What human speech, jazz, and whale song have in common

Credit: iStock/Velvetfish

Seeing connections between what seem to be unrelated activities such as human speech, jazz, and whale song is fascinating to me and I’m not alone. Scientists at the University of California at Merced (UC Merced) have delivered handily on that premise according to an Oct. 13, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Jazz musicians riffing with each other, humans talking to each other and pods of killer whales all have interactive conversations that are remarkably similar to each other, new research reveals.

Cognitive science researchers at UC Merced have developed a new method for analyzing and comparing the sounds of speech, music and complex animal vocalizations like whale song and bird song. The paper detailing their findings is being published today [Oct. 12, 2017] in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Their method is based on the idea that these sounds are complex because they have multiple layers of structure. Every language, for instance, has individuals sounds, roughly corresponding to letters, that combine to form syllables, words, phrases, sentences and so on. It’s a hierarchy that everyone understands intuitively. Musical compositions have their own temporal hierarchies, but until now there hasn’t been a way to directly compare the hierarchies of speech and music, or test whether similar hierarchies might exist in bird song and whale song.

An Oct. 12, 2017 UC Merced news release by Lorena Anderson, which originated the news item, provides more details about the investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

“Playing jazz music has been likened to a conversation among musicians, and killer whales are highly social creatures who vocalize as if they are talking to each other. But does jazz music really sound like a conversation, and do killer whales really sound like they are talking?” asked lead researcher and UC Merced professor Chris Kello. “We know killer whales are highly social and intelligent, but it’s hard to tell that they are interacting when you listen to recordings of them. Our method shows how much their sound patterns are like people talking, but not like other, less social whales or birds.”

The researchers figured out a way to measure and compare sound recordings by converting them into “barcodes” that capture clusters of sound energy, and clusters of clusters, across levels of a hierarchy. These barcodes allowed the researchers to directly compare temporal hierarchies in more than 200 recordings of different kinds of speech in six different languages, different kinds of popular and classical music, four different species of birds and whales singing their songs, and even thunderstorms.

Kello and his colleagues have been using the barcode method for several years. They first developed it in studies of conversations. The study published today is the first time that they applied the method to music and animal vocalizations.

“The method allows us to ask questions about language and music and animal songs that we couldn’t ask without a way to see and compare patterns in all these recordings,” Kello said.

A common song

The researchers compared barcode-style visualizations of recorded sounds.
Credit: UC Merced

Kello, fellow UC Merced cognitive science professor Ramesh Balasubramaniam, graduate student Butovens Me´de´ [or Médé] and collaborator professor Simone Dalla Bella also discovered that the haunting songs of huge humpback whales are remarkably similar to the beautiful songs of tiny nightingales and hermit thrushes in terms of their temporal hierarchies.

“Humpbacks, nightingales and hermit thrushes are solitary singers,” Kello said. “The barcodes show that their songs have similar layers of structure, but we don’t know what it means — yet.”

The idea for this project came from Kello’s sabbatical at the University of Montpellier in France, where he worked and discussed ideas with Dalla Bella. Balasubramaniam, who studies how music is perceived, is in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts with Kello, who studies speech and language processing. The project was a natural collaboration and is part of a growing research focus at UC Merced that was enabled by the National Science Foundation-funded CHASE summer school on Music and Language in 2014, and a Google Faculty Award to Kello.

Balasubramaniam is interested in continuing the work to better understand how brains distinguish between music and speech, while Kello said there are many different avenues to pursue.

For instance, the researchers found nearly identical temporal hierarchies for six different languages, which may suggest something universal about human speech. However, because this result was based on recordings of TED Talks — which have a common style and progression — Kello said it will be important to keep looking at other forms of speech and language.

One of his graduate students, Sara Schneider, is using the method to study the convergence of Spanish and English barcodes in bilingual conversations. Another graduate student, Adolfo Ramirez-Aristizabal, is working with Kello and Balasubramaniam to study whether the barcode method may shed light on how brains process speech and other complex sounds.

“Listening to music and speech, we can hear some of what we see in the barcodes, and the information may be useful for automatic classification of audio recordings. But that doesn’t mean that our brains process music and speech using these barcodes,” Kello said. “It’s intriguing, but we need to keep asking questions and go where the data lead us.”

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

Hierarchical temporal structure in music, speech and animal vocalizations: jazz is like a conversation, humpbacks sing like hermit thrushes by Christopher T. Kello, Simone Dalla Bella, Butovens Médé, Ramesh Balasubramaniam. Journal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2017.0231 Published 11 October 2017

This paper appears to be open access.*

*”This paper is behind a paywall” was changed to “… appears to be open access.” at 1700 hours on January 23, 2018.

Memristors at Masdar

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Masdar Institute Wikipedia entry) featured its work with memristors in an Oct. 1, 2017 Masdar Institute press release by Erica Solomon (for anyone who’s interested, I have a simple description of memristors and links to more posts about them after the press release),

Researchers Develop New Memristor Prototype Capable of Performing Complex Operations at High-Speed and Low Power, Could Lead to Advancements in Internet of Things, Portable Healthcare Sensing and other Embedded Technologies

Computer circuits in development at the Khalifa University of Science and Technology could make future computers much more compact, efficient and powerful thanks to advancements being made in memory technologies that combine processing and memory storage functions into one densely packed “memristor.”

Enabling faster, smaller and ultra-low-power computers with memristors could have a big impact on embedded technologies, which enable Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, and portable healthcare sensing systems, says Dr. Baker Mohammad, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Dr. Mohammad co-authored a book on memristor technologies, which has just been released by Springer, a leading global scientific publisher of books and journals, with Class of 2017 PhD graduate Heba Abunahla. The book, titled Memristor Technology: Synthesis and Modeling for Sensing and Security Applications, provides readers with a single-source guide to fabricate, characterize and model memristor devices for sensing applications.

The pair also contributed to a paper on memristor research that was published in IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems I: Regular Papers earlier this month with Class of 2017 MSc graduate Muath Abu Lebdeh and Dr. Mahmoud Al-Qutayri, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.PhD student Yasmin Halawani is also an active member of Dr. Mohammad’s research team.

Conventional computers rely on energy and time-consuming processes to move information back and forth between the computer central processing unit (CPU) and the memory, which are separately located. A memristor, which is an electrical resistor that remembers how much current flows through it, can bridge the gap between computation and storage. Instead of fetching data from the memory and sending that data to the CPU where it is then processed, memristors have the potential to store and process data simultaneously.

“Memristors allow computers to perform many operations at the same time without having to move data around, thereby reducing latency, energy requirements, costs and chip size,” Dr. Mohammad explained. “We are focused on extending the logic gate design of the current memristor architecture with one that leads to even greater reduction of latency, energy dissipation and size.”

Logic gates control an electronics logical operation on one or more binary inputs and typically produce a single binary output. That is why they are at the heart of what makes a computer work, allowing a CPU to carry out a given set of instructions, which are received as electrical signals, using one or a combination of the seven basic logical operations: AND, OR, NOT, XOR, XNOR, NAND and NOR.

The team’s latest work is aimed at advancing a memristor’s ability to perform a complex logic operation, known as the XNOR (Exclusive NOR) logic gate function, which is the most complex logic gate operation among the seven basic logic gates types.

Designing memristive logic gates is difficult, as they require that each electrical input and output be in the form of electrical resistance rather than electrical voltage.

“However, we were able to successfully design an XNOR logic gate prototype with a novel structure, by layering bipolar and unipolar memristor types in a novel heterogeneous structure, which led to a reduction in latency and energy consumption for a memristive XNOR logic circuit gate by 50% compared to state-of the art state full logic proposed by leading research institutes,” Dr. Mohammad revealed.

The team’s current work builds on five years of research in the field of memristors, which is expected to reach a market value of US$384 million by 2025, according to a recent report from Research and Markets. Up to now, the team has fabricated and characterized several memristor prototypes, assessing how different design structures influence efficiency and inform potential applications. Some innovative memristor technology applications the team discovered include machine vision, radiation sensing and diabetes detection. Two patents have already been issued by the US Patents and Trademark Office (USPTO) for novel memristor designs invented by the team, with two additional patents pending.

Their robust research efforts have also led to the publication of several papers on the technology in high impact journals, including The Journal of Physical Chemistry, Materials Chemistry and Physics, and IEEE TCAS. This strong technology base paved the way for undergraduate senior students Reem Aldahmani, Amani Alshkeili, and Reem Jassem Jaffar to build novel and efficient memristive sensing prototypes.

The memristor research is also set to get an additional boost thanks to the new University merger, which Dr. Mohammad believes could help expedite the team’s research and development efforts through convenient and continuous access to the wider range of specialized facilities and tools the new university has on offer.

The team’s prototype memristors are now in the laboratory prototype stage, and Dr. Mohammad plans to initiate discussions for internal partnership opportunities with the Khalifa University Robotics Institute, followed by external collaboration with leading semiconductor companies such as Abu Dhabi-owned GlobalFoundries, to accelerate the transfer of his team’s technology to the market.

With initial positive findings and the promise of further development through the University’s enhanced portfolio of research facilities, this project is a perfect demonstration of how the Khalifa University of Science and Technology is pushing the envelope of electronics and semiconductor technologies to help transform Abu Dhabi into a high-tech hub for research and entrepreneurship.

h/t Oct. 4, 2017 Nanowerk news item

Slightly restating it from the press release, a memristor is a nanoscale electrical component which mimics neural plasticity. Memristor combines the word ‘memory’ with ‘resistor’.

For those who’d like a little more, there are three components: capacitors, inductors, and resistors which make up an electrical circuit. The resistor is the circuit element which represents the resistance to the flow of electric current.  As for how this relates to the memristor (from the Memristor Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The memristor’s electrical resistance is not constant but depends on the history of current that had previously flowed through the device, i.e., its present resistance depends on how much electric charge has flowed in what direction through it in the past; the device remembers its history — the so-called non-volatility property.[2] When the electric power supply is turned off, the memristor remembers its most recent resistance until it is turned on again

The memristor could lead to more energy-saving devices but much of the current (pun noted) interest lies in its similarity to neural plasticity and its potential application on neuromorphic engineering (brainlike computing).

Here’s a sampling of some of the more recent memristor postings on this blog:

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

June 28, 2017: Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

November 1, 2016: The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

You can find more by using ‘memristor’ as the search term in the blog search function or on the search engine of your choice.

Crackpot or visionary? Teaching seven-year-olds about intellectual property

It’s been a while since I’ve devoted a posting to intellectual property issues and my focus is usually on science/technology and how intellectual property issues relate to those fields. As a writer, I support a more relaxed approach to copyright and patent law and, in particular, I want to see the continuation of ‘fair use’ as it’s called in the US and ‘fair dealing’ as it’s called in Canada. I support the principle of making money from your work so you can continue to contribute creatively. But, the application of intellectual property law seems to have been turned into a weapon against creativity of all sorts. (At the end of this post you’ll find links to three typical posts from the many I have written on this topic.)

I do take the point being made in the following video (but for seven-year-olds and up!!!) about trademarks/logos and trademark infringement from the UK’s Intellectual Property Office,

Here’s the description from Youtube’s Logo Mania webpage,

Published on Jan 16, 2018

Brian Wheeler’s January 17, 2018 article for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online news on UK Politics sheds a bit of light on this ‘campaign’ (Note: A link has been removed),

A campaign to teach children about copyright infringement on the internet, is employing cartoons and puns on pop stars’ names, to get the message across.

Even its makers admit it is a “dry” and “niche” subject for a cartoon aimed at seven-year-olds.

But the Intellectual Property Office adds learning to “respect” copyrights and trademarks is a “key life skill”.

And it is hoping the adventures of Nancy and the Meerkats can finally make intellectual property “fun”.

The series, which began life five years ago on Fun Kids Radio, was re-launched this week with the aim of getting its message into primary schools.

The Intellectual Property Office is leading the government’s efforts to crack down on internet piracy and protect the revenues of Britain’s creative industries.

The government agency is spending £20,000 of its own money on the latest Nancy campaign, which is part-funded by the UK music industry.

Catherine Davies, head of the IPO’s education outreach department, which already produces teaching materials for GCSE students, admitted IP was a “complex subject” for small children and something of a challenge to make accessible and entertaining.

Wheeler’s article is definitely worth reading in its entirety. In fact, I was so intrigued I chased down the government press release (from the www.gov.uk webpage),

Nancy and the Meerkats logo

Nancy and the Meerkats, with the help of Big Joe, present a new radio series to engage pupils with the concept of intellectual property (IP). Aimed at primary education, the resource guides pupils through the process of setting up a band and recording and releasing a song, which is promoted and performed live on tour.

Building on the success of the previous two series, Nancy and the Meerkats consists of a new radio series, short videos, comic book, lesson plans and competition. The supporting teaching resource also includes themed activities and engaging lesson plans. Together, these support and develop pupils’ understanding of copyright, trade marks and the importance of respecting IP.

Curriculum links are provided for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The series will launch on Monday 15th January [2018] at 5pm on Fun Kids Radio

Along with ‘Logo Mania’, you can find such gems as ‘Track Attack’ concerning song lyrics and, presumably, copyright issues, ‘The Hum Bone’ concerning patents, and ‘Pirates on the Internet’ about illegal downloading on the Fun Kids Radio website. Previous seasons have included ‘Are forks just for eating with?’, ‘Is a kaleidoscope useful?’, ‘Rubber Bands’, ‘Cornish Pasties’, and more. It seems Fun Kids Radio has moved from its focus on the types of questions and topics that might interest children to topics of interest for the music industry and the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. At a guess, I’m guessing those groups might be maximalists where copyright is concerned.

By the way, for those interested in teaching resources and more, go to http://crackingideas.com/third_party/Nancy+and+the+Meerkats.

Finally, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I do know that I’m curious about how they decided to focus on seven to 11-year-olds. Are children in the UK heavily involved in content piracy? Is there a generation of grade school pop stars about to enter the music market? Where is the data and how did they gather it?

Should anyone be inclined to answer those questions, I look forward to reading your reply in the Comments section.

ETA January 19, 2018 (five minutes later) Oops! Here are the links promised earlier,

October 31, 2011: Patents as weapons and obstacles

June 28, 2012: Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP

March 28, 2013: Intellectual property, innovation, and hindrances

There are many, many more posts. Just click on the category for ‘intellectual property’.

Implanting a synthetic cornea in your eye

For anyone who needs a refresher, Simon Shapiro in a Nov. 5, 2017 posting on the Sci/Why blog offers a good introduction to how eyes work and further in his post describes Corneat Vision’s corneal implants,

A quick summary of how our eyes work: they refract (bend) light and focus it on the retina. The job of doing the refraction is split between the cornea and the lens. Two thirds of the refraction is done by the cornea, so it’s critical in enabling vision. After light passes through the cornea, it passes through the pupil (in the centre of the iris) to reach the lens. Muscles in the eye (the ciliary muscle) can change the shape of the lens and allow the eye to focus nearer or further. The lens focuses light on the retina, which passes signals to the brain via the optic nerve.

It’s all pretty neat, but some things can go wrong, especially as you get older. Common problems are that the lens and/or the cornea can become cloudy.

CoreNeat Vision, the Israeli ophthalmic devices startup company, released an Oct. 6, 2017 press release about their corneal implant on BusinessWire (Note: Links have been removed),

The CorNeat KPro implant is a patent-pending synthetic cornea that utilizes advanced cell technology to integrate artificial optics within resident ocular tissue. The CorNeat KPro is produced using nanoscale chemical engineering that stimulates cellular growth. Unlike previous devices, which attempted to integrate optics into the native cornea, the CorNeat KPro leverages a virtual space under the conjunctiva that is rich with fibroblast cells that heals quickly and provides robust long-term integration. Combined with a novel and simple 30-minute surgical procedure, the CorNeat KPro provides an esthetic, efficient, scalable remedy for millions of people with cornea-related visual impairments and is far superior to any available biological and synthetic alternatives.

A short animated movie that demonstrates the implantation and integration of the CorNeat KPro device to the human eye is available in the following link: www.corneat.com/product-animation.

“Corneal pathology is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide with 20-30 million patients in need of a remedy and around 2 million new cases/year, said CorNeat Vision CEO and VP R&D, Mr. Almog Aley-Raz. “Though a profound cause of distress and disability, existing solutions, such as corneal transplantation, are carried out only about 200,000 times/year worldwide. Together, corneal transplantation, and to a much lesser extent artificial implants (KPros), address only 5%-10% of cases, “There exists an urgent need for an efficient, long-lasting and affordable solution to corneal pathology, injury and blindness, which would alleviate the suffering and disability of millions of people. We are very excited to reach this important milestone in the development of our solution and are confident that the CorNeat KPro will enable millions to regain their sight”, he added.

“The groundbreaking results obtained in our proof of concept which is backed by conclusive histopathological evidence, are extremely encouraging. We are entering the next phase with great confidence that CorNeat KPro will address corneal blindness just like IOLs (Intra Ocular Lens) addressed cataract”, commented Dr. Gilad Litvin, CorNeat Vision’s Chief Medical Officer and founder and the CorNeat KPro inventor. “Our novel IP, now cleared by the European Patent Office, ensures long-term retention, robust integration into the eye and an operation that is significantly shorter and simpler than Keratoplasty (Corneal transplantation).

“The innovative approach behind CorNeat KPro coupled by the team’s execution ability present a unique opportunity to finally address the global corneal blindness challenge”, added Prof. Ehud Assia., head of the ophthalmic department at the Meir Hospital in Israel, a serial ophthalmic innovator, and a member of CorNeat Vision scientific advisory board. “I welcome our new advisory board members, Prof. David Rootman, a true pioneer in ophthalmic surgery and one of the top corneal specialist surgeons from the University of Toronto, Canada, and Prof. Eric Gabison., who’s a leading cornea surgeon at the Rothschild Ophthalmic Foundation research center at Bichat hospital – Paris, France. We are all looking forward to initiating the clinical trial later in 2018.”

About CorNeat Vision

CorNeat Vision is an ophthalmic medical device company with an overarching mission to promote human health, sustainability and equality worldwide. The objective of CorNeat Vision is to produce, test and market an innovative, safe and long-lasting scalable medical solution for corneal blindness, pathology and injury, a bio-artificial organ: The CorNeat KPro. For more information on CorNeat Vision and the CorNeat KPro device, visit us at www.corneat.com.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any more detail. Presumably the company principals are making sure that no competitive advantages are given away.

Accelerated healing of the tissue in the blood-brain barrier with gelatin

It’s been a few years since my last brain and gelatin story (Dec. 24, 2014 posting: Gelatin nanoparticles for drug delivery after stroke) and this time they’re trying to make brain surgery easier and to reduce any attendant brain damage according to a Nov. 6, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers already know that gelatin-covered electrode implants cause less damage to brain tissue than electrodes with no gelatin coating. Researchers at the Neuronano Research Centre (NRC) at Lund University in Sweden have now shown that microglia, the brain’s cleansing cells, and the enzymes that the cells use in the cleaning process, change in the presence of gelatin.

“Knowledge about the beneficial effects of gelatin could be significant for brain surgery, but also in the development of brain implants,” say the researchers behind the study.

Our brains are surrounded by a blood brain barrier which protects the brain from harmful substances that could enter it via the bloodstream. When the barrier is penetrated, as in the case of biopsy or brain surgery for example, leaks can occur and cause serious inflammation. Researchers at the NRC have previously shown that gelatin accelerates brain tissue healing and reduces damage to nerve cells in the case of electrode implants, but only now are they starting to understand how.

A November 6, 2017 Lund University press release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The researchers used sedated rats to investigate how the brain is repaired after an injury. Gelatin-coated needles were used in one group, and needles without gelatin in the other.

“The use of gelatin-coated needles reduced or eliminated the leakage of molecules (which normally don’t get through) through the blood brain barrier within twenty-four hours. Without gelatin, the leakage continued for up to three days”, says Lucas Kumosa, one of the researchers behind the study, which was recently published in the research journal Acta Biomaterialia.


The images in the left-hand column show the healing of an injury caused by a stainless steel needle. The images in the right-hand column show what the process looked like when the researchers used a gelatin-coated needle. Gelatin accelerated the healing process and reduced the leakage of blood-borne molecules capable of passing through the blood brain barrier into the brain and causing inflammation.


When there is an injury to the brain, microglial cells – the brain’s cleaning cells – gather at the site. They clean up, but can also damage the nerve cell tissue through enzymes they release. In their study, the researchers observed a change in which cleaning cells moved towards the injury site.

“When we used gelatin, we saw only a small number of the inflammatory microglial cells. Instead, we observed cells of a different kind, that are anti-inflammatory, which we believe could be significant in accelerating healing”, explains Lucas Kumosa.

The hypothesis is that the potentially damaging enzymes are occupied with the gelatin instead.

“Gelatin is a protein and its decomposition releases amino-acids that we believe could promote the reconstruction of blood vessels and tissue”, explains Jens Schouenborg, professor of neurophysiology at Lund University.


Research is currently underway on how electrodes implanted in the brain could be used in the treatment of various diseases, such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s. A major challenge has been to find ways of reducing damage to the area when using such implants.

“Although the research field of brain electrodes is promising, it has been a challenge to find solutions that don’t damage the brain tissue. Knowledge of how injuries heal faster with gelatin could therefore be significant for the development of surgical treatment as well,” says Jens Schouenborg.

The research is funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, Lund University and the Sven-Olof Jansons livsverk Foundation.

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

Gelatin promotes rapid restoration of the blood brain barrier after acute brain injury by Lucas S. Kumosa, Valdemar Zetterberg, Jens Schouenborg. Acta Biomaterialia https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2017.10.020 Available online 14 October 2017

This paper is open access.

Alberta adds a newish quantum nanotechnology research hub to the Canada’s quantum computing research scene

One of the winners in Canada’s 2017 federal budget announcement of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy was Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a fact which sometimes goes unnoticed while Canadians marvel at the wonderfulness found in Toronto and Montréal where it seems new initiatives and monies are being announced on a weekly basis (I exaggerate) for their AI (artificial intelligence) efforts.

Alberta’s quantum nanotechnology hub (graduate programme)

Intriguingly, it seems that Edmonton has higher aims than (an almost unnoticed) leadership in AI. Physicists at the University of Alberta have announced hopes to be just as successful as their AI brethren in a Nov. 27, 2017 article by Juris Graney for the Edmonton Journal,

Physicists at the University of Alberta [U of A] are hoping to emulate the success of their artificial intelligence studying counterparts in establishing the city and the province as the nucleus of quantum nanotechnology research in Canada and North America.

Google’s artificial intelligence research division DeepMind announced in July [2017] it had chosen Edmonton as its first international AI research lab, based on a long-running partnership with the U of A’s 10-person AI lab.

Retaining the brightest minds in the AI and machine-learning fields while enticing a global tech leader to Alberta was heralded as a coup for the province and the university.

It is something U of A physics professor John Davis believes the university’s new graduate program, Quanta, can help achieve in the world of quantum nanotechnology.

The field of quantum mechanics had long been a realm of theoretical science based on the theory that atomic and subatomic material like photons or electrons behave both as particles and waves.

“When you get right down to it, everything has both behaviours (particle and wave) and we can pick and choose certain scenarios which one of those properties we want to use,” he said.

But, Davis said, physicists and scientists are “now at the point where we understand quantum physics and are developing quantum technology to take to the marketplace.”

“Quantum computing used to be realm of science fiction, but now we’ve figured it out, it’s now a matter of engineering,” he said.

Quantum computing labs are being bought by large tech companies such as Google, IBM and Microsoft because they realize they are only a few years away from having this power, he said.

Those making the groundbreaking developments may want to commercialize their finds and take the technology to market and that is where Quanta comes in.

East vs. West—Again?

Ivan Semeniuk in his article, Quantum Supremacy, ignores any quantum research effort not located in either Waterloo, Ontario or metro Vancouver, British Columbia to describe a struggle between the East and the West (a standard Canadian trope). From Semeniuk’s Oct. 17, 2017 quantum article [link follows the excerpts] for the Globe and Mail’s October 2017 issue of the Report on Business (ROB),

 Lazaridis [Mike], of course, has experienced lost advantage first-hand. As co-founder and former co-CEO of Research in Motion (RIM, now called Blackberry), he made the smartphone an indispensable feature of the modern world, only to watch rivals such as Apple and Samsung wrest away Blackberry’s dominance. Now, at 56, he is engaged in a high-stakes race that will determine who will lead the next technology revolution. In the rolling heartland of southwestern Ontario, he is laying the foundation for what he envisions as a new Silicon Valley—a commercial hub based on the promise of quantum technology.

Semeniuk skips over the story of how Blackberry lost its advantage. I came onto that story late in the game when Blackberry was already in serious trouble due to a failure to recognize that the field they helped to create was moving in a new direction. If memory serves, they were trying to keep their technology wholly proprietary which meant that developers couldn’t easily create apps to extend the phone’s features. Blackberry also fought a legal battle in the US with a patent troll draining company resources and energy in proved to be a futile effort.

Since then Lazaridis has invested heavily in quantum research. He gave the University of Waterloo a serious chunk of money as they named their Quantum Nano Centre (QNC) after him and his wife, Ophelia (you can read all about it in my Sept. 25, 2012 posting about the then new centre). The best details for Lazaridis’ investments in Canada’s quantum technology are to be found on the Quantum Valley Investments, About QVI, History webpage,

History-bannerHistory has repeatedly demonstrated the power of research in physics to transform society.  As a student of history and a believer in the power of physics, Mike Lazaridis set out in 2000 to make real his bold vision to establish the Region of Waterloo as a world leading centre for physics research.  That is, a place where the best researchers in the world would come to do cutting-edge research and to collaborate with each other and in so doing, achieve transformative discoveries that would lead to the commercialization of breakthrough  technologies.

Establishing a World Class Centre in Quantum Research:

The first step in this regard was the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.  Perimeter was established in 2000 as an independent theoretical physics research institute.  Mike started Perimeter with an initial pledge of $100 million (which at the time was approximately one third of his net worth).  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $170 million to the Perimeter Institute.  In addition to this unprecedented monetary support, Mike also devotes his time and influence to help lead and support the organization in everything from the raising of funds with government and private donors to helping to attract the top researchers from around the globe to it.  Mike’s efforts helped Perimeter achieve and grow its position as one of a handful of leading centres globally for theoretical research in fundamental physics.

Stephen HawkingPerimeter is located in a Governor-General award winning designed building in Waterloo.  Success in recruiting and resulting space requirements led to an expansion of the Perimeter facility.  A uniquely designed addition, which has been described as space-ship-like, was opened in 2011 as the Stephen Hawking Centre in recognition of one of the most famous physicists alive today who holds the position of Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at Perimeter and is a strong friend and supporter of the organization.

Recognizing the need for collaboration between theorists and experimentalists, in 2002, Mike applied his passion and his financial resources toward the establishment of The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.  IQC was established as an experimental research institute focusing on quantum information.  Mike established IQC with an initial donation of $33.3 million.  Since that time, Mike and his family have donated a total of more than $120 million to the University of Waterloo for IQC and other related science initiatives.  As in the case of the Perimeter Institute, Mike devotes considerable time and influence to help lead and support IQC in fundraising and recruiting efforts.  Mike’s efforts have helped IQC become one of the top experimental physics research institutes in the world.

Quantum ComputingMike and Doug Fregin have been close friends since grade 5.  They are also co-founders of BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion Limited).  Doug shares Mike’s passion for physics and supported Mike’s efforts at the Perimeter Institute with an initial gift of $10 million.  Since that time Doug has donated a total of $30 million to Perimeter Institute.  Separately, Doug helped establish the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo with total gifts for $29 million.  As suggested by its name, WIN is devoted to research in the area of nanotechnology.  It has established as an area of primary focus the intersection of nanotechnology and quantum physics.

With a donation of $50 million from Mike which was matched by both the Government of Canada and the province of Ontario as well as a donation of $10 million from Doug, the University of Waterloo built the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, a state of the art laboratory located on the main campus of the University of Waterloo that rivals the best facilities in the world.  QNC was opened in September 2012 and houses researchers from both IQC and WIN.

Leading the Establishment of Commercialization Culture for Quantum Technologies in Canada:

In the Research LabFor many years, theorists have been able to demonstrate the transformative powers of quantum mechanics on paper.  That said, converting these theories to experimentally demonstrable discoveries has, putting it mildly, been a challenge.  Many naysayers have suggested that achieving these discoveries was not possible and even the believers suggested that it could likely take decades to achieve these discoveries.  Recently, a buzz has been developing globally as experimentalists have been able to achieve demonstrable success with respect to Quantum Information based discoveries.  Local experimentalists are very much playing a leading role in this regard.  It is believed by many that breakthrough discoveries that will lead to commercialization opportunities may be achieved in the next few years and certainly within the next decade.

Recognizing the unique challenges for the commercialization of quantum technologies (including risk associated with uncertainty of success, complexity of the underlying science and high capital / equipment costs) Mike and Doug have chosen to once again lead by example.  The Quantum Valley Investment Fund will provide commercialization funding, expertise and support for researchers that develop breakthroughs in Quantum Information Science that can reasonably lead to new commercializable technologies and applications.  Their goal in establishing this Fund is to lead in the development of a commercialization infrastructure and culture for Quantum discoveries in Canada and thereby enable such discoveries to remain here.

Semeniuk goes on to set the stage for Waterloo/Lazaridis vs. Vancouver (from Semeniuk’s 2017 ROB article),

… as happened with Blackberry, the world is once again catching up. While Canada’s funding of quantum technology ranks among the top five in the world, the European Union, China, and the US are all accelerating their investments in the field. Tech giants such as Google [also known as Alphabet], Microsoft and IBM are ramping up programs to develop companies and other technologies based on quantum principles. Meanwhile, even as Lazaridis works to establish Waterloo as the country’s quantum hub, a Vancouver-area company has emerged to challenge that claim. The two camps—one methodically focused on the long game, the other keen to stake an early commercial lead—have sparked an East-West rivalry that many observers of the Canadian quantum scene are at a loss to explain.

Is it possible that some of the rivalry might be due to an influential individual who has invested heavily in a ‘quantum valley’ and has a history of trying to ‘own’ a technology?

Getting back to D-Wave Systems, the Vancouver company, I have written about them a number of times (particularly in 2015; for the full list: input D-Wave into the blog search engine). This June 26, 2015 posting includes a reference to an article in The Economist magazine about D-Wave’s commercial opportunities while the bulk of the posting is focused on a technical breakthrough.

Semeniuk offers an overview of the D-Wave Systems story,

D-Wave was born in 1999, the same year Lazaridis began to fund quantum science in Waterloo. From the start, D-Wave had a more immediate goal: to develop a new computer technology to bring to market. “We didn’t have money or facilities,” says Geordie Rose, a physics PhD who co0founded the company and served in various executive roles. …

The group soon concluded that the kind of machine most scientists were pursing based on so-called gate-model architecture was decades away from being realized—if ever. …

Instead, D-Wave pursued another idea, based on a principle dubbed “quantum annealing.” This approach seemed more likely to produce a working system, even if the application that would run on it were more limited. “The only thing we cared about was building the machine,” says Rose. “Nobody else was trying to solve the same problem.”

D-Wave debuted its first prototype at an event in California in February 2007 running it through a few basic problems such as solving a Sudoku puzzle and finding the optimal seating plan for a wedding reception. … “They just assumed we were hucksters,” says Hilton [Jeremy Hilton, D.Wave senior vice-president of systems]. Federico Spedalieri, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s [USC} Information Sciences Institute who has worked with D-Wave’s system, says the limited information the company provided about the machine’s operation provoked outright hostility. “I think that played against them a lot in the following years,” he says.

It seems Lazaridis is not the only one who likes to hold company information tightly.

Back to Semeniuk and D-Wave,

Today [October 2017], the Los Alamos National Laboratory owns a D-Wave machine, which costs about $15million. Others pay to access D-Wave systems remotely. This year , for example, Volkswagen fed data from thousands of Beijing taxis into a machine located in Burnaby [one of the municipalities that make up metro Vancouver] to study ways to optimize traffic flow.

But the application for which D-Wave has the hights hope is artificial intelligence. Any AI program hings on the on the “training” through which a computer acquires automated competence, and the 2000Q [a D-Wave computer] appears well suited to this task. …

Yet, for all the buzz D-Wave has generated, with several research teams outside Canada investigating its quantum annealing approach, the company has elicited little interest from the Waterloo hub. As a result, what might seem like a natural development—the Institute for Quantum Computing acquiring access to a D-Wave machine to explore and potentially improve its value—has not occurred. …

I am particularly interested in this comment as it concerns public funding (from Semeniuk’s article),

Vern Brownell, a former Goldman Sachs executive who became CEO of D-Wave in 2009, calls the lack of collaboration with Waterloo’s research community “ridiculous,” adding that his company’s efforts to establish closer ties have proven futile, “I’ll be blunt: I don’t think our relationship is good enough,” he says. Brownell also point out that, while  hundreds of millions in public funds have flowed into Waterloo’s ecosystem, little funding is available for  Canadian scientists wishing to make the most of D-Wave’s hardware—despite the fact that it remains unclear which core quantum technology will prove the most profitable.

There’s a lot more to Semeniuk’s article but this is the last excerpt,

The world isn’t waiting for Canada’s quantum rivals to forge a united front. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel are racing to develop a gate-model quantum computer—the sector’s ultimate goal. (Google’s researchers have said they will unveil a significant development early next year.) With the U.K., Australia and Japan pouring money into quantum, Canada, an early leader, is under pressure to keep up. The federal government is currently developing  a strategy for supporting the country’s evolving quantum sector and, ultimately, getting a return on its approximately $1-billion investment over the past decade [emphasis mine].

I wonder where the “approximately $1-billion … ” figure came from. I ask because some years ago MP Peter Julian asked the government for information about how much Canadian federal money had been invested in nanotechnology. The government replied with sheets of paper (a pile approximately 2 inches high) that had funding disbursements from various ministries. Each ministry had its own method with different categories for listing disbursements and the titles for the research projects were not necessarily informative for anyone outside a narrow specialty. (Peter Julian’s assistant had kindly sent me a copy of the response they had received.) The bottom line is that it would have been close to impossible to determine the amount of federal funding devoted to nanotechnology using that data. So, where did the $1-billion figure come from?

In any event, it will be interesting to see how the Council of Canadian Academies assesses the ‘quantum’ situation in its more academically inclined, “The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada,” when it’s released later this year (2018).

Finally, you can find Semeniuk’s October 2017 article here but be aware it’s behind a paywall.

Whither we goest?

Despite any doubts one might have about Lazaridis’ approach to research and technology, his tremendous investment and support cannot be denied. Without him, Canada’s quantum research efforts would be substantially less significant. As for the ‘cowboys’ in Vancouver, it takes a certain temperament to found a start-up company and it seems the D-Wave folks have more in common with Lazaridis than they might like to admit. As for the Quanta graduate  programme, it’s early days yet and no one should ever count out Alberta.

Meanwhile, one can continue to hope that a more thoughtful approach to regional collaboration will be adopted so Canada can continue to blaze trails in the field of quantum research.

CRISPR-CAS9 and gold

As so often happens in the sciences, now that the initial euphoria has expended itself problems (and solutions) with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))-CAAS9 are being disclosed to those of us who are not experts. From an Oct. 3, 2017 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org,

A team of researchers from the University of California and the University of Tokyo has found a way to use the CRISPR gene editing technique that does not rely on a virus for delivery. In their paper published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the group describes the new technique, how well it works and improvements that need to be made to make it a viable gene editing tool.

CRISPR-Cas9 has been in the news a lot lately because it allows researchers to directly edit genes—either disabling unwanted parts or replacing them altogether. But despite many success stories, the technique still suffers from a major deficit that prevents it from being used as a true medical tool—it sometimes makes mistakes. Those mistakes can cause small or big problems for a host depending on what goes wrong. Prior research has suggested that the majority of mistakes are due to delivery problems, which means that a replacement for the virus part of the technique is required. In this new effort, the researchers report that they have discovered just a such a replacement, and it worked so well that it was able to repair a gene mutation in a Duchenne muscular dystrophy mouse model. The team has named the new technique CRISPR-Gold, because a gold nanoparticle was used to deliver the gene editing molecules instead of a virus.

An Oct. 2, 2017 article by Abby Olena for The Scientist lays out the CRISPR-CAS9 problems the scientists are trying to solve (Note: Links have been removed),

While promising, applications of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing have so far been limited by the challenges of delivery—namely, how to get all the CRISPR parts to every cell that needs them. In a study published today (October 2) in Nature Biomedical Engineering, researchers have successfully repaired a mutation in the gene for dystrophin in a mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy by injecting a vehicle they call CRISPR-Gold, which contains the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and donor DNA, all wrapped around a tiny gold ball.

The authors have made “great progress in the gene editing area,” says Tufts University biomedical engineer Qiaobing Xu, who did not participate in the work but penned an accompanying commentary. Because their approach is nonviral, Xu explains, it will minimize the potential off-target effects that result from constant Cas9 activity, which occurs when users deliver the Cas9 template with a viral vector.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a degenerative disease of the muscles caused by a lack of the protein dystrophin. In about a third of patients, the gene for dystrophin has small deletions or single base mutations that render it nonfunctional, which makes this gene an excellent candidate for gene editing. Researchers have previously used viral delivery of CRISPR-Cas9 components to delete the mutated exon and achieve clinical improvements in mouse models of the disease.

“In this paper, we were actually able to correct [the gene for] dystrophin back to the wild-type sequence” via homology-directed repair (HDR), coauthor Niren Murthy, a drug delivery researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells The Scientist. “The other way of treating this is to do something called exon skipping, which is where you delete some of the exons and you can get dystrophin to be produced, but it’s not [as functional as] the wild-type protein.”

The research team created CRISPR-Gold by covering a central gold nanoparticle with DNA that they modified so it would stick to the particle. This gold-conjugated DNA bound the donor DNA needed for HDR, which the Cas9 protein and guide RNA bound to in turn. They coated the entire complex with a polymer that seems to trigger endocytosis and then facilitate escape of the Cas9 protein, guide RNA, and template DNA from endosomes within cells.

In order to do HDR, “you have to provide the cell [with] the Cas9 enzyme, guide RNA by which you target Cas9 to a particular part of the genome, and a big chunk of DNA, which will be used as a template to edit the mutant sequence to wild-type,” explains coauthor Irina Conboy, who studies tissue repair at the University of California, Berkeley. “They all have to be present at the same time and at the same place, so in our system you have a nanoparticle which simultaneously delivers all of those three key components in their active state.”

Olena’s article carries on to describe how the team created CRISPR-Gold and more.

Additional technical details are available in an Oct. 3, 2017 University of California at Berkeley news release by Brett Israel (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item (Note: A link has been removed) ,

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have engineered a new way to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology inside cells and have demonstrated in mice that the technology can repair the mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a severe muscle-wasting disease. A new study shows that a single injection of CRISPR-Gold, as the new delivery system is called, into mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy led to an 18-times-higher correction rate and a two-fold increase in a strength and agility test compared to control groups.

Diagram of CRISPR-Gold

CRISPR–Gold is composed of 15 nanometer gold nanoparticles that are conjugated to thiol-modified oligonucleotides (DNA-Thiol), which are hybridized with single-stranded donor DNA and subsequently complexed with Cas9 and encapsulated by a polymer that disrupts the endosome of the cell.

Since 2012, when study co-author Jennifer Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry at UC Berkeley, and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, repurposed the Cas9 protein to create a cheap, precise and easy-to-use gene editor, researchers have hoped that therapies based on CRISPR-Cas9 would one day revolutionize the treatment of genetic diseases. Yet developing treatments for genetic diseases remains a big challenge in medicine. This is because most genetic diseases can be cured only if the disease-causing gene mutation is corrected back to the normal sequence, and this is impossible to do with conventional therapeutics.

CRISPR/Cas9, however, can correct gene mutations by cutting the mutated DNA and triggering homology-directed DNA repair. However, strategies for safely delivering the necessary components (Cas9, guide RNA that directs Cas9 to a specific gene, and donor DNA) into cells need to be developed before the potential of CRISPR-Cas9-based therapeutics can be realized. A common technique to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 into cells employs viruses, but that technique has a number of complications. CRISPR-Gold does not need viruses.

In the new study, research lead by the laboratories of Berkeley bioengineering professors Niren Murthy and Irina Conboy demonstrated that their novel approach, called CRISPR-Gold because gold nanoparticles are a key component, can deliver Cas9 – the protein that binds and cuts DNA – along with guide RNA and donor DNA into the cells of a living organism to fix a gene mutation.

“CRISPR-Gold is the first example of a delivery vehicle that can deliver all of the CRISPR components needed to correct gene mutations, without the use of viruses,” Murthy said.

The study was published October 2 [2017] in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

CRISPR-Gold repairs DNA mutations through a process called homology-directed repair. Scientists have struggled to develop homology-directed repair-based therapeutics because they require activity at the same place and time as Cas9 protein, an RNA guide that recognizes the mutation and donor DNA to correct the mutation.

To overcome these challenges, the Berkeley scientists invented a delivery vessel that binds all of these components together, and then releases them when the vessel is inside a wide variety of cell types, triggering homology directed repair. CRISPR-Gold’s gold nanoparticles coat the donor DNA and also bind Cas9. When injected into mice, their cells recognize a marker in CRISPR-Gold and then import the delivery vessel. Then, through a series of cellular mechanisms, CRISPR-Gold is released into the cells’ cytoplasm and breaks apart, rapidly releasing Cas9 and donor DNA.

Schematic of CRISPR-Gold's method of action

CRISPR-Gold’s method of action (Click to enlarge).

A single injection of CRISPR-Gold into muscle tissue of mice that model Duchenne muscular dystrophy restored 5.4 percent of the dystrophin gene, which causes the disease, to the wild- type, or normal, sequence. This correction rate was approximately 18 times higher than in mice treated with Cas9 and donor DNA by themselves, which experienced only a 0.3 percent correction rate.

Importantly, the study authors note, CRISPR-Gold faithfully restored the normal sequence of dystrophin, which is a significant improvement over previously published approaches that only removed the faulty part of the gene, making it shorter and converting one disease into another, milder disease.

CRISPR-Gold was also able to reduce tissue fibrosis – the hallmark of diseases where muscles do not function properly – and enhanced strength and agility in mice with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. CRISPR-Gold-treated mice showed a two-fold increase in hanging time in a common test for mouse strength and agility, compared to mice injected with a control.

“These experiments suggest that it will be possible to develop non-viral CRISPR therapeutics that can safely correct gene mutations, via the process of homology-directed repair, by simply developing nanoparticles that can simultaneously encapsulate all of the CRISPR components,” Murthy said.


CRISPR in action: A model of the Cas9 protein cutting a double-stranded piece of DNA

The study found that CRISPR-Gold’s approach to Cas9 protein delivery is safer than viral delivery of CRISPR, which, in addition to toxicity, amplifies the side effects of Cas9 through continuous expression of this DNA-cutting enzyme. When the research team tested CRISPR-Gold’s gene-editing capability in mice, they found that CRISPR-Gold efficiently corrected the DNA mutation that causes Duchenne muscular dystrophy, with minimal collateral DNA damage.

The researchers quantified CRISPR-Gold’s off-target DNA damage and found damage levels similar to the that of a typical DNA sequencing error in a typical cell that was not exposed to CRISPR (0.005 – 0.2 percent). To test for possible immunogenicity, the blood stream cytokine profiles of mice were analyzed at 24 hours and two weeks after the CRISPR-Gold injection. CRISPR-Gold did not cause an acute up-regulation of inflammatory cytokines in plasma, after multiple injections, or weight loss, suggesting that CRISPR-Gold can be used multiple times safely, and that it has a high therapeutic window for gene editing in muscle tissue.

“CRISPR-Gold and, more broadly, CRISPR-nanoparticles open a new way for safer, accurately controlled delivery of gene-editing tools,” Conboy said. “Ultimately, these techniques could be developed into a new medicine for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and a number of other genetic diseases.”

A clinical trial will be needed to discern whether CRISPR-Gold is an effective treatment for genetic diseases in humans. Study co-authors Kunwoo Lee and Hyo Min Park have formed a start-up company, GenEdit (Murthy has an ownership stake in GenEdit), which is focused on translating the CRISPR-Gold technology into humans. The labs of Murthy and Conboy are also working on the next generation of particles that can deliver CRISPR into tissues from the blood stream and would preferentially target adult stem cells, which are considered the best targets for gene correction because stem and progenitor cells are capable of gene editing, self-renewal and differentiation.

“Genetic diseases cause devastating levels of mortality and morbidity, and new strategies for treating them are greatly needed,” Murthy said. “CRISPR-Gold was able to correct disease-causing gene mutations in vivo, via the non-viral delivery of Cas9 protein, guide RNA and donor DNA, and therefore has the potential to develop into a therapeutic for treating genetic diseases.”

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Moore Foundation, the Li Ka Shing Foundation, Calico, Packer, Roger’s and SENS, and the Center of Innovation (COI) Program of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

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

Nanoparticle delivery of Cas9 ribonucleoprotein and donor DNA in vivo induces homology-directed DNA repair by Kunwoo Lee, Michael Conboy, Hyo Min Park, Fuguo Jiang, Hyun Jin Kim, Mark A. Dewitt, Vanessa A. Mackley, Kevin Chang, Anirudh Rao, Colin Skinner, Tamanna Shobha, Melod Mehdipour, Hui Liu, Wen-chin Huang, Freeman Lan, Nicolas L. Bray, Song Li, Jacob E. Corn, Kazunori Kataoka, Jennifer A. Doudna, Irina Conboy, & Niren Murthy. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2017) doi:10.1038/s41551-017-0137-2 Published online: 02 October 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Cleaning up disasters with Hokusai’s blue and cellulose nanofibers to clean up contaminated soil and water in Fukushima

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Under a wave off Kanagawa”), also known as The Great Wave or simply The Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2798407

I thought it might be a good idea to embed a copy of Hokusai’s Great Wave and the blue these scientists in Japan have used as their inspiration. (By the way, it seems these scientists collaborated with Mildred Dresselhaus who died at the age of 86, a few months after their paper was published. In honour of he and before the latest, here’s my Feb. 23, 2017 posting about the ‘Queen of Carbon’.)

Now onto more current news, from an Oct. 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

By combining the same Prussian blue pigment used in the works of popular Edo-period artist Hokusai and cellulose nanofiber, a raw material of paper, a University of Tokyo research team succeeded in synthesizing compound nanoparticles, comprising organic and inorganic substances (Scientific Reports, “Cellulose nanofiber backboned Prussian blue nanoparticles as powerful adsorbents for the selective elimination of radioactive cesium”). This new class of organic/inorganic composite nanoparticles is able to selectively adsorb, or collect on the surface, radioactive cesium.

The team subsequently developed sponges from these nanoparticles that proved highly effective in decontaminating the water and soil in Fukushima Prefecture exposed to radioactivity following the nuclear accident there in March 2011.

I think these are the actual sponges not an artist’s impression,

Decontamination sponge spawned from current study
Cellulose nanofiber-Prussian blue compounds are permanently anchored in spongiform chambers (cells) in this decontamination sponge. It can thus be used as a powerful adsorbent for selectively eliminating radioactive cesium. © 2017 Sakata & Mori Laboratory.

An Oct. 13, 2017 University of Tokyo press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the sponges and the difficulties of remediating radioactive air and soil,

Removing radioactive materials such as cesium-134 and -137 from contaminated seawater or soil is not an easy job. First of all, a huge amount of similar substances with competing functions has to be removed from the area, an extremely difficult task. Prussian blue (ferric hexacyanoferrate) has a jungle gym-like colloidal structure, and the size of its single cubic orifice, or opening, is a near-perfect match to the size of cesium ions; therefore, it is prescribed as medication for patients exposed to radiation for selectively adsorbing cesium. However, as Prussian blue is highly attracted to water, recovering it becomes highly difficult once it is dissolved into the environment; for this reason, its use in the field for decontamination has been limited.

Taking a hint from the Prussian blue in Hokusai’s woodblock prints not losing their color even when getting wet from rain, the team led by Professor Ichiro Sakata and Project Professor Bunshi Fugetsu at the University of Tokyo’s Nanotechnology Innovation Research Unit at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute, and Project Researcher Adavan Kiliyankil Vipin at the Graduate School of Engineering developed an insoluble nanoparticle obtained from combining cellulose and Prussian blue—Hokusai had in fact formed a chemical bond in his handling of Prussian blue and paper (cellulose).

The scientists created this cellulose-Prussian blue combined nanoparticle by first preparing cellulose nanofibers using a process called TEMPO oxidization and securing ferric ions (III) onto them, then introduced a certain amount of hexacyanoferrate, which adhered to Prussian blue nanoparticles with a diameter ranging from 5–10 nanometers. The nanoparticles obtained in this way were highly resistant to water, and moreover, were capable of adsorbing 139 mg of radioactive cesium ion per gram.

Field studies on soil decontamination in Fukushima have been underway since last year. A highly effective approach has been to sow and allow plant seeds to germinate inside the sponge made from the nanoparticles, then getting the plants’ roots to take up cesium ions from the soil to the sponge. Water can significantly shorten decontamination times compared to soil, which usually requires extracting cesium from it with a solvent.

It has been more than six years since the radioactive fallout from a series of accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the giant earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. Decontamination with the cellulose nanofiber-Prussian blue compound can lead to new solutions for contamination in disaster-stricken areas.

“I was pondering about how Prussian blue immediately gets dissolved in water when I happened upon a Hokusai woodblock print, and how the indigo color remained firmly set in the paper, without bleeding, even after all these years,” reflects Fugetsu. He continues, “That revelation provided a clue for a solution.”

“The amount of research on cesium decontamination increased after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, but a lot of the studies were limited to being academic and insufficient for practical application in Fukushima,” says Vipin. He adds, “Our research offers practical applications and has high potential for decontamination on an industrial scale not only in Fukushima but also in other cesium-contaminated areas.”

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

Cellulose nanofiber backboned Prussian blue nanoparticles as powerful adsorbents for the selective elimination of radioactive cesium by Adavan Kiliyankil Vipin, Bunshi Fugetsu, Ichiro Sakata, Akira Isogai, Morinobu Endo, Mingda Li, & Mildred S. Dresselhaus. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 37009 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep37009 Published online: 15 November 2016

This is open access.

CRISPR/Cas9 as a tool for artists (Art/sci Salon January 2018 events in Toronto, Canada) and an event in Winnipeg, Canada

The Art/Sci Salon in Toronto, Canada is offering a workshop and a panel discussion (I think) on the topic of CRISPR( (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas9.

CRISPR Cas9 Workshop with Marta De Menezes

From its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

This is a two day intensive workshop on

Jan. 24 5:00-9:00 pm
Jan. 25 5:00-9:00 pm

This workshop will address issues pertaining to the uses, ethics, and representations of CRISPR-cas9 genome editing system; and the evolution of bioart as a cultural phenomenon . The workshop will focus on:

1. Scientific strategies and ethical issues related to the modification of organisms through the most advanced technology;

2. Techniques and biological materials to develop and express complex concepts into art objects.

This workshop will introduce knowledge, methods and living material from the life sciences to the participants. The class will apply that novel information to the creation of art. Finally, the key concepts, processes and knowledge from the arts will be discussed and related to scientific research. The studio-­‐lab portion of the course will focus on the mastering and understanding of the CRISPR – Cas9 technology and its revolutionary applications. The unparalleled potential of CRISPR ‐ Cas9 for genome editing will be directly assessed as the participants will use the method to make artworks and generate meaning through such a technique. The participants will be expected to complete one small project by the end of the course. In developing and completing these projects, participants will be asked to present their ideas/work to the instructors and fellow participants. As part of the course, participants are expected to document their work/methodology/process by keeping a record of processes, outcomes, and explorations.

This is a free event. Go here to register.

Do CRISPR monsters dream of synthetic futures?

This second event in Toronto seems to be a panel discussion; here’s more from its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

The term CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) refers to a range of novel gene editing systems which can be programmed to edit DNA at precise locations. It allows the permanent modification of the genes in cells of living organisms. CRISPR enables novel basic research and promises a wide range of possible applications from biomedicine and agriculture to environmental challenges.

The surprising simplicity of CRISPR and its potentials have led to a wide range of reactions. While some welcome it as a gene editing revolution able to cure diseases that are currently fatal, others urge for a worldwide moratorium, especially when it comes to human germline modifications. The possibility that CRISPR may allow us to intervene in the evolution of organisms has generated particularly divisive thoughts: is gene editing going to cure us all? Or is it opening up a new era of designer babies and new types of privileges measured at the level of genes? Could the relative easiness of the technique allow individuals to modify bodies, identities, sexuality, to create new species and races? will it create new monsters? [emphasis mine] These are all topics that need to be discussed. With this panel/discussion, we wish to address technical, ethical, and creative issues arising from the futuristic scenarios promised by CRISPR.

Our Guests:

Marta De Menezes, Director, Cultivamos Cultura

Dalila Honorato, Assistant Professor, Ionian University

Mark Lipton, Professor, University of Guelph

Date: January 26, 2018

Time: 6:00-8:00 pm

Location: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street, Toronto, ON

Events Facilitators: Roberta Buiani and Stephen Morris (ArtSci Salon) and Nina Czegledy (Leonardo Network)


Marta de Menezes is a Portuguese artist (b. Lisbon, 1975) with a degree in Fine Arts by the University in Lisbon, a MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture by the University of Oxford, and a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden. She has been exploring the intersection between Art and Biology, working in research laboratories demonstrating that new biological technologies can be used as new art medium. Her work has been presented internationally in exhibitions, articles and lectures. She is currently the artistic director of Ectopia, an experimental art laboratory in Lisbon, and Director of Cultivamos Cultura in the South of Portugal. http://martademenezes.com

Dalila Honorato, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in Media Aesthetics and Semiotics at the Ionian University in Greece where she is one of the founding members of the Interactive Arts Lab. She is the head of the organizing committee of the conference “Taboo-Transgression-Transcendence in Art & Science” and developer of the studies program concept of the Summer School in Hybrid Arts. She is a guest faculty at the PhD studies program of the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis in Alma Mater Europaea, Slovenia, and a guest member of the Science Art Philosophy Lab integrated in the Center of Philosophy of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Her research focus is on embodiment in the intersection of performing arts and new media.

Mark Lipton works in the College of Arts; in the School of English and Theatre Studies, and Guelph’s Program in Media Studies. Currently, his work focuses on queering media ecological perspectives of technology’s role in education, with emerging questions about haptics and the body in performance contexts, and political outcomes of neo-liberal economics within Higher Education.

ArtSci Salon thanks the Fields Institute and the Bonham Center for Sexual Diversity Studies (U of T), and the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology for their support. We are grateful to the members of DIYBio Toronto and Hacklab for hosting Marta’s workshop.

This series of event is promoted and facilitated as part of FACTT Toronto

LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST (International Society for the Arts Sciences and Technology)

Go here to click on the Register button.

For anyone who didn’t recognize (or, like me, barely remembers what it means) the title’s reference is to a famous science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. Here’s more from the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (retitled Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in some later printings) is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth’s life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Most animal species are endangered or extinct from extreme radiation poisoning, so that owning an animal is now a sign of status and empathy, an attitude encouraged towards animals. The book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner, and many elements and themes from it were used in its 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049.

The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with “retiring” (i.e. killing) six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are said to possess no sense of empathy.

I wonder why they didn’t try to reference Orphan Black (its Wikipedia entry)? That television series was all about biotechnology. If not Orphan Black, what about a Frankenstein reference? It’s the 200th anniversary this year (2018) of the publication of the book which is the forerunner to all the cautionary tales that have come after.

Art/sci projects (+ related events) in Vancouver

There are a couple of art/science (or sciart projects) available for viewing in Vancouver, Canada which I’m listing in what is roughly in date order with a few out-of-order additions at the end including a January 18, 2018 movie screening.

Art/sci exhibitions

From the Curiosity Collider calendar of art + sci events around town,

Work in Progress: The Making of A Science Illustrator

When: 24 Nov 2017 – 24 Jan 2018 [emphasis mine]

Where: Creative Coworkers, 343 Railway St, Vancouver, BC V6A 1A4, Canada (map)

Description:  Science illustrator Jen Burgess graduated from California State University Monterey Bay’s renowned science illustration program in 2015, and since then the varied body of work she created has been idle in flat files. When the opportunity arose to share this work in person and find it some new homes, she could not resist.

The work is primarily natural history subject matter, in a variety of media including graphite, pen and ink, coloured pencil, watercolour, gouache, acrylic, and digital. To reflect the location of the show, the theme of the show is “Work in Progress,” so adjacent to many of the pieces Jen will display some sketches, work in progress scans, photos, and/or write ups, so you can get a glimpse into the process of creating each piece. In addition, there will be work from Jen’s June 2016 self-imposed residency in Haida Gwaii, from the show entitled “On a Tangent Tear” which was on display at Emily Carr House in Victoria in September 2016. Most original works and some prints will be available for sale. Please join Jen Burgess and the team at Creative Coworkers on Friday November 24th to have a drink after work or after dinner and see some artwork before heading out to your late evening plans. There will be a cash bar and some light snacks provided. Admission is free but donations will be gratefully accepted if you would like to help Jen cover the costs of framing. Please RSVP! The show will be up from November 24 through January 24, so if you cannot make it, please stop by and see the work on your own time. There may be plans afoot for a closing reception as well, perhaps with a silent auction. Stay tuned!

The Curiosity Collider calendar also listed this event (from the Beaty Biodiversity Museum Exhibition page),

Life In Colour

Drawings by Angela Gooliaff, colouring by you
September 16, 2017 – February 18, 2018

Colour your way through nature on a giant mural that showcases ecosystems from BC and around the world.

Presented by Hemlock Printers, artist Angela Gooliaff explores keystone species in both the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, employing feminine symbology of peace and wisdom, and story through a giant interactive colouring book mural. “I have connected my investigation of keystone species with the adult colouring book movement as an interruption to the current story of the natural world,” says Gooliaff.

By presenting a web of life for visitors to interact with, it will be visually apparent just how biodiverse our ecosystems are and how drastic an impact the removal of one species from the environment could be. Gooliaff concludes that by “giving the audience control to own their story through colour, perhaps will get them thinking about their own story and placement within the natural world.”

Science get together

Vancouver’s H. R. MacMillan Space Centre is hosting a January 25, 2018 event in their Cosmic Night series in January 2018, from the Cosmic Nights: Beyond Our Universe event page,

Is there anything beyond the universe? What came before the Big Bang? These are questions that don’t have answers, but we have theories! This installment of Cosmic Nights we delve into theories of the Multiverse!

Cosmic Nights is a themed party featuring a custom planetarium show, music, drinks, science demonstrations, games, and a special guest lecturer – all surrounding an exciting theme. Experience the Space Centre after hours in a 19+ environment!

Cosmic Nights returns on Thursday, January 25 [2018] with Cosmic Nights: Beyond our Universe. Jump into multiple universes, the Big Bang and other ideas that are bending our cosmic minds. Select your preferred Planetarium Star Theatre show time and then come early or stay late to experience all this event has to offer!

6:30pm – 10:00pm – Drinks | Music | Games | Demonstrations I Lecture I Planetarium

7:30 or 9:00pm – Planetarium Star Theatre show: Cosmology Questions
How did it all begin? What is the Big Bang Theory and what does this theory suggest about an end to our universe? Are there universes in addition to the one we live in? How do scientists even attempt to answer these mind-blowing questions? We’ll talk about some of the biggest questions about the universe and leave you with even more ideas to explore.

8pm and 9pm – “The Multiverse” lecture by Dr. Douglas Scott
Can there be more than one universe?  Why is the Universe that we live in the way that it is?  Does our existence imply that the universe has to have certain properties? Can we imagine universes that are quite different? What does the word “multiverse” even mean? These and other questions will be tackled in this special talk (and others quite like it, all across the multiverse!).

Bio: Douglas Scott is a Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the University of British Columbia, who was trained in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Berkeley.  He specialises in cosmology- the study of the universe on the largest scales and has co-authored more than 500 papers on a wide range of both concrete and speculative astrophysical topics.

7pm-9pm – Groundstation Canada Theatre  – Cocktail Crash Course: String Theory and Quantum Gravity 
A fun, interactive science demo on string theory and quantum gravity – enough fun facts to impress at a cocktail party. Trivia prizes are also up for grabs!

TICKETS: $20 early bird tickets until January 11th, $25 after.
Tickets available online through Eventbrite. Or, save the service fee by purchasing in person at the Space Centre or by calling 604.738.7827 ext. 240.

Beer from Red Truck Beer Company, wine frrom Hester Creek Estate Winery. Games by Starlit Citadel.

19+ event. All attendees will be required to provide photo ID upon entry.

You can go here to buy tickets.

Curiosity Colllider Café

The Curiosity Collider folks themselves are holding a January 31, 2018 Collider Café with the theme: Art. Science. Fusion. (from a January 9, 2018 announcement received via email),

Save the date – our next Collider Cafe will be on Wednesday, January 31 [2018]. Speakers include:

  • Visualizing Medicine (Paige Blumer, medical illustration)
  • Art = Science in Love (Martin Krzywinski, data visualization)
  • Geo-synth Music Video (Mika McKinnon, science communication)
  • Sciart Zine (Raymond Nakamura & Katrina Wong, creative collaboration)

I found more details,

Date(s) – 31/01/2018
8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Café Deux Soleils
[2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver]

Curiosity Collider calls

I believe this is the first time the organization has announced calls for submissions. There are two (from the January 9, 2018 announcement received via email),

Call for Submissions

Do you exist in both the worlds of art and science? Does your artistic practice rely on science? Does your scientific practice rely on art? We are launching two calls for submissions:

Want to receive future calls for submissions? Update your email subscription options so you don’t miss out!

More from Curiosity Collider

This January 9, 2018 announcement was very full,