A Café Scientifique Vancouver (Canada) May 28, 2019 talk ‘Getting to the heart of Mars with insight’ and an update on Baba Brinkman (former Vancouverite) and his science raps

It’s been a while since I’ve received any notices about upcoming talks from the local Café Scientifique crowd but on May 22, 2019 there was this announcement in an email,

Dear Café Scientifiquers,

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY, MAY 28TH [2019] at 7:30PM in the back room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be DR. CATHERINE JOHNSON from the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC [University of British Columbia] .

GETTING TO THE HEART OF MARS WITH INSIGHT

Catherine Johnson is a professor of geophysics in the Dept of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC Vancouver [campus], and a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson.  She is a Co-Investigator on the InSight mission to Mars, the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu and was previously a Participating Scientist on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

We hope to see you there!

I did some digging and found two articles about Johnson, the InSight mission, and Mars. The first one is an October 21, 2012 article by James Keller on the Huffington Post Canada website,

As NASA’s Curiosity rover beams back photos of the rocky surface of Mars, another group of scientists, including one from British Columbia, is preparing the next mission to uncover what’s underneath.

Prof. Catherine Johnson, of the University of British Columbia, is among the scientists whose project, named Insight, was selected by NASA this week as part of the U.S. space agency’s Discovery program, which invites proposals from within the scientific community.

Insight will send a stationary robotic lander to Mars in 2016, drilling down several metres into the surface as it uses a combination of temperature readings and seismic measurements to help scientists on this planet learn more about the Martian core.

The second one is a May 6, 2018 article (I gather it took them longer to get to Mars than they anticipated in 2012) by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail newspaper website,

Thanks to a thick bank of predawn fog, Catherine Johnson couldn’t see the rocket when it blasted off early Saturday morning at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – but she could hear the roar as NASA’s InSight mission set off on its 6½-month journey to Mars.

“It was really impressive,” said Dr. Johnson, a planetary scientist at the University of British Columbia and a member of the mission’s science team. Describing the mood at the launch as a mixture of relief and joy, Dr. Johnson added that “the spacecraft is finally en route to do what we have worked toward for many years.”

But while InSight’s mission is just getting under way, it also marks the last stage in a particularly fruitful period for the U.S. space agency’s Mars program. In the past two decades, multiple, complementary spacecraft tackled different aspects of Mars science.

Unlike the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars nearly six years ago and is in the process of climbing a mountain in the middle of an ancient crater, InSight is designed to stay in one place after it touches down Nov. 26 [2018]. Its purpose is to open a new direction in Mars exploration – one that leads straight down as the spacecraft deploys a unique set of instruments to spy on the planet’s interior.

“What we will learn … will help us understand the earliest history of rocky planets, including Earth,” Dr. Johnson said.

It has been a prolonged voyage to the red planet. In 2015, technical problems forced program managers to postpone InSight’s launch for 2½ years. Now, scientists are hoping for smooth sailing to Mars and an uneventful landing a few hundred kilometres north of Curiosity, at a site that Dr. Johnson cheerfully describes as “boring.”

Does the timing of this talk mean you’ll be getting the latest news since InSight landed on Mars roughly six months ago? One can only hope. Finally, Johnson’s UBC bio webpage is here.

Baba Brinkman brings us up-to-date

Here’s most of a May 22, 2019 newsletter update (received via email) from former Vancouverite and current rapper, playwright, and science communicator, Baba Brinkman,

… Over the past five years I have been collaborating frequently with a company in California called SpectorDance, after the artistic director Fran Spector Atkins invited me to write and perform a rap soundtrack to one of her dance productions. Well, a few weeks ago we played our biggest venue yet with our latest collaborative show, Ocean Trilogy, which is all about the impact of human activities including climate change on marine ecosystems. The show was developed in collaboration with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and for the first time there’s now a full video of the production online. Have you ever seen scientifically-informed eco rap music combined in live performance with ballet and modern dance? Enjoy.

Speaking of “Science is Everywhere”, about a year ago I got to perform my song “Can’t Stop” about the neurobiology of free will for a sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music alongside physicist Brian Greene, comedian Chuck Nice, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The song is half scripted and half freestyle (can you tell which part is which?) They just released the video.

Over the past few months I’ve been performing Rap Guide to Evolution, Consciousness, and Climate Chaos off-Broadway 2-3 times per week, which has been a roller coaster. Some nights I have 80 people and it’s rocking, other nights I step on stage and play to 15 people and it takes effort to keep it lively. But since this is New York, occasionally when there’s only 15 people one of them will turn out to be a former Obama Administration Energy Advisor or will publish a five star review, which keeps it exciting.

Tonight I fly to the UK where I’ll be performing all next week, including the premiere of my newest show Rap Guide to Culture, with upcoming shows in Brighton, followed by off-Broadway previews in June, followed by a full run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August (plus encores of my other shows), followed by… well I can’t really see any further than August at the moment, but the next few months promise to be action-packed.

What’s Rap Guide to Culture about? Cultural evolution and the psychology of norms of course. I recently attended a conference at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, TN where I performed a sneak preview and did a “Rap Up” of the various conference talks, summarizing the scientific content at the end of the day, check out the video.

Okay, time to get back to packing and hit the road. More to come soon, and wish me luck continuing to dominate my lonely genre.

Brinkman has been featured here many times (just use his name as the term in the blog’s search engine). While he lives in New York City these days, he does retain a connection to Vancouver in that his mother Joyce Murray is the Member of Parliament for Vancouver Quadra and, currently, the president of the Treasury Board.

Bendable phones that are partially organic

It’s been about nine  or 10 years since I first heard about bendable phones (my September 29, 2010 posting). The concept keeps popping up from time to time (my April 25, 2017 posting) and this time, we have Australian scientists to thank for this latest work described in an October 5, 2018 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Engineers at ANU [Australian National University] have invented a semiconductor with organic and inorganic materials that can convert electricity into light very efficiently, and it is thin and flexible enough to help make devices such as mobile phones bendable (Advanced Materials, “Efficient and Layer-Dependent Exciton Pumping across Atomically Thin Organic–Inorganic Type-I Heterostructures”).

The invention also opens the door to a new generation of high-performance electronic devices made with organic materials that will be biodegradable or that can be easily recycled, promising to help substantially reduce e-waste.

An October 5, 2018 ANU press release (also on EurekAlert but published October 4, 2018) expands on the theme,

The huge volumes of e-waste generated by discarded electronic devices around the world is causing irreversible damage to the environment. Australia produces 200,000 tonnes of e-waste every year – only four per cent of this waste is recycled.

The organic component has the thickness of just one atom – made from just carbon and hydrogen – and forms part of the semiconductor that the ANU team developed. The inorganic component has the thickness of around two atoms. The hybrid structure can convert electricity into light efficiently for displays on mobile phones, televisions and other electronic devices.

Lead senior researcher Associate Professor Larry Lu said the invention was a major breakthrough in the field.

“For the first time, we have developed an ultra-thin electronics component with excellent semiconducting properties that is an organic-inorganic hybrid structure and thin and flexible enough for future technologies, such as bendable mobile phones and display screens,” said Associate Professor Lu from the ANU Research School of Engineering.

PhD researcher Ankur Sharma, who recently won the ANU 3-Minute Thesis competition, said experiments demonstrated the performance of their semiconductor would be much more efficient than conventional semiconductors made with inorganic materials such as silicon.

“We have the potential with this semiconductor to make mobile phones as powerful as today’s supercomputers,” said Mr Sharma from the ANU Research School of Engineering.

“The light emission from our semiconducting structure is very sharp, so it can be used for high-resolution displays and, since the materials are ultra-thin, they have the flexibility to be made into bendable screens and mobile phones in the near future.”

The team grew the organic semiconductor component molecule by molecule, in a similar way to 3D printing. The process is called chemical vapour deposition.

“We characterised the opto-electronic and electrical properties of our invention to confirm the tremendous potential of it to be used as a future semiconductor component,” Associate Professor Lu said.

“We are working on growing our semiconductor component on a large scale, so it can be commercialised in collaboration with prospective industry partners.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Efficient and Layer‐Dependent Exciton Pumping across Atomically Thin Organic–Inorganic Type‐I Heterostructures by Linglong Zhang, Ankur Sharma, Yi Zhu, Yuhan Zhang, Bowen Wang, Miheng Dong, Hieu T. Nguyen, Zhu Wang, Bo Wen, Yujie Cao, Boqing Liu, Xueqian Sun, Jiong Yang, Ziyuan Li. Advanced Materials Volume30, Issue 40 1803986 (October 4, 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201803986 First published [onliine]: 30 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Wearable electronic textiles from the UK, India, and Canada: two different carbon materials

It seems wearable electronic textiles may be getting nearer to the marketplace. I have three research items (two teams working with graphene and one working with carbon nanotubes) that appeared on my various feeds within two days of each other.

UK/China

This research study is the result of a collaboration between UK and Chinese scientists. From a May 15, 2019 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),


Wearable electronic components incorporated directly into fabrics have been developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge. The devices could be used for flexible circuits, healthcare monitoring, energy conversion, and other applications.

The Cambridge researchers, working in collaboration with colleagues at Jiangnan University in China, have shown how graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – and other related materials can be directly incorporated into fabrics to produce charge storage elements such as capacitors, paving the way to textile-based power supplies which are washable, flexible and comfortable to wear.

The research, published in the journal Nanoscale, demonstrates that graphene inks can be used in textiles able to store electrical charge and release it when required. The new textile electronic devices are based on low-cost, sustainable and scalable dyeing of polyester fabric. The inks are produced by standard solution processing techniques.

Building on previous work by the same team, the researchers designed inks which can be directly coated onto a polyester fabric in a simple dyeing process. The versatility of the process allows various types of electronic components to be incorporated into the fabric.

Schematic of the textile-based capacitor integrating GNP/polyesters as electrodes and h-BN/polyesters as dielectrics. Credit: Felice Torrisi

A May 16, 2019 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, probes further,

Most other wearable electronics rely on rigid electronic components mounted on plastic or textiles. These offer limited compatibility with the skin in many circumstances, are damaged when washed and are uncomfortable to wear because they are not breathable.

“Other techniques to incorporate electronic components directly into textiles are expensive to produce and usually require toxic solvents, which makes them unsuitable to be worn,” said Dr Felice Torrisi from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, and the paper’s corresponding author. “Our inks are cheap, safe and environmentally-friendly, and can be combined to create electronic circuits by simply overlaying different fabrics made of two-dimensional materials on the fabric.”

The researchers suspended individual graphene sheets in a low boiling point solvent, which is easily removed after deposition on the fabric, resulting in a thin and uniform conducting network made up of multiple graphene sheets. The subsequent overlay of several graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) fabrics creates an active region, which enables charge storage. This sort of ‘battery’ on fabric is bendable and can withstand washing cycles in a normal washing machine.

“Textile dyeing has been around for centuries using simple pigments, but our result demonstrates for the first time that inks based on graphene and related materials can be used to produce textiles that could store and release energy,” said co-author Professor Chaoxia Wang from Jiangnan University in China. “Our process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

The work done by the Cambridge researchers opens a number of commercial opportunities for ink based on two-dimensional materials, ranging from personal health and well-being technology, to wearable energy and data storage, military garments, wearable computing and fashion.

“Turning textiles into functional energy storage elements can open up an entirely new set of applications, from body-energy harvesting and storage to the Internet of Things,” said Torrisi “In the future our clothes could incorporate these textile-based charge storage elements and power wearable textile devices.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wearable solid-state capacitors based on two-dimensional material all-textile heterostructures by Siyu Qiang, Tian Carey, Adrees Arbab, Weihua Song, Chaoxia Wang and Felice Torris. Nanoscale, 2019, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C9NR00463G First published on 18 Apr 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

India

Prior to graphene’s reign as the ‘it’ carbon material, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) ruled. It’s been quieter on the CNT front since graphene took over but a May 15, 2019 Nanowerk Spotlight article by Michael Berger highlights some of the latest CNT research coming out of India,


The most important technical challenge is to blend the chemical nature of raw materials with fabrication techniques and processability, all of which are diametrically conflicting for textiles and conventional energy storage devices. A team from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay has come out with a comprehensive approach involving simple and facile steps to fabricate a wearable energy storage device. Several scientific and technological challenges were overcome during this process.

First, to achieve user-comfort and computability with clothing, the scaffold employed was the the same as what a regular fabric is made up of – cellulose fibers. However, cotton yarns are electrical insulators and therefore practically useless for any electronics. Therefore, the yarns are coated with single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWNTs).

SWNTs are hollow, cylindrical allotropes of carbon and combine excellent mechanical strength with electrical conductivity and surface area. Such a coating converts the electrical insulating cotton yarn to a metallic conductor with high specific surface area. At the same time, using carbon-based materials ensures that the final material remains light-weight and does not cause user discomfort that can arise from metallic wires such as copper and gold. This CNT-coated cotton yarn (CNT-wires) forms the electrode for the energy storage device.

Next, the electrolyte is composed of solid-state electrolyte sheets since no liquid-state electrolytes can be used for this purpose. However, solid state electrolytes suffer from poor ionic conductivity – a major disadvantage for energy storage applications. Therefore, a steam-based infiltration approach that enhances the ionic conductivity of the electrolyte is adopted. Such enhancement of humidity significantly increases the energy storage capacity of the device.


The integration of the CNT-wire electrode with the electrolyte sheet was carried out by a simple and elegant approach of interweaving the CNT-wire through the electrolyte (see Figure 1). This resulted in cross-intersections which are actually junctions where the electrical energy can be stored. Each such junction is now an energy storage unit, referred to as sewcap.

The advantage of this process is that several 100s and 1000s of sewcaps can be made in a small area and integrated to increase the total amount of energy stored in the system. This scalability is unique and critical aspect of this work and stems from the approach of interweaving.

Further, this process is completely adaptable with current processes used in textile industries. Hence, a proportionately large energy-storage is achieved by creating sewcap-junctions in various combinations.

All components of the final sewcap device are flexible. However, they need to be protected from environmental effects such as temperature, humidity and sweat while retaining the mechanical flexibility. This is achieved by laminating the entire device between polymer sheets. The process is exactly similar to the one used for protecting documents and ID cards.

The laminated sewcap can be integrated easily on clothing and fabrics while retaining the flexibility and sturdiness. This is demonstrated by the unchanged performance of the device during extreme and harsh mechanical testing such as striking repeatedly with a hammer, complete flexing, bending and rolling and washing in a laundry machine.

In fact, this is the first device that has been proven to be stable under rigorous washing conditions in the presence of hot water, detergents and high torque (spinning action of washing machine). This provides the device with comprehensive mechanical stability.


CNTs have high surface area and electrical conductivity. The CNT-wire combines these properties of CNTs with stability and porosity of cellulose yarns. The junction created by interweaving is essentially comprised of two such CNT-wires that are sandwiching an electrolyte. Application of potential difference leads to polarization of the electrolyte thus enabling energy storage similar to the way in which a conventional capacitor acts.

“We use the advantage of the interweaving process and create several such junctions. So, with each junction being able to store a certain amount of electrical energy, all the junctions synchronized are able to store a large amount of energy. This provides high energy density to the device,” Prof. C. Subramaniam, Department of Chemistry, IIT Bombay and corresponding author of the paper points out.

The device has also been employed for lighting up an LED [light-emitting diode]. This can be potentially scaled to provide electrical energy demanded by the application.

This image accompanies the paper written by Prof. C. Subramaniam and his team,

Courtesy: IACS Applied Materials Interfaces

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Interwoven Carbon Nanotube Wires for High-Performing, Mechanically Robust, Washable, and Wearable Supercapacitors by Mihir Kumar Jha, Kenji Hata, and Chandramouli Subramaniam. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b22233 Publication Date (Web): April 29, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada

A research team from the University of British Columbia (UBC at the Okanagan Campus) joined the pack with a May 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Forget the smart watch. Bring on the smart shirt.

Researchers at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering have developed a low-cost sensor that can be interlaced into textiles and composite materials. While the research is still new, the sensor may pave the way for smart clothing that can monitor human movement.

A May 16, 2019 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,


“Microscopic sensors are changing the way we monitor machines and humans,” says Hoorfar, lead researcher at the Advanced Thermo-Fluidic Lab at UBC’s Okanagan campus. “Combining the shrinking of technology along with improved accuracy, the future is very bright in this area.”

This ‘shrinking technology’ uses a phenomenon called piezo-resistivity—an electromechanical response of a material when it is under strain. These tiny sensors have shown a great promise in detecting human movements and can be used for heart rate monitoring or temperature control, explains Hoorfar.

Her research, conducted in partnership with UBC Okanagan’s Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute, shows the potential of a low-cost, sensitive and stretchable yarn sensor. The sensor can be woven into spandex material and then wrapped into a stretchable silicone sheath. This sheath protects the conductive layer against harsh conditions and allows for the creation of washable wearable sensors.

While the idea of smart clothing—fabrics that can tell the user when to hydrate, or when to rest—may change the athletics industry, UBC Professor Abbas Milani says the sensor has other uses. It can monitor deformations in fibre-reinforced composite fabrics currently used in advanced industries such as automotive, aerospace and marine manufacturing.

The low-cost stretchable composite sensor has also shown a high sensitivity and can detect small deformations such as yarn stretching as well as out-of-plane deformations at inaccessible places within composite laminates, says Milani, director of the UBC Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute.

The testing indicates that further improvements in its accuracy could be achieved by fine-tuning the sensor’s material blend and improving its electrical conductivity and sensitivity This can eventually make it able to capture major flaws like “fibre wrinkling” during the manufacturing of advanced composite structures such as those currently used in airplanes or car bodies.

“Advanced textile composite materials make the most of combining the strengths of different reinforcement materials and patterns with different resin options,” he says. “Integrating sensor technologies like piezo-resistive sensors made of flexible materials compatible with the host textile reinforcement is becoming a real game-changer in the emerging era of smart manufacturing and current automated industry trends.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Graphene‐Coated Spandex Sensors Embedded into Silicone Sheath for Composites Health Monitoring and Wearable Applications by Hossein Montazerian, Armin Rashidi, Arash Dalili, Homayoun Najjaran, Abbas S. Milani, Mina Hoorfar. Small Volume15, Issue17 April 26, 2019 1804991 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201804991 First published: 28 March 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Will there be one winner or will they find CNTs better for one type of wearable tech textile while graphene excels for another type of wearable tech textile?

World Science Festival in New York City, May 22 – June 2, 2019

It’s time for the World Science Fair in New York City, which has been around since 2008 according to their About webpage,

The annual live, week-long Festivals, which launched in New York in 2008, have collectively drawn over 2.9 million visitors worldwide, with millions more viewing the programs online. The World Science Festival’s original musical and theatrical works tour nationally and internationally, and March 2016 marked the launch of World Science Festival Brisbane. World Science U is the Foundation’s online education arm where students and lifelong learners can dive more deeply through artfully produced digital education content presented by world-renowned scientists.

I’ve arbitrarily selected three events but there are many more. I notice that several sessions have sold out. From the World Science Festival 2019 events page,

Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein

Wednesday, May 22, 2019
7:00 pm – 8:30 pm

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall
May 2019 marks a pivotal milestone in human intellectual history: the 100th anniversary of astronomical observations that confirmed Albert Einstein’s new conception of space, time and gravity–his General Theory of Relativity. In celebration of this momentous achievement, join Brian Greene and an ensemble Broadway cast for Light Falls, an original work for the stage featuring wondrous, fully immersive projections and an original orchestral score, tracing the breakthrough moments, agonizing frustrations, and final emergence into the light as the world’s most intrepid scientific mind took on the universe. And won.
Written by Brian Greene
Music by Jeff Beal
Design by 59 Productions
Directed by Scott Faris
Executive Producer Tracy Day
Sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation with additional support from the John Templeton Foundation.
NEW TICKETS JUST RELEASED!
Learn More

Buy Tickets

CRISPR in Context: The New World of Human Genetic Engineering

Tuesday, May 28, 2019
8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Gerald D. Fischbach Auditorium, Simons Foundation
It’s happened. The first children genetically engineered with the powerful DNA-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 have been born to a woman in China. Their altered genes will be passed to their children, and their children’s children. Join CRISPR’s co-discoverer, microbiologist Jennifer Doudna, as we explore the perils and the promise of this powerful technology. It is not the first time human ingenuity has created something capable of doing us great good and great harm. Are we up to the challenge of guiding how CRISPR will shape the future?
Seats are limited and will be made available to registered guests on a first-come, first-served basis. REGISTER NOW!

The Kavli Prize recognizes scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The series, “The Big, the Small, and the Complex,” is sponsored by The Kavli Foundation.
Learn More

Register Now

….

The Technology that Transforms Us

Thursday, May 30, 2019
7:00 pm – 8:30 pm

NYU Global Center, Grand Hall
We make tools. It defines us. But since the first proto-human tied a stick to a stone, tools have also been making us. Join our panel of philosophers, anthropologists, and futurists as we examine our journey from the stone age to the computer age—seeking clues about who we are, and what we are becoming. Our smartphones have become veritable appendages. How long before we literally merge with our technology? Wearables, implantables, ingestible sensors, digital telepathy, and brain-computer interfaces are all on the horizon. Join us for a fascinating glimpse of a future that is closer than you think.

The Big Ideas Series is supported in part by the John Templeton Foundation.
Learn More

This program is sold out. A small number of tickets will be available at the venue 30 minutes prior to the event on a first-come-first-served basis. CLICK HERE to join the waitlist and you’ll be alerted if tickets become available sooner. 
Sold Out

….


The Great Fish Count

Saturday, June 1, 2019
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Great Fish Count Sites
From Lemon Creek in Staten Island to the shores of the Bronx River, New York’s waterways are teeming with life — and it’s up to you to find it! Led by top marine scientists and biologists in 18 sites across New York’s five boroughs, Westchester, and New Jersey, the Great Fish Count gives attendees of all ages the chance to strap on a pair of waders, cast a net, and discover the underwater world in their own backyard.

This event is FREE and open to the public. RSVP not required, but encouraged. RSVP HERE!

Produced in partnership with the Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Supported by the Bezos Family Foundation.

Learn More

Free Admission

….

Should you be in New York City during these dates, I hope you’ll get a chance to participate if not the festival or one of its associated events.

The van Gogh-Roosegaarde path, a solar powered bike path

From YouTube, Heijmans NV Published on Nov 12, 2014 Inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s work, the cycle path combines innovation and design with cultural heritage and tourism. The Van Gogh-Roosegaarde cycle path is being constructed by Heijmans from a design by Daan Roosegaarde and forms part of the Van Gogh cycle route in Brabant.

According to other sources, the path was inspired by van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. From a November 21, 2014 article by Elizabeth Montalbano for Design News (Note: A link has been removed),

The Dutch are known for their love of bicycling, and they’ve also long been early adopters of green-energy and smart-city technologies. So it seems fitting that a town in which painter Vincent van Gogh once lived has given him a very Dutch-like tribute — a bike path lit by a special smart paint in the style of the artist’s “Starry Night” painting.

Designed by artist Daan Roosegaarde of Studio Roosegaarde, the van Gogh-Roosegaarde bike path — in the Dutch town of Nuenen en Eindhoven, where van Gogh lived from 1883-1885 — is a kilometer long and features technologies developed as part of the Smart Highway project, a joint venture of the studio and Dutch infrastructure company Heijmans.

A team of 12 designers and engineers worked on the project for eight months, while site production took 10 days. The opening of the path marked the official launch of the international van Gogh 2015 year.

The path uses stones painted with a smart coating that charges by the heat of the sun during the day and then glow at night for up to eight hours. When there is not enough sunlight during the day to charge the stones, the path can draw electricity from a solar panel installed nearby. There are also LEDs in the path that provides lighting.

How does the technology work?

Despite my best efforts, I never did unearth a good technical explanation. There is some sort of photoluminescent powder or paint. I vote for a powder that’s been emulsified in a paint/coating. material. Somehow, this material is charged by sunlight and then at night glows with the help of a solar panel and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Here’s the clearest explanation I found; it’s from Dan Howarth’s November 12, 2014 article for dezeen.com (Note: A link has been removed), ,

The surface of the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde Bicycle Path is coated with a special paint that uses energy gathered during the day to glow after dark.


[Daan] Roosegaarde told Dezeen that this method of illumination is “more gentle to the eye and surrounding nature” that other lighting infrastructure, and creates a “connection with cultural history”.

A nearby solar panel is used to generate power to illuminate the coated surface, which was developed with infrastructure firm Heijmans. LEDs along the side of certain curves in the path cast extra light, meaning the path will still be partially lit if the weather has been too cloudy for the panel to charge the surface to its full brightness.

“It’s a new total system that is self-sufficient and practical, and just incredibly poetic,” said Roosegaarde.

Lily Hay Newman’s November 14, 2014 article for Slate.com succinctly sums up the technical aspects,

The path is coated in photoluminescent paint that’s also embedded with small LEDs powered by nearby solar panels. The path essentially charges all day so that it can glow during the night, and it also has backup power in case it’s overcast.

This October 30, 2012 article by Liat Clark for Wired.com provides a bit more detail about the powder/paint as Clark delves into the Roosegaarde Studo’s Smart Highway project (the cycle path made use of the same technology) ,

The studio has developed a photo-luminising powder that will replace road markings – it charges up in sunlight, giving it up to 10 hours of glow-in-the-dark time come nightfall. “It’s like the glow in the dark paint you and I had when we were children,” designer Roosegaarde explained, “but we teamed up with a paint manufacturer and pushed the development. Now, it’s almost radioactive“. [perhaps not the wisest choice of hyperbole]

Special paint will also be used to paint markers like snowflakes across the road’s surface – when temperatures fall to a certain point, these images will become visible, indicating that the surface will likely be slippery. Roosegaarde says this technology has been around for years, on things like baby food – the studio has just upscaled it.

Not everyone is in love

Shaunacy Ferro’s July 26, 2017 article for dentalfloss.com highlights a glow-in-the-dark path project for Singapore and a little criticism (Note: Links have been removed),

Glow-in-the-dark materials are no longer for toys. Photoluminescence can help cities feel safer at night, whether it’s part of a mural, a bike lane, or a highway. Glow-in-the-dark paths have been tested in several European cities (the above is a Van Gogh-inspired bike path by the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde) and in Texas, but now, the technology may be coming to Singapore. The city-state is currently developing a 15-mile greenway called the Rail Corridor, and it now has a glow-in-the-dark path, as Mashable reports.

The 328-foot stretch of glowing path is part of a test of multiple surface materials that might eventually be used throughout the park, depending on public opinion. In addition to the strontium aluminate-beaded [emphasis mine] path that glows at night, there are also three other 328-foot stretches of the path that are paved with fine gravel, cement aggregate, and part-grass/part-gravel. The glow-in-the-dark material embedded in the walkway absorbs UV light from the sun during the day and can emit light for up to eight hours once the sun goes down.

However, in practice, glow-in-the-dark paths can be less dazzling than they seem. [emphasis mine] Mashable’s reporter called the glowing effect on Singapore’s path “disappointingly feeble.” [emphasis mine] In 2014, a glowing highway-markings pilot by Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands revealed that the first road markings faded after exposure to heavy rains. [emphases mine] When it comes to glowing roads, the renderings tend to look better than the actual result, [emphasis mine] and there are still kinks to work out. (The studio worked the issue out eventually.) While a person walking or biking down Singapore’s glowing path might be able to tell that they were staying on the path better than if they were fumbling along dark pavement, it’s not the equivalent of a streetlight, for sure.

Ferro had reported earlier on Studio Roosegaarde’s Smart Highway project in an October 23, 2014 article for Fast Company where Ferro first mentioned the rain problem (Note: Links have been removed),

Glowing Lanes is a collaboration between Dutch engineering company Heijmans and Daan Roosegaarde, a tech-loving artist and designer whose previous work includes Intimacy 2.0, a dress that becomes transparent when the wearer gets aroused. The glow-in-the-dark lane markers are intended to increase road visibility in a more energy-efficient way than traditional street lighting. Photoluminescent paint charges during the day and slowly emits light over the course of eight hours during the evening.

After a few technical challenges (an early version of the markers didn’t fare so well in the rain), the final system has been installed, and according to Studio Roosegaarde, the kinks have been worked out, and initial reports of the paint fading were “overstated.” [emphases mine]

“This was part of any normal learning process,” according to an email from the studio’s PR, and “now the project is ‘matured.’”

But not to the point where it’s no longer a novelty. According to the email from Studio Roosegaarde, the glowing highway caused a minor traffic jam last night as people rushed to look at it.

… Roosegaarde has also been asked to create a smart highway design for Afsluitdijk–an almost 20-mile-long dike that connects North Holland to the province of Friesland across the water–and according to his studio, there are plans in the works to launch the glowing lanes in China and Japan as well.

Comments

In the following excerpt, there’s a reference to strontium aluminate-coated materials, given the interview which follows this section, the project in Singapore did not use the photoluminescent paint developed by Roosegaarde Studio. I found this paint reference in a July 26, 2017 article by Yi Shu Ng for Mashable (h/t Ferro’s July 26, 2017 article) which notes the product’s ubiquity,

The track glows because it’s got strontium aluminate compounds embedded in it — the chemical is commonly found in glow-in-the-dark products, which absorb ultraviolet light in the day, to emit luminescence at night.

There are some inconsistencies in the reporting about the number of hours, eight hours or 10 hours, the bicycle path or smart highway remains lit after being charged. Given that this was a newish technology being used in a new application, the rain problem and other technical glitches were to be expected. I wish the writer had been a little less dismissive and that the studio had been a little more forthcoming about how they solved the problems. In any case, I dug further and this is what I got.

Interview

I’m not sure who answered the questions but this comes direct from Studio Roosegaarde,

  • Could you give me a capsule description of what’s happened since the path was opened in 2014/15? For example, How does the bike path look these days? Does it still glow? Don’t the bicycles on the path destroy the ‘Starry Night’ pattern over time? Do the stones have to be coated over and over again to maintain their solar charging capacities? 

    The Van Gogh Path is still working perfectly and is visited every night by couples, tourists and local people. The stones are inside the concrete so are still in place and will work for a minimum of 10 years. It is great to see we have created a place of wonder. It is the most published bicycle path in the world. We have even had children books published about it.
  • Are there more bike paths like the Van Gogh Path in other parts of Holland and/or elsewhere?

    No, this is the only one. There have been some copycats in other countries.The Smart Highway project is still growing, and our recent Gates of Light is the next step of poetic and energy-neutral landscapes like the Van Gogh Path:  https://www.studioroosegaarde.net/project/gates-of-light
  • How has your project evolved? And, have there been any unanticipated benefits and/or setbacks? Is there a change in the technology, I noticed you were investigating bioluminscence.

    Yes, we are still developing new landscapes of the future. What we have learned from Van Gogh Path we have applied in new projects such as Glowing Nature: https://www.studioroosegaarde.net/project/glowing-nature We also do something new.
  • I was struck by how gentle the lighting is. I understand there has been some criticism about how much light the path radiates and I’m wondering about your thoughts on that.

    Yes, since the path is a nature protected environment, normal LED lighting was not allowed. So the light is gentle but still visible, and sustainable.There are some bad copy-cats using cheap materials which don’t work well, like the one in Singapore. But we are happy that our path is still working.

Thank you to the folks at Studio Roosegaarde for taking the time to provide this interview. Here are links to Studio Roosegaarde and their industrial partner, Heijmans.

Genes, intelligence, Chinese CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) babies, and other children

This started out as an update and now it’s something else. What follows is a brief introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins; a brief examination of parents, children, and competitiveness; and, finally, a suggestion that genes may not be what we thought. I also include a discussion about how some think scientists should respond when they know beforehand that one of their kin is crossing an ethical line. Basically, this is a complex topic and I am attempting to interweave a number of competing lines of query into one narrative about human nature and the latest genetics obsession.

Introduction to the Chinese CRISPR twins

Back in November 2018 I covered the story about the Chinese scientist, He Jiankui , who had used CRISPR technology to edit genes in embryos that were subsequently implanted in a waiting mother (apparently there could be as many as eight mothers) with the babies being brought to term despite an international agreement (of sorts) not to do that kind of work. At this time, we know of the twins, Lulu and Nana but, by now, there may be more babies. (I have much more detail about the initial controversies in my November 28, 2018 posting.)

It seems the drama has yet to finish unfolding. There may be another consequence of He’s genetic tinkering.

Could the CRISPR babies, Lulu and Nana, have enhanced cognitive abilities?

Yes, according to Antonio Regalado’s February 21, 2019 article (behind a paywall) for MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review, those engineered babies may have enhanced abilities for learning and remembering.

For those of us who can’t get beyond the paywall, others have been successful. Josh Gabbatiss in his February 22, 2019 article for independent.co.uk provides some detail,

The world’s first gene edited babies may have had their brains unintentionally altered – and perhaps cognitively enhanced – as a result of the controversial treatment undertaken by a team of Chinese scientists.

Dr He Jiankui and his team allegedly deleted a gene from a number of human embryos before implanting them in their mothers, a move greeted with horror by the global scientific community. The only known successful birth so far is the case of twin girls Nana and Lulu.

The now disgraced scientist claimed that he removed a gene called CCR5 [emphasis mine] from their embroyos in an effort to make the twins resistant to infection by HIV.

But another twist in the saga has now emerged after a new paper provided more evidence that the impact of CCR5 deletion reaches far beyond protection against dangerous viruses – people who naturally lack this gene appear to recover more quickly from strokes, and even go further in school. [emphasis mine]

Dr Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped identify this role for CCR5 said the work undertaken by Dr Jiankui likely did change the girls’ brains.

“The simplest interpretation is that those mutations will probably have an impact on cognitive function in the twins,” he told the MIT Technology Review.

The connection immediately raised concerns that the gene was targeted due to its known links with intelligence, which Dr Silva said was his immediate response when he heard the news.

… there is no evidence that this was Dr Jiankui’s goal and at a press conference organised after the initial news broke, he said he was aware of the work but was “against using genome editing for enhancement”.

..

Claire Maldarelli’s February 22, 2019 article for Popular Science provides more information about the CCR5 gene/protein (Note: Links have been removed),

CCR5 is a protein that sits on the surface of white blood cells, a major component of the human immune system. There, it allows HIV to enter and infect a cell. A chunk of the human population naturally carries a mutation that makes CCR5 nonfunctional (one study found that 10 percent of Europeans have this mutation), which often results in a smaller protein size and one that isn’t located on the outside of the cell, preventing HIV from ever entering and infecting the human immune system.

The goal of the Chinese researchers’ work, led by He Jiankui of the Southern University of Science and Technology located in Shenzhen, was to tweak the embryos’ genome to lack CCR5, ensuring the babies would be immune to HIV.

But genetics is rarely that simple.

In recent years, the CCR5 gene has been a target of ongoing research, and not just for its relationship to HIV. In an attempt to understand what influences memory formation and learning in the brain, a group of researchers at UCLA found that lowering the levels of CCR5 production enhanced both learning and memory formation. This connection led those researchers to think that CCR5 could be a good drug target for helping stroke victims recover: Relearning how to move, walk, and talk is a key component to stroke rehabilitation.

… promising research, but it begs the question: What does that mean for the babies who had their CCR5 genes edited via CRISPR prior to their birth? Researchers speculate that the alternation will have effects on the children’s cognitive functioning. …

John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article for interestingengineering.com notes that there are still many questions about He’s (scientist’s name) research including, did he (pronoun) do what he claimed? (Note: Links have been removed),

Considering that no one knows for sure whether He has actually done as he and his team claim, the swiftness of the condemnation of his work—unproven as it is—shows the sensitivity around this issue.

Whether He did in fact edit Lulu and Nana’s genes, it appears he didn’t intend to impact their cognitive capacities. According to MIT Technology Review, not a single researcher studying CCR5’s role in intelligence was contacted by He, even as other doctors and scientists were sought out for advice about his project.

This further adds to the alarm as there is every expectation that He should have known about the connection between CCR5 and cognition.

At a gathering of gene-editing researchers in Hong Kong two days after the birth of the potentially genetically-altered twins was announced, He was asked about the potential impact of erasing CCR5 from the twins DNA on their mental capacity.

He responded that he knew about the potential cognitive link shown in Silva’s 2016 research. “I saw that paper, it needs more independent verification,” He said, before adding that “I am against using genome editing for enhancement.”

The problem, as Silva sees it, is that He may be blazing the trail for exactly that outcome, whether He intends to or not. Silva says that after his 2016 research was published, he received an uncomfortable amount of attention from some unnamed, elite Silicon Valley leaders who seem to be expressing serious interest in using CRISPR to give their children’s brains a boost through gene editing. [emphasis mine]

As such, Silva can be forgiven for not quite believing He’s claims that he wasn’t intending to alter the human genome for enhancement. …

The idea of designer babies isn’t new. As far back as Plato, the thought of using science to “engineer” a better human has been tossed about, but other than selective breeding, there really hasn’t been a path forward.

In the late 1800s, early 1900s, Eugenics made a real push to accomplish something along these lines, and the results were horrifying, even before Nazism. After eugenics mid-wifed the Holocaust in World War II, the concept of designer children has largely been left as fodder for science fiction since few reputable scientists would openly declare their intention to dabble in something once championed and pioneered by the greatest monsters of the 20th century.

Memories have faded though, and CRISPR significantly changes this decades-old calculus. CRISPR makes it easier than ever to target specific traits in order to add or subtract them from an embryos genetic code. Embryonic research is also a diverse enough field that some scientist could see pioneering designer babies as a way to establish their star power in academia while getting their names in the history books, [emphasis mine] all while working in relative isolation. They only need to reveal their results after the fact and there is little the scientific community can do to stop them, unfortunately.

When He revealed his research and data two days after announcing the births of Lulu and Nana, the gene-scientists at the Hong Kong conference were not all that impressed with the quality of He’s work. He has not provided access for fellow researchers to either his data on Lulu, Nana, and their family’s genetic data so that others can verify that Lulu and Nana’s CCR5 genes were in fact eliminated.

This almost rudimentary verification and validation would normally accompany a major announcement such as this. Neither has He’s work undergone a peer-review process and it hasn’t been formally published in any scientific journal—possibly for good reason.

Researchers such as Eric Topol, a geneticist at the Scripps Research Institute, have been finding several troubling signs in what little data He has released. Topol says that the editing itself was not precise and show “all kinds of glitches.”

Gaetan Burgio, a geneticist at the Australian National University, is likewise unimpressed with the quality of He’s work. Speaking of the slides He showed at the conference to support his claim, Burgio calls it amateurish, “I can believe that he did it because it’s so bad.”

Worse of all, its entirely possible that He actually succeeded in editing Lulu and Nana’s genetic code in an ad hoc, unethical, and medically substandard way. Sadly, there is no shortage of families with means who would be willing to spend a lot of money to design their idea of a perfect child, so there is certainly demand for such a “service.”

It’s nice to know (sarcasm icon) that the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ are willing to volunteer their babies for scientific experimentation in a bid to enhance intelligence.

The ethics of not saying anything

Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist, wrote a February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action on the subject of why scientists who were ‘in the know’ remained silent about He’s work prior to his announcements,

Millions [?] were shocked to learn of the birth of gene-edited babies last year, but apparently several scientists were already in the know. Chinese researcher He Jiankui had spoken with them about his plans to genetically modify human embryos intended for pregnancy. His work was done before adequate animal studies and in direct violation of the international scientific consensus that CRISPR–Cas9 gene-editing technology is not ready or appropriate for making changes to humans that could be passed on through generations.

Scholars who have spoken publicly about their discussions with He described feeling unease. They have defended their silence by pointing to uncertainty over He’s intentions (or reassurance that he had been dissuaded), a sense of obligation to preserve confidentiality and, perhaps most consistently, the absence of a global oversight body. Others who have not come forward probably had similar rationales. But He’s experiments put human health at risk; anyone with enough knowledge and concern could have posted to blogs or reached out to their deans, the US National Institutes of Health or relevant scientific societies, such as the Association for Responsible Research and Innovation in Genome Editing (see page 440). Unfortunately, I think that few highly established scientists would have recognized an obligation to speak up.

I am convinced that this silence is a symptom of a broader scientific cultural crisis: a growing divide between the values upheld by the scientific community and the mission of science itself.

A fundamental goal of the scientific endeavour is to advance society through knowledge and innovation. As scientists, we strive to cure disease, improve environmental health and understand our place in the Universe. And yet the dominant values ingrained in scientists centre on the virtues of independence, ambition and objectivity. That is a grossly inadequate set of skills with which to support a mission of advancing society.

Editing the genes of embryos could change our species’ evolutionary trajectory. Perhaps one day, the technology will eliminate heritable diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis. But it might also eliminate deafness or even brown eyes. In this quest to improve the human race, the strengths of our diversity could be lost, and the rights of already vulnerable populations could be jeopardized.

Decisions about how and whether this technology should be used will require an expanded set of scientific virtues: compassion to ensure its applications are designed to be just, humility to ensure its risks are heeded and altruism to ensure its benefits are equitably distributed.

Calls for improved global oversight and robust ethical frameworks are being heeded. Some researchers who apparently knew of He’s experiments are under review by their universities. Chinese investigators have said He skirted regulations and will be punished. But punishment is an imperfect motivator. We must foster researchers’ sense of societal values.

Fortunately, initiatives popping up throughout the scientific community are cultivating a scientific culture informed by a broader set of values and considerations. The Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trains scientists to align their research with societal needs. The Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics offers genomics training that also focuses on integrating indigenous cultural perspectives into gene studies. The AI Now Institute at New York University has initiated a holistic approach to artificial-intelligence research that incorporates inclusion, bias and justice. And Editing Nature, a programme that I founded, provides platforms that integrate scientific knowledge with diverse cultural world views to foster the responsible development of environmental genetic technologies.

Initiatives such as these are proof [emphasis mine] that science is becoming more socially aware, equitable and just. …

I’m glad to see there’s work being done on introducing a broader set of values into the scientific endeavour. That said, these programmes seem to be voluntary, i.e., people self-select, and those most likely to participate in these programmes are the ones who might be inclined to integrate social values into their work in the first place.

This doesn’t address the issue of how to deal with unscrupulous governments pressuring scientists to create designer babies along with hypercompetitive and possibly unscrupulous individuals such as the members of the ‘Silicon Valley insiders mentioned in Loeffler’s article, teaming up with scientists who will stop at nothing to get their place in the history books.

Like Kofler, I’m encouraged to see these programmes but I’m a little less convinced that they will be enough. What form it might take I don’t know but I think something a little more punitive is also called for.

CCR5 and freedom from HIV

I’ve added this piece about the Berlin and London patients because, back in November 2018, I failed to realize how compelling the idea of eradicating susceptibility to AIDS/HIV might be. Reading about some real life remissions helped me to understand some of He’s stated motivations a bit better. Unfortunately, there’s a major drawback described here in a March 5, 2019 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) online news attributed to Reuters,

An HIV-positive man in Britain has become the second known adult worldwide to be cleared of the virus that causes AIDS after he received a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor, his doctors said.

The therapy had an early success with a man known as “the Berlin patient,” Timothy Ray Brown, a U.S. man treated in Germany who is 12 years post-transplant and still free of HIV. Until now, Brown was the only person thought to have been cured of infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Such transplants are dangerous and have failed in other patients. They’re also impractical to try to cure the millions already infected.

In the latest case, the man known as “the London patient” has no trace of HIV infection, almost three years after he received bone marrow stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that resists HIV infection — and more than 18 months after he came off antiretroviral drugs.

“There is no virus there that we can measure. We can’t detect anything,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor and HIV biologist who co-led a team of doctors treating the man.

Gupta described his patient as “functionally cured” and “in remission,” but cautioned: “It’s too early to say he’s cured.”

Gupta, now at Cambridge University, treated the London patient when he was working at University College London. The man, who has asked to remain anonymous, had contracted HIV in 2003, Gupta said, and in 2012 was also diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

In 2016, when he was very sick with cancer, doctors decided to seek a transplant match for him.

“This was really his last chance of survival,” Gupta told Reuters.

Doctors found a donor with a gene mutation known as CCR5 delta 32, which confers resistance to HIV. About one per cent of people descended from northern Europeans have inherited the mutation from both parents and are immune to most HIV. The donor had this double copy of the mutation.

That was “an improbable event,” Gupta said. “That’s why this has not been observed more frequently.”

Most experts say it is inconceivable such treatments could be a way of curing all patients. The procedure is expensive, complex and risky. To do this in others, exact match donors would have to be found in the tiny proportion of people who have the CCR5 mutation.

Specialists said it is also not yet clear whether the CCR5 resistance is the only key [emphasis mine] — or whether the graft-versus-host disease may have been just as important. Both the Berlin and London patients had this complication, which may have played a role in the loss of HIV-infected cells, Gupta said.

Not only is there some question as to what role the CCR5 gene plays, there’s also a question as to whether or not we know what role genes play.

A big question: are genes what we thought?

Ken Richardson’s January 3, 2019 article for Nautilus (I stumbled across it on May 14, 2019 so I’m late to the party) makes and supports a startling statement, It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It We are not nearly as determined by our genes as once thought (Note: A link has been removed),

We’ve all seen the stark headlines: “Being Rich and Successful Is in Your DNA” (Guardian, July 12); “A New Genetic Test Could Help Determine Children’s Success” (Newsweek, July 10); “Our Fortunetelling Genes” make us (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16); and so on.

The problem is, many of these headlines are not discussing real genes at all, but a crude statistical model of them, involving dozens of unlikely assumptions. Now, slowly but surely, that whole conceptual model of the gene is being challenged.

We have reached peak gene, and passed it.

The preferred dogma started to appear in different versions in the 1920s. It was aptly summarized by renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger in a famous lecture in Dublin in 1943. He told his audience that chromosomes “contain, in some kind of code-script, the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.”

Around that image of the code a whole world order of rank and privilege soon became reinforced. These genes, we were told, come in different “strengths,” different permutations forming ranks that determine the worth of different “races” and of different classes in a class-structured society. A whole intelligence testing movement was built around that preconception, with the tests constructed accordingly.

The image fostered the eugenics and Nazi movements of the 1930s, with tragic consequences. Governments followed a famous 1938 United Kingdom education commission in decreeing that, “The facts of genetic inequality are something that we cannot escape,” and that, “different children … require types of education varying in certain important respects.”

Today, 1930s-style policy implications are being drawn once again. Proposals include gene-testing at birth for educational intervention, embryo selection for desired traits, identifying which classes or “races” are fitter than others, and so on. And clever marketizing now sees millions of people scampering to learn their genetic horoscopes in DNA self-testing kits.[emphasis mine]

So the hype now pouring out of the mass media is popularizing what has been lurking in the science all along: a gene-god as an entity with almost supernatural powers. Today it’s the gene that, in the words of the Anglican hymn, “makes us high and lowly and orders our estate.”

… at the same time, a counter-narrative is building, not from the media but from inside science itself.

So it has been dawning on us is that there is no prior plan or blueprint for development: Instructions are created on the hoof, far more intelligently than is possible from dumb DNA. That is why today’s molecular biologists are reporting “cognitive resources” in cells; “bio-information intelligence”; “cell intelligence”; “metabolic memory”; and “cell knowledge”—all terms appearing in recent literature.1,2 “Do cells think?” is the title of a 2007 paper in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences.3 On the other hand the assumed developmental “program” coded in a genotype has never been described.


It is such discoveries that are turning our ideas of genetic causation inside out. We have traditionally thought of cell contents as servants to the DNA instructions. But, as the British biologist Denis Noble insists in an interview with the writer Suzan Mazur,1 “The modern synthesis has got causality in biology wrong … DNA on its own does absolutely nothing [ emphasis mine] until activated by the rest of the system … DNA is not a cause in an active sense. I think it is better described as a passive data base which is used by the organism to enable it to make the proteins that it requires.”

I highly recommend reading Richardson’s article in its entirety. As well, you may want to read his book, ” Genes, Brains and Human Potential: The Science and Ideology of Intelligence .”

As for “DNA on its own doing absolutely nothing,” that might be a bit of a eye-opener for the Silicon Valley elite types investigating cognitive advantages attributed to the lack of a CCR5 gene. Meanwhile, there are scientists inserting a human gene associated with brain development into monkeys,

Transgenic monkeys and human intelligence

An April 2, 2019 news item on chinadaily.com describes research into transgenic monkeys,

Researchers from China and the United States have created transgenic monkeys carrying a human gene that is important for brain development, and the monkeys showed human-like brain development.

Scientists have identified several genes that are linked to primate brain size. MCPH1 is a gene that is expressed during fetal brain development. Mutations in MCPH1 can lead to microcephaly, a developmental disorder characterized by a small brain.

In the study published in the Beijing-based National Science Review, researchers from the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of North Carolina in the United States and other research institutions reported that they successfully created 11 transgenic rhesus monkeys (eight first-generation and three second-generation) carrying human copies of MCPH1.

According to the research article, brain imaging and tissue section analysis showed an altered pattern of neuron differentiation and a delayed maturation of the neural system, which is similar to the developmental delay (neoteny) in humans.

Neoteny in humans is the retention of juvenile features into adulthood. One key difference between humans and nonhuman primates is that humans require a much longer time to shape their neuro-networks during development, greatly elongating childhood, which is the so-called “neoteny.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Transgenic rhesus monkeys carrying the human MCPH1 gene copies show human-like neoteny of brain development by Lei Shi, Xin Luo, Jin Jiang, Yongchang Chen, Cirong Liu, Ting Hu, Min Li, Qiang Lin, Yanjiao Li, Jun Huang Hong Wang, Yuyu Niu, Yundi Shi, Martin Styner, Jianhong Wang, Yi Lu, Xuejin Sun, Hualin Yu, Weizhi Ji, Bing Su. National Science Review, nwz043, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwz043 Published: 27 March 2019

This appears to be an open access paper,

Transgenic monkeys and an ethical uproar

Predictably, this research set off alarms as Sharon Kirkey’s April 12, 2019 article for the National Post describes in detail (Note: A link has been removed)l,

Their brains may not be bigger than normal, but monkeys created with human brain genes are exhibiting cognitive changes that suggest they might be smarter — and the experiments have ethicists shuddering.

In the wake of the genetically modified human babies scandal, Chinese scientists [as a scientist from the US] are drawing fresh condemnation from philosophers and ethicists, this time over the announcement they’ve created transgenic monkeys with elements of a human brain.

Six of the monkeys died, however the five survivors “exhibited better short-term memory and shorter reaction time” compared to their wild-type controls, the researchers report in the journa.

According to the researchers, the experiments represent the first attempt to study the genetic basis of human brain origin using transgenic monkeys. The findings, they insist, “have the potential to provide important — and potentially unique — insights into basic questions of what actually makes humans unique.”

For others, the work provokes a profoundly moral and visceral uneasiness. Even one of the collaborators — University of North Carolina computer scientist Martin Styner — told MIT Technology Review he considered removing his name from the paper, which he said was unable to find a publisher in the West.

“Now we have created this animal which is different than it is supposed to be,” Styner said. “When we do experiments, we have to have a good understanding of what we are trying to learn, to help society, and that is not the case here.” l

In an email to the National Post, Styner said he has an expertise in medical image analysis and was approached by the researchers back in 2011. He said he had no input on the science in the project, beyond how to best do the analysis of their MRI data. “At the time, I did not think deeply enough about the ethical consideration.”

….

When it comes to the scientific use of nonhuman primates, ethicists say the moral compass is skewed in cases like this.

Given the kind of beings monkeys are, “I certainly would have thought you would have had to have a reasonable expectation of high benefit to human beings to justify the harms that you are going to have for intensely social, cognitively complex, emotional animals like monkeys,” said Letitia Meynell, an associate professor in the department of philosophy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“It’s not clear that this kind of research has any reasonable expectation of having any useful application for human beings,” she said.

The science itself is also highly dubious and fundamentally flawed in its logic, she said.
“If you took Einstein as a baby and you raised him in the lab he wouldn’t turn out to be Einstein,” Meynell said. “If you’re actually interested in studying the cognitive complexity of these animals, you’re not going to get a good representation of that by raising them in labs, because they can’t develop the kind of cognitive and social skills they would in their normal environment.”

The Chinese said the MCPH1 gene is one of the strongest candidates for human brain evolution. But looking at a single gene is just bad genetics, Meynell said. Multiple genes and their interactions affect the vast majority of traits.

My point is that there’s a lot of research focused on intelligence and genes when we don’t really know what role genes actually play and when there doesn’t seem to be any serious oversight.

Global plea for moratorium on heritable genome editing

A March 13, 2019 University of Otago (New Zealand) press release (also on EurekAlert) describes a global plea for a moratorium,

A University of Otago bioethicist has added his voice to a global plea for a moratorium on heritable genome editing from a group of international scientists and ethicists in the wake of the recent Chinese experiment aiming to produce HIV immune children.

In an article in the latest issue of international scientific journal Nature, Professor Jing-Bao Nie together with another 16 [17] academics from seven countries, call for a global moratorium on all clinical uses of human germline editing to make genetically modified children.

They would like an international governance framework – in which nations voluntarily commit to not approve any use of clinical germline editing unless certain conditions are met – to be created potentially for a five-year period.

Professor Nie says the scientific scandal of the experiment that led to the world’s first genetically modified babies raises many intriguing ethical, social and transcultural/transglobal issues. His main personal concerns include what he describes as the “inadequacy” of the Chinese and international responses to the experiment.

“The Chinese authorities have conducted a preliminary investigation into the scientist’s genetic misadventure and issued a draft new regulation on the related biotechnologies. These are welcome moves. Yet, by putting blame completely on the rogue scientist individually, the institutional failings are overlooked,” Professor Nie explains.

“In the international discourse, partly due to the mentality of dichotomising China and the West, a tendency exists to characterise the scandal as just a Chinese problem. As a result, the global context of the experiment and Chinese science schemes have been far from sufficiently examined.”

The group of 17 [18] scientists and bioethicists say it is imperative that extensive public discussions about the technical, scientific, medical, societal, ethical and moral issues must be considered before germline editing is permitted. A moratorium would provide time to establish broad societal consensus and an international framework.

“For germline editing to even be considered for a clinical application, its safety and efficacy must be sufficient – taking into account the unmet medical need, the risks and potential benefits and the existence of alternative approaches,” the opinion article states.

Although techniques have improved in recent years, germline editing is not yet safe or effective enough to justify any use in the clinic with the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations still unacceptably high, the scientists and ethicists say.

“No clinical application of germline editing should be considered unless its long-term biological consequences are sufficiently understood – both for individuals and for the human species.”

The proposed moratorium does not however, apply to germline editing for research uses or in human somatic (non-reproductive) cells to treat diseases.

Professor Nie considers it significant that current presidents of the UK Royal Society, the US National Academy of Medicine and the Director and Associate Director of the US National Institute of Health have expressed their strong support for such a proposed global moratorium in two correspondences published in the same issue of Nature. The editorial in the issue also argues that the right decision can be reached “only through engaging more communities in the debate”.

“The most challenging questions are whether international organisations and different countries will adopt a moratorium and if yes, whether it will be effective at all,” Professor Nie says.

A March 14, 2019 news item on phys.org provides a précis of the Comment in Nature. Or, you ,can access the Comment with this link

Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing; Eric Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg and specialists from seven countries call for an international governance framework.signed by: Eric S. Lander, Françoise Baylis, Feng Zhang, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Paul Berg, Catherine Bourgain, Bärbel Friedrich, J. Keith Joung, Jinsong Li, David Liu, Luigi Naldini, Jing-Bao Nie, Renzong Qiu, Bettina Schoene-Seifert, Feng Shao, Sharon Terry, Wensheng Wei, & Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker. Nature 567, 165-168 (2019) doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00726-5

This Comment in Nature is open access.

World Health Organization (WHO) chimes in

Better late than never, eh? The World Health Organization has called heritable gene editing of humans ‘irresponsible’ and made recommendations. From a March 19, 2019 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Online news webpage,

A panel convened by the World Health Organization said it would be “irresponsible” for scientists to use gene editing for reproductive purposes, but stopped short of calling for a ban.

The experts also called for the U.N. health agency to create a database of scientists working on gene editing. The recommendation was announced Tuesday after a two-day meeting in Geneva to examine the scientific, ethical, social and legal challenges of such research.

“At this time, it is irresponsible for anyone to proceed” with making gene-edited babies since DNA changes could be passed down to future generations, the experts said in a statement.

Germline editing has been on my radar since 2015 (see my May 14, 2015 posting) and the probability that someone would experiment with viable embryos and bring them to term shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

Slow science from Canada

Canada has banned germline editing but there is pressure to lift that ban. (I touched on the specifics of the campaign in an April 26, 2019 posting.) This March 17, 2019 essay on The Conversation by Landon J Getz and Graham Dellaire, both of Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia, Canada) elucidates some of the discussion about whether research into germline editing should be slowed down.

Naughty (or Haughty, if you prefer) scientists

There was scoffing from some, if not all, members of the scientific community about the potential for ‘designer babies’ that can be seen in an excerpt from an article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic (originally published in my ,August 15, 2017 posting titled: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?),

Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),

” … the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”

Then about 15 months later, the possibility seemed to be realized.

Interesting that scientists scoffed at the public’s concerns (you can find similar arguments about robots and artificial intelligence not being a potentially catastrophic problem), yes? Often, nonscientists’ concerns are dismissed as being founded in science fiction.

To be fair, there are times when concerns are overblown, the difficulty is that it seems the scientific community’s default position is to uniformly dismiss concerns rather than approaching them in a nuanced fashion. If the scoffers had taken the time to think about it, germline editing on viable embryos seems like an obvious and inevitable next step (as I’ve noted previously).

At this point, no one seems to know if He actually succeeded at removing CCR5 from Lulu’s and Nana’s genomes. In November 2018, scientists were guessing that at least one of the twins was a ‘mosaic’. In other words, some of her cells did not include CCR5 while others did.

Parents, children, competition

A recent college admissions scandal in the US has highlighted the intense competition to get into high profile educational institutions. (This scandal brought to mind the Silicon Valey elite who wanted to know more about gene editing that might result in improved cognitive skills.)

Since it can be easy to point the finger at people in other countries, I’d like to note that there was a Canadian parent among these wealthy US parents attempting to give their children advantages by any means, legal or not. (Note: These are alleged illegalities.) From a March 12, 2019 news article by Scott Brown, Kevin Griffin, and Keith Fraser for the Vancouver Sun,

Vancouver businessman and former CFL [Canadian Football League] player David Sidoo has been charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with a far-reaching FBI investigation into a criminal conspiracy that sought to help privileged kids with middling grades gain admission to elite U.S. universities.

In a 12-page indictment filed March 5 [2019] in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, Sidoo is accused of making two separate US$100,000 payments to have others take college entrance exams in place of his two sons.

Sidoo is also accused of providing documents for the purpose of creating falsified identification cards for the people taking the tests.

In what is being called the biggest college-admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, Sidoo has been charged with nearly 50 other people. Nine athletic coaches and 33 parents including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. are among those charged in the investigation, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues.

According to the indictment, an unidentified person flew from Tampa, Fla., to Vancouver in 2011 to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in place of Sidoo’s older son and was directed not to obtain too high a score since the older son had previously taken the exam, obtaining a score of 1460 out of a possible 2400.

A copy of the resulting SAT score — 1670 out of 2400 — was mailed to Chapman University, a private university in Orange, Calif., on behalf of the older son, who was admitted to and ultimately enrolled in the university in January 2012, according to the indictment.

It’s also alleged that Sidoo arranged to have someone secretly take the older boy’s Canadian high school graduation exam, with the person posing as the boy taking the exam in June 2012.

The Vancouver businessman is also alleged to have paid another $100,000 to have someone take the SAT in place of his younger son.

Sidoo, an investment banker currently serving as CEO of Advantage Lithium, was awarded the Order of B.C. in 2016 for his philanthropic efforts.

He is a former star with the UBC [University of British Columbia] Thunderbirds football team and helped the school win its first Vanier Cup in 1982. He went on to play five seasons in the CFL with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and B.C. Lions.

Sidoo is a prominent donor to UBC and is credited with spearheading an alumni fundraising campaign, 13th Man Foundation, that resuscitated the school’s once struggling football team. He reportedly donated $2 million of his own money to support the program.

Sidoo Field at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium is named in his honour.

In 2016, he received the B.C. [British Columbia] Sports Hall of Fame’s W.A.C. Bennett Award for his contributions to the sporting life of the province.

The question of whether or not these people like the ‘Silicon Valley elite’ (mentioned in John Loeffler’s February 22, 2019 article) would choose to tinker with their children’s genome if it gave them an advantage, is still hypothetical but it’s easy to believe that at least some might seriously consider the possibility especially if the researcher or doctor didn’t fully explain just how little is known about the impact of tinkering with the genome. For example, there’s a big question about whether those parents in China fully understood what they signed up for.

By the way, cheating scandals aren’t new (see Vanity Fair’s Schools For Scandal; The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses—Plus Oxford! Edited by Graydon Carter, published in August 2018 and covering 25 years of the magazine’s reporting). On a similar line, there’s this March13, 2019 essay which picks apart some of the hierarchical and power issues at play in the US higher educational system which led to this latest (but likely not last) scandal.

Scientists under pressure

While Kofler’s February 26, 2019 Nature opinion piece and call to action seems to address the concerns regarding germline editing by advocating that scientists become more conscious of how their choices impact society, as I noted earlier, the ideas expressed seem a little ungrounded in harsh realities. Perhaps it’s time to give some recognition to the various pressures put on scientists from their own governments and from an academic environment that fosters ‘success’ at any cost to peer pressure, etc. (For more about the costs of a science culture focused on success, read this March 2, 2019 blog posting by Jon Tennant on digital-science.com for a breakdown.)

One other thing I should mention, for some scientists getting into the history books, winning Nobel prizes, etc. is a very important goal. Scientists are people too.

Some thoughts

There seems to be a great disjunction between what Richardson presents as an alternative narrative to the ‘gene-god’ and how genetic research is being performed and reported on. What is clear to me is that no one really understands genetics and this business of inserting and deleting genes is essentially research designed to satisfy curiosity and/or allay fears about being left behind in a great scientific race to a an unknown destination.

I’d like to see some better reporting and a more agile response by the scientific community, the various governments, and international agencies. What shape or form a more agile response might take, I don’t know but I’d like to see some efforts.

Back to the regular programme

There’s a lot about CRISPR here on this blog. A simple search of ‘CRISPR ‘in the blog’s search engine should get you more than enough information about the technology and the various issues ranging from intellectual property to risks and more.

The three part series (CRISPR and editing the germline in the US …), mentioned previously, was occasioned by the publication of a study on germline editing research with nonviable embryos in the US. The 2017 research was done at the Oregon Health and Science University by Shoukhrat Mitalipov following similar research published by Chinese scientists in 2015. The series gives relatively complete coverage of the issues along with an introduction to CRISPR and embedded video describing the technique. Here’s part 1 to get you started..

The Art of Science (Juan Geuer) on May 18, 2019 at Canada’s Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa

If you’re in Ottawa on May 18, 2019 and available from 1 – 1:30 pm and have paid your entry fee to the Canada Science and Technology Museum, there’s a special talk. From a ‘Curiosity on Stage’ event page,

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math? Curiosity on Stage is a series of short, interactive presentations that brings you face-to-face with researchers and innovators. Each week, a featured speaker delivers an engaging presentation followed by an interactive Q-and-A session. Curiosity on Stage invites you to learn directly from people working in the science and technology-related fields. Find out what they do and why it matters – and leave inspired by their stories of curiosity, overcoming obstacles, and innovation.

While everyone is welcome on the Demo Stage, this program is recommended for ages 10+.

This week: Juan Geuer: The Science of Art

Courtesy Canada Science and Technology Museum

[Speaker:] Wendy Moir, Ottawa Art Gallery

Wendy Moir earned her Master’s degree in art history from Carleton University and a Bachelor of Arts in art history and English literature at Queen’s University. She is passionate about art education and has taught visual literacy at galleries in Kingston, Halifax, and Ottawa since 2003.  Wendy currently teaches Canadian art history in the diploma program at the Ottawa School of Art and is an educator at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

This week, Wendy will be showcasing the work of Juan Geuer. Juan Geuer’s art, along with seven other artists he either collaborated with, influenced, or worked with in parallel, is showcased in the Ottawa Art Gallery exhibition Carbon + Light: Juan Geuer’s Luminous Precision. This presentation discusses his life in the National Capital Region and his ground-breaking artwork that sits at the threshold between science and art.

I’d never heard of Juan Geuer before but the title for the current exhibition of his work at the Ottawa Art Gallery immediately caught my attention, CARBON + LIGHT
JUAN GEUER’S LUMINOUS PRECISION. Here’s the description from the exhibition webpage,

March 9 – August 18, 2019

Canadian artist Juan Geuer’s groundbreaking work sits in the threshold between science and art.

It bridges the human condition, in all its various states, and the carbon-based ecosystems and oxygenated atmospheres upon which we depend.

The exhibition Carbon + Light celebrates this artist’s significant legacy as a fearless truth seeker. Through his inventive approach to installation, he pointed out the onset of the Anthropocene long before the term emerged to denote the geological period in which we now find ourselves embedded. Here, Geuer’s work will be in dialogue with artists with whom he either collaborated, influenced, or worked with in parallel, from Michael Snow to Catherine Richards.

The exhibition will also showcase the importance of Ottawa as the site within which Geuer’s surprising practice emerged, suggesting that time and location were instrumental to his ability to develop his unique investigation.

CURATOR
Caroline Seck Langill

Here’s one of the images and my favourite of those featured on the gallery’s Juan Geuer exhibition page,

Juan Geuer (1917-2009), Et Amor Fati (For the Love of Canada), 2007, aluminium frame, adjustment mechanisms and Mylar map. Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery. Gift of Else Geuer-Vermeij, 2013
Juan Geuer (1917 – 2009) Et Amor Fati (For the Love of Canada), 2007 aluminum frame, adjustment mechanisms, and Mylar map. Courtesy: Ottawa Gallery of Art

It’s free and you can find out more about the Ottawa Art Gallery here.

The National Gallery of Canada (also in Ottawa) Has collected some of Geuer’s work and has a biography,

Juan Geuer’s goal is “to study our perception beyond science and art and to investigate our creative ability for adapting new visions”.

For Juan Geuer science is an activity as creative, inspired, and dependent upon perception as art. He is interested in the parallels between scientists and artists and their respective involvements with observation — their attempts to view nature in ways ever more complete, the scientist with apparatus, formulae and statistics, the artist by attention and understanding of the filters that colour perception.

Juan Geuer was brought up in a family of Dutch artists and became himself an artist, working first in glass in the 1940s and later turning to easel painting and murals. He left Holland with his family just before the beginning of World War II and immigrated to Bolivia.

By the time he came to Canada in 1954, he had traveled widely and tried his hand at several professions. In Canada, he worked as a draftsman at the Dominion Observatory of the National Research Council through the late 50s, the 60s and the70s, where he was exposed daily to the beauties and intricacies of science. Having only a little academic background in science, he learned from the scientists and, always an independent thinker, drew his own conclusions. Geuer maintains that both science and art are creative endeavours requiring of their practitioners an open-mindedness and a willingness to accept nature’s surprises.

By the 1960s, Geuer had become disenchanted with the idea of producing art as a commodity for sale to a limited public; he began to seek alternatives that might better reflect the creativity in everyday life. Eventually he began to view his scientific activity as inseparable from his art. He turned from painting to making more conceptual work in the early 1970s. Juan Geuer’s interest in finding a meeting ground between science and art is clearly stated as a mission of his company, The Truth-Seeker Company, formed in 1973. Geuer sees science as a theoretical network of systems that can only be verified by referral to the real world, or nature. But that which we know as nature is still only a concept based on the perceptions of our senses. Science can extend sensory perception by instruments that enable us to observe and analyze nature, thereby enriching our understanding of it.

Conversely, art for Geuer requires an open attitude to nature, a willingness to accept what is given, if the artist is to act “as the mirror which transmutes itself into as many colours as exist in the things placed before it,” (Leonardo da Vinci’s quote on an artist’s purpose). Geuer reaffirms in his art the necessity of humanity maintaining an honest dialogue with nature.

Some of Geuer’s works incorporate scientific apparatus. Other works use or analyze natural phenomena, like the colours of polarized light or earthquake activity. For Geuer, the equipment and methods of science can be useful to the artist who cares to understand them and to use them to allow the ordinary person entry into the universes that science can reveal.

In Karonhia, 1990, a work owned by the National Gallery, a simple scientific device is at work in aid of the observation of nature – mirrors. The mirrors are positioned with precision to reflect the sky, providing an opportunity for observation of its changing colours and weather conditions. Designed in response to the conditions of the architecture, Karonhia which means “sky” in the Mohawk language, frames and reflects the sky in four directions from four observation points, providing a constant daytime show of natural visual phenomena that draws visitors’ attention to an aspect of nature that is sometimes taken for granted.

H20, another work in the Gallery’s collection incorporates sophisticated and original equipment used for the observation of another natural phenomenon, water. Laser light is passed through a drop of water as it forms, swells and falls from a controlled source. The water drop acts as both lens and image. Its image is projected onto a wall by the laser light passing through it, where the viewer can watch it, large-scale. The magnification is itself fascinating – one can see the surface tension of the drop, a force that for Geuer is a dynamic and mysterious force, believed to be based on hydrogen bonding, that permeates all biological processes. One might also see bacteria and other matter if they are present – each drop becomes a unique microcosm, observable for the duration of its existence. In H​20, Geuer brings the unimaginable into a form that can be perceived and contemplated.

Geuer has extensively exhibited his work both within Canada and internationally, in solo and group exhibitions. Key among his exhibitions were his showing of several pieces at the List Visual Arts Centre of MIT in 1986 and his solo exhibition in Rotterdam at the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in 1985.

I’m going to end this post with a link to a film made by Ed Folger about one of Geuer’s most seminal works, WIS (Water in Suspense) but first, there’s this excerpt from a May 7, 2009 obituary on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

Ed Folger, who is finishing a video that documents one of Geuer’s pieces, said Geuer was intent on showing people the underlying rhythms of the earth and making the imperceptible visible.

Geuer saw art in lasers and swinging pendulums and used them, along with mirrors, in many of his creations.

“If you just look at a drop of water, you can’t see the movement of the molecules, but if you put a laser through it, these fabulous patterns are projected out,” said Folger.

One of Geuer’s seminal pieces — a seismometer that records motion — is permanently installed at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

“Wonderment! He kept using that word over and over again. Wonderment. It’s what people should feel,” said Folger.

Unfortunately, much of Geuer’s work is too complicated to be shown often, said Folger.

Geuer’s website describes one creation, Hellot Glasses, made in 1996, as small mirrors that allow viewers to “live vicariously in one another’s gaze.”

In an interview he gave at the age of 91, Geuer gave a hint of how it might feel to look through his own gaze.

“Every day, I get up with this wonderful feeling, and I think I can do something new today, something nobody else has done. I will find something,” he said.

Here’s a link to Folger’s film, Water, Light and Chaos: Art by Juan Geuer. It’s on Vimeo and it’s about 20 minutes long.

Walking again with exoskeletons and brain-controlled, non-invasive muscle stimulation enabling people to walk

I have two news bits about paraplegics and the possibility of walking. The first is from Alberta, Canada and the second is from Brazil.

Alberta

The fellow in the video is wearing a robotic exoskeleton. As you can see, it’s not perfect but it represents an extraordinary breakthrough (from an April 16, 2019 article by Sarah Lawrynuik for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] Radio),

On his fifteenth birthday in December 2015, Calgary’s Alex McEwan was injured in a tobogganing accident with friends and lost the ability to walk. It’s the kind of change that could destroy a person, but Alex has thrived and is learning new skills. Watch him walk onstage, with some help from a powered exoskeleton, to receive his diploma. 1:21

Sometimes events conspire to move us in a completely unexpected ways. After his accident, Alex McEwan participated in a very special study (from an August 3, 2019 article by Colin Zak for Alberta Health Services),

Researchers at Foothills Medical Centre (FMC) are the first in Canada to examine the benefits of using an exoskeleton robotic device to rehabilitate patients with spinal cord injuries (SCI) in the days and weeks following their injury.

The device, known as the Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton, consists of a metal frame that supports and stabilizes a patient’s torso, core, legs and feet. It is moved robotically by a therapist, enabling patients with a spinal cord injury to get up and walk around. Although it is controlled by remote control, the device offers varying levels of physical control by the patient, depending on the nature and extent of their injury.

Dr. Ho [ Dr. Chester Ho, Head of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at FMC ] says exoskeletons may potentially promote recovery and reduce complications in SCI patients by reducing loss of bone and muscle mass caused by spending so much time lying down, and also improve breathing and bowel function.

The year-long study, which begins this summer, will include between five and 10 patients selected from across Calgary [Alberta]. It aims to examine whether treatment is safe and feasible in the days and weeks after an SCI. This study will be followed by larger studies involving more patients.

Participants in the study will receive 60-minute therapy sessions with the exoskeleton device two to three times a week, for a total of 25 training hours over an eight- to 10-week period. Safety and feasibility outcomes will be monitored and tracked by the research team throughout all sessions.

Before the advent of exoskeletons, rehabilitation for patients with an SCI required them to be hoisted with a physical therapist moving their legs.

“Every step is different with this device, so patients learn from their mistakes in real time. Patients really like to use the device; it gives them hope.”

Alex, [emphasis mine] 15, sustained a spinal cord injury while tobogganing last December.

He says rehabilitation sessions with the exoskeleton have made a difference in how he feels and gives him hope for the future.

Over 2 1/2 years later, the CBC has made a radio documentary about this study and the people who took part. Lawrynuik’s April 16, 2019 article describes some highlights from the radio documentary,

Imagine waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by the beeps and whirring sounds of the machines keeping you alive. The doctor tells you that you will likely never walk again.

But then, just as you begin to process that news, a physiotherapist shows up at your bedside and says, “Hold up. I might have a special opportunity for you.”

That’s the journey taken by a number of Albertans who landed in Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre after accidents or trauma to their spine in the last three years. Three of those people are Alex McEwan, a university student in Lethbridge; Jean Ogilvie, a 77-year-old woman living in Calgary; and Josh Pelland, a former climber turned motivational speaker in Three Hills, Alta.

All three are united by a technology called an exoskeleton, created by a company called Ekso Bionics, that allowed them to walk despite no longer being able to use their legs. 

“The first time was a bit scary actually,” Ogilvie said. “It’s like a great big skeleton that sort of clasps you in its body. [It’s] black and all sorts of straps and sensors tell you how I’m doing.”

Pelland agrees about how daunting the experience is to start.

“They just said, ‘OK, the machine is going to assist you and lift you up.’ And I was a bit like, ‘OK, this is the strangest thing ever.'”

Once the frame of the exoskeleton is strapped along the outside of the patient’s legs and up their back, starting from the seated position, it does lift them completely without the help of their own muscles.

From there they shift their upper-body weight within the machine to hit certain targets — once your body weight is shifted forward and laterally enough, a beep sounds and the exoskeleton pulls each leg forward, one at a time. 

As patients learn to use the machine, they walk with the assistance of a walker. Then, as they progress, they upgrade to forearm crutches. The entire time, they’re accompanied by the man behind the machine, Kyle McIntosh.

McIntosh is a physiotherapist and he worked with the exoskeleton both to help patients and to conduct research into the machine’s impact on rehabilitation.

After being discharged and living once again without the exoskeleton, and therefore without the ability to walk — McEwan got an idea: maybe he’d be allowed to use the robot, just one last time.

“High school wasn’t high school for me. I only really got one semester of grade 10 before I broke my spine. So that first semester was great. I enjoyed it. I played sports. I was a good student. But then it was no longer about high school anymore. It was more about adjusting to my new life.”

McIntosh and McEwan hatched the plan together and kept it a closely guarded secret. Then, on the day McEwan was set to graduate from Grade 12, he asked to be placed last on the list of students to cross the stage.

“I remember taking a first few steps and not hearing very much. Hearing people cheer because I was the kid in the wheelchair at the high school, so it makes sense. But the second they saw the canes and my first few steps, just one kid erupted: ‘Yeah!’ And then everyone went crazy.”

“I think walking across the stage — just like I got to walk into my high school on the first day of Grade 10 — was a really good closing story. The chapter of me learning to live in a wheelchair was done. And it was now my turn to go live my life. So that’s why I think it was such an important day because it gave me a lot of closure. I got to walk into the high school, I got to walk out.”

If you have the time, you might want to read Lawrynuik’s April 16, 2019 article in its entirety. It turns out that the study did much more than give a people a chance to walk again, even if just for a short time.

Anyone interested in the robotic, wearable exoskeleton used in the study can go here to EksoHealth, the company that produces the EksoGT, a bionic exoskeleton. (Lawrynuik’s article has another name for the product, i.e., Ekso Bionic Exoskeleton but all I could find was the EksoGT.)

Brazil and Walk Again

The most recent post featuring the Walk Again project is my May 20, 2014 edition which was part of a larger series on ‘Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology’. The May 20, 2014 posting covered Walk Again’s debut at the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil. Unfortunately,, the lead researcher Miguel Nicolelis oversold the technology. I think people were expecting someone with paraplegia to come bounding out onto the field and give a flashy opening kick for the tournament what they saw was something a great deal more restrained.

The person was wheeled out onto the field, stood up, shuffled a bit, and nudged the ball with his foot. It represented a huge breakthrough but it wasn’t flashy.

The latest from Walk Again is in a May 14, 2019 Associação Alberto Santos Dumont para Apoio à Pesquisa press release on EurekAlert,

In another major clinical breakthrough of the Walk Again Project, a non-profit international consortium aimed at developing new neuro-rehabilitation protocols, technologies and therapies for spinal cord injury, two patients with paraplegia regained the ability to walk with minimal assistance, through the employment of a fully non-invasive brain-machine interface that does not require the use of any invasive spinal cord surgical procedure. The results of this study appeared on the May 1 [2019] issue of the journal Scientific Reports.

The two patients with paraplegia (AIS C) used their own brain activity to control the non-invasive delivery of electrical pulses to a total of 16 muscles (eight in each leg), allowing them to produce a more physiological walk than previously reported, requiring only a conventional walker and a body weight support system as assistive devices. Overall, the two patients were able to produce more than 4,500 steps using this new technology, which combines a non-invasive brain-machine interface, based on a 16-channel EEG, to control a multi-channel functional electrical stimulation system (FES), tailored to produce a much smoother gait pattern than the state of the art of this technique.

“What surprised us was that, in addition to allowing these patients to walk with little help, one of them displayed a clear motor improvement by practicing with this new approach. Patients required approximatively [sic] 25 sessions to master the training before they were able to walk using this apparatus,” said Solaiman Shokur one of the authors of the study.

The two patients that used this new rehabilitation approach had previously participated in the long-term neurorehabilitation study carried out using the Walk Again Project Neurorehabilitation (WANR) protocol. As reported in a recent publication from the same team (Shokur et al., PLoS One, Nov. 2018), all seven patients who participated in that protocol for a period of 28 months improved their clinical status, from complete paraplegia (AIS A or B, meaning no motor functions below the level of the injury, according to the ASIA classification) to partial paraplegia (AIS C, meaning partial recovery of sensory and motor function below the injury level). This significant neurological recovery included major clinical improvements in sensory discrimination (tactile, nociception, vibration, and pressure), voluntary motor control of abdomen and leg muscles, and important gains in autonomic control, such as bladder, bowel, and sexual functions.

“The last two studies published by the Walk Again Project clearly indicate that partial neurological and functional recovery can be induced in chronic spinal cord injury patients by combining multiple non-invasive technologies that are based around the concept of using a brain-machine interface to control different types of actuators, like virtual avatars, robotic walkers, or muscle stimulating devices, to allow the total involvement of patients in their own rehabilitation routine,” said Miguel Nicolelis, scientific director of the Walk Again Project and one of the authors of the study.

In a recent report by another group, one AIS C and two AIS D patients were able to walk thanks to the employment of an invasive method for spinal cord electrical stimulation, which required a spinal surgical procedure. In contrast, in the present study two AIS C patients – which originally were AIS A (see Supplemental Material below)- and a third AIS B subject, who recently achieved similar results, were able to regain a significant degree of autonomous walking without the need for such invasive treatments. Instead, these patients only received electrical stimulation patterns delivered to the skin surface of their legs, so that a total of eight muscles in each limb could be electrically stimulated in a physiologically accurate sequence. This was done in order to produce a smoother and more natural pattern of locomotion.

“Crucial for this implementation was the development of a closed-loop controller that allowed real-time correction of the patients’ walking pattern, taking into account muscle fatigue and external perturbations, in order to produce a predefined gait trajectory. Another major component of our approach was the use of a wearable haptic display to deliver tactile feedback to the patients´ forearms in order to provide them with a continuous source of proprioceptive feedback related to their walking,” said Solaiman Shokur.

To control the pattern of electrical muscle stimulation in each leg, these patients utilized an EEG-based brain-machine interface. In this setup, patients learned to alternate the generation of “stepping motor imagery” activity in their right and left motor cortices, in order to create alternated movements of their left and right legs.

According to the authors, the patients exhibited not only “less dependency on walking assistance, but also partial neurological recovery, with substantial rates of motor improvement in one of them.” The improvement in motor control in this last AIS C patient was 9 points in the lower extremity motor score (LEMS), which was comparable with that observed using invasive spinal cord stimulation.

Based on the results obtained over the past 5 years, the WAP now intends to combine all its neurorehabilitation tools into a single integrated, non-invasive platform to treat spinal cord injury patients. This platform will allow patients to begin training soon after the injury occurs. It will also allow the employment of a multi-dimensional integrated brain-machine interface capable of simultaneously controlling virtual and robotic actuators (like a lowerlimb exoskeleton), a multi-channel non-invasive electrical muscle stimulation system (like the FES used in the present study), and a novel non-invasive spinal cord stimulation approach. In this final configuration, this WAP platform will incorporate all these technologies together in order to maximize neurological and functional recovery in the shortest possible time, without the need of any invasive procedure.

According to Dr. Nicolelis, “there is no silver bullet to treat spinal cord injuries. More and more, it looks like we need to implement multiple techniques simultaneously to achieve the best neurorehabilitation results. In this context, it is also imperative to consider the occurrence of cortical plasticity as a major component in the planning of our rehabilitation approach.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Non-invasive, Brain-controlled Functional Electrical Stimulation for Locomotion Rehabilitation in Individuals with Paraplegia by Aurelie Selfslagh, Solaiman Shokur, Debora S. F. Campos, Ana R. C. Donati, Sabrina Almeida, Seidi Y. Yamauti, Daniel B. Coelho, Mohamed Bouri & Miguel A. L. Nicolelis. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 6782 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-43041-9 Published 01 May 2019

This paper is open access.

There’s also a video for Walk Again,

How do nanoparticles interact with the environment and with humans over time?

I meant to get this piece published sooner but good intentions don’t get you far.

At Northwestern University, scientists have researched the impact engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) might have as they enter the food chain. An October 18, 2019 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Megan Fellman describes research on an investigation of ENPs and their interaction with living organisms,

Personal electronic devices — smartphones, computers, TVs, tablets, screens of all kinds — are a significant and growing source of the world’s electronic waste. Many of these products use nanomaterials, but little is known about how these modern materials and their tiny particles interact with the environment and living things.

Now a research team of Northwestern University chemists and colleagues from the national Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology has discovered that when certain coated nanoparticles interact with living organisms it results in new properties that cause the nanoparticles to become sticky. Fragmented lipid coronas form on the particles, causing them to stick together and grow into long kelp-like strands. Nanoparticles with 5-nanometer diameters form long structures that are microns in size in solution. The impact on cells is not known.

“Why not make a particle that is benign from the beginning?” said Franz M. Geiger, professor of chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He led the Northwestern portion of the research.

“This study provides insight into the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems,” Geiger said. “This may help us understand and predict why some nanomaterial/ligand coating combinations are detrimental to cellular organisms while others are not. We can use this to engineer nanoparticles that are benign by design.”

Using experiments and computer simulations, the research team studied how gold nanoparticles wrapped in strings having positively charged beads interact with a variety of bilayer membrane models. The researchers found that a nearly circular layer of lipids forms spontaneously around the particles. Formation of these “fragmented lipid coronas” have never been seen before to form from membranes.

The study points to solving problems with chemistry. Scientists can use the findings to design a better ligand coating for nanoparticles that avoids the ammonium-phosphate interaction, which causes the aggregation. (Ligands are used in nanomaterials for layering.)

The results will be published Oct. 18 [2018] in the journal Chem.

Geiger is the study’s corresponding author. Other authors include scientists from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology’s other institutional partners. Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the center studies engineered nanomaterials and their interaction with the environment, including biological systems — both the negative and positive aspects.

“The nanoparticles pick up parts of the lipid cellular membrane like a snowball rolling in a snowfield, and they become sticky,” Geiger said. “This unintended effect happens because of the presence of the nanoparticle. It can bring lipids to places in cells where lipids are not meant to be.”

The experiments were conducted in idealized laboratory settings that nevertheless are relevant to environments found during the late summer in a landfill — at 21-22 degrees Celsius and a couple feet below ground, where soil and groundwater mix and the food chain begins.

By pairing spectroscopic and imaging experiments with atomistic and coarse-grain simulations, the researchers identified that ion pairing between the lipid head groups of biological membranes and the polycations’ ammonium groups in the nanoparticle wrapping leads to the formation of fragmented lipid coronas. These coronas engender new properties, including composition and stickiness, to the particles with diameters below 10 nanometers.

The study’s insights help predict the impact that the increasingly widespread use of engineered nanomaterials has on the nanoparticles’ fate once they enter the food chain, which many of them may eventually do.

“New technologies and mass consumer products are emerging that feature nanomaterials as critical operational components,” Geiger said. “We can upend the existing paradigm in nanomaterial production towards one in which companies design nanomaterials to be sustainable from the beginning, as opposed to risking expensive product recalls — or worse — down the road.” [emphases mine]

Here’s an image illustrating the work,

Caption: This is a computer simulation of a lipid corona around a 5-nanometer nanoparticle showing ammonium-phosphate ion pairing. Credit: Northwestern University

The curious can find the paper here,

Lipid Corona Formation from Nanoparticle Interactions with Bilayers by Laura L. Olenick, Julianne M. Troiano, Ariane Vartanian, Eric S. Melby, Arielle C. Mensch, Leili Zhang, Jiewei Hong, Oluwaseun Mesele, Tian Qiu, Jared Bozich, Samuel Lohse, Xi Zhang, Thomas R. Kuech, Augusto Millevolte, Ian Gunsolus, Alicia C. McGeachy, Merve Doğangün, Tianzhe Li, Dehong Hu, Stephanie R. Walter, Aurash Mohaimani, Angela Schmoldt, Marco D. Torelli, Katherine R. Hurley, Joe Dalluge, Gene Chong, Z. Vivian Feng, Christy L. Haynes, Robert J. Hamers, Joel A. Pedersen, Qiang Cui, Rigoberto Hernandez, Rebecca Klaper, Galya Orr, Catherine J. Murphy, Franz M. Geiger. Chem Volume 4, ISSUE 11, P2709-2723, November 08, 2018 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2018.09.018 Published:October 18, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Snakebite? Roll out the nanoparticles

An October 4, 2018 news item on Nanowerk highlights some recent research into treating snakebites (Note: A link has been removed),

Venomous snakebites affect 2.5 million people, and annually cause more than 100,000 deaths and leave 400,000 individuals with permanent physical and psychological trauma each year.

Researchers reporting in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases (“Engineered nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis”) have now described a new approach to treating snake bites [sic], using nanoparticles to bind to venom toxins and prevent the spread of venom through the body.

Caption: “Synthetic polymer nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis.” Credit: Shea, et al. CC BY 4.0: Redistribution allowed with credit

An October 4, 2018 PLOS news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The standard treatment for snakebites is the intravenous administration of IgG immune molecules that recognize venoms. However, such antivenom therapies must be administered quickly–and by trained healthcare workers– to be effective and are highly specific to particular venoms. There is an ongoing need for a snakebite treatment which can be used in a rural setting and works against the bites of diverse venomous snakes.

In the new work, Kenneth Shea, of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues engineered nanoparticles that bind to and sequester an array of phospholipases A2 (PLA2) and three-finger toxin (3FTX) molecules found in Elapidae snake venoms. The Elapidae family is a large family of venomous snakes that includes cobras, kraits, tiger snakes, sea snakes, coral snakes and mambas, among other species. The researchers tested the ability of the nanoparticles to block Naja nigricollis (black-necked spitting cobra) venom in mice that received varying doses of the nanoparticles, injected into the skin. Envenomings by this snake in sub-Saharan Africa inflict serious cutaneous necrosis that may leave permanent tissue damage in the victims.

In experiments on isolated cells, the nanoparticles were found to sequester a wide range of Elapidae PLA and 3FTX venoms. Moreover, with collaborator José María Gutiérrez from the Instituto Clodomiro Picado (Universidad de Costa Rica), experiments with mice demonstrated that injections of the nanoparticles at the site of venom injection significantly mitigated the typical necrotic effects–including blistering and ulcers– of the spitting cobra venom. The nanoparticles administered to mice that had not received venom did not have an effect on skin and did not induce systemic toxicity.

“The stable, low-cost nanoparticles have the potential to be administered subcutaneously immediately after the bite at the site of envenoming by this spitting cobra to halt or reduce the extent of local damage and mitigate the systemic distribution of toxins post-envenoming,” the researchers say.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Engineered nanoparticles bind elapid snake venom toxins and inhibit venom-induced dermonecrosis by Jeffrey O’Brien, Shih-Hui Lee, José María Gutiérrez, Kenneth J. Shea. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 12(10): e0006736 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0006736 Published: October 4, 2018

This paper is open access. By the way, PLOS stands for Public Library of Science.