The Week that Was

(With due apologies to Cyrus Broacha)

The past week has been quite eventful, in ways good and bad. There was, first, the tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, Laila, which hit the Eastern coast of India, causing widespread damage to life and property in Andhra Pradesh. Atleast 15 people lost their lives and 55 fishermen are missing; some 1500 villages in Andhra have lost power because of the 9-foot waves lashing the coast, the 100 kmph winds and the roughly 1 foot of rain caused by the cyclone. Estimates suggest that the cyclone contained in it power of the order of a Peta-Watt – nature’s way of saying ‘Don’t mess with me’, perhaps. A (very thin) silver lining was perhaps that for the first time in living memory, one could sit in a room in Chennai in mid-May and not have to switch-on a fan.

The first ‘artificial’ life was also reported to have been achieved in a laboratory setting, this week. Craig Venter and colleagues at JCVI, Washington DC, have managed to put together a very large chain of DNA (about a million nucleotides) and introduced this genetic material into the dead outer shell of a bacterium (Mycoplasm). The resulting bacterial colonies revivified. Although this technically isn’t creation of life in the lab, the people involved estimate that in about 30 generations (of the bacterium, just to be sure), the bacteria would have replaced their entire cell bodies with material newly drawn from their medium, and since the process of growth and division is entirely regulated by the genes that were introduced from outside, in 30 generations, we will have proof positive that DNA that is engineered in the lab can function properly.

The potential applications of engineered bacteria are astounding. We could be designing genes that produce enzymes that are useful or hard to manufacture otherwise, for example, and introducing them into the outer bodies of the bacteria. We’d have billions of micro-machines that would produce precisely the product that we wanted. Perhaps enzymes can be created that can break up crude oil, helping reduce the impact of environmental disasters like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still spewing out something like 50,000 barrels of oil into the water everyday, destroying the marine ecosystem off the east coast of North America.

Then there was the tragic, tragic loss of life at Mangalore’s Bajpe airport. Termed a ‘tabletop airport’ for being on top of a table-top hill, surrounded by deep gorges, the airport was the scene of the crash of the Air India flight IX-812 from Dubai. 138 adults, 16 children, 4 infants and 6 crew members were onboard the flight which, in calm weather, and proper visibility, inexplicably landed 2000 feet past its designed landing point. Whether this was pilot-error or whether something went horribly wrong with the onboard instrumentation isn’t clear as yet. The plane hadn’t nearly enough runway length to come to a halt, crashed through the boundary wall of the airport and careened off the cliff, killing all but 8 people on the plane. One can only hope that whatever it was that led to this horrific disaster is found and fixed before something like this happens again.

The week also saw (relatively less important now, considering…) protests by cartoonists and bloggers against threats of violence by radical Islamic groups.

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