarf everyday? Of course not, you have at least two or three. Variety is a natural inclination of nature. It should be allowed everywhere, otherwise there is trouble. Panama disease epidemic affecting banana cultivation is something similar and is a lesson to learn.

The recurring threat named Panama disease…

Domestication of banana started in prehistoric time about seven thousand years ago, as revealed by multidisciplinary research so far. The center of origin was the islands between south-east Asia and Australia. Breeding between two wild seeded Musa species, M. acuminata and M. balbisiana has produced a collection of edible variety, rich in genetic and visible phenotypic diversity. In this man handled evolution, the domesticated banana differed from their wild relatives significantly. They became seedless and incapable of sexual reproduction. However, only a few among them have always been chosen for mass cultivation. At present, the dessert banana, Cavendish variety is trending with 47 per cent of market share. In the late eighteenth century, however, a reportedly better tasting  Gros Michel, a triploid (seedless) cultivar of M. acuminata was the dominant cultivar in the central and south America. In 1890 a wilting disease was noted in the Gros Michel plantations of Costa Rica and Panama. And it was severe as it eventually wiped out Gros Michel dominance by 1900. Can you believe? In 1910, the cause behind the devastation was disclosed. It is a fungus named Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense as it was found in Cuba. This fungus dwells in the soils and colonize the plant root and can go up leaving the plant dry and sick. They are very hard to manage requiring hazardous soil treatment. The easiest and quickest way is to get a fungus resistant variety instead. Thus banana business regained balance by helping themselves with a replacement, the Cavendish bananas from Honduras and United kingdom. Cavendish, a subgroup of the triploid cultivar of M. acuminata was not susceptible to the race 1 fungal strain which savaged Gros Michel. But unfortunately, the message to take home from this mega event went unnoticed. Another round of risky monoculture with Cavendish bananas only initiated. The lesson was still to learn.

How could a pathogen be so powerful on earth?

Fusarium oxysporum is a cosmopolitan pathogen that affects a wide range of crops as separate host specific strains. They can wait in the soil as spores for the perfect condition for life. In addition the seamless evolution of resistant races makes them hard to overcome. Thus, Gros Michel still comprise 12% of banana cultivation, but only in soils free or unaffected by race 1 of Fusarium oxysporum strain. The problem with edible bananas is more severe as they are propagating asexually. Their is least chance of generating genetic variation possible in each round of sexual reproduction. They are more or less genetically identical clones of the first Cavendish banana planted. On the one hand it helps to preserve the fruit traits that in the first place were admired for leading to selection among other available varieties. However, the absence of genetic variation leaves them hopelessly vulnerable. This is a golden opportunity for any pathogen which are evolving anyway out there. A chance meeting with the susceptible clone is just what required. Rest of the population is ready for the doomsday.

Panama disease is now epidemic…

We are now a global society. Pathogens around the globe are also enjoying the benefits of this globality. They are spreading through all possible sources from infected plant material to sanitation loopholes. In 1960, Cavendish banana was attacked again in Taiwan. In 1994, the responsible strain Tropical race 4, the updated version of Fusarium  was identified. Since the 1990s, this new Avatar has wiped out Cavendish plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and is threatening business in Australia, Philipines, Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon affecting approximately 100, 000 hectares of cultivation area in total.

Of course big banana farms are aware of this and vigilant. They have varieties in hand to start over with, if circumstance goes awry. But that doesn’t stop us from asking the simple question. No matter how much safety measures are followed – aren’t we allowing the fungus to gain the upper hand? If banana was allowed its fair share of experimentation – may be that would be savoury not only sweet!

Reference: Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet

 

 

 

Fungi in your chocolate

I loved this article reported by researchers in Belgium and Switzerland, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology as it is about chocolate! If you don’t know as I didn’t, fermentation is the first step in chocolate making. Inside the pod the bitter cocoa beans remain covered with a white gluey moist pulp composed of sugar and protein. The beans are piled together and covered with banana leaves. In this manner they are left for around one week with occasional aeration allowing microorganisms to grow initiating fermentation. This casts the heavenly spell. During fermentation, the pulp around the beans eventually drains out but leaves behind the characteristic flavors and aroma we are mad about. The microbes in the environment orchestrating the fermentation actually hold the magic wand. This microbial composition varies greatly with farms, seasons and beans. Of course, that’s why there are so many flavors to delight us. Among the fungi, yeast play a prominent role here. They produce enzyme that degrades the gluey pulp around the beans. Fermentation mediated by yeast converts the moist pulp sugar into ethanol, bacteria then oxidizes ethanol to acetic acid. The acid  together with high heat kills the beans initiating chemical reactions which generate aromatic compounds that give chocolate its characteristic taste and flavor.

Customizing chocolate

Yeasts as used in making bread and beer, is a standard commercial culture  to ensure reliable, reproducible fermentation and production. Cocoa industry however, does not do that. They depend on natural fermentation. This leads to inconsistency and economic loss. The recent research done by the same research groups in Belgium and Switzerland, reports several experimentally proven efficient yeast cultures they have created to use in cocoa fermentation. The work was challenging as the environmentally selected microbial culture consists of a complex combination of yeast, lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria acting behind cocoa bean metamorphosis. Interestingly the bacterial diversity is much lower and more or less similar compared to fungal ones here. This led them to exclude the bacteria from the culture. Among the fungal crowd, luckily they found very familiar yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to be the dominant one. In the first place, to get rid of the complexity and uncertainty in the fungal part, they developed heat tolerant aggressive hybrids of S. cerevisiae strains that can outcompete the wild contaminant fungal strains favored by the high temperature tolerance and killer activity of hybrid yeasts. Killer activity means an ability to produce toxic products that is detrimental to the growth of the competitors. Additionally they showed that the aromatic profiles of the resultant chocolates using these novel cultures differed significantly. This arsenal of cocoa-fermenting yeast cultures with signature flavoring ability is a privilege for the chocolate industry to play with the flavors.

Are you ready to move on?

This work is really noteworthy in terms of technical advancement for standardizing cocoa fermentation. This promises reproducible and quality chocolate without a miss. The bread and beer industry have already refined their way regarding this issue. Cocoa industry can now move on as well. We are yet to know their say. Of course on the way we will have to leave behind some fungi (working in natural fermentation along with S. cerevisiae), we are not sure about. I think there should be enough discussion about those unsung fungi before any decision. If you are missing any fungus in your chocolate then that is another twist in this story. May be designer chocolate (with fungi of your choice) will be the next innovation granting your wish!..