Monthly Archives: August 2014

FrogHeart goes to the 9th World Congress on alternatives to animal testing

Also known as ‘Humane Science in the 21st Century’, the 9th World Congress on ‘Alternatives to Animal Testing in the Life Sciences‘ is being held next week (Aug. 24 – 28, 2014) and FrogHeart will be reporting on various aspects of the work. These posts are sponsored. I realize some folks don’t approve of the practice, which seems odd given that all writing, ultimately, is paid for and sponsored in one fashion or another. While direct sponsorship of a piece of writing can make objectivity (such as it is) more of challenge; it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Conversely, salaried writers can also become compromised due to friendships and loyalties built up over the years or, possibly, due to graft.

All of the posts generated as a consequence of the sponsorship will be identified with the sponsoring agency (SEURAT-1).

For anyone who wishes analyze and compare the posts for bias, here are a few pieces written prior to any contact about the congress:

  • Reducing animal testing for nanotoxicity—PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) presentation at NanoTox 2014 (April 24, 2014)
  • Nanomaterials, toxicology, and alternatives to animal testing (Aug. 22. 2013)
  • Animal love and nanotechnology (Jan. 12, 2012)
  • Global TV (national edition) and nanotechnology; EPA develops a ‘kinder to animals’ nanomaterials research strategy (Oct. 8, 2009); scroll down 25% of the way)

Should you detect undue bias in any of the sponsored pieces, please do let me know.

Mothbots (cyborg moths)

Apparently the big picture could involve search and rescue applications, meanwhile, the smaller picture shows attempts to create a cyborg moth (mothbot). From an Aug. 20, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

North Carolina State University [US] researchers have developed methods for electronically manipulating the flight muscles of moths and for monitoring the electrical signals moths use to control those muscles. The work opens the door to the development of remotely-controlled moths, or “biobots,” for use in emergency response.

“In the big picture, we want to know whether we can control the movement of moths for use in applications such as search and rescue operations,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network that can identify survivors or public health hazards in the wake of a disaster.”

An Aug. 20, 2014 North Carolina State University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

The paper presents a technique Bozkurt developed for attaching electrodes to a moth during its pupal stage, when the caterpillar is in a cocoon undergoing metamorphosis into its winged adult stage. This aspect of the work was done in conjunction with Dr. Amit Lal of Cornell University.

But the new findings in the paper involve methods developed by Bozkurt’s research team for improving our understanding of precisely how a moth coordinates its muscles during flight.

By attaching electrodes to the muscle groups responsible for a moth’s flight, Bozkurt’s team is able to monitor electromyographic signals – the electric signals the moth uses during flight to tell those muscles what to do.

The moth is connected to a wireless platform that collects the electromyographic data as the moth moves its wings. To give the moth freedom to turn left and right, the entire platform levitates, suspended in mid-air by electromagnets. A short video describing the work is available at

“By watching how the moth uses its wings to steer while in flight, and matching those movements with their corresponding electromyographic signals, we’re getting a much better understanding of how moths maneuver through the air,” Bozkurt says.

“We’re optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight,” Bozkurt says. “That’s essential to the overarching goal of creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.”

But Bozkurt stresses that there’s a lot of work yet to be done to make moth biobots a viable tool.

“We now have a platform for collecting data about flight coordination,” Bozkurt says. “Next steps include developing an automated system to explore and fine-tune parameters for controlling moth flight, further miniaturizing the technology, and testing the technology in free-flying moths.”

Here’s an image illustrating the researchers’ work,

Caption: The moth is connected to a wireless platform that collects the electromyographic data as the moth moves its wings. To give the moth freedom to turn left and right, the entire platform levitates, suspended in mid-air by electromagnets. Credit: Alper Bozkurt

Caption: The moth is connected to a wireless platform that collects the electromyographic data as the moth moves its wings. To give the moth freedom to turn left and right, the entire platform levitates, suspended in mid-air by electromagnets.
Credit: Alper Bozkurt

I was expecting to find this research had been funded by the US military but that doesn’t seem to be the case according to the university news release,

… The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, under grant CNS-1239243. The researchers also used transmitters and receivers developed by Triangle Biosystems International and thank them for their contribution to the work.

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the text and the full video,

Early Metamorphic Insertion Technology for Insect Flight Behavior Monitoring by Alexander Verderber, Michael McKnight, and Alper Bozkurt. J. Vis. Exp. (89), e50901, doi:10.3791/50901 (2014)

This material is behind a paywall.

The next megathrust earthquake at Vancouver’s (Canada) August 26, 2014 Café Scientifique

Vancouver’s next Café Scientifique is being held in the back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), on Tuesday, August 26,  2014 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the meeting description (from the August 19, 2014 announcement),

Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Carlos Ventura,the Director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility (EERF) at the University of British Columbia.  The title of his talk is:

A Megathrust Earthquake in the West Coast – The clock is ticking

The theme of the talk is about the effects of megathrust earthquakes in the last ten years in the built environment, and the lessons that we have learned from them.  These are helping us understand better what would be the possible effects of the “big one” on the West Coast of BC.  Some of the research that we are doing at UBC to better understand the effects of this type of earthquake will be discussed.

From Dr. Carlos Ventura’s UBC Faculty webpage,

Dr. Carlos Ventura is currently the Director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility (EERF) at UBC and has more than 30 years of experience as a structural engineer.  Dr. Ventura’s areas of research are in Structural Dynamics and Earthquake Engineering. He has been conducting research on the dynamic behavior and analysis of structural systems subjected to extreme dynamic loads, including severe ground shaking for more than twenty years. His research work includes experimental studies in the field and in the laboratory of structural systems and components.   Research developments have included development and implementation of performance-based design methods for seismic retrofit of low rise school buildings, novel techniques for regional estimation of damage to structures during earthquakes, detailed studies on nonlinear dynamic analysis of structures and methods to evaluate the dynamic characteristics of large Civil Engineering structures. …

You can find out more about the Earthquake Engineering Research Facility (EERF) here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part one (an FOE report is published)

Part two (the problem with research)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part one (an FOE report is published)

Part three (final guidance)

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

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

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

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

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

This updated report uncovers the:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This needs to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bad journalism

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

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

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

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

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

Part two (the problem with research)

Part three (final guidance)

Medical nanobots (nanorobots) and biocomputing; an important step in Russia

Russian researchers have reported a technique which can make logical calculations from within cells according to an Aug. 19, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers from the Institute of General Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences and MIPT [Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology] have made an important step towards creating medical nanorobots. They discovered a way of enabling nano- and microparticles to produce logical calculations using a variety of biochemical reactions.

An Aug. 19 (?), 2014 MIPT press release, which originated the news item, provides a good beginner’s explanation of bioengineering in the context of this research,

For example, modern bioengineering techniques allow for making a cell illuminate with different colors or even programming it to die, linking the initiation  of apoptosis [cell death] to the result of binary operations.

Many scientists believe logical operations inside cells or in artificial biomolecular systems to be a way of controlling biological processes and creating full-fledged micro-and nano-robots, which can, for example, deliver drugs on schedule to those tissues where they are needed.

Calculations using biomolecules inside cells, a.k.a. biocomputing, are a very promising and rapidly developing branch of science, according to the leading author of the study, Maxim Nikitin, a 2010 graduate of MIPT’s Department of Biological and Medical Physics. Biocomputing uses natural cellular mechanisms. It is far more difficult, however, to do calculations outside cells, where there are no natural structures that could help carry out calculations. The new study focuses specifically on extracellular biocomputing.

The study paves the way for a number of biomedical technologies and differs significantly from previous works in biocomputing, which focus on both the outside and inside of cells. Scientists from across the globe have been researching binary operations in DNA, RNA and proteins for over a decade now, but Maxim Nikitin and his colleagues were the first to propose and experimentally confirm a method to transform almost any type of nanoparticle or microparticle into autonomous biocomputing structures that are capable of implementing a functionally complete set of Boolean logic gates (YES, NOT, AND and OR) and binding to a target (such as a cell) as result of a computation. This method allows for selective binding to target cells, as well as it represents a new platform to analyze blood and other biological materials.

The prefix “nano” in this case is not a fad or a mere formality. A decrease in particle size sometimes leads to drastic changes in the physical and chemical properties of a substance. The smaller the size, the greater the reactivity; very small semiconductor particles, for example, may produce fluorescent light. The new research project used nanoparticles (i.e. particles of 100 nm) and microparticles (3000 nm or 3 micrometers).

Nanoparticles were coated with a special layer, which “disintegrated” in different ways when exposed to different combinations of signals. A signal here is the interaction of nanoparticles with a particular substance. For example, to implement the logical operation “AND” a spherical nanoparticle was coated with a layer of molecules, which held a layer of spheres of a smaller diameter around it. The molecules holding the outer shell were of two types, each type reacting only to a particular signal; when in contact with two different substances small spheres separated from the surface of a nanoparticle of a larger diameter. Removing the outer layer exposed the active parts of the inner particle, and it was then able to interact with its target. Thus, the team obtained one signal in response to two signals.

For bonding nanoparticles, the researchers selected antibodies. This also distinguishes their project from a number of previous studies in biocomputing, which used DNA or RNA for logical operations. These natural proteins of the immune system have a small active region, which responds only to certain molecules; the body uses the high selectivity of antibodies to recognize and neutralize bacteria and other pathogens.

Making sure that the combination of different types of nanoparticles and antibodies makes it possible to implement various kinds of logical operations, the researchers showed that cancer cells can be specifically targeted as well. The team obtained not simply nanoparticles that can bind to certain types of cells, but particles that look for target cells when both of two different conditions are met, or when two different molecules are present or absent. This additional control may come in handy for more accurate destruction of cancer cells with minimal impact on healthy tissues and organs.

Maxim Nikitin said that although this is just as mall step towards creating efficient nanobiorobots, this area of science is very interesting and opens up great vistas for further research, if one draws an analogy between the first works in the creation of nanobiocomputers and the creation of the first diodes and transistors, which resulted in the rapid development of electronic computers.

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

Biocomputing based on particle disassembly by Maxim P. Nikitin, Victoria O. Shipunova, Sergey M. Deyev, & Petr I. Nikitin. Nature Nanotechnology (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.156 Published online 17 August 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanoscale light confinement without metal (photonic circuits) at the University of Alberta (Canada)

To be more accurate, this is a step forward towards photonic circuits according to an Aug. 20, 2014 news item on Azonano,

The invention of fibre optics revolutionized the way we share information, allowing us to transmit data at volumes and speeds we’d only previously dreamed of. Now, electrical engineering researchers at the University of Alberta are breaking another barrier, designing nano-optical cables small enough to replace the copper wiring on computer chips.

This could result in radical increases in computing speeds and reduced energy use by electronic devices.

“We’re already transmitting data from continent to continent using fibre optics, but the killer application is using this inside chips for interconnects—that is the Holy Grail,” says Zubin Jacob, an electrical engineering professor leading the research. “What we’ve done is come up with a fundamentally new way of confining light to the nano scale.”

At present, the diameter of fibre optic cables is limited to about one thousandth of a millimetre. Cables designed by graduate student Saman Jahani and Jacob are 10 times smaller—small enough to replace copper wiring still used on computer chips. (To put that into perspective, a dime is about one millimetre thick.)

An Aug. 19, 2014 University of Alberta news release by Richard Cairney (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail and information about funding,

 Jahani and Jacob have used metamaterials to redefine the textbook phenomenon of total internal reflection, discovered 400 years ago by German scientist Johannes Kepler while working on telescopes.

Researchers around the world have been stymied in their efforts to develop effective fibre optics at smaller sizes. One popular solution has been reflective metallic claddings that keep light waves inside the cables. But the biggest hurdle is increased temperatures: metal causes problems after a certain point.

“If you use metal, a lot of light gets converted to heat. That has been the major stumbling block. Light gets converted to heat and the information literally burns up—it’s lost.”

Jacob and Jahani have designed a new, non-metallic metamaterial that enables them to “compress” and contain light waves in the smaller cables without creating heat, slowing the signal or losing data. …

The team’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative.

Jacob and Jahani are now building the metamaterials on a silicon chip to outperform current light confining strategies used in industry.

Given that this work is being performed at the nanoscale and these scientists are located within the Canadian university which houses Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT), the absence of any mention of the NINT comes as a surprise (more about this organization after the link to the researchers’ paper).

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

Transparent subdiffraction optics: nanoscale light confinement without metal by Saman Jahani and Zubin Jacob. Optica, Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp. 96-100 (2014)

This paper is open access.

In a search for the NINT’s website I found this summary at the University of Alberta’s NINT webpage,

The National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) was established in 2001 and is operated as a partnership between the National Research Council and the University of Alberta. Many NINT researchers are affiliated with both the National Research Council and University of Alberta.

NINT is a unique, integrated, multidisciplinary institute involving researchers from fields such as physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, informatics, pharmacy, and medicine. The main focus of the research being done at NINT is the integration of nano-scale devices and materials into complex nanosystems that can be put to practical use. Nanotechnology is a relatively new field of research, so people at NINT are working to discover “design rules” for nanotechnology and to develop platforms for building nanosystems and materials that can be constructed and programmed for a particular application. NINT aims to increase knowledge and support innovation in the area of nanotechnology, as well as to create work that will have long-term relevance and value for Alberta and Canada.

The University of Alberta’s NINT webpage also offers a link to the NINT’s latest rebranded website, The failure to mention the NINT gets more curious when looking at a description of NINT’s programmes one of which is hybrid nanoelectronics (Note: A link has been removed),

Hybrid NanoElectronics provide revolutionary electronic functions that may be utilized by industry through creating circuits that operate using mechanisms unique to the nanoscale. This may include functions that are not possible with conventional circuitry to provide smaller, faster and more energy-efficient components, and extend the development of electronics beyond the end of the roadmap.

After looking at a list of the researchers affiliated with the NINT, it’s apparent that neither Jahani or Jacob are part of that team. Perhaps they have preferred to work independently of the NINT ,which is one of the Canada National Research Council’s institutes.

Monitoring health with graphene rubber bands

An Aug. 20, 2014 news item on Azonano highlights graphene research from the University of Surrey (UK) and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland),

Although body motion sensors already exist in different forms, they have not been widely used due to their complexity and cost of production.

Now researchers from the University of Surrey and Trinity College Dublin have for the first time treated common elastic bands with graphene, to create a flexible sensor that is sensitive enough for medical use and can be made cheaply.

An Aug. 15, 2014 University of Surrey press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the innovation (Note: A link has been removed),

Once treated, the rubber bands remain highly pliable. By fusing this material with graphene – which imparts an electromechanical response on movement – the material can be used as a sensor to measure a patient’s breathing, heart rate or movement, alerting doctors to any irregularities.

“Until now, no such sensor has been produced that meets these needs,” said Surrey’s Dr Alan Dalton. “It sounds like a simple concept, but our graphene-infused rubber bands could really help to revolutionise remote healthcare – and they’re very cheap to manufacture.”

“These sensors are extraordinarily cheap compared to existing technologies. Each device would probably cost pennies instead of pounds, making it ideal technology for use in developing countries where there are not enough medically trained staff to effectively monitor and treat patients quickly.” [commented corresponding author, Professor Jonathan Coleman from Trinity College, Dublin]

Trinity College Dublin issued an Aug. 20, 2014 press release, which provides a little more technical detail and clarifies who led the team for anyone who may been curious about the matter,

The team – led by Professor of Chemical Physics at Trinity, Jonathan Coleman, one of the world’s leading nanoscientists – infused rubber bands with graphene, a nano-material derived from pencil lead which is 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. This process is simple and compatible with normal manufacturing techniques. While rubber does not normally conduct electricity, the addition of graphene made the rubber bands electrically conductive without degrading the mechanical properties of the rubber. Tests showed that any electrical current flowing through the graphene-infused rubber bands was very strongly affected if the band was stretched. As a result, if the band is attached to clothing, the tiniest movements such as breath and pulse can be sensed.

The discovery opens up a host of possibilities for the development of wearable sensors from rubber, which could be used to monitor blood pressure, joint movement and respiration. Other applications of rubber-graphene sensors could be in the automotive industry (to develop sensitive airbags); in robotics, in medical device development (to monitor bodily motion), as early warning systems for cot death in babies or sleep apnoea in adults. They could also be woven into clothing to monitor athletes’ movement or for patients undergoing physical rehabilitation.

Professor Coleman said: “Sensors are becoming extremely important in medicine, wellness and exercise, medical device manufacturing, car manufacturing and robotics, among other areas. Biosensors, which are worn on or implanted into the skin, must be made of durable, flexible and stretchable materials that respond to the motion of the wearer. By implanting graphene into rubber, a flexible natural material, we are able to completely change its properties to make it electrically conductive, to develop a completely new type of sensor. Because rubber is available widely and cheaply, this unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”

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

Sensitive, High-Strain, High-Rate Bodily Motion Sensors Based on Graphene–Rubber Composites by Conor S. Boland, Umar Khan, Claudia Backes, Arlene O’Neill, Joe McCauley, Shane Duane, Ravi Shanker, Yang Liu, Izabela Jurewicz, Alan B. Dalton, and Jonathan N. Coleman. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn503454h Publication Date (Web): August 6, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access (I was able to open the HTML version this morning, Aug. 20, 2014). As well the researchers have made this image illustrating their work available,

[downloaded from]

[downloaded from]

Life-on-a-chip; protein synthesis could be possible with artificial cells

An Aug. 18, 2014 Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel) news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Aug. 19, 2014) describes an artificial cell system and its ability to synthesize protein,

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, but mimicking the intricate networks and dynamic interactions that are inherent to living cells is difficult to achieve outside the cell. Now, as published in Science, Weizmann Institute scientists have created an artificial, network-like cell system that is capable of reproducing the dynamic behavior of protein synthesis. This achievement is not only likely to help gain a deeper understanding of basic biological processes, but it may, in the future, pave the way toward controlling the synthesis of both naturally-occurring and synthetic proteins for a host of uses.

The system, designed by PhD students Eyal Karzbrun and Alexandra Tayar in the lab of Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv of the Weizmann Institute’s Materials and Interfaces Department, in collaboration with Prof. Vincent Noireaux of the University of Minnesota, comprises multiple compartments “etched” onto a biochip. These compartments – artificial cells, each a mere millionth of a meter in depth – are connected via thin capillary tubes, creating a network that allows the diffusion of biological substances throughout the system. Within each compartment, the researchers insert a cell genome – strands of DNA designed and controlled by the scientists themselves. In order to translate the genes into proteins, the scientists relinquished control to the bacterium E. coli: Filling the compartments with E. coli cell extract – a solution containing the entire bacterial protein-translating machinery, minus its DNA code – the scientists were able to sit back and observe the protein synthesis dynamics that emerged.

By coding two regulatory genes into the sequence, the scientists created a protein synthesis rate that was periodic, spontaneously switching from periods of being “on” to “off.” The amount of time each period lasted was determined by the geometry of the compartments. Such periodic behavior – a primitive version of cell cycle events – emerged in the system because the synthesized proteins could diffuse out of the compartment through the capillaries, mimicking natural protein turnover behavior in living cells. At the same time fresh nutrients were continuously replenished, diffusing into the compartment and enabling the protein synthesis reaction to continue indefinitely. “The artificial cell system, in which we can control the genetic content and protein dilution times, allows us to study the relation between gene network design and the emerging protein dynamics. This is quite difficult to do in a living system,” says Karzbrun. “The two-gene pattern we designed is a simple example of a cell network, but after proving the concept, we can now move forward to more complicated gene networks. One goal is to eventually design DNA content similar to a real genome that can be placed in the compartments. ”

The scientists then asked whether the artificial cells actually communicate and interact with one another like real cells. Indeed, they found that the synthesized proteins that diffused through the array of interconnected compartments were able to regulate genes and produce new proteins in compartments farther along the network. In fact, this system resembles the initial stages of morphogenesis – the biological process that governs the emergence of the body plan in embryonic development. “We observed that when we place a gene in a compartment at the edge of the array, it creates a diminishing protein concentration gradient; other compartments within the array can sense and respond to this gradient – similar to how morphogen concentration gradients diffuse through the cells and tissues of an embryo during early development. We are now working to expand the system and to introduce gene networks that will mimic pattern formation, such as the striped patterns that appear during fly embryogenesis,” explains Tayar.

With the artificial cell system, according to Bar-Ziv, one can, in principle, encode anything: “Genes are like Lego in which you can mix and match various components to produce different outcomes; you can take a regulatory element from E. coli that naturally controls gene X, and produce a known protein; or you can take the same regulatory element but connect it to gene Y instead to get different functions that do not naturally occur in nature. ” This research may, in the future, help advance the synthesis of such things as fuel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the production of enzymes for industrial use, to name a few.

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

Programmable on-chip DNA compartments as artificial cells by Eyal Karzbrun, Alexandra M. Tayar, Vincent Noireaux,and Roy H. Bar-Ziv. Science 15 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6198 pp. 829-832 DOI: 10.1126/science.1255550

This paper is behind a paywall.

While trying to find more information about the work on artificial cells and the Weizmann Institute, I discovered a Canadian chapter of what is, in addition to being a scientific research institute in Israel, a worldwide organization. Here’s more from the Weizmann Institute Canada About us webpage,

Weizmann Canada is part of a worldwide network of supporting organizations for the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel.

The Weizmann Institute is one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary research institutions. Hundreds of scientists, laboratory technicians and research students embark on fascinating journeys into the unknown. Every day, these researchers attempt to push the limits of scientific knowledge, exploring the Earth’s mysteries and making the world a better place.

Since 1964, Canadian supporters have helped fund some of the world’s most talented scientists who are conducting cutting-edge research, which has a major impact on the world we live in.

Behind every scientist, there is a donor who has made it possible for them to carry out their groundbreaking research.

With over 1200 research projects, there are over 1200 ways in which you can support the Weizmann Institute.

As I noted earlier today in an Aug. 19, 2014 posting about 14nm computer chips and limits to computation, the question about limits can be applied to other areas of endeavour including the creation of artificial cell systems.