Today's Headlines

Today's Headlines - 30 March 2023

An IMF bailout provided to a country

GS Paper - 3 (Economy)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) executive board approved a nearly $3 billion bailout plan for Sri Lanka, of which about $333 million was to be disbursed immediately to alleviate the country’s humanitarian crisis.

What are IMF bailouts?

  1. In a general sense, a bailout means extending support to an entity facing a threat of bankruptcy.

  2. Countries seek IMF bailouts when they are facing macroeconomic riskscurrency crises and need assistance to meet external debt obligations, to buy essential imports and push the exchange value of their currencies.

  3. According to the IMF, inappropriate fiscal and monetary policies, which can lead to large current account and fiscal deficits and high public debt levels; an exchange rate fixed at an inappropriate level, which can erode competitiveness and result in the loss of official reserves, and a weak financial system, which can create economic booms and busts are among factors that lead to economic crises.

  4. Political instability and weak institutions also can trigger crises, as can insolvent financial institutions.

  5. The IMF was set up in 1945 with the aim to bring about international economic coordination to prevent competing currency devaluation by countries trying to promote their own exports.

  6. It later went on to become a last resort lender for countries facing severe economic crises.

How is an IMF bailout provided?

  1. The IMF lends money to the economies in peril in the form of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), which is a basket of five currencies — US dollarEuroChinese YuanJapanese Yen and British Pound. It can be executed in the form of loanscashbonds, or stock purchases.

  2. The lending is done through programs designed according to purpose. According to the IMF, these include standby arrangementstandby credit facilityextended fund facilityextended credit facilityrapid financing instrumentrapid credit facilityflexible credit lineshort term liquidity lineprecaution and liquidity lineresilience and sustainability facilitystaff monitored programpolicy support instrument and policy coordination instrument.

Where does the IMF get its money?

  1. IMF funds come from three sources: member quotasmultilateral and bilateral borrowing agreements.

  2. Quotas are the IMF’s main source of financing, wherein each member of the IMF is assigned a quota, based broadly on its relative position in the world economy.

  3. The IMF’s current total resources of about SDR 977 billion translate into a capacity for lending of about SDR 713 billion (around US$1 trillion).

  4. Besides members of the Paris Club of creditor nations such as the United StatesFrance and Japan, other lenders include ChinaIndiaSaudi ArabiaSouth Africa and Kuwait.

Greenhouse gas methane cools our planet

GS Paper - 3 (Environment)

Methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- traps a great deal of heat in Earth's atmosphere, but also creates cooling clouds that offset 30 per cent of the heat, a "surprising" new study has found. Greenhouse gases like methane create a kind of blanket in the atmosphere, trapping heat from Earth's surface, called longwave energy, and preventing it from radiating out into space. This makes the planet hotter. The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

What did the study say?

  1. The researchers noted that methane remains a potent contributor to global warming, and efforts to reduce methane emissions are vital for keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial values.

  2. Though methane generally increases the amount of precipitation, accounting for the absorption of shortwave energy suppresses that increase by 60 per cent.

  3. Both types of energy -- longwave (from Earth) and shortwave (from Sun) -- escape from the atmosphere more than they are absorbed into it, study said.

  4. The atmosphere needs compensation for the escaped energy, which it gets from heat created as water vapour condenses into rain, snow, sleet, or hail.

  5. Essentially, precipitation acts as a heat source, making sure the atmosphere maintains a balance of energy.

  6. The researchers found that methane changes this equation. By holding on to energy from the Sun, methane is introducing heat the atmosphere no longer needs to get from precipitation.

  7. They explained that methane shortwave absorption decreases the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth's surface. This in turn reduces the amount of water that evaporates.

  8. Generally, precipitation and evaporation are equal, so a decrease in evaporation leads to a decrease in precipitation.

Piezoelectric effect in liquids for the first time

GS Paper -3 (Science)

For the first time, scientists have reported evidence of the piezoelectric effect in liquids. The effect has been known for 143 years and in this time has been observed only in solids. The new finding challenges the theory that describes this effect as well as opens the door to previously unanticipated applications in electronic and mechanical systems.

More about the news:

The effect was found in pure 1-butyl-3-methyl imidazolium bis (trifluoromethyl-sulfonyl) imide and 1-hexyl-3-methyl imidazolium bis (trifluoromethylsulfonyl) imide – both ionic liquids (i.e. liquids made of ions instead of molecules) at room temperature.

About the piezoelectric effect:

  • Itwas discovered in 1880, in QuartzQuartz is silicon dioxide (SiO2). The quartz crystal consists of silicon and oxygen atoms at the four vertices of a three-sided pyramid; each oxygen atom is shared by two pyramids. These pyramids repeat themselves to form the crystal.

  • The effective charge of each pyramid is located slightly away from the centre. When a mechanical stress is applied – i.e. when the crystal is squeezed – the position of the charge is pushed further from the centre, giving rise to a small voltage. This is the source of the effect.

  • Such crystals are also used in cigarette lighters, electric guitars, TV remote controls, audio transducers, analog wristwatches and clocks and other instruments where converting mechanical stress to a current is useful.

The effect in liquids surprising because:

  • It has only been expected in solids thus far is that the body being squeezed needs to have an organised structure, like the pyramids of quartz. Liquids don’t have such structure; instead, they take the shape of their container.

  • Physicists explain the effect using a combination of Hooke’s law – that the force required to squeeze an object is linearly (i.e. non-exponentially) proportional to the amount of squeezing – and the properties of dielectric materials. These are materials that don’t conduct electricity but whose electrons are still mildly affected by an electric field.

  • The implication of the findings is the existence of some manner of organisation in ionic liquids that is not seen in ‘normal’ liquids.

What is the strength of the effect?

According to the paper, the magnitude of the piezoelectric effect in the first liquid was 16 millivolt per newton (mV/N) and in the second, 17 mV/N, in both cases within a margin of 1 mV/N. Using these numbers, they calculated the piezoelectric constant – the strength of the effect in these materials – to be lower than that of quartz by a factor of 10, a relatively small difference.

Possibilities of new applications:

  • The discovery opens the door to applications that have previously not been accessible with solid-state materials, and room-temperature ionic liquids are more readily recyclable and in many instances pose fewer environmental issues than many currently used piezoelectric materials.

  • The liquids also displayed the inverse piezoelectric effect: they became distorted when an electric charge was applied. This fact could be used to control how the liquids bent light passing through them by passing different currents through them. That is, using this simple control mechanism, vials of these liquids could be lenses with dynamic focusing abilities.

  • It could explain the liquids’ behaviour and reveal why these liquids behave the way they do, which could in turn reveal better ways to manipulate them, and develop newer applications.

Most deadly viruses contain RNA

GS Paper -3 (Disease)

In March 1953, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, received a note from Harriett Ephrussi-Taylor, a friend from the National Centre for Scientific Research in France. It contained news of a potential discovery that had enormous implications for molecular biology, virology, and immunology. It said that flu virus has principally, possibly exclusively, RNA.

More about the news:

DNA preference over RNA:

  • Most organisms prefer DNA over RNA, its chemical cousin, to store genetic information. As life evolved from single-celled organisms to increasingly complex forms, the amount of genetic data that had to be transferred to subsequent generations became correspondingly higher.

  • The enzymes responsible for copying DNA, collectively known as DNA polymerases, possess this error-correction property, known in technical parlance as ‘proofreading’.

  • This proofreading ability allowed the total DNA of higher organisms, known as the genome, to be longer and more complex.

  • On the other hand, the RNA counterparts to DNA polymerases, known as RNA polymerases, do not possess the ability to proofread.

  • As a result, when RNA is the genetic material, the genomes typically tend to be shorter. Longer genomes would contain proportionately higher mistakes, and such genomes would be eliminated by natural selection.

  • Coronaviruses beautifully illustrate this point since their genomes are typically three- or four times the size of those of other RNA viruses. They can afford the longer genomes due to the presence of a unique protein, in addition to the RNA polymerase, that performs the proofreading function.

  • RNA polymerases are also capable of recombination, a process that allows them to stitch together multiple pieces of different viral RNAs.

  • This is how, for example, the XBB variant of SARS-CoV-2 is the product of the BA. and BA. variants.

Advantages of RNA:

  • The most popular disease-causing viruses bear RNA, not DNA, including the causative agents of COVID-19, AIDS, polio, influenza, dengue, chikungunya, Ebola, Zika, Hepatitis C, rabies, Marburg, yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis.

  • Except for HIV, which is responsible for AIDS, all of these viruses contain an error-prone RNA polymerase. HIV uses a slightly different mechanism to replicate, but the enzyme responsible shares the error-prone nature of its siblings.

  • The better known DNA viruses included members of the pox family (smallpox and chickenpox) and Hepatitis B.

  • The domination of RNA viruses over human disease lays the error-prone nature of their polymerases. This singular property allows the virus to acquire multiple adaptations that serve as tools in the viral arsenal.

  • The RNA polymerase enables these viruses to exist in a form that scientists refer to as a quasi-species. This means that a given virus can exist in multiple variant forms simultaneously in each host. Such an existence directly results from these viruses’ error-prone replication.

Consequences of RNA as genetic material:

  • Such diversity also allows the creation of an odd variant that possesses a survival advantage against a vaccine or a drug. Such variants will undergo further natural selection, and the virus will continue to proliferate.

  • This is why multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 continue to circulate to this day. It is also why developing highly effective vaccines against RNA viruses remains challenging.

  • Due to the low-fidelity replication process, is the small size of the viral genome. This allows RNA viruses to have very short generation times. In a very short period after infection, the host’s virus population becomes enormous.

  • The viruses can ‘jump’ across species, a process termed zoonosis. This is because the high error rate and the short generation time enable the virus to adapt to newer conditions much faster, allowing the infection to spread easily among newer hosts.

  • This is why up to 89% of all human infectious RNA viruses are considered to be a result of zoonotic transmissions.

Significance of viral surveillance:

  • As RNA viruses represent the largest group of pathogenic organisms that cause new diseases. Every year, two or three new RNA viruses that can infect humans are discovered.

  • Due to lack of adequate surveillance in tropical and sub-tropical countries, viral surveillance and monitoring must be stepped up in these regions to arrive at more accurate numbers.

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