Drugs from the ocean beds
Kushal Qanungo
The oceans have been recently described to be the "Medicine Chest of the New Millennium". There is a gold rush amongst pharma and biotech companies to tap this new found resource. Traditionally many medicines have their origin from plants and animals that occur on land. However, most of the plants and animals on land have been discovered and many of the curative properties of the chemicals, they contain, have been found.


  • Deflecting asteroids

  • The crucial seconds

  • Genetics and loneliness

    Prof Yash Pal

    Prof Yash Pal

Why are jet engines normally located below the wings of an airplane? Does this positioning offer any structural advantages?


Drugs from the ocean beds
Kushal Qanungo

The oceans have been recently described to be the "Medicine Chest of the New Millennium". There is a gold rush amongst pharma and biotech companies to tap this new found resource. Traditionally many medicines have their origin from plants and animals that occur on land. However, most of the plants and animals on land have been discovered and many of the curative properties of the chemicals, they contain, have been found.

Marine plants and animals largely remain unexplored because these organisms are not easily accessible, the average depth of the earth’s oceans being 3.8 km! Naturally, there is no history of use of marine organisms in traditional herbal medicine anywhere in the world.

Marine organisms, in relatively shallow waters near the shores, can be collected by scuba diving. This is being practiced in nearly every coastal country whether rich or poor. The more developed among them are now in the process of expanding their undersea programmes and use submersibles to collect marine plants and animals.

This search for new drugs in marine organisms aptly called "Marine Bioprospecting" akin to the prospecting for gold and other minerals on land, is "the dawn" if BT, pharma and IT are considered to be "the sunrise" industries.

A strong reason to find drugs in the marine plants and animals is that many organisms spend their life anchored to the seabed and have poisonous spines, claws and nails to ward off preys like fishes. These poisonous toxins are the most sought after, as cures against cancer and other diseases. It is believed that the same method by which these toxins are able to harm the predators without harming the organisms itself, could be used to treat cancer. For example, killing cancerous cells selectively while not harming healthy cells, or killing disease causing bacteria without killing the host.

Secondly, many molecules found in marine organisms have totally different patterns of construction from the molecules of medicinal value found in terrestrial plants and animals. These marine compounds can lead to new curative methods in the human body, and thus opening up the possibility of treating drug resistance diseases like the tuberculosis.

The drug Ara-a, used all over the world for treating herpes and other viral infections and commercially manufactured by Parke-Davies and others, was originally isolated from a sea sponge. Another drug Ara-C also isolated from a sea sponge being manufactured by Pharmacia-Upjohn is well known anticancer agent. Estee Lauder’s facecream, Resilience, contains extracts of feathery sea fan and claims anti skin ageing properties.

Many ocean derived drugs are under various stages of clinical and pre-clinical trails by pharmaceutical companies and government organisations all over the world. Astra Zeneca, the pharmaceutical giant, is involved intensely in marine bioprospecting.

Martek BioSciences (USA) produces some polyunsaturated acids (DHA and ARA) essential to the proper development of grey matter in the brain and retina of eyes in infants. Nutraceuticals containing these two ingredients have been recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Marine Bio-prospecting in India began in the early nineties as the National Project on Development of Potential Drugs from the Sea. The Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow is the coordinating body together with several other collaborating institutes and universities. Organisms from both the long Indian coastline, particularly the mangroves of the Sundarbans, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands etc are identified, screened and specimens stored at the National Repository, at The National Institute of Oceanography, Goa.

Some chemicals compounds have been identified which are anti-oxidant, have cholesterol and blood sugar lowering properties and can even cure diarrhoea. These are in different stages of clinical and pre-clinical trails of drug development.

In the private sector, the Hyderabad based Shanta Marine Biotechnologies now known as Samudra Biophrama, is setting up a marine biotech plant at Tiruchendur, near Chennai, which will produce beta-carotene by large scale culturing of marine microbes. (Beta-carotene is much in demand now as an antioxidant and as food supplement for functioning of retina). A marine biotechnology park would be set up near Mandapam, Tamil Nadu. The biotech policy of Tamil Nadu also mentions marine biotechnology as one of the main thrust areas.

A marine biotech park in 218 acres of land is being set up at Vishakhapatnam, where Celgen Biologicals is setting up India’s first facility for the production of the essential fatty acid DHA. It would also produce beta carotene. Biogenus Ltd. would invest $ 20 million to set up a marine biotech research station and bacterial culture and enzyme plant in the park.

Maharashtra’s biotechnology policy announced recently includes efforts to exploit the marine organisms along its coastline; Karnataka Millennium Biotech Policy, 2000 plans to set up a marine biotech park at Karwar to promote marine biotech. Marine bioprospecting is a major theme of Kerala’s biotechnology policy. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Ernakulam, would be the nodal centre to coordinate the R&D efforts with other academic and research institutions of the state. For example, the Bharathidasan University, Trichy hosts the National Facility for marine cynobacteria. The Biotechnology Park to be set up at Cochin would have marine biotechnology as the thrust area. Orissa draft biotechnology policy 2005 has plans for a marine biotechnology park at Chilka Lake, one of the largest lagoons in India famous for its prawns.

There will be huge employment opportunity in these industries and it is necessary to create a reserve talent pool in this area. The starting of post graduate courses in marine biotechnology at the Andhra and Goa Universities is a right step in this direction by the academia. Nearer home, the Punjab Technical University, Jalandhar, is also planning to start courses on marine biotechnology.

The possibility of obtaining drugs and food additives from marine plants and animals is just unveiling its huge economic potential worldwide. India is blessed with a long coastline with shallow tropical seas surrounding most part of the continent. The time is ripe for the Indian pharmaceutical and food supplement industry to dive into the oceans and reap the benefits which this huge natural marine laboratory offers.


The writer is Assistant Professor at the Indo Global College of Engineering, Abhipur (Ropar)



Deflecting asteroids

Dangerous Earth-bound asteroids could be tugged out of harm’s way by spacecraft using gravity as a towline, according to two NASA astronauts writing in science journal Nature.

Even a "small" asteroid of about 200 metres would cause "widespread damage and loss of life" if it collided with the Earth, according to astronauts Stanley Love and Edward Lu.

Faced with this threat, many scientists have explored the option of docking a spacecraft to an earth-threatening asteroid in order to deflect its course.

However the US astronauts note that asteroids are "likely to be rough and unconsolidated, making stable attachment difficult" especially as "most asteroids rotate".

Their proposal has the advantage that docking is not required: the spacecraft merely "hovers nears the asteroid with its thrusters angled outwards so that the exhaust does not impinge on the surface". "The spacecraft tows it without physical attachment by using gravity as a towline," the astronauts propose.

According to their calculations, "a 20-tonne gravitational tractor hovering for one year can deflect a typical asteroid of about 200-metre diameter given a lead time of roughly
20 years".

Scientists estimate that the meteorite which hit the Mexico area 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs, would have measured five to 15 kilometres in length.

NASA’s asteroid monitoring programme hopes to identify 90 per cent potentially earth-threatening asteroids measuring more than a kilometre wide by the end of 2008. — AFP

The crucial seconds

US scientists have found a way to estimate an earthquake’s ultimate strength by analysing the initial seconds of a rupture — a step that could one day provide early earthquake
warning system.

Currently, a quake’s magnitude — or how much energy is released — is determined after the shaking stops, usually minutes after an event.

But researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, say the measurements of seismic waves soon after a temblor can signal whether it will be a minor or monster temblor.

They say the information could possibly be used in an alert system to give seconds to tens of seconds of advance notice of an impending quake — enough time for schoolchildren to take cover, power generators to trip off and valves to shut on pipelines. — AP

Genetics and loneliness

Loneliness at one point or the other engulfs almost everyone. But no one really knows the reason behind it.

However, a research co-authored by psychologists at the university of Chicago shows that the reason behind the strange loneliness may be heredity, and that may help determine why some adults are persistently lonely.

Working with colleagues in the Netherlands, the scholars found about 50 per cent of identical twins and 25 per cent of fraternal twins shared similar characteristics of
loneliness. — PTI



Why are jet engines normally located below the wings of an airplane? Does this positioning offer any structural advantages?

There are airplanes in which a third engine is mounted high up, near the tail of the airplane. As far as the wing-mounted engines are concerned, however, your observation seems valid. I believe it would be sensible to have the thrust vector of the engines lie in a plane that is close to the centre of mass of the airplane, because this would avoid torques, or rotational forces. This requirement would rule out a top-wing mounting. Another reason could be aerodynamic. The upward thrust supporting the airplane results from the fact that, due to the shape of the wings, the velocity of air moving over the wings is higher than of air moving under them. Were engines mounted above the wings, the air movement there would become turbulent, thus increasing the pressure above the wing and, therefore, reducing the lift. I would welcome a better explanation from an expert.

Why do we lose our count even at the slightest distraction?

A lot is known about memory, but it is yet not quite understood the way it works - perhaps some people understand it but I do not. I can quite appreciate that evolution chose a solution that mere counting should not consume too many resources of the brain - it should become almost automatic. But in order to do that the numbers must be put on some sort of a string so that one comes after the other. The only instruction from the brain might be "after this jump to the next bead on the string, do not pay any heed to, or store, what you have already crossed". It is clear that when this sort of operation is going on any diversion would move your attention from the string and you would not have any idea about the bead you were on. Usually you start all over again from the beginning. I have a feeling that some similar operation is in motion when we try to remember a song or its tune.

If we make a hole all the way through the Earth and we drop a ball in, where will it go? Isn’t gravity ‘zero’ at
the centre?

No one can make a clean hole through the earth. As soon as you puncture the crust and reach down some kilometres, you would have created a volcano. But in our thought experiment, we should not be disturbed by this minor complication. Like you, I will assume that we do have a clean, evacuated and cool hole going right through the Earth. And now we drop a ball inside. The ball will fall in and accelerate due to the force of gravity. As it moves on the acceleration will be reduced but the speed will go on increasing till it reaches the centre. As you correctly point out gravity at the centre, which is the same thing as acceleration, would be zero. So, for some moments, the ball will travel at constant speed. But soon it will experience an increasing decelerating force as the gravity increases on its journey away from the centre. The ball will slow down to zero speed as it reaches the other side of the hole and you would be able to easily catch it if you can rush there in time. However, do not fret if you fail to catch it. Just rush back to the other side of the hole and try again. You will have a chance of trying it again and again because the ball will go on oscillating between the two ends, much like a pendulum.