Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) November 29, 2016 talk: Climate change and moving mountains

Vancouver (Canada) Café Scientifique’s next talk is at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender). From the November 19, 2016 notice received via email,

Our next café will happen on Tuesday November 29th, 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Michèle Koppes, from the Department of Geography at UBC. The title of her talk is:

Can climate change move mountains?

Climate change is causing more than warmer oceans and erratic weather. It can also change the shape of the planet. Glaciers are a fundamental link between climate and the tectonic and surface processes that create topography. Mountain ranges worldwide have undergone large-scale modification due the erosive action of ice, yet the mechanisms that control the timing of this modification and the rate by which ice erodes remain poorly understood. We find a wide range of erosion rates from individual ice masses over varying timescales, suggesting that modern erosion rates exceed long-term averages by two to three orders of magnitude. We also see that glaciers in Patagonia erode 1000 times faster than they do in Antarctica today. These modern rates are likely due to the dynamic acceleration of these ice masses as air and ocean temperatures warmed and they retreated over the past few decades. The repercussions of this erosion add to the already complex effects of climate change in polar and high mountain regions. Shrinking and accelerating glaciers destabilize slopes upstream, increasing the risk of landslides, and deposit more sediment in downstream basins, potentially impacting fisheries, dams and access to clean freshwater in mountain communities. And the dramatic increase in modern erosion rates suggest that glaciers in the Canadian Arctic, one of the most rapidly warming regions in the world, are on the brink of a major shift that will see them speeding up and eroding faster as temperatures warm above 0ºC.

Michele Koppes is an Assistant Professor in Geography at UBC, a Canada Research Chair Tier II in Landscapes of Climate Change, a faculty affiliate at IRES and a Senior TED Fellow. Her passion is forensic geomorphology: the art of reading landscapes to decipher the forces that shaped them.  Her particular expertise is in glaciers, and their impact in shaping mountains and polar regions at a variety of time scales, from last year to the last million years. Her research focus is two-fold: to determine the efficacy of glaciers as agents of erosion, and to determine the climatic and oceanic drivers of glaciations in high mountains and coastal settings. She has current field projects in high places all over the world, from BC to Patagonia, Alaska, the Himalayas, Greenland and Antarctica, where her team combines detailed field observations with numerical modeling of ice-ocean dynamics and glacier mass balance.

Have fun!

Should nanotechnology take its cue from green chemistry?

An editorial by John C. Warner for Green Chemistry Letters and Review suggests that nanotechnology should take its cue from green chemistry research (from a Taylor & Francis Publishing Oct. 27, 2016 press release [received via email]),

Warner is the President and Chief Technology Officer at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, and often whilst touring visitors around the campus finds himself posed with the question “do you work in nanotechnology?”, perhaps linked to the association between high-tech materials science and this area.

He feels that a new science such as nanotechnology is much like a new child trying to learn their native language. Whilst the basic understanding of the language is present to form sentences relating quite complex ideas, the structural understanding of the grammar is not. Soon the child will, somewhat ironically, start using verbs, nouns, and adjectives to learn about verbs, nouns, and adjectives!

He feels that the same can be said for nanotechnology, as often the instrumentation and tools used to study nanomaterials are constructed using nanostructures, and by understanding the rules governing their behaviour, so the scientific field can advance.

In such a new field, he feels that bringing in ideas from green chemistry will help words like ‘safety’ and ‘toxicity’ become embedded in the vocabulary of nanotechnology. This is critical to avoid creating materials and processes that have negative consequences – not only being unethical but also slowing the rate of progress in the field.

Warner makes some interesting points but I suspect his ‘child’ analogy works better in speech than in text.

Here’s a link and a citation for the editorial,

Purpose and intent at the intersection of nanotechnology and green chemistry by John C. Warner.  Green Chemistry Letters and Reviews
Volume 9, 2016 – Issue 4 Pages 208-209 Published online: 27 Sep 2016

This is open access.

Epic Scottish poetry and social network science

It’s been a while since I’ve run a social network story here and this research into a 250-year controversy piqued my interest anew. From an Oct. 20, 2016 Coventry University (UK) press release (also on EurekAlert) Note: A link has been removed,

The social networks behind one of the most famous literary controversies of all time have been uncovered using modern networks science.

Since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by a third-century bard named Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works and whether they were misappropriated from Irish mythology or, as heralded at the time, authored by a Scottish equivalent to Homer.

Now, in a joint study by Coventry University, the National University of Ireland, Galway and the University of Oxford, published today in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, researchers have revealed the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossian’s works and their similarities to Irish mythology.

The researchers mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them to compare the social networks found in the Scottish epics with classical Greek literature and Irish mythology.

The study revealed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore no resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.

The Ossianic poems are considered to be some of the most important literary works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland, given their influence over the Romantic period in literature and the arts. Figures from Brahms to Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically; Napoleon took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet to have ever existed.

The poems launched the romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands which persists, in many forms, to the present day and inspired Romantic nationalism all across Europe.

Professor Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University, said:

By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities. The opposite also applies, as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics.”

Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland, Galway said:

From a humanities point of view, while it cannot fully resolve the debate about Ossian, this scientific analysis does reveal an insightful statistical picture: close similarity to the Irish texts which Macpherson explicitly rejected, and distance from the Greek sources which he sought to emulate.”

A statistical physicist, eh? I find that specialty quite an unexpected addition to the team stretching my ideas about social networks in new directions.

Getting back to the research, the scientists have supplied this image to illustrate their work,

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

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

A networks-science investigation into the epic poems of Ossian by Joseph Yose, Ralph Kenna, Pádraig MacCarron, Thierry Platini, Justin Tonra.  Complex Syst. DOI: Published: 21 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Smartphone battery inspired by your guts?

The conversion of bacteria from an enemy to be vanquished at all costs to a ‘frenemy’, a friendly enemy supplying possible solutions for problems is fascinating. An Oct. 26, 2016 news item on Nanowerk falls into the ‘frenemy’ camp,

A new prototype of a lithium-sulphur battery – which could have five times the energy density of a typical lithium-ion battery – overcomes one of the key hurdles preventing their commercial development by mimicking the structure of the cells which allow us to absorb nutrients.

Researchers have developed a prototype of a next-generation lithium-sulphur battery which takes its inspiration in part from the cells lining the human intestine. The batteries, if commercially developed, would have five times the energy density of the lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other electronics.

An Oct. 26, 2016 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and provides some good explanations of how lithium-ion batteries and lithium-sulphur batteries work (Note: A link has been removed),

The new design, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, overcomes one of the key technical problems hindering the commercial development of lithium-sulphur batteries, by preventing the degradation of the battery caused by the loss of material within it. The results are reported in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Working with collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Technology, the Cambridge researchers based in Dr Vasant Kumar’s team in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy developed and tested a lightweight nanostructured material which resembles villi, the finger-like protrusions which line the small intestine. In the human body, villi are used to absorb the products of digestion and increase the surface area over which this process can take place.

In the new lithium-sulphur battery, a layer of material with a villi-like structure, made from tiny zinc oxide wires, is placed on the surface of one of the battery’s electrodes. This can trap fragments of the active material when they break off, keeping them electrochemically accessible and allowing the material to be reused.

“It’s a tiny thing, this layer, but it’s important,” said study co-author Dr Paul Coxon from Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. “This gets us a long way through the bottleneck which is preventing the development of better batteries.”

A typical lithium-ion battery is made of three separate components: an anode (negative electrode), a cathode (positive electrode) and an electrolyte in the middle. The most common materials for the anode and cathode are graphite and lithium cobalt oxide respectively, which both have layered structures. Positively-charged lithium ions move back and forth from the cathode, through the electrolyte and into the anode.

The crystal structure of the electrode materials determines how much energy can be squeezed into the battery. For example, due to the atomic structure of carbon, each carbon atom can take on six lithium ions, limiting the maximum capacity of the battery.

Sulphur and lithium react differently, via a multi-electron transfer mechanism meaning that elemental sulphur can offer a much higher theoretical capacity, resulting in a lithium-sulphur battery with much higher energy density. However, when the battery discharges, the lithium and sulphur interact and the ring-like sulphur molecules transform into chain-like structures, known as a poly-sulphides. As the battery undergoes several charge-discharge cycles, bits of the poly-sulphide can go into the electrolyte, so that over time the battery gradually loses active material.

The Cambridge researchers have created a functional layer which lies on top of the cathode and fixes the active material to a conductive framework so the active material can be reused. The layer is made up of tiny, one-dimensional zinc oxide nanowires grown on a scaffold. The concept was trialled using commercially-available nickel foam for support. After successful results, the foam was replaced by a lightweight carbon fibre mat to reduce the battery’s overall weight.

“Changing from stiff nickel foam to flexible carbon fibre mat makes the layer mimic the way small intestine works even further,” said study co-author Dr Yingjun Liu.

This functional layer, like the intestinal villi it resembles, has a very high surface area. The material has a very strong chemical bond with the poly-sulphides, allowing the active material to be used for longer, greatly increasing the lifespan of the battery.

“This is the first time a chemically functional layer with a well-organised nano-architecture has been proposed to trap and reuse the dissolved active materials during battery charging and discharging,” said the study’s lead author Teng Zhao, a PhD student from the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy. “By taking our inspiration from the natural world, we were able to come up with a solution that we hope will accelerate the development of next-generation batteries.”

For the time being, the device is a proof of principle, so commercially-available lithium-sulphur batteries are still some years away. Additionally, while the number of times the battery can be charged and discharged has been improved, it is still not able to go through as many charge cycles as a lithium-ion battery. However, since a lithium-sulphur battery does not need to be charged as often as a lithium-ion battery, it may be the case that the increase in energy density cancels out the lower total number of charge-discharge cycles.

“This is a way of getting around one of those awkward little problems that affects all of us,” said Coxon. “We’re all tied in to our electronic devices – ultimately, we’re just trying to make those devices work better, hopefully making our lives a little bit nicer.”

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

Advanced Lithium–Sulfur Batteries Enabled by a Bio-Inspired Polysulfide Adsorptive Brush by Teng Zhao, Yusheng Ye, Xiaoyu Peng, Giorgio Divitini, Hyun-Kyung Kim, Cheng-Yen Lao, Paul R. Coxon, Kai Xi, Yingjun Liu, Caterina Ducati, Renjie Chen, R. Vasant Kumar. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201604069 First published: 26 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

Caption: This is a computer visualization of villi-like battery material. Credit: Teng Zhao

Boron nitride-graphene hybrid nanostructures could lead to next generation ‘green’ cars

An Oct. 24, 2016 news item describes research which may lead to improved fuel storage in ‘green’ cars,

Layers of graphene separated by nanotube pillars of boron nitride may be a suitable material to store hydrogen fuel in cars, according to Rice University scientists.

The Department of Energy has set benchmarks for storage materials that would make hydrogen a practical fuel for light-duty vehicles. The Rice lab of materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari determined in a new computational study that pillared boron nitride and graphene could be a candidate.

An Oct. 24, 2016 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Shahsavari’s lab had already determined through computer models how tough and resilient pillared graphene structures would be, and later worked boron nitride nanotubes into the mix to model a unique three-dimensional architecture. (Samples of boron nitride nanotubes seamlessly bonded to graphene have been made.)

Just as pillars in a building make space between floors for people, pillars in boron nitride graphene make space for hydrogen atoms. The challenge is to make them enter and stay in sufficient numbers and exit upon demand.

In their latest molecular dynamics simulations, the researchers found that either pillared graphene or pillared boron nitride graphene would offer abundant surface area (about 2,547 square meters per gram) with good recyclable properties under ambient conditions. Their models showed adding oxygen or lithium to the materials would make them even better at binding hydrogen.

They focused the simulations on four variants: pillared structures of boron nitride or pillared boron nitride graphene doped with either oxygen or lithium. At room temperature and in ambient pressure, oxygen-doped boron nitride graphene proved the best, holding 11.6 percent of its weight in hydrogen (its gravimetric capacity) and about 60 grams per liter (its volumetric capacity); it easily beat competing technologies like porous boron nitride, metal oxide frameworks and carbon nanotubes.

At a chilly -321 degrees Fahrenheit, the material held 14.77 percent of its weight in hydrogen.

The Department of Energy’s current target for economic storage media is the ability to store more than 5.5 percent of its weight and 40 grams per liter in hydrogen under moderate conditions. The ultimate targets are 7.5 weight percent and 70 grams per liter.

Shahsavari said hydrogen atoms adsorbed to the undoped pillared boron nitride graphene, thanks to  weak van der Waals forces. When the material was doped with oxygen, the atoms bonded strongly with the hybrid and created a better surface for incoming hydrogen, which Shahsavari said would likely be delivered under pressure and would exit when pressure is released.

“Adding oxygen to the substrate gives us good bonding because of the nature of the charges and their interactions,” he said. “Oxygen and hydrogen are known to have good chemical affinity.”

He said the polarized nature of the boron nitride where it bonds with the graphene and the electron mobility of the graphene itself make the material highly tunable for applications.

“What we’re looking for is the sweet spot,” Shahsavari said, describing the ideal conditions as a balance between the material’s surface area and weight, as well as the operating temperatures and pressures. “This is only practical through computational modeling, because we can test a lot of variations very quickly. It would take experimentalists months to do what takes us only days.”

He said the structures should be robust enough to easily surpass the Department of Energy requirement that a hydrogen fuel tank be able to withstand 1,500 charge-discharge cycles.

Shayeganfar [Farzaneh Shayeganfar], a former visiting scholar at Rice, is an instructor at Shahid Rajaee Teacher Training University in Tehran, Iran.


Caption: Simulations by Rice University scientists show that pillared graphene boron nitride may be a suitable storage medium for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Above, the pink (boron) and blue (nitrogen) pillars serve as spacers for carbon graphene sheets (gray). The researchers showed the material worked best when doped with oxygen atoms (red), which enhanced its ability to adsorb and desorb hydrogen (white). Credit: Lei Tao/Rice University

Caption: Simulations by Rice University scientists show that pillared graphene boron nitride may be a suitable storage medium for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Above, the pink (boron) and blue (nitrogen) pillars serve as spacers for carbon graphene sheets (gray). The researchers showed the material worked best when doped with oxygen atoms (red), which enhanced its ability to adsorb and desorb hydrogen (white). Credit: Lei Tao/Rice University

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

Oxygen and Lithium Doped Hybrid Boron-Nitride/Carbon Networks for Hydrogen Storage by Farzaneh Shayeganfar and Rouzbeh Shahsavari. Langmuir,  DOI: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.6b02997 Publication Date (Web): October 23, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

I last featured research by Shayeganfar and  Shahsavari on graphene and boron nitride in a Jan. 14, 2016 posting.

Growing shells atom-by-atom

The University of California at Davis (UC Davis) and the University of Washington (state) collaborated in research into fundamental questions on how aquatic animals grow. From an Oct. 24, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

For the first time scientists can see how the shells of tiny marine organisms grow atom-by-atom, a new study reports. The advance provides new insights into the mechanisms of biomineralization and will improve our understanding of environmental change in Earth’s past.

An Oct. 24, 2016 UC Davis news release by Becky Oskin, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Led by researchers from the University of California, Davis and the University of Washington, with key support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the team examined an organic-mineral interface where the first calcium carbonate crystals start to appear in the shells of foraminifera, a type of plankton.

“We’ve gotten the first glimpse of the biological event horizon,” said Howard Spero, a study co-author and UC Davis geochemistry professor. …

Foraminifera’s Final Frontier

The researchers zoomed into shells at the atomic level to better understand how growth processes may influence the levels of trace impurities in shells. The team looked at a key stage — the interaction between the biological ‘template’ and the initiation of shell growth. The scientists produced an atom-scale map of the chemistry at this crucial interface in the foraminifera Orbulina universa. This is the first-ever measurement of the chemistry of a calcium carbonate biomineralization template, Spero said.

Among the new findings are elevated levels of sodium and magnesium in the organic layer. This is surprising because the two elements are not considered important architects in building shells, said lead study author Oscar Branson, a former postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis who is now at the Australian National University in Canberra. Also, the greater concentrations of magnesium and sodium in the organic template may need to be considered when investigating past climate with foraminifera shells.

Calibrating Earth’s Climate

Most of what we know about past climate (beyond ice core records) comes from chemical analyses of shells made by the tiny, one-celled creatures called foraminifera, or “forams.” When forams die, their shells sink and are preserved in seafloor mud. The chemistry preserved in ancient shells chronicles climate change on Earth, an archive that stretches back nearly 200 million years.

The calcium carbonate shells incorporate elements from seawater — such as calcium, magnesium and sodium — as the shells grow. The amount of trace impurities in a shell depends on both the surrounding environmental conditions and how the shells are made. For example, the more magnesium a shell has, the warmer the ocean was where that shell grew.

“Finding out how much magnesium there is in a shell can allow us to find out the temperature of seawater going back up to 150 million years,” Branson said.

But magnesium levels also vary within a shell, because of nanometer-scale growth bands. Each band is one day’s growth (similar to the seasonal variations in tree rings). Branson said considerable gaps persist in understanding what exactly causes the daily bands in the shells.

“We know that shell formation processes are important for shell chemistry, but we don’t know much about these processes or how they might have changed through time,” he said. “This adds considerable uncertainty to climate reconstructions.”

Atomic Maps

The researchers used two cutting-edge techniques: Time-of-Flight Secondary Ionization Mass Spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) and Laser-Assisted Atom Probe Tomography (APT). ToF-SIMS is a two-dimensional chemical mapping technique which shows the elemental composition of the surface of a polished sample. The technique was developed for the elemental analysis of complex polymer materials, and is just starting to be applied to natural samples like shells.

APT is an atomic-scale three-dimensional mapping technique, developed for looking at internal structures in advanced alloys, silicon chips and superconductors. The APT imaging was performed at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

This foraminifera is just starting to form its adult spherical shell. The calcium carbonate spherical shell first forms on a thin organic template, shown here in white, around the dark juvenile skeleton. Calcium carbonate spines then extend from the juvenile skeleton through the new sphere and outward. The bright flecks are algae that the foraminifera “farm” for sustenance.Howard Spero/University of California, Davis

This foraminifera is just starting to form its adult spherical shell. The calcium carbonate spherical shell first forms on a thin organic template, shown here in white, around the dark juvenile skeleton. Calcium carbonate spines then extend from the juvenile skeleton through the new sphere and outward. The bright flecks are algae that the foraminifera “farm” for sustenance.Howard Spero/University of California, Davis

An Oct. 24, 2016 University of Washington (state) news release (also on EurekAlert) adds more information (there is a little repetition),

Unseen out in the ocean, countless single-celled organisms grow protective shells to keep them safe as they drift along, living off other tiny marine plants and animals. Taken together, the shells are so plentiful that when they sink they provide one of the best records for the history of ocean chemistry.

Oceanographers at the University of Washington and the University of California, Davis, have used modern tools to provide an atomic-scale look at how that shell first forms. Results could help answer fundamental questions about how these creatures grow under different ocean conditions, in the past and in the future. …

“There’s this debate among scientists about whether shelled organisms are slaves to the chemistry of the ocean, or whether they have the physiological capacity to adapt to changing environmental conditions,” said senior author Alex Gagnon, a UW assistant professor of oceanography.

The new work shows, he said, that they do exert some biologically-based control over shell formation.

“I think it’s just incredible that we were able to peer into the intricate details of those first moments that set how a seashell forms,” Gagnon said. “And that’s what sets how much of the rest of the skeleton will grow.”

The results could eventually help understand how organisms at the base of the marine food chain will respond to more acidic waters. And while the study looked at one organism, Orbulina universa, which is important for understanding past climate, the same method could be used for other plankton, corals and shellfish.

The study used tools developed for materials science and semiconductor research to view the shell formation in the most detail yet to see how the organisms turn seawater into solid mineral.

“We’re interested more broadly in the question ‘How do organisms make shells?'” said first author Oscar Branson, a former postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis who is now at Australian National University in Canberra. “We’ve focused on a key stage in mineral formation — the interaction between biological template materials and the initiation of shell growth by an organism.”

These tiny single-celled animals, called foraminifera, can’t reproduce anywhere but in their natural surroundings, which prevents breeding them in captivity. The researchers caught juvenile foraminifera by diving in deep water off Southern California. Then they then raised them in the lab, using tiny pipettes to feed them brine shrimp during their weeklong lives.

Marine shells are made from calcium carbonate, drawing the calcium and carbon from surrounding seawater. But the animal first grows a soft template for the mineral to grow over. Because this template is trapped within the growing skeleton, it acts as a snapshot of the chemical conditions during the first part of skeletal growth.

To see this chemical picture, the authors analyzed tiny sections of foraminifera template with a technique called atom probe tomography at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. This tool creates an atom-by-atom picture of the organic template, which was located using a chemical tag.

Results show that the template contains more magnesium and sodium atoms than expected, and that this could influence how the mineral in the shell begins to grow around it.

“One of the key stages in growing a skeleton is when you make that first bit, when you build that first bit of structure. Anything that changes that process is a key control point,” Gagnon said.

The clumping suggests that magnesium and sodium play a role in the first stages of shell growth. If their availability changes for any reason, that could influence how the shell grows beyond what simple chemistry would predict.

“We can say who the players are — further experiments will have to tell us exactly how important each of them is,” Gagnon said.

Follow-up work will try to grow the shells and create models of their formation to see how the template affects growth under different conditions, such as more acidic water.

“Translating that into, ‘Can these forams survive ocean acidification?’ is still many steps down the line,” Gagnon cautioned. “But you can’t do that until you have a picture of what that surface actually looks like.”

The researchers also hope that by better understanding the exact mechanism of shell growth they could tease apart different aspects of seafloor remains so the shells can be used to reconstruct more than just the ocean’s past temperature. In the study, they showed that the template was responsible for causing fine lines in the shells — one example of the rich chemical information encoded in fossil shells.

“There are ways that you could separate the effects of temperature from other things and learn much more about the past ocean,” Gagnon said.

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

Nanometer-Scale Chemistry of a Calcite Biomineralization Template: Implications for Skeletal Composition and Nucleation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanofiber coating for artificial joints and implants

The researchers have a great image to accompany their research, which fit well with Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead celebrations taking place around the same time as the research was published.

 A titanium implant (blue) without a nanofiber coating in the femur of a mouse. Bacteria are shown in red and responding immune cells in yellow. Credit: Lloyd Miller/Johns Hopkins Medicine

A titanium implant (blue) without a nanofiber coating in the femur of a mouse. Bacteria are shown in red and responding immune cells in yellow.
Credit: Lloyd Miller/Johns Hopkins Medicine

An Oct. 24, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the research on nanofibers,

In a proof-of-concept study with mice, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University show that a novel coating they made with antibiotic-releasing nanofibers has the potential to better prevent at least some serious bacterial infections related to total joint replacement surgery.

An Oct. 24, 2016 Johns Hopkins Medicine news release (also on EurekAlert), provides further details (Note: Links have been removed),

A report on the study, published online the week of Oct. 24 [2016] in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted on the rodents’ knee joints, but, the researchers say, the technology would have “broad applicability” in the use of orthopaedic prostheses, such as hip and knee total joint replacements, as well pacemakers, stents and other implantable medical devices. In contrast to other coatings in development, the researchers report the new material can release multiple antibiotics in a strategically timed way for an optimal effect.

“We can potentially coat any metallic implant that we put into patients, from prosthetic joints, rods, screws and plates to pacemakers, implantable defibrillators and dental hardware,” says co-senior study author Lloyd S. Miller, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of dermatology and orthopaedic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Surgeons and biomedical engineers have for years looked for better ways —including antibiotic coatings — to reduce the risk of infections that are a known complication of implanting artificial hip, knee and shoulder joints.

Every year in the U.S., an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the more than 1 million hip and knee replacement surgeries are followed by infections linked to the formation of biofilms — layers of bacteria that adhere to a surface, forming a dense, impenetrable matrix of proteins, sugars and DNA. Immediately after surgery, an acute infection causes swelling and redness that can often be treated with intravenous antibiotics. But in some people, low-grade chronic infections can last for months, causing bone loss that leads to implant loosening and ultimately failure of the new prosthesis. These infections are very difficult to treat and, in many cases of chronic infection, prostheses must be removed and patients placed on long courses of antibiotics before a new prosthesis can be implanted. The cost per patient often exceeds $100,000 to treat a biofilm-associated prosthesis infection, Miller says.

Major downsides to existing options for local antibiotic delivery, such as antibiotic-loaded cement, beads, spacers or powder, during the implantation of medical devices are that they can typically only deliver one antibiotic at a time and the release rate is not well-controlled. To develop a better approach that addresses those problems, Miller teamed up with Hai-Quan Mao, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering at the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, and a member of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute and Translational Tissue Engineering Center.

Over three years, the team focused on designing a thin, biodegradable plastic coating that could release multiple antibiotics at desired rates. This coating is composed of a nanofiber mesh embedded in a thin film; both components are made of polymers used for degradable sutures.

To test the technology’s ability to prevent infection, the researchers loaded the nanofiber coating with the antibiotic rifampin in combination with one of three other antibiotics: vancomycin, daptomycin or linezolid. “Rifampin has excellent anti-biofilm activity but cannot be used alone because bacteria would rapidly develop resistance,” says Miller. The coatings released vancomycin, daptomycin or linezolid for seven to 14 days and rifampin over three to five days. “We were able to deploy two antibiotics against potential infection while ensuring rifampin was never present as a single agent,” Miller says.

The team then used each combination to coat titanium Kirschner wires — a type of pin used in orthopaedic surgery to fix bone in place after wrist fractures — inserted them into the knee joints of anesthetized mice and introduced a strain of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium that commonly causes biofilm-associated infections in orthopaedic surgeries. The bacteria were engineered to give off light, allowing the researchers to noninvasively track infection over time.

Miller says that after 14 days of infection in mice that received an antibiotic-free coating on the pins, all of the mice had abundant bacteria in the infected tissue around the knee joint, and 80 percent had bacteria on the surface of the implant. In contrast, after the same time period in mice that received pins with either linezolid-rifampin or daptomycin-rifampin coating, none of the mice had detectable bacteria either on the implants or in the surrounding tissue.

“We were able to completely eradicate infection with this coating,” says Miller. “Most other approaches only decrease the number of bacteria but don’t generally or reliably prevent infections.”

After the two-week test, each of the rodents’ joints and adjacent bones were removed for further study. Miller and Mao found that not only had infection been prevented, but the bone loss often seen near infected joints — which creates the prosthetic loosening in patients — had also been completely avoided in animals that received pins with the antibiotic-loaded coating.

Miller emphasized that further research is needed to test the efficacy and safety of the coating in humans, and in sorting out which patients would best benefit from the coating — people with a previous prosthesis joint infection receiving a new replacement joint, for example.

The polymers they used to generate the nanofiber coating have already been used in many approved devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, such as degradable sutures, bone plates and drug delivery systems.

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

Polymeric nanofiber coating with tunable combinatorial antibiotic delivery prevents biofilm-associated infection in vivo by Alyssa G. Ashbaugh, Xuesong Jiang, Jesse Zheng, Andrew S. Tsai, Woo-Shin Kim, John M. Thompson, Robert J. Miller, Jonathan H. Shahbazian, Yu Wang, Carly A. Dillen, Alvaro A. Ordonez, Yong S. Chang, Sanjay K. Jain, Lynne C. Jones, Robert S. Sterling, Hai-Quan Mao, and Lloyd S. Miller. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] 2016 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1613722113 Published ahead of print October 24, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Creeping gel does ‘The Loco-Motion’

Now it’s the creeping gel’s turn, from an Oct. 24, 2016 news item on,

Directed motion seems simple to us, but the coordinated interplay of complex processes is needed, even for seemingly simple crawling motions of worms or snails. By using a gel that periodically swells and shrinks, researchers developed a model for the waves of muscular contraction and relaxation involved in crawling. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, they were able to produce two types of crawling motion by using inhomogeneous irradiation.


Courtesy: Angewandte Chemie

Courtesy: Angewandte Chemie

An Oct. 24, 2016 Angewandte Chemie (Wiley) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further,

Crawling comes from waves that travel through muscle. These waves can travel in the same direction as the animal is crawling (direct waves), from the tail end toward the head, or in the opposite direction (retrograde waves), from the head toward the tail. While land snails use the former type of wave, earthworms and limpets use the latter. Chitons (polyplacophora) can switch between both types of movement.

With the aid of a chemical model in the form of a self-oscillating gel, researchers working with Qingyu Gao at the China University of Mining and Technology (Jiangsu, China) and Irving R. Epstein at Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts, USA) have been able to answer some of the many questions about these crawling processes.

A gel is a molecular network with liquid bound in the gaps. In this case, the liquid contains all of the ingredients needed for an oscillating chemical reaction (“chemical clock”). The researchers incorporated one component of their reaction system into the network: a ruthenium complex. During the reaction, the ruthenium periodically switches between two oxidation states, Ru2+ and Ru3+. This switch changes the gel so that in one state it can hold more liquid than the other, so the gel swells and shrinks periodically. Like the chemical clock, these regions propagate in waves, similar to the waves of muscle contractions in crawling.

The complex used in this gel also changes oxidation state when irradiated with light. When the right half of the gel is irradiated more strongly than the left, the waves move from right to left, i.e., from a high- to a low-frequency region of gel oscillations. Once the difference in intensity of irradiation reaches a certain threshold, it causes a wormlike motion of the gel from left to right, retrograde wave locomotion. If the difference is increased further, the gel comes to a stop. A further increase in the difference causes the gel to move again, but in the opposite direction, i.e., direct wave locomotion. The nonuniform illumination plays a role analogous to that of anchoring segments and appendages (such as limbs and wings) during cell migration and animal locomotion, which control the direction of locomotion by strengthening direct movement and/or inhibiting the opposite movement.

By using computational models, the researchers were able to describe these processes. Within the gel, there are regions where pulling forces predominate; pushing forces predominate in other areas. Variations in the intensity of the irradiation lead to different changes in the friction forces and the tensions in the gel. When these effects are added up, it is possible to predict in which direction a particular grid element of the gel will move.

One important finding from this model: special changes in the viscoelastic properties of the slime excreted by the snails and worms as they crawl are not required for locomotion, whether retrograde or direct.

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

Retrograde and Direct Wave Locomotion in a Photosensitive Self-Oscillating Gel by Lin Ren, Weibing She, Prof. Dr. Qingyu Gao, Dr. Changwei Pan, Dr. Chen Ji, and Prof. Dr. Irving R. Epstein. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201608367 Version of Record online: 13 OCT 2016

© 2016 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone curious about the song, there’s this from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

“The Loco-Motion” is a 1962 pop song written by American songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King. “The Loco-Motion” was originally written for Dee Dee Sharp but Sharp turned the song down.[1] The song is notable for appearing in the American Top 5 three times – each time in a different decade, performed by artists from three different cultures: originally African American pop singer Little Eva in 1962 (U.S. No. 1);[2] then American band Grand Funk Railroad in 1974 (U.S. No. 1);[3] and finally Australian singer Kylie Minogue in 1988 (U.S. No. 3).[4]

The song is a popular and enduring example of the dance-song genre: much of the lyrics are devoted to a description of the dance itself, usually done as a type of line dance. However, the song came before the dance.

“The Loco-Motion” was also the second song to reach No. 1 by two different musical acts. The earlier song to do this was “Go Away Little Girl”, also written by Goffin and King. It is one of only nine songs to achieve this

I had not realized this song had such a storied past; there’s a lot more about it in the Wikipedia entry.

I hear the proteins singing

Points to anyone who recognized the paraphrasing of the title for the well-loved, Canadian movie, “I heard the mermaids singing.” In this case, it’s all about protein folding and data sonification (from an Oct. 20, 2016 news item on,

Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work – by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.

The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.

An Oct. 20, 2016 Elsevier Publishing press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”

Proteins are molecules found in living things that have many different functions. Scientists usually study them visually and using data; with modern microscopy it is possible to directly see the structure of some proteins.

Using a technique called sonification, the researchers can now transform data about proteins into musical sounds, or melodies. They wanted to use this approach to ask three related questions: what can protein data sound like? Are there analytical benefits? And can we hear particular elements or anomalies in the data?

They found that a large proportion of people can recognize links between the melodies and more traditional visuals like models, graphs and tables; it seems hearing these visuals is easier than they expected. The melodies are also pleasant to listen to, encouraging scientists to listen to them more than once and therefore repeatedly analyze the proteins.

The sonifications are created using a combination of Dr. Middleton’s composing skills and algorithms, so that others can use a similar process with their own proteins. The multidisciplinary approach – combining bioinformatics and music informatics – provides a completely new perspective on a complex problem in biology.

“Protein fold assignment is a notoriously tricky area of research in molecular biology,” said Dr. Robert Bywater from the Francis Crick Institute. “One not only needs to identify the fold type but to look for clues as to its many functions. It is not a simple matter to unravel these overlapping messages. Music is seen as an aid towards achieving this unraveling.”

The researchers say their molecular melodies can be used almost immediately in teaching protein science, and after some practice, scientists will be able to use them to discriminate between different protein structures and spot irregularities like mutations.

Proteins are the first stop, but our knowledge of other molecules could also benefit from sonification; one day we may be able to listen to our genomes, and perhaps use this to understand the role of junk DNA [emphasis mine].

About 97% of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) has been known for some decades as ‘junk DNA’. In roughly 2012, that was notion was challenged as Stephen S. Hall wrote in an Oct. 1, 2012 article (Hidden Treasures in Junk DNA; What was once known as junk DNA turns out to hold hidden treasures, says computational biologist Ewan Birney) for Scientific American.

Getting back to  2016, here’s a link to and a citation for ‘protein singing’,

Melody discrimination and protein fold classification by  Robert P. Bywater, Jonathan N. Middleton. Heliyon 20 Oct 2016, Volume 2, Issue 10 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e0017

This paper is open access.

Here’s what the proteins sound like,

Supplementary Audio 3 for file for Supplementary Figure 2 1r75 OHEL sonification full score. [downloaded from the previously cited Heliyon paper]

Joanna Klein has written an Oct. 21, 2016 article for the New York Times providing a slightly different take on this research (Note: Links have been removed),

“It’s used for the concert hall. It’s used for sports. It’s used for worship. Why can’t we use it for our data?” said Jonathan Middleton, the composer at Eastern Washington University and the University of Tampere in Finland who worked with Dr. Bywater.

Proteins have been around for billions of years, but humans still haven’t come up with a good way to visualize them. Right now scientists can shoot a laser at a crystallized protein (which can distort its shape), measure the patterns it spits out and simulate what that protein looks like. These depictions are difficult to sift through and hard to remember.

“There’s no simple equation like e=mc2,” said Dr. Bywater. “You have to do a lot of spade work to predict a protein structure.”

Dr. Bywater had been interested in assigning sounds to proteins since the 1990s. After hearing a song Dr. Middleton had composed called “Redwood Symphony,” which opens with sounds derived from the tree’s DNA, he asked for his help.

Using a process called sonification (which is the same thing used to assign different ringtones to texts, emails or calls on your cellphone) the team took three proteins and turned their folding shapes — a coil, a turn and a strand — into musical melodies. Each shape was represented by a bunch of numbers, and those numbers were converted into a musical code. A combination of musical sounds represented each shape, resulting in a song of simple patterns that changed with the folds of the protein. Later they played those songs to a group of 38 people together with visuals of the proteins, and asked them to identify similarities and differences between them. The two were surprised that people didn’t really need the visuals to detect changes in the proteins.

Plus, I have more about data sonification in a Feb. 7, 2014 posting regarding a duet based on data from Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft.

Finally, I hope my next Steep project will include  sonification of data on gold nanoparticles. I will keep you posted on any developments.

Nano-decoy for human influenza A virus

While the implications for this research are exciting, keep in mind that so far they’ve been testing immune-compromised mice. An Oct. 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the research,

To infect its victims, influenza A heads for the lungs, where it latches onto sialic acid on the surface of cells. So researchers created the perfect decoy: A carefully constructed spherical nanoparticle coated in sialic acid lures the influenza A virus to its doom. When misted into the lungs, the nanoparticle traps influenza A, holding it until the virus self-destructs.

An Oct. 24, 2015 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute press release by Mary L. Martialay, which originated the news item, describes the research (Note: Links have been removed),

In a study on immune-compromised mice, the treatment reduced influenza A mortality from 100 percent to 25 percent over 14 days. The novel approach, which is radically different from existing influenza A vaccines, and treatments based on neuraminidase inhibitors, could be extended to a host of viruses that use a similar approach to infecting humans, such as Zika, HIV, and malaria. …

“Instead of blocking the virus, we mimicked its target – it’s a completely novel approach,” said Robert Linhardt, a glycoprotein expert and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor who led the research. “It is effective with influenza and we have reason to believe it will function with many other viruses. This could be a therapeutic in cases where vaccine is not an option, such as exposure to an unanticipated strain, or with immune-compromised patients.”

The project is a collaboration between researchers within the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) at Rensselaer and several institutions in South Korea including Kyungpook National University. Lead author Seok-Joon Kwon, a CBIS research scientist, coordinated the project across borders, enabling the South Korean institutions to test a drug designed and characterized at Rensselaer. …

To access the interior of a cell and replicate itself, influenza A must first bind to the cell surface, and then cut itself free. It binds with the protein hemagglutinin, and severs that tie with the enzyme neuraminidase. Influenza A produces numerous variations each of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, all of which are antigens within the pathogen that provoke an immune system response. Strains of influenza A are characterized according to the variation of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase they carry, thus the origin of the familiar H1N1 or H3N2 designations.

Medications to counter the virus do exist, but all are vulnerable to the continual antigenic evolution of the virus. A yearly vaccine is effective only if it matches the strain of virus that infects the body. And the virus has shown an ability to develop resistance to a class of therapeutics based on neuraminidase inhibitors, which bind to and block neuraminidase.

The new solution targets an aspect of infection that does not change: all hemagglutinin varieties of influenza A must bind to human sialic acid. To trap the virus, the team designed a dendrimer, a spherical nanoparticle with treelike branches emanating from its core. On the outermost branches, they attached molecules, or “ligands,” of sialic acid.

The research found that the size of the dendrimer and the spacing between the ligands is integral to the function of the nanoparticle. Hemagglutinin occurs in clusters of three, or “trimers,” on the surface of the virus, and researchers found that a spacing of 3 nanometers between ligands resulted in the strongest binding to the trimers. Once bound to the densely packed dendrimer, viral neuraminidase is unable to sever the link. The coat of the virus contains millions of trimers, but the research revealed that only a few links provokes the virus to discharge its genetic cargo and ultimately self-destruct.

A different approach, using a less structured nanoparticle, had been previously tested in unrelated research, but the nanoparticle selected proved both toxic, and could be inactivated by neuraminidase. The new approach is far more promising.

“The major accomplishment was in designing an architecture that is optimized to bind so tightly to the hemagglutinin, the neuraminidase can’t squeeze in and free the virus,” said Linhardt. “It’s trapped.”

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

Nanostructured glycan architecture is important in the inhibition of influenza A virus infection by Seok-Joon Kwon, Dong Hee Na, Jong Hwan Kwak, Marc Douaisi, Fuming Zhang, Eun Ji Park, Jong-Hwan Park, Hana Youn, Chang-Seon Song, Ravi S. Kane, Jonathan S. Dordick, Kyung Bok Lee, & Robert J. Linhardt. Nature Nanotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nnano.2016.181 Published online 24 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.