A species goes extinct when there are none of its kind left. In other words, extinction is about small numbers, so how does big data help us study extinction? Luckily for us, each individual of a species carries with it signatures of its past, information on how connected/ isolated it is today, and other information on what may predict its future, in its genome. The last fifteen years have witnessed a major change in how we can read genomes, and information from genomes of individuals and species can help better plan their conservation.
All life on Earth harbours genetic material. Often called the blueprint of life, this genetic material could be DNA or RNA. We all know what DNA is, but another way to think of DNA is as data. All mammals, for example harbour between 2 to 3.5 billion bits of data in every one of their cells. The entire string of DNA data is called the whole genome. Recent changes in technology allow us to read whole genomes. We read short 151 letter long information bits many, many times, and piece together the whole genome by comparing it to a known reference. This helps us figure out where each of these 151 letter long pieces go in the 3 billion letter long word. Once we have read each position on an average of 10 or 20 times, we can be confident about it. If each genome is sequenced even ten times and only ten individuals are sampled, for mammals each dataset would consist of 200 to 350 billion bits of data!
Over time, the genome changes because of mutation, or spelling errors that creep in. Such spelling errors create variation, or differences between individual genomes in a population (a set of animals or plants). Similarly, large populations with many individuals will hold a variety of spellings or high genetic variation. Since DNA is the genetic blueprint, changes in the environment can also get reflected in these DNA spellings, with individuals with certain words in their genome surviving better than others under certain conditions. Changes in population size often changes the variety of letters observed at a specific location in the genome, or variation at a specific genomic position. Migration or movement of animals into a population adds new letters and variation. Taking all these together, the history of a population can be understood by comparing the DNA sequences of individuals. The challenge lies in the fact that every population faces all of these effects: changes in population size, environmental selection, migration and mutation, all at once, and it is difficult to separate the effects of different factors. Here, the big data comes to the rescue.
Genomic data has allowed us to understand how a population has been affected by changes in climate, and whether it has the necessary genomic variation to survive in the face of ongoing climate change. Or how specific human activities have impacted a population in the past. We can understand more about the origins of a population. How susceptible is a population to certain infections? Or whether the individuals in a population are related to each other. Some of these large datasets have helped identify if certain populations are identical and should be managed together or separately. All of these questions help in the management and conservation of a population.
We have worked on such big genomic datasets for tigers, and our research has helped us identify which populations of tigers have high genomic variation and are more connected to other populations. We have identified populations that are small and have low genomic variation, but also seem to have mis-spelled or badly spelled words, or a propensity of ‘bad’ mutations. We have identified unknown relationships between individuals within populations and have suggested strategies that could allow these isolated populations to recover their genomic variation. It has been amazing to peek into animals lives through these big data approaches, and we hope these types of genomic dataset will contribute to understanding how biodiversity can continue to survive on this Earth.
Uma Ramakrishnan is fascinated by unravelling the mysteries of nature using DNA as tool. Along with her lab colleagues, she has spent the last fifteen years studying endangered species in India.She hopes such understanding will contribute to their conservation. Uma is a professor at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.
Dr. Anubhab Khan is a wildlife genomics expert. He has researching genetics of small isolated populations for past several years and has created and analyzed large scale genome sequencing data of tigers, elephants and small cats among others. He keen about population genetics, wildlife conservation and genome sequencing technologies. He is passionate about ending technology disparity in the world by either making advanced technologies and expertise available or by developing techniques that are affordable and accessible to all.
This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme ‘Nature Communications’ to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.
NASA-ISRO Working Together to Make India’s Space Station, Launch NISAR in 2024
Stepping up collaboration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator Bill Nelson on Tuesday said the US was open to helping India build its own space station.
On a visit to India, Nelson said the US and India were working on plans to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station by the end of next year, while the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch the state-of-the-art joint venture satellite with NASA — NISAR — in the first quarter of 2024.
Nelson met Science and Technology Minister Jitendra Singh here and discussed strengthening cooperation between the two countries in the space sector.
“ISRO is also exploring the feasibility of utilising NASA’s Hypervelocity Impact Test (HVIT) facility for testing Gaganyaan module Micrometeoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) protection shields,” an official statement from the science and technology ministry said.
During the meeting, the two leaders also discussed US President Joe Biden’s offer to send an Indian astronaut to the International Space Station in 2024.
“The selection of astronaut is determined by ISRO. NASA will not make the selection,” Nelson said in an interaction with reporters here.
Nelson urged Singh to expedite the programme related to India’s first astronaut aboard a NASA rocket to the International Space Station.
NASA is identifying an opportunity in the private astronaut mission for Indian astronauts in 2024.
In response to a question, he said the US would be ready to collaborate with India in building the space station if it so desires.
“We expect by that time to have a commercial space station. I think India wants to have a commercial space station by 2040. If India wants us to collaborate with them, of course, we will be available. But that’s up to India,” Nelson said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked ISRO to aim to build an Indian space station by 2035 and land astronauts on the moon by 2040.
Built at a cost of $1.5 billion (nearly Rs. 12,500 crore), NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) is targeted for launch onboard India’s GSLV rocket.
Data from NISAR will be highly suitable for studying the land ecosystems, deformation of solid earth, mountain and polar cryosphere, sea ice, and coastal oceans on a regional to global scale.
ISRO has developed the S-band SAR which was integrated with NASA’s L-band SAR at JPL/NASA. The integrated L & S band SAR is currently undergoing testing with the satellite at the U R Rao Satellite Centre (URSC), Bengaluru with the participation of NASA/JPL officials.
An official statement said ISRO and NASA have formed a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Human spaceflight cooperation and are exploring cooperation in radiation impact studies, micrometeorite and orbital debris shield studies; space health, and medicine aspects.
ISRO is also in discussion with prominent US industries (like Boeing, Blue Origin, and Voyager) on specific items of cooperation and also to explore joint collaborations with Indian commercial entities.
A concept paper on the Implementing Arrangement is under consideration between ISRO and NASA. After a few iterations, both sides arrived at a mutually agreed draft and the same is processed for intra-governmental approvals, the official statement said.
Amazon Claims Prototype Satellites for Kuiper Network Operating Successfully
Amazon.com said on Thursday its two prototype satellites for its planned Kuiper internet network have been operating successfully in orbit, with the project on track to start launching operational satellites by mid-2024. The Kuiper internet network is set to compete against billionaire Elon Musk‘s Starlink, the world’s largest satellite operator, to offer broadband internet service globally to consumers, companies and governments. Amazon said it had achieved a 100 percent success rate within the first 30 days of the launch of the prototype satellites from Florida aboard an United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Amazon said it used the prototype satellites for brief two-way video calls, streaming a high-definition movie on Prime Video and ordering items off Amazon’s website. “We still have a lot of hard work ahead, and scaling for mass production won’t be easy,” said Rajeev Badyal, vice president of technology for Project Kuiper. The US Federal Communications Commission has required Amazon to deploy half of its more than 3,000-planned satellite constellation by 2026.
On the heels of the successful prototype tests, Amazon expects to start building production-ready satellites next month for a launch in the second quarter of 2024, Badyal told Reuters. Badyal declined to say how many satellites Amazon would launch per rocket.
Badyal said he expects the network will be capable of providing broadband coverage in some parts of the world by late 2024, for an early beta phase targeted to begin in early 2025.
Early partners like Vodafone and Verizon are set to become the first telecom firms to beta test the service.
Amazon last year announced a bulk launch deal for 83 launches — the largest commercial rocket procurement ever — from various rocket companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, ULA and Europe’s Arianespace.
The Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance is set to loft the first several batches of Kuiper satellites aboard its Atlas 5 and the company’s upcoming Vulcan rocket.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
NASA Astronomers Predict Near-Earth Asteroid’s 2029 Close Encounter
About 5 and a 1/2 years from now, astronomers predict, an asteroid about as wide as the Empire State Building is tall will streak through space within 20,000 miles (32,200 kms) of Earth, the closest any celestial object of that size will have come to our planet in modern history.
When it does, a spacecraft launched by NASA in 2016 is expected to be in position to provide a detailed examination of this rare close encounter.
The mission, directed by University of Arizona scientists, is expected to yield insights into planetary formation and knowledge that could inform efforts to build a defense system against possible doomsday asteroid collisions with Earth.
At the time of its 2004 discovery, the asteroid Apophis, named for a demon serpent embodying evil and chaos in ancient Egyptian mythology, appeared to pose a dire impact threat to Earth, with scientists forecasting a potential collision in 2029. Refined observations have since ruled out any impact risk for at least another century.
Still, its next approach in 2029 will bring the asteroid within a cosmic cat’s whisker of Earth — less than one-tenth the moon‘s distance from us and well within the orbits of some geosynchronous Earth satellites.
The spacecraft now headed for a rendezvous with Apophis is OSIRIS-REx, which made headlines plucking a soil sample from a different asteroid three years ago and sending it back to Earth in a capsule that made a parachute landing in Utah in September.
Spacecraft’s second act
Rather than retire the spacecraft, NASA has rebranded it as OSIRIS-APEX — short for APophis EXplorer — and fired its thrusters to put it on course for its next target.
The Apophis expedition was detailed in a mission overview published in the Planetary Science Journal.
Apophis, oblong and somewhat peanut-shaped, is a stony asteroid believed to consist mostly of silicate materials along with iron and nickel. Measuring about 1,110 feet (340 meters) across, it is due to pass within about 19,800 miles (31,860 kms) of Earth’s surface on April 13, 2029, becoming visible to the naked eye for a few hours, said Michael Nolan, deputy principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona.
“It’s not going to be this glorious show,” Nolan said, but it will appear as a point of reflected sunlight in the night sky over Africa and Europe.
An asteroid that large passing so near to Earth is estimated to occur roughly once every 7,500 years. The Apophis flyby is the first such encounter predicted in advance.
The tidal pull of Earth’s gravity likely will cause measurable disturbances to the asteroid’s surface and motion, changing its orbital path and rotational spin. Tidal forces could trigger landslides on Apophis and dislodge rocks and dust particles to create a comet-like tail.
The spacecraft is set to observe the asteroid’s Earth flyby as it nears and ultimately catches up with Apophis. These images and data would be combined with ground-based telescope measurements to detect and quantify how Apophis was altered as it passed by Earth.
OSIRIS-APEX is scheduled to remain near Apophis for 18 months – orbiting, maneuvering around it and even hovering just over its surface, using rocket thrusters to kick up loose material and reveal what lies beneath.
Planetary science and defense
Like other asteroids, Apophis is a relic of the early solar system. Its mineralogy and chemistry are largely unchanged in more than 4.5 billion years, offering clues to the origin and development of rocky planets like Earth.
Close examination of Apophis could give planetary defense experts valuable information about the structure and other properties of asteroids. The more scientists know about the composition, density and orbital behavior of such celestial “rubble piles,” the greater the chances of devising effective asteroid-deflection strategies to mitigate impact threats.
NASA deliberately crashed a spacecraft into a small asteroid last year in a planetary-defense test that nudged the rocky object from its normal path, marking the first time humankind altered the natural motion of a celestial body.
Apophis is substantially larger than that asteroid but tiny compared with the one that struck Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs.
While not big enough to pose an existential threat to life on Earth, an Apophis-sized asteroid striking the planet at hypersonic speed still could devastate a major city or region, Nolan said, with ocean impact unleashing tsunamis.
“It wouldn’t be globally catastrophic in the sense of mass extinctions,” but an impact “would definitely come under the category of bad,” Nolan said.
“This thing is coming in at many miles per second if it hits. And at that speed, it kind of doesn’t whether if it’s made of gravel or ice or rocks or whatever. It’s just a big, heavy thing moving fast,” Nolan added.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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