Category Archives: agriculture

Tomatoes and some nano-sized nutrients

While zinc is a metal, it’s also a nutrient vital to plants as a Nov. 5, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily notes,

With the world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, engineers and scientists are looking for ways to meet the increasing demand for food without also increasing the strain on natural resources, such as water and energy — an initiative known as the food-water-energy nexus.

Ramesh Raliya, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher, and Pratim Biswas, PhD, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, both at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, are addressing this issue by using nanoparticles to boost the nutrient content and growth of tomato plants. Taking a clue from their work with solar cells, the team found that by using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles, the tomato plants better absorbed light and minerals, and the fruit had higher antioxidant content.

A Nov. 5, 2015 Washington University in St. Louis news release by Beth Miller (also on EurekAlert but dated Nov. 6, 2015), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“When a plant grows, it signals the soil that it needs nutrients,” Biswas says. “The nutrient it needs is not in a form that the plant can take right away, so it secretes enzymes, which react with the soil and trigger bacterial microbes to turn the nutrients into a form that the plant can use. We’re trying to aid this pathway by adding nanoparticles.”

Zinc is an essential nutrient for plants, helps other enzymes function properly and is an ingredient in conventional fertilizer. Titanium is not an essential nutrient for plants, Raliya says, but boosts light absorption by increasing chlorophyll content in the leaves and promotes photosynthesis, properties Biswas’ lab discovered while creating solar cells.

The team used a very fine spray using novel aerosolization techniques to directly deposit the nanoparticles on the leaves of the plants for maximum uptake.

“We found that our aerosol technique resulted in much greater uptake of nutrients by the plant in comparison to application of the nanoparticles to soil,” Raliya says. “A plant can only uptake about 20 percent of the nutrients applied through soil, with the remainder either forming stable complexes with soil constituents or being washed away with water, causing runoff. In both of the latter cases, the nutrients are unavailable to plants.”

Overall, plants treated with the nanoparticles via aerosol routes produced nearly 82 percent (by weight) more fruit than untreated plants. In addition, the tomatoes from treated plant showed an increase in lycopene, an antioxidant linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and age-related eye disorders, of between 80 percent and 113 percent.

Previous studies by other researchers have shown that increasing the use of nanotechnology in agriculture in densely populated countries such as India and China has made an impact on reducing malnutrition and child mortality. These tomatoes will help address malnutrition, Raliya says, because they allow people to get more nutrients from tomatoes than those conventionally grown.

In the study, published online last month in the journal Metallomics, the team found that the nanoparticles in the plants and the tomatoes were well below the USDA limit and considerably lower than what is used in conventional fertilizer. However, they still have to be cautious and select the best concentration of nanoparticles to use for maximum benefit, Biswas says.

Raliya and the rest of the team are now working to develop a new formulation of nanonutrients that includes all 17 elements required by plants.

“In 100 years, there will be more cities and less farmland, but we will need more food,” Raliya says. “At the same time, water will be limited because of climate change. We need an efficient methodology and a controlled environment in which plants can grow.”

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

Mechanistic evaluation of translocation and physiological impact of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles on the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.) plant by Ramesh Raliya, Remya Nair, Sanmathi Chavalmane, Wei-Ning Wang and Pratim Biswas. Metallomics, 2015, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C5MT00168D First published online 08 Oct 2015

I believe this article is behind a paywall.

Commercializing nanotechnology: Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs and Argonne National Laboratories

Breakout Labs

I last wrote about entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs project in an Oct. 26, 2011 posting announcing its inception. An Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release (received in my email) highlights a funding announcement for four startups of which at least three are nanotechnology-enabled,

Breakout Labs, a program of Peter Thiel’s philanthropic organization, the Thiel Foundation, announced today that four new companies advancing scientific discoveries in biomedical, chemical engineering, and nanotechnology have been selected for funding.

“We’re always hearing about bold new scientific research that promises to transform the world, but far too often the latest discoveries are left withering in a lab,” said Lindy Fishburne, Executive Director of Breakout Labs. “Our mission is to help a new type of scientist-entrepreneur navigate the startup ecosystem and build lasting companies that can make audacious scientific discoveries meaningful to everyday life. The four new companies joining the Breakout Labs portfolio – nanoGriptech, Maxterial, C2Sense, and CyteGen – embody that spirit and we’re excited to be working with them to help make their vision a reality.”

The future of adhesives: inspired by geckos

Inspired by the gecko’s ability to scuttle up walls and across ceilings due to their millions of micro/nano foot-hairs,nanoGriptech (, based in Pittsburgh, Pa., is developing a new kind of microfiber adhesive material that is strong, lightweight, and reusable without requiring glues or producing harmful residues. Currently being tested by the U.S. military, NASA, and top global brands, nanoGriptech’s flagship product Setex™ is the first adhesive product of its kind that is not only strong and durable, but can also be manufactured at low cost, and at scale.

“We envision a future filled with no-leak biohazard enclosures, ergonomic and inexpensive car seats, extremely durable aerospace adhesives, comfortable prosthetic liners, high performance athletic wear, and widely available nanotechnology-enabled products manufactured less expensively — all thanks to the grippy little gecko,” said Roi Ben-Itzhak, CFO and VP of Business Development for nanoGriptech.

A sense of smell for the digital world

Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recent goals to drastically reduce food waste, most consumers don’t realize the global problem created by 1.3 billion metric tons of food wasted each year — clogging landfills and releasing unsustainable levels of methane gas into the atmosphere. Using technology developed at MIT’s Swager lab, Cambridge, Ma.-based C2Sense( is developing inexpensive, lightweight hand-held sensors based on carbon nanotubes which can detect fruit ripeness and meat, fish and poultry freshness. Smaller than a half of a business card, these sensors can be developed at very low cost, require very little power to operate, and can be easily integrated into most agricultural supply chains, including food storage packaging, to ensure that food is picked, stored, shipped, and sold at optimal freshness.

“Our mission is to bring a sense of smell to the digital world. With our technology, that package of steaks in your refrigerator will tell you when it’s about to go bad, recommend some recipe options and help build out your shopping list,” said Jan Schnorr, Chief Technology Officer of C2Sense.

Amazing metals that completely repel water

MaxterialTM, Inc. develops amazing materials that resist a variety of detrimental environmental effects through technology that emulates similar strategies found in nature, such as the self-cleaning lotus leaf and antifouling properties of crabs. By modifying the surface shape or texture of a metal, through a method that is very affordable and easy to introduce into the existing manufacturing process, Maxterial introduces a microlayer of air pockets that reduce contact surface area. The underlying material can be chemically the same as ever, retaining inherent properties like thermal and electrical conductivity. But through Maxterial’s technology, the metallic surface also becomes inherently water repellant. This property introduces the superhydrophobic maxterial as a potential solution to a myriad of problems, such as corrosion, biofouling, and ice formation. Maxterial is currently focused on developing durable hygienic and eco-friendly anti-corrosion coatings for metallic surfaces.

“Our process has the potential to create metallic objects that retain their amazing properties for the lifetime of the object – this isn’t an aftermarket coating that can wear or chip off,” said Mehdi Kargar, Co-founder and CEO of Maxterial, Inc. “We are working towards a day when shipping equipment can withstand harsh arctic environments, offshore structures can resist corrosion, and electronics can be fully submersible and continue working as good as new.”

New approaches to combat aging

CyteGen ( wants to dramatically increase the human healthspan, tackle neurodegenerative diseases, and reverse age-related decline. What makes this possible now is new discovery tools backed by the dream team of interdisciplinary experts the company has assembled. CyteGen’s approach is unusually collaborative, tapping into the resources and expertise of world-renowned researchers across eight major universities to focus different strengths and perspectives to achieve the company’s goals. By approaching aging from a holistic, systematic point of view, rather than focusing solely on discrete definitions of disease, they have developed a new way to think about aging, and to develop treatments that can help people live longer, healthier lives.

“There is an assumption that aging necessarily brings the kind of physical and mental decline that results in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases. Evidence indicates otherwise, which is what spurred us to launch CyteGen,” said George Ugras, Co-Founder and President of CyteGen.

To date, Breakout Labs has invested in more than two dozen companies at the forefront of science, helping radical technologies get beyond common hurdles faced by early stage companies, and advance research and development to market much more quickly. Portfolio companies have raised more than six times the amount of capital invested in the program by the Thiel Foundation, and represent six Series A valuations ranging from $10 million to $60 million as well as one acquisition.

You can see the original Oct. 6, 2015 Breakout Labs news release here or in this Oct. 7, 2015 news item on Azonano.

Argonne National Labs and Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS)

The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory’s Oct. 6, 2015 press release by Greg Cunningham announced two initiatives meant to speed commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products for the energy storage and other sectors,

Few technologies hold more potential to positively transform our society than energy storage and nanotechnology. Advances in energy storage research will revolutionize the way the world generates and stores energy, democratizing the delivery of electricity. Grid-level storage can help reduce carbon emissions through the increased adoption of renewable energy and use of electric vehicles while helping bring electricity to developing parts of the world. Nanotechnology has already transformed the electronics industry and is bringing a new set of powerful tools and materials to developers who are changing everything from the way energy is generated, stored and transported to how medicines are delivered and the way chemicals are produced through novel catalytic nanomaterials.

Recognizing the power of these technologies and seeking to accelerate their impact, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has created two new collaborative centers that provide an innovative pathway for business and industry to access Argonne’s unparalleled scientific resources to address the nation’s energy and national security needs. These centers will help speed discoveries to market to ensure U.S. industry maintains a lead in this global technology race.

“This is an exciting time for us, because we believe this new approach to interacting with business can be a real game changer in two areas of research that are of great importance to Argonne and the world,” said Argonne Director Peter B. Littlewood. “We recognize that delivering to market our breakthrough science in energy storage and nanotechnology can help ensure our work brings the maximum benefit to society.”

Nano Design Works (NDW) and the Argonne Collaborative Center for Energy Storage Science (ACCESS) will provide central points of contact for companies — ranging from large industrial entities to smaller businesses and startups, as well as government agencies — to benefit from Argonne’s world-class expertise, scientific tools and facilities.

NDW and ACCESS represent a new way to collaborate at Argonne, providing a single point of contact for businesses to assemble tailored interdisciplinary teams to address their most challenging R&D questions. The centers will also provide a pathway to Argonne’s fundamental research that is poised for development into practical products. The chance to build on existing scientific discovery is a unique opportunity for businesses in the nano and energy storage fields.

The center directors, Andreas Roelofs of NDW and Jeff Chamberlain of ACCESS, have both created startups in their careers and understand the value that collaboration with a national laboratory can bring to a company trying to innovate in technologically challenging fields of science. While the new centers will work with all sizes of companies, a strong emphasis will be placed on helping small businesses and startups, which are drivers of job creation and receive a large portion of the risk capital in this country.

“For a startup like mine to have the ability to tap the resources of a place like Argonne would have been immensely helpful,” said Roelofs. “We”ve seen the power of that sort of access, and we want to make it available to the companies that need it to drive truly transformative technologies to market.”

Chamberlain said his experience as an energy storage researcher and entrepreneur led him to look for innovative approaches to leveraging the best aspects of private industry and public science. The national laboratory system has a long history of breakthrough science that has worked its way to market, but shortening that journey from basic research to product has become a growing point of emphasis for the national laboratories over the past couple of decades. The idea behind ACCESS and NDW is to make that collaboration even easier and more powerful.

“Where ACCESS and NDW will differ from the conventional approach is through creating an efficient way for a business to build a customized, multi-disciplinary team that can address anything from small technical questions to broad challenges that require massive resources,” Chamberlain said. “That might mean assembling a team with chemists, physicists, computer scientists, materials engineers, imaging experts, or mechanical and electrical engineers; the list goes on and on. It’s that ability to tap the full spectrum of cross-cutting expertise at Argonne that will really make the difference.”

Chamberlain is deeply familiar with the potential of energy storage as a transformational technology, having led the formation of Argonne’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). The center’s years-long quest to discover technologies beyond lithium-ion batteries has solidified the laboratory’s reputation as one of the key global players in battery research. ACCESS will tap Argonne’s full battery expertise, which extends well beyond JCESR and is dedicated to fulfilling the promise of energy storage.

Energy storage research has profound implications for energy security and national security. Chamberlain points out that approximately 1.3 billion people across the globe do not have access to electricity, with another billion having only sporadic access. Energy storage, coupled with renewable generation like solar, could solve that problem and eliminate the need to build out massive power grids. Batteries also have the potential to create a more secure, stable grid for countries with existing power systems and help fight global climate disruption through adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Argonne researchers are pursuing hundreds of projects in nanoscience, but some of the more notable include research into targeted drugs that affect only cancerous cells; magnetic nanofibers that can be used to create more powerful and efficient electric motors and generators; and highly efficient water filtration systems that can dramatically reduce the energy requirements for desalination or cleanup of oil spills. Other researchers are working with nanoparticles that create a super-lubricated state and other very-low friction coatings.

“When you think that 30 percent of a car engine’s power is sacrificed to frictional loss, you start to get an idea of the potential of these technologies,” Roelofs said. “But it’s not just about the ideas already at Argonne that can be brought to market, it’s also about the challenges for businesses that need Argonne-level resources. I”m convinced there are many startups out there working on transformational ideas that can greatly benefit from the help of a place Argonne to bring those ideas to fruition. That is what has me excited about ACCESS and NDW.”

For more information on ACCESS, see:

For more information on NDW, see:

You can read more about the announcement in an Oct. 6, 2015 article by Greg Watry for R&D magazine featuring an interview with Andreas Roelofs.

Sponges made of nanoporous gold and DNA detection

This work from the University of California at Davis seems to represent a step forward for better detection of diseases and pathogens. From a Sept. 4, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Sponge-like nanoporous gold could be key to new devices to detect disease-causing agents in humans and plants, according to UC Davis researchers.

In two recent papers in Analytical Chemistry, a group from the UC Davis Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering demonstrated that they could detect nucleic acids using nanoporous gold, a novel sensor coating material, in mixtures of other biomolecules that would gum up most detectors. This method enables sensitive detection of DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] in complex biological samples, such as serum from whole blood.

A Sept. 4, 2015 UC Davis news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more detail,

“Nanoporous gold can be imagined as a porous metal sponge with pore sizes that are a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair,” said Erkin Şeker, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis and the senior author on the papers. “What happens is the debris in biological samples, such as proteins, is too large to go through those pores, but the fiber-like nucleic acids that we want to detect can actually fit through them. It’s almost like a natural sieve.”

Rapid and sensitive detection of nucleic acids plays a crucial role in early identification of pathogenic microbes and disease biomarkers. Current sensor approaches usually require nucleic acid purification that relies on multiple steps and specialized laboratory equipment, which limit the sensors’ use in the field. The researchers’ method reduces the need for purification.

“So now we hope to have largely eliminated the need for extensive sample clean-up, which makes the process conducive to use in the field,” Şeker said.

The result is a faster and more efficient process that can be applied in many settings.

The researchers hope the technology can be translated into the development of miniature point-of-care diagnostic platforms for agricultural and clinical applications.

“The applications of the sensor are quite broad ranging from detection of plant pathogens to disease biomarkers,” said Şeker.

For example, in agriculture, scientists could detect whether a certain pathogen exists on a plant without seeing any symptoms. And in sepsis cases in humans, doctors might determine bacterial contamination much more quickly than at present, preventing any unnecessary treatments.

Here are links to and citations for two recent published papers about this work,

Effect of Nanoporous Gold Thin Film Morphology on Electrochemical DNA Sensing by Pallavi Daggumati, Zimple Matharu, and Erkin Şeker. Anal. Chem., 2015, 87 (16), pp 8149–8156 DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b00846 Publication Date (Web): April 30, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

Biofouling-Resilient Nanoporous Gold Electrodes for DNA Sensing by Pallavi Daggumati, Zimple Matharu, Ling Wang, and Erkin Şeker. Anal. Chem., 2015, 87 (17), pp 8618–8622 DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.5b02969 Publication Date (Web): August 14, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

These papers are behind a paywall.

‘Hotel for cells’ or minuscule artificial scaffolding units for plant tissue engineering

This is the first time I’ve seen an item about tissue engineering which concerns plant life.  An August 27, 2015 news item on Azonano describes the latest development with plant cells,

Miniscule artificial scaffolding units made from nano-fibre polymers and built to house plant cells have enabled scientists to see for the first time how individual plant cells behave and interact with each other in a three-dimensional environment.

These “hotels for cells” mimic the ‘extracellular matrix’ which cells secrete before they grow and divide to create plant tissue. [Note: Human and other cells also have extracellular matrices] This environment allows scientists to observe and image individual plant cells developing in a more natural, multi-dimensional environment than previous ‘flat’ cell cultures.

An August 26, 2015 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, describes the research and mentions the pioneering technologies which made it possible,

The research team were surprised to see individual plant cells clinging to and winding around their fibrous supports; reaching past neighbouring cells to wrap themselves to the artificial scaffolding in a manner reminiscent of vines growing.

Pioneering new in vitro techniques combining recent developments in 3-D scaffold development and imaging, scientists say they observed plants cells taking on growth and structure of far greater complexity than has ever been seen of plant cells before, either in living tissue or cell culture.

“Previously, plant cells in culture had only been seen in round or oblong forms. Now, we have seen 3D cultured cells twisting and weaving around their new supports in truly remarkable ways, creating shapes we never thought possible and never seen before in any plant,” said plant scientist and co-author Raymond Wightman.

“We can use this tool to explore how a whole plant is formed and at the same time to create new materials.”

This ability for single plant cells to attach themselves by growing and spiralling around the scaffolding suggests that cells of land plants have retained the ability of their evolutionary ancestors – aquatic single-celled organisms, such as Charophyta algae – to stick themselves to inert structures.

While similar ‘nano-scaffold’ technology has long been used for mammalian cells, resulting in the advancement of tissue engineering research, this is the first time such technology has been used for plant cells – allowing scientists to glimpse in 3-D the individual cell interactions that lead to the forming of plant tissue.

The scientists say the research “defines a new suite of techniques” for exploring cell-environment interactions, allowing greater understating of fundamental plant biology that could lead to new types of biomaterials and help provide solutions to sustainable biomass growth.

“While we can peer deep inside single cells and understand their functions, when researchers study a ‘whole’ plant, as in fully formed tissue, it is too difficult to disentangle the many complex interactions between the cells, their neighbours, and their behaviour,” said Wightman.

“Until now, nobody had tried to put plant cells in an artificial fibre scaffold that replicates their natural environment and tried to observe their interactions with one or two other cells, or fibre itself,” he said.

Co-author and material scientist Dr Stoyan Smoukov suggests that a possible reason why artificial scaffolding on plant cells had never been done before was the expense of 3D nano-fibre matrices (the high costs have previously been justified in mammalian cell research due to its human medical potential).

However, Smoukov has co-discovered and recently helped commercialise a new method for producing polymer fibres for 3-D scaffolds inexpensively and in bulk. ‘Shear-spinning’ produces masses of fibre, in a technique similar to creating candy-floss in nano-scale. The researchers were able to adapt such scaffolds for use with plant cells.

This approach was combined with electron microscopy imaging technology. In fact, using time-lapse photography, the researchers have even managed to capture 4-D footage of these previously unseen cellular structures. “Such high-resolution moving images allowed us to follow internal processes in the cells as they develop into tissues,” said Smoukov, who is already working on using the methods in this plant study to research mammalian cancer cells.

Here’s an image illustrating the research,

Plant cells twisting and weaving in 3-D cultures Credit: Smoukov/Wightman

Plant cells twisting and weaving in 3-D cultures
Credit: Smoukov/Wightman

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

A 3-dimensional fibre scaffold as an investigative tool for studying the morphogenesis of isolated plant pells [cells?] by CJ Luo, Raymond Wightman, Elliot Meyerowitz, and Stoyan K. Smoukov. BMC Plant Biology 2015, 15:211 doi:10.1186/s12870-015-0581-7

This paper is open access.

Use of nanomaterials in food for animals: the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues a final guidance

Bureaucratese is not my first language so the US Food and Drug Administration’s final guidance on the use of nanomaterials in animal food seems a little vague to me. That said, here’s the Aug. 5, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, which announced the guidance (Note: A link has been removed),

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a final guidance for industry, ‘Use of Nanomaterials in Food for Animals’ (pdf), which is intended to assist industry and other stakeholders in identifying potential issues related to safety or regulatory status of food for animals containing nanomaterials or otherwise involving the application of nanotechnology. This guidance is applicable to food ingredients intended for use in animal food which (1) consist entirely of nanomaterials, (2) contain nanomaterials as a component or (3) otherwise involve the application of nanotechnology.

An Aug. 4, 2015 FDA announcement, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

This final guidance addresses the legal framework for adding nanomaterial substances to food for animals and includes recommendations for submitting a Food Additive Petition (FAP) for a nanomaterial animal food ingredient. This guidance also recommends manufacturers consult with FDA early in the development of their nanomaterial animal food ingredient and before submitting an FAP. At this time, we are not aware of any animal food ingredient engineered on the nanometer scale for which there is generally available safety data sufficient to serve as the foundation for a determination that the use of such an animal food ingredient is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that allows scientists to create, explore, and manipulate materials on a scale measured in nanometers – particles so small that they cannot be seen with a regular microscope. These particles can have chemical, physical, and biological properties that differ from those of their larger counterparts, and nanotechnology has a broad range of potential applications.

Guidance documents represent the FDA’s current thinking on particular topics, policies, and regulatory issues. While “guidance for industry” documents are prepared primarily for industry, they also are used by FDA staff and other stakeholders to understand the agency’s interpretation of laws and policies.

Although this guidance has been finalized, you can submit comments at any time. To submit comments to the docket by mail, use the following address. Be sure to include docket number FDA-2013-D-1009 on each page of your written comments.

Division of Dockets Management
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

You can find the guidance here.

The nanostructure of cellulose at the University of Melbourne (Australia)

This is not the usual kind of nanocellulose story featured here as it doesn’t concern a nanocellulose material. Instead, this research focuses on the structure of cellulose at the nanoscale. From a May 21, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Scientists from IBM Research and the Universities of Melbourne and Queensland have moved a step closer to identifying the nanostructure of cellulose — the basic structural component of plant cell walls.

The insights could pave the way for more disease resistant varieties of crops and increase the sustainability of the pulp, paper and fibre industry — one of the main uses of cellulose.

A May 21, 2015 University of Melbourne press release, which originated the news item, describes some of the difficulties of analyzing cellulose at the nanoscale and the role that IBM computer played in overcoming them,

Tapping into IBM’s supercomputing power, researchers have been able to model the structure and dynamics of cellulose at the molecular level.

Dr Monika Doblin, Research Fellow and Deputy Node Leader at the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne said cellulose is a vital part of the plant’s structure, but its synthesis is yet to be fully understood.

“It’s difficult to work on cellulose synthesis in vitro because once plant cells are broken open, most of the enzyme activity is lost, so we needed to find other approaches to study how it is made,” Dr Doblin said.

“Thanks to IBM’s expertise in molecular modelling and VLSCI’s computational power, we have been able to create models of the plant wall at the molecular level which will lead to new levels of understanding about the formation of cellulose.”

The work, which was described in a recent scientific paper published in Plant Physiology, represents a significant step towards our understanding of cellulose biosynthesis and how plant cell walls assemble and function.

The research is part of a longer-term program at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) to develop a 3D computer-simulated model of the entire plant wall.

Cellulose represents one of the most abundant organic compounds on earth with an estimated 180 billion tonnes produced by plants each year.

A plant makes cellulose by linking simple units of glucose together to form chains, which are then bundled together to form fibres. These fibres then wrap around the cell as the major component of the plant cell wall, providing rigidity, flexibility and defence against internal and external stresses.

Until now, scientists have been challenged with detailing the structure of plant cell walls due to the complexity of the work and the invasive nature of traditional physical methods which often cause damage to the plant cells.

Dr John Wagner, Manager of Computational Sciences, IBM Research – Australia, called it a ‘pioneering project’.

“We are bringing IBM Research’s expertise in computational biology, big data and smarter agriculture to bear in a large-scale, collaborative Australian science project with some of the brightest minds in the field. We are a keen supporter of the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative and we’re very excited to see the scientific impact this work is now having.”

Using the IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer at VLSCI, known as Avoca, scientists were able to perform the quadrillions of calculations required to model the motions of cellulose atoms.

The research shows that within the cellulose structure, there are between 18 and 24 chains present within an elementary microfibril, much less than the 36 chains that had previously been assumed.

IBM Researcher, Dr. Daniel Oehme, said plant walls are the first barrier to disease pathogens.

“While we don’t fully understand the molecular pathway of pathogen infection and plant r

You can find out more about this work and affiliated projects at the Australian Research Centre (ARC) of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls.

Silver nanoparticles and wormwood tackle plant-killing fungus

I’m back in Florida (US), so to speak. Last mentioned here in an April 7, 2015 post about citrus canker and zinkicide, a story about a disease which endangers citrus production in the US, this latest story concerns a possible solution to the problem of a fungus, which attacks ornamental horticultural plants in Florida. From a May 5, 2015 news item on Azonano,

Deep in the soil, underneath more than 400 plant and tree species, lurks a lethal fungus threatening Florida’s $15 billion a year ornamental horticulture industry.

But University of Florida plant pathologist G. Shad Ali has found an economical and eco-friendly way to combat the plant destroyer known as phytophthora before it attacks the leaves and roots of everything from tomato plants to oak trees.

Ali and a team of researchers with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, along with the University of Central Florida and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, have found that silver nanoparticles produced with an extract of wormwood, an herb with strong antioxidant properties, can stop several strains of the deadly fungus.

A May 4, 2015 University of Florida news release, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“The silver nanoparticles are extremely effective in eliminating the fungus in all stages of its life cycle,” Ali said. “In addition, it has no adverse effects on plant growth.” [emphasis mine]

The silver nanoparticles measure 5 to 100 nanometers in diameter – about one one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Once the nanoparticles are sprayed onto a plant, they shield it from fungus. Since the nanoparticles display multiple ways of inhibiting fungus growth, the chances of pathogens developing resistance to them are minimized, Ali said. Because of that, they may be used for controlling fungicide-resistant plant pathogens more effectively.

That’s good news for the horticulture industry. Worldwide crop losses due to phytophthora fungus diseases are estimated to be in the multibillion dollar range, with $6.7 billion in losses in potato crops due to late blight – the cause of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s when more than 1 million people died – and $1 billion to $2 billion in soybean loss.

Silver nanoparticles are being investigated for applications in various industries, including medicine, diagnostics, cosmetics and food processing.  They already are used in wound dressings, food packaging and in consumer products such as textiles and footwear for fighting odor-causing microorganisms.

Other members of the UF research team were Mohammad Ali, a visiting doctoral student from the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan; David Norman and Mary Brennan with the University of Florida’s Plant Pathology-Mid Florida Research and Education Center; Bosung Kim with the University of Central Florida’s chemistry department; Kevin Belfield with the College of Science and Liberal Arts at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Central Florida’s chemistry department.

Ali’s comment about silver nanoparticles not having any adverse effects on plant growth is in contrast to findings by Mark Wiesner and other researchers at  Duke University (North Carolina, US). From my Feb. 28, 2013 posting (which also features a Finnish-Estonia study showing no adverse effects from silver nanoparticles  in crustaceans),

… there’s a study from Duke University suggests that silver nanoparticles in wastewater which is later put to agricultural use may cause problems. From the Feb. 27, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

In experiments mimicking a natural environment, Duke University researchers have demonstrated that the silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products can have an adverse effect on plants and microorganisms.

The main route by which these particles enter the environment is as a by-product of water and sewage treatment plants. [emphasis] The nanoparticles are too small to be filtered out, so they and other materials end up in the resulting “sludge,” which is then spread on the land surface as a fertilizer.

The researchers found that one of the plants studied, a common annual grass known as Microstegium vimeneum, had 32 percent less biomass in the mesocosms treated with the nanoparticles. Microbes were also affected by the nanoparticles, Colman [Benjamin Colman, a post-doctoral fellow in Duke’s biology department and a member of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT)] said. One enzyme associated with helping microbes deal with external stresses was 52 percent less active, while another enzyme that helps regulate processes within the cell was 27 percent less active. The overall biomass of the microbes was also 35 percent lower, he said.

“Our field studies show adverse responses of plants and microorganisms following a single low dose of silver nanoparticles applied by a sewage biosolid,” Colman said. “An estimated 60 percent of the average 5.6 million tons of biosolids produced each year is applied to the land for various reasons, and this practice represents an important and understudied route of exposure of natural ecosystems to engineered nanoparticles.”

“Our results show that silver nanoparticles in the biosolids, added at concentrations that would be expected, caused ecosystem-level impacts,” Colman said. “Specifically, the nanoparticles led to an increase in nitrous oxide fluxes, changes in microbial community composition, biomass, and extracellular enzyme activity, as well as species-specific effects on the above-ground vegetation.”

Getting back to Florida, you can find Ali’s abstract here,

Inhibition of Phytophthora parasitica and P. capsici by silver nanoparticles synthesized using aqueous extract of Artemisia absinthium by Mohammad Ali, Bosung Kim, Kevin Belfield, David J. Norman, Mary Brennan, & Gul Shad Ali. Phytopathology Published online April 14, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who recognized that wormwood is a constituent of Absinthe, a liquor that is banned in many parts of the world due to possible side effects associated with the wormwood, here’s more about it from the Wormwood overview page on WebMD (Note: Links have been removed),

Wormwood is an herb. The above-ground plant parts and oil are used for medicine.

Wormwood is used in some alcoholic beverages. Vermouth, for example, is a wine beverage flavored with extracts of wormwood. Absinthe is another well-known alcoholic beverage made with wormwood. It is an emerald-green alcoholic drink that is prepared from wormwood oil, often along with other dried herbs such as anise and fennel. Absinthe was popularized by famous artists and writers such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Manet, van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Oscar Wilde. It is now banned in many countries, including the U.S. But it is still allowed in European Union countries as long as the thujone content is less than 35 mg/kg. Thujone is a potentially poisonous chemical found in wormwood. Distilling wormwood in alcohol increases the thujone concentration.

Returning to the matter at hand, as I’ve noted previously elsewhere, research into the toxic effects associated with nanomaterials (e.g. silver nanoparticles) is a complex process.

US Dept. of Agriculture awards $3.8M for nanotechnology research grants

I wonder just how much funding the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) is devoting to nanotechnology this year (2015). I first came across an announcement of $23M in the body of a news item about Zinkicide (my April 7, 2015 posting),

Found in Florida orchards in 2005, a citrus canker, citrus greening, poses a serious threat to the US state’s fruit industry. An April 2, 2105 news item on describes a possible solution to the problem,

Since it was discovered in South Florida in 2005, the plague of citrus greening has spread to nearly every grove in the state, stoking fears among growers that the $10.7 billion-a-year industry may someday disappear.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the University of Florida a $4.6 million grant aimed at testing a potential new weapon in the fight against citrus greening: Zinkicide, a bactericide invented by a nanoparticle researcher at the University of Central Florida.

An April 29, 2015 article by Diego Flammini for describes the latest USDA nanotechnology funding announcement,

In an effort to increase America’s food security, nutrition, food safety and environmental protection, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $3.8 million in nanotechnology research grants.

Flammini lists three of the eight recipients,

University of Georgia
With $496,192, the research team will develop different sensors that are able to detect fungal pathogens in crops. The project will also develop a smartphone app for farmers to have so they can access their information whenever necessary.

Rutgers University
The school will use its $450,000 to conduct a nationwide survey about nanotechnology and gauge consumer beliefs about it and its relationship to health. Among the specifics it will touch on is the use of visuals to communicate nanotechnology.

University of Massachusetts
The researchers will concentrate their $444,200 on developing a platform to detect pathogens in food that is better than the current methods.

A full list of the recipients can be found in the April 27, 2015 USDA news release featuring the $3.8M in awards,

  • The University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., $496,192
  • University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa., $496,180
  • University of Kentucky Research Foundation, Lexington, Ky., $450,000
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., $444,200
  • North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D., $149,714
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick. N.J., $450,000
  • Pennsylvania State University, University Park, University Park, Pa., $447,788
  • West Virginia University, Morgantown, W. Va., $496,168
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wis., $450,100

You can find more details about the awards in this leaflet featuring the USDA project descriptions for the eight recipients.

Rubbery lettuce is a good thing

The lettuce we eat was cultivated from prickly lettuce, which is now considered a weed. That status may change if scientists at Washington State University (WSU) are successful with their research into the plant’s ability to produce rubber. From an April 6, 2014 WSU news release by Sylvia Kantor (also on EurekAlert),

Prickly lettuce, a common weed that has long vexed farmers, has potential as a new cash crop providing raw material for rubber production, according to Washington State University scientists.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they describe regions in the plant’s genetic code linked to rubber production. The findings open the way for breeding for desired traits and developing a new crop source for rubber in the Pacific Northwest.

“I think there’s interest in developing a temperate-climate source of natural rubber,” said Ian Burke, a weed scientist at WSU and a study author. “It would be really great if prickly lettuce could become one of those crops.”

Here’s what prickly lettuce looks like,

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Prickly lettuce, the wild relative of cultivated lettuce, is a potential source for the production of natural rubber. (Photo by Flickr user Jim Kennedy)

Here’s a close-up of a prickly lettuce stem with sap,

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

The milky sap, or latex, of the plant could be used to produce rubber. (Photo by Jared Bell, WSU)

Getting back to the prickly lettuce news release,

When the lettuce we eat and grow in our gardens bolts, a milky white sap bleeds from the stem. In prickly lettuce, the wild relative and ancestor of cultivated lettuce, this same substance could prove to be an economically viable source of natural rubber and help alleviate a worldwide threat to rubber production.

Natural rubber is the main ingredient for many everyday products, from boots to condoms to surgical gloves. Roughly 70 percent of the global supply of rubber is used in tires.

But more than half of rubber products are made from synthetic rubber derived from petrochemical sources. And the largest source of natural rubber, the Brazilian rubber tree, is threatened by disease.

Burke has reviewed many studies of prickly lettuce and its cultivated cousins, but one in particular gave him an idea. A study published in 2006 found that the latex in prickly lettuce was very similar to the polymers found in natural rubber.

“It occurred to me that we could grow the heck out of prickly lettuce in eastern Washington,” he said.

Genetic markers for desired traits

He knew that to develop a viable new crop for rubber production, he had to start by understanding the genetics of rubber production in the plant.

Burke, doctoral student Jared Bell and molecular plant scientist Michael Neff began their studies with two distinct samples of prickly lettuce collected from eastern Washington. These differed in their rubber content, leaf shape and tendency to bolt. The scientists were able to identify genetic markers not only for rubber content but for the way the plants grow, including the number of stems produced and bolting.

Sought-after traits in cultivated lettuce – like abundant leaves, a single stem and delayed bolting – are the exact opposite of traits desired for rubber production. Early bolting plants with multiple stems would allow for multiple harvests over the season and potentially maximize rubber yields.

Burke said that selecting for other traits, like water use efficiency, could allow prickly lettuce to be grown with minimal rainfall, meaning it could be grown in rotation with other crops.

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

Genetic and Biochemical Evaluation of Natural Rubber from Eastern Washington Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola L.) by Jared L. Bell, Ian C. Burke, and Michael M. Neff. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2015, 63 (2), pp 593–602 DOI: 10.1021/jf503934v Publication Date (Web): December 16, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Since graduating, Bell has become  associated with Dow Agrosciences.