Axios Science

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September 28, 2023

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This edition is 1,737 words, about a 6.5-minute read.

1 big thing: U.S.-India science ties deepen

Illustration of a collage of hands holding flasks and petri dishes, India's flag, and the US flag.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The U.S. is expanding its long-standing scientific collaborations with India — as both countries prioritize strengthening their science and tech foundations and try to counter China's ever-growing influence.

Why it matters: The Biden administration is trying to build "a stable base in the Indo-Pacific." India is challenging China to become the voice of the Global South. Science is a lever of power both are pulling to try to achieve those goals.

What's happening: There have been people-to-people and institute-to-institute collaborations and partnerships for decades, but the deepening support of government-to-government could make collaboration easier, says Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

  • The U.S. and India, along with Israel and the UAE, announced a new joint space venture last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
  • President Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 earlier this month announced a joint initiative focused on biotechnology and the India-U.S. Global Challenges Institute, a network of universities in the U.S. and India aimed at advancing science and tech in the two countries.
  • The National Science Foundation has invested nearly $150 million in more than 200 joint projects with India in the last five years, including 35 this year focused on AI, edge computing and other emerging technologies, NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said during his G20 visit to India.

Where it stands: The growing U.S.-India research partnership is fueled in part by India's large diaspora in the U.S.

  • More than 720,000 scientists and engineers born in India emigrated to the U.S. in 2019 and make up nearly 30% of the foreign-born U.S. STEM workforce.
  • The diaspora is also influential: Google, IBM, CRISPR Therapeutics, NSF, the AAAS and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are all helmed by people born in India or of Indian descent.

Reality check: China remains the United States' main scientific partner, though the growth in collaboration has slowed.

  • "There's no way that India can replace China in the relationship in science and technology," says Caroline Wagner, who studies international science collaboration at Ohio State University.

Between the lines: In a paper not yet peer-reviewed, Wagner and Georgia Tech professor Travis Whetsell measured the research capacity of the world's countries.

  • On core technical capacity, India ranked in the top 10, aside the U.S., China, Japan and others. But when factoring in governance issues — academic freedom and control of corruption — both India and China dropped out of the top 30 countries.

The big picture: The deepening partnership has geopolitical and economic goals, as well as scientific ones.

  • "Both New Delhi and Washington see strong reasons to counter China," says Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, adding there have also been a series of tracks in the U.S.-India relationship that don't relate to China, including economic cooperation that began in the early 1990s.
  • In global scientific partnerships, India could also fuel the development of a science and tech sector that supports economic growth. India has long said it has a goal of spending 2% of the country's GDP on research and development each year. But it invested just over 0.6% in 2020-2021, while the U.S. and some other countries spend more than 3%.

What to watch: The relationship presents challenges, including India's layers of bureaucracy, which can be hard to navigate, Parikh says.

  • Press freedom has diminished in India under Modi and the government has been criticized for discrimination and persecution of the country's Muslim population, among other issues.
  • A major sticking point is export controls. The U.S. has been hesitant to transfer sensitive types of military and other technologies to India because of its dependence on Russian military equipment.
  • And while India may be easier to partner with than China from a geopolitical perspective, there are "a lot of barriers in terms of the regulatory environment in India," says Toby Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities.

Read the entire story.

2. Brain organoids open window to disorders

Illustration of a hand holding a petri dish as a magnifying lens up against a brain.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A combination of gene editing and growing tiny clusters of brain cells in the lab can be used to figure out how certain genes are involved in the brain's development and its disorders, researchers reported this week.

Why it matters: Mutations in hundreds of genes are known to be associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, but how they affect the function of neurons is largely unknown. Understanding their impact could inform therapies that target the genes and the processes they affect.

How it works: During the brain's development, cells called interneurons take on different roles and migrate through the brain to their correct location, forming circuits that regulate brain processes.

  • Scientists have hypothesized that the balance in signaling between interneurons that excite or inhibit the firing of other neurons in the circuit is perturbed when people develop autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy.

What they did: Sergiu Pasca, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues leveraged CRISPR gene editing and the ability to grow brain organoids to study the role of interneurons.

  • Using techniques from earlier work, the team grew stem cells into brain organoids representing the subpallium (a region deep in the brain where the majority of the brain's inhibitory cells originate) and the cortex.
  • When they are put together, the cells start moving toward the cortex and start populating it exactly as they would do in utero, Pasca says.
  • In the new study, published this week in Nature, the team made more than 1,000 subpallium and cortex organoids and used CRISPR gene editing to knock out the function of one of 425 different genes associated with autism in each organoid.
  • They then put the organoids together and, using a fluorescent dye, watched how the neurons moved in the dish.

What they found: About 10% of the 400-plus genes interfere with the generation of the interneurons or their migration during the brain's development, they reported in Nature.

Yes, but: There are other processes that genes could interfere with at later stages of development and weren't looked at in the study.

  • Another challenge is "three different people can inherit the same risk gene, and one will have autism, another schizophrenia, and a third be unaffected," says Kristen Brennand, a professor of psychiatry and of genetics at Yale University who wasn't involved in the study.

The big picture: The next step is to generate similar screens for other processes in the brain that could be disrupted by disorders and disease, including how cells mature, how cells take on their different types, how they establish synapses, Pasca says.

  • Understanding these processes could offer a new way of looking at psychiatric disorders that are currently defined through the lens of behavior, not biology, he says.

Of note: Another study published this week used brain organoids and CRISPR and found the effects of 36 high-risk autism spectrum disorder genes on determining the fate of cells.

3. Deforestation from space

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Powerful space-based sensors and tools are monitoring deforestation around the world in close to real time, arming companies, nongovernmental organizations and governments with data to combat the growing problem, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: Deforestation, which can contribute to climate change and habitat loss, is a particularly thorny problem to tackle because it typically happens in remote areas and is difficult to track from the ground.

  • Observing Earth from space makes tracking easier, giving those enforcing the laws strong evidence that illegal logging is occurring.

Driving the news: The company CTrees just launched a new portal called the Land Use Change Alert (LUCA) system that can inform users when deforestation and other "degradation" events are spotted using synthetic aperture radar, which cuts through cloud cover that has hampered other efforts at times.

  • LUCA can alert users to these events on about a biweekly basis.
  • Once the NISAR satellite — an Earth-observing mission from the U.S. and India — comes online next year, however, it should allow the tool to make alerts available in less than a week, Sassan Saatchi, co-founder and CEO of CTrees, tells Axios.

Zoom in: Analytics has also revolutionized how satellite data can be used to understand what's happening with forests.

  • "In the past 10, 15 years, there has been a major shift in terms of our capability. We look at hundreds of terabytes of data in order to do this," Saatchi says.
  • That analytical power has sped up processing times and made it easier to get more actionable information from huge amounts of data.

And getting that information into the hands of people quickly has been shown to help slow deforestation.

  • A study from Global Forest Watch and others published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences in 2021 showed that indigenous Peruvian communities that used alerts powered by satellite data saw deforestation decrease by 52% in one year.

Read the entire story.

4. Worthy of your time

Antarctic sea ice hits lowest seasonal peak on record (Andrew Freedman — Axios)

Mammals' time on Earth is half over (Carl Zimmer — NYT)

Scientists find antimatter is subject to gravity (Hannah Devlin — The Guardian)

5. Something wondrous

An Eisenia fetida, commonly known as an earthworm is pictured in Paris on March 1, 2023. (Photo by Joël SAGET / AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

An Eisenia fetida, commonly known as an earthworm. Photo: Joël Saget/AFP, via Getty Images

Existing beneath our feet and largely out of mind, earthworms make important contributions to food production that scientists have now quantified.

Why it matters: The findings suggest investing in "policies and practices to support earthworm populations and overall soil biodiversity could contribute greatly to sustainable agriculture goals," the researchers write.

What they found: Colorado State University researchers analyzed maps of earthworm abundance, crop yields, fertilizer rates and soil properties to estimate the contribution of earthworms.

  • The scientists found about 6.5% of global production of grain (maize, wheat, rice and barley) and 2.3% of legume production can be credited to earthworms, they report in Nature Communications this week.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, their contributions were even higher, possibly because there is less fertilizer use and more clay in the soil, scientists suggest.
  • Yes, but: The data skewed heavily to North America and Europe, and the researchers said the contributions in the Southern Hemisphere could be higher than they estimated.

How it works: Earthworms are gold to gardeners, known to help plant growth by aerating soil and releasing nutrients by breaking down organic matter.

The big picture: "Soils are still this huge, big black box that we don't fully understand," Steven Fonte, a professor of agrosystem ecology at CSU and author of the paper said in a press release.

  • "This work helps show that there's a lot of opportunity that we're just kind of ignoring."

Big thanks to editor Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath, to Shoshana Gordon on the Axios Visuals team and to copy editor Jay Bennett.