What clicked, what didn't...

What clicked, what didn't...

Chandrayaan-1, India’s maiden lunar probe marked the highs and lows of indigenous science and technology in 2009. The premature death of the mission in August this year, brought out a sense of despondency that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) suffered from. But, it was lifted a month later when Chandrayaan-1 reported spotting water on the moon, considered bone dry till date. The moon mission provided vital clues to help scientists understand the history behind water present on the lunar surface besides answering a few scientific questions on its mineral reserves.

Locating water molecules is one of the most important scientific discoveries of 2009 as it changed a fundamental perception about the Earth’s satellite since the Apollo and Luna missions in the 1960s and 1970s. Analysing the samples brought back by these missions led dozens of researchers infer that no ice might exist on the moon other than its lunar poles. Forty years later, this assumption was debunked when Chadrayaan-1 came up with contradictory evidence, proving it wrong.
 The success was immediately succeeded by the loss of the probe itself after some of its navigational aids were baked by a combination of sunlight and cosmic rays. ISRO tried its best to put the satellite back on track but all their efforts were futile.

Personalised medicine
The year also marked the emergence of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for carrying out top-end genomics research, to help unravel the migration routes and settlement colonies of humans millions of years ago. The cutting edge research, carried out mostly at the Institute for Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) in Delhi and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad will provide researchers with leads to counter common diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart problems afflicting Indians. CSIR also mapped the entire genome of an anonymous Indian for the first time. The sequencing marks India’s entry into the elite club of five nations – USA, UK, China, Canada and South Korea who have a human genome sequencing of their own. This scientific process can be the first baby step towards providing predictive personalised medicine to all.
 
Decoding history
And if you think Indian researchers were only working for the future, think again. In April, this year, a group of mathematicians, physicists and computer geeks deciphered that the curious-looking symbols inscribed on Indus Valley artifacts denote the language of the Indus Valley civilisation that matured between 2600 and 1900 BC. These findings negate an earlier theory, which claimed that Indus inscriptions have no linguistic content and are merely brief pictograms depicting religious or political symbols like the Vimca inscriptions in erstwhile Romania.

First cloned animal
Also, India made progress in animal breeding technology. Scientists at the National Dairy Research Institute (NDRI), Karnal cloned the world’s first buffalo calf and India’s first cloned animal. India achieved this feat, more than a decade after Dolly- the sheep was cloned.
Although the first calf, died within seven days, scientists cloned another one named Garima. This accomplishment has opened up new possibilities in cattle-breeding and milk production. Compared to the Scottish method, the NDRI technology of hand-guided cloning is less demanding in terms of equipment, time and skill.
 
Tackling swine flu
With bird and swine flu affecting thousands of Indians, it was time scientists came up with a solution. And they did! Scientists began a search for more sources of shikimic acid – the fundamental ingredient of Tamiflu.
The hunt ended in the jungles of Karnataka, thanks to a Bangalore-based team,  which identified two plants containing significant amounts of shikimic acid in the Western Ghats. Till date the only source of shikimic acid is Chinese star anise whose seeds have 2-7 per cent of the chemical. But their production is limited as it’s a seasonal herb. Only an industrial analysis can now deduce whether extracting the molecule from the Indian plants will be commercially attractive.

Goof-ups
While the achievements were significant, there were some lows for Indian science in 2009 as well. Topping the list would be two accidents that impacted both civil and military aviation research. Barely a month after its successful flights in Aero India, the indigenous civilian aircraft SARAS crashed on the outskirts of Bangalore in March, killing two Indian Air Force pilots, flying the prototype.
Eight months later the first indigenous medium-altitude, long-range unmanned aerial vehicle Rustom, being developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation, also crashed in its maiden flight after failing to clear a coconut tree plantation near Hosur.

Tinkering with mother nature
India’s first geo-engineering experiment Lohafex failed rekindling the risk-versus-utility debate on such experiments that aim to tinker with Mother Nature.  
In Lohafex, the ocean was seeded with iron hoping that it would lead to blooming of planktons, which in turn will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If successful, it would offer a potential solution to climate change. Contrary to expectations, it was observed that planktons did not grow after the first two weeks.
But failures are a part of parcel the game. As George Bernard Shaw, once stated, “Science can not solve a problem without creating ten more.”

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