50 Years of IR8 :: The rice variety which saved the world

Rice is the staple food of millions in South East Asia. People in South India and North East grow rice as the main crop. It is eaten with fish. It is the rice, that ushered green revolution in India and brought India back from the jaws of starvation. Punjab became the leader in growing the rice, a crop which was alien to North india as most people liked wheat. It is another matter that Punjab has to pay a untold price for feeding the Indian population.

Story of IR8 Rice

A few days back, it was 50 years ago, the rice variety nicknamed IR8 was launched and it saved millions in Asia and particularly in India from starvation and acted as a launchpad for Green Revolution in India.

It was almost a famine like situation in this area. The available production of edibles was insufficient to cope with the requirement. Traditional varieties of rice took 160 to 180 days for the crop cycle and yields were low.

The rice variety was developed by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) which is based in Manila and works under FAO. The strain matures in 130 days and has higher yields for the same nitrogen consumption.

In the year 1962, the Institute made a cross variety using Peta, a Indonesian tall, pest resistant and vigorous variety with a dwarf Chinese variety called dee-geo-woo-gen (DGWG) in the laboratory.

During field tests in Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan using the variety named IR8-288-3 showed great promise and yields it gave were almost 9 times the existing from 1 ton per hectare to 9 ton per hectare.

In Andhra Pradesh, a farmer called Nekkanti Subba Rao, experimented and sowed this rice in 2000 acres in Atchanta in West godavari. He earned the nickname of “Mr.IR8”.

The variety was commercially introduced in 1967 in the Vietnam during the American war.

The variety became popular worldwide and earned local nicknames worldwide. For example in Burma it is called Magyaw, Padi Ria in Malaysia ,Peta Baru 8 in Indonesia, Milagaru Philipino in Mexico . It was grown in Pakistan, India, Taiwan, China, and even in US.

In an interesting tale, a farmer K.N.Ganesan of Tamil Nadu named one of his sons “Irretu” meaning IR8 in Tamil.

Similarly in Vietnam the rice came to known as Honda rice as its bumper harvest enabled one farmer to purchase an Honda motorcycle.



Thank you Google

I wanted to share the story long back. Today has made up my mind and putting it on the paper. Google has become indispensable for the internet. Without it you cannot get the information you want. On a simple press of search button after entering the query, thousand upon thousand results are displayed within fraction of seconds. It’s interface deceptively simple. Most of people think that Google is simply a search engine. There are several other applications which are very helpful. Some of these are Maps, Earth, Gmail, Picasa, Translation, Blog and so on.

Now my story. I did my Masters in Chemistry from Panjab University Chandigarh long back in 1975. Many of friends left the country and found jobs there. As is the case, slowly slowly each one went his or her way in search of jobs and settling.

I joined the ONGC, India’s premier exploration and production company in hydrocarbons area. I had a friend who went to USA for doing doctorate in Chemistry. We lost contact and for years did not contact one another.

I remembered him many times. I tried to find him through our teachers and colleagues but got vague indications. I resigned to the fact that it is gone case now.

But then I decided to see if Google search can help. Since his name is also the name of so many other people, searching him using his name revealed voluminous information. Sifting through it was impossible. I knew that he did his research there. I entered the text related to the erase arc papers published by him. Some paper names showed up. He was one of the authors in them. Since he was not the first author, his email address was not given. Then I googled the name of first author and found one article by him with his email mentioned.

I sent him an email politely asking if he is in touch with his co author who was my friend. His reply came within minutes. I had mentioned my contact number also in the mail. He replied saying that your friend shall ring you in 10 minutes. And for sure, his phone call came and I was so happy and we talked for quite sometime.

I was awed at the technology by Google. Thanks again. Many others might have similar happy experiences.

Such a long journey

Journeys serve different purposes for different people and different times. Some people are very fond of visiting newer places and get the first hand experience of the place. Although these days you can read about place and see pictures on the internet but personally experiencing the place is simply different. Many journeys are performed with specific purposes like visiting the distance relatives, attending some meetings, marriages and to be with acquaintances in the hours of distress. In India, journeys are seldom undertaken for the pleasure because of the shoestring budgets in hand. Work was the main purpose of the journey.

Curiosity is behind this propensity of journeying. Whatever we read and see through books and multimedia increases our curiosity to visit and see with our own eyes. Now one can very well imagine the curiosity of the primitive man because before him lay the whole unknown and unexplored worlds. He was always on the move as a hunter in search of kill. He seldom returned to the earlier destination which was but a temporary residence. This went on till he got tired of moving and the womenfolk who in addition to teaming with their mates for hunting also bore and raised the offspring, discovered that some grasses yielded the seeds which were edible and easy to grow. So whenever they stayed behind, they began planting the grasses. This decreased the dependence on the hunting and arrested their wanderings to a greater extent. Then they began keeping the cattle which added to the profit of the household.

This way our ancestors laid the foundation of stable residences. It also provided them with free time. The lactation period of the women decreased. The result was population explosion. Although mortality must had been very high but still the increase in population was very high as there was still no competition for food which must have been in plenty. Again the resources in the vicinity begun to feel the pressure and competition for food sent from time to time some groups of people to other places in search of food. There they adapted themselves to different climates and food items. Thus the variations in the structure and features began separating. The changes have been so drastic that many people shall not be ready to agree that once upon a time in the remote past all their predecessors were similar.

Simply Mind Boggling

Scientists speculate that all the fundamental particles were created from the energy immediately after the Big Bang event in which Universe was formed. Then these atoms combined in different permutations and combinations and molecules were born. Context of immediately in the cosmic events is not similar to the usual terms with which define our world. It may be millions of years.

Earth was formed but its climate was not like the present day. There was no life except one algae namely “Blue Algae” known in the scientific language as “Cyanobacteria” where “Cyano” stands for blue color. It thrived in the water which occupied 70% surface of the Earth. All around in the atmosphere was carbondioxide and metals existed in the solution form because there was no oxygen to react with them and precipitate them as ores. Iron was the most abundant of them. So this was the scene about 3.5 billions of years ago.

How did these small living beings sustain themselves? Where from did they get the energy? .

They developed the photosynthesis and harvested the energy of Sun. They also did much of the chemistry which resulted in critically changing the composition of gases in the atmosphere. They learned to break the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. They then used the hydrogen along with carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates which are the store house of energy. The oxygen gas which was generated was very reactive and reacted with the metal ions especially iron species and got fixed up and ores were formed. This went on for millions of years. Iron acted as a perfect sink for oxygen which was poison for these bacteria themselves because they thrived in the anaerobic conditions.

But a stage reached when no more free iron ions were available. So the concentration of oxygen began building up in the atmosphere and setting a stage in which the new species of life which use oxygen for breathing to evolve. The life started in the real earnest. The oxygen content stabilized at about 20% by volume in the air. Carbon dioxide has very small percentage. So these humble microbes were responsible for the life as we see today on this Earth.

The algae learned to live with the existing conditions.

How big is the cyanobacteria? It has been estimated that its diameter is about 2 microns if we consider it as a sphere which it is not. But for the sake of simplicity and bring home the point as is done in all the scientific inquiry let us assume that. Such a small size !! But is it really small in comparison to the smaller things nature can go to. Let us compare it to the size of carbon atom. If we calculate the volume of bacteria and volume of carbon atom, and calculate how many atoms of carbon can fit into the bacteria, you shall be surprised that a mind boggling 1000000000000 atoms is the answer. You are in for more surprise if you go down to fundamental particles like electrons and leptons.

So this is the scale at which the machinery of the Nature works. On one side are the atomic sized particles and on the other are gigantic stars. But one thing is sure that at the base of everything are the fundamental particles. It is also a fact that things behave very differently on the different scale levels. Electrons can behave as particles under one set of conditions and as a wave in the diffraction experiments. Or they may be behaving as they are but with our existing knowledge  we try to explain the things the way which give reasonable answers.

So let us salute to the “Cyanobacteria” to create favorable conditions for the existing worlds to forms and initiation of the diverse kinds of species on this Earth.

Entropy: A negative form of Information?

Entropy is the measure of degree of randomness in a system. More the randomness more is the system stable. Any reaction which results in the creation of more number of particles or when matter in the solid state goes to liquid state and from liquid state to gaseous state results in increase of entropy.

Entropy is related to the heat energy which is the form of energy all other energies when used tend to change into. Heat causes the increase in the randomness of the motion of the particles in the matter. The entropy thus is connected with chaos.

It is a fact that it is almost impossible to design a machine which can convert all the energy into the useful work. This means that efficiency of any machine cannot be 100%. In fact there is a theorem by Carnot which states this. Where does the lost energy go? It is turned into the heat energy. This is due to this energy that parts of the implements heat up during the operation.

It has been said that information is also a form of energy. Take for example the following 125 alphabet highly non-random arrangement of the words.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at tide flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in the shallow and in miseries.”

The above short passage from Julius Caesar; Act IV, Scene 3, is spoken by Brutus, when he realizes that he must face Mark Antony‘s army. Lesser the randomness, more information-rich is the content.

If we scramble these alphabets, the randomness increases and information or the meaning is lost. The entropy is increased. Thus we can entropy is the form of negative information.

Artificial Leaf

Nature is so grand that the structure of leaf which is a basic unit for converting absorbed CO2 and H2O into glucose is beyond full comprehension. The human beings break down every phenomena in nature into smaller manageable parts and understand it and then integrate the results. This is due to the evolution of our brain in a way that left hemisphere dominates. This hemisphere is the logical unit of the brain and analyses the problems by breaking them into modules. It is unable to see the things in the holistic manner. Only the artists use the right brain more and they see the scene as one single entity.

What do the plants do for the food? They use glucose to run the various processes in their lives. The inputs for making glucose include the CO2 and H2O and sunlight with the help of a special pigment called chlorophyll. It is this chemical which gives the leaves their green color. When the glucose is formed, the sunlight is stored in it in the form of chemical energy. Human beings take up the glucose as food. The enzyme which is called alpha amylase breaks down the starch (higher form of glucose) into CO2 and H2O again and releases the stored energy which is utilized by our bodies. This cycle goes on and on this cycle depends the existence of animals and plants. The end products of one’s actions are the starting materials for the other. This shows that we owe our existence to the Sun. Without the Sun life is impossible on the earth. Hindus and Zoroastrian people worship the Sun. When the Vedas and Zend Avesta was written, they may not be knowing the chemistry but even then intuitively they chose the Sun for worship.

The news has broken out from MIT about a professor who has been able to make a synthetic leaf. It does not synthesize the glucose but it breaks down the water into its individual components namely hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen so generated is a fuel, the cleanest of the fuels because when it is burned, it again forms the water vapors and releases energy. So the leaf can be more appropriately called a fuel cell. The water as such is a very stable molecule and it requires energy to break it into its components. Conventionally, electrolysis is used to break down the water and this requires energy. The professor must have used the metals which acts as catalysts and makes the reactions possible and lowers cost. He says that his leaf is 10 times more prolific then the natural leaf. But its working life is about 45 minutes.

Let us hope that energy problems are solved and our dependence on the exhaustible natural energy sources like fossil fuels decreases and these isolated inventions do not remain confined to the laboratory but become commercially viable. To read more about the leaf click this link.

Cyclohexane: A Chemical Chair

Cyclohexane belongs to the category of hydrocarbons called naphthenes. It has a chemical formula of C6H12. Naphthenes are found in crude oil. Most abundant are mono ring compounds of which cyclohexane is the perfect example. In fact, the poly ring naphthenes are found in the high boiling fractions of naphtha and the name seems to have been derived from naphtha. The term Naphthene has become almost redundant except in petroleum industry.The other fractions present in the crude oil are paraffins which are long chain alkanes  with formula CnH2n+1. For example, when n=6, then we have hexane with formula C6H14. High molecular weight paraffins are the main constituents of waxes. Another important category of compounds present in the crude oil is called aromatics. The most celebrated and simplest molecule of the category is Benzene with chemical formula C6H6. The overall properties of crude oil depend on the relative amounts of these fractions.

So, we observe that normal hexane, cyclohexane and benzene have six carbons but number of hydrogen atoms go on decreasing while going from paraffins to aromatics. This indicates that we are progressing towards graphite with the loss of hydrogen atoms. Crude oils derived from the marine sources are lighter in nature meaning they have lesser amounts of waxy paraffins. This helps them to be lighter and survive in under sea hydrostatic pressure. On the other hand, plants in the arid climates have wax on their leaves which helps in the prevention of moisture evaporation and is absolutely necessary for the survival of plants under harsh conditions. Thus the crude derived from terrestrial plants have higher wax content.

Anyway, we come to cyclohexane. The carbon atoms try to have tetrahedral geometry around them when combining to 4 atoms. But this is not possible here. So they settle for a compromise for stability. Cyclohexane twists to have a shape like a chair with alternate carbons in two parallel planes and hydrogen atoms arranged in two directions. They are in positions called axial and equatorial positions with axial hydrogen atoms almost perpendicular to the carbon atoms plane with alternating up and down positions.

How was this structure confirmed? It was confirmed by using the tool called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) which is used these days in the medical science under the name of MRI. The protons  (hydrogen atoms) behave like tiny magnets and spin around their axis. As we know from the magnets, when we place a small magnet near a strong magnet, smaller one aligns itself along the axis of stronger magnet. Energy is required to flip it back to its original position. Thus the principle of NMR is that molecules are placed in a powerful magnetic field and swept with electromagnetic energy. This will be of no useful tool if all the hydrogen atoms absorb the energy at same wavelength. Fortunately, the magnetic moments of hydrogen atoms are modified by the electronic environment around it a molecule which may be due to the presence of hetero atoms and groups or different number of groups. Thus due to the different environment, the hydrogen atoms absorb energy at different wavelengths. From this we come to know the chemical environment of different hydrogen atoms and thus elucidate its structure. In our brain, we have so many molecules which contain hydrogen atoms and these are affected by the state of our mind.

When cyclohexane is placed in a NMR cell, we get only a single signal indicating that all the hydrogen atoms are equivalent. But this is true only at normal temperature. The reason is that axial and equatorial hydrogen atoms flip up and down because energy required for this is very small and room temperature provides it. But as we cool the sample, less energy is available and a temperature reaches 40K, the atoms sort of freeze in their locations and two peaks begin to appear. These peaks are indicative of up and down orientation hydrogen atoms. This confirms a chair configuration of cyclohexane.