The Gist of Science Reporter: October 2014

The Gist of Science Reporter: October 2014

Scientists Need To Communicate Science

Communicating science to the civil society rolls out innumerable benefits. These range from creating an understanding about new scientific ideas, concepts and projects and promoting large-scale engagement with science among the people to pulling them away from irrational and unscientific beliefs. Most importantly, science communication inspires and motivates the young to think scientifically and take up scientific careers so as to give the country its next generation of scientists.

There are several reasons why scientists should reach out to the public about their work, especially in today’s context. Today, more than ever, science intersects with crucial policy decisions whether it is the adoption of genetically modified food, establishment of nuclear reactors for generating power, investing in space exploration, building big dams or taking action to ward off the imminent consequences of climate change. With half-baked information, and often mischievous information, fed to them through untrustworthy sources, the public can hardly be expected to be supportive of such scientific projects whose successful implementation is likely to decide the fate of the nation’s progress. Besides, scientists also need to understand that interacting with the public can throw up new challenges and open new frontiers of engagement with scientific problems.

But why is it that not many scientists in India are actively taking up science communication when it has so many benefits to offer? Perhaps being too absorbed in their research work scientists either do not have the time for it, or there may be a reluctance to deal with the media for fear of trivializing their work. For some, the lack of communication skills could be a major bother. For science communication to be actively adopted among the scientific community, some measures can be taken. For instance, in the Stony Brook University in New York, students seeking a Masters degree in Marine Science are now required to take communications courses. Similarly, if scientists were required to demonstrate an ability in communicating their work to the public, a cultural shift could be expected.

There is a need to bring scientists in touch with media so that they develop an understanding of how media stories targeted towards the public need to be structured. Institutions also need to support their scientists in communicating science and accord recognition in some form to those who do.

Lessons on Together

Insects as Distributors, Germinators and Breeders Travelling is so important for every living organism to survive and adapt. Actively moving animals such as humans tend to regard plants as immobile organisms, leading stationary lives leisurely rooted to the ground. In order to survive and extend the generations or the dominion of their species plants must try to claim space for themselves. To do this plants have to travel at some stage in their lives. Some succeed by producing extraordinary stems like blackberry and some by annexing land from other less robust and aggressive species.

Some plants adopt ingenious methods for the dispersal of their seeds to reduce competition or to find favourable places to grow. One of the most successful methods is that of the production of seeds that instead of hurting their carriers reward them. Plants have learned through long natural selection events that the key to ant cooperation is their stomachs. So some plants take the help of ants to disperse their seeds and pave the way for those seeds to germinate.

Seed sits well protected in a dark, relatively humid and nutrient rich chamber some inches below the soil surface - ideal conditions underground where they can germinate, safely out of the clutches of potential consumers or destroyers. Had they been not transported underground by the ants within the few hours after being shed, all of them would have been eaten up by mice and other rodents.

Plant-fungi Interaction

Many fungi are notorious as pathogens that can damage the plants. However, there are some examples of beneficial mutual relationships such as between mycorrhizae and lichens. In the symbiotic relationship between the roots of the vascular plant and the fungus called myicorrhiza there is a bi-directional movement of nutrients where carbon flows to the flU1gus and inorganic nutrients move to the plant, thereby providing a critical linkage between the plant, root, and soil. The flillgal hyphae (long, branching filamentous structure of a fungus) help increase the area for the absorption of soil nutrients including water.

Plant-Herbivore Relationship

Green plants are also called producers. They are the first group of organisms that convert solar energy into chemical form of energy by means of photosynthesis. Many plants and animals show amazingly bizarre behavior to accommodate each other. Let us see some interesting examples.

Four different castes of worker ants work together to bring back leaf fragments and integrate them into huge fungal gardens. Certain bacteria with antiflU1gicidal and antibacterial properties grow within the metapleural glands of the ants. The worker ants use these bacteria to “prune and weed” dangerous or unproductive organisms out of their gardens.

Some plants fine-tune themselves so surprisingly in interesting ways to orient the behavior of many animals useful to them. Some tropical figs turn pale yellow for they seek the help of night-flying fruit-bats and need to be easily visible in the dark. Apples and fruits like strawberries turn from green to red, plums and figs turn purple when the seeds of such plants are fully developed signaling the fact that the seeds are ready for transport. Here the different colours act as stimulus to the seed dispensers.

Seeds are extremely complex structures and it takes a plant enormous time and energy to construct them. The entire strategy would be spoiled if a carrier ate the fruit before the seeds it contains were properly developed. Hence the sap in the fruit’s flesh is acid and unpleasantly sour while it is developing. However, once the seeds are fully developed the sap becomes delectably sweet and the fruit sincerely signals the fact that the seeds are now ready for transport by changing colour.

Some seeds require passage through an animal’s gut. A species of acacia in the plains of East Africa encloses its seeds in small twisted pods. These are rich in proteins and hence animals relish them. Seeds that remain uneaten on the ground seldom germinate. However, those seeds that are swallowed with the pods and then pass through an animal’s digestive system nearly always germinate. It was earlier thought that this was because stewing in digestive juices weakened the covering of the seeds and made it possible for the infant plant within to break out. The truth goes like this. Within a few hours of the acacia tree shedding its pods, large numbers of small beetles fly in, pierce the pods with their sharp ovipositors and inject their eggs within. The eggs hatch rapidly and the tiny grubs then proceed to feed on the acacia’s seeds unless the pods are eaten by animals such as elephants.

Some animals drop their dung on special mic!dens, for instance, the great Indian rhinoceros. This may seem to be a disadvantage for a seed which would be better served by more widespread distribution. This is not necessarily the case.

The trewia tree is a kind of euphorbia whose fruits are large, brown and hard like potatoes. They are not covered with soft succulent flesh that might tempt monkeys or birds and at the same time too big to be swallowed by a small mammal. The rhinos, however, love them and regularly deposit them on the mud banks of rivers by way of their droppings. This is exactly what the trewia need, for the young trewia plant will only grow properly in open locations where there is strong light.

One of the significantly important plant-animal interactions in tropical forests that has consequence to conservation and maintenance of biodiversity pertains to keystone tree species and its associated fauna. Removal of these keystone species is predicted to have a cascading affect on species loss due to the induced loss of interaction.

India has been identified as a repository of global hotspot of biodiversity. These hotspots act as hot beds of activity. The loss of habitats substantially reduce biodiversity in the biodiversity hotspots as it no longer sustains interdependencies.

Corals are marine invertebrates including the important reef builders that inhabit tropical oceans and secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton. Some corals can catch small fish and plankton, using stinging cells on their tentacles. However, most corals obtain the majority of their energy and nutrients from photosynthetic unicellular algae called zooxanthellae that live within the coral’s tissue. Such corals require sunlight and grow in clear, shallow water, typically at depths shallower than 60 metres.

Organisms are able to cope with extremes in their environment through certain physiological adjustments while others do so behaviorally (migrating. temporarily to a less stressful habitat) or by entering to a cooperative arrangement with other organisms. This is also called adaptation. Many adaptations have evolved over a long evolutionary time and are genetically fixed.

The mutually responsive networking in lichens, coral colonies, the leafcutter ants and the aphids, the acacia ants and the acacia - are all giving us a lesson in cooperation. But are we learning our lessons from the cooperative societies of the animals or the interactions of different organisms?

Human-induced changes are killing off species of plants and animals, depleting the earth’s biodiversity. And, as we have seen, all organisms are linked to one another in more ways than one. So, loss of a species sets off a chain reaction. Let us remind ourselves - Life did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.

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