Bird Watching

Bird Diversity in the city in turmoil.

Bird Diversity in the city in turmoil.
-Ajay Gadikar

The avifauna diversity in the city is rapidly unbalancing, with some species gaining advantage on other species.
We have seen fast diminishing of the house sparrow population in the city, like wise once the commonly found crow is losing its place from city areas.  Many bird species which feed upon insects are also affected, but the ones which seem to be omnipresent and gaining numbers are the Rock Pigeons.

The city has seen number of skyscrapers and residential complexes constructed in last few years and many more are coming up.  With the rise in number of buildings, the pigeon population is also increasing as they find more places to make their nest in the buildings.  The bird species which live and lay eggs on ground have suffered the most due to their habitat loss.

Almost all metro cities of India are facing this imbalance. The pigeon population has risen to levels that has started to create a menace for the public. They are unwanted guests now in any area of the city.

This grey colour bird adapts easily to humans.  If one looks out of the window at any time of the day it seems to be the only bird species present in the city today.

Pigeons are synonymous in birds what rats are in mammals.  They are prolific breeders.   Their population in our city is multiplying exponentially.  You can see them at every possible nook and corner of a building.  I have seen them taking over the nesting places of  laughing doves  that were present in my township some time ago.   

Once a rock pigeon comes in any area,  it nests at all possible places like inside hoarding boards, AC ducts, etc.  depriving all other birds from nesting at those places.

Pigeon poop contains ammonia and salt.  Combined with water, it becomes acidic and can rust metal.  Generally they are most responsible for desecrating almost all statues present in the city,  building tops, dish antennas and towers.  The bird droppings make the entire place filthy, ones budget of cleaning and maintenance also increases.

Apart from this, Pigeon droppings emit a stench which also leads to health issues.  Dried up droppings of pigeon cause a lot respiratory illness in cities. These birds also carry parasites and bacteria.  Pigeons nest on top of Air conditioners and they have a type of fungus that can cause Lung diseases.  People living in close proximity of birds have a higher risk of suffering from skin allergy, cough, bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory disorders as their feathers are present in the vicinity.

The unregulated practice of feeding is one of the main reasons for population explosion. At many places in cities we see people feeding grains to these birds without knowing the repercussions it will cause later to all of us. 
Absence of natural predators is also responsible for their rapid growth.

Ajay Gadikar is a bird watcher from Indore.

( Photgraphs-Kabootharkhana, Dadar West, Mumbai by Susan Sharma; Blue Rock Pigeon by Ragoo Rao)

Citizen Science

Parallel computing to tame biofuel

Parallel computing to tame biofuel

The 21st century may belong to both bioscience and the power of computing, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

In a warming world, biological processes would be the viable way to provide food, as well as materials for non-food applications. And it is with the help of increasing computing ability that the world may be able to manage the growing complexity of demand and supply while keeping the drain on the earth’s resources under control.

A team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee has pressed into service the massive computing potential of the supercomputer, Titan, the first, in 2013, with the capacity of 10 petaflops, or ten million times a billion decimal calculations every second, to understand the mechanics of a roadblock in one of the most urgent and promising solutions that bioscience may be able to provide to replace fossil fuels.

The solution in question is the production of ethanol, or alcohol, from biomass, or plant tissue, to power all kinds of machinery and transport, which now depend on petroleum, and possibly for generating electricity, by replacing coal as the fuel for power plants. And the roadblock is that the capacity to get ethanol out of biomass is severely limited by lignin, a natural constituent of plant material itself.

The most common method of getting ethanol from plant material is by fermentation of the sugars in fruit or sugars derived from starch in grain. Ethanol is produced for industry from cane sugar or from corn that is grown for producing ethanol. While cane sugar can be fermented directly, the starch in corn is first converted to sugars by the action of enzymes and the sugars are then fermented, and the ferment is distilled to get the required grade of alcohol. The commercially attractive proposition, however, is not from cane or from corn, it is from the inedible, cellulose material in plant tissue. The advantage with cellulosic ethanol is that cellulose is abundant without having to be specially cultivated, so that its use does not affect the land available for growing food grain. A major negative is the extra cost in the pretreatment and special enzymes that are needed to break cellulose into fermentable sugars, but the economics are still in its favour. The table shows the advantage of ethanol from corn or cellulose, over gasoline, along with the case of what happens if land is used exclusively to grow cellulose.

We can see that there is positive saving of GHG emissions with the use of ethanol. This is despite the negatives in the last column, because cellulose actually does not need to be cultivated specially, as it is abundant in unused plant waste, paper and packaging waste and wood shavings and in good quantity from woody forest waste. There is more cellulose, in fact, than any other organic molecule on earth!

The problem
The function of cellulose, which forms the bulk of the plant cell wall, is to provide both protection and a rigid framework for the plant to stand and receive air and sunshine, and for channels that allow movement of nutrients. The cellulose fibre alone, however, does not have the necessary rigidity, and it derives strength from lignin, a complex, chain molecule that forms the scaffolding on which cellulose makes up the cell wall. Hardier plant tissue, like the bark of trees, is particularly rich in lignin, which is resilient and helps plant tissue combat corrosion and weathering. The trouble is that when plant tissue is made use of for the non-plant purpose of being broken down to sugars for fermentation, its lignin contents continue to exercise their protective role.

The first step in processing biomass is heating with dilute acid, to remove most of the non-cellulose components of biomass, which is generally successful, except for the lignin content, which persists. The objective is to increase the access to cellulose of the enzymes that convert cellulose to sugars. But even after this treatment, the conversion remains incomplete and the suspicion has been that it is the presence of lignin that is responsible. Some ways of how this comes about could be cellulose associating with lignin in a way that the enzyme is prevented from acting on cellulose or lignin binding with the enzyme to disable its action, says a paper by Jeremy C Smith, professor at the University of Tennessee (UT) and director of the oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Molecular Biophysics, with Josh V Vernaas, Loukas Petridas, Xianghong Qi, Ronald Schulz and Benjamin Lindner, in the journal, Biotechnology for biofuels. Evidence for the hypothesis or about the mechanism of its action, however, has not been available, the paper says.

Computer simulation

As both cellulose and lignin are polymers, or molecules where a pattern repeats hundreds of times, and the chain winds and unwinds millions of times a second in the ceaseless motion at the atomic scale, experimental investigation into how lignin actually inhibits the action of enzymes is not practical. The team at ORNL hence created a computer simulation to represent the interactions, to try out and analyse the billions of orientations of atoms.

For a fair representation of the problem, the simulation needed to consider as many as 23.7 million atoms and the computer had to take into account the orientations and interactions of the mechanical and electrical forces that act in this huge complex of cellulose, lignin and the added enzymes. The modeling was limited to basic forms of the cellulose chains and the commonly encountered lignin molecules, and other parameters were based on available experiential data. Established algorithms, or computer procedures to mimic the interactions, and available software packages were then used to analyse the huge data arising from simulation of even a few seconds of the atomic scale process.

As each instant of the process involved computation of millions of atoms, the processing was carried out with the help of Titan, the mega, parallel processing computer system at the Oak Ridge laboratory. Dealing with huge computations, as one which involves millions of atoms, can take years if the operations are done one after another. Titan hence splits the work into independent sections and carries them out simultaneously with the help of effectively over 18,000 separate computers working together. As can be imagined, this also needs software to separate the parallel procedures in the virtual model of the atomic system and then to put things together, for each instant of the interaction being modeled. Each of the runs of the simulation hence covered very short stretches of actual process, the longest being 45 nanoseconds and the total over the course of a year has come to 1.3 microseconds. This much time, however, represents a viable collection of information of a process that occurs very rapidly and it has been possible to piece together a useful picture of how lignin affects the interaction of cellulose and enzymes.

The results of the analyses were to confirm the suspicions, but with detail at the atomic level, that lignin forms bonds with cellulose at the very places where the enzymes would need to dock. This by itself impedes or limits the action of enzymes. But lignin goes further - it forms bonds with the enzyme at the places in the structure of the enzyme which are needed for binding with cellulose. In this way, the action of the enzyme is hit twice – the targets are blocked and where they may be free, the enzyme itself is disabled.

Another detail found through the simulation is that lignin forms bonds more readily with a crystalline form of cellulose than with a non-crystalline form. The knowledge of the molecular mechanism of lignin action and the preference for the crystalline form could lead to processes, on the one hand, for engineering the form of lignin so that it bonds less with cellulose, and on the other, to favour production of non-crystalline cellulose during pretreatment. ”Eventually, we would like to construct a simple model of a plant cell wall that we could process in silico, or via computer simulation, and see how it changes during pretreatment," says Loukas Petridis, staff scIentist at the Center for Molecular Biophysics," we're trying to reach the complexity that is found in nature and industrial conditions.”

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Sustainable living is a global problem and the website Natural Climate Solutions explain how there is hope still, if we awaken the sleeping giant, the untapped opportunities locked in our lands.  

Web of Life

Biodiversity through Organic Farming – A Sustainable Way

Biodiversity through Organic Farming – A Sustainable Way 
-K.Amina Bibi

The world in which we live today is the result of selection, rejection and modification of lives over a period of time.  As a result, we are able to see display of colours, sizes and characters around us.  All these contribute their part towards evolution and sustainability. Today sustainability is lost due to the self-centered (so called) Development Programmes.  

Government sanctions construction of mountain roads at the cost of Elephant paths and water sources.  Construction of dams is done at the cost of hundreds of villages and livelihoods of thousands.  In near future human race would be erased from Earth if the Biodiversity is not conserved to maintain its own pace.

Biodiversity: The wide array of creatures microbes, insects, animals, plants and every creature exist and co-exist on Earth is known as Biodiversity.  It forms the Web of Life.  Biodiversity is very important to each component of the Web of Life. The balance of the lives results in the beauty of Life and Sustainability of natural resources.  Web of Life is unique to each ecosystem. 

India is naturally blessed with a tropical, sub-tropical and temperate ecosystem and hence many latitudinal gradients (there is an increase in biodiversity from the poles to the tropics) and hot spots (a region with a high level of endemic species that has experienced great habitat loss).  India is one of the twelve mega diversity nations of the world owing to its rich flora and fauna. Ten different bio-geographical regions and 25 biotic provinces are seen here with varieties of lands and species.

Growing population and its demands exploit natural resources.  Over exploitation of nature and natural resources to ensure the survival of human to meet the need of food, fuel, shelter, medicines, comfort, entertainment and luxury causes a great IMBALANCE in the web of life. Biodiversity is disturbed.
Habitat destruction: 
To feed the increasing human population lives and habitats of many plant and animals are destroyed.  Agriculture, irrigation, construction of dams, mining, fishing and many more have contributed largely to the habitat destruction.  It also facilitates the proliferation of few varieties where numerous varieties existed over years.  Construction of roads, fragmentation of farm fields, buildings, establishment of villages, town, cities and industries have contributed to habitat loss and narrowing the biodiversity. 

Development activities of man have contributed a lot to loss of biodiversity.  Take the industries which contribute  waste in the form of environmental pollution (air, water, and land) including radioactive materials.  This often leads to natural disasters like floods, droughts, land and water turn unfit for consumption, crop failure, pest and disease outbreak.  The loss of forest cover has greatly contributed to imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide resulting in Climate Change. 

Climate Change:
Climate change is a change in the average weather conditions observed over years caused by a numerous biotic processes.  Human activities have adverse effect on climate.  Ozone depletion, deforestation plays a major role in climate change.  Migratory birds are at risk due to the extreme dependability on temperature and air pressure for migration, foraging, growth, and reproduction. 

Restoring Biodiversity:
Biodiversity is the ONLY SOLUTION for the ill effects caused by Climate Change.  Restored habitats and conserved Biodiversity can absorb the carbon dioxide produced by the industries and give us fresh load of Oxygen.  Formation of Wind Breaks and Shelter Belts protect from the tidal disasters and sand drifting.  They check soil erosion along with wind erosion, protect man, matters, and livestock from hot and cold winds, and also provide them habitat.  Mangroves serve as a breeding ground for aquatic lives. 

Integration of biodiversity and ecosystem paves a way and gives new hope.  It is effective economically, socially and culturally where man, flora, fauna and the whole BIOTA can live sustainably and benefit each other and contribute to the conservation of Biodiversity.  Restoring Biodiversity results in gradually reducing the negative impacts created by  man-made disasters like Pollution.  Increasing the tree cover increases the fertility of the land as soil erosion is curbed, stabilizes the slopes and regulates the water flow reducing the run-off and provides shelter to few lives.  Once this network is extended the biodiversity gradually builds on. 

Organic Farming’s contribution to Biodiversity:
For  mankind to survive, FOOD is a pre-requisite.  Indians are proud about of their intelligence and the frontiers of science have had many Indians contributing.  Even if we fly high, do a space walk and make an expedition to Antarctica, we cannot forget about the fact of sitting down to EAT.  Hunger is the most serious problem facing humanity, more than corruption and poverty. 

Insects on an Okra flower

When people are fed properly, the ethics and morale of the society increases and standard of living is in good trend.  The policy makers are more concerned about the industries and IT sectors for its economic development, forgetting that ignoring farming and development of agricultural livelihood would end up in India depending on  FOOD PRODUCING countries for survival.  If agrarian community is least motivated,  the days of dependence on an alien land for all food inputs will force INDIA to days of SLAVERY.  The solution for the situation is encouraging farmers in an Organic Way, through a low cost, eco-friendly, easy and convenient practices.  In the long run, this will help more than 70 percent of the population to live with DIGNITY and in tune with NATURE. 
Organic farming practices when done in a systemic manner, ensure the uninterrupted WEB of LIFE (Food Web).  Interdependency of one organism feeding on the other and the balance results in conserving the BIODIVERSITY.  As a result of the lives conserved at micro level (from microbes, insects) and macro level (rodents, birds, trees) the mankind will get the economic benefits.  The same principle may be applied to the forest ecosystems.  When the small animals and birds are provided opportunity to live and multiply, wild life will be conserved.  Mere killing of rodents may result in the fall of the hawk population (which feed on rodents).  Spraying of pesticides reflect in the fertility of men and immunity of mankind (as mother’s milk is found to have pesticide residue).

Mating Butterflies in an organic field

Sustainable Development:
India is proud of its astronomical feat of launching 104 satellites is a single go.  On the other side, many millions die of hunger, live in poverty and fight to meet their minimal basic needs. The gap between haves and have-nots is getting wider.  Hence the livelihood of farming community is affected.  White collared jobs are considered superior but the irony is, the mean attitude people have towards the ones who till the soil to feed the world.  Ignoring the pain and cost of production of FOOD, the farmer cannot even  fix the price for his farm products!!!.  The cost of all inputs, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides is alarming whereas the cost of farming produce is highly seasonal and not economical. 

Organic Farming paves the way towards sustainable development.  When a farmer decides to turn down all the chemicals and mechanization the input cost gets drastically reduced.  The net return is reduced harvest but of superior quality without polluting nature and harming the biodiversity.  Hence it is time to seek old wine in new bottle - The traditional agriculture in the name of Organic Farming. 

Butterfly on eggplant

Organic farming uses crop rotations and covers crops which help to balance  nutrient supply. Cover crops and composted manure are used to maintain soil organic matter and fertility.  Balanced host/predator relationships were encouraged for pest and disease management without any external inputs.  Organic residues and nutrients produced on the farm are recycled back to the soil with the active participation of Earthworms and soil microbes. Organic farming protects the environment, minimizes soil degradation and erosion, decreases pollution, and optimizes biological productivity. 

Organic Farming is gaining importance to gain back what we lost - A healthy life, a sustainable economy and integrated development.  In this age of globalization, an organic certification helps to reach the global market. The developed countries consume organic foods but sell to developing countries like India, genetically modified seeds, fertilizers and pesticides which they produce.  It is time to get up and make sense of this marketing game.

(Text and photographs by Amina Bibi.  K. Amina Bibi is a Post Graduate in Agriculture with specialization in Plant Breeding and Genetics. She is currently working as Agriculture Officer in Karaikal, Department of Agriculture, Government of Puducherry) 

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