Tag Archives: Italy

Cookies, ants, and a citizen science project plus a call for proposals for a 2015 Citizen Science Conference

My first citizen science item concerns summertime when the ants are out and about, oftentimes as uninvited participants to a picnic. Scientists at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of Florida (UF) have decided to take advantage of this summer phenomenon as per a July 7, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Florida have combined cookies, citizen science and robust research methods to track the diversity of ant species across the United States, and are now collaborating with international partners to get a global perspective on how ants are moving and surviving in the modern world.

“We think our School of Ants project serves as a good model for how citizen science can be used to collect more data, more quickly, from more places than a research team could do otherwise,” says Dr. Andrea Lucky, a researcher at the University of Florida who started work on the School of Ants while a postdoctoral researcher at NC State and now heads the project. Lucky is co-lead author of a paper describing the work and its early findings. “And our protocols help ensure that the data we are collecting are high quality.”

A July 7, 2014 NCSU news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the various objectives for the project,

The School of Ants project was developed at NC State to help researchers get a handle on the diversity of ant species across the United States, with a particular focus on Chicago, Raleigh and New York City. In short, to discover which ant species are living where.

“But we also wanted to launch a citizen science project that both increased the public’s ecological literacy and addressed criticisms that public involvement made citizen science data unreliable,” says Dr. Amy Savage , a postdoctoral biological sciences researcher at NC State and the other co-lead author of the paper.

The research protocol, process, and outcomes are then described (from the news release),

The researchers developed a simple protocol involving Pecan Sandies cookies and sealable plastic bags, detailing precisely how the public should collect and label ant samples before shipping them to NC State or UF. [emphasis mine] This process was designed to engage the public in the aspect of the research that was easiest for non-scientists to enjoy and participate in, while also limiting the chances that the public could make mistakes that would skew the findings.

Once the samples arrive at NC State or UF, they are sorted, identified by a team of national experts and entered into a database. That information is then made publicly available in a user-friendly format on the project’s schoolofants.org site, allowing study participants to track the survey.

“This information is helping us tackle a variety of ecological and evolutionary questions, such as how ants may be evolving in urban environments, and how invasive species are spreading in the U.S.,” Savage says.

More than 1,000 participants, with samples from all 50 states, have taken part in the project since its 2011 launch – and there have already been some surprising findings.

For example, the researchers learned that a venomous invasive species, the Asian needle ant (Pachycondyla chinensis), had spread thousands of miles farther than anyone expected. Researchers knew the species had established itself in the Southeast, but study participants sent in Asian needle ant samples from as far afield as Wisconsin and Washington state.

To build on the School of Ants model, the researchers have launched collaborations with counterparts in Italy and Australia.

“We’re optimistic that this project will give us a broader view of ant diversity and how these species intersect with us, where we live and work around the world,” Lucky says.

The researchers are also working with teachers to incorporate the project into K-12 instruction modules that incorporate key elements of common core education standards. One early teacher collaboration has led to a research paper co-written by 4th and 5th graders.

“We also collaborated with a science writer to produce a free series of iBooks featuring natural history stories about the most common ants that our citizen science partners are collecting in their backyards and sidewalks,” Savage says.

“One of our big goals now is to move from collecting data and finding patterns to identifying ways that we can work with the public to figure out what is driving those patterns,” says Dr. Rob Dunn, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC State and co-author of the paper.

Not being familiar with Pecan Sandies cookies I went searching on the internet and found many recipes including this one from Martha Stewart’s website,

 Pecan Sandies

prep: 15 mins
total time: 30 mins
yield: Makes 18

Ingredients

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Cook’s Note
For best results, line cookie sheets with parchment prior to baking.
Directions

Step 1

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy; beat in vanilla and salt. With mixer on low, gradually add flour, beating just until combined. Fold in pecans.

Step 2

Roll dough into 1 1/2-inch balls, and place on two baking sheets, 2 inches apart. With the dampened bottom of a glass, lightly flatten each ball.

Step 3

Bake until cookies are golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer to wire racks, and let cool.

This is what they look like (also from the Martha Stewart website),

[downloaded from http://www.marthastewart.com/342386/pecan-sandies]

[downloaded from http://www.marthastewart.com/342386/pecan-sandies]

I also checked out the School of Ants project website and found this,

The School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Participation is open to anyone interested!
Learn More!

Anyone can participate! Learn how to create your own sampling kit, sample your backyard or schoolyard, and get our collection back to us so that we can ID the ants and add your species list to the big School of Ants map. Together we’ll map ant diversity and species ranges across North America! Click here to get started!

There is at least one question you might want to ask before running off to collect ants, the researchers specify Keebler Pecan Sandies cookies are to be used as bait. I’m not sure how available those specific cookies and brand are in Canada, Mexico, Italy, or Australia. You may want to check with the organizers as to what alternatives might be acceptable. From the Participate webpage on the School of Ants website,

SAMPLING ANTS for the School of Ants involves placing cookie baits outdoors in green spaces (lawns, gardens, woods) and paved places (asphalt, concrete, cobblestone) for one hour on a warm day. We want to know what ants discover the baits in your neighborhood!(ALLERGY WARNING!: this activity uses Keebler Pecan Sandies cookies, which contain pecans, wheat, egg and whey).

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

Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project [PDF] by Andrea Lucky, Amy M. Savage, Lauren M. Nichols, Leonora Shell, Robert R. Dunn, Cristina Castracani, Donato A. Grasso, and Alessandra Mori. Ecosphere 5(7):78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES13-00364.1 Published: online July 7, 2014,

Ecosphere is an open access journal. The PDF is 23 pp.

For my second citizen science item, I have a call for proposals for the Citizen Science 2015 Conference (CS2015), February 11 & 12, 2015 in San Jose, California (prior to the 2015 AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] annual meeting February 12 -16, 2015 also in San Jose). Here’s more about the Citizen Science conference from the Overview page,

Anyone involved in citizen science is invited to attend this conference. Attendees will include citizen science participants, researchers, project leaders, educators, technology specialists, evaluators, and others – representing many disciplines including astronomy, molecular biology, human and environmental health, psychology, linguistics, environmental justice, biodiversity, conservation biology, public health, genetics, engineering, cyber technology, gaming, and more – at any level of expertise. There will be opportunities throughout the conference to make connections, share insights, and help move this field forward.

We have identified six main themes for this year’s conference:

  1. Tackling Grand Challenges and Everyday Problems with Citizen Science
  2. Broadening Engagement to Foster Diversity and Inclusion
  3. Making Education and Lifelong Learning Connections (K-12, university, informal)
  4. Digital Opportunities and Challenges in Citizen Science
  5. Research on and Evaluation of the Citizen Science Experience
  6. Best Practices for Designing, Implementing, and Managing Citizen Science Projects and Programs

Here are important dates for the conference (from a June 30, 2014 email announcement),

September 15, 2014          CS2015 Deadline to submit proposals* (talks, posters, etc)
October 6, 2014                 CS2015 Proposal selection notices sent out
November 10, 2014           CS2015 Early-bird registration discount ends
February 11 & 12, 2015     CS2015 Conference

Here’s more detail, from the Presentation Styles webpage,

… Several formats are available to choose from: three styles of oral presentations; symposia/panel discussions; and posters.

Audio-visual equipment will be provided as needed for all session types except posters.

Oral Presentations
Talks allow speakers to present their work in 12 minutes, with 3 additional minutes for audience questions. Talks with similar themes will be grouped together into sessions.

Speed Talks, as the name suggests, challenge each presenter to cover his or her topic in 5 minutes or less. Following a series of speed presentations, there will be time for audience members to gather with presenters for discussion.

Story Presentations (15 minutes) emphasize sharing valuable lessons through storytelling. We especially encourage telling stories of “what didn’t work and why” and strategies for addressing challenges and unintended consequences.

Symposium Sessions or Panel Discussions (1 to 2 hours)
Every symposium or panel has one convener (most likely the person submitting this proposal); that person is responsible for organizing the session and will act as the session’s contact person with conference organizers. Additionally, that person will moderate/guide the session. Symposia/Panels may be 1-to-2 hours in length, depending on the number of proposed talks, and must include at least 15 minutes for questions and discussion with the audience.

The proposal must (1) describe the symposium or panel’s objective, (2) how it will contribute to the overall theme of the conference, and (3) include a list of proposed speakers (and, in the case of a symposium, each speaker’s topic).

Posters
Posters are designed to visually display information and engage fellow attendees in an informal way. There will be two Poster Sessions—one each day—inviting attendees to discuss posters with authors. Posters will also be on display outside of formal poster-session times. All accepted posters will be given a display space measuring 4 x 4 feet (1.2 X 1.2 meters) in the Poster Hall (no additional audio-visual aids are permitted).

You can access a link to submit your proposal here.

CS2015 is being called a pre-conference to the AAAS meeting as per the Prepare for the Conference page,

Registration
Registration details, including the conference registration fee, are not yet finalized. We are seeking funding to help support the conference and keep it affordable to all. Check back for updates, or join the CSA to receive periodic updates.

Attend Two Great Conferences
CS2015 is a pre-conference of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which immediately follows our meeting at the San Jose Convention Center. The AAAS theme for 2015 is “Innovations, Information, and Imaging.” Once you have completed your CS2015 registration, you will receive instructions on how to register for the AAAS Annual Meeting (February 12-16, 2015) at the discounted rate of $235. AAAS registration will open in August 2014.

Good luck with your proposal and with your ant-captures!

Gold on the brain, a possible nanoparticle delivery system for drugs

A July 21, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes special gold nanoparticles that could make drug delivery to cells easier,

A special class of tiny gold particles can easily slip through cell membranes, making them good candidates to deliver drugs directly to target cells.

A new study from MIT materials scientists reveals that these nanoparticles enter cells by taking advantage of a route normally used in vesicle-vesicle fusion, a crucial process that allows signal transmission between neurons.

A July 21, 2014 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The findings suggest possible strategies for designing nanoparticles — made from gold or other materials — that could get into cells even more easily.

“We’ve identified a type of mechanism that might be more prevalent than is currently known,” says Reid Van Lehn, an MIT graduate student in materials science and engineering and one of the paper’s lead authors. “By identifying this pathway for the first time it also suggests not only how to engineer this particular class of nanoparticles, but that this pathway might be active in other systems as well.”

The paper’s other lead author is Maria Ricci of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. The research team, led by Alfredo Alexander-Katz, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and Francesco Stellacci from EPFL, also included scientists from the Carlos Besta Institute of Neurology in Italy and Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Most nanoparticles enter cells through endocytosis, a process that traps the particles in intracellular compartments, which can damage the cell membrane and cause cell contents to leak out. However, in 2008, Stellacci, who was then at MIT, and Darrell Irvine, a professor of materials science and engineering and of biological engineering, found that a special class of gold nanoparticles coated with a mix of molecules could enter cells without any disruption.

“Why this was happening, or how this was happening, was a complete mystery,” Van Lehn says.

Last year, Alexander-Katz, Van Lehn, Stellacci, and others discovered that the particles were somehow fusing with cell membranes and being absorbed into the cells. In their new study, they created detailed atomistic simulations to model how this happens, and performed experiments that confirmed the model’s predictions.

Gold nanoparticles used for drug delivery are usually coated with a thin layer of molecules that help tune their chemical properties. Some of these molecules, or ligands, are negatively charged and hydrophilic, while the rest are hydrophobic. The researchers found that the particles’ ability to enter cells depends on interactions between hydrophobic ligands and lipids found in the cell membrane.

Cell membranes consist of a double layer of phospholipid molecules, which have hydrophobic lipid tails and hydrophilic heads. The lipid tails face in toward each other, while the hydrophilic heads face out.

In their computer simulations, the researchers first created what they call a “perfect bilayer,” in which all of the lipid tails stay in place within the membrane. Under these conditions, the researchers found that the gold nanoparticles could not fuse with the cell membrane.

However, if the model membrane includes a “defect” — an opening through which lipid tails can slip out — nanoparticles begin to enter the membrane. When these lipid protrusions occur, the lipids and particles cling to each other because they are both hydrophobic, and the particles are engulfed by the membrane without damaging it.

In real cell membranes, these protrusions occur randomly, especially near sites where proteins are embedded in the membrane. They also occur more often in curved sections of membrane, because it’s harder for the hydrophilic heads to fully cover a curved area than a flat one, leaving gaps for the lipid tails to protrude.

“It’s a packing problem,” Alexander-Katz says. “There’s open space where tails can come out, and there will be water contact. It just makes it 100 times more probable to have one of these protrusions come out in highly curved regions of the membrane.”

This phenomenon appears to mimic a process that occurs naturally in cells — the fusion of vesicles with the cell membrane. Vesicles are small spheres of membrane-like material that carry cargo such as neurotransmitters or hormones.

The similarity between absorption of vesicles and nanoparticle entry suggests that cells where a lot of vesicle fusion naturally occurs could be good targets for drug delivery by gold nanoparticles. The researchers plan to further analyze how the composition of the membranes and the proteins embedded in them influence the absorption process in different cell types. “We want to really understand all the constraints and determine how we can best design nanoparticles to target particular cell types, or regions of a cell,” Van Lehn says.

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

Lipid tail protrusions mediate the insertion of nanoparticles into model cell membranes by Reid C. Van Lehn, Maria Ricci, Paulo H.J. Silva, Patrizia Andreozzi, Javier Reguera, Kislon Voïtchovsky, Francesco Stellacci, & Alfredo Alexander-Katz. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4482 doi:10.1038/ncomms5482 Published 21 July 2014

This article is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube Access.

I last featured this multi-country team’s work on gold nanoparticles in an Aug. 23, 2013 posting.

Memristors, memcapacitors, and meminductors for faster computers

While some call memristors a fourth fundamental component alongside resistors, capacitors, and inductors (as mentioned in my June 26, 2014 posting which featured an update of sorts on memristors [scroll down about 80% of the way]), others view memristors as members of an emerging periodic table of circuit elements (as per my April 7, 2010 posting).

It seems scientists, Fabio Traversa, and his colleagues fall into the ‘periodic table of circuit elements’ camp. From Traversa’s  June 27, 2014 posting on nanotechweb.org,

Memristors, memcapacitors and meminductors may retain information even without a power source. Several applications of these devices have already been proposed, yet arguably one of the most appealing is ‘memcomputing’ – a brain-inspired computing paradigm utilizing the ability of emergent nanoscale devices to store and process information on the same physical platform.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, the University of California San Diego and the University of South Carolina in the US, and the Polytechnic of Turin in Italy, suggest a realization of “memcomputing” based on nanoscale memcapacitors. They propose and analyse a major advancement in using memcapacitive systems (capacitors with memory), as central elements for Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) circuits capable of storing and processing information on the same physical platform. They name this architecture Dynamic Computing Random Access Memory (DCRAM).

Using the standard configuration of a Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) where the capacitors have been substituted with solid-state based memcapacitive systems, they show the possibility of performing WRITE, READ and polymorphic logic operations by only applying modulated voltage pulses to the memory cells. Being based on memcapacitors, the DCRAM expands very little energy per operation. It is a realistic memcomputing machine that overcomes the von Neumann bottleneck and clearly exhibits intrinsic parallelism and functional polymorphism.

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

Dynamic computing random access memory by F L Traversa, F Bonani, Y V Pershin, and M Di Ventra. Nanotechnology Volume 25 Number 28  doi:10.1088/0957-4484/25/28/285201 Published 27 June 2014

This paper is behind a paywall.

Italians and Polish collaborate on nanoscale study of vanishing Da Vinci self-portrait

In addition to a new nondamaging technique to examine paintings (my June 2, 2014 post: Damage-free art authentication and spatially offset Raman spectroscopy [SORS]), there’s a new report in a June 3, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily about a nondamaging technique to examine paper such as the paper on which holds a Da Vinci self-portrait,

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, drawn in red chalk on paper during the early 1500s and widely believed to be a self-portrait, is in extremely poor condition. Centuries of exposure to humid storage conditions or a closed environment has led to widespread and localized yellowing and browning of the paper, which is reducing the contrast between the colors of chalk and paper and substantially diminishing the visibility of the drawing.

A group of researchers from Italy and Poland with expertise in paper degradation mechanisms was tasked with determining whether the degradation process has now slowed with appropriate conservation conditions — or if the aging process is continuing at an unacceptable rate.

Caption: This is Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait as acquired during diagnostic studies carried out at the Central Institute for the Restoration of Archival and Library Heritage in Rome, Italy. Credit: M. C. Misiti/Central Institute for the Restoration of Archival and Library Heritage, Rome

Caption: This is Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait as acquired during diagnostic studies carried out at the Central Institute for the Restoration of Archival and Library Heritage in Rome, Italy.
Credit: M. C. Misiti/Central Institute for the Restoration of Archival and Library Heritage, Rome

The June 3, 2014 American Institute of Physics news release on EurekAlert provides more detail about the work,

… the team developed an approach to nondestructively identify and quantify the concentration of light-absorbing molecules known as chromophores in ancient paper, the culprit behind the “yellowing” of the cellulose within ancient documents and works of art.

“During the centuries, the combined actions of light, heat, moisture, metallic and acidic impurities, and pollutant gases modify the white color of ancient paper’s main component: cellulose,” explained Joanna Łojewska, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. “This phenomenon is known as ‘yellowing,’ which causes severe damage and negatively affects the aesthetic enjoyment of ancient art works on paper.”

Chromophores are the key to understanding the visual degradation process because they are among the chemical products developed by oxidation during aging and are, ultimately, behind the “yellowing” within cellulose. Yellowing occurs when “chromophores within cellulose absorb the violet and blue range of visible light and largely scatter the yellow and red portions — resulting in the characteristic yellow-brown hue,” said Olivia Pulci, a professor in the Physics Department at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

To determine the degradation rate of Leonardo’s self-portrait, the team created a nondestructive approach that centers on identifying and quantifying the concentration of chromophores within paper. It involves using a reflectance spectroscopy setup to obtain optical reflectance spectra of paper samples in the near-infrared, visible, and near-ultraviolet wavelength ranges.

Once reflectance data is gathered, the optical absorption spectrum of cellulose fibers that form the sheet of paper can be calculated using special spectroscopic data analysis.

Then, computational simulations based on quantum mechanics — in particular, Time-Dependent Density Functional Theory, which plays a key role in studying optical properties in theoretical condensed matter physics — are tapped to calculate the optical absorption spectrum of chromophores in cellulose.

“Using our approach, we were able to evaluate the state of degradation of Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and other paper specimens from ancient books dating from the 15th century,” said Adriano Mosca Conte, a researcher at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. “By comparing the results of ancient papers with those of artificially aged samples, we gained significant insights into the environmental conditions in which Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait was stored during its lifetime.”

Their work revealed that the type of chromophores present in Leonardo’s self portrait are “similar to those found in ancient and modern paper samples aged in extremely humid conditions or within a closed environment, which agrees with its documented history,” said Mauro Missori, a researcher at the Institute for Complex Systems, CNR, in Rome, Italy.

One of the most significant implications of their work is that the state of degradation of ancient paper can be measured and quantified by evaluation of the concentrations of chromophores in cellulose fibers. “The periodic repetition of our approach is fundamental to establishing the formation rate of chromophores within the self-portrait. Now our approach can serve as a precious tool to preserve and save not only this invaluable work of art, but others as well,” Conte noted.

Absolutely fascinating stuff to those of use who care about yellowing paper. (Having worked in an archives, I care deeply.) Here’s a link to and a citation for the study,

Visual degradation in Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic self-portrait: A nanoscale study by A. Mosca Conte, O. Pulci, M. C. Misiti, J. Lojewska, L. Teodonio1, C. Violante, and M. Missori. Appl. Phys. Lett. 104, 224101 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4879838

This is an open access study.

Damage-free art authentication and spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS)

In a world where people will shell out millions of dollars for a single painting, art authentication of some kind is mandatory from a buyer’s perspective while sellers might be a little more reluctant. Reliance on experts who have an intimate familiarity with an artist’s body of work, personal and professional history, as well as, the historical period in which the work was created is the norm. Technological means are not necessarily as heavily employed as one might expect. Given that most technical analyses require damage of some kind, no matter how miniscule, some reluctance is understandable.

A May 29, 2014 news item on phys.org describes a new, damage-free, art conservation and restoration process (which could easily be used for authentication purposes),

UK scientists, working on an international project to conserve precious works of art, have found a new way to analyse paintings without having to remove even a tiny speck of the paint to inspect the layers below.

Using laser spectroscopy, a method that uses light to probe under the surface of an object, the international team has developed a new, non-invasive way to identify the chemical content of the paint layers present.

This new technique will reduce the risk of damage to precious paintings, often worth thousands or even millions of pounds, when conservation and restoration work is being carried out.

Using laser spectroscopy, a method that uses light to probe under the surface of an object, the international team has developed a new, non-invasive way to identify the chemical content of the paint layers present.

This new technique will reduce the risk of damage to precious paintings, often worth thousands or even millions of pounds, when conservation and restoration work is being carried out.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-05-lasers-analyse-priceless-art.html#jCp

As noted in a March 24, 2014 posting about using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to determine the characteristics of red pigment in a Renoir painting, restoration, authentication, and conservation are all linked once researchers start a technical examination,

This next item is about forgery detection. A March 5, 2014 news release on EurekAlert describes the latest developments,

Gallery owners, private collectors, conservators, museums and art dealers face many problems in protecting and evaluating their collections such as determining origin, authenticity and discovery of forgery, as well as conservation issues. Today these problems are more accurately addressed through the application of modern, non-destructive, “hi-tech” techniques.

Getting back to this new technique, a May 28, 2014 Science and Technology Facilities Council news release, which originated the news item, provides information about the various agencies involved with this work and offers some technical detail about the new technique,

The new approach is derived from a technique called Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS). It was originally developed by UK researchers at the Science and Technology Research Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility within the Research Complex at Harwell. Now they have joined forces with researchers from the Institute for the Conservation and Promotion of Cultural Heritage (ICVBC), part of Italy’s National Research Council (CNR) to adapt this technology to test paintings without having to destroy any part of them.

The SORS technique involves shining the laser light onto an opaque object. A small number of photons (light ‘particles’) will scatter back, changing colour according to the different paint components they represent, and allowing the scientists to analyse the chemical composition in depth.

Professor Pavel Matousek, from STFC’s Central Laser Facility, explained. “Building on our earlier SORS research, we’ve transformed the method to allow us to probe the painted layers for the first time,” he said. “We’ve called it Micro-SORS because we can analyse the layers at the micrometer scale, rather than the usual millimetre scale”.

For comparison of scale, a human hair is about 100 micrometers wide.

Dr Claudia Conti, a scientist at the ICVBC in Italy, said, “When I heard about the potential of SORS and how it could be applied, I realised the huge contribution this method of analysis could bring to the conservation of artworks.”

The research team tested the Micro-SORS method by collecting data from the light scattered across a surface of painted layers, artificially prepared to mimic a real painting. They isolated the light signals of the individual paint layers, enabling them to assess the chemical make-up of each layer.

The next step in the team’s research is to optimise the sensitivity and depth of penetration, and apply the technique to real artwork.

SORS has been used in other applications, from the news release,

The original SORS technique has already been applied to a number of problems, including non-invasive breast cancer diagnosis and bone disease diagnosis.The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has also launched a spin-out company, Cobalt Light Systems, which uses the SORS technology and has recently developed products for scanning liquids in unopened bottles for airport security, and in pharmaceutical quality control.

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

Subsurface Raman Analysis of Thin Painted Layers by Claudia Conti, Chiara Colombo, Marco Realini, Giuseppe Zerbi, and Pavel Matousek. Applied Spectroscopy, Volume 68, Number 6, June 2014, pp. 686-691(6) doi.org/10.1366/13-07376 Available online via Ingentaconnect

This article is open access.

Research into the properties of water at the nanoscale and water droplet networks

I have two pieces of research with the only common element being water. First, there’s a May 9, 2014 news release on EurekAlert issued by the Politecnico di Torino (Italy; rough translation: Turin Polytechnic),

Swimming in a honey pool. That’s the sensation a water molecule should “feel” while approaching a solid surface within a nanometer (i.e. less than a ten-thousandth of hair diameter). The reduction in water mobility in the very close proximity of surfaces at the nanoscale is the well-known phenomenon of “nanoconfinement”, and it is due to both electrostatic and van der Waals attractive forces ruling matter interactions at that scale.

In this context, scientists from Politecnico di Torino and Houston Methodist Research Institute have taken a further step forward, by formulating a quantitative model and a physical interpretation able of predicting the nanoconfinement effect in a rather general framework. In particular, geometric and chemical characteristics as well as physical conditions of diverse nanoconfining surfaces (e.g. proteins, carbon nanotubes, silica nanopores or iron oxide nanoparticles) have been quantitatively related to mobility reduction and “supercooling” conditions of water, namely the persistence of water in a liquid state at temperatures far below 0°C, when close to a solid surface.

This result has been achieved after two years of in silico (i.e. computer-based) and in vitro (i.e. experiment-driven) activities by Eliodoro Chiavazzo, Matteo Fasano, Pietro Asinari (Multi-Scale Modelling Lab, Department of Energy at Politecnico di Torino) and Paolo Decuzzi (Center for the Rational Design of Multifunctional Nanoconstructs at Houston Methodist Research Institute).

I love the image of swimming in a ‘honey pool’ and while developing a schema for predicting a nanoconfinement effect may not seem all that exciting to an outsider the applications are varied according to the news release,

This study may soon find applications in the optimization and rational design of a broad variety of novel technologies ranging from applied physics (e.g. “nanofluids”, suspensions made out of water and nanoparticles for enhancing heat transfer) to sustainable energy (e.g. thermal storage based on nanoconfined water within sorbent materials); from detection and removal of pollutant from water (e.g. molecular sieves) to nanomedicine.

In fact this work is finding an immediate application in the field of medicine as pertaining to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), from the news release,

The latter is the field where the research has indeed found a first important application. Every year, almost sixty millions of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans are performed, with diagnostic purposes. In the past decade, MRI technology benefitted from various significant scientific advances, which allowed more precise and sharper images of pathological tissues. Among other, contrast agents (i.e. substances used for improving contrast of structures or fluids within the body) importantly contributed in enhancing MRI performances.

This research activity has been able to explain and predict the increase in MRI performances due to nanoconfined contrast agents, which are currently under development at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. Hence, the discovery paves the way to further increase in the quality of MRI images, in order to possibly improve chances of earlier and more accurate detection of diseases in millions of patients, every year.

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

Scaling behaviour for the water transport in nanoconfined geometries by Eliodoro Chiavazzo, Matteo Fasano, Pietro Asinari & Paolo Decuzzi. Nature Communications 5 Article number: 4565 doi:10.1038/ncomms4565 Published 03 April 2014

This is an open access paper and, unusually, I am excerpting the Abstract as I find it helps to further explain this work (although the more technical aspects are lost on me),

The transport of water in nanoconfined geometries is different from bulk phase and has tremendous implications in nanotechnology and biotechnology. Here molecular dynamics is used to compute the self-diffusion coefficient D of water within nanopores, around nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes and proteins. For almost 60 different cases, D is found to scale linearly with the sole parameter θ as D(θ)=DB[1+(DC/DB−1)θ], with DB and DC the bulk and totally confined diffusion of water, respectively. The parameter θ is primarily influenced by geometry and represents the ratio between the confined and total water volumes. The D(θ) relationship is interpreted within the thermodynamics of supercooled water. As an example, such relationship is shown to accurately predict the relaxometric response of contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging. The D(θ) relationship can help in interpreting the transport of water molecules under nanoconfined conditions and tailoring nanostructures with precise modulation of water mobility.

The second piece of ‘water’ research was featured in a May 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

A simple new technique to form interlocking beads of water in ambient conditions could prove valuable for applications in biological sensing, membrane research and harvesting water from fog.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have developed a method to create air-stable water droplet networks known as droplet interface bilayers. These interconnected water droplets have many roles in biological research because their interfaces simulate cell membranes. Cumbersome fabrication methods, however, have limited their use.

A May 13, 2014 Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) news release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

“The way they’ve been made since their inception is that two water droplets are formed in an oil bath then brought together while they’re submerged in oil,” said ORNL’s Pat Collier, who led the team’s study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Otherwise they would just pop like soap bubbles.”

Instead of injecting water droplets into an oil bath, the ORNL research team experimented with placing the droplets on a superhydrophobic surface infused with a coating of oil. The droplets aligned side by side without merging.

To the researchers’ surprise, they were also able to form non-coalescing water droplet networks without including lipids in the water solution. Scientists typically incorporate phospholipids into the water mixture, which leads to the formation of an interlocking lipid bilayer between the water droplets.

“When you have those lipids at the interfaces of the water drops, it’s well known that they won’t coalesce because the interfaces join together and form a stable bilayer,” ORNL coauthor Jonathan Boreyko said. “So our surprise was that even without lipids in the system, the pure water droplets on an oil-infused surface in air still don’t coalesce together.”

The team’s research revealed how the unexpected effect is caused by a thin oil film that is squeezed between the pure water droplets as they come together, preventing the droplets from merging into one. Watch a video of the process on ORNL’s YouTube channel.

With or without the addition of lipids, the team’s technique offers new insight for a host of applications. Controlling the behavior of pure water droplets on oil-infused surfaces is key to developing dew- or fog-harvesting technology as well as more efficient condensers, for instance.

“Our finding of this non-coalescence phenomenon will shed light on these droplet-droplet interactions that can occur on oil-infused systems,” Boreyko said.

The ability to create membrane-like water droplet networks by adding lipids leads to a different set of functional applications, Collier noted.

“These bilayers can be used in anything from synthetic biology to creating circuits to bio-sensing applications,” he said. “For example, we could make a bio-battery or a signaling network by stringing some of these droplets together. Or, we could use it to sense the presence of airborne molecules.”

The team’s study also demonstrated ways to control the performance and lifetime of the water droplets by manipulating oil viscosity and temperature and humidity levels.

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

Air-stable droplet interface bilayers on oil-infused surfaces by Jonathan B. Boreyko, Georgios Polizos, Panos G. Datskos, Stephen A. Sarles, and C. Patrick Collier.  PNAS 2014 ; published ahead of print May 12, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1400381111

This paper is behind a paywall.

The glassy side of fractals

An April 24, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a breakthrough in glass (wordplay intended),

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common — they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between liquids and gases, but centuries of scholarship have failed to produce consensus about how to categorize glass.

Now, combining theory and numerical simulations, researchers have resolved an enduring question in the theory of glasses by showing that their energy landscapes are far rougher than previously believed.

An April 23, 2014 Duke University news release by Erin Weeks (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a diagram (am I the only one who thinks these resemble cow udders?) and more infotmation,

Glasses form when their molecules get jammed into fractal "wells," as shown on the right, rather than smooth or slightly rough wells (left). Photo credit: Patrick Charbonneau. Courtesy: Duke University

Glasses form when their molecules get jammed into fractal “wells,” as shown on the right, rather than smooth or slightly rough wells (left). Photo credit: Patrick Charbonneau. Courtesy: Duke University

“There have been beautiful mathematical models, but with sometimes tenuous connection to real, structural glasses. Now we have a model that’s much closer to real glasses,” said Patrick Charbonneau, one of the co-authors and assistant professor of chemistry and physics at Duke University.

One thing that sets glasses apart from other phase transitions is a lack of order among their constituent molecules. Their cooled particles become increasingly sluggish until, caged in by their neighbors, the molecules cease to move — but in no predictable arrangement. One way for researchers to visualize this is with an energy landscape, a map of all the possible configurations of the molecules in a system.

Charbonneau [Patrick Charbonneau, one of the co-authors and assistant professor of chemistry and physics at Duke University] said a simple energy landscape of glasses can be imagined as a series of ponds or wells. When the water is high (the temperature is warmer), the particles within float around as they please, crossing from pond to pond without problem. But as you begin to lower the water level (by lowering the temperature or increasing the density), the particles become trapped in one of the small ponds. Eventually, as the pond empties, the molecules become jammed into disordered and rigid configurations.

“Jamming is what happens when you take sand and squeeze it,” Charbonneau said. “First it’s easy to squeeze, and then after a while it gets very hard, and eventually it becomes impossible.”

Like the patterns of a lakebed revealed by drought, researchers have long wondered exactly what “shape” lies at the bottom of glass energy landscapes, where molecules jam. Previous theories have predicted the bottom of the basins might be smooth or a bit rough.

“At the bottom of these lakes or wells, what you find is variation in which particles have a force contact or bond,” Charbonneau said. “So even though you start from a single configuration, as you go to the bottom or compress them, you get different realizations of which pairs of particles are actually in contact.”

Charbonneau and his co-authors based in Paris and Rome showed, using computer simulations and numeric computations, that the glass molecules jam based on a fractal regime of wells within wells.

The new description makes sense of several behaviors seen in glasses, like the property known as avalanching, which describes a random rearrangement of molecules that leads to crystallization.

Understanding the structure of glasses is more than an intellectual exercise — materials scientists stand to advance from the knowledge, which could lead to better control of the aging of glasses.

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

Fractal free energy landscapes in structural glasses by Patrick Charbonneau, Jorge Kurchan,     Giorgio Parisi, Pierfrancesco Urbani & Francesco Zamponi. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3725 doi:10.1038/ncomms4725 Published 24 April 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available through ReadCube Access.

Chiral breathing at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS)

An April 17, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily highlights some research about a polymer that has some special properties,

Electrically controlled glasses with continuously adjustable transparency, new polarisation filters, and even chemosensors capable of detecting single molecules of specific chemicals could be fabricated thanks to a new polymer unprecedentedly combining optical and electrical properties.

An international team of chemists from Italy, Germany, and Poland developed a polymer with unique optical and electric properties. Components of this polymer change their spatial configuration depending on the electric potential applied. In turn, the polarisation of transmitted light is affected. The material can be used, for instance, in polarisation filters and window glasses with continuously adjustable transparency. Due to its mechanical properties, the polymer is also perfectly suitable for fabrication of chemical sensors for selective detection and determination of optically active (chiral) forms of an analyte.

The research findings of the international team headed by Prof. Francesco Sannicolo from the Universita degli Studi di Milano were recently published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

“Until now, to give polymers chiral properties, chiral pendants were attached to the polymer backbone. In such designs the polymer was used as a scaffold only. Our polymer is exceptional, with chirality inherent to it, and with no pending groups. The polymer is both a scaffold and an optically active chiral structure. Moreover, the polymer conducts electricity,” comments Prof. Włodzimierz Kutner from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw, one of the initiators of the research.

An April 17, 2014 IPC PAS news release (also on EurrekAlert), which originated the news item, describes chirality and the breathing metaphor with regard to this new polymer,

Chirality can be best explained by referring to mirror reflection. If two varieties of the same object look like their mutual mirror images, they differ in chirality. Human hands provide perhaps the most universal example of chirality, and the difference between the left and right hand becomes obvious if we try to place a left-handed glove on a right hand. The same difference as between the left and right hand is between two chiral molecules with identical chemical composition. Each of them shows different optical properties, and differently rotates plane-polarised light. In such a case, chemists refer to one chemical compound existing as two optical isomers called enantiomers.

The polymer presented by Prof. Sannicolo’s team was developed on the basis of thiophene, an organic compound composed of a five-member aromatic ring containing a sulphur atom. Thiophene polymerisation gives rise to a chemically stable polymer of high conductivity. The basic component of the new polymer – its monomer – is made of a dimer with two halves each made of two thiophene rings and one thianaphthene unit. The halves are connected at a single point and can partially be rotated with respect to each other by applying electric potential. Depending on the orientation of the halves, the new polymer either assumes or looses chirality. This behaviour is fully reversible and resembles a breathing system, whereas the “chiral breathing” is controlled by an external electric potential.

The development of a new polymer was initiated thanks to the research on molecular imprinting pursued at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the PAS. The research resulted, for instance, in the development of polymers used as recognising units (receptors) in chemosensors, capable of selective capturing of molecules of various analytes, for instance nicotine, and also melamine, an ill-reputed chemical detrimental to human health, used as an additive to falsify protein content in milk and dairy products produced in China.

Generally, molecular imprinting consists in creating template-shaped cavities in polymer matrices with molecules of interest used first as cavity templates. Subsequently these templates are washed out from the polymer. As a result, the polymer contains traps with a shape and size matching those of molecules of the removed template. To be used as a receptor in chemosensor to recognize analyte molecules similar to templates or templates themselves, the polymer imprinted with these cavities must show a sufficient mechanical strength.

“Three-dimensional networks we attempted to build at the IPC PAS using existing two-dimensional thiophene derivatives just collapsed after the template molecules were removed. That’s why we asked for assistance our Italian partners, specialising in the synthesis of thiophene derivatives. The problem was to design and synthesise a three-dimensional thiophene derivative that would allow us for cross-linking of our polymers in three dimensions. The thiophene derivative synthesised in Milan has a stable three-dimensional structure, and the controllable chiral properties of the new polymer obtained after the derivative was polymerised, turned out a nice surprise for all of us”, explains Prof. Kutner.

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

Potential-Driven Chirality Manifestations and Impressive Enantioselectivity by Inherently Chiral Electroactive Organic Films by  Prof. Francesco Sannicolò1, Serena Arnaboldi, Prof. Tiziana Benincori, Dr. Valentina Bonometti, Dr. Roberto Cirilli, Prof. Lothar Dunsch, Prof. Włodzimierz Kutner, Prof. Giovanna Longhi, Prof. Patrizia R. Mussini, Dr. Monica Panigati, Prof. Marco Pierini, and Dr. Simona Rizzo. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 53, Issue 10, pages 2623–2627, March 3, 2014. Article first published online: 5 FEB 2014 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201309585

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

ARPICO offers scholarship for Canadian grad. students and young postdocs at Italy’s School on Neutron Scattering (SoNS)

ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada) is offering a scholarship (deadline Mar. 31, 2014) for Canadian students according to its Feb. 14, 2014 announcement,

ARPICO is pleased to announce the 2014 ARPICO Scholarship to attend the 12th School on Neutron Scattering Francesco Paolo Ricci:

http://www.sonsfpricci.org/
Erice (Italy) from 30 April to 9 May 2014

ARPICO invites graduate students and post-doctoral researchers
at Canadian Universities and Laboratories to apply.

How to apply:

* Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers at Canadian
Universities/Laboratories are eligible
* Please, send a cover letter and your CV to [email protected] (.pdf format)

Deadline for application: March 31st, 2014

Scholarship covers for return-airfare from home institution to Italy,
school registration fee, lodging, and meals. The winner will be notified
by email by April 3rd, 2014.

For more information, please contact us at [email protected]

For anyone curious about Erice’s location in Italy, that would be the west coast of Sicily,

Erice (Vagabonda, May 2008) [downloaded from http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Tourism-g194757-Erice_Province_of_Trapani_Sicily-Vacations.html#17970260]

Erice (Vagabonda, May 2008) [downloaded from http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Tourism-g194757-Erice_Province_of_Trapani_Sicily-Vacations.html#17970260]

Good luck!

Canada-European Union research and Horizon 2020 funding opportunities

Thanks to the Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals of Western Canada (ARPICO), I received a Jan. 15, 2014 notice about ERA-Can‘s (European Research Area and Canada) upcoming Horizon 2020 information sessions, i.e., funidng opportunities for Canadian researchers,

The Canadian partners* to ERA-Can+ invite you to learn about Horizon 2020, a European funding opportunity that is accessible to Canadians working in science, technology, and innovation.

Horizon 2020 is a multi-year (2014-2020) program for science and technology funded by the European Commission. With a budget of almost Euro 80 billion (CAD $118 billion) Horizon 2020 forms a central part of the EU’s economic policy agenda. The program’s main goals are to encourage scientific excellence, increase the competitiveness of industries, and develop solutions to societal challenges in Europe and abroad.

ERA-Can+ has been established to help Canadians access Horizon 2020 funding. Building on several years of successful collaboration, ERA-Can+ will encourage bilateral exchange across the science, technology, and innovation chain. The project will also enrich the EU-Canada policy dialogue, enhance coordination between European and Canadian sector leaders, and stimulate transatlantic collaboration by increasing awareness of the funding opportunities available.

The European Commission released its first call for proposals under Horizon 2020 in December 2013. Canadian and European researchers and innovators can submit proposals for projects in a variety of fields including personalized health and care; food security; the sustainable growth of marine and maritime sectors; digital security; smart cities and communities; competitive low-carbon energy; efficient transportation; waste management; and disaster resilience. Further calls for proposals will be released later this year.

You are invited to attend one of four upcoming information sessions on Horizon 2020 opportunities for Canadians. These sessions will explain the structure of research funding in Europe and provide information on upcoming funding opportunities and the mechanisms by which Canadians can participate. Martina De Sole, Coordinator of ERA-Can+, and numerous Canadian partners will be on hand to share their expertise on these topics. Participants also will have the opportunity to learn about current and developing collaborations between Canadian and European researchers and innovators.

ERA-CAN+ Information Session Dates – Precise times to be confirmed.

Toronto: Morning of January 28th
MaRS Discovery District, 101 College Street

Kitchener-Waterloo: Morning of January 29th
Canadian Digital Media Network, 151 Charles Street West, Suite 100, Kitchener

Ottawa: Morning of January 30th
University of Ottawa; precise location on campus to be confirmed.

Montreal: Morning of January 31st
Intercontinental Hotel, 360 Rue Saint Antoine Ouest

This session is organised in partnership with the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science, de la Technologie du Québec.

For further information please contact [email protected]

* ERA-Can+ Project Partners
APRE – Agenzia per la Promozione della Ricerca Europea (Italy)
AUCC – Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (Canada)
CNRS – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France)
DFATD – Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (Canada)
DLR – Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (Germany)
PPF – The Public Policy Forum (Canada)
ZSI – Zentrum fur Soziale Innovation (Austria)

You can go to ERA-Can’s Information Sessions webpage to register for a specific event.

There are plans to hold sessions elsewhere in Canada,

Plans to have Info Sessions in other parts of Canada are underway.

For further information please contact [email protected]