Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life in the center of the earth (almost)

It really is remarkable how little we know about life on earth, even with scientific data pouring in constantly. This is particularly true for the smallest forms of life; microbes and organisms that are only a little bigger than microbes. But since we are used to seeing and hearing things, we rarely even think of life that is smaller than say an insect. Yet over 90% of all life is microbial, and we don’t even know how many species of mammals there are on earth, leave alone microbes.

Microbes though couldn’t care less. They have always ruled earth (though we would love to think we rule this planet) and will, in all probability, continue to do so. It is easy to forget that the earliest forms of life were microbial, single-celled organisms capable of only the simplest functions: survival and reproduction. And it is in these two functions that microbes have excelled. In places where you would think life would be impossible, you are more likely than not to find some microbes chugging along. Put it this way, if there was a hell, there probably wouldn’t be any humans there, but there would be plenty of extremophiles having an orgy. It is always fascinating to see what creature can survive where no other can, and every now and then there is a discovery of yet another creature (usually a bacteria or archaea) that defies all probability of life and thrives.

So, let us say there was a world without light, where the temperature was over 60 degrees centigrade (140F), where the pH was over 9 (an extremely alkaline environment), and there was little or no oxygen. Would you think there would be life possible? Apparently, if you literally dig deep enough, the answer to that is yes. So what kind of life is it?

Some researchers collected fracture fluid from a depth of almost 3 kilometers within the earth’s surface, from a South African gold mine. Within it, they surprisingly found a single dominant species of bacteria, which they called Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator (link). Now, it looked like these bacteria were perfectly happy living all alone in a vent where there was no light, and therefore no photosynthesis, as well as next to no oxygen, and an extremely alkaline and hot environment. Everything about its life seems wrong. Yet it lives, doing all things that living things need to do. It fixes nitrogen and carbon. It divides (albeit all so slowly, taking a few hundred years to divide). All life needs energy to drive it. Yet there is no light here, so this bacterium actually gets energy from the radioactive decay of uranium. This allows the generation of an electrochemical gradient from hydrogen to sulfate. It was thought that for all life you need a diverse ecosystem (which provides nutrients for each other, or helps break down compounds and so on). And here we have this bacteria happily being an ecosystem of one, in true US Army style. Yet, this bacterium is not all that different from other bacteria, or just all other living cells in general, and has all the genes used to make amino acids, or metabolizing carbon and nitrogen, with a few tweaks here and there.

This story is probably best told by one of the people who discovered it and then analyzed its genome, in this absolutely fascinating podcast. If life fascinates you, this podcast will amaze you.

Hear here.

If we do some day travel in space, and explore new worlds, we probably will not see any four eyed green web-fingered aliens. If we do find something, it will probably be closer to this bacterium.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Run Forest, run

Side note: As you all have no doubt noticed, posts here have been rather infrequent recently. I have a good reason for that. It is because a lot of my free, do-anything-you-want time is being spent on my latest passion, running. A few months ago, I decided to train for and run the Dallas marathon, with a mission to raise money for my favorite charity. There is much more about that (and what you could do to support that effort) here. Rest assured that if you wanted to pick an excellent charity to contribute to, this would be one of them.

I’m a newbie runner, and started running only about six months ago. But these six months have been a fantastic learning experience (thanks largely to some friends I run with, and the Dallas running club). Before I started training, my idea of distance and endurance running (and endurance athletics in general) was quite like the idea many, many people in India still have today. So this post is a little bit about running, my own running efforts, and some thoughts on attitudes towards running in India.

Running is not much of a sport in India. The last time someone from India won an Olympic running event was way back when India was a British colony, in 1900, by a British-Indian gentleman by the name of Norman Pritchard. Even that was in a sprint, and he wasn’t even brown. Indians don’t run. They become computer engineers or doctors or run motels. And on an athletic field I was what can only be described as average. Recognizing that, I never bothered to understand the finer nuances of endurance running. Running marathons was something my crazy white friends and colleagues here did. But then white people also liked getting burnt in the sun. They’re crazy. A marathon is 26.2 miles. In my book that’s called a road-trip. I had done some jogging on a treadmill before, and 3 miles was about my limit. So for a number of years I had decided that it was just one of those things white people did to make us brown people look bad. (Ok…just ignore all those Moroccans and Algerians and whatnot winning bagfuls of Olympic running medals. They live in the Sahara desert, so they don’t count). That feeling was reinforced by none other than Tom Hanks. Someone yelled “Run Forest, run”, and he set out to run all across the United States of America. And he was on crutches, goddamit. On the other hand, if you saw some random Indian on crutches and yelled “run Raju, run”, he’d probably turn to you and ask why he should run, was there a fire/communal riot/flood in the area, would his child get admission in college if he ran, and if not, would he get free electricity if he ran. It wouldn’t work.

And then I discovered that brown people ran as well, but were mostly closet-runners. In fact, a bunch of my Indian friends turned out to be closet-runners (particularly back in Seattle). Oh the shame! To top things, they ran marathons for charity, and were doing more to do good on earth than I was by just using grocery bags for shopping, avoiding plastic and feeling smug. There almost seemed to be some underground movement of Indians actually running. Finally, apparently one didn’t have to be born with running ability. Running is an art and a science, and just about anyone can do it. So, six months ago, I started running. I’m still surprised at how quickly I have transformed into one of those Gatorade sipping, technical T-shirt wearing runners who will never run in street shoes again. This brings me to running in India.

Recently, the fine Indian city of Chennai hosted a half-marathon. Apparently, it was a huge success, and lots of celebrities and politicians showed up for photo-ops. Their intentions were excellent, with the proceeds going to some charity. And in all that excitement, people forgot about the running part of it. In almost true Indian style, amidst the inevitable chaos thanks to the crowd (all Indian events, even sporting ones, have crowds associated with them), one of the runners died of exhaustion.

It is a terrible shame. What is also a shame is that most people in India think about marathons the same way I used to a couple of years ago. Comments from various people varied from "What better way to get fit and run for a cause (assuming that one just woke up one day, ran a marathon and miraculously became fit) to “Many believe it underscores the need for participants to check their levels of fitness before taking up such strenuous exercises.” If you are missing the irony here, let me explain. You can go to a doctor and check your fitness level and be declared perfectly fit. A fit person might be able to climb a flight of stairs. Or even ten flights of stairs. But he or she is unlikely to be in shape for a marathon. Nor is it as simple as running every day, and increasing your distance constantly. You might finally make it through a marathon that way, but it won’t be easy, and it might end up hurting your body permanently.

Distance running requires a combination of many things: speed, endurance and strength (both physical and mental). Miss any of these, and you are in trouble. So, in order to build speed, you train using track workouts (running distances of say 800 meters, in sets) and interval running (where you run in fast bursts during sections of a run). To build endurance, you train on long distance runs regularly. And for strength, you combine running on hills with active cross training and strengthening exercises in the gym. As your strength and endurance increase, so does your mental strength. Finally, during and before the run, a runner needs to think of hydration and salt balance (which is why runners drink Gatorade. And I thought it was just an American aversion to water), and eating a sensible diet (particularly the night before a run) rich in carbs (with some protein thrown in), without too much fat or sugar. During the process of training, your body metabolism itself changes (becomes more efficient, and burns more calories, even while resting). Now throw in proper running form (running with your head held up, hands unclenched, without crouching your shoulders and with your back straight, leaning slightly forward) and good running footwear (no, regular sneakers don’t do the job), and finally you’ll be on your way towards becoming a runner.

There was a time, long ago when I was still in high school, when I did a little bit of running. During our annual sports day, the school would also organize a 5k “road-race”. It used to be great fun, and a bunch of us would show up and run. Here’s how it went. We’d all show up, wearing the stipulated stiff white cotton shorts and white vest, and white canvas shoes (terrible for running). The whistle would blow and we’d be off, tearing down the route. In about two kilometers, a bunch of us would be out of steam, while others would soldier on. The few really fit students (mostly boarders who spent their time playing soccer, hockey and basketball) would then soldier on and win the race. There was some potential there, with many of them (particularly those students from the North Eastern states, or Nepal, or the Himalayan states, used to higher altitudes) being natural runners. Most of that potential was wasted. Imagine the possibilities if the physical education instructor had even the slightest idea about distance running (instead of just yelling “run up, run up”), or if the kids had used proper running shoes instead of the thin soled canvas shoes (which always left your feet in pain after hard exercise). All these kids were from affluent families, and could easily afford good running gear. Most of them though would never even think of becoming runners.

For the few who actually discover running in a scientific way, it is usually too late. They are by then in their late teens or much older, and far too old to take up athletics seriously. And of course, competitive running is one thing. But running for fun (which can be a fantastic way of being fit) itself will take a long while to catch on in India. I cringe when I see people heading out for a fast walk/jog in the mornings, with the best intentions of getting fit, wearing sandals and thick cotton clothing. Or heavy sneakers that might look nice, but do nothing to support the feet (or the heavy impact on the body that running brings with it). But there’s potential there, and I’m dreaming of the day when the Mumbai (and other) marathons become a serious event with thousands of Indians running it, because they are passionate about running.