Category Archives: food

Genetic engineering: an eggplant in Bangladesh and a synthetic biology grant at Concordia University (Canada)

I have two bits of genetic engineering news.

Eggplants in Bangladesh

I always marvel at their beauty,

Bt eggplant is the first genetically engineered food crop to be successfully introduced in South Asia. The crop is helping some of the world’s poorest farmers feed their families and communities while reducing the use of pesticides. Photo by Cornell Alliance for Science.

A July 17, 2018 news item on describes a genetic engineering application,

Ansar Ali earned just 11,000 taka – about $130 U.S. dollars – from eggplant he grew last year in Bangladesh. This year, after planting Bt eggplant, he brought home more than double that amount, 27,000 taka. It’s a life-changing improvement for a subsistence farmer like Ali.

Bt eggplant, or brinjal as it’s known in Bangladesh, is the first genetically engineered food crop to be successfully introduced in South Asia. Bt brinjal is helping some of the world’s poorest farmers to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use. That’s according to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt brinjal project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Shelton and Jahangir Hossain, the country coordinator for the project in Bangladesh, lead the Cornell initiative to get these seeds into the hands of the small-scale, resource-poor farmers who grow a crop consumed daily by millions of Bangladeshis.

A July 11, 2018 Cornell University news release by Krisy Gashler, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

Bt brinjal was first developed by the Indian seed company Mahyco in the early 2000s. Scientists inserted a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (thus the name, Bt) into nine brinjal varieties. The plants were engineered to resist the fruit and shoot borer, a devastating insect whose larvae bore into the stem and fruit of an eggplant. The insects cause up to 80 percent crop loss.

The Bt protein produced by the engineered eggplant causes the fruit and shoot borer larva to stop feeding, but is safe for humans consuming the eggplant, as proven through years of biosafety trials. In fact, Bt is commonly used by organic farmers to control caterpillars but has to be sprayed frequently to be effective. The Bt eggplant produces essentially the same protein as in the spray. More than 80 percent of field corn and cotton grown in the U.S. contains a Bt gene for insect control.

“Farmers growing Bt brinjal in Bangladesh are seeing three times the production of other brinjal varieties, at half the production cost, and are getting better prices at the market,” Hossain said.

A recent survey found 50 percent of farmers in Bangladesh said that they experienced illness due to the intense spraying of insecticides. Most farmers work in bare feet and without eye protection, leading to pesticide exposure that causes skin and eye irritation, and vomiting.

“It’s terrible for these farmers’ health and the health of the environment to spray so much,” said Shelton, who found that pesticide use on Bt eggplant was reduced as much as 92 percent in commercial Bt brinjal plantings. “Bt brinjal is a solution that’s really making a difference in people’s lives.”

Alhaz Uddin, a farmer in the Tangail district, made 6,000 taka growing traditional brinjal, but had to spend 4,000 taka on pesticides to combat fruit and shoot borer.

“I sprayed pesticides several times in a week,” he said. “I got sick many times during the spray.”

Mahyco initially wanted to introduce Bt brinjal in India and underwent years of successful safety testing. But in 2010, due to pressure from anti-biotechnology groups, the Indian minister of the environment placed a moratorium on the seeds. It is still in effect today, leaving brinjal farmers there without the effective and safe method of control available to their neighbors in Bangladesh.

Even before the Indian moratorium, Cornell scientists hosted delegations from Bangladesh that wanted to learn about Bt brinjal and the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP II), a consortium of public and private institutions in Asia and Africa intended to help with the commercial development, regulatory approval and dissemination of bio-engineered crops, including Bt brinjal.

Cornell worked with USAID, Mahyco and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute to secure regulatory approval, and in 2014 the Bangladeshi government distributed a small number of Bt brinjal plants to 20 farmers in four districts. The next year 108 farmers grew Bt brinjal, and the following year the number of farmers more than doubled to 250. In 2017 the number increased to 6,512 and in 2018 to 27,012. The numbers are likely even higher, according to Shelton, as there are no constraints against farmers saving seeds and replanting.

“Farmers who plant Bt brinjal are required to plant a small perimeter of traditional brinjal around the Bt variety; research has shown that the insects will infest plants in the buffer area, and this will slow their evolutionary development of resistance to the Bt plants,” Shelton said.

In a March 2017 workshop, Bangladeshi Agriculture Minister Begum Matia Chowdhury called Bt brinjal “a success story of local and foreign collaboration.”

“We will be guided by the science-based information, not by the nonscientific whispering of a section of people,” Chowdhury said. “As human beings, it is our moral obligation that all people in our country should get food and not go to bed on an empty stomach. Biotechnology can play an important role in this effect.”

Here’s what an infested eggplant looks like,

Non-Bt eggplant infested with fruit and shoot borer. Photo by Cornell Alliance for Science

It looks more like a fig than an eggplant.

This is part of a more comprehensive project as revealed in a March 29, 2016 Cornell University news release issued on the occasion of a $4.8M, three-year grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),

… The award supports USAID’s work under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global initiative to fight hunger and improve food security using agricultural science and technology.

In the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, Cornell will protect eggplant farmers from yield losses and improve their livelihoods in partnership with the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Eggplant, or brinjal, is a staple crop that is an important source of income and nutrition for farmers and consumers in South Asia.

Over the past decade, Cornell has led the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), also funded by USAID, that prompted a consortium of institutions in Asia and Africa to use the tools of modern biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, to improve crops to address major production constraints for which conventional plant breeding tools have not been effective.

In October 2013, Bangladesh became the first country in South Asia to approve commercial cultivation of a genetically engineered food crop. In February 2014, Matia Chowdhury, the Bangladesh minister of agriculture, released four varieties of Bt brinjal to 20 farmers. With the establishment of the 20 Bt brinjal demonstration plots in 2014 and 104 more in 2015, BARI reported a noticeable decrease in fruit and shoot borer infestation, increased yields, decreased use of pesticide and improved income for farmers.

The Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership addresses and integrates all elements of the commercialization process — including technology development, regulation, marketing, seed distribution, and product stewardship. It also provides strong platforms for policy development, capacity building, gender equality, outreach and communication.

Moving on from practical applications …

Canada’s synthetic biology training centre

It seems Concordia University (Montréa) is a major Canadian centre for all things ‘synthetic biological’. (from the History and Vision webpage on Concordia University’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology webspace),

History and vision

Emerging in 2012 from a collaboration between the Biology and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments, the Centre received University-wide status in 2016 growing its membership to include Biochemistry, Journalism, Communication Studies, Mechanical, Industrial and Chemical Engineering.



You can see the timeline does not yet include 2018 development(s). Also it started as “a collaboration between the Biology and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments?” This suggests a vastly different approach to genetic engineering that that employed in the “eggplant” research. From a July 16, 2018 posting on the Genome Alberta blog,

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) has committed $1.65 million dollars over six years to establish a research and training program at Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

The funds were awarded after Malcolm Whiteway (…), professor of biology and the Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics, and the grant application team submitted a proposal to NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program.

The Synthetic Biology Applications CREATE program — or SynBioApps — will help students acquire and develop important professional skills that complement their academic education and improve their job-readiness.

‘Concordia is a natural fit’

“As the Canadian leader in synthetic biology and as the home of the country’s only genome foundry, Concordia is a natural fit for a training program in this growing area of research,” says Christophe Guy, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies.

“In offering a program like SynBioApps, we are providing our students with both a fundamental education in science and the business skills they’ll need to transition into their professional careers.”

The program’s aims are twofold: First, it will teach students how to design and construct cells and proteins for the development of new products related to human health, green technologies, and fundamental biological investigations. Second, it will provide cross-disciplinary training and internship opportunities through the university’s District 3 Innovation Center.

SynBioApps will be open to students from biology, biochemistry, engineering, computing, and mathematics.

“The ability to apply engineering approaches to biological systems promises to revolutionize both biology and industry,” says Whiteway, who is also a member of the Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

“The SynBioApps program at Concordia will provide a training program to develop the students who will both investigate the biology and build these industries.”

You can find out more about Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology here (there are jobs listed on their home page) and you can find information about the Synthetic Biology Applications (SynBioApps) training programme here.

Do you want that coffee with some graphene on toast?

These scientists are excited:

For those who prefer text, here’s the Rice University Feb. 13, 2018 news release (received via email and available online here and on EurekAlert here) Note: Links have been removed),

Rice University scientists who introduced laser-induced graphene (LIG) have enhanced their technique to produce what may become a new class of edible electronics.

The Rice lab of chemist James Tour, which once turned Girl Scout cookies into graphene, is investigating ways to write graphene patterns onto food and other materials to quickly embed conductive identification tags and sensors into the products themselves.

“This is not ink,” Tour said. “This is taking the material itself and converting it into graphene.”

The process is an extension of the Tour lab’s contention that anything with the proper carbon content can be turned into graphene. In recent years, the lab has developed and expanded upon its method to make graphene foam by using a commercial laser to transform the top layer of an inexpensive polymer film.

The foam consists of microscopic, cross-linked flakes of graphene, the two-dimensional form of carbon. LIG can be written into target materials in patterns and used as a supercapacitor, an electrocatalyst for fuel cells, radio-frequency identification (RFID) antennas and biological sensors, among other potential applications.

The new work reported in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano demonstrated that laser-induced graphene can be burned into paper, cardboard, cloth, coal and certain foods, even toast.

“Very often, we don’t see the advantage of something until we make it available,” Tour said. “Perhaps all food will have a tiny RFID tag that gives you information about where it’s been, how long it’s been stored, its country and city of origin and the path it took to get to your table.”

He said LIG tags could also be sensors that detect E. coli or other microorganisms on food. “They could light up and give you a signal that you don’t want to eat this,” Tour said. “All that could be placed not on a separate tag on the food, but on the food itself.”

Multiple laser passes with a defocused beam allowed the researchers to write LIG patterns into cloth, paper, potatoes, coconut shells and cork, as well as toast. (The bread is toasted first to “carbonize” the surface.) The process happens in air at ambient temperatures.

“In some cases, multiple lasing creates a two-step reaction,” Tour said. “First, the laser photothermally converts the target surface into amorphous carbon. Then on subsequent passes of the laser, the selective absorption of infrared light turns the amorphous carbon into LIG. We discovered that the wavelength clearly matters.”

The researchers turned to multiple lasing and defocusing when they discovered that simply turning up the laser’s power didn’t make better graphene on a coconut or other organic materials. But adjusting the process allowed them to make a micro supercapacitor in the shape of a Rice “R” on their twice-lased coconut skin.

Defocusing the laser sped the process for many materials as the wider beam allowed each spot on a target to be lased many times in a single raster scan. That also allowed for fine control over the product, Tour said. Defocusing allowed them to turn previously unsuitable polyetherimide into LIG.

“We also found we could take bread or paper or cloth and add fire retardant to them to promote the formation of amorphous carbon,” said Rice graduate student Yieu Chyan, co-lead author of the paper. “Now we’re able to take all these materials and convert them directly in air without requiring a controlled atmosphere box or more complicated methods.”

The common element of all the targeted materials appears to be lignin, Tour said. An earlier study relied on lignin, a complex organic polymer that forms rigid cell walls, as a carbon precursor to burn LIG in oven-dried wood. Cork, coconut shells and potato skins have even higher lignin content, which made it easier to convert them to graphene.

Tour said flexible, wearable electronics may be an early market for the technique. “This has applications to put conductive traces on clothing, whether you want to heat the clothing or add a sensor or conductive pattern,” he said.

Rice alumnus Ruquan Ye is co-lead author of the study. Co-authors are Rice graduate student Yilun Li and postdoctoral fellow Swatantra Pratap Singh and Professor Christopher Arnusch of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. Tour is the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research supported the research.

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

Laser-Induced Graphene by Multiple Lasing: Toward Electronics on Cloth, Paper, and Food by Yieu Chyan, Ruquan Ye†, Yilun Li, Swatantra Pratap Singh, Christopher J. Arnusch, and James M. Tour. ACS Nano DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b08539 Publication Date (Web): February 13, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

h/t Feb. 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk

NanoFARM: food, agriculture, and nanoparticles

The research focus for the NanoFARM consortium is on pesticides according to an October 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

The answer to the growing, worldwide food production problem may have a tiny solution—nanoparticles, which are being explored as both fertilizers and fungicides for crops.

NanoFARM – research consortium formed between Carnegie Mellon University [US], the University of Kentucky [US], the University of Vienna [Austria], and Aveiro University in Prague [Czech Republic] – is studying the effects of nanoparticles on agriculture. The four universities received grants from their countries’ respective National Science Foundations to discover how these tiny particles – some just 4 nanometers in diameter – can revolutionize how farmers grow their food.

An October ??, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release by Adam Dove, which originated the news item, fills in a few more details,

“What we’re doing is getting a fundamental understanding of nanoparticle-to-plant interactions to enable future applications,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Professor Greg Lowry, the principal investigator for the nanoFARM project. “With pesticides, less than 5% goes into the crop—the rest just goes into the environment and does harmful things. What we’re trying to do is minimize that waste and corresponding environmental damage by doing a better job of targeting the delivery.”

The teams are looking at related questions: How much nanomaterial is needed to help crops when it comes to driving away pests and delivering nutrients, and how much could potentially hurt plants or surrounding ecosystems?

Applied pesticides and fertilizers are vulnerable to washing away—especially if there’s a rainstorm soon after application. But nanoparticles are not so easily washed off, making them extremely efficient for delivering micronutrients like zinc or copper to crops.

“If you put in zinc oxide nanoparticles instead, it might take days or weeks to dissolve, providing a slow, long-term delivery system.”

Gao researches the rate at which nanoparticles dissolve. His most recent finding is that nanoparticles of copper oxide take up to 20-30 days to dissolve in soil, meaning that they can deliver nutrients to plants at a steady rate over that time period.

“In many developing countries, a huge number of people are starving,” says Gao. “This kind of technology can help provide food and save energy.”

But Gao’s research is only one piece of the NanoFARM puzzle. Lowry recently traveled to Australia with Ph.D. student Eleanor Spielman-Sun to explore how differently charged nanoparticles were absorbed into wheat plants.

They learned that negatively charged particles were able to move into the veins of a plant—making them a good fit for a farmer who wanted to apply a fungicide. Neutrally charged particles went into the tissue of the leaves, which would be beneficial for growers who wanted to fortify a food with nutritional value.

Lowry said they are still a long way from signing off on a finished product for all crops—right now they are concentrating on tomato and wheat plants. But with the help of their university partners, they are slowly creating new nano-enabled agrochemicals for more efficient and environmentally friendly agriculture.

For more information, you can find the NanoFARM website here.

Popping (nano)bubbles!

Who doesn’t love to pop bubbles? Well, there’s probably someone out there but it does seem to be a near universal delight (especially with the advent of bubble wrap which I’ve seen more than one person happily popping). Scientists are no more immune to that impulse than the rest of us although they approach the whole endeavour from a more technical perspective where popping bubbles becomes destabilization and bubble rupture. From a Sept. 28, 2017 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Nanobubbles have recently gained popularity for their unique properties and expansive applications. Their large surface area and high stability in saturated liquids make nanobubbles ideal candidates for food science, medicine and environmental advancements. Nanobubbles also have long lifetimes of hours or days, and greater applicability than traditional macrobubbles, which typically only last for seconds.

The stability of nanobubbles is well understood, but the mechanisms causing their eventual destabilization are still in question. Using molecular dynamics simulations (MDS), researchers from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology explored the effect of surfactants — components that lower surface tension — on the stabilization of nanobubbles. They report their findings on the surprising mechanisms of destabilization [emphasis mine] for both soluble and insoluble surfactants this week [Sept. 25-29, 2017] in Applied Physics Letters, from AIP Publishing.

Researchers investigated the differences between soluble and insoluble surfactants and their varying influence on nanobubble stability using MDS software. They created a controled model system where the only variables that could be manipulated were the number of surfactants and the interaction between the surfactant and the substrate, the base of the model where the bubble is formed, to measure the direct influence of surfactants on nanobubble stability.

Analyzing both soluble and insoluble surfactants, the group focused on two possible mechanisms of destabilization: contact line depinning, where the surfactant flexibility reduces the forces responsible for stabilizing the bubble shape, causing it to rupture from lack of inner surface force; and surface tension reduction, causing a liquid to vapor phase transition.

The found soluble surfactants initiated nanobubble depinning when a large amount, roughly 80 percent, of the surfactant was adsorbed by the substrate, eventually causing the nanobubbles to burst.

“However, when small concentrations of soluble surfactant were introduced it remained dissolved, and adsorption onto the substrate was insignificant, generating a negligible effect on nanobubble stability,” said Xianren Zhang at Beijing University of Chemical Technology.

Simulations with insoluble surfactants showed comparable results to soluble surfactants when interacting heavily with substrates, but a new mechanism was discovered demonstrating a liquid-to-vapor transition model of bubble rupture [emphasis mine].

The transition is similar to how we traditionally envision bubbles popping, occurring when a surfactant significantly reduces the surface tension on the outside of the nanobubble. Nanobubbles destabilize in this fashion when a large amount of surfactant is present, but little — around 40 percent — surfactant-substrate interaction occurs.

These findings are critical to understanding nanobubble stability and have implications for nanobubble interaction with other molecules, including proteins and contaminants. Nanobubble applications could revolutionize aspects of modern medicine such as ultrasound techniques, expand functions in food science, and improve waste water treatment. But better characterizing basic properties like instability is essential to fully utilizing their potential in these applications.

There researchers have made this image illustrating their work available,

Several typical snapshots for nanobubbles losing their stability with various concentrations of surfactants and levels of interaction with substrates. In each picture, top panel shows evolution of the system with all involved particles, while in the bottom panel, solvent molecules are not shown to clarify the effect of surfactants. CREDIT: Qianxiang Xiao, Yawei Liu, Zhenjiang Guo, Zhiping Liu, and Xianren Zhang

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

How nanobubbles lose stability: Effects of surfactants featured by Qianxiang Xiao, Yawei Liu, Zhenjiang Guo, Zhiping Liua, and Xianren Zhang. Appl. Phys. Lett. 111, 131601 (2017); doi:

This paper is open access.

A jellyfish chat on November 28, 2017 at Café Scientifique Vancouver get together

Café Scientifique Vancouver sent me an announcement (via email) about their upcoming event,

We are pleased to announce our next café which will happen on TUESDAY,
NOVEMBER 28TH at 7:30PM in the back room of YAGGER'S DOWNTOWN (433 W


Did you know that in addition to stinging swimmers, jellyfish also cause
extensive damage to fisheries and coastal power plants? As threats such
as overfishing, pollution, and climate change alter the marine
environment, recent media reports are proclaiming that jellyfish are
taking over the oceans. Should we hail to our new jellyfish overlords or
do we need to examine the evidence behind these claims? Join Café
Scientifique on Nov. 28, 2017 to learn everything you ever wanted to
know about jellyfish, and find out if jelly burgers are coming soon to a
menu near you.

Our speaker for the evening will be DR. LUCAS BROTZ, a Postdoctoral
Research Fellow with the Sea Around Us at UBC’s Institute for the
Oceans and Fisheries. Lucas has been studying jellyfish for more than a
decade, and has been called “Canada’s foremost jellyfish
researcher” by CBC Nature of Things host Dr. David Suzuki. Lucas has
participated in numerous international scientific collaborations, and
his research has been featured in more than 100 media outlets including
Nature News, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. He recently
received the Michael A. Bigg award for highly significant student
research as part of the Coastal Ocean Awards at the Vancouver Aquarium.

We hope to see you there!

You can find out more about Lucas Brotz here and about Sea Around Us here.

For anyone who’s curious about the jellyfish ‘issue’, there’s a November 8, 2017 Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release on AlphaGallileo or on EurekAlert, which provides insight into the problems and the possibilities,

Jellyfish could be a resource in producing microplastic filters, fertilizer or fish feed. A new 6 million euro project called GoJelly, funded by the EU and coordinated by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany and including partners at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNNU) and SINTEF [headquartered in Trondheim, Norway, is the largest independent research organisation in Scandinavia; more about SINTEF in its Wikipedia entry], hopes to turn jellyfish from a nuisance into a useful product.

Global climate change and the human impact on marine ecosystems has led to dramatic decreases in the number of fish in the ocean. It has also had an unforseen side effect: because overfishing decreases the numbers of jellyfish competitors, their blooms are on the rise.

The GoJelly project, coordinated by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany, would like to transform problematic jellyfish into a resource that can be used to produce microplastic filter, fertilizer or fish feed. The EU has just approved funding of EUR 6 million over 4 years to support the project through its Horizon 2020 programme.

Rising water temperatures, ocean acidification and overfishing seem to favour jellyfish blooms. More and more often, they appear in huge numbers that have already destroyed entire fish farms on European coasts and blocked cooling systems of power stations near the coast. A number of jellyfish species are poisonous, while some tropical species are even among the most toxic animals on earth.

“In Europe alone, the imported American comb jelly has a biomass of one billion tons. While we tend to ignore the jellyfish there must be other solutions,” says Jamileh Javidpour of GEOMAR, initiator and coordinator of the GoJelly project, which is a consortium of 15 scientific institutions from eight countries led by the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel.

The project will first entail exploring the life cycle of a number of jellyfish species. A lack of knowledge about life cycles makes it is almost impossible to predict when and why a large jellyfish bloom will occur. “This is what we want to change so that large jellyfish swarms can be caught before they reach the coasts,” says Javidpour.

At the same time, the project partners will also try to answer the question of what to do with jellyfish once they have been caught. One idea is to use the jellyfish to battle another, man-made threat.

“Studies have shown that mucus of jellyfish can bind microplastic. Therefore, we want to test whether biofilters can be produced from jellyfish. These biofilters could then be used in sewage treatment plants or in factories where microplastic is produced,” the GoJelly researchers say.

Jellyfish can also be used as fertilizers for agriculture or as aquaculture feed. “Fish in fish farms are currently fed with captured wild fish, which does not reduce the problem of overfishing, but increases it. Jellyfish as feed would be much more sustainable and would protect natural fish stocks,” says the GoJelly team.

Another option is using jellyfish as food for humans. “In some cultures, jellyfish are already on the menu. As long as the end product is no longer slimy, it could also gain greater general acceptance,” said Javidpour. Finally yet importantly, jellyfish contain collagen, a substance very much sought after in the cosmetics industry.

Project partners from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, led by Nicole Aberle-Malzahn, and SINTEF Ocean, led by Rachel Tiller, will analyse how abiotic (hydrography, temperature), biotic (abundance, biomass, ecology, reproduction) and biochemical parameters (stoichiometry, food quality) affect the initiation of jellyfish blooms.

Based on a comprehensive analysis of triggering mechanisms, origin of seed populations and ecological modelling, the researchers hope to be able to make more reliable predictions on jellyfish bloom formation of specific taxa in the GoJelly target areas. This knowledge will allow sustainable harvesting of jellyfish communities from various Northern and Southern European populations.

This harvest will provide a marine biomass of unknown potential that will be explored by researchers at SINTEF Ocean, among others, to explore the possible ways to use the material.

A team from SINTEF Ocean’s strategic program Clean Ocean will also work with European colleagues on developing a filter from the mucus of the jellyfish that will catch microplastics from household products (which have their source in fleece sweaters, breakdown of plastic products or from cosmetics, for example) and prevent these from entering the marine ecosystem.

Finally, SINTEF Ocean will examine the socio-ecological system and games, where they will explore the potentials of an emerging international management regime for a global effort to mitigate the negative effects of microplastics in the oceans.

“Jellyfish can be used for many purposes. We see this as an opportunity to use the potential of the huge biomass drifting right in front of our front door,” Javidpour said.

You can find out more about GoJelly on their Twitter account.

Cellulose- and chitin-based biomaterial to replace plastics?

Although the term is not actually used in the news release, one of the materials used to create a new biomaterial could safely be described as nanocellulose. From a Sept. 20, 2017 Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Mulhollem,

An inexpensive biomaterial that can be used to sustainably replace plastic barrier coatings in packaging and many other applications has been developed by Penn State researchers, who predict its adoption would greatly reduce pollution.

Completely compostable, the material — a polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex — is comprised of nearly equal parts of treated cellulose pulp from wood or cotton, and chitosan, which is derived from chitin — the primary ingredient in the exoskeletons of arthropods and crustaceans. The main source of chitin is the mountains of leftover shells from lobsters, crabs and shrimp consumed by humans.

These environmentally friendly barrier coatings have numerous applications ranging from water-resistant paper, to coatings for ceiling tiles and wallboard, to food coatings to seal in freshness, according to lead researcher Jeffrey Catchmark, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, College of Agricultural Sciences.

“The material’s unexpected strong, insoluble adhesive properties are useful for packaging as well as other applications, such as better performing, fully natural wood-fiber composites for construction and even flooring,” he said. “And the technology has the potential to be incorporated into foods to reduce fat uptake during frying and maintain crispness. Since the coating is essentially fiber-based, it is a means of adding fiber to diets.”

The amazingly sturdy and durable bond between carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan is the key, he explained. The two very inexpensive polysaccharides — already used in the food industry and in other industrial sectors — have different molecular charges and lock together in a complex that provides the foundation for impervious films, coatings, adhesives and more.

The potential reduction of pollution is immense if these barrier coatings replace millions of tons of petroleum-based plastic associated with food packaging used every year in the United States — and much more globally, Catchmark noted.

He pointed out that the global production of plastic is approaching 300 million tons per year. In a recent year, more than 29 million tons of plastic became municipal solid waste in the U.S. and almost half was plastic packaging. It is anticipated that 10 percent of all plastic produced globally will become ocean debris, representing a significant ecological and human health threat.

crab shells

The material is comprised of cellulose pulp from wood or cotton, and chitosan, derived from chitin, the primary ingredient in the exoskeletons of arthropods and crustaceans. The main source of chitin is shells from lobsters, crabs and shrimp. Image: © iStock Photo OKRAD

The polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex coatings performed well in research, the findings of which were published recently in Green Chemistry. Paperboard coated with the biomaterial, comprised of nanostructured fibrous particles of carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan, exhibited strong oil and water barrier properties. The coating also resisted toluene, heptane and salt solutions and exhibited improved wet and dry mechanical and water vapor barrier properties.

“These results show that polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complex-based materials may be competitive barrier alternatives to synthetic polymers for many commercial applications,” said Catchmark, who, in concert with Penn State, has applied for a patent on the coatings.

“In addition, this work demonstrates that new, unexpected properties emerge from multi-polysaccharide systems engaged in electrostatic complexation, enabling new high-performance applications.”

Catchmark began experimenting with biomaterials that might be used instead of plastics a decade or so ago out of concerns for sustainability. He became interested in cellulose, the main component in wood, because it is the largest volume sustainable, renewable material on earth. Catchmark studied its nanostructure — how it is assembled at the nanoscale.

He believed he could develop natural materials that are more robust and improve their properties, so that they could compete with synthetic materials that are not sustainable and generate pollution — such as the low-density polyethylene laminate applied to paper board, Styrofoam and solid plastic used in cups and bottles.

“The challenge is, to do that you’ve got to be able to do it in a way that is manufacturable, and it has to be less expensive than plastic,” Catchmark explained. “Because when you make a change to something that is greener or sustainable, you really have to pay for the switch. So it has to be less expensive in order for companies to actually gain something from it. This creates a problem for sustainable materials — an inertia that has to be overcome with a lower cost.”

lab vials

The amazingly sturdy and durable bond between carboxymethyl cellulose and chitosan is the key. The two very inexpensive polysaccharides, already used in the food industry and in other industrial sectors, have different molecular charges and lock together in a complex that provides the foundation for impervious films, coatings, adhesives and more. Image: Penn State

Funded by a Research Applications for Innovation grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences, Catchmark currently is working to develop commercialization partners in different industry sectors for a wide variety of products.

“We are trying to take the last step now and make a real impact on the world, and get industry people to stop using plastics and instead use these natural materials,” he said. “So they (consumers) have a choice — after the biomaterials are used, they can be recycled, buried in the ground or composted, and they will decompose. Or they can continue to use plastics that will end up in the oceans, where they will persist for thousands of years.”

Also involved in the research were Snehasish Basu, post-doctoral scholar, and Adam Plucinski, master’s degree student, now instructor of engineering at Penn State Altoona. Staff in Penn State’s Material Research Institute provided assistance with the project.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture supported this work. Southern Champion Tray, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, provided paperboard and information on its production for experiments.

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

Sustainable barrier materials based on polysaccharide polyelectrolyte complexes by
Snehasish Basu, Adam Plucinski, and Jeffrey M. Catchmark. Green Chemistry 2017, 19, 4080-4092 DOI: 10.1039/C7GC00991G

This paper is behind a paywall. One comment, I found an anomaly on the page when I visited. At the top of the citation page, it states that this is issue 17 of Green Chemistry but the citation in the column on the right is “2017, 19 … “, which would be issue 19.

CRISPR corn to come to market in 2020

It seems most of the recent excitement around CRISPR/CAS9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has focused on germline editing, specifically human embryos. Most people don’t realize that the first ‘CRISPR’ product is slated to enter the US market in 2020. A June 14, 2017 American Chemical Society news release (also on EurekAlert) provides a preview,

The gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 made a huge splash in the news when it was initially announced. But the first commercial product, expected around 2020, could make it to the market without much fanfare: It’s a waxy corn destined to contribute to paper glue and food thickeners. The cover story of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, explores what else is in the works.

Melody M. Bomgardner, a senior editor at C&EN [Chemical & Engineering News], notes that compared to traditional biotechnology, CRISPR allows scientists to add and remove specific genes from organisms with greater speed, precision and oftentimes, at a lower cost. Among other things, it could potentially lead to higher quality cotton, non-browning mushrooms, drought-resistant corn and — finally — tasty, grocery store tomatoes.

Some hurdles remain, however, before more CRISPR products become available. Regulators are assessing how they should approach crops modified with the technique, which often (though not always) splices genes into a plant from within the species rather than introducing a foreign gene. And scientists still don’t understand all the genes in any given crop, much less know which ones might be good candidates for editing. Luckily, researchers can use CRISPR to find out.

Melody M. Bomgardner’s June 12, 2017 article for C&EN describes in detail how CRISPR could significantly change agriculture (Note: Links have been removed),

When the seed firm DuPont Pioneer first announced the new corn in early 2016, few people paid attention. Pharmaceutical companies using CRISPR for new drugs got the headlines instead.

But people should notice DuPont’s waxy corn because using CRISPR—an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats—to delete or alter traits in plants is changing the world of plant breeding, scientists say. Moreover, the technique’s application in agriculture is likely to reach the public years before CRISPR-aided drugs hit the market.

Until CRISPR tools were developed, the process of finding useful traits and getting them into reliable, productive plants took many years. It involved a lot of steps and was plagued by randomness.

“Now, because of basic research in the lab and in the field, we can go straight after the traits we want,” says Zachary Lippman, professor of biological sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. CRISPR has been transformative, Lippman says. “It’s basically a freight train that’s not going to stop.”

Proponents hope consumers will embrace gene-edited crops in a way that they did not accept genetically engineered ones, especially because they needn’t involve the introduction of genes from other species—a process that gave rise to the specter of Frankenfood.

But it’s not clear how consumers will react or if gene editing will result in traits that consumers value. And the potential commercial uses of CRISPR may narrow if agriculture agencies in the U.S. and Europe decide to regulate gene-edited crops in the same way they do genetically engineered crops.

DuPont Pioneer expects the U.S. to treat its gene-edited waxy corn like a conventional crop because it does not contain any foreign genes, according to Neal Gutterson, the company’s vice president of R&D. In fact, the waxy trait already exists in some corn varieties. It gives the kernels a starch content of more than 97% amylopectin, compared with 75% amylopectin in regular feed corn. The rest of the kernel is amylose. Amylopectin is more soluble than amylose, making starch from waxy corn a better choice for paper adhesives and food thickeners.

Like most of today’s crops, DuPont’s current waxy corn varieties are the result of decades of effort by plant breeders using conventional breeding techniques.

Breeders identify new traits by examining unusual, or mutant, plants. Over many generations of breeding, they work to get a desired trait into high-performing (elite) varieties that lack the trait. They begin with a first-generation cross, or hybrid, of a mutant and an elite plant and then breed several generations of hybrids with the elite parent in a process called backcrossing. They aim to achieve a plant that best approximates the elite version with the new trait.

But it’s tough to grab only the desired trait from a mutant and make a clean getaway. DuPont’s plant scientists found that the waxy trait came with some genetic baggage; even after backcrossing, the waxy corn plant did not offer the same yield as elite versions without the trait. The disappointing outcome is common enough that it has its own term: yield drag.

Because the waxy trait is native to certain corn plants, DuPont did not have to rely on the genetic engineering techniques that breeders have used to make herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant corn plants. Those commonly planted crops contain DNA from other species.

In addition to giving some consumers pause, that process does not precisely place the DNA into the host plant. So researchers must raise hundreds or thousands of modified plants to find the best ones with the desired trait and work to get that trait into each elite variety. Finally, plants modified with traditional genetic engineering need regulatory approval in the U.S. and other countries before they can be marketed.

Instead, DuPont plant scientists used CRISPR to zero in on, and partially knock out, a gene for an enzyme that produces amylose. By editing the gene directly, they created a waxy version of the elite corn without yield drag or foreign DNA.

Plant scientists who adopt gene editing may still need to breed, measure, and observe because traits might not work well together or bring a meaningful benefit. “It’s not a panacea,” Lippman says, “but it is one of the most powerful tools to come around, ever.”

It’s an interesting piece which answers the question of why tomatoes from the grocery store don’t taste good.

Korean researchers extend food shelf *life* with nanomicrobial coating

These Korean scientists have applied their new coating to food and to shoe insoles as they test various uses for their technology. From an Aug. 11, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

The edible coating on produce has drawn a great deal of attention in the food and agricultural industry. It could not only prolong postharvest shelf life of produce against external changes in the environment but also provide additional nutrients to be useful for human health. However, most versions of the coating have had intrinsic limitations in their practical application.

First, highly specific interactions between coating materials and target surfaces are required for a stable and durable coating. Even further, the coating of bulk substrates, such as fruits, is time consuming or is not achievable in the conventional solution-based coating. In this respect, material-independent and rapid coating strategies are highly demanded.

The research team led by Professor Insung Choi of the Department of Chemistry developed a sprayable nanocoating technique using plant-derived polyphenol that can be applied to any surface.

An Aug. 10, 2017 KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Polyphenols, a metabolite of photosynthesis, possess several hydroxyl groups and are found in a large number of plants showing excellent antioxidant properties. They have been widely used as a nontoxic food additive and are known to exhibit antibacterial, as well as potential anti-carcinogenic capabilities. Polyphenols can also be used with iron ions, which are naturally found in the body, to form an adhesive complex, which has been used in leather tanning, ink, etc.

The research team combined these chemical properties of polyphenol-iron complexes with spray techniques to develop their nanocoating technology. Compared to conventional immersion coating methods, which dip substrates in specialized coating solutions, this spray technique can coat the select areas more quickly. The spray also prevents cross contamination, which is a big concern for immersion methods. The research team has showcased the spray’s ability to coat a variety of different materials, including metals, plastics, glass, as well as textile fabrics. The polyphenol complex has been used to form antifogging films on corrective lenses, as well as antifungal treatments for shoe soles, demonstrating the versatility of their technique.

Furthermore, the spray has been used to coat produce with a naturally antibacterial, edible film. The coatings significantly improved the shelf life of tangerines and strawberries, preserving freshness beyond 28 days and 58 hours, respectively. (Uncoated fruit decomposed and became moldy under the same conditions). See the image below.


a –I, II: Uncoated and coated tangerines incubated for 14 and 28 days in daily-life settings

b –I: Uncoated and coated strawberries incubated for 58 hours in daily-life settings

b –II: Statistical investigation of the resulting edibility.

Professor Choi said, “Nanocoating technologies are still in their infancy, but they have untapped potential for exciting applications. As we have shown, nanocoatings can be easily adapted for several different uses, and the creative combination of existing nanomaterials and coating methods can synergize to unlock this potential.”

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

Antimicrobial spray nanocoating of supramolecular Fe(III)-tannic acid metal-organic coordination complex: applications to shoe insoles and fruits by Ji Park, Sohee Choi, Hee Moon, Hyelin Seo, Ji Kim, Seok-Pyo Hong, Bong Lee, Eunhye Kang, Jinho Lee, Dong Ryu, & Insung S. Choi. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 6980 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-07257-x Published online: 01 August 2017

This paper is open access.

*’life’ added to correct headline on Sept. 4, 2017.

Bio-based standup pouches (food packaging) made from cellulose

CAPTION: VTT has developed lightweight 100% bio-based stand-up pouches with high technical performance. (Photo by VTT)

A March 14, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes a new nanocellulose-based product developed by the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT),

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd has developed lightweight 100% bio-based stand-up pouches with high technical performance. High performance in both oxygen, grease and mineral oil barrier properties has been reached by using different biobased coatings on paper substrate. The pouches exploit VTT’s patent pending high consistency enzymatic fibrillation of cellulose (HefCel) technology.

A March 14, 2017 VTT press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes why the researchers want to change how food is packaged,

“One-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. Packaging with efficient barrier properties is a crucial factor in the reduction of the food loss. Our solution offers an environmentally friendly option for the global packaging industry”, says Senior Scientist Jari Vartiainen of VTT.

VTT’s HefCel technology provides a low-cost method for the production of nanocellulose resulting in a tenfold increase in the solids content of nanocellulose. Nanocellulose has been shown to be potentially very useful for a number of future technical applications. The densely packed structure of nanocellulose films and coatings enable their outstanding oxygen, grease and mineral oil barrier properties.

HefCel technology exploits industrial enzymes and simple mixing technology as tools to fibrillate cellulose into nanoscale fibrils without the need for high energy consuming process steps. The resulting nanocellulose is in the consistency of 15-25% when traditional nanocellulose production methods result in 1-3% consistency.

The stand-up pouch is the fastest growing type of packaging, growing at a rate of 6.5% per year from 2015-2020. Fossil-based plastic films still dominate the packaging market. However, the development of environmentally friendly new materials is of growing importance. Nanocellulose has been shown to be potentially very useful for a number of future technical applications.

VTT has solid expertise in various bio-based raw materials and their application technologies for producing bio-based coatings, films and even multilayered structures both at lab-scale and pilot-scale. A versatile set of piloting facilities are available from raw material sourcing through processing to application testing and demonstration.

I’m glad to hear they’re finding uses for nanocellulose and I keep wondering when Canadian scientists who at one point were leaders in developing crystal nanocellulose (CNC or sometimes known as nanocrystalline cellulose [NCC]) will be making announcements about potential products.

The Swiss come to a better understanding of nanomaterials

Just to keep things interesting, after the report suggesting most of the information that the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has on nanomaterials is of little value for determining risk (see my April 5, 2017 posting for more) the Swiss government has released a report where they claim an improved understanding of nanomaterials than they previously had due to further research into the matter. From an April 6, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

In the past six years, the [Swiss] National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64) intensively studied the development, use, behaviour and degradation of engineered nanomaterials, including their impact on humans and on the environment.

Twenty-three research projects on biomedicine, the environment, energy, construction materials and food demonstrated the enormous potential of engineered nanoparticles for numerous applications in industry and medicine. Thanks to these projects we now know a great deal more about the risks associated with nanomaterials and are therefore able to more accurately determine where and how they can be safely used.

An April 6, 2017 Swiss National Science Foundation press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“One of the specified criteria in the programme was that every project had to examine both the opportunities and the risks, and in some cases this was a major challenge for the researchers,” explains Peter Gehr, President of the NRP 64 Steering Committee.

One development that is nearing industrial application concerns a building material strengthened with nanocellulose that can be used to produce a strong but lightweight insulation material. Successful research was also carried out in the area of energy, where the aim was to find a way to make lithium-ion batteries safer and more efficient.

Promising outlook for nanomedicine

A great deal of potential is predicted for the field of nanomedicine. Nine of the 23 projects in NRP 64 focused on biomedical applications of nanoparticles. These include their use for drug delivery, for example in the fight against viruses, or as immune modulators in a vaccine against asthma. Another promising application concerns the use of nanomagnets for filtering out harmful metallic substances from the blood. One of the projects demonstrated that certain nanoparticles can penetrate the placenta barrier, which points to potential new therapy options. The potential of cartilage and bone substitute materials based on nanocellulose or nanofibres was also studied.

The examination of potential health risks was the focus of NRP 64. A number of projects examined what happens when nanoparticles are inhaled, while two focused on ingestion. One of these investigated whether the human gut is able to absorb iron more efficiently if it is administered in the form of iron nanoparticles in a food additive, while the other studied silicon nanoparticles as they occur in powdered condiments. It was ascertained that further studies will be required in order to determine the doses that can be used without risking an inflammatory reaction in the gut.

What happens to engineered nanomaterials in the environment?

The aim of the seven projects focusing on environmental impact was to gain a better understanding of the toxicity of nanomaterials and their degradability, stability and accumulation in the environment and in biological systems. Here, the research teams monitored how engineered nanoparticles disseminate along their lifecycle, and where they end up or how they can be discarded.

One of the projects established that 95 per cent of silver nanoparticles that are washed out of textiles are collected in sewage treatment plants, while the remaining particles end up in sewage sludge, which in Switzerland is incinerated. In another project a measurement device was developed to determine how aquatic microorganisms react when they come into contact with nanoparticles.

Applying results and making them available to industry

“The findings of the NRP 64 projects form the basis for a safe application of nanomaterials,” says Christoph Studer from the Federal Office of Public Health. “It has become apparent that regulatory instruments such as testing guidelines will have to be adapted at both national and international level.” Studer has been closely monitoring the research programme in his capacity as the Swiss government’s representative in NRP 64. In this context, the precautionary matrix developed by the government is an important instrument by means of which companies can systematically assess the risks associated with the use of nanomaterials in their production processes.

The importance of standardised characterisation and evaluation of engineered nanomaterials was highlighted by the close cooperation among researchers in the programme. “The research network that was built up in the framework of NRP 64 is functioning smoothly and needs to be further nurtured,” says Professor Bernd Nowack from Empa, who headed one of the 23 projects.

The results of NRP 64 show that new key technologies such as the use of nanomaterials need to be closely monitored through basic research due to the lack of data on its long-term effects. As Peter Gehr points out, “We now know a lot more about the risks of nanomaterials and how to keep them under control. However, we need to conduct additional research to learn what happens when humans and the environment are exposed to engineered nanoparticles over longer periods, or what happens a long time after a one-off exposure.”

You can find out more about the Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials; National Research Programme (NRP 64) here.