Monthly Archives: March 2011

Shouting, booming, humming sands

There are sand dunes that make sounds that have been variously described as shouting, humming, singing, moaning, roaring, drumming, thunder, and more. The most poetic description of the phenomenon comes from Marco Polo (from a 2008 article by Bradley Hope in the New York Moon []),

Marco Polo wrote during his journey through the Desert of Lop that “it is asserted as well-known fact that this desert is the abode of many evil spirits, which amuse travellers to their destruction with most extraordinary illusions.” These spirits, or djinn, “at times fill the air with the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.”

There are 30 such spots in the world that feature the ‘singing sands’ and scientists are trying to figure out why. From the article by Hope,

Singing sand tends to be found in amphitheatre-shaped dunes on the steeper side that faces away from the wind. In Arabic, it is called za’eeq al raml, or “the shouting sand.” It starts as you walk over the edge of the crest, a swelling hum that picks up with each step. Before long the face of the dune is a single, vast musical instrument made up of millions of tumbling granules. The sand even quakes near your footsteps like the rapids on a river.

“It’s this wonderful symphony of sands,” said Farouk El-Baz, a scientist who helped design the Apollo missions in the 1960s. “It’s one layer of sand slipping over another. The grains touch each other in motion.”

There’s a little more detail and a 6 minute video at the March 30, 2011 posting by GrrlScientist on the Punctuated Equilibrium blog (,

To “boom”, a sand dune must be at least 150 feet high, it must have loose, dry sand with a uniform particle size on its surface with a harder, moist layer of sand underneath that acts as a resonating chamber, and of course, it must produce a note that is within the range of human hearing — which makes me suspect that if humans had better hearing, we’d hear even more singing sand dunes. If this is the case, I’d guess that animals can hear more singing sand dunes than humans can.

Here’s a 30 second video snippet that features the sound the sands make,

The video at Punctuated Equilibrium features the scientist doing the research by the seat of their pants. Yes, they slide down the dunes so they can hear the singing and take measurements.

Finger pinches today, heartbeats tomorrow and electricity forever

Devices powered by energy generated and harvested from one’s own body have been of tremendous interest to me. Last year I mentioned some research in this area by Professor Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology) in a July 12, 2010 posting. Well, Wang and his team recently announced that they have developed the first commercially viable nanogenerator. From the March 29, 2011 news item on,

After six years of intensive effort, scientists are reporting development of the first commercially viable nanogenerator, a flexible chip that can use body movements — a finger pinch now en route to a pulse beat in the future — to generate electricity. Speaking here today at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, they described boosting the device’s power output by thousands times and its voltage by 150 times to finally move it out of the lab and toward everyday life.

“This development represents a milestone toward producing portable electronics that can be powered by body movements without the use of batteries or electrical outlets,” said lead scientist Zhong Lin Wang, Ph.D. “Our nanogenerators are poised to change lives in the future. Their potential is only limited by one’s imagination.”

Here’s how it works  (from Kit Eaton’s article on Fast Company),

The trick used by Dr. Zhong Lin Wang’s team has been to utilize nanowires made of zinc oxide (ZnO). ZnO is a piezoelectric material–meaning it changes shape slightly when an electrical field is applied across it, or a current is generated when it’s flexed by an external force. By combining nanoscopic wires (each 500 times narrower than a human hair) of ZnO into a flexible bundle, the team found it could generate truly workable amounts of energy. The bundle is actually bonded to a flexible polymer slice, and in the experimental setup five pinky-nail-size nanogenerators were stacked up to create a power supply that can push out 1 micro Amp at about 3 volts. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was enough to power an LED and an LCD screen in a demonstration of the technology’s effectiveness.

Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical Engineering and Electronics) website notes in his March 30, 2010 posting ( that the nanogenerator’s commercial viability is dependent on work being done at the University of Illinois,

I would have happily chalked this story [about the nanogenerator] up to one more excellent job of getting nanomaterial research into the mainstream press, but because of recent work by Eric Pop and his colleagues at the University of Illinois’s Beckman Institute in reducing the energy consumed by electronic devices it seems a bit more intriguing now.

So low is the energy consumption of the electronics proposed by the University of Illinois research it is to the point where a mobile device may not need a battery but could possibly operate on the energy generated from piezoelectric-enabled nanogenerators contained within such devices like those proposed by Wang.

I have a suspicion it’s going to be a while before I will be wearing nanogenerators to harvest the electricity my body produces. Meanwhile, I have some questions about the possible uses for nanogenerators (from the Kit Eaton article),

The search for tiny power generator technology has slowly inched forward for years for good reason–there are a trillion medical and surveillance uses–not to mention countless consumer electronics applications– for a system that could grab electrical power from something nearby that’s moving even just a tiny bit. Imagine an implanted insulin pump, or a pacemaker that’s powered by the throbbing of the heart or blood vessels nearby (and then imagine the pacemaker powering the heart, which is powered by the pacemaker, and so on and so on….) and you see how useful such a system could be.

It’s the reference to surveillance that makes me a little uneasy.

Nano zero valent iron and groundwater remediation

My interest in nano zero valent iron (nZVI) and site remediation was piqued by a webcast from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). (I commented on the ‘cast in my March 4, 2010 posting [ {scroll down}]). Yesterday(March 29, 2011), I came across a news item on Business Wire ( about a collaboration between AECOM and the University of California at Santa Barbara for benchmark testing of nZVI. From the news item,

The new AECOM and UCSB bench-scale studies will test use of several zero valent iron (ZVI) products, including nano zero valent iron (nZVI), on the remediation of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) a common contaminant at groundwater remediation sites. nZVI products were selected for the study because they have a much greater surface area than conventional iron powders, which make them more effective in certain site remediation scenarios.

The bench-scale studies will use samples of these new products on groundwater and geologic materials collected from a former manufacturing site to evaluate the morphology or structure of the products as well as their mobility, persistence, and toxicity to aquatic organisms.

According to Dr. Dora Chiang, P.E. Project Design Engineer with AECOM’s environmental practice in Atlanta, “We have had an in situ bioremediation system in place for several years and will be using an nZVI or other ZVI products to supplement biodegradation of the CVOCs. Enhanced non-biological degradation, coupled with ongoing biodegradation of CVOCs, will likely result in a reduction in treatment time by remediating CVOCs to below their respective federal drinking water maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). This new treatment technology may save significant life-cycle cleanup costs while ensuring protection of human health and the environment.”

Dr. Arturo A. Keller, Co-Director of UC Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, will direct the research at UCSB, in coordination with Prof. Hunter Lenihan. Prof. Keller states that “there is great potential in using nZVI and related technologies to solve a wide range of contamination issues. However, we need to determine the potential risks to achieve safe implementation of this important technology.”

Nano zero valent iron is currently being used in site remediation in the US and elsewhere in the world. PEN has an interactive nanoremediation map here ( Just click on one of the ‘balloons’ to get a full description of where, which contaminant, and which type of nanomaterial (e.g. the site in Ontario, Canada lists nZVI) is being used for the cleanup operation.

You can find out more about AECOM here ( from their About page,

AECOM (NYSE: ACM) is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government.

With approximately 45,000 employees around the world, AECOM is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation, and technical excellence in delivering solutions that create, enhance and sustain the world’s built, natural, and social environments.

A Fortune 500 company, AECOM serves clients in more than 100 countries and had revenue of $7.0 billion during the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2010.

AECOM is ranked by Ethisphere as one of the world’s 110 most ethical companies for 2011.

That’s a very big company. As for their ethics, I like to see what they do when the going gets tough. After all, BP Oil had a very good reputation at one point and then they had the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed that reputation with their subsequent actions.

Scientific collaboration: a royal society report

The UK’s Royal Society has released a science policy report titled, Knowledge, Networks and Nations; Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century. I have taken a brief glance at this 114 page report and am impressed with the analysis and the thoughtfulness and range of the discussion about the ‘global scientific landscape’. The authors claim this landscape is becoming largely collaborative while the research enterprise becomes multipolar, i. e., less dominated by a few countries (US, UK, Germany, Japan, etc.) as China, Turkey, India, Brazil and many others increase their scientific output. From the Royal Society’s webpage (,

Knowledge, Networks and Nations surveys the global scientific landscape in 2011, noting the shift to an increasingly multipolar world underpinned by the rise of new scientific powers such as China, India and Brazil; as well as the emergence of scientific nations in the Middle East, South-East Asia and North Africa. The scientific world is also becoming more interconnected, with international collaboration on the rise. Over a third of all articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative, up from a quarter 15 years ago.

If you’re interested in reviewing the report you can go here ( to access the PDF directly. I particularly noticed this bit in the executive summary,

Science is essential for addressing global challenges, but it cannot do so in isolation. A wide range of approaches will be required, including the appropriate use of financial incentives, incorporating non-traditional forms of knowledge, and working with the social sciences and wider disciplines. Science is crucial but it is unlikely to produce all the answers by itself: the science infrastructure works best when it is supported by, and enables, other systems. [emphases mine] (p. 7)

It’s good to see this notion that ‘science alone is not the answer’ stated elsewhere and it’s particularly good to see that it was stated by scientists themselves. (This is the point I was trying to make to the expert panel for the recent Canadian public consultation on innovation (aka Review of Federal Support to Research and Development)  in my Feb. 18, 2011 posting [], in my March 15, 2011 posting [], and in my submission.)

The recommendations in the Royal Society report include these (from the Royal Society wepage),

It makes 5 major recommendations:

1. Support for international science should be maintained and strengthened
2. Internationally collaborative science should be encouraged, supported and facilitated
3. National and international strategies for science are required to address global challenges
4. International capacity building is crucial to ensure that the impacts of scientific research are shared globally
5. Better indicators are required in order to properly evaluate global science

I don’t have anything to say about the recommendations other than they seem sensible. One final note, the visualization of the data is quite interesting and worth a look. I’d love to have made a copy and embedded one of their visualizations here but I guess they’re not quite as collaboratively-minded as they like to think of themselves because it’s not possible. (I always think that collaboration includes giving some of your material to another party.) I do urge you to visit here ( to see a figure representing the number of collaborative papers as a proportion of national output. Not your standard bar chart. If you glance through the report, you’ll see different types of these visualizations, some of which I understand better than others.

ETA April 12, 2011: David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis made an insightful observation about Iran and the discussion that the Royal Society’s report has generated (from his April 7, 2011 posting, Meet the New Science Superpower…Iran),

Yeah, you read that right. New Scientist noted that in the Royal Society’s recently released report Knowledge, Networks and Nations that Iran has the fastest rate of growth in scientific publication in the world. I find that an interesting variation in the press coverage of the report, which is almost exclusively about how China is, once again, playing catch-up to the U.S. in scientific publishing.

Do take a look at the comments in full. There are more tidbits.

Nanocellulose fibres, pineapples, bananas, and cars

Brazilian researchers are working on ways to use nanocellulose fibres from various plants to reinforce plastics in the automotive industry. From the March 28, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Study leader Alcides Leão, Ph.D., said the fibers used to reinforce the new plastics may come from delicate fruits like bananas and pineapples, but they are super strong. Some of these so-called nano-cellulose fibers are almost as stiff as Kevlar, the renowned super-strong material used in armor and bulletproof vests. Unlike Kevlar and other traditional plastics, which are made from petroleum or natural gas, nano-cellulose fibers are completely renewable.

“The properties of these plastics are incredible,” Leão said, “They are light, but very strong — 30 per cent lighter and 3-to-4 times stronger. We believe that a lot of car parts, including dashboards, bumpers, side panels, will be made of nano-sized fruit fibers in the future. For one thing, they will help reduce the weight of cars and that will improve fuel economy.”

Besides weight reduction, nano-cellulose reinforced plastics have mechanical advantages over conventional automotive plastics, Leão added. These include greater resistance to damage from heat, spilled gasoline, water, and oxygen. With automobile manufacturers already testing nano-cellulose-reinforced plastics, with promising results, he predicted they would be used within two years. [emphasis mine]

This sounds very similar to the work being done by FPInnovations with wood cellulose in Québec and in BC. I did post an interview with Dr. Richard Berry, Aug. 27, 2010 ( where he described and discussed what FPInnovations calls  nanocrystalline cellulose. Coincidentally, Mark MacLachlan is giving a talk about nanocrystalline cellulose  at the Café Scientifique meeting in Vancouver tomorrow, March 29, 2011. Check my March 25, 2011 posting for more details.

Here’s a description of cellulose and the process by which the Brazilian researchers are extracting nanocellulose fibres (from the news item),

Cellulose is the main material that makes up the wood in trees and other parts of plants. Its ordinary-size fibers have been used for centuries to make paper, extracted from wood that is ground up and processed. In more recent years, scientists have discovered that intensive processing of wood releases ultra-small, or “nano” cellulose fibers, so tiny that 50,000 could fit inside across the width of a single strand of human hair. Like fibers made from glass, carbon, and other materials, nano-cellulose fibers can be added to raw material used to make plastics, producing reinforced plastics that are stronger and more durable.

Leão said that pineapple leaves and stems, rather than wood, may be the most promising source for nano-cellulose. He is with Sao Paulo State University in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Another is curaua, a plant related to pineapple that is cultivated in South America. Other good sources include bananas; coir fibers found in coconut shells; typha, or “cattails;” sisal fibers produced from the agave plant; and fique, another plant related to pineapples.

To prepare the nano-fibers, the scientists insert the leaves and stems of pineapples or other plants into a device similar to a pressure cooker. They then add certain chemicals to the plants and heat the mixture over several cycles, producing a fine material that resembles talcum powder. The process is costly, but it takes just one pound of nano-cellulose to produce 100 pounds of super-strong, lightweight plastic, the scientists said.

Since the Brazilian researchers are claiming that they will be introducing nanocellulose fibres into plastics within two years, I wonder if that has accelerated  the timeframe for applications (coatings, films, and textiles according to Dr. Berry) from FPInnovations and their nanocrystalline cellulose?

Mark MacLachlan talks about beetles, biomimcry, and nanocrystalline cellulose

After mentioning the Café Scientifique talk coming up on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at Vancouver’s (Canada) Railway Club in my March 24, 2011 posting (, I’m happy to say that Mark MacLachlan, the featured speaker, has answered a few questions about himself, his work and what he plans to talk about. Here he is,

(a) Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and why you’re giving a talk for Café Scientifique?

I grew up in Quesnel then obtained my BSc degree at UBC and my PhD at the University of Toronto. After a 2 year post-doc at MIT, I returned to UBC where I have been a chemistry professor since 2001.

My research is in materials chemistry – we develop new materials that “do things”. That might include materials that change properties when exposed to another chemical (i.e., sensing) or light, or materials that can store gases in their interior. We are excited about developing new materials with unusual properties.

(b) How did you decide on your topic? Are people demanding to know about biomimcry?

I was invited to give a talk on our work we published in Nature on the coloured glasses. As these materials mimic the structures of beetle shells, I thought that would be an interesting angle for a more general talk.

(c) The description for your upcoming talk in common with the description of a paper you and your team published Nov. 2010 in Nature mentions irridescent beetle exoskeletons. Which came first, an interest in irridescence or an interest in nanocrystalline cellulose (or is nanocrystals of cellulose)? And, how was the connection between the two made?

An interest in NCC came first. We were working with NCC to develop composites of NCC/glass when we discovered the iridescent materials. It was then a few months later that we made the connection to beetle exoskeletons.

(d) What can your audience expect? Will you be singing about biomimicry and/or nanocrystalling cellulose or offering a mixed media show as part of the talk?

I will be talking about biomimicry a little and mostly about the materials. I plan to take a few samples with me.

e) Is your talk connected to the Nano Days events which run from March 26 – April 3, 2011 or is it coincidence?

Just a coincidence – this is the first I’ve heard of Nano Days!

f) Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’ve never been to Café Scientifique before and I am looking forward to this opportunity to share some science!

Thank you Mark MacLachlan. If you want to know more, check out the Railway Club at 579 Dunsmuir St. The event starts at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, March 29, 2011.

Launching new open access (!) journal: Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology

I just got an email from someone at InTech about a new journal they are launching. There’s a call for papers for the first issue of Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology. The deadline is May 10, 2011 and the first issue will go live in June. From the email notice I received March 25, 2011,

Since all the journal’s content will be available online for free full-text download, will be fully indexed and promoted using social networks and other media, we hope that it will provide an outlet for researchers to publish their findings rapidly and at no cost to a wide global audience.

Here’s more about the journal, Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology, (drat! my linking capability disappeared again:,

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology publishes articles that focus on, but are not limited to, the following areas:

* Synthesis of nanosized materials

* Bottom-up, top-down, and directed-assembly methods for the organization of nanostructures

* Modeling and simulation of synthesis processes

* Nanofabrication and processing of nanoscale materials and devices

* Novel growth and fabrication techniques for nanostructures

* Characterization of size-dependent properties

* Nano-characterization techniques

* Properties of nanoscale materials

* Structure analysis at atomic, molecular, and nanometric range

* Realization and application of novel nanostructures and nanodevices

* Devices and technologies based on the size-dependent electronic, optical, and magnetic properties of nanomaterials

* Nanostructured materials and nanocomposites for energy conversion applications

* Nanophotonics and nanoplasmonics materials and devices

* Nanosystems for biological, medical, chemical, catalytic, energy and environmental applications

* Nanodevices for electronic, photonic, magnetic, imaging, diagnostic and sensor applications

* Nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine


The journal is addressed to a cross-disciplinary readership including scientists, researchers and professionals in both academia and industry with an interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology. The scope comprises (but is not limited to) the fundamental aspects and applications of nanoscience and nanotechnology in the areas of physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering, biology, energy/environment, and electronics.

Type of contributions

The journal publishes a complete selection of original articles, selected as regular papers, review articles, feature articles and short communications.

Here are some important points for both readers and contributors (from the email notice),

Points of uniqueness:

1) FREE FOR ALL – Open Access and no publishing fees

2) Fast review process and online publication – One at a time model

3) International Editorial Board:

Editor-in-Chief: Paola Prete

Editorial Board: C. N. R. Rao*, Toshiaki Enoki, Stephen O’Brien, Wolfgang Richter, Federico Rosei, Jonathan E. Spanier, Leander Tapfer

*C. N. R. Rao is Linus Pauling Research Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research and Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Science (both at Bangalore). His research interests are in the chemistry of materials. He has authored nearly 1000 research papers and edited or written 30 books in materials chemistry. A member of several academies including the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences, he is a recipient of the Einstein Gold Medal of UNESCO, the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, and the Somiya Award of the International Union of Materials Research Societies (IUMRS). In 2005, he received the Dan David Prize for materials research from Israel and the first India Science Prize.

I went to find out more about the editorial board and found this list of names and affiliations (from,

Editorial Board

C. N. R. Rao Fellow Royal Society, National Research Professor, Linus Pauling Research Professor and President of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research Bangalore, India

Toshiaki Enoki Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan

Stephen O’Brien The City College of New York, USA

Wolfgang Richter University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy and Technischen Universität Berlin, Germany

Federico Rosei Université du Québec, Varennes, Canada [emphasis mine]

Jonathan E. Spanier Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA

Leander Tapfer Technical Unit of Materials Technologies Brindisi, ENEA, Italy

I’ve emphasized Federico Rosei’s name as he and his work have been featured here in a few postings: Aug. 11, 2008 (; June 15, 2010 (; and November 17, 2010 (

Interestingly and finally, the journal’s corporate offices are in Croatia. That’s one of the things I find so interesting about nanotechnology; it’s a very international affair.

Qualitative and quantitative understanding of nanostructures by University of BC researchers

It’s not the sexiest research (no nanobots, no self-cleaning windows, no textiles with colours never seen before on fabrics, no heating up a tumour to destroy it, etc.)  I’ve come across but developing a model that predicts a nanostructure’s optical properties is likely to prove valuable. According to the University of British Columbia Chemistry Department researchers the models could be useful with the “design of tailored nano-structures, and be of utility in a wide range of fields, including the remote sensing of atmospheric pollutants and the study of cosmic dust formation.”

From the March 24, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Now research published this week by UBC chemists indicates that the optical properties of more complex non-conducting nano-structures can be predicted based on an understanding of the simple nano-objects that make them up. Those optical properties in turn give researchers and engineers an understanding of the particle’s structure.

“Engineering complex nano-structures with particular infrared responses typically involves hugely complex calculations and is a bit hit and miss,” says Thomas Preston, a researcher with the UBC Department of Chemistry.

“Our solution is a relatively simple model that could help guide us in more efficiently engineering nano-materials with the properties we want, and help us understand the properties of these small particles that play an important role in so many processes.”

The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Vibron and phonon hybridization in dielectric nanostructures”).

“For example, the properties of a more complex particle made up of a cavity and a core structure can be understood as a hybrid of the individual pieces that make it up,” says UBC Professor Ruth Signorell, an expert on the characterization of molecular nano-particles and aerosols and co-author of the study.

The experiment also tested the model against CO2 aerosols with a cubic shape, which play a role in cloud formation on Mars.

The paper, Vibron and phonon hybridization in dielectric nanostructures, is behind a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paywall but an abstract is available here.

Vancouver’s Cafe Scientifique features a talk on beetles, biomimcry, and nanocrystalline cellulose

Vancouver’s Railway Club is a well-known local bar and live music venue that offers unexpected possibilities. From the History page,

It’s a venerable place: it was one of the oldest licences granted in the province after the repeal of prohibition. And while most of the others are now gone, the best still remains here for all to enjoy.

Here’s what the media say…

“The old-school Rail is great if you just want to grab a beer in a trad-pub setting, but what really makes it special is its enduring commitment to the indie music scene. Its little stage has seen dozens of rising stars kick-start their careers and it’s still the best place in town to catch passionate, consistently high-quality acts, ranging from folk to metal to bluegrass to polka.”
Lonely Planet

“Best Good Old Bar…What other bar could you show off to your parents at lunchtime, then return after dark with your latest punk rock, alt-coutnry, or other indie-music-fan squeeze to see live music? Nowhere else, that’s where. Not anymore.”
Georgia Straight, Best of Vancouver Edition, 2005

Under the category of unexpected possibilities, the club is hosting Café Scientifique talks and there’s one coming up on Tuesday, March 29, 2011 that features Mark MacLachlan, a professor from the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Chemistry Department. I featured MacLachlan and his work on nanocrystalline cellulose in a Nov. 18, 2010 post. From the Café Scientifique notice for the March 29, 2011 event,

Our next café will happen on March 29th, 7:30pm @ Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir Street). The speaker for the evening will be Mark MacLachlan, an Associate Professor from the Chemistry Department at UBC. His talk that evening will be:

Biomimetic Materials … With a Twist!

Natural materials that have evolved in plants and animals often display spectacular mechanical and optical properties. For example, spider silk is as strong as steel and tougher than Kevlar, which is used in bullet-proof vests.  Inspired by nature, chemists are now synthesizing materials that mimic the structures and properties of shells, bones, muscle, leaves, feathers, and other natural materials. In this talk, I will discuss our recent discovery of a new type of coloured glass that is a mimic of beetle shells. [emphasis mine] These new materials have intriguing optical properties that arise from their twisted internal structure, and they may be useful for emerging applications.

This sounds closely related to the work publicized in November 2010 (from UBC’s public affairs page),

The UBC researchers [MacLachlan, Kevin Shopsowitz, and Hao Qi] mixed the cellulose from the wood pulp with a silica, or glass, precursor and then burned away the cellulose. The resulting glass films are composed of pores, or holes, arranged in a helical structure that resembles a spiral staircase. Each hole is less than 1/10,000th of the diameter of a human hair.

“When Kevin showed me the films and they were red, blue, yellow and green, I knew we’d been able to maintain the helical structure found in the cellulose.”

“The helical organization we produced synthetically mimics the structure of the exoskeletons of some iridescent beetles,” says Shopsowitz. [emphasis mine]

I look forward to the talk. For anyone who’s not in Vancouver, there are Café Scientifique events in other Canadian cities including Halifax, Ottawa, and Calgary. Go here for a complete listing of events.


Minimizing synthetic biology risks with open-source software

GenoTHREAT is designed to detect bioterrorism threats arising from the use of synthetic DNA. The research team that developed this new software tool recently published a paper in the March issue of Nature Biotechnology. From the March 21, 2011 news item on Nanowerk (****,

GenoTHREAT implements the “best match” screening protocol method recommended by the federal government to minimize the risk that unauthorized individuals or those with malicious intent will obtain toxins and other potentially dangerous materials from DNA synthesis providers. The process of developing GenoTHREAT allowed Peccoud’s team to conduct a rigorous bioinformatic analysis of the strengths and limitations of the best match method which was published in the March issue of Nature Biotechnology (“Strengths and limitations of the federal guidance on synthetic DNA”).

“It was natural to start developing GenoTHREAT around the federal guidance on synthetic DNA,” said [Jean] Peccoud. “Since this regulation is only one of many regulations and policies that providers of synthetic DNA need to comply with, our current efforts aim at developing a more comprehensive biosecurity solution that can be customized for a variety of users.”

An abstract for the paper is available ( but the full paper is behind a paywall. You can find out more about Peccoud’s research work and get information about how to download GenoTHREAT (

Here’s a figure that shows GenoTHREAT’s screening algorithm,

GenoTHREAT Sequence screening algorithm figure from “Strengths and limitations of the federal guidance on synthetic DNA” in Nature Biotechnology, Nature Biotechnology Volume: 29, Pages: 208–210 (2011) DOI: 0.1038/nbt.1802

The number of synthetic biology stories I’ve been stumbling across lately is noticeable and since synthetic biology is not one of my main areas of interest, I’m guessing there’s a concerted communications effort to rouse interest in the topic.

Don’t forget, Friday, March 25, 2011, there’s a webcast about Synthetic biology ethics, details are in my March 17, 2011 post here:

**** I’m sorry, the WYSIWYG linking function is not working for me and I don’t have time to figure out the HTML coding.