Category Archives: science

Feel good about Canadian youth and science—a couple of stories

I’ve got two items (h/t to Speaking for Canadian Science) which highlight exciting, recent news about Canadian youth and science. The first item concerns Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair and the impact Canadian young scientists had on the 2015 edition of the fair. From a May 15, 2015 news item on CNN,

A Vancouver [Canada] high school student was awarded first place for engineering a new air inlet system for airplane cabins to improve air quality and curb disease transmission at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of Society for Science & the Public.

Raymond Wang, 17, invented a system that improves the availability of fresh air in the cabin by more than 190 percent while reducing pathogen inhalation concentrations by up to 55 times compared to conventional designs, and can be easily and economically incorporated in existing airplanes. Wang received the Gordon E. Moore Award of US$75,000, named in honor of the Intel co-founder and fellow scientist.

“Using high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics modeling and representative physical simulations, Raymond’s work has significantly enhanced our understanding of how disease-causing pathogens travel via circulating airflow in aircraft cabins, and has also helped him to develop multiple approaches for reducing disease transmission in these types of settings,” said Scott Clary, Ph.D., Intel International Science Engineering Fair 2015 engineering mechanics category co-chair and electromechanical engineering manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

Team Canada had a superior showing at this year’s fair with 11 students winning awards.

Nicole Ticea, 16, also of Vancouver, received one of two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of US$50,000 for developing an inexpensive, easy-to-use testing device to combat the high rate of undiagnosed HIV infection in low-income communities. Her disposable, electricity-free device provides results in an hour and should cost less than US$5 to produce. Ticea has already founded her own company, which recently received a US$100,000 grant to continue developing her technology.

“With a focus on science, technology, education and math, key pillars of a competitive and robust Canadian economy, these students showcase how competitive Canadians can be on a global scale,” said Nancy Demerling, marketing manager, Intel Canada.

Additional awards were presented to the following Canadian students:

  • Candace Brooks-Da Silva (Windsor, ON): Second Award of $500, Society of Experimental Test Pilots; Top Award of $5,000, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Alternate for CERN trip, European Organization for Nuclear Research-CERN; Second Award of $1,500, Engineering Mechanics
  • Emily Cross (Thunder Bay, ON): First Award of $1,000, American Geosciences Institute; Fourth Award of $500, Earth and Environmental Sciences
  • Benjamin Friesen (Grimsby, ON): Award of $5,000 for outstanding project in the systems software category, Oracle Academy
  • Ann Makosinski (Victoria): First Award of $500, Patent and Trademark Office Society; Fourth Award of $500, Energy: Physical
  • Daniel McInnis (Ottawa): Third Award of $1,000, Computational Biology and Informatics
  • Aditya Mohan (Ottawa): First Award of $2,000, American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists; First Award of $3,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Janice Pang (Coquitlam, BC): Fourth Award of $500, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Amit Scheer (Ottawa): Second Award of $1,500, Biomedical and Health Sciences
  • Duncan Stothers (Vancouver): Sustainable Design In Transportation, First Award $2,500, Alcoa Foundation; Second Award of $1,500, Society for Experimental Mechanics, Inc.; Second Award of $1,500, Engineering Mechanics
  • Nicole Ticea (Vancouver): USAID Global Development Innovation award of $10,000, U.S. Agency for International Development; Award of $1,200, China Association for Science and Technology (CAST); Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Best of Category Award of $5,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences; First Award of $3,000, Biomedical and Health Sciences; Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award, Intel Foundation Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award $8,000
  • Raymond Wang (Vancouver): First Award of $1,000, Society of Experimental Test Pilots; Third Award of $1,000, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Best of Category Award of $5,000, Engineering Mechanics; First Award of $3,000, Engineering Mechanics; Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award, Intel Foundation Cultural and Scientific Visit to China Award $8,000

This year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair featured approximately 1,700 young scientists selected from 422 affiliate fairs in more than 75 countries, regions and territories.

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2015 is funded jointly by Intel and the Intel Foundation with additional awards and support from dozens of other corporate, academic, governmental and science-focused organizations. This year, approximately US$4 million was awarded.

Two provinces seem to have dominated the Canadian field, Ontario and British Columbia. The lack of representation at the award-winning level from the other provinces may signify a lack of awareness in the Prairies, Québec, the North, and the Maritimes, about the festival and, consequently, fewer entries from those provinces and territories. On a whim, I searched for an Intel Canada presence and there is one, in British Columbia. Interesting but not conclusive. In any event, congratulations to all the students who won and those who participated!

There was another science fair, this one, the Canada Wide Science Fair (CWSF), took place in Fredericton, New Brunswick (Maritimes). From a May 12, 2015 news item on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news website,

Almost 500 provincial science fair winners are competing for more than $1 million in prizes, scholarships and awards this week in the Canada Wide Science Fair in Fredericton.

The Currie Center at the University of New Brunswick is packed with booths in neat rows with topics ranging from preventing ice drownings to better ways to carry a kayak.

Paransa Subedi, a Winnipeg student, is studying how much sugar gets into your blood stream from breakfast cereal.

“We know that Rice Krispies have very little added sugar, but the thing is its all starches, so over time it has a high glycemic response,” she says, as she cuts up a cereal box to add to her display.

Judging is happening all day on Tuesday. Four judges will look at each project and they will reach a consensus to determine the winner.

Judith Soon, a national judge, says 50 per cent of the mark is for the “creative spark.”

“The most important part is being creative and original and it has to be their idea,” she said.

A May 15, 2015 CWSF news item by Dominic Tremblay for the Youth Science Canada (the CWSF’s parent organization) website lists the 2015 winners of the top prizes,

The Best Project Award went to:

Austin Wang from Vancouver, BC, for his project: A Novel Method to Identify Genes in Electron Transfer of Exoelectrogens. Austin’s project identified genes in bacteria that are responsible for generating power in a microbial fuel cell. His work is making an incredible impact on understanding the biology of how these systems work.

Platinum Awards of $1,000 were awarded to: 

Rebecca Baron from Vancouver, BC, for her project: Root Microbiomics: The Next Big Thing? Her project looked at using a common household plant to remove toxins from the air. She found that the microbes in the root of a particular plant are highly successful in removing airborne formaldehyde. Her work has the potential to make an impact on bioremediation of indoor air quality.

Marcus Deans from Windsor, Ontario for his project: NOGOS: A Novel Nano-Oligosaccharide Doped Graphene Sand Composite Water. For his project he created a filter out of sugar and sand that can successfully clean water to commercial standards, all with materials under $20 total. He hopes that his work can go a long way to providing cheap and effective water filters for the developing world.

Congratulations to the top prize winners, winners, and all the participants!

You can find the full list of 2015 award recipients here. where you will find several other provinces also well represented.

Fermionic atoms and the microscopes that can see them

The new fermionic microscope built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) allows you to image 1000 or more fermionic atoms according to a May 13, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Fermions are the building blocks of matter, interacting in a multitude of permutations to give rise to the elements of the periodic table. Without fermions, the physical world would not exist.

Examples of fermions are electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and atoms consisting of an odd number of these elementary particles. Because of their fermionic nature, electrons and nuclear matter are difficult to understand theoretically, so researchers are trying to use ultracold gases of fermionic atoms as stand-ins for other fermions.

But atoms are extremely sensitive to light: When a single photon hits an atom, it can knock the particle out of place — an effect that has made imaging individual fermionic atoms devilishly hard.

Now a team of MIT physicists has built a microscope that is able to see up to 1,000 individual fermionic atoms. The researchers devised a laser-based technique to trap and freeze fermions in place, and image the particles simultaneously.

A May 13, 2015 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides intriguing detail about the microscope and fascinating insight into fermions (for those who are interested but not expert and sufficiently brave to endure certain failure to understand everything in this piece),

The new imaging technique uses two laser beams trained on a cloud of fermionic atoms in an optical lattice. The two beams, each of a different wavelength, cool the cloud, causing individual fermions to drop down an energy level, eventually bringing them to their lowest energy states — cool and stable enough to stay in place. At the same time, each fermion releases light, which is captured by the microscope and used to image the fermion’s exact position in the lattice — to an accuracy better than the wavelength of light.

With the new technique, the researchers are able to cool and image over 95 percent of the fermionic atoms making up a cloud of potassium gas. Martin Zwierlein, a professor of physics at MIT, says an intriguing result from the technique appears to be that it can keep fermions cold even after imaging.

“That means I know where they are, and I can maybe move them around with a little tweezer to any location, and arrange them in any pattern I’d like,” Zwierlein says.

Zwierlein and his colleagues, including first author and graduate student Lawrence Cheuk, have published their results today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Seeing fermions from bosons

For the past two decades, experimental physicists have studied ultracold atomic gases of the two classes of particles: fermions and bosons — particles such as photons that, unlike fermions, can occupy the same quantum state in limitless numbers. In 2009, physicist Markus Greiner at Harvard University devised a microscope that successfully imaged individual bosons in a tightly spaced optical lattice. This milestone was followed, in 2010, by a second boson microscope, developed by Immanuel Bloch’s group at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.

These microscopes revealed, in unprecedented detail, the behavior of bosons under strong interactions. However, no one had yet developed a comparable microscope for fermionic atoms.

“We wanted to do what these groups had done for bosons, but for fermions,” Zwierlein says. “And it turned out it was much harder for fermions, because the atoms we use are not so easily cooled. So we had to find a new way to cool them while looking at them.”

Techniques to cool atoms ever closer to absolute zero have been devised in recent decades. Carl Wieman, Eric Cornell, and MIT’s Wolfgang Ketterle were able to achieve Bose-Einstein condensation in 1995, a milestone for which they were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics. Other techniques include a process using lasers to cool atoms from 300 degrees Celsius to a few ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.

A clever cooling technique

And yet, to see individual fermionic atoms, the particles need to be cooled further still. To do this, Zwierlein’s group created an optical lattice using laser beams, forming a structure resembling an egg carton, each well of which could potentially trap a single fermion. Through various stages of laser cooling, magnetic trapping, and further evaporative cooling of the gas, the atoms were prepared at temperatures just above absolute zero — cold enough for individual fermions to settle onto the underlying optical lattice. The team placed the lattice a mere 7 microns from an imaging lens, through which they hoped to see individual fermions.

However, seeing fermions requires shining light on them, causing a photon to essentially knock a fermionic atom out of its well, and potentially out of the system entirely.

“We needed a clever technique to keep the atoms cool while looking at them,” Zwierlein says.

His team decided to use a two-laser approach to further cool the atoms; the technique manipulates an atom’s particular energy level, or vibrational energy. Each atom occupies a certain energy state — the higher that state, the more active the particle is. The team shone two laser beams of differing frequencies at the lattice. The difference in frequencies corresponded to the energy between a fermion’s energy levels. As a result, when both beams were directed at a fermion, the particle would absorb the smaller frequency, and emit a photon from the larger-frequency beam, in turn dropping one energy level to a cooler, more inert state. The lens above the lattice collects the emitted photon, recording its precise position, and that of the fermion.

Zwierlein says such high-resolution imaging of more than 1,000 fermionic atoms simultaneously would enhance our understanding of the behavior of other fermions in nature — particularly the behavior of electrons. This knowledge may one day advance our understanding of high-temperature superconductors, which enable lossless energy transport, as well as quantum systems such as solid-state systems or nuclear matter.

“The Fermi gas microscope, together with the ability to position atoms at will, might be an important step toward the realization of a quantum computer based on fermions,” Zwierlein says. “One would thus harness the power of the very same intricate quantum rules that so far hamper our understanding of electronic systems.”

Zwierlein says it is a good time for Fermi gas microscopists: Around the same time his group first reported its results, teams from Harvard and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow also reported imaging individual fermionic atoms in optical lattices, indicating a promising future for such microscopes.

Zoran Hadzibabic, a professor of physics at Trinity College [University of Cambridge, UK], says the group’s microscope is able to detect individual atoms “with almost perfect fidelity.”

“They detect them reliably, and do so without affecting their positions — that’s all you want,” says Hadzibabic, who did not contribute to the research. “So far they demonstrated the technique, but we know from the experience with bosons that that’s the hardest step, and I expect the scientific results to start pouring out.”

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

Quantum-Gas Microscope for Fermionic Atoms by Lawrence W. Cheuk, Matthew A. Nichols, Melih Okan, Thomas Gersdorf, Vinay V. Ramasesh, Waseem S. Bakr, Thomas Lompe, and Martin W. Zwierlein. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 193001 – Published 13 May 2015 (print: Vol. 114, Iss. 19 — 15 May 2015) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.193001

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

There is an earlier version available on arXiv.org,

A Quantum Gas Microscope for Fermionic Atoms by Lawrence W. Cheuk, Matthew A. Nichols, Melih Okan, Thomas Gersdorf, Vinay V. Ramasesh, Waseem S. Bakr, Thomas Lompe, Martin W. Zwierlein. (Submitted on 9 Mar 2015 (v1), last revised 10 Mar 2015 (this version, v2))

This an open access website.

CRISPR genome editing tools and human genetic engineering issues

This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.

First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,

CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare by Rajendran Subin Raj Cheri Kunnumal, Yau Yuan-Yeu, Pandey Dinesh, and Kumar Anil. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. May 2015, 19(5): 261-275. doi:10.1089/omi.2015.0023 Published Online Ahead of Print: April 14, 2015

Here’s more about the paper from a May 7, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publisher news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …

“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.

“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.

Intellectual property (patents)

The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.

….

Ethical and moral issues

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

….

Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

More than CRISPR

As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.

In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …

Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.

Canadian perspective?

I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.

Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.

Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find  more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.

Science as revolution: the 2016 European Science Open Forum in Manchester, UK

Should you be interested in presenting at the 2016 European Science Open Forum (2016 ESOF) which takes place July 22 – 27, 2016 in Manchester, UK, you have until June 1, 2015 at 10 am CET to make your submission.

Here’s more from the ESOF 2016 homepage,

Science as Revolution from Cottonopolis to Graphene City

Manchester is the city where Marx met Engels and Rolls met Royce. Similarly ESOF 2016 will be a meeting of minds, bringing together many of the world’s foremost scientific thinkers, innovators and scholars. Capitalising on Manchester’s unique history as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution the theme for ESOF 2016 has been announced as ‘science as revolution’.

ESOF 2016 will comprise a number of distinct programme tracks:

• A science programme of seminars, workshops and debates on the latest research and related policy issues, structured around a programme of keynote speakers and the latest scientific issues. The call for proposals is now open.

• A science-to-business programme to explore the major issues for research within business and industry and the role of universities for business.

• A career programme showcasing career opportunities across Europe and beyond for researchers at all stages of their careers.

An exhibition that showcases the best of European academic, public and private research.

A forum to host other meetings, satellite events and networking opportunities (e.g. science policy advisers and science media)

Call for proposals

Submissions for the science programme are now open until the deadline for session proposals is 1 June 2015 at 10:00 am CET. There are nine core themes running through the science programme, spanning particle physics to pandemics, antimicrobial resistance to artificial intelligence and the Anthropocene epoch. More information on each of the themes can be found here. The nine themes are:

• Healthy populations

• Material dimensions

• Sustaining the environment

• Turing’s legacy – data and the human brain

• Far frontiers

• Living in the Future

• Bio-revolution

• Science for policy and policy for science

• Science in our cultures

A May 4, 3015 ESOF 2016 announcement extends the invitation (I apologize for the repetition but there’s enlightening additional  information such as the invitation being global and free registration is included if your proposal is accepted),

With themes spanning antimicrobial research to artificial intelligence, the green economy to graphene – there are hundreds of topics to be explored and even more reasons to get involved in the science programme. Playing on Manchester’s unique history as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the overarching theme for the event has been announced as ‘science as revolution’. As such, ESOF 2016 will be an opportunity to discuss the socio-cultural and economic implications and impacts of scientific revolutions from regional, national, European and global perspectives.

Over recent years ESOF has developed into the largest multi-disciplinary science meeting in Europe, where scientists meet scientists, policy makers, media specialists, business leaders and the wider community. The home of ESOF 2016 is Manchester, UK – the city where Marx met …. . Similarly ESOF 2016 will be a meeting of minds, bringing together many of the world’s foremost scientific thinkers, innovators and scholars from 23-27 July 2016. And 2016 is a special year for science in Manchester, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Dalton – the father of atomic theory. ESOF will be the culmination of an 18 month celebration of science in the city.

There is still plenty of time for proposals to be submitted for science-based seminars, workshops and debates on the latest research and policy issues, all of which are warmly welcomed. This is an open invitation to individuals and organisations alike and it is hoped that the call will inspire our foremost thinkers and researchers from across the global scientific community to take a unique look to share with us how science, technology and innovation has the potential to transform all our lives.

Please note that all session organisers and speakers are entitled to complimentary registration for the conference, with access to the full science programme, plenary sessions and the ESOF 2016 exhibition.

Manchester is being described as Europe’s City of Science 2016 which I thought was an initiative of Dublin’s city council when the city hosted the 2012 ESOF and which was then adopted by Copenhagen in 2014 during its ESOF hosting period. It appears I may have misunderstood and this title is part of the ESOF hosting designation as per a Sept. 30, 2013 University of Manchester press release,  Perhaps one of these days I’ll be able to settle the matter for my own satisfaction if no one else’s.

Science Hack Day (May 16 – May 17, 2015) in Washington, DC

I received an April 28, 2015 announcement from the Wilson Center’s (aka Wilson International Center for Scholars) Commons Lab about the first ever and upcoming Science Hack Day in Washington, DC (May 16 – 17, 2015),

The Wilson Center and ARTSEDGE from the Kennedy Center are proud to host the first-ever in Washington, D.C., Science Hack Day! Science Hack Day is a 48-hour-all-night event where anyone excited about making weird, silly or serious things with science comes together in the same physical space to see what they can prototype over a weekend.

Designers, artists, developers, hardware enthusiasts, scientists and anyone who is excited about making things with science are welcome to attend – no experience in science or hacking is necessary, just an insatiable curiosity. Food is provided both days to fuel hackers during the day and throughout the night. The event is completely free and open to the public (pre-registration required).

The event will kick off with a series of lightning talks from a diverse group of people in the civic sector. Participants will hack through the night and on Sunday they will demo their projects to a DC Tech panel.

For more detailed information, logistics and updated speaker list please visit: http://dc.sciencehackday.org/

Sponsors & Collaborators

Thomson Reuters End Note

GitHub

ARTSEDGE Kennedy Center for the Arts

For anyone who might need a little more information as to exactly what a ‘science hack’ might be, there’s this description from the Wilson Center’s DC Science Hack Day 2015 event page,

What’s a Hack?
A hack is a quick solution to a problem – maybe not the most elegant solution, but often the cleverest. On the web, mashups are a common example of hacking: mixing up data from different sources in new and interesting ways.

There’s also a video interview where Elizabeth Tyson, one of the organizers, describes it. First some text from an April 13, 2015 Wilson Center Science Hack Day news article,

Elizabeth Tyson is a New Projects Manager/Researcher for the Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program. She co-directs the Commons Lab and scouts and maintains new collaborations. Additionally, she conducts original research exploring the uses of citizen science in industrializing nations. Currently she is coordinating Washington, DC’s first ever Science Hack Day.  Elizabeth reviews and edits publications on citizen science and crowdsourcing including Citizen Science and Policy: A European Perspective and a Typology of Citizen Science from an Intellectual Property Perspective.

Now the video,

You can also a Science Hack Day DC 2015 wiki here. Here are some logistics,

May 16, 2015 at 9:00am to May 17, 2015 at 5:00pm
The Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20004

Enjoy!

Water’s liquid-vapour interface

The UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), along with IBM and the University of Edinburgh, has developed a new quantum model for understanding water’s liquid-vapour interface according to an April 20, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK’s National Measurement Institute in collaboration with IBM and the University of Edinburgh, has used a new quantum model to reveal the molecular structure of water’s liquid surface.

The liquid-vapour interface of water is one of the most common of all heterogeneous (or non-uniform) environments. Understanding its molecular structure will provide insight into complex biochemical interactions underpinning many biological processes. But experimental measurements of the molecular structure of water’s surface are challenging, and currently competing models predict various different arrangements.

An April 20, 2015 NPL press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the model and research in more detail,

The model is based on a single charged particle, the quantum Drude oscillator (QDO), which mimics the way the electrons of a real water molecule fluctuate and respond to their environment. This simplified representation retains interactions not normally accessible in classical models and accurately captures the properties of liquid water.

In new research, published in a featured article in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, the team used the QDO model to determine the molecular structure of water’s liquid surface. The results provide new insight into the hydrogen-bonding topology at the interface, which is responsible for the unusually high surface tension of water.

This is the first time the QDO model of water has been applied to the liquid-vapour interface. The results enabled the researchers to identify the intrinsic asymmetry of hydrogen bonds as the mechanism responsible for the surface’s molecular orientation. The model was also capable of predicting the temperature dependence of the surface tension with remarkable accuracy – to within 1 % of experimental values.

Coupled with earlier work on bulk water, this result demonstrates the exceptional transferability of the QDO approach and offers a promising new platform for molecular exploration of condensed matter.

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

Hydrogen bonding and molecular orientation at the liquid–vapour interface of water by Flaviu S. Cipcigan, Vlad P. Sokhan, Andrew P. Jones, Jason Crain and Glenn J. Martyna.  Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2015,17, 8660-8669 DOI: 10.1039/C4CP05506C First published online 17 Feb 2015

The paper is open access although you do need to register on the site provided you don’t have some other means of accessing the paper.

Please, don’t kill my hive! (a Science Rap Academy production)

In celebration of an upcoming event in Vancouver (Canada), “Honey, Hives, and Poetry,” I’m including this April 17, 2015 news from David Bruggeman (on his Pasco Phronesis blog),

Tom McFadden has debuted the first video of this year’s Science Rap Academy.  Seventh and eighth grade students at the Nueva School prepare a music video based on a science concept, usually reworking a rap or hip-hop song.

Here’s the first installment in this year’s Science Rap Academy series, Please Don’t Kill My Hive,

There are many posts on this blog about Tom McFadden and his various science rap projects (many of them courtesy of David Bruggeman/Pasco Phronesis). Here’s one of the more recent ones, a May 30, 2014 posting.

Getting back to David’s April 17, 2015 news, he also mentions the latest installment of  “Science goes to the movies” which features three movies (Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Lazarus Effect, and Them!) and has Neil deGrasse Tyson as a guest. David has embedded the episode on his blog. One brief comment, it’s hard to tell how familiar Tyson or the hosts, Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin are with the history of the novel or science. But the first few minutes of the conversation suggest that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first novel to demonize scientists. (I had the advantage of not getting caught up in their moment and access to search engines.) Well, novels were still pretty new in Europe and I don’t believe that there were any other novels featuring scientists prior to Mary Shelley’s work.

A brief history of novels: Japan can lay claim to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century CE, (The plot concerned itself with aristocratic life and romance.) Europe and its experience with the novel is a little more confusing. From the City University of New York, Brooklyn site, The Novel webpage,

The term for the novel in most European languages is roman, which suggests its closeness to the medieval romance. The English name is derived from the Italian novella, meaning “a little new thing.” Romances and novelle, short tales in prose, were predecessors of the novel, as were picaresque narratives. Picaro is Spanish for “rogue,” and the typical picaresque story is of the escapades of a rascal who lives by his wits. The development of the realistic novel owes much to such works, which were written to deflate romantic or idealized fictional forms. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15), the story of an engaging madman who tries to live by the ideals of chivalric romance, explores the role of illusion and reality in life and was the single most important progenitor of the modern novel.

The novel broke from those narrative predecessors that used timeless stories to mirror unchanging moral truths. It was a product of an intellectual milieu shaped by the great seventeenth-century philosophers, Descartes and Locke, who insisted upon the importance of individual experience. They believed that reality could be discovered by the individual through the senses. Thus, the novel emphasized specific, observed details. It individualized its characters by locating them precisely in time and space. And its subjects reflected the popular eighteenth-century concern with the social structures of everyday life.

The novel is often said to have emerged with the appearance of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Both are picaresque stories, in that each is a sequence of episodes held together largely because they happen to one person. But the central character in both novels is so convincing and set in so solid and specific a world that Defoe is often credited with being the first writer of “realistic” fiction. The first “novel of character” or psychological novel is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-41), an epistolary novel (or novel in which the narrative is conveyed entirely by an exchange of letters). It is a work characterized by the careful plotting of emotional states. Even more significant in this vein is Richardson’s masterpiece Clarissa (1747-48). Defoe and Richardson were the first great writers in our literature who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend, or previous literature. They established the novel’s claim as an authentic account of the actual experience of individuals.

As far as I’m aware none of these novels are concerned with science or scientists for that matter. After all, science was still emerging from a period where alchemy reined supreme. One of the great European scientists, Isaac Newton (1642-1726/7), practiced alchemy along with his science. And that practice did not die with Newton.

With those provisos in mind, or not, do enjoy the movie reviews embedded in David’s April 17, 2015 news.  One final note,David in his weekly roundup of science on late night tv noted that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s late night tv talk show, Star Talks, debuted April 20, 2015, the episode can be seen again later this week while deGrasse Tyson continues to make the rounds of other talk shows to publicize his own.

Sensational Butterflies exhibit and the Blue Morpho

It’s time to give the Blue Morpho butterfly a little attention that isn’t nanotechnology-inflected. Happily, GrrlScientist has written an April 13, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network about the blue butterfly featured in an exhibit (Sensational Butterflies) in London (UK) at the Natural History Museum,

Blue morpho butterflies are native to Mexico, Central American and the northern regions of South America. In the wild, as they fly through the thick foliage, their wings provide brief flashes of brilliant blue that are visible from a long distance. This helps them find mates and defend their territories.

The blue morpho lives for only 115 days — and most of their lifetime is spent on “the Three Fs”: feeding, flying and … reproduction. As fuzzy caterpillars, blue morphos are nocturnal and herbivorous; munching their way through the leaves from many tropical plant species by night — or they can be cannibals; munching their way through their siblings!

Here are two views of the Blue Morpho butterfly (topside and bottomside of the wings)

Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings open. (Also known as the common morpho, or as The Emperor.) Photograph: Thomas Bresson/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings open. (Also known as the common morpho, or as The Emperor.) Photograph: Thomas Bresson/Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

 Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings closed (Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio). Photograph: Greg Hume/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Adult peleides blue morpho, Morpho peleides, wings closed (Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati, Ohio). Photograph: Greg Hume/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Back to GrrlScientist,

Blue morphos are amongst the largest butterflies in the world, with a wingspan that ranges from 7.5–20 cm (3.0–7.9 inches). The underside of their wings are pigmented with black, brown, tan, orange and white, and with a number of eyespots (ocelli). This colouring provides cryptic camouflage to protect them from sharp-eyed predators, especially at night when the adults roost in the foliage to sleep.

The uppersides of the blue morpho’s wings are vivid metallic blue, edged with black. The blue colouring is not supplied by pigments, but by iridescence, where the scales are arranged in a tetrahedral (diamond) pattern across the wing surface, and where individual scales are comprised of several layers, or lamellae, that reflect incident light repeatedly from each successive layer. …

It’s an interesting description of how colour for the topside of the wings is produced. I would have said the colour is supplied by structures on the wing (see my Feb. 7, 2013 post for more about structural colour which is found in plants, fish, peacock feathers, and elsewhere in nature).

GrrlScientist has more about the Blue Morpho Butterfly, including a video of the butterflies emerging from their chrysalises. As for the exhibition, Sensational Butterflies at the Natural History Museum in London (UK) which opened April 2, 2015 and runs till Sept. 13, 2015, you can find out more here.

One last word about the Blue Morpho, there are several species of butterflies known as ‘blue morphos’ (from the April 13, 2015 post by GrrlScientist),

… the Sensational Butterflies exhibition’s blue morphos are peleides blue morphos, Morpho peleides

Enjoy!