Thursday, December 20, 2018

AUTISM....some lastest research

The Economist - Dec. 8 - 2018

Science & technology
The Economist December 8th 201E


Gut feelings

Experiments on intestinal bacteria may point the way to a treatment for autism

Autism affects people's social behaviour and communication, and may impair their ability to learn things. All this is well known. Less familiar to most, though, are the gastrointestinal problems associated with the condition. The intestines of children with autism often harbour bacteria different from those in the guts of the neurotypical. As a consequence, such people are more than three times as likely as others are to develop serious alimentary-canal disorders at some point in their lives.

Unfortunate though this is, the upset gut floras of autistic people are seen by some investigators as the key to the condition—and to treating it. Recent research has shown that altering animals' intestinal bacteria can have dramatic effects on their nervous systems. Ameliorating autism by tinkering with the ecology of the gut might thus be a fruitful line of inquiry.

A study just published in Neuron suggests that it is. In it, Mauro Costa-Mattioli of Baylor College of Medicine, in Texas, and his colleagues demonstrate that introducing a particular bacterium into the guts of mice that display autistic symptoms can abolish some of those symptoms. The bug in question is Lactobacillus reuteri. It is commonly found in healthy digestive systems and helps regulate acidity levels. And it is also easily obtainable for use as a pro-biotic from health-food shops.

Mens sana in corpore sano

Dr Costa-Mattioli and his team first reported L. reuteri's effects on autism in 2016, after conducting experiments with obese female mice. These animals have a tendency to give birth to offspring with autistic traits familiar from people—unwillingness to socialise, repetitive behaviour and unwillingness to communicate (in the case of mice, via ultrasonic squeaking). The researchers noted that the guts of both the obese mothers and their young were bereft of L. reuteri. They wondered what effect transplanting these bugs into the animals might have. They found, when they did so to the offspring, that the youngsters' autism-like traits vanished.

That led to the latest experiments, on mice that have autistic symptoms induced in four other, different ways. Some were genetically edited to be autistic. Some were exposed to valproic acid, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder and migraines that is known to induce autism in fetuses. Some had their guts cleared of all bacteria. And some belonged to a strain called btbr, individuals of which display autism-like traits that have no known cause.

Martina Sgritta, one of Dr Costa-Mat-tioli's colleagues, analysed the bacteria in the guts of all of these animals. She found that, while the genetically engineered mice and the btbr mice had, as expected, reduced levels of L. reuteri, and those with bacteria-free guts were (obviously) free of the bug altogether, the valproic-acid mice had normal amounts of the bacterium.

This last result was unexpected, but the team carried on regardless. They arranged for between seven and 15 mice of each of the four types to have, starting at the age of three weeks, their drinking water laced with L. reuteri. Equivalent numbers of each 


[Hello to Bennu

Another stamp has just been added to the album of objects in the solar system visited by space probes. Bennu, pictured, is an asteroid that orbits the sun at approximately the same distance as Earth. This proximity, plus spectral analysis of its chemical composition (carbon-rich), radar analysis of its surface (smooth) and telescopic analysis of its spin rate (slow), made it the target of choice for a sample-return mission. That mission, OSIRIS-Rex, arrived on December 3rd. After an extensive inspection from an altitude of a few kilometres, OSIRIS-Rex will, in July 2020, swoop down and grab about 60 grams of material from the surface. It will leave Bennu in March 2021 and deliver the sample to Earth, in a special landing capsule, in September 2023.]

type continued to be given ordinary water as a control. During the course of the experiment the mice had their faeces collected regularly, so that their bacteria could be tracked. And, at the age of seven weeks, they were given two sorts of social tests.

The first test involved putting each experimental mouse into a perspex container from which it could go either into a chamber where there was an empty wire cup or into one where there was a similar cup containing an unfamiliar mouse. Subject mice were left in the container for ten minutes and were monitored to see how long they spent with the empty cup and with the other mouse.

The second test placed a mouse in an arena where another, unfamiliar mouse was already present. An observer, who did not know which mice were controls and which had been given I. reuteri in their water, then noted how often over the course of ten minutes the two mice touched, sniffed, groomed and crawled on one another.

In both tests, all the mice that had had their water laced with I. reuteri, regardless of how their autism had been induced, were more sociable than equivalents that had been drinking unlaced water. In the first, they spent twice as much time with the mouse under the wire cup. In the second, they engaged in many more social interactions with the unfamiliar mouse.

The team's initial hypothesis had been that the supplementary L. reuteri were somehow changing the gut flora of the mice exposed to them into something more normal. But they weren't. Indeed, I. reuteri proved able to abolish autistic behaviour even in those mice which had guts otherwise devoid of microbes—as well as in those with valproic-acid-induced autism, which already had normal levels of the bug. That suggests boosting levels of this bacterial species is shaping behaviour all by itself.

Their next hypothesis was that the bacterium was doing this by interacting somehow with oxytocin, a hormone that shapes behaviour and plays a part in the ways in which people and other mammals form social bonds. Dr Costa-Mattioli knew from work published in 2013 that spraying oxytocin into the noses of mice with autistic symptoms helps to ameliorate some of those symptoms. Dr Sgritta therefore ran the experiments again, but this time on autistic mice that had had the oxytocin receptors on the relevant neurons disabled by genetic engineering. In these new experiments, the presence of I. reuteri in drinking water had no effect.

Follow-up examinations of the mice in all these experiments looked at the strengths of connections between nerve cells within part of the brain called the ventral tegmental region. This region regulates, among other things, motivation and reward-related social behaviour. Nerve signals are carried by the movement of ions (electrically charged atoms), so the team were able to measure connection-strength by monitoring the flow of ions at the junctions between nerve cells in this region. Strong connections, with lots of ion flow, indicated that social experiences were rewarding. These were normal in the mice exposed to I. reuteri, which makes sense since animals treated with the bacterium sought out more social experiences. Conversely, weak connections (those with little ion flow) indicated that social experiences were not triggering a reward. Such weak connections were found in animals that had not been exposed to the bacterium.

The researchers suspected that such effects were controlled by signals from the gut that are being transmitted by the vagus nerve, which connects gut and brain. To test this idea they cut that nerve in selected animals. In these animals, subsequent treatment with I. reuteri failed to abolish their autistic symptoms.

The crucial aspect of this work is L. reuteri's wide availability—an availability approved by regulators such as America's Food and Drug Administration. This existing approval, which means L. reuteri poses no known health hazard, simplifies the process of organising clinical trials.

Clearly, autism in people is more complicated than a mere willingness to associate with others. And getting too excited about a mouse trial is usually a mistake. But in Dr Costa-Mattioli's view his results, which have been replicated in part by Evan Elliot's laboratory in Bar-Ilan University, Israel, would justify embarking on at least, preliminary trials intended to determine whether L. reuteri has positive effects on people with autism, and might thus be worth pursuing.

Others agree. Sarkis Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology works in the same area. He says of these results: "I think the bar is now very low for getting this research moved on to human trials since most people already have these bacteria inside them and we know there are few, if any, safety or toxicity issues."

The general availability of L. reuteri does, however, bring with it another possibility—that people will conduct their own, "off label" trials, either on themselves or on their children. Dr Mazmanian is cautious about that idea. "I don't know if there is a barrier to people buying and using this stuff now. It may be strain-specific and the paper does not state which strain or strains were used," he says.

At the moment, Dr Costa-Mattioli is unwilling to divulge that information. He is expecting to publish another paper soon, though, with more details. In practice, it may be hard to discourage people from testing I. reuteri's effects themselves. All the more reason to do properly conducted trials quickly. ■


The Economist - Dec. 8 - 2018

Chaguan | What's love got to do with it?
Coldly calculated interests, not affection, are binding China and Russia closer

The high-speed train from Changchun to Vladivostok would be a fine symbol of Sino-Russian friendship, if someone would finish it. The line's Chinese leg is a modern marvel: a silk-smooth ride through a blur of birch trees and red-roofed farms. Then the line ends at buffers in Hunchun, a border city near Russia.

At first Hunchun's residents are wary of discussing why their home town—a drab but friendly city of fewer than 230,000 people—is the terminus of a high-speed rail line from Changchun, the nearest provincial capital. The line, which cost 42bn yuan ($6bn), opened in 2015. Public records show that the surrounding province, Jilin, invited Russia to help lay the track as far as Vladivostok, the Russian Far East's largest port. Russian selfishness scotched that plan, Hunchun's residents mutter. "Russia said, 'If you want it, you can build it,'" alleges a Chinese business owner. It will take 20 years for high-speed trains to cross that border, he sniffs.

Hunchun is a good place to hear how ordinary Chinese and Russians talk about each other, even in a city where they meet every day. Russian signs hang in shops and hotels. City clinics profit from Siberian medical tourists (Russian teeth are "not so good", says a dentist, delicately). Local seafood-importers turned to Russian suppliers after un nuclear sanctions limited Chinese access to North Korean crabs. But suspicions lurk. Lang Yulin, a seafood dealer, blames Russian bureaucracy for the five days it takes goods to reach Hunchun from Vladivostok, 300km away by road. Worse, Russian partners will never work late or at weekends "no matter the financial hit", he grumbles.

There is a patriotic edge to Hunchun's main tourist site, an hour's drive away at Fangchuan. It marks a three-way border with North Korea and Russia created in 1860 when tsarist forces took advantage of imperial China's weakness and swiped a swathe of coastal land, leaving Jilin province landlocked and the sea a tantalising 15km away. That would never happen now, ventures a tourist from Sichuan province: "China is a strong country."

Economic ties between the two neighbours have long been disappointing. Despite growing exports of Russian natural gas, timber and other commodities to China, trade lags behind targets set by national leaders, says Xing Guangcheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research institute.

Mutual coolness explains some of this slow growth. Mr Xing has devoted his working life to studying Russia. Still, when asked to explain trade volumes, he unhesitatingly contrasts the work ethic in China, a crowded, hyper-competitive country lacking in natural resources, with the languid pace of life in Russia, a country blessed with land and mineral riches to spare. He describes scenes of bafflement when Chinese farmers rent land in the Russian Far East, rising before dawn and working until after dark. When they pause for swift lunches in the fields, Mr Xing says, Russians circle them and stare, asking, "Why do you work so hard?" For their part, Siberian farmers think Chinese farmers use too many chemicals.

One barrier to co-operation used to involve fears about Chinese migrants overrunning the Far East, where just 6m Russians live. In the 1990s nationalist politicians lobbied against visa-free entry for Chinese citizens, thundering about Chinese men taking Russian wives. Fears were eased by a Russian government study, some four years ago, that found 600,000 Chinese living in Russia, mostly in the European west, rather than the millions commonly supposed. Still, the public is easily inflamed. Recently, Russian newspapers have fulminated against Chinese firms logging Siberian forests.

Russian elites long viewed China with racially tinged scorn, says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. He recalls a Russian official, just before the financial crisis in 2009, scoffing at China's supposed modernity, calling it a Potemkin village whose big gdp reflected "millions of poor people who will work for a bowl of rice".

Such rudeness leads Westerners to doubt whether the two countries can grow very close. "I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China," America's defence secretary, James Mattis, said in September, wiser Chinese and Russian heads argue that ties are stronger because they are based on coldly calculated interests. In Soviet times, China signed deals as a junior partner, says Mr Xing. Today logic dictates whether Sino-Russian projects happen because relations are more normal, he suggests: build a fast train to sparsely peopled Siberia and who would take it?

Present arms

Hunchun may be a fine place to see how underwhelming Sino-Russian friendship can be at ground level. But with the right catalysts, state-to-state relations deepen fast. That has been especially evident since 2014, when Russia's annexation of Crimea provoked Western sanctions that left the Kremlin turning to China in search of capital, technology and markets, says Mr Gabuev. In September 3, 200 Chinese troops trained alongside 300,000 Russians in eastern Siberia: a remarkable show of trust between countries that fought a border war in 1969. Russian arms sales to China had slowed in 2005 after spy scandals, including China's theft of designs for a Russian fighter jet. They are booming now. A rising China will soon not need imported weapons, so Russian arms-makers are rushing to cash in. China does not want a military alliance—it views Russia as alarmingly hot-headed. But the pair work at the UN to promote a worldview that puts sovereignty and iron-fisted order ahead of universal rights. China copied Russia's law curbing foreign non-governmental organisations. Russian spooks are fascinated by Chinese surveillance technology.

Chinese and Russians still view each other with striking cynicism: just ask residents of Hunchun about trains to nowhere. But a shared cynicism about the world unites their governments—and survives the complicating factor of an amoral American president. For some neighbours, friendship is not the point. ■



Keith Hunt


The Economist - Dec. 8 - 2018

The environment in India

Poison all around

Successive governments have tolerated rampant pollution, with tragic results

EVERYONE IN NAWAB COLONY Can point to victims. Twenty-year-old Annisa, for instance, has the face of a Bollywood starlet, but limbs so withered she cannot walk. Raj, 13, shrunken and largely paralysed, is carried by his father like a large doll. Another teenage boy, Shyamlal, sits alone on a doorstep. He suffers milder palsy; at least he can speak and does not drool. A few steps away across some railroad tracks, what looks like a baby slumped on her mother's shoulder turns out to be a patchily bald, terribly stunted three-year-old, who cannot hold her head up.

All are among some 961 cases taken up by the Chingari Trust, a local charity working with child victims of the worst industrial accident in history. Yet none of them was even born when some 40 tones of methyl isocyanate gas spewed out of the Union Carbide pesticide plant here, killing between 4,000 and 16,000 people. That was in 1984. The likely cause of their disabilities is not the gas, or its effect on their parents, but water from local wells soaking up the toxins that the factory began dumping in 1969, Abandoned abruptly, the plant has been awaiting clean-up ever since, leaching poisons into the ground. Only in 2014, on a judge's orders, did Nawab Colony get piped water. But supply is often cut, so many still rely on the old hand pumps.

Official indifference to the 100,000 mostly poor people who live in this part of Bhopal says much about India's wider failure to tackle pollution. The national government resides in a metropolis, Delhi, where residents inhale the equivalent of half a pack of cigarettes on an ordinary day, and two packs on a bad one. Suburban lakes and waterways in Bangalore, India's fright tech hub, alternately foam with toxic suds (pictured above) or burst aflame: in January 5,000 soldiers took seven hours to douse Bellandur Lake, which drains the south-eastern part of the city. In Hyderabad, India's pharmaceuticals capital, antibiotics are leaking into rivers, accelerating the development of drug-resistant microbes. Across India, more than two-thirds of urban wastewater goes untreated.

Nor is pollution just an urban blight. Skies across the vast, intensively farmed Gangetic plain are dimmed by the same mix of diesel and coal fumes as Delhi. The sacred River Ganges itself is unfit for bathing or drinking along its whole 2,500km length. Intensive coal mining has ripped out forests and spewed black dust across a swathe of central India. And in the long run farmers will pay even more dearly: global warming already affects the vital annual monsoon, generating local extremes of flash floods and sudden droughts.

Little and late

The Indian state has not been entirely asleep. It launched a plan to clean up the Ganges way back in 1986. Almost 20 years ago Delhi pioneered a switch by public transport to natural gas. The current government has accelerated the tightening of national emissions standards, boosted in vestment in renewable energy and in creased incentives to stop farmers clearing fields with fire. At a meeting in Poland this month to monitor progress towards slowing climate change, India claimed it would meet the goals it set in the 2015 Paris accord ahead of the deadline of 2030.
Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment, a think-tank in Delhi, says the worthy goals adopted by successive governments tend to lack teeth. "We have all the institutions and a lot of the right laws," she says, "but where is the actual capacity, the personnel, the tools?" One example: the giant Sterlite copper smelter at Tuticorin in India's far south, the subject of environmental complaints for decades. In May, outraged by a planned expansion of the plant, local residents mounted a mass protest. Police opened fire, killing 13. The embarrassed state government shut the plant. Had it been capable of properly regulating pollution, rather than winking at it or stopping production altogether, 5,000 workers might still have a job.

Too often, ill-conceived policies produce unintended toxic consequences. In a push for self-sufficiency, the government has encouraged farmers to grow rice. Water tables have duly plunged, prompting several states to oblige farmers to plant the thirsty crop later in the year, after the start of monsoon rains. This has pushed back harvests near Delhi to late October, when the wind drops. At the same time, new mechanical reapers leave more stubble. With only a short window to plant winter wheat, farmers resort to the quickest means of clearing their fields: burning. The smoke, which would disperse quickly in windier months, hangs and drifts.

Again wooing the farm vote, governments have subsidised diesel, on which most tractors and pumps run. So carmakers switched massively to diesel engines, which account for three-quarters of the motor fuel burned in Delhi, as well as for much of the carcinogenic grit that makes its air so dangerous. The government also favours coal for power generation, ostensibly to reduce reliance on imported fuels. But Indian coal has a high ash content, and the transport network struggles to bring it to power plants. The result is that India imports some $20bn of coal a year. Meanwhile, far cleaner gas-fired power plants are "stranded", either unconnected to pipelines or spurned by electricity distributors.

This is one reason why India's boast of meeting climate commitments is a sham. The goals it set itself are easy. One of them was to shrink the volume of emissions relative to gdp by 35%. But with gdp growing at 7% a year, this formula will allow it to triple emissions. India expects its power plants, already the world's dirtiest, to consume 50% more coal by 2030.

Perhaps the biggest reason India has failed to get serious about pollution is that its politicians have, to date, been able to ignore its middle class. But that, at last, is shifting. "I do see change," says Ms Narain. "The outrage has grown and is finally hitting home. But the action has yet to reach anything like the scale that we need." ■


Keith Hunt

Friday, December 14, 2018


The Economist —— December 1st 2018

Post-Soviet farming

Good times in Grainville

Russia has emerged as an agricultural powerhouse!

The district of Zernograd, or Grainville, in Russia's southern Rostov region has many hallmarks of a depressed post-Soviet backwater. Decaying villages dot dusty roads; grey apartment blocks fill sleepy cities. Yet thanks to its namesake crop, times for many here have never been better. Take Yuri and Aleksandr Peretyatko. The brothers launched their grain farm in the early 1990s, "we didn't even have bicycles," says Aleksandr. Now they own 1,500 hectares and cruise around in new white Lexus SUVs. Their children, Aleksandr boasts, "ride Range Rovers".

The Peretyatko brothers embody the optimism in Russian agriculture, a booming sector in an otherwise sluggish economy. Production has increased by more than 20% in the past five years, despite a broader recession and now stagnation. "That's what's called a breakthrough," President Vladimir Putin gushed as he discussed the up beat figures at a recent meeting with farmers. Expect, revenues from agriculture—which reached over $20bn in 2017— now exceed those from typically strong earners such as armament sales. Grain has been the star. In 2016 Russia became the world's leading exporter of wheat for the first time since before the Russian revolution. "Grain is our second oil," said Aleksandr Tkachev, the agriculture minister at the time.

This roaring output is the result of a confluence of short-and long-term factors. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, farming has undergone a gradual transformation from "a fantastically ineffective collective model to effective capitalism", says Andrei Sizov, head of SovEcon, an agricultural consultancy in Moscow. Although the state's overall role in Russia's economy has grown, agriculture has largely remained in private hands, fuelling competition. The devaluation of the Russian rouble in 2014 and bans on agricultural imports from countries that sanctioned Russia that year have provided additional boosts.

Tsaristera Russia was a big agricultural exporter, but Bolshevik collectivisation wiped out farming traditions and created an inefficient collective system that by the 1970s left the Soviet Union importing grain and other foodstuffs. In the post-Soviet era, farmers had to learn how to run competitive enterprisesrises. The Peretyatkos travelled to Europe to study best practices. "We went to see what private ownership meant, to see how people work for themselves," Yuri recalls.

Over the ensuing decades, investments in machinery, land and supplies accumulated; the government made agriculture a national priority, offering subsidies and support. Recognising the newfound strength of local competitors, in October an American trade group, US Wheat Associates, closed its Moscow office after 26 years of operations.

The rouble's devaluation has been a particular boon for exporters in recent years. Amid a global glut in grain, Russians have sucked up market share in Africa and the Middle East, leveraging their advantages in geography and weather over competitors in America, while undercutting prices. Grain traders have also begun targeting more distant markets such as Indonesia and even Mexico. Bans on agricultural imports from Western countries have also cleared space for local producers, though at the cost of higher inflation. Although Russia still imports more food than it exports, steps have been made towards the government's goals of feeding itself: in the past five years, for example, Russia has become self-sufficient in pork and poultry.

The future also looks bright owing to global trends. As populations grow, so too should food consumption, especially in some of Russia's largest export markets, such as Turkey. Rising temperatures and improving technologies mean longer" growing seasons, higher crop yields and wider swathes of arable land in much of Russia. "Everyone is moving north," says Yuri. His son has started farming in the Belgorod region, closer to Moscow.

Russia also has latent agricultural potential. Millions of hectares of land abandoned after the Soviet collapse could be reclaimed. Investments in digital technologies, where Russia lags, would lift productivity; downstream food manufacturing is underdeveloped. But tapping these possibilities would need infrastructure improvements. Grain terminals have struggled to cope with record harvests. Outside the fertile south, much farmland sits far from ports. Some also worry about competition as concentration in the hands of giant agro-holding firms increases.

Yet none of that can dampen the mood of those like the Peretyatkos who have seen the sector's turnaround first-hand. "When we started, we had big doubts about whether it would work out at all," says Aleksandr. Now, as Yuri puts it, "You could say that Zernograd is returning to its name." ■