India’s living artefacts

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by Hinal Kharva – Last weekend Shannon was invited by Roundglass to do some scientific activities. Our lab came up with this amazing session called India’s living Artefacts. Geetha and I also accompanied her to the Atmantan Wellness Center located at Mulshi lake just 60kms away from Pune city.

The idea was to discuss the living artefacts mainly found in the natural environment in different parts of India. Each artefact tells you the unique story. There was a small task given to all the participants. They had to make notes about where it comes from, how it looks, what is the artefact’s color, shape, smell, and what do the participants already know about the artefact’s natural history. Some of these artefacts can be seen on a daily basis like chili seeds, while some are hidden deep inside the water (sponges) and some you will find far away in the forest like tiger hair and blackbuck droppings. I won’t be able to discuss all the artefacts here, but let me give you a brief idea about what we talked about.

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Shannon discussed some of the wonderful stories from our lab and one of my favorites was about microplastics. What happens to all the plastics that end up in the ocean? They are decomposed into small 2-5mm microplastics after so many years. These microplastics also come from tires, synthetic fibers, and plastic pallets.

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The sad thing is that fishes and other marine organisms eat them and they end up onto your dinner table. Well, Anshika Singh, the postdoctoral fellow working with our group is studying the role of sponges which are known as filter feeders. sponges filter oceanic water through the pores present on their body. She is trying to understand how they process microplastics.

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Geetha spoke about one of the ancient groups of insects called Lac insects. They produce “lac”: the resinous secretion that has been used for making dyes and lac jewelry from ancient times. The Indian post still uses lac as a sealing wax . Geetha also shared some other insect stories with live specimens.

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Coming back to my part of the story, I talked about the plant called Gymnema Sylvestre. It is also called “Madhunashini” in Sanskrit and “Gudmar” in Hindi, which means sugar destroyer. Gymnema also has a role as a medicinal herb for treating diabetes. IMG_20190222_153947When you chew a few leaves of Gymnema, it binds to the sugar receptors present on our tongue and reduces the taste of sugar. It was fun to watch the participants not like sweet candies after eating Gymnema leaves. 

img_9021.jpgSimilarly, I also talked about chili peppers and seed dispersal by birds. Do birds feel hot when they eat chili? Chili plants produce the compound capsaicin to protect themselves from mammals like rats whose digestive systems destroy chili seeds so they will not germinate . However, when birds eat chili seeds they do not feel the hot effect of capsaicin as they have different receptors than mammals and they serve as good vectors for seed dispersal.

I am pretty sure you didn’t know some of these stories. With these we also discussed the number of researchers India has and how we can encourage more people to explore the field of biology. It was a wonderful interaction with the non-scientist community. I learned a lot about the importance of natural resources that India has and I am really thankful to Shannon for letting me be part of such a good interaction.

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