Gossamer research

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Gossamer research

-- PETER Smetacek, 30, has a rare collection of butterflies, said to be among the largest in India. He is an authority on Himalayan butterflies. His love affair with butterflies began in his early childhood. Fascinated by the huge collection of the lepidoptera that his father had, Smetacek would roam the woods around his home in the Kumaon Himalayas at Bhimtal, to search and trap butterflies. Since then, he has been relentlessly engaged in studying these glorious insects, and conserving many rare species that are being threatened by the recent rise in its illegal trafficking.

Smetacek chose to become a lepidopterist to understand the colourful insects' role in different regional eco-systems which, he claims, "has not been understood at all, since there has been no new finding in this field in the past 50 years". He studies flight time, distribution and the general cycle of various butterly species to understand climate change, and the extent of human intervention in an eco-system.

He writes about butterflies, disseminating information to different NGOS, nature clubs and concerned individuals. "Since very little is known about them, I am trying to prepare a database and working on an inventory so that this information gap can be filled," he says. He has gifted a large part of his collection to the National Museum of Natural History in Delhi. Contact him to get a detailed information on Indian butterflies.

A pox on pests

INSECTS destroy a major part of standing crop, damaging the predominantly agrarian economy of the developing countries. That traditional pesticides are indisputably environmentally detrimental is an established fact. The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), in Nairobi, Kenya, directed by scientists from the developing world was founded in 1970 to curb the depredations of the pest.

The ICIPE conducts research dividing their programme into 4 sections: plant resistance to insect pest (PRIP); biological control; biomass; and applied control and insect mass-rearing technology. PRIP aims to provide appropriate information to various national and international centres facilitating cultivators. Successful development of maize and sorghum species resistant to Chilo partellus has been its major achievement. Major pests targeted are Chilo partellus and Busseola fusca of maize and sorghum, the banana weevil or Cosmopolites sordidus, and Maruca testulalis -- a major cowpea pest.

The ICIPE also offers professional training at postgraduate and postdoctoral levels, and short-term courses for scientists and technicians. It has a network of regional centres, including the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh in India.

ICRISAT is mainly working to improve sorghum, millet, chickenpea, pigeonpea and groundnut yields. The pigeonpea hybrid, icph 8, released in 1974 by ICRISAT, was the world's first pulse hybrid. By cooperating with national and regional research programmes, and by sponsoring seminars, workshops and training courses, it works for technology development and transfer.

Feverish inactivity

WHILE the Indian government appears to be a lame duck in the face of the recent spurt in malaria in the country, a joint research team of the University of Western Australia and Murdhoch University has developed a new drug capable of killing one of the most virulent forms of malaria. Today, when the deadly malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, has developed a remarkable resistance to many existing anti-malarial drugs, this discovery comes as a great relief.

The team has used an anti-worm drug, albendazole, used in Australia to kill worms in sheep and cattle, and to kill P falciparum cultures. Although, the commercial production of the new drug is yet to commence, Andrew Thompson, a team member, expressed hopes that this drug could be an effective alternative of those being used currently. Scientists, health-workers and voluntary agencies can contact Thompson for further information.

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