Category Archives: agriculture

FOE, nano, and food: part three of three (final guidance)

The first part of this food and nano ‘debate’ started off with the May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announcing the Friends of the Earth (FOE) report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘. Adding energy to FOE’s volley was a Mother Jones article written by Tom Philpott which had Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) replying decisively in an article published both on Nanowerk and on the Conversation.

The second part of this series focused largely on a couple of  research efforts (a June 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a Franco-German research project, SolNanoTox) and in the US (a  June 19, 2014 news item on Azonano about research from the University of Arizona focusing on nanoscale additives for dietary supplement drinks) and noted another activist group’s (As You Sow) initiative with Dunkin’ Donuts (a July 11, 2014 article by Sarah Shemkus in a sponsored section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper0).

This final part in the series highlights the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) final guidance document on nanomaterials and food issued some five weeks after the FOE’s report and an essay by a Canadian academic on the topic of nano and food.

A July 9, 2014 news item on Bloomberg BNA sums up the FDA situation,

The Food and Drug Administration June 24 [2014] announced new guidance to provide greater regulatory clarity for industry on the use of nanotechnology in FDA-regulated products, including drugs, devices, cosmetics and food.

In this final guidance, the agency said that nanotechnology “can be used in a broad array of FDA-regulated products, including medical products (e.g., to increase bioavailability of a drug), foods (e.g., to improve food packaging) and cosmetics (e.g., to affect the look and feel of cosmetics).”

Also on the agency website, the FDA said it “does not make a categorical judgment that nanotechnology is inherently safe or harmful. We intend our regulatory approach to be adaptive and flexible and to take into consideration the specific characteristics and the effects of nanomaterials in the particular biological context of each product and its intended use.”

This July 18, 2014 posting by Jeannie Perron, Miriam Guggenheimm and Allan J. Topol of Covington & Burling LLP on the National Law Review blog provides a better summary and additional insight,

On June 24, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released three final guidance documents addressing the agency’s general approach to nanotechnology and its use by the food and cosmetics industries, as well as a draft guidance on the use of nanomaterials in food for animals.

These guidance documents reflect FDA’s understanding of nanomaterials as an emerging technology of major importance with the potential to be used in novel ways across the entire spectrum of FDA- regulated products.

The documents suggest that FDA plans to approach nanotechnology-related issues cautiously, through an evolving regulatory structure that adapts to manufacturers’ changing uses of this technology. FDA has not established regulatory definitions of “nanotechnology,” “nanomaterial,” “nanoscale,” or other related terms. …

The notion of an “evolving regulatory structure” is very appealing in situations with emerging technologies with high levels of uncertainty. It’s surprising that more of the activist groups don’t see an opportunity with this approach. An organization that hasn’t devised a rigid regulatory structure has no investment in defending it. Activist groups can make the same arguments, albeit from a different perspective, about an emerging technology as the companies do and, theoretically, the FDA has become a neutral party with the power to require a company to prove its products’ safety.

You can find the FDA final guidance and other relevant documents here.

Finally, Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph, offers a rather provocative (and not from the perspective you might expect given his credentials) opinion on the topic of ‘nano and food’  in a July 18, 2014 article for TheRecord.com,

Nanotechnology and nanoparticles have been around for quite some time. In fact, consumers have been eating nanoparticles for years without being aware they are in their food.

Some varieties of Dentyne gum and Jell-O, M&M’s, Betty Crocker whipped cream frosting, Kool-Aid, Pop-Tarts, you name it, contain them. Even food packaging, such as plastic containers and beer bottles, have nanoparticles.

While consumers and interest groups alike are registering their concerns about genetically modified organisms, the growing role of nanotechnology in food and agriculture is impressive. When considering the socio-economic and ethical implications of nanotechnology, comparisons to the genetic modification debate are unavoidable.

The big picture is this. For years, capitalism has demonstrated its ability to create wealth while relying on consumers’ willingness to intrinsically trust what is being offered to them. With trans fats, genetically modified organisms and now nanoparticles, our food industry is literally playing with fire. [emphasis mine]

Most consumers may not have the knowledge to fully comprehend the essence of what nanotechnology is or what it can do. However, in an era where data access in almost constant real-time is king, the industry should at least give public education a shot.

In the end and despite their tactics, the activist groups do have a point. The food and agricultural industries need to be more frank about what they’re doing with our food. As Charlebois notes, they might want to invest in some public education, perhaps taking a leaf out of the Irish Food Board’s book and presenting the public with information both flattering and nonflattering about their efforts with our food.

Part one (an FOE report is published)

Part two (the problem with research)

ETA Aug. 22, 2014: Coincidentally, Michael Berger has written an Aug. 22, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight article titled: How to identify nanomaterials in food.

ETA Sept. 1, 2014: Even more coincidentally, Michael Berger has written a 2nd Nanowerk Spotlight (dated Aug. 25, 2014) on the food and nano topic titled, ‘Nanotechnology in Agriculture’ based on the European Union’s Joint Research Centre’s ‘Workshop on Nanotechnology for the agricultural sector: from research to the field”, held on November 21-22 2013′.

FOE, nano, and food: part two of three (the problem with research)

The first part of this roughly six week food and nano ‘debate’ started off with the May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announcing the Friends of the Earth (FOE) report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘. Adding energy to FOE’s volley was a Mother Jones article written by Tom Philpott which had Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) replying decisively in an article published both on Nanowerk and on the Conversation.

Coincidentally or not, there were a couple of news items about ‘nano and food’ research efforts during the ‘debate’. A June 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a Franco-German research project into the effects that nanomaterials have on the liver and the intestines while noting the scope of the task researchers face,

What mode of action do nanomaterials ingested via food have in liver and intestine? Which factors determine their toxicity? Due to the large number of different nanomaterials, it is hardly possible to test every one for its toxic properties. [emphasis mine] For this reason, specific properties for the classification of nanomaterials are to be examined within the scope of the Franco-German research project “SolNanoTox”, which began on 1 March 2014. The [German] Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) requires data on bioavailability for its assessment work, in particular on whether the solubility of nanomaterials has an influence on uptake and accumulation in certain organs, such as liver and intestine. “We want to find out in our tests whether the criterion ‘soluble or insoluble’ is a determining factor for uptake and toxicity of nanomaterials,” says BfR President Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel.

A June 13, 2014 German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) press release, which originated the news item, details the research and the participating agencies,

A risk assessment of nanomaterials is hardly possible at the moment and involves a very high degree of uncertainty, as important toxicological data on their behaviour in tissue and cells are still missing. [emphasis mine] The German-French SolNanoTox research project examines which role the solubility of nanomaterials plays with regard to their accumulation and potential toxic properties. The project is to run for three and a half years during which the BfR will work closely with its French sister organisation ANSES. Other partners are the Institut des Sciences Chimiques de Rennes and Universität Leipzig. The German Research Foundation and French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) are funding the project.

The tasks of the BfR include in vitro tests (e.g. the investigation of the influence of the human gastrointestinal system) and analysis of biological samples with regard to the possible accumulation of nanomaterials. In addition to this, the BfR uses modern methods of mass spectrometry imaging to find out whether nanoparticles alter the structure of biomolecules, e.g. the structure of the lipids of the cellular membrane. So far, these important tests, which are necessary for assessing possible changes in DNA or cellular structures caused by nanomaterials in food, have not been conducted.

Metallic nanoparticles are to be studied (from the press release),

In the project, two fundamentally different types of nanoparticles are examined as representatives for others of their type: titanium dioxide as representative of water insoluble nanoparticles and aluminium as an example of nanomaterials which show a certain degree of water solubility after oxidation. [emphases mine] It is examined whether the degree of solubility influences the distribution of the nanomaterials in the body and whether soluble materials may possibly accumulate more in other organs than insoluble ones. The object is to establish whether there is a direct toxic effect of insoluble nanomaterials in general after oral uptake due to their small size.

Different innovative analytical methods are combined in the project with the aim to elucidate the behaviour of nanomaterials in tissue and their uptake into the cell. The main focus is on effects which can trigger genotoxic damage and inflammation. At first, the effects of both materials are examined in human cultures of intestinal and liver cells in an artificial environment (in vitro). In the following, it has to be verified by animal experimentation whether the observed effects can also occur in humans. This modus operandi allows to draw conclusions on effects and mode of action of orally ingested nanomaterials with different properties. The goal is to group nanomaterials on the basis of specific properties and to allocate the corresponding toxicological properties to these groups. Motivation for the project is the enormous number of nanomaterials with large differences in physicochemical properties. Toxicological tests cannot be conducted for all materials.

In the meantime, a June 19, 2014 news item on Azonano (also on EurekAlert but dated June 18, 2014) features some research into metallic nanoparticles in dietary supplement drinks,

Robert Reed [University of Arizona] and colleagues note that food and drink manufacturers use nanoparticles in and on their products for many reasons. In packaging, they can provide strength, control how much air gets in and out, and keep unwanted microbes at bay. As additives to food and drinks, they can prevent caking, deliver nutrients and prevent bacterial growth. But as nanoparticles increase in use, so do concerns over their health and environmental effects. Consumers might absorb some of these materials through their skin, and inhale and ingest them. What doesn’t get digested is passed in urine and feces to the sewage system. A handful of initial studies on nanomaterials suggest that they could be harmful, but Reed’s team wanted to take a closer look.

They tested the effects of eight commercial drinks containing nano-size metal or metal-like particles on human intestinal cells in the lab. The drinks changed the normal organization and decreased the number of microvilli, finger-like projections on the cells that help digest food. In humans, if such an effect occurs as the drinks pass through the gastrointestinal tract, these materials could lead to poor digestion or diarrhea, they say. The researchers’ analysis of sewage waste containing these particles suggests that much of the nanomaterials from these products are likely making their way back into surface water, where they could potentially cause health problems for aquatic life.

This piece is interesting for two reasons. First, the researchers don’t claim that metallic nanoparticles cause digestion or diarrhea due to any action in the gastrointestinal tract. They studied the impact that metallic nanoparticles in supplementary drinks had on cells (in vitro testing) from the gastrointestinal tract. Based on what they observed in the laboratory, “… these materials could lead to poor digestion or diarrhea… .” The researchers also suggest a problem could occur as these materials enter surface water in increasing quantities.

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

Supplement Drinks and Assessment of Their Potential Interactions after Ingestion by Robert B. Reed, James J. Faust, Yu Yang, Kyle Doudrick, David G. Capco, Kiril Hristovski, and Paul Westerhoff. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2014, 2 (7), pp 1616–1624 DOI: 10.1021/sc500108m Publication Date (Web): June 2, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

With Paul Westerhoff as one of the authors and the reference to metallic nanoparticles entering water supplies, I’m guessing that this research is associated with the LCnano (lifecycle nano) project headquartered at Arizona State university (April 8, 2014 posting).

Getting back to the Franco-German SolNanoTox project, scientists do not know what happens when the cells in your intestines, liver, etc. encounter metallic or other nanoparticles, some of which may be naturally occurring. It should also be noted that we have likely been ingesting metallic nanoparticles for quite some time. After all, anyone who has used silver cutlery has ingested some silver nanoparticles.

There are many, many questions to be asked and answered with regard to nanomaterials in our foods.  Here are a few of mine:

  • How many metallic and other nanoparticles did we ingest before the advent of ‘nanomaterials in food’?
  • What is the biopersistence of naturally occurring and engineered metallic and other nanoparticles in the body?
  • Is there an acceptable dose versus a fatal dose? (Note: There’s naturally occurring formaldehyde in pears as per my May 19, 2014 post about doses, poisons, and the Sense about Science group’s campaign/book, Making Sense of Chemical Stories.)
  • What happens as the metallic and other engineered nanoparticles are added to food and drink and eventually enter our water, air, and soil?

Returning to the ‘debate’, a July 11, 2014 article by Sarah Shemkus for a sponsored section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper highlights an initiative taken by an environmental organization, As You Sow, concerning titanium dioxide in Dunkin’ Donuts’ products (Note: A link has been removed),

The activists at environmental nonprofit As You Sow want you to take another look at your breakfast doughnut. The organization recently filed a shareholder resolution asking Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts, to identify products that may contain nanomaterials and to prepare a report assessing the risks of using these substances in foods.

Their resolution received a fair amount of support: at the company’s annual general meeting in May, 18.7% of shareholders, representing $547m in investment, voted for it. Danielle Fugere, As You Sow’s president, claims that it was the first such resolution to ever receive a vote. Though it did not pass, she says that she is encouraged by the support it received.

“That’s a substantial number of votes in favor, especially for a first-time resolution,” she says.

The measure was driven by recent testing sponsored by As You Sow, which found nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in the powdered sugar that coats some of the donut chain’s products. [emphasis mine] An additive widely used to boost whiteness in products from toothpaste to plastic, microscopic titanium dioxide has not been conclusively proven unsafe for human consumption. Then again, As You Sow contends, there also isn’t proof that it is harmless.

“Until a company can demonstrate the use of nanomaterials is safe, we’re asking companies either to not use them or to provide labels,” says Fugere. “It would make more sense to understand these materials before putting them in our food.”

As You Sow is currently having 16 more foods tested. The result should be available later this summer, Fugere says.

I wonder if As You Sow will address the question of whether the nanoscale titanium dioxide they find indicates that nanoscale particles are being deliberately added or whether the particles are the inadvertent consequence of the production process. That said, I find it hard to believe no one in the food industry is using engineered nanoscale additives as they claim  (the other strategy is to offer a nonanswer) in Shemkus’ article (Note: Links have been removed).,

In a statement, Dunkin’ Donuts argues that the titanium dioxide identified by As You Sow does not qualify as a nanomaterial according to European Union rules or draft US Food and Drug Administration regulations. The company also points out that there is no agreed-upon standard method for identifying nanoparticles in food.

In 2008, As You Sow filed nanomaterial labeling resolutions with McDonald’s and Kraft Foods. In response, McDonald’s released a statement declaring that it does not support the use of nanomaterials in its food, packaging or toys. Kraft responded that it would make sure to address health and safety concerns before ever using nanomaterials in its products.

While Shemkus’ article appears in the Guardian’s Food Hub which is sponsored by the Irish Food Board, this article manages to avoid the pitfalls found in Philpott’s nonsponsored article.

Coming next: the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance issued five weeks after the FOE kicks off the ‘nano and food’ debate in May 2014 with its ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘ report.

Part one (an FOE report is published)

Part three (final guidance)

FOE, nano, and food: part one of three (an FOE report is published)

It seems the food and nano debate of Spring/Summer 2014 has died down, for a while at least. The first volley (from my perspective) was the May 2014 release of ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture’ by the Friends of the Earth (FOE) Australia. Here’s how the report is described in a May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Friends of the Earth’s new report, Way too little (pdf), looks at the now widespread presence of nanomaterials in our food chain and how little Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is doing to ensure our safety.

You can find the following passage on p. 6 of FOE’s report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘,

This report will examine the changes since our 2008 report including the development of new food, food contact and agricultural products. It will review the current literature relating to the potential environmental, health and safety impacts associated with nanotechnology and summarise the Australian regulatory responses to date.

This updated report uncovers the:

•accelerating rate of commercialisation and rapidly increasing number of commercial products containing nanomaterials in the food and agricultural sectors;

•lack of information regarding which nanomaterials have been released and the likely exposure of humans and natural systems to these materials;

•lack of basic steps to allow us to track nanomaterials that have been released, such as
labelling and a register of products containing nanomaterials;

•growing gap between the pace of commercialisation and environmental, health and safety assessments;

•increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence that certain nanomaterials may cause harm to human health or the environment;

•failure of regulators to respond to the growingevidence of risks;

•lack of basic knowledge that is critical in order to fully analyse the particular environmental, health and safety issues associated with nanotechnology.

Six years ago, inaction was based on a perceived lack of data. Inaction is still the norm but that is no longer an excuse our Government can use. Scientists and scientific bodies such as the US National Research Council have given us more than enough evidence to justify a pro-active regulatory regime and a properly funded R&D program that will effectively target those areas of greatest environmental and health concern.

Unfortunately, our Federal Government seems unwilling to provide the levels of funding required for such work or to adopt appropriate regulation. The notion of precaution has been replaced with an attitude that it is the obligation of industry to determine whether their products are safe and regulators will only act when harm is shown. While France, Belgium and Denmark are implementing a mandatory register for nanomaterials and the EU’s is in the process of implementing a nano food labelling regime, Australian consumers remain in the dark.

This needs to change.

One of the issues with increased regulation and labeling is whether the benefits outweigh disadvantages such as the increased difficulty of getting needed foodstuffs to the marketplace and, of course, cost.

Tom Philpott in a May 28, 2014 article for Mother Jones magazine titled ‘Big Dairy Is Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food’ is a strong proponent for FOE’s position, albeit his geographic focus is the US and he seems most concerned with metallic nanoparticles (Note: Links have been removed),

Examples include Silk Original Soy Milk, Rice Dream Rice Drink, Hershey’s Bliss Dark Chocolate, and Kraft’s iconic American Cheese Singles, all of which now contain nano-size titanium dioxide*. As recently as 2008, only eight US food products were known to contain nanoparticles, according to a recent analysis [May 2014 report] from Friends of the Earth—a more than tenfold increase in just six years.

Philpott goes on to mention the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2012 draft guidance on nanomaterials and food,

Back in 2012, the FDA released a draft, pending public comment, of a proposed new framework for bringing nano materials into food. The document reveals plenty of reason for concern. For example: “so-called nano-engineered food substances can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts.” The report went on to note that “particle size, surface area, aggregation/agglomeration, or shape may impact absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) and potentially the safety of the nano-engineered food substance.”

What FDA is saying here is obvious: If nanoparticles didn’t behave differently, the industry wouldn’t be using them in the first place.

So what’s the remedy? Rather than require rigorous safety studies before companies can lace food with nanoparticles, the FDA’s policy draft proposes “nonbinding recommendations” for such research. Even that rather porous safety net doesn’t yet exist—the agency still hasn’t implemented the draft proposal it released more than two years ago.[emphasis mine]

June 27, 2014, the FDA issued a final ‘food and nanotechnology’ guidance document (more on that later).

In the meantime, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) strongly countered Philpott’s Mother Jones article with his own article published both on The Conversation (June 3, 2014) and on Nanowerk (June 4, 2014),

Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation.

The source material for the article came from a report by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, an online database of nanotechnology-based consumer products and a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012. However, the analysis of the information is flawed.

..

Bad journalism

The inventory Philpott cites is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, which I helped establish in 2006 as a way better understand the increasing number of consumer products that were using engineered nanomaterials. It provides a useful but only qualitative sense of what was being used where, and relies on intermittent web searches and other sources of intelligence. The inventory was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative.

Briefly, Andrew’s argument is that the FOE report (Way too little) which claims a tenfold increase since 2008 of food products with added nano titanium dioxide (and which Philpotts uses to build his case) is erroneous. In 2006, the inventory was voluntary and there was no oversight. At that time, eight food products had been added to the list. In 2013, the inventory was revived (Oct. 28, 2013 posting) and new information added from a 2012 academic paper. The products from the 2012 paper may have predated the 2006 inventory products, or not. There is no way to tell. Andrew notes this in his measured way,

As someone who works on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, I can see how errors in translation crept into this story. The 2012 paper was addressing a legitimate concern that little is know about how much titanium dioxide is in the processed food chain. The Consumer Products Inventory provides important and unique insights into nanoparticles being used in products. Friends of the Earth have every right to ask what is known about the potential risks in what we’re eating. And reporters like Philpott have a professional obligation to highlight issues of concern and interest to their readers.

The problem with exaggerated and inflated claims is that FOE proves itself to be an unreliable source and Philpott’s failure to investigate adequately puts his own credibility into question. How can you trust either FOE’s materials or Philpott’s articles? The easiest way to begin rebuilding credibility is to admit one’s mistakes. To date, I have not seen any such attempts from FOE or Philpott.

Coming next: a research initiative into the health effects of nano and food and a research paper on nano in commercial drinks both of which help illustrate why there are concerns and why there is a reluctance to move too quickly.

Part two (the problem with research)

Part three (final guidance)

UNESCO course: Nanotechnology for Water and Wastewater Treatment 2015 call for applications

Despite an initially puzzling announcement from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), I was able to track down a description for the course on studyfinder.nl,

Nanotechnology for Water and Wastewater Treatment

UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education

Certificate / Diploma Short course Delft [Netherlands]

Field of study     Agriculture and environment
Course description     The course overviews the state-of-the-art and novel developments of nanotechnology in applications for drinking water production and wastewater treatment.
Study subjects     Framework: Nanoparticles and Water; Environmental Fate; Risk Analysis. Nanotechnology for Water/Wastewater Treatment: Physical, Chemical and Biological Properties of Nanoparticles. High-Performance Water and Wastewater Purification Systems: Nanofiltration, Nanosorbents and Nanocatalysts. Nanoparticles that Sense and Treat Disease: Biosensors and Desinfectants.
Course objectives     Apply innovative applications of nanotechnology in drinking water production and wastewater treatment. Familiar with the state-of-the-art, impact and cost-benefit analysis of nanotechnology processes for water and wastewater treatment. Communicate successfully on nanoscience and nanotechnology interfacing with environmental chemistry, environmental engineering and bioprocess.

Duration     2 weeks full-time
Language of instruction     English

There is a bit more information on the UNESCO website’s Short Courses Nanotechnology for Water and Wastewater Treatment webpage,

The emergence of nanobiotechnology and the incorporation of living microorganisms in biomicroelectronic devices are revolutionizing interdisciplinary opportunities for microbiologists and biotechnologists to participate in understanding microbial processes in and from the environment. Moreover, it offers revolutionary perspectives to develop and exploit these processes in completely new ways.

This short course presents an opportunity to learn and discuss about various innovative research aspects of nanoscience and nanotechnology interfacing with environmental chemistry, environmental engineering and bioprocess technology amongst professionals as well as young researchers and PhD students.

You can access the 2015 call for applications on this UNESCO webpage. For more information contact,

Piet Lens

Professor of Environmental Biotechnology

Phone +31152151816
Email

From Australia: a recipe for baking lenses

Here’s the recipe from an April 24, 2014 Optical Society news release on EurekAlert,

All that’s needed is an oven, a microscope glass slide and a common, gel-like silicone polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). First, drop a small amount of PDMS onto the slide. Then bake it at 70 degrees Celsius to harden it, creating a base. Then, drop another dollop of PDMS onto the base and flip the slide over. Gravity pulls the new droplet down into a parabolic shape. Bake the droplet again to solidify the lens. More drops can then be added to hone the shape of the lens that also greatly increases the imaging quality of the lens. “It’s a low cost and easy lens-making recipe,” Lee [ Steve Lee from the Research School of Engineering at Australian National University] says.

I’m still marveling over this image,

Caption: This photo shows a single droplet lens suspended on a fingertip. Credit: Stuart Hay. Courtesy: The Optical Society

Caption: This photo shows a single droplet lens suspended on a fingertip. Credit: Stuart Hay. Courtesy: The Optical Society

For anyone who doesn’t know much about producing lenses and why these baked droplets could improve lives, the Optical Society news release provides some insight,

A droplet of clear liquid can bend light, acting as a lens. Now, by exploiting this well-known phenomenon, researchers have developed a new process to create inexpensive high quality lenses that will cost less than a penny apiece.

Because they’re so inexpensive, the lenses can be used in a variety of applications, including tools to detect diseases in the field, scientific research in the lab and optical lenses and microscopes for education in classrooms.

“What I’m really excited about is that it opens up lens fabrication technology,” says Steve Lee from the Research School of Engineering at Australian National University (ANU) …

Many conventional lenses are made the same way lenses have been made since the days of Isaac Newton—by grinding and polishing a flat disk of glass into a particular curved shape. Others are made with more modern methods, such as pouring gel-like materials molds. But both approaches can be expensive and complex, Lee says. With the new method, the researchers harvest solid lenses of varying focal lengths by hanging and curing droplets of a gel-like material—a simple and inexpensive approach that avoids costly or complicated machinery.

“What I did was to systematically fine-tune the curvature that’s formed by a simple droplet with the help of gravity, and without any molds,” he explains.

Although people have long recognized that a droplet can act as a lens, no one tried to see how good a lens it could be. Now, the team has developed a process that pushes this concept to its limits, Lee says.

The researchers made lenses about a few millimeters thick with a magnification power of 160 times and a resolution of about 4 microns (millionths of a meter)—two times lower in optical resolution than many commercial microscopes, but more than three orders of magnitude lower in cost. “We’re quite surprised at the magnification enhancement using such a simple process,” he notes.

An April 24, 2014 Australian National University (ANU) news release on EurekAlert adds more details to the story,

The lenses are made by using the natural shape of liquid droplets.

“We put a droplet of polymer onto a microscope cover slip and then invert it. Then we let gravity do the work, to pull it into the perfect curvature,” Dr Lee said.

“By successively adding small amounts of fluid to the droplet, we discovered that we can reach a magnifying power of up to 160 times with an imaging resolution of four micrometers.”

The polymer, polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), is the same as that used for contact lenses, and it won’t break or scratch.

“It would be perfect for the third world. All you need is a fine tipped tool, a cover slip, some polymer and an oven,” Dr Lee said.

The first droplet lens was made by accident. [emphasis mine]

I nearly threw them away. [emphasis mine] I happened to mention them to my colleague Tri Phan, and he got very excited,” Dr Lee said.

“So then I decided to try to find the optimum shape, to see how far I could go. When I saw the first images of yeast cells I was like, ‘Wow!’”

Dr Lee and his team worked with Dr Phan to design a lightweight 3D-printable frame to hold the lens, along with a couple of miniature LED lights for illumination, and a coin battery.

The technology taps into the current citizen science revolution [emphasis mine], which is rapidly transforming owners of smart phones into potential scientists. There are also exciting possibilities for remote medical diagnosis.

Dr Phan said the tiny microscope has a wide range of potential uses, particularly if coupled with the right smartphone apps.

“This is a whole new era of miniaturisation and portability – image analysis software could instantly transform most smartphones into sophisticated mobile laboratories,” Dr Phan said.

“I am most able to see the potential for this device in the practice of medicine, although I am sure specialists in other fields will immediately see its value for them.”

Dr Lee said the low-cost lens had already attracted interest from a German group interested in using disposable lenses for tele-dermatology.

“There are also possibilities for farmers,” he said. “They can photograph fungus or insects on their crops, upload the pictures to the internet where a specialist can identify if they are a problem or not.”

That Lee created his first droplet by accident and almost threw it away echoes many, many other science stories. In addition to that age old science story, I love the simplicity of the idea, the reference to Isaac Newton, and the inclusion of citizen science.

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

Fabricating low cost and high performance elastomer lenses using hanging droplets by W. M. Lee, A. Upadhya, P. J. Reece, and Tri Giang Phan. Biomedical Optics Express, Vol. 5, Issue 5, pp. 1626-1635 (2014) http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/BOE.5.001626

This paper is open access.

I wish Lee and his team great success in making this technology available, assuming that it lives up to its promise.

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.

ETA May 16, 2014: The beat goes on with the Georgia (US) Institute of Technology issues a roadmap for making money from lignin. From a Georgia Tech May 15, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

When making cellulosic ethanol from plants, one problem is what to do with a woody agricultural waste product called lignin. The old adage in the pulp industry has been that one can make anything from lignin except money.

A new review article in the journal Science points the way toward a future where lignin is transformed from a waste product into valuable materials such as low-cost carbon fiber for cars or bio-based plastics. Using lignin in this way would create new markets for the forest products industry and make ethanol-to-fuel conversion more cost-effective.

“We’ve developed a roadmap for integrating genetic engineering with analytical chemistry tools to tailor the structure of lignin and its isolation so it can be used for materials, chemicals and fuels,” said Arthur Ragauskas, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Ragauskas is also part of the Institute for Paper Science and Technology at Georgia Tech.

The roadmap was published May 15 [2014] in the journal Science. …

Here’s a link to and citation for the ‘roadmap’,

Lignin Valorization: Improving Lignin Processing in the Biorefinery by  Arthur J. Ragauskas, Gregg T. Beckham, Mary J. Biddy, Richard Chandra, Fang Chen, Mark F. Davis, Brian H. Davison, Richard A. Dixon, Paul Gilna, Martin Keller, Paul Langan, Amit K. Naskar, Jack N. Saddler, Timothy J. Tschaplinski, Gerald A. Tuskan, and Charles E. Wyman. Science 16 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6185 DOI: 10.1126/science.1246843

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.