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NEW DELHI: For a decade, Dr Ram Karan has been looking for the answer to one question — how does life survive, and thrive, in extreme conditions? While he looked for answers on earth, the discovery of liquid “water” bodies (as opposed to frozen) on Mars with exactly the kind of extreme conditions he analyses means his work could hold the key to understanding extraterrestrial life.

Over the past two years, there has been a lot of debate over the presence of “liquid water” on Mars. On September 28, a study in ‘Nature’ confirmed the presence of a subglacial lake on Mars first identified in 2018 and detected three others around it. How did they stay liquid though? Salt, it seems, is the answer. The freezing point of salt water is much lower, meaning it has to be colder for it to turn into ice.

“The reason it’s still not frozen despite an average -60°C temperature is the high salt content,” said Karan.

This is where his work comes in. The 37-year-old enzymology research scientist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia has been studying extremophiles, microorganisms that thrive in inhospitable conditions — no oxygen, sub-zero temperatures, salt content that would kill most organisms — of the Red Sea, Antarctica and others.

“We found similar conditions in Deep Lake Antarctica. The most intriguing part was that despite high salt content, we extracted extremozymes (enzymes derived from extremophiles). This strengthens the possibility of existence of such enzymes, the building blocks of life, on Mars as well,” he said.

In his paper published in ‘Microorganisms’ journal on Friday, Karan, who is the lead author, wrote, “Studies of extremophilic proteins may not only help to understand the early evolution of life on Earth, but also provide clues for how life could potentially survive on other planets.” A paper he co-authored in 2017, which documented the discovery of an Antarctic microorganism in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America’, had also said, “The molecular basis for its survival is relevant to the search for life on Mars, as well as on the many newly discovered planets in our galaxy.”

In fact, the ‘Nature’ paper about buried lakes on Mars refers to the icy lakes of East Antarctica: “Several previously undetected subglacial lakes have been found by applying some of the criteria originally used in East Antarctica.” So, the first possible application of Karan’s research could be exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth. “It is not only important for understanding survival under extreme terrestrial environments but may also enhance our understanding of the potential for life to exist beyond planet earth,” said Dr Tune Usha from the National Center for Coastal Research, Union ministry of earth sciences.

Then, it could provide the closest possible match of Martian ecosystems. The field of astrobiology, to a large extent, depends on that. “His research on enzymes from extremophiles will enhance our understanding of life throughout the universe. These studies give scientists a window into how life could have evolved and adapt to exist on Mars,” said Thorsten Allers, professor of archaeal genetics at the University of Nottingham.

So, when Martian samples are analysed, Karan’s research could help provide a framework. “In the future, when we are able to examine Martian salt samples for signs of life, we will rely on such analyses of Earth life,” said biologist Bonnie K Baxter, director of Salt Lake Institute, Westminster College.

Finally, it could hold a clue to how life functions when it does survive. Terry McGenity, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Essex, said, “His research extends our understanding of how microbes function in extreme environments on our planet and potentially beyond Earth.”

The Times of India is an Indian English-language daily newspaper owned by The Times Group. It is the third-largest newspaper in India by circulation and largest selling English-language daily in the world. according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

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INDIA

EC action against BJP’s Imarti Devi over poll code violations

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NEW DELHI: The Election Commission on Saturday imposed a 24-hour campaign ban on BJP leader Imarti Devi due to poll code violations.

“BJP leader Imarti Devi has been barred from holding, anywhere in MP, public meetings, public processions, public rallies, roadshows and interviews, public utterances in media in connection with ongoing elections for one day on November 1,” the poll panel said.

Earlier this week, the election commission had issued a notice to Imarti Devi, who is contesting a bypoll in Madhya Pradesh, for allegedly describing an unnamed political rival as “insane” and making remarks against women members of his family.

Devi, who is also a minister in the Madhya Pradesh government, did not name the political rival in a video on social media.

According to the transcript of the video, Imarti Devi said after the person left the chief minister’s post in Madhya Pradesh, he became “insane” (pagal).

Devi was involved in another incident earlier when senior Congress leader Kamal Nath called her an “item” during an election rally. Following his remarks, Nath was served a notice by the EC and later removed as Congress’ “star campaigner”.

Bypolls to 28 Madhya Pradesh assembly seats will be held on November 3.

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Covid-19: Indian students speak of depression and isolation at UK universities under lockdown, some plan to return to India

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LONDON: Indian students in Manchester have spoken of their isolation and depression at being stuck in their rooms all day since all teaching went online and the city moved into a harsh lockdown owing to rising Covid-19 cases.

Five joined a protest outside the university offices holding placards saying “Are we paying £22k for this?” and “Was it worth me flying from India to attend an online class?”. The students want greater offline social activities, blended teaching, mental health support and a reduction in fees.

“I have not experienced 5% of university life this year. It was our last year to have fun and live university life. Now everything is ruined,” said Danish Hussain (21) of Ajmer, in the final year of his £15k-a-year undergraduate degree in tourism management at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). He returned to India in the spring, when Covid cases were rising, and returned in September expecting teaching to be blended.

But on October 7, the University of Manchester (UoM) and MMU moved all teaching online after young people accounted for 55% of Covid-19 cases. On October 23 the city went into a Tier 3 lockdown.

“I don’t know why they can’t divide us into groups and do face-to-face learning with social distancing. The teachers come on video chat but I’m not getting to interact with classmates. We don’t have anywhere to go. You can’t meet new people. Everyone is stressed,” he said. “There used to be so many house parties in Manchester, now it is dead.”

He is staying alone in a house-share as less students have come because of Brexit and Covid-19, he said.

MMU told TOI it had increased investment in its counselling services and from November 2 it will offer up to three hours of on-campus activity each week.

“The isolation is the worst part. It makes you feel so demotivated. The main struggle is not money, it is mental health,” said Shubhi Verma, 25, from Bhopal, who is doing an intellectual property masters at the UoM costing £19,500 a year. “I could have done this in India and saved a lot of money. There are no contact hours with the professor. How can you create a relationship online? Online teaching is on Zoom but there is a lack of interaction. We have to stay in a bubble and can only interact with people we live with. We want more pastoral support. The societies have become WhatsApp groups. We are sat in our rooms and it is depressing,” Verma said.

“I think if you meet people in person you feel more pressured to do your work. Now no one feels bothered. People are not doing their work properly. I am just watching Netflix, eating and sleeping,” she said.

The UoM said online teaching would be reviewed on November 11, that the campus remained open, and insisted there were lots of activities.

“Many Indian students want to go back to India at Christmas and stay until the spring. They don’t see the point of being here as their courses are all online, student bars are closing and a lot of events are online. Already 50% didn’t come back in September,” Indian National Students Association UK president Amit Tiwari said.

Ahaan Gupta, 20, a third year undergraduate student of PPE at LSE, is doing just that. He went back in March and has not returned.

“I am at home with my parents and there is less chance of catching it here whereas in the UK there are so many possible interactions in a student halls of residence. The quality of teaching at LSE is really good online. It is the same as offline,” he said. Ahaan is paying £19,000 a year but doing the course from his parents’ home in Delhi.

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After slamming NHAI officials for ‘inefficiency’, Gadkari says his remarks meant for just a few

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NEW DELHI: Barely days after hitting out at NHAI and terming a section of its senior officials as “inefficient” and slamming them for adopting delaying tactics, Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari on Saturday said his remarks were aimed at only a few officials.

The minister said he was pained at the inordinate delay in completing construction work for a new NHAI office building.

Addressing an event of industry lobby ASSOCHAM on “Advanced Digital Technology & Policy for Infrastructure with special focus on Tunnel Engineering” on Saturday, Gadkari said a few days back he had pulled up NHAI officials while inaugurating the new NHAI building as its construction took eight years while it should have been done in two years.

“I was deeply hurt due to the inordinate delay. There are good people in NHAI, my ministry and NHIDCL including the NHAI chairman, secretary in the ministry and managing director of NHIDCL. There are hundreds of good engineers. My unhappiness was against only a few people,” he said.

The minister said while the NHAI was accelerating to complete the Rs 1 lakh crore Delhi-Mumbai Expressway project in three years, it was a bad show to complete such a small building project in eight years.

The minister’s comment had left several NHAI officials disheartened. “There was a lot of misconception as the minister’s speech went viral on social media. The highway construction has increased in recent years, which is the main parameter to assess performance. NHAI is not a building construction agency. Ideally, this project should have been assigned to a agency which is into construction of buildings,” said a senior NHAI official.

NHAI had recorded highest ever highway construction in 2019-20 at 3,979 km and the highways ministry as a whole had recorded maximum ever highway construction at 10,855 in 2018-19. Last year, it reduced marginally to 10,237 km.

During his address at the ASSOCHAM event, Gadkari said private contractors, after getting works, should not adopt tactics to “delay works, escalate costs and then go for arbitration to extract more money” from the government. He urged them to bag more work and earn profit by completing the projects in time.

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