Indian innovation

Indian researcher finds a way to exploit the hard science of tender coconut water

Coconut water is sweet and safe to drink. Now, scientists have found it has laboratory applications as well.

When Muniasamy Neerathilingam was studying in Chennai's Anna University two decades ago, he contracted a painful skin condition because of the heat. He visited a dermatologist, but the ointment he was prescribed didn’t help much.

When he went home to Rajapalayam for his holidays, however, his mother gave him tender coconut water every day and his skin condition disappeared.

Years later, remembering this experience would lead him to a valuable breakthrough, and a pending global patent covering 180 countries. Munish, as he is called by his friends and colleagues, has found a way to use coconut water as a medium for growing bacteria that significantly reduces laboratory costs.

The breakthrough came last summer, as he attempted to beat the heat by sipping coconut water. Munish, who is now the head of a biotech research department at Bangalore's National Centre for Biological Sciences, realised that the coconut water was very sweet and very sterile, safe from microorganism or harmful toxins.

"It had cured me once,” he said. “I wanted to see if it could it be used to grow bacteria that serve as the environment for creating life-saving proteins."

Bacterial and yeast-based cultures are media for growing proteins – the building blocks of many important drugs, such as insulin.

At present, salt-based media and the Luria broth, derived from animal sources, are common bases for growing bacterial cultures. But salt-based media require careful preparation, and Luria broth contains harmful toxins that need to be removed if they are to form a base for making proteins. Tender coconut water is free of both these drawbacks.

"Luria broth is beyond ubiquitous," said Sangeetha Iyer, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Austin, Texas. It is used in almost any context in which bacterial cultures need to be grown but costs Rs 25,000 or more per kg.

Munish set his students the task of conducting experiments to test tender coconut water as a medium for breeding bacterial cultures. Their experiments confirmed that it was indeed a good base for brewing cultures, resulting in yields comparable to those of Luria broth cultures and salt-based media. A few more experiments later and they had established that bacterial cultures grown in tender coconut water did yield proteins as efficiently as bacteria grown in other media.

The team discovered that supplementing coconut water with ammonium salts – a common byproduct of chemical processes – standardised results from coconuts bought from various places. Their new medium is a tenth of the price of the other media.  Not surprisingly, an American biotech company expressed interest after they published their findings.

However, other researchers say that that there could be challenges in using coconut water in laboratory or industrial settings.

"Luria broth has a very high shelf life, as it comes as a dry mixture," said Himanshu Sinha, faculty member at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. "As coconut water is liquid, it could get contaminated."

He suggested that the money labs save by using tender coconut water would have to be spent on preserving the medium. "There is no doubt that tender coconut water is a good substitute,” he said. “But only research labs or pharma companies can tell us if it is indeed cheaper."

 
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.