Category Archives: agriculture

Your plant feeling stressed? Have we got a nanosensor for you!

An April 15, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily features an intriguing application for nansensors on plants that may have an important impact as we deal with the problems associated with droughts. This work comes from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD),

Biologists have succeeded in visualizing the movement within plants of a key hormone responsible for growth and resistance to drought. The achievement will allow researchers to conduct further studies to determine how the hormone helps plants respond to drought and other environmental stresses driven by the continuing increase in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, or CO2, concentration.

The April 15, 2014 UCSD news release by Kim McDonald, which originated the news item, describes the plant hormone being tracked and the tracking tool developed by the researchers,

The plant hormone the biologists directly tracked is abscisic acid, or ABA, which plays a major role in activating drought resistance responses of plants and in regulating plant growth under environmental stress conditions. The ABA stress hormone also controls the closing of stomata, the pores within leaves through which plants lose 95 percent of their water while taking in CO2 for growth.

Scientists already know the general role that ABA plays within plants, but by directly visualizing the hormone they can now better understand the complex interactions involving ABA when a plant is subjected to drought or other stress.

“Understanding the dynamic distribution of ABA in plants in response to environmental stimuli is of particular importance in elucidating the action of this important plant hormone,” says Julian Schroeder, a professor of biology at UC San Diego who headed the research effort. “For example, we can now investigate whether an increase in the leaf CO2 concentration that occurs every night due to respiration in leaves affects the ABA concentration in stomatal cells.”

The researchers developed what they call a “genetically-encoded reporter” in order to directly and instantaneously observe the movements of ABA within the mustard plant Arabidopsis. These reporters, called “ABAleons,” contain two differentially colored fluorescent proteins attached to an ABA-binding sensor protein. Once bound to ABA, the ABAleons change their fluorescence emission, which can be analyzed using a microscope. The researchers showed that ABA concentration changes and waves of ABA movement could be monitored in diverse tissues and individual cells over time and in response to stress.

“Using this reporter, we directly observed long distance ABA movements from the stem of a germinating seedling to the leaves and roots of the growing plant and, for the first time, we were able to determine the rate of ABA movement within the growing plant,” says Schroeder.

“Using this tool, we now can detect ABA in live plants and see how it is distributed,” says Rainer Waadt, a postdoctoral associate in Schroeder’s laboratory and the first author of the paper. “We are also able to directly see that environmental stress causes an increase in the ABA concentration in the stomatal guard cells that surround each stomatal pore. In the future, our sensors can be used to study ABA distribution in response to different stresses, including CO2 elevations, and to identify other molecules and proteins that affect the distribution of this hormone. We can also learn how fast plants respond to stresses and which tissues are important for the response.”

The researchers demonstrated that their new ABA nanosensors also function effectively as isolated proteins. This means that the sensors could be directly employed using state-of-the-art high-throughput screening platforms to screen for chemicals that could activate or enhance a drought resistance response. The scientists say such chemicals could become useful in the future for enhancing a drought resistance response, when crops experience a severe drought, like the one that occurred in the Midwest in the summer of 2012.

The scientists have provided a 1 min. 30 sec. (roughly) video where you can watch a vastly speeded up version of the process (Courtesy: UCSD),

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

FRET-based reporters for the direct visualization of abscisic acid concentration changes and distribution in Arabidopsis by Rainer Waadt, Kenichi Hitomi, Noriyuki Nishimura, Chiharu Hitomi, Stephen R Adams, Elizabeth D Getzoff, & Julian I Schroeder. eLife 2014;3:e01739 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01739 Published April 15, 2014

This paper is open access.

ATMs (automated teller machines) fend off attackers with biomimicry and nanoparticles

Attack an ATM (automated teller machine) and you will be in peril one day soon, if Swiss researchers at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) have their way. An April 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes the inspiration,

Hot foam may soon send criminals running if they damage [an] ATM. ETH researchers have developed a special film that triggers an intense reaction when destroyed. The idea originates from a beetle that uses a gas explosion to fend off attackers.

An April 11, 2014 ETH Zurich news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news, item, provides more details about the insect inspiring this new approach to protecting ATMs and information about the increase of ATM attacks,

Its head and pronotum are usually rusty red, and its abdomen blue or shiny green: the bombardier beetle is approximately one centimetre long and common to Central Europe. At first glance, it appears harmless, but it possesses what is surely the most aggressive chemical defence system in nature. When threatened, the bombardier beetle releases a caustic spray, accompanied by a popping sound. This spray can kill ants or scare off frogs. The beetle produces the explosive agent itself when needed. Two separately stored chemicals are mixed in a reaction chamber in the beetle’s abdomen. An explosion is triggered with the help of catalytic enzymes.

“When you see how elegantly nature solves problems, you realise how deadlocked the world of technology often is,” says Wendelin Jan Stark, a professor from the ETH Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences. He and his team therefore looked to the bombardier beetle for inspiration and developed a chemical defence mechanism designed to prevent vandalism – a self-defending surface composed of several sandwich-like layers of plastic. If the surface is damaged, hot foam is sprayed in the face of the attacker. This technology could be used to prevent vandalism or protect valuable goods. “This could be used anywhere you find things that shouldn’t be touched,” said Stark. In agriculture and forestry, for example, it could be used to keep animals from gnawing on trees.

The newly developed film may be particularly well suited to protecting ATMs or cash transports, write the researchers in their paper published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A. In ATMs, banknotes are kept in cash boxes, which are exchanged regularly. The Edinburgh-based European ATM Security Team reports that the number of attacks on ATMs has increased in recent years. During the first half of 2013, more than 1,000 attacks on ATMs took place in Europe, resulting in losses of EUR 10 million.

While protective devices that can spray robbers and banknotes already exist, these are mechanical systems, explains Stark. “A small motor is set in motion when triggered by a signal from a sensor. This requires electricity, is prone to malfunctions and is expensive.” The objective of his research group is to replace complicated control systems with cleverly designed materials.

More technical information about the films and about an earlier project applying a similar technology to seeds is offered in the news release,

The researchers use plastic films with a honeycomb structure for their self-defending surface. The hollow spaces are filled with one of two chemicals: hydrogen peroxide or manganese dioxide. The two separate films are then stuck on top of each another. A layer of clear lacquer separates the two films filled with the different chemicals. When subjected to an impact, the interlayer is destroyed, causing the hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide to mix. This triggers a violent reaction that produces water vapour, oxygen and heat. Whereas enzymes act as catalysts in the bombardier beetle, manganese dioxide has proven to be a less expensive alternative for performing this function in the lab.

The researchers report that the product of the reaction in the film is more of a foam than a spray when compared to the beetle, as can be seen in slow motion video footage. Infrared images show that the temperature of the foam reaches 80 degrees. Just as in nature, very little mechanical energy is required in the laboratory to release a much greater amount of chemical energy – quite similar to a fuse or an electrically ignited combustion cycle in an engine.

To protect the cash boxes, the researchers prepare the film by adding manganese dioxide. They then add a dye along with DNA enveloped in nanoparticles. If the film is destroyed, both the foam and the dye are released, thereby rendering the cash useless. The DNA nanoparticles that are also released mark the banknotes so that their path can be traced. Laboratory experiments with 5 euro banknotes have shown that the method is effective. The researchers write that the costs are also reasonable and expect one square meter of film to cost approximately USD 40.

In a similar earlier project, ETH researchers developed a multi-layer protective envelope for seed that normally undergoes complex chemical treatment. Researchers emulated the protective mechanism of peaches and other fruit, which releases toxic hydrogen cyanide to keep the kernels from being eaten. Wheat seeds are coated with substances that also form hydrocyanic acid when they react. However, the base substances are separated from each other in different layers and react only when the seeds are bitten by a herbivore. Stark describes the successful research method as “imitating nature and realising simple ideas with high-tech methods.”

Here are links to and citations for both research papers (ATM & seeds),

Self-defending anti-vandalism surfaces based on mechanically triggered mixing of reactants in polymer foils by Jonas G. Halter, Nicholas H. Cohrs, Nora Hild, Daniela Paunescu, Robert N. Grass, and Wendelin Jan Stark. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2014, DOI: 10.1039/C3TA15326F First published online 07 Mar 2014

Induced cyanogenesis from hydroxynitrile lyase and mandelonitrile on wheat with polylactic acid multilayer-coating produces self-defending seeds by Jonas G. Halter, Weida D. Chen, Nora Hild, Carlos A. Mora, Philipp R. Stoessel, Fabian M. Koehler, Robert N. Grass, and Wendelin J. Stark. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2014,2, 853-858 DOI: 10.1039/C3TA14249C
First published online 03 Dec 2013

The ‘anti-vandalism’ paper is open access but the ‘cyanogenesis’ paper is not. As for the beetle who inspired this work, here’s an image of one courtesy of ETH,

The bombardier beetle inspired the researchers of ETH Zurich. (Photo: jayvee18 – Fotolia)

The bombardier beetle inspired the researchers of ETH Zurich. (Photo: jayvee18 – Fotolia)

It looks rather pretty with its hard green (iridescent?) back shell.

Good lignin, bad lignin: Florida researchers use plant waste to create lignin nanotubes while researchers in British Columbia develop trees with less lignin

An April 4, 2014 news item on Azonano describes some nanotube research at the University of Florida that reaches past carbon to a new kind of nanotube,

Researchers with the University of Florida’s [UF] Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences took what some would consider garbage and made a remarkable scientific tool, one that could someday help to correct genetic disorders or treat cancer without chemotherapy’s nasty side effects.

Wilfred Vermerris, an associate professor in UF’s department of microbiology and cell science, and Elena Ten, a postdoctoral research associate, created from plant waste a novel nanotube, one that is much more flexible than rigid carbon nanotubes currently used. The researchers say the lignin nanotubes – about 500 times smaller than a human eyelash – can deliver DNA directly into the nucleus of human cells in tissue culture, where this DNA could then correct genetic conditions. Experiments with DNA injection are currently being done with carbon nanotubes, as well.

“That was a surprising result,” Vermerris said. “If you can do this in actual human beings you could fix defective genes that cause disease symptoms and replace them with functional DNA delivered with these nanotubes.”

An April 3, 2014 University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences news release, which originated the news item, describes the lignin nanotubes (LNTs) and future applications in more detail,

The nanotube is made up of lignin from plant material obtained from a UF biofuel pilot facility in Perry, Fla. Lignin is an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and enables water movement from the roots to the leaves, but it is not used to make biofuels and would otherwise be burned to generate heat or electricity at the biofuel plant. The lignin nanotubes can be made from a variety of plant residues, including sorghum, poplar, loblolly pine and sugar cane. [emphasis mine]

The researchers first tested to see if the nanotubes were toxic to human cells and were surprised to find that they were less so than carbon nanotubes. Thus, they could deliver a higher dose of medicine to the human cell tissue.  Then they researched if the nanotubes could deliver plasmid DNA to the same cells and that was successful, too. A plasmid is a small DNA molecule that is physically separate from, and can replicate independently of, chromosomal DNA within a cell.

“It’s not a very smooth road because we had to try different experiments to confirm the results,” Ten said. “But it was very fruitful.”

In cases of genetic disorders, the nanotube would be loaded with a functioning copy of a gene, and injected into the body, where it would target the affected tissue, which then makes the missing protein and corrects the genetic disorder.

Although Vermerris cautioned that treatment in humans is many years away, among the conditions that these gene-carrying nanotubes could correct include cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. But, he added, that patients would have to take the corrective DNA via nanotubes on a continuing basis.

Another application under consideration is to use the lignin nanotubes for the delivery of chemotherapy drugs in cancer patients. The nanotubes would ensure the drugs only get to the tumor without affecting healthy tissues.

Vermerris said they created different types of nanotubes, depending on the experiment. They could also adapt nanotubes to a patient’s specific needs, a process called customization.

“You can think about it as a chest of drawers and, depending on the application, you open one drawer or use materials from a different drawer to get things just right for your specific application,” he said.  “It’s not very difficult to do the customization.”

The next step in the research process is for Vermerris and Ten to begin experiments on mice. They are in the application process for those experiments, which would take several years to complete.  If those are successful, permits would need to be obtained for their medical school colleagues to conduct research on human patients, with Vermerris and Ten providing the nanotubes for that research.

“We are a long way from that point,” Vermerris said. “That’s the optimistic long-term trajectory.”

I hope they have good luck with this work. I have emphasized the plant waste the University of Florida scientists studied due to the inclusion of poplar, which is featured in the University of British Columbia research work also being mentioned in this post.

Getting back to Florida for a moment, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Lignin Nanotubes As Vehicles for Gene Delivery into Human Cells by Elena Ten, Chen Ling, Yuan Wang, Arun Srivastava, Luisa Amelia Dempere, and Wilfred Vermerris. Biomacromolecules, 2014, 15 (1), pp 327–338 DOI: 10.1021/bm401555p Publication Date (Web): December 5, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are trying to limit the amount of lignin in trees (specifically poplars, which are not mentioned in this excerpt but in the next). From an April 3, 2014 UBC news release,

Researchers have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel, a breakthrough that will mean using fewer chemicals, less energy and creating fewer environmental pollutants.

“One of the largest impediments for the pulp and paper industry as well as the emerging biofuel industry is a polymer found in wood known as lignin,” says Shawn Mansfield, a professor of Wood Science at the University of British Columbia.

Lignin makes up a substantial portion of the cell wall of most plants and is a processing impediment for pulp, paper and biofuel. Currently the lignin must be removed, a process that requires significant chemicals and energy and causes undesirable waste.

Researchers used genetic engineering to modify the lignin to make it easier to break down without adversely affecting the tree’s strength.

“We’re designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible,” says Mansfield.

Researchers had previously tried to tackle this problem by reducing the quantity of lignin in trees by suppressing genes, which often resulted in trees that are stunted in growth or were susceptible to wind, snow, pests and pathogens.

“It is truly a unique achievement to design trees for deconstruction while maintaining their growth potential and strength.”

The study, a collaboration between researchers at the University of British Columbia, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University, is a collaboration funded by Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, was published today in Science.

Here’s more about lignin and how a decrease would free up more material for biofuels in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, from the news release,

The structure of lignin naturally contains ether bonds that are difficult to degrade. Researchers used genetic engineering to introduce ester bonds into the lignin backbone that are easier to break down chemically.

The new technique means that the lignin may be recovered more effectively and used in other applications, such as adhesives, insolation, carbon fibres and paint additives.

Genetic modification

The genetic modification strategy employed in this study could also be used on other plants like grasses to be used as a new kind of fuel to replace petroleum.

Genetic modification can be a contentious issue, but there are ways to ensure that the genes do not spread to the forest. These techniques include growing crops away from native stands so cross-pollination isn’t possible; introducing genes to make both the male and female trees or plants sterile; and harvesting trees before they reach reproductive maturity.

In the future, genetically modified trees could be planted like an agricultural crop, not in our native forests. Poplar is a potential energy crop for the biofuel industry because the tree grows quickly and on marginal farmland. [emphasis mine] Lignin makes up 20 to 25 per cent of the tree.

“We’re a petroleum reliant society,” says Mansfield. “We rely on the same resource for everything from smartphones to gasoline. We need to diversify and take the pressure off of fossil fuels. Trees and plants have enormous potential to contribute carbon to our society.”

As noted earlier, the researchers in Florida mention poplars in their paper (Note: Links have been removed),

Gymnosperms such as loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) contain lignin that is composed almost exclusively of G-residues, whereas lignin from angiosperm dicots, including poplar (Populus spp.) contains a mixture of G- and S-residues. [emphasis mine] Due to the radical-mediated addition of monolignols to the growing lignin polymer, lignin contains a variety of interunit bonds, including aryl–aryl, aryl–alkyl, and alkyl–alkyl bonds.(3) This feature, combined with the association between lignin and cell-wall polysaccharides, which involves both physical and chemical interactions, make the isolation of lignin from plant cell walls challenging. Various isolation methods exist, each relying on breaking certain types of chemical bonds within the lignin, and derivatizations to solubilize the resulting fragments.(5) Several of these methods are used on a large scale in pulp and paper mills and biorefineries, where lignin needs to be removed from woody biomass and crop residues(6) in order to use the cellulose for the production of paper, biofuels, and biobased polymers. The lignin is present in the waste stream and has limited intrinsic economic value.(7)

Since hydroxyl and carboxyl groups in lignin facilitate functionalization, its compatibility with natural and synthetic polymers for different commercial applications have been extensively studied.(8-12) One of the promising directions toward the cost reduction associated with biofuel production is the use of lignin for low-cost carbon fibers.(13) Other recent studies reported development and characterization of lignin nanocomposites for multiple value-added applications. For example, cellulose nanocrystals/lignin nanocomposites were developed for improved optical, antireflective properties(14, 15) and thermal stability of the nanocomposites.(16) [emphasis mine] Model ultrathin bicomponent films prepared from cellulose and lignin derivatives were used to monitor enzyme binding and cellulolytic reactions for sensing platform applications.(17) Enzymes/“synthetic lignin” (dehydrogenation polymer (DHP)) interactions were also investigated to understand how lignin impairs enzymatic hydrolysis during the biomass conversion processes.(18)

The synthesis of lignin nanotubes and nanowires was based on cross-linking a lignin base layer to an alumina membrane, followed by peroxidase-mediated addition of DHP and subsequent dissolution of the membrane in phosphoric acid.(1) Depending upon monomers used for the deposition of DHP, solid nanowires, or hollow nanotubes could be manufactured and easily functionalized due to the presence of many reactive groups. Due to their autofluorescence, lignin nanotubes permit label-free detection under UV radiation.(1) These features make lignin nanotubes suitable candidates for numerous biomedical applications, such as the delivery of therapeutic agents and DNA to specific cells.

The synthesis of LNTs in a sacrificial template membrane is not limited to a single source of lignin or a single lignin isolation procedure. Dimensions of the LNTs and their cytotoxicity to HeLa cells appear to be determined primarily by the lignin isolation procedure, whereas the transfection efficiency is also influenced by the source of the lignin (plant species and genotype). This means that LNTs can be tailored to the application for which they are intended. [emphasis mine] The ability to design LNTs for specific purposes will benefit from a more thorough understanding of the relationship between the structure and the MW of the lignin used to prepare the LNTs, the nanomechanical properties, and the surface characteristics.

We have shown that DNA is physically associated with the LNTs and that the LNTs enter the cytosol, and in some case the nucleus. The LNTs made from NaOH-extracted lignin are of special interest, as they were the shortest in length, substantially reduced HeLa cell viability at levels above approximately 50 mg/mL, and, in the case of pine and poplar, were the most effective in the transfection [penetrating the cell with a bacterial plasmid to leave genetic material in this case] experiments. [emphasis mine]

As I see the issues presented with these two research efforts, there are environmental and energy issues with extracting the lignin while there seem to be some very promising medical applications possible with lignin ‘waste’. These two research efforts aren’t necessarily antithetical but they do raise some very interesting issues as to how we approach our use of resources and future policies.

Food and nanotechnology (as per Popular Mechanics) and zinc oxide nanoparticles in soil (as per North Dakota State University)

I wouldn’t expect to find an article about food in a magazine titled Popular Mechanics but there it is, a Feb. 19,2014 article by Christina Ortiz (Note: A link has been removed),

For a little more than a decade, the food industry has been using nanotechnology to change the way we grow and maintain our food. The grocery chain Albertsons currently has a list of nanotech-touched foods in its home brand, ranging from cookies to cheese blends.

Nanotechnology use in food has real advantages: The technology gives producers the power to control how food looks, tastes, and even how long it lasts.

Looks Good and Good for You?

The most commonly used nanoparticle in foods is titanium dioxide. It’s used to make foods such as yogurt and coconut flakes look as white as possible, provide opacity to other food colorings, and prevent ingredients from caking up. Nanotech isn’t just about aesthetics, however. The biggest potential use for this method involves improving the nutritional value of foods.

Nano additives can enhance or prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. In an email interview with Popular Mechanics, Jonathan Brown, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, says this method could be used to make mayonnaise less fattening by replacing fat molecules with water droplets.

I did check out US grocer, Albertson’s list of ‘nanofoods’, which they provide and discovered that it’s an undated listing on the Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies’ Consumer Products Inventory (CPI). The inventory has been revived recently after lying moribund for a few years (my Oct. 28, 2013 posting describes the fall and rise) and I believe that this 2013 CPI incarnation includes some oversight and analysis of the claims made, which the earlier version did not include. Given that the Albertson’s list is undated it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of the claims regarding the foodstuffs.

If you haven’t read about nanotechnology and food before, the Ortiz article provides a relatively even-handed primer although it does end on a cautionary note. In any event, it was interesting to get a bit of information about the process of ‘nanofood’ regulation in the US and other jurisdictions (from the Ortiz article),

Aside from requiring manufacturers to provide proof that nanotechnology foods are safe, the FDA has yet to implement specific testing of its own. But many countries are researching ways to balance innovation and regulation in this market. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an annual risk assessment report outlining how the European Union is addressing the issue of nanotech in food. In Canada the Food Directorate “is taking a case-by-case approach to the safety assessment of food products containing or using nanomaterials.”

I featured the FDA’s efforts regarding regulation and ‘nanofood’ in an April 23, 2012 posting,

It looks to me like this [FDA's draft guidance for 'nanofoods'] is an attempt to develop a relationship where the industry players in the food industry to police their nanotechnology initiatives with the onus being on industry to communicate with the regulators in a continuous process, if not at the research stage certainly at the production stage.

At least one of the primary issues with any emerging technology revolves around the question of risk. Do we stop all manufacturing and development of nanotechnology-enabled food products until we’ve done the research? That question assumes that taking any risks is not worth the currently perceived benefits. The corresponding question, do we move forward and hope for the best? does get expressed perhaps not quite so baldly; I have seen material which suggests that research into risks needlessly hampers progress.

After reading on this topic for five or so years, my sense is that most people are prepared to combine the two approaches, i.e., move forward while researching possible risks. The actual conflicts seem to centre around these questions, how quickly do we move forward; how much research do we need; and what is an acceptable level of risk?

On the topic of researching the impact that nanoparticles might have on plants (food or otherwise), a January 24, 2013 North Dakota State University (NDSU) news release highlights a student researcher’s work on soil, plants, and zinc oxide nanoparticles,

NDSU senior Hannah Passolt is working on a project that is venturing into a very young field of research. The study about how crops’ roots absorb a microscopic nutrient might be described as being ahead of the cutting-edge.

In a laboratory of NDSU’s Wet Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with plant sciences, Passolt is exploring how two varieties of wheat take up extremely tiny pieces of zinc, called nanoparticles, from the soil.

As a point of reference, the particles Passolt is examining are measured at below 30 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.

“It’s the mystery of nanoparticles that is fascinating to me,” explained the zoology major from Fargo. “The behavior of nanoparticles in the environment is largely unknown as it is a very new, exciting science. This type of project has never been done before.”

In Passolt’s research project, plants supplied by NDSU wheat breeders are grown in a hydroponic solution, with different amounts of zinc oxide nanoparticles introduced into the solution.

Compared to naturally occurring zinc, engineered zinc nanoparticles can have very different properties. They can be highly reactive, meaning they can injure cells and tissues, and may cause genetic damage. The plants are carefully observed for any changes in growth rate and appearance. When the plants are harvested, researchers will analyze them for actual zinc content.

“Zinc is essential for a plant’s development. However, in excess, it can be harmful,” Passolt said. “In one of my experiments, we are using low and high levels of zinc, and the high concentrations are showing detrimental effects. However, we will have to analyze the plants for zinc concentrations to see if there have been any effects from the zinc nanoparticles.”

Passolt has conducted undergraduate research with the Wet Ecosystem Research Group for the past two years. She said working side-by-side with Donna Jacob, research assistant professor of biological sciences; Marinus Otte; professor of biological sciences; and Mohamed Mergoum, professor of plant sciences, has proven to be challenging, invigorating and rewarding.

“I’ve gained an incredible skill set – my research experience has built upon itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty big role in an important study. To me, that is invaluable,” Passolt said. “To put effort into something that goes for the greater good of science is a very important lesson to learn.”

According to Jacob, Passolt volunteered two years ago, and she has since become an important member of the group. She has assisted graduate students and worked on her own small project, the results of which she presented at regional and international scientific conferences. “We offered her this large, complex experiment, and she’s really taken charge,” Jacob said, noting Passolt assisted with the project’s design, handled care of the plants and applied the treatments. When the project is completed, Passolt will publish a peer-reviewed scientific article.

“There is nothing like working on your own experiment to fully understand science,” Jacob said. “Since coming to NDSU in 2006, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group has worked with more than 50 undergraduates, possible only because of significant support from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, known as INBRE, of the NIH National Center for Research Resources.”

Jacob said seven undergraduate students from the lab have worked on their own research projects and presented their work at conferences. Two articles, so far, have been published by undergraduate co-authors. “I believe the students gain valuable experience and an understanding of what scientists really do during fieldwork and in the laboratory,” Jacob said. “They see it is vastly different from book learning, and that scientists use creativity and ingenuity daily. I hope they come away from their experience with some excitement about research, in addition to a better resume.”

Passolt anticipates the results of her work could be used in a broader view of our ecosystem. She notes zinc nanoparticles are an often-used ingredient in such products as lotions, sunscreens and certain drug delivery systems. “Zinc nanoparticles are being introduced into the environment,” she said. “It gets to plants at some point, so we want to see if zinc nanoparticles have a positive or negative effect, or no effect at all.”

Researching nanoparticles the effects they might have on the environment and on health is a complex process as there are many types of nanoparticles some of which have been engineered and some of which occur naturally, silver nanoparticles being a prime example of both engineered and naturally occurring nanoparticles. (As well, the risks may lie more with interactions between nanomaterials.) For an example of research, which seems similar to the NDSU effort, there’s this open access research article,

Low Concentrations of Silver Nanoparticles in Biosolids Cause Adverse Ecosystem Responses under Realistic Field Scenario by Benjamin P. Colman, Christina L. Arnaout, Sarah Anciaux, Claudia K. Gunsch, Michael F. Hochella Jr, Bojeong Kim, Gregory V. Lowry,  Bonnie M. McGill, Brian C. Reinsch, Curtis J. Richardson, Jason M. Unrine, Justin P. Wright, Liyan Yin, and Emily S. Bernhardt. PLoS ONE 2013; 8 (2): e57189 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057189

One last comment, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group (WERG) mentioned in the news release about Passolt has an interesting history (from the homepage; Note: Links have been removed),

Marinus Otte and Donna Jacob brought WERG to the Department of Biological Sciences in the Fall of 2006.  Prior to that, the research group had been going strong at University College Dublin, Ireland, since 1992.

The aims for the research group are to train graduate and undergraduate students in scientific research, particularly wetlands, plants, biogeochemistry, watershed ecology and metals in the environment.  WERG research  covers a wide range of scales, from microscopic (e.g. biogeochemical processes in the rhizosphere of plants) to landscape (e.g. chemical and ecological connectivity between prairie potholes across North Dakota).  Regardless of the scale, the central theme is biogeochemistry and the interactions between multiple elements in wet environments.

The group works to collaborate with a variety of researchers, including soil scientists, geologists, environmental engineers, microbiologists, as well as with groups underpinning management of natural resources, such the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Natural Resources of Red Lake Indian Reservation, and the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Water Quality.

Currently, WERG has several projects, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota.  Otte and Jacob are also Co-directors of the North Dakota INBRE Metal Analysis Core, providing laboratory facilities and mentoring for researchers in undergraduate colleges throughout the state. Otte and Jacob are also members of the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium.

Australians protect grain with diatoms (Nature’s nanofabrication factories)

A Feb. 5, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a presentation about protecting grain from insects given at the  ICONN2014-ACMM23 conference for nanoscience and microscopy held Feb. 3 -6, 2014 at the University of Adelaide (Australia). From the news item,

University of Adelaide researchers are using nanotechnology and the fossils of single-celled algae to develop a novel chemical-free and resistance-free way of protecting stored grain from insects.

The researchers are taking advantage of the unique properties of these single-celled algae, called diatoms. Diatoms have been called Nature’s nanofabrication factories because of their production of tiny (nanoscale) structures made from silica which have a range of properties of potential interest for nanotechnology.

“One area of our research is focussed on transforming this cheap diatom silica, readily available as a by-product of mining, into valuable nanomaterials for diverse applications – one of which is pest control,” says Professor Dusan Losic, ARC Future Fellow in the University’s School of Chemical Engineering.

The Feb. 5, 2014 University of Adelaide media release, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

“There are two looming issues for the world-wide protection against insect pests of stored grain: firstly, the development of resistance by many species to conventional pest controls – insecticides and the fumigant phosphine – and, secondly, the increasing consumer demand for residue-free grain products and food,” Professor Losic says.

“In the case of Australia, we export grain worth about $8 billion each year – about 25 million tonnes – which could be under serious threat. We urgently need to find alternative methods for stored grain protection which are ecologically sound and resistance-free.”

The researchers are using a natural, non-toxic silica material based on the ‘diatomaceous earths’ formed by the fossilisation of diatoms. The material disrupts the insect’s protective cuticle, causing the insect to dehydrate.

“This is a natural and non-toxic material with a significant advantage being that, as only a physical mode of action is involved, the insects won’t develop resistance,” says Professor Losic. [emphasis mine]

“Equally important is that it is environmentally stable with high insecticidal activity for a long period of time. Therefore, stored products can be protected for longer periods of time without the need for frequent re-application.”

PhD student Sheena Chen is presenting her findings on the insecticidal activity of the material. PhD student John Hayles is also working on the project. The research is funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation. The researchers are in the final stages of optimising the formula of the material.

This work be may of interest to Canadian farmers especially since 2013 featured the largest wheat and canola harvests in Canadian history according to a Dec. 4, 2013 article by Terryn Shiells for AgCanada.com,

“There’s just no getting around it, this is the biggest crop of Canadian history and it’s basically a shocker all around,” said Mike Jubinville of ProFarmer Canada in Winnipeg. “I really can’t think of a crop, other than peas and lentils, that didn’t provide an upside that betters what trade expectations were.”

Because all of the crops are so huge, it won’t be possible to move the entire crop this year, Jubinville said.

“We’re going to argue all we want about rail car allocations, about slow deliverable opportunities, but there’s just no way that the Canadian commercial handling system can move this crop,” he said.

Because there just isn’t enough capacity to get everything moved this year, there will also likely be larger than anticipated carryover stocks of all crops.

I imagine these bumper crops will mean there are storage issues which brings this piece back to the Australians and their work on preserving stored grain by using diatoms and silica material.  Perhaps Canadian farmers would like to test this “new natural and non-toxic material” once the formula has been optimized.

Agriculture and nano in Ireland and at Stanford University (California)

I have two news items one of which concerns the countries of  Ireland and Northern Ireland and a recent workshop on agriculture and nanotechnology held in Belfast, Northern Ireland . The papers presented at the workshop have now been made available for downloading according to a Jan. 25, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

On January 9, 2014, safefood, the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast, and Teagasc Food Research Centre organized a workshop Nanotechnology in the agri-food industry: Applications, opportunities and challenges. The presentations from this event are now availabled as downloadable pdf files …

According to its hompage, Teagasc “is the agriculture and food development authority in Ireland. Its mission is to support science-based innovation in the agri-food sector and the broader bioeconomy that will underpin profitability, competitiveness and sustainability.”

The full list of presentations and access to them can be found on Nanowerk or on this Teagasc publications page,

Presentations

My next item is also focused on agriculture although not wholly. From a Jan. 26, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

University researchers from two continents have engineered an efficient and environmentally friendly catalyst for the production of molecular hydrogen (H2), a compound used extensively in modern industry to manufacture fertilizer and refine crude oil into gasoline.

The Stanford University School of Engineering news release (dated Jan. 27, 2014) by Tom Abate, which originated the news item, (Note: Links have been removed) describes the work,

Although hydrogen is an abundant element, it is generally not found as the pure gas H2 but is generally bound to oxygen in water (H2O) or to carbon in methane (CH4), the primary component in natural gas. At present, industrial hydrogen is produced from natural gas using a process that consumes a great deal of energy while also releasing carbon into the atmosphere, thus contributing to global carbon emissions.

In an article published today in Nature Chemistry, nanotechnology experts from Stanford Engineering and from Denmark’s Aarhus University explain how to liberate hydrogen from water on an industrial scale by using electrolysis.

In electrolysis, electrical current flows through a metallic electrode immersed in water. This electron flow induces a chemical reaction that breaks the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The electrode serves as a catalyst, a material that can spur one reaction after another without ever being used up. Platinum is the best catalyst for electrolysis. If cost were no object, platinum might be used to produce hydrogen from water today.

But money matters. The world consumes about 55 billion kilograms of hydrogen a year. It now costs about $1 to $2 per kilogram to produce hydrogen from methane. So any competing process, even if it’s greener, must hit that production cost, which rules out electrolysis based on platinum.

In their Nature Chemistry paper, the researchers describe how they re-engineered the atomic structure of a cheap and common industrial material to make it nearly as efficient at electrolysis as platinum – a finding that has the potential to revolutionize industrial hydrogen production.

The project was conceived by Jakob Kibsgaard, a post-doctoral researcher with Thomas Jaramillo, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. Kibsgaard started this project while working with Flemming Besenbacher, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) at Aarhus.

There’s more about about the history of electrolysis and hydrogen production and about how the scientists developed their technique in the news release but this time I want to focus on the issue of scalability,. From the news release,

But in chemical engineering, success in a beaker is only the beginning.

The larger questions were: could this technology scale to the 55 billion kilograms per year global demand for hydrogen, and at what finished cost per kilogram?

Last year, Jaramillo and a dozen co-authors studied four factory-scale production schemes in an article for The Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal of Energy and Environmental Science.

They concluded that it could be feasible to produce hydrogen in factory-scale electrolysis facilities at costs ranging from $1.60 to $10.40 per kilogram – competitive at the low end with current practices based on methane – though some of their assumptions were based on new plant designs and materials.

“There are many pieces of the puzzle still needed to make this work and much effort ahead to realize them,” Jaramillo said. “However, we can get huge returns by moving from carbon-intensive resources to renewable, sustainable technologies to produce the chemicals we need for food and energy.”

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

Building an appropriate active-site motif into a hydrogen-evolution catalyst with thiomolybdate [Mo3S13]2− clusters by Jakob Kibsgaard, Thomas F. Jaramillo, & Flemming Besenbacher. Nature Chemistry (2014) doi:10.1038/nchem.1853 Published online 26 January 2014

This article is behind a paywall.

Catching up with Vive Crop Protection—advanced insecticide formulations, marketing in the US, and more

Starting with the “and more” part of the headline, it’s great to have found an article describing Vive Crop’s technology in language I can understand, Sadly, I failed to see it until Dec. 26, 2013,. Titled “Vive La Crop! nanotech venture vive crop protection of toronto has developed a more eco-friendly way to keep pests, fungi and weeds out of farmers’ fields. and that’s just the beginning,” is written by Tyler Hamilton for the April 2012 issue of ACCN the Canadian Chemical News (L’Actualite chemique canadienne) and it answers many of the questions I’ve had about Vive Crop’s Allosperse technology,

Pesticides don’t have the best reputation when it comes to their potential impacts on human health, but even more concerning — for regulators especially — are the volatile organic solvents frequently relied on to deliver crop-protection chemicals to farmers’ fields.

The solvents themselves are often known carcinogens, not the kind of thing we want on farmland that grows soy, corn and wheat. And they’re not as effective as they could be. Farmers tend to overspray to make sure enough of the active ingredients in insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are dispersed across a field to be effective.

It’s why Vive Crop Protection, a Toronto-based nanotechnology company specializing in crop protection, has been attracting so much attention from some of the world’s biggest chemical companies. Vive Crop (formerly Vive Nano, and before that Northern Nanotechnologies) has done away with the need for volatile organic solvents.

At the heart of Vive Crop’s technology are polymer particles the company has trademarked under the name Allosperse, which measure less than 10 nanometres in size. It describes these particles as ultra- small cages — or “really tiny little FEDEX boxes” in the words of CEO [Chief Executive Officer] Keith Thomas — which hold active pesticide ingredients and are engineered to disperse evenly in water.

Even and thorough dispersal is critical. Avinash Bhaskar, an analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan who has followed Vive Crop closely, says one of the biggest problems with pesticides is they tend to agglomerate, resulting in uneven, clustery distribution on fields. “You want uniform distribution on the soil,” Bhaskar says. “Vive Crop’s technology prevents agglomeration and this is a key differentiator in the market.”

How Vive Crop chemically engineers these Allosperse particles is the company’s core innovation. It starts by dissolving negatively charged polymers in water. The like charges repel so the polymers spread out in the solution. Then positively charged ions are added to the mix. These ions neutralize the charge around the polymers, causing the polymers to collapse around the ions and create a kind of nanocage — the Allosperse.

The company then filters out the positive and negative ions and loads up the empty cages with molecules of active pesticide ingredients. The cage itself is amphiphilic, meaning it has both water-attracting and water-repelling areas. In this case, the outer shell attracts water and the inner core doesn’t. “While in water the active ingredient, which also hates water, stays inside (the cages),” explains Vive Crop chief technology officer Darren Anderson. Because the outside of the cages like water, the particles freely and evenly disperse. “Once sprayed on the crop, the water droplets evaporate and the active ingredient gradually disperses from the particles that are left behind.” How does Vive Crop assure that the Allosperse cages are amphiphilic? “I can’t tell you the answer,” says Anderson. “It’s part of our secret sauce.”

What the company can say is that the polymer cages themselves are benign. Vive Crop makes them out of chitosans, found naturally in the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans, and polyacrylic acid, the super-absorbent material found in baby diapers.

Interestingly, the core technology appears to be based on a former student project,

The core technology was developed in the early 2000s by Jordan Dinglasan, a chemistry student from the Philippines who took up graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Dinglasan and fellow researchers at U of T’s Department of Chemistry, including Anderson and chemistry professor Cynthia Goh, decided in 2006 that they wanted to reach beyond the walls of academia and create a company to commercialize the technology.

At the time of the Hamilton article, the company had 30 employees. Since the April 2012 article, the company has been busy as I’ve written an Aug. 7, 2013 posting about the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) approval of Vive Crop’s VCP-01, Bifenthrin 10 DF insecticide for foliar use on crops, turf, and ornamentals. and a September 25, 2013 posting about funding for two Vive Crop projects from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Now in the last weeks of December 2013 Vive Crop has issued two more news releases. First, there’s the Dec. 17, 2013 Vive Crop news release announcing a marketing initiative with a US company, AMVAC Chemical Corporation, which is wholly owned by American Vanguard Corporation and is based in California,,

Vive Crop Protection, Inc. and AMVAC Chemical Corporation are pleased to announce a collaboration to develop and market an advanced insecticide formulation for multiple uses in the United States.  The products leverage Vive’s patented AllosperseT technology delivering enhanced agronomic performance and new application opportunities to AMVAC’s customers.

“We are quite excited about working with AMVAC to add to their portfolio of innovative products,” said Vive CEO Keith Thomas. “Vive is rapidly developing a strong pipeline of effective crop protection products for our partners and growers.”

“As part of AMVAC’s continued commitment to innovate and deliver products with the best technology available, we are very pleased to be working with and investigating this new technology from Vive” said AMVAC Eric Wintemute, CEO of AMVAC .

Vive Crop followed up with a Dec. 19, 2013 news release announcing another marketing initiative, this time with United Suppliers (based in Iowa, US),

United Suppliers, Inc. and Vive Crop Protection, Inc. are pleased to announce a collaboration to demonstrate and market advanced formulation technologies in the United States. Targeted to launch in the 2015 growing season, these technologies will leverage Vive’s patented AllosperseT delivery system to provide enhanced agronomic performance and new application opportunities to United Suppliers’ leading-edge owners and customers.

“We are pursuing the capabilities of getting more activity out of the products we are using in current and expanded applications,” said United Suppliers VP of Crop Protection and Seed Brett Bruggeman. “United Suppliers’ retail owners are in the best position to deliver new technology to growers.”

“We are quite excited about working with United Suppliers to provide innovative products to their customers,” said Vive CEO Keith Thomas. “Vive is rapidly developing a strong pipeline of effective crop protection products for our partners and growers.”

About United Suppliers
United Suppliers is a unique, customer-owned wholesale supplier of crop protection inputs, seed and crop nutrients, with headquarters in Eldora and Ames, Iowa. Founded in 1963, United Suppliers is today comprised of more than 650 agricultural retailers (Owners) who operate nearly 2,800 retail locations throughout the United States and parts of Canada. The mission of United Suppliers is to be the supplier of choice while increasing its Owners’ capabilities and competitiveness. To meet this goal, United Suppliers strives to provide Owners with transparent market intelligence, innovative products, reliable market access and customized business solutions. For more information, please visit www.unitedsuppliers.com.

About Vive Crop Protection
Vive Crop Protection makes products that better protect crops from pests. The company has won a number of awards and was highly commended for Best Formulation Innovation at the 2012 Agrow Awards. Vive’s patented Allosperse delivery system has the ability to coat plants more evenly, which provides better crop protection and can lead to increased yields. Vive is working with partners across the globe that share our vision of bringing safer, more effective crop protection products to growers everywhere. For more information, see www.vivecrop.com.

I wish Vive Crop all the best in 2014 as it capitalizes on the momentum it seems to be building.

Cleaning up water polluted by agricultural fertilizers

Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) have announced a new catalyst for cleaning nitrites from water polluted by agricultural fertilizers (from the Rice University November 25, 2013 news release ,[also on EurekAlert]),

Chemical engineers at Rice University have found a new catalyst that can rapidly break down nitrites, a common and harmful contaminant in drinking water that often results from overuse of agricultural fertilizers.

Nitrites and their more abundant cousins, nitrates, are inorganic compounds that are often found in both groundwater and surface water. The compounds are a health hazard, and the Environmental Protection Agency places strict limits on the amount of nitrates and nitrites in drinking water. While it’s possible to remove nitrates and nitrites from water with filters and resins, the process can be prohibitively expensive.

There is a map illustrating the problem,

CAPTION: Many areas of the United States are at risk of contamination of drinking water by nitrates and nitrites due to overuse of agricultural fertilizers. CREDIT: USGS

CAPTION: Many areas of the United States are at risk of contamination of drinking water by nitrates and nitrites due to overuse of agricultural fertilizers.
CREDIT: USGS Courtesy: Rice University

Here’s more about these new catalysts designed to ‘scrub’ water clean (from the news release; Note: Links have been removed),

.. Michael Wong, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice and the lead researcher on the new study [says] “Our group has studied engineered gold and palladium nanocatalysts for several years. We’ve tested these against chlorinated solvents for almost a decade and in looking for other potential uses for these we stumbled onto some studies about palladium catalysts being used to treat nitrates and nitrites; so we decided to do a comparison.”

Catalysts are the matchmakers of the molecular world: They cause other compounds to react with one another, often by bringing them into close proximity, but the catalysts are not consumed by the reaction.

In a new paper in the journal Nanoscale, Wong’s team showed that engineered nanoparticles of gold and palladium were several times more efficient at breaking down nitrites than any previously studied catalysts. The particles, which were invented at Wong’s Catalysis and Nanomaterials Laboratory, consist of a solid gold core that’s partially covered with palladium.

Over the past decade, Wong’s team has found these gold-palladium composites have faster reaction times for breaking down chlorinated pollutants than do any other known catalysts. He said the same proved true for nitrites, for reasons that are still unknown.

“There’s no chlorine in these compounds, so the chemistry is completely different,” Wong said. “It’s not yet clear how the gold and palladium work together to boost the reaction time in nitrites and why reaction efficiency spiked when the nanoparticles had about 80 percent palladium coverage. We have several hypotheses we are testing out now. ”

He said that gold-palladium nanocatalysts with the optimal formulation were about 15 times more efficient at breaking down nitrites than were pure palladium nanocatalysts, and about 7 1/2 times more efficient than catalysts made of palladium and aluminum oxide.

I gather this team will be doing more work before promoting the use of gold-palladium nanocatalysts (from the news release),

Wong said he can envision using the gold-palladium catalysts in a small filtration unit that could be attached to a water tap, but only if the team finds a similarly efficient catalyst for breaking down nitrates, which are even more abundant pollutants than nitrites.

“Nitrites form wherever you have nitrates, which are really the root of the problem,” Wong said. “We’re actively studying a number of candidates for degrading nitrates now, and we have some positive leads.”

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

Supporting palladium metal on gold nanoparticles improves its catalysis for nitrite reduction by Huifeng Qian, Zhun Zhao, Juan C. Velazquez, Lori A. Pretzer, Kimberly N. Hecka and Michael S. Wong. Nanoscale, 2014, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C3NR04540D First published online 30 Oct 2013

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Vive Crop, two projects, and $14.7M in funding

The Canadian government used to create Crown Corporations, a kind of quasi-government agency/ business corporation that was run as a not-for-profit operation. Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) bears some of the marks of a crown corporation (completely government-funded) but it’s self-described as a not-for-profit foundation. Before getting to the main event (Vive Crop) here’s a little bit from the SDTC Profile page,

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is a not-for-profit foundation that finances and supports the development and demonstration of clean technologies which provide solutions to issues of climate change, clean air, water quality and soil, and which deliver economic, environmental and health benefits to Canadians.

SDTC operates two funds aimed at the development and demonstration of innovative technological solutions. The SD Tech Fund™ supports projects that address climate change, air quality, clean water, and clean soil. The NextGen Biofuels Fund™ supports the establishment of first-of-kind large demonstration-scale facilities for the production of next-generation renewable fuels.

SDTC is clearly focused on the economy and entrepreneurship in addition to sustainability as per their Sept. 9, 2013 news release about  a recent $14.7M investment,

The Government of Canada is showing its commitment to a green Canadian economy with an in investment of $14.7 million to help four new clean technology projects from across the country reach commercialization. The announcement was made today by the Honourable Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, and Dr. Vicky Sharpe, President and CEO of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

“Canada must nurture highly skilled individuals and new ideas that will help our businesses innovate, secure new markets and create well-paying jobs,” said Minister Oliver. “By supporting advanced research and technology, our government is investing in Canadian prosperity and a cleaner environment.”

“The projects announced today are great examples of the Canadian innovation and entrepreneurship that characterizes SDTC’s portfolio, valued at more than $2 billion and brimming with innovative technological solutions,” said Vicky Sharpe, President and CEO of SDTC. “Canadian cleantech leaders are continuing to create economic opportunities and open up avenues to new export markets.”


The newly-funded projects are representative of the investment priorities established in the SD Business Cases™, a series of six reports published by SDTC that provide strategic insights into specific economic sectors (available in the Knowledge Centre section of the SDTC website at http://www.sdtc.ca/).

SDTC’s SD Tech Fund™ has committed $598 million to 246 clean technology projects. These figures include adjustments made to the portfolio.

Vive Crop, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario,  is a recipient for two of the four projects being funded. Here’s more about one of the projects from the Sept. 18, 2013 Vive Crop news release,

Vive Crop Protection is pleased to announce that it received an investment of $3.7 million from the Government of Canada through Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to develop an improved pesticide application distribution method that will translate into greater efficiency and reduced wastage.

Vive’s Allosperse® particle will be used to hold pesticides and deliver them precisely where they need to go.

“Canada must nurture highly skilled individuals and new ideas that will help our businesses innovate, secure new markets and create well-paying jobs,” said Minister Oliver. “By supporting advanced research and technology, our government is investing in Canadian prosperity and a cleaner environment.”

“Canadian farmers want a more economical and effective way to protect their crops from pests,” said Keith Thomas, CEO, Vive Crop Protection. “Thanks to support from the Government of Canada through Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Vive Crop Protection will further develop the Allosperse platform, precisely targeting pesticides where they act on crops.”

The best crop protection happens when pesticides stay where they are intended to protect the crop, for example on a crop’s leaves or at its roots. Vive has developed Allosperse®, a tiny particle that has unique properties: it has a hydrophilic (water-loving) exterior and an oleophillic (oil-loving) interior. Pesticides, which are also oleophillic, are loaded into the particle before application to crops. The next generation of Allosperse particles will have increased stickiness to leaves, avoiding run-off during the rain, and will penetrate leaves and seeds to offer systemic plant protection. Finally, the specially-designed particles will control the movement of the particle through the soil, allowing it to target pests at the plant’s roots. Less product, and therefore less cost, would be required to achieve equivalent results, and growers can get better protection with less accidental surface water run-off and soil contamination.

I have written about Vive Crop previously (most recently in an Aug. 7, 2013 posting when they received approval from the US Environmental Protection Agency for an insecticide) and my curiosity about Allosperse particles has not yet been satisfied. What are the chemical constituents? In lieu of an answer to that question (it’s nowhere on the company website), I found more information about Vive Crop and its SDTC-funded projects in this latest round of funding. As I noted previously, Vive Crop is involved in two of the funded projects as per the Sept. 9, 2013 SDTC backgrounder,

2. Lead organization: Macrotek

Project Title: Novel MVI Acid Gas Scrubbing Technology Project

Environmental Benefits: Climate Change/Clean Air/Clean Water/Clean Soil

Economic Sector: Waste management

SDTC Investment: $2 million

Consortium Members:

Macrotek

Vive Crop Protection [emphasis mine]

Plasco Energy Group

Project Description:

To avoid injecting contaminants into the atmosphere, industries use chemical reactions to “scrub” exhaust before it is emitted from smokestacks. However, current scrubbing techniques use caustic and oxidizing reagents (materials used to produce a chemical reaction). Macrotek has developed a groundbreaking suite of technologies that scrub in a novel, cost-effective and efficient way. The technology is developed initially to eliminate hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is a major component of acid rain, from industrial gas streams. The technology uses a regenerative reagent, drastically reducing reagent consumption. It also converts H2S into its elemental form of sulphur, eliminating the current need to treat sulphate byproduct in wastewater streams. When full life-cycle costs are considered, this technology could cost less than 50 percent of the operating costs of traditional scrubber technologies, while maintaining or improving contaminant removal efficiency. This technology has the potential to address a multitude of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, simultaneously.

3. Lead organization: Vive Crop Protection

Project Title: Targeted Delivery for Crop Protection

Environmental Benefits: Clean water/clean soil

Economic Sector: Agriculture

SDTC Investment: $3.7 million

Consortium Members:

Vive Crop Protection

Dow AgroSciences LLC

Loveland Products Inc. (a division of crop production services)

Makhteshim Agan of North America Inc.

Halltech Inc.

University of Alberta – Office of Environmental NanoSafety

University of Toronto – Institute for Optical Sciences

McGill University

Project Description:

The best crop protection happens when pesticides stay where they are intended to protect the crop, for example on a crop’s leaves or at its roots. Vive has developed Allosperse®, a tiny particle that has unique properties: it has a hydrophilic (water-loving) exterior and an oleophilic (oil-loving) interior. Pesticides, which are also oleophilic, are loaded into the particle before application to crops. The next generation of Allosperse particles will have increased stickiness to leaves, avoiding run-off during the rain, and will penetrate leaves and seeds to offer systemic plant protection. Finally, the specially designed particles will control the movement of the particle through the soil, allowing it to target pests at the plant’s roots. Less product, and therefore less cost, would be required to achieve equivalent results, and growers can get better protection with less accidental surface water run-off and soil contamination.

Congratulations to Vive Crop and all of the other funding recipients!

Reliable method for detecting silver nanoparticle in fresh food and produce

The tone of an Aug. 22, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily about detecting silver naooparticles seems a bit alarmist,

Over the last few years, the use of nanomaterials for water treatment, food packaging, pesticides, cosmetics and other industries has increased. For example, farmers have used silver nanoparticles as a pesticide because of their capability to suppress the growth of harmful organisms. However, a growing concern is that these particles could pose a potential health risk to humans and the environment. In a new study, researchers at the University of Missouri have developed a reliable method for detecting silver nanoparticles in fresh produce and other food products. [emphasis mine]

“More than 1,000 products on the market are nanotechnology-based products,” said Mengshi Lin, associate professor of food science in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “This is a concern because we do not know the toxicity of the nanoparticles. [emphasis mine] Our goal is to detect, identify and quantify these nanoparticles in food and food products and study their toxicity as soon as possible.” [emphasis mine]

We leap from “could pose a potential health risk” to “we do not know the toxicity” to “study their toxicity as soon as possible” within the space of a few sentences. It’s a bit dizzying for those of us who prefer a more measured approach. The Aug. 22, 2013 University of Missouri news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, continues in this vein,

Lin and his colleagues, including MU scientists Azlin Mustapha and Bongkosh Vardhanabhuti, studied the residue and penetration of silver nanoparticles on pear skin. First, the scientists immersed the pears in a silver nanoparticle solution similar to pesticide application. The pears were then washed and rinsed repeatedly. Results showed that four days after the treatment and rinsing, silver nanoparticles were still attached to the skin, and the smaller particles were able to penetrate the skin and reach the pear pulp.

“The penetration of silver nanoparticles is dangerous to consumers because they have the ability to relocate in the human body after digestion,” Lin said. “Therefore, smaller nanoparticles may be more harmful to consumers than larger counterparts.”

When ingested, nanoparticles pass into the blood and lymph system, circulate through the body and reach potentially sensitive sites such as the spleen, brain, liver and heart.

The growing trend to use other types of nanoparticles has revolutionized the food industry by enhancing flavors, improving supplement delivery, keeping food fresh longer and brightening the colors of food. However, researchers worry that the use of silver nanoparticles could harm the human body.

Before I point out one of the other problems I have with this news release, here’s an image that seemingly shows how the silver nanoparticles were applied to the pears,

Caption: Graduate student Zhong Zhang applies silver nanoparticles to a piece of fruit. In a recent study, University of Missouri researchers found that these particles could pose a potential health risk to humans and the environment. Credit: University of Missouri

Caption: Graduate student Zhong Zhang applies silver nanoparticles to a piece of fruit. In a recent study, University of Missouri researchers found that these particles could pose a potential health risk to humans and the environment.
Credit: University of Missouri

Using a syringe to apply silver nanoparticles to a portion of a pear is not the same thing as applying a pesticide in an orchard.  I think it’s problematic to draw conclusions from a testing procedure that does not begin to emulate real life conditions where wind, rain, soil conditions and biological processes come into play.

I have written elsewhere about the difficulties of deciding if silver nanoparticles are good or bad notably in my April 16, 2013 posting, Silver nanoparticles: we love you/we hate you, which features links to various research pieces arguing both pro and con. The Duke University mesocosm project is mentioned in the April 16 posting and is featured in the Feb. 28, 2013 posting, Silver nanoparticles, water, the environment, and toxicity, because it that testing emulated real life conditions.

Reservations about the tone of the news release aside, here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper from the University of Missouri researchers,

Detection of Engineered Silver Nanoparticle Contamination in Pears by Zhong Zhang, Fanbin Kong, Bongkosh Vardhanabhuti, Azlin Mustapha, and Mengshi Lin. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2012, 60 (43), pp 10762–10767 DOI: 10.1021/jf303423q Publication Date (Web): October 19, 2012
Copyright © 2012 American Chemical Society

This article is behind a paywall.