Tag Archives: Japan

Historic and other buildings get protection from pollution?

This Sept. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new product for protecting buildings from pollution,

The organic pollution decomposing properties of titanium dioxide (TiO2 ) have been known for about half a century. However, practical applications have been few and hard to develop, but now a Greek paint producer claims to have found a solution

A Sept. 11, 2017 Youris (European Research Media Center) press release by Koen Mortelmans which originated the news item expands on the theme,

The photocatalytic properties of anatase, one of the three naturally occurring forms of titanium dioxide, were discovered in Japan in the late 1960s. Under the influence of the UV-radiation in sunlight, it can decompose organic pollutants such as bacteria, fungi and nicotine, and some inorganic materials into carbon dioxide. The catalytic effect is caused by the nanostructure of its crystals.

Applied outdoors, this affordable and widely available material could represent an efficient self-cleaning solution for buildings. This is due to the chemical reaction, which leaves a residue on building façades, a residue then washed away when it rains. Applying it to monuments in urban areas may save our cultural heritage, which is threatened by pollutants.

However, “photocatalytic paints and additives have long been a challenge for the coating industry, because the catalytic action affects the durability of resin binders and oxidizes the paint components,” explains Ioannis Arabatzis, founder and managing director of NanoPhos, based in the Greek town of Lavrio, in one of the countries home to some of the most important monuments of human history. The Greek company is testing a paint called Kirei, inspired by a Japanese word meaning both clean and beautiful.

According to Arabatzis, it’s an innovative product because it combines the self-cleaning action of photocatalytic nanoparticles and the reflective properties of cool wall paints. “When applied on exterior surfaces this paint can reflect more than 94% of the incident InfraRed radiation (IR), saving energy and reducing costs for heating and cooling”, he says. “The reflection values are enhanced by the self-cleaning ability. Compared to conventional paints, they remain unchanged for longer.”

The development of Kirei has been included in the European project BRESAER (BREakthrough Solutions for Adaptable Envelopes in building Refurbishment) which is studying a sustainable and adaptable “envelope system” to renovate buildings. The new paint was tested and subjected to quality controls following ISO standard procedures at the company’s own facilities and in other independent laboratories. “The lab results from testing in artificial, accelerated weathering conditions are reliable,” Arabatzis claims. “There was no sign of discolouration, chalking, cracking or any other paint defect during 2,000 hours of exposure to the simulated environmental conditions. We expect the coating’s service lifetime to be at least ten years.”

Many studies are being conducted to exploit the properties of titanium dioxide. Jan Duyzer, researcher at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Utrecht, focused on depollution: “There is no doubt about the ability of anatase to decrease the levels of nitrogen oxides in the air. But in real situations, there are many differences in pollution, wind, light, and temperature. We were commissioned by the Dutch government specifically to find a way to take nitrogen oxides out of the air on roads and in traffic tunnels. We used anatase coated panels. Our results were disappointing, so the government decided to discontinue the research. Furthermore, we still don’t know what caused the difference between lab and life. Our best current hypothesis is that the total surface of the coated panels is very small compared to the large volumes of polluted air passing over them,” he tells youris.com.

Experimental deployment of titanium dioxide panels on an acoustic wall along a Dutch highway – Courtesy of Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)

“In laboratory conditions the air is blown over the photocatalytic surface with a certain degree of turbulence. This results in the NOx-particles and the photocatalytic material coming into full contact with one another,” says engineer Anne Beeldens, visiting professor at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her experience with photocatalytic TiO2 is also limited to nitrogen dioxide (NOx) pollution.

In real applications, the air stream at the contact surface becomes laminar. This results in a lower velocity of the air at the surface and a lower depollution rate. Additionally, not all the air will be in contact with the photocatalytic surfaces. To ensure a good working application, the photocatalytic material needs to be positioned so that all the air is in contact with the surface and flows over it in a turbulent manner. This would allow as much of the NOx as possible to be in contact with photocatalytic material. In view of this, a good working application could lead to a reduction of 5 to 10 percent of NOx in the air, which is significant compared to other measures to reduce pollutants.”

The depollution capacity of TiO2 is undisputed, but most applications and tests have only involved specific kinds of substances. More research and measurements are required if we are to benefit more from the precious features of this material.

I think the most recent piece here on protecting buildings, i.e., the historic type, from pollution is an Oct. 21, 2014 posting: Heart of stone.

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)

This piece just started growing. It started with robot ethics, moved on to sexbots and news of an upcoming Canadian robotics roadmap. Then, it became a two-part posting with the robotics strategy (roadmap) moving to part two along with robots and popular culture and a further  exploration of robot and AI ethics issues..

What is a robot?

There are lots of robots, some are macroscale and others are at the micro and nanoscales (see my Sept. 22, 2017 posting for the latest nanobot). Here’s a definition from the Robot Wikipedia entry that covers all the scales. (Note: Links have been removed),

A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.[2] Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within. Robots may be constructed to take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.

Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY’s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, medical operating robots, patient assist robots, dog therapy robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, UAV drones such as General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and even microscopic nano robots. [emphasis mine] By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own.

We may think we’ve invented robots but the idea has been around for a very long time (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Many ancient mythologies, and most modern religions include artificial people, such as the mechanical servants built by the Greek god Hephaestus[18] (Vulcan to the Romans), the clay golems of Jewish legend and clay giants of Norse legend, and Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. Since circa 400 BC, myths of Crete include Talos, a man of bronze who guarded the Cretan island of Europa from pirates.

In ancient Greece, the Greek engineer Ctesibius (c. 270 BC) “applied a knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics to produce the first organ and water clocks with moving figures.”[19][20] In the 4th century BC, the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical steam-operated bird he called “The Pigeon”. Hero of Alexandria (10–70 AD), a Greek mathematician and inventor, created numerous user-configurable automated devices, and described machines powered by air pressure, steam and water.[21]

The 11th century Lokapannatti tells of how the Buddha’s relics were protected by mechanical robots (bhuta vahana yanta), from the kingdom of Roma visaya (Rome); until they were disarmed by King Ashoka. [22] [23]

In ancient China, the 3rd century text of the Lie Zi describes an account of humanoid automata, involving a much earlier encounter between Chinese emperor King Mu of Zhou and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an ‘artificer’. Yan Shi proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical ‘handiwork’ made of leather, wood, and artificial organs.[14] There are also accounts of flying automata in the Han Fei Zi and other texts, which attributes the 5th century BC Mohist philosopher Mozi and his contemporary Lu Ban with the invention of artificial wooden birds (ma yuan) that could successfully fly.[17] In 1066, the Chinese inventor Su Song built a water clock in the form of a tower which featured mechanical figurines which chimed the hours.

The beginning of automata is associated with the invention of early Su Song’s astronomical clock tower featured mechanical figurines that chimed the hours.[24][25][26] His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bumped into little levers that operated percussion instruments. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.[26]

In Renaissance Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) sketched plans for a humanoid robot around 1495. Da Vinci’s notebooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, contained detailed drawings of a mechanical knight now known as Leonardo’s robot, able to sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.[28] The design was probably based on anatomical research recorded in his Vitruvian Man. It is not known whether he attempted to build it.

In Japan, complex animal and human automata were built between the 17th to 19th centuries, with many described in the 18th century Karakuri zui (Illustrated Machinery, 1796). One such automaton was the karakuri ningyō, a mechanized puppet.[29] Different variations of the karakuri existed: the Butai karakuri, which were used in theatre, the Zashiki karakuri, which were small and used in homes, and the Dashi karakuri which were used in religious festivals, where the puppets were used to perform reenactments of traditional myths and legends.

The term robot was coined by a Czech writer (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed)

‘Robot’ was first applied as a term for artificial automata in a 1920 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. However, Josef Čapek was named by his brother Karel as the true inventor of the term robot.[6][7] The word ‘robot’ itself was not new, having been in Slavic language as robota (forced laborer), a term which classified those peasants obligated to compulsory service under the feudal system widespread in 19th century Europe (see: Robot Patent).[37][38] Čapek’s fictional story postulated the technological creation of artificial human bodies without souls, and the old theme of the feudal robota class eloquently fit the imagination of a new class of manufactured, artificial workers.

I’m particularly fascinated by how long humans have been imagining and creating robots.

Robot ethics in Vancouver

The Westender, has run what I believe is the first article by a local (Vancouver, Canada) mainstream media outlet on the topic of robots and ethics. Tessa Vikander’s Sept. 14, 2017 article highlights two local researchers, Ajung Moon and Mark Schmidt, and a local social media company’s (Hootsuite), analytics director, Nik Pai. Vikander opens her piece with an ethical dilemma (Note: Links have been removed),

Emma is 68, in poor health and an alcoholic who has been told by her doctor to stop drinking. She lives with a care robot, which helps her with household tasks.

Unable to fix herself a drink, she asks the robot to do it for her. What should the robot do? Would the answer be different if Emma owns the robot, or if she’s borrowing it from the hospital?

This is the type of hypothetical, ethical question that Ajung Moon, director of the Open Roboethics Initiative [ORI], is trying to answer.

According to an ORI study, half of respondents said ownership should make a difference, and half said it shouldn’t. With society so torn on the question, Moon is trying to figure out how engineers should be programming this type of robot.

A Vancouver resident, Moon is dedicating her life to helping those in the decision-chair make the right choice. The question of the care robot is but one ethical dilemma in the quickly advancing world of artificial intelligence.

At the most sensationalist end of the scale, one form of AI that’s recently made headlines is the sex robot, which has a human-like appearance. A report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics says that intimacy with sex robots could lead to greater social isolation [emphasis mine] because they desensitize people to the empathy learned through human interaction and mutually consenting relationships.

I’ll get back to the impact that robots might have on us in part two but first,

Sexbots, could they kill?

For more about sexbots in general, Alessandra Maldonado wrote an Aug. 10, 2017 article for salon.com about them (Note: A link has been removed),

Artificial intelligence has given people the ability to have conversations with machines like never before, such as speaking to Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa or asking Siri for directions on your iPhone. But now, one company has widened the scope of what it means to connect with a technological device and created a whole new breed of A.I. — specifically for sex-bots.

Abyss Creations has been in the business of making hyperrealistic dolls for 20 years, and by the end of 2017, they’ll unveil their newest product, an anatomically correct robotic sex toy. Matt McMullen, the company’s founder and CEO, explains the goal of sex robots is companionship, not only a physical partnership. “Imagine if you were completely lonely and you just wanted someone to talk to, and yes, someone to be intimate with,” he said in a video depicting the sculpting process of the dolls. “What is so wrong with that? It doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Maldonado also embedded this video into her piece,

A friend of mine described it as creepy. Specifically we were discussing why someone would want to programme ‘insecurity’ as a  desirable trait in a sexbot.

Marc Beaulieu’s concept of a desirable trait in a sexbot is one that won’t kill him according to his Sept. 25, 2017 article on Canadian Broadcasting News (CBC) online (Note: Links have been removed),

Harmony has a charming Scottish lilt, albeit a bit staccato and canny. Her eyes dart around the room, her chin dips as her eyebrows raise in coquettish fashion. Her face manages expressions that are impressively lifelike. That face comes in 31 different shapes and 5 skin tones, with or without freckles and it sticks to her cyber-skull with magnets. Just peel it off and switch it out at will. In fact, you can choose Harmony’s eye colour, body shape (in great detail) and change her hair too. Harmony, of course, is a sex bot. A very advanced one. How advanced is she? Well, if you have $12,332 CAD to put towards a talkative new home appliance, REALBOTIX says you could be having a “conversation” and relations with her come January. Happy New Year.

Caveat emptor though: one novel bonus feature you might also get with Harmony is her ability to eventually murder you in your sleep. And not because she wants to.

Dr Nick Patterson, faculty of Science Engineering and Built Technology at Deakin University in Australia is lending his voice to a slew of others warning us to slow down and be cautious as we steadily approach Westworldian levels of human verisimilitude with AI tech. Surprisingly, Patterson didn’t regurgitate the narrative we recognize from the popular sci-fi (increasingly non-fi actually) trope of a dystopian society’s futile resistance to a robocalypse. He doesn’t think Harmony will want to kill you. He thinks she’ll be hacked by a code savvy ne’er-do-well who’ll want to snuff you out instead. …

Embedded in Beaulieu’s article is another video of the same sexbot profiled earlier. Her programmer seems to have learned a thing or two (he no longer inputs any traits as you’re watching),

I guess you could get one for Christmas this year if you’re willing to wait for an early 2018 delivery and aren’t worried about hackers turning your sexbot into a killer. While the killer aspect might seem farfetched, it turns out it’s not the only sexbot/hacker issue.

Sexbots as spies

This Oct. 5, 2017 story by Karl Bode for Techdirt points out that sex toys that are ‘smart’ can easily be hacked for any reason including some mischief (Note: Links have been removed),

One “smart dildo” manufacturer was recently forced to shell out $3.75 million after it was caught collecting, err, “usage habits” of the company’s customers. According to the lawsuit, Standard Innovation’s We-Vibe vibrator collected sensitive data about customer usage, including “selected vibration settings,” the device’s battery life, and even the vibrator’s “temperature.” At no point did the company apparently think it was a good idea to clearly inform users of this data collection.

But security is also lacking elsewhere in the world of internet-connected sex toys. Alex Lomas of Pentest Partners recently took a look at the security in many internet-connected sex toys, and walked away arguably unimpressed. Using a Bluetooth “dongle” and antenna, Lomas drove around Berlin looking for openly accessible sex toys (he calls it “screwdriving,” in a riff off of wardriving). He subsequently found it’s relatively trivial to discover and hijack everything from vibrators to smart butt plugs — thanks to the way Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connectivity works:

“The only protection you have is that BLE devices will generally only pair with one device at a time, but range is limited and if the user walks out of range of their smartphone or the phone battery dies, the adult toy will become available for others to connect to without any authentication. I should say at this point that this is purely passive reconnaissance based on the BLE advertisements the device sends out – attempting to connect to the device and actually control it without consent is not something I or you should do. But now one could drive the Hush’s motor to full speed, and as long as the attacker remains connected over BLE and not the victim, there is no way they can stop the vibrations.”

Does that make you think twice about a sexbot?

Robots and artificial intelligence

Getting back to the Vikander article (Sept. 14, 2017), Moon or Vikander or both seem to have conflated artificial intelligence with robots in this section of the article,

As for the building blocks that have thrust these questions [care robot quandary mentioned earlier] into the spotlight, Moon explains that AI in its basic form is when a machine uses data sets or an algorithm to make a decision.

“It’s essentially a piece of output that either affects your decision, or replaces a particular decision, or supports you in making a decision.” With AI, we are delegating decision-making skills or thinking to a machine, she says.

Although we’re not currently surrounded by walking, talking, independently thinking robots, the use of AI [emphasis mine] in our daily lives has become widespread.

For Vikander, the conflation may have been due to concerns about maintaining her word count and for Moon, it may have been one of convenience or a consequence of how the jargon is evolving with ‘robot’ meaning a machine specifically or, sometimes, a machine with AI or AI only.

To be precise, not all robots have AI and not all AI is found in robots. It’s a distinction that may be more important for people developing robots and/or AI but it also seems to make a difference where funding is concerned. In a March 24, 2017 posting about the 2017 Canadian federal budget I noticed this,

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

This brings me to a recent set of meetings held in Vancouver to devise a Canadian robotics roadmap, which suggests the robotics folks feel they need specific representation and funding.

See: part two for the rest.

Nanomesh for hypoallergenic wearable electronics

It stands to reason that sensors and monitoring devices held against the skin (wearable electronics) for long periods of time could provoke an allergic reaction. Scientists at the University of Tokyo have devised a possible solution according to a July 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A hypoallergenic electronic sensor can be worn on the skin continuously for a week without discomfort, and is so light and thin that users forget they even have it on, says a Japanese group of scientists. The elastic electrode constructed of breathable nanoscale meshes holds promise for the development of noninvasive e-skin devices that can monitor a person’s health continuously over a long period.

Here’s an image illustrating the hypoallergenic electronics,

Caption: The electric current from a flexible battery placed near the knuckle flows through the conductor and powers the LED just below the fingernail. Credit: 2017 Someya Laboratory.

A University of Tokyo press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Wearable electronics that monitor heart rate and other vital health signals have made headway in recent years, with next-generation gadgets employing lightweight, highly elastic materials attached directly onto the skin for more sensitive, precise measurements. However, although the ultrathin films and rubber sheets used in these devices adhere and conform well to the skin, their lack of breathability is deemed unsafe for long-term use: dermatological tests show the fine, stretchable materials prevent sweating and block airflow around the skin, causing irritation and inflammation, which ultimately could lead to lasting physiological and psychological effects.

“We learned that devices that can be worn for a week or longer for continuous monitoring were needed for practical use in medical and sports applications,” says Professor Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering whose research group had previously developed an on-skin patch that measured oxygen in blood.

In the current research, the group developed an electrode constructed from nanoscale meshes containing a water-soluble polymer, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), and a gold layer–materials considered safe and biologically compatible with the body. The device can be applied by spraying a tiny amount of water, which dissolves the PVA nanofibers and allows it to stick easily to the skin–it conformed seamlessly to curvilinear surfaces of human skin, such as sweat pores and the ridges of an index finger’s fingerprint pattern.

The researchers next conducted a skin patch test on 20 subjects and detected no inflammation on the participants’ skin after they had worn the device for a week. The group also evaluated the permeability, with water vapor, of the nanomesh conductor–along with those of other substrates like ultrathin plastic foil and a thin rubber sheet–and found that its porous mesh structure exhibited superior gas permeability compared to that of the other materials.

Furthermore, the scientists proved the device’s mechanical durability through repeated bending and stretching, exceeding 10,000 times, of a conductor attached on the forefinger; they also established its reliability as an electrode for electromyogram recordings when its readings of the electrical activity of muscles were comparable to those obtained through conventional gel electrodes.

“It will become possible to monitor patients’ vital signs without causing any stress or discomfort,” says Someya about the future implications of the team’s research. In addition to nursing care and medical applications, the new device promises to enable continuous, precise monitoring of athletes’ physiological signals and bodily motion without impeding their training or performance.

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

Inflammation-free, gas-permeable, lightweight, stretchable on-skin electronics with nanomeshes by Akihito Miyamoto, Sungwon Lee, Nawalage Florence Cooray, Sunghoon Lee, Mami Mori, Naoji Matsuhisa, Hanbit Jin, Leona Yoda, Tomoyuki Yokota, Akira Itoh, Masaki Sekino, Hiroshi Kawasaki, Tamotsu Ebihara, Masayuki Amagai, & Takao Someya. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.125 Published online 17 July 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Stellar’s jay gives structural colo(u)r a new look

The structural colo(u)r stories I’ve posted previously identify nanostructures as the reason for why certain animals and plants display a particular set of optical properties, colours that can’t be obtained by pigment or dye. However, the Stellar’s jay structural colour story is a little different.

Caption: Bio-inspired bright structurally colored colloidal amorphous array enhanced by controlling thickness and black background. ©Yukikazu Takeoka

From a May 8, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A Nagoya University-led [Japan] research team mimics the rich color of bird plumage and demonstrates new ways to control how light interacts with materials.

Bright colors in the natural world often result from tiny structures in feathers or wings that change the way light behaves when it’s reflected. So-called “structural color” is responsible for the vivid hues of birds and butterflies. Artificially harnessing this effect could allow us to engineer new materials for applications such as solar cells and chameleon-like adaptive camouflage.

Inspired by the deep blue coloration of a native North American bird, Stellar’s jay, a team at Nagoya University reproduced the color in their lab, giving rise to a new type of artificial pigment. This development was reported in Advanced Materials.

“The Stellar’s jay’s feathers provide an excellent example of angle-independent structural color,” says last author Yukikazu Takeoka, “This color is enhanced by dark materials, which in this case can be attributed to black melanin particles in the feathers.

A May 8, 2017 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of what makes the structural colour of a Stellar’s jay feather different,

In most cases, structural colors appear to change when viewed from different perspectives. For example, imagine the way that the colors on the underside of a CD appear to shift when the disc is viewed from a different angle. The difference in Stellar’s jay’s blue is that the structures, which interfere with light, sit on top of black particles that can absorb a part of this light. This means that at all angles, however you look at it, the color of the Stellar’s Jay does not change.

The team used a “layer-by-layer” approach to build up films of fine particles that recreated the microscopic sponge-like texture and black backing particles of the bird’s feathers.

To mimic the feathers, the researchers covered microscopic black core particles with layers of even smaller transparent particles, to make raspberry-like particles. The size of the core and the thickness of the layers controlled the color and saturation of the resulting pigments. Importantly, the color of these particles did not change with viewing angle.

“Our work represents a much more efficient way to design artificially produced angle-independent structural colors,” Takeoka adds. “We still have much to learn from biological systems, but if we can understand and successfully apply these phenomena, a whole range of new metamaterials will be accessible for all kinds of advanced applications where interactions with light are important.”

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

Bio-Inspired Bright Structurally Colored Colloidal Amorphous Array Enhanced by Controlling Thickness and Black Background by Masanori Iwata, Midori Teshima, Takahiro Seki, Shinya Yoshioka, and Yukikazu Takeoka. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201605050 Version of Record online: 26 APR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ordinarily, I’d expect to see the term ‘nano’ somewhere in the press release or in the abstract but that’s not the case here. The best I could find was a reference to ‘submicrometer-sized .. particles” in the abstract. I suppose that could refer to the nanoscale but given that a Japanese researcher (Norio Taniguchi in 1974) coined the phrase ‘nanotechnology’ to describe research at that scale it seems unlikely that Japanese researchers some forty years later wouldn’t use that term when appropriate.

Controlling the nanostructure of inorganic materials with tumor suppressor proteins

A May 3, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research from Japan on using tumor suppressor proteins to control nanostructures,

A new method combining tumor suppressor protein p53 and biomineralization peptide BMPep successfully created hexagonal silver nanoplates, suggesting an efficient strategy for controlling the nanostructure of inorganic materials.

Precise control of nanostructures is a key factor to form functional nanomaterials. Biomimetic approaches are considered effective for fabricating nanomaterials because biomolecules are able to bind with specific targets, self-assemble, and build complex structures. Oligomerization, or the assembly of biomolecules, is a crucial aspect of natural materials that form higher-ordered structures.

A May 3,2017 Hokkaido University research press release, which originated the news item, delves into the details,

Some peptides are known to bind with a specific inorganic substance, such as silver, and enhance its crystal formation. This phenomenon, called peptide-mediated biomineralization, could be used as a biomimetic approach to create functional inorganic structures. Controlling the spatial orientation of the peptides could yield complex inorganic structures, but this has long been a great challenge.

A team of researchers led by Hokkaido University Professor Kazuyasu Sakaguchi has succeeded in controlling the oligomerization of the silver biomineralization peptide (BMPep) which led to the creation of hexagonal silver nanoplates.

The team utilized the well-known tumor suppressor protein p53 which has been known to form tetramers through its tetramerization domain (p53Tet). “The unique symmetry of the p53 tetramer is an attractive scaffold to be used in controlling the overall oligomerization state of the silver BMPep such as its spatial orientation, geometry, and valency,” says Sakaguchi.

In the experiments, the team successfully created silver BMPep fused with p53Tet. This resulted in the formation of BMPep tetramers which yielded hexagonal silver nanoplates. They also found that the BMPep tetramers have enhanced specificity to the structured silver surface, apparently regulating the direction of crystal growth to form hexagonal nanoplates. Furthermore, the tetrameric peptide acted as a catalyst, controlling the silver’s crystal growth without consuming the peptide.

“Our novel method can be applied to other biomineralization peptides and oligomerization proteins, thus providing an efficient and versatile strategy for controlling nanostructures of various inorganic materials. The production of tailor-made nanomaterials is now more feasible,” Sakaguchi commented.

monomeric and tetrameric biomineralization peptides

(Left panels) Schematic illustrations of monomeric and tetrameric biomineralization peptides fused with p53Tet and electron microscopy images of silver nanostructures formed by the biomineralization peptides. Scale bar = 100 nm. (Right) The proposed model in which tetrameric biomineralization peptides regulate the direction of crystal growth and therefore its nanostructure.

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

Oligomerization enhances the binding affinity of a silver biomineralization peptide and catalyzes nanostructure formation by Tatsuya Sakaguchi, Jose Isagani B. Janairo, Mathieu Lussier-Price, Junya Wada, James G. Omichinski, & Kazuyasu Sakaguchi. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 1400 (2017)  doi:10.1038/s41598-017-01442-8 Published online: 03 May 2017

This paper is open access.

Off to the Nanocar Race: April 28, 2017

The Nanocar Race (which at one point was the NanoCar Race) took place on April 28 -29, 2017 in Toulouse, France. Presumably the fall 2016 race did not take place (as I had reported in my May 26, 2016 posting). A March 23, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily gave the latest news about the race,

Nanocars will compete for the first time ever during an international molecule-car race on April 28-29, 2017 in Toulouse (south-western France). The vehicles, which consist of a few hundred atoms, will be powered by minute electrical pulses during the 36 hours of the race, in which they must navigate a racecourse made of gold atoms, and measuring a maximum of a 100 nanometers in length. They will square off beneath the four tips of a unique microscope located at the CNRS’s Centre d’élaboration de matériaux et d’études structurales (CEMES) in Toulouse. The race, which was organized by the CNRS, is first and foremost a scientific and technological challenge, and will be broadcast live on the YouTube Nanocar Race channel. Beyond the competition, the overarching objective is to advance research in the observation and control of molecule-machines.

More than just a competition, the Nanocar Race is an international scientific experiment that will be conducted in real time, with the aim of testing the performance of molecule-machines and the scientific instruments used to control them. The years ahead will probably see the use of such molecular machinery — activated individually or in synchronized fashion — in the manufacture of common machines: atom-by-atom construction of electronic circuits, atom-by-atom deconstruction of industrial waste, capture of energy…The Nanocar Race is therefore a unique opportunity for researchers to implement cutting-edge techniques for the simultaneous observation and independent maneuvering of such nano-machines.

The experiment began in 2013 as part of an overview of nano-machine research for a scientific journal, when the idea for a car race took shape in the minds of CNRS senior researcher Christian Joachim (now the director of the race) and Gwénaël Rapenne, a Professor of chemistry at Université Toulouse III — Paul Sabatier. …

An April 19, 2017 article by Davide Castelvecchi for Nature (magazine) provided more detail about the race (Note: Links have been removed),

The term nanocar is actually a misnomer, because the molecules involved in this race have no motors. (Future races may incorporate them, Joachim says.) And it is not clear whether the molecules will even roll along like wagons: a few designs might, but many lack axles and wheels. Drivers will use electrons from the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to help jolt their molecules along, typically by just 0.3 nano-metres each time — making 100 nanometres “a pretty long distance”, notes physicist Leonhard Grill of the University of Graz, Austria, who co-leads a US–Austrian team in the race.

Contestants are not allowed to directly push on their molecules with the STM tip. Some teams have designed their molecules so that the incoming electrons raise their energy states, causing vibrations or changes to molecular structures that jolt the racers along. Others expect electrostatic repulsion from the electrons to be the main driving force. Waka Nakanishi, an organic chemist at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Japan, has designed a nanocar with two sets of ‘flaps’ that are intended to flutter like butterfly wings when the molecule is energized by the STM tip (see ‘Molecular race’). Part of the reason for entering the race, she says, was to gain access to the Toulouse lab’s state-of-the-art STM to better understand the molecule’s behaviour.

Eric Masson, a chemist at Ohio University in Athens, hopes to find out whether the ‘wheels’ (pumpkin-shaped groups of atoms) of his team’s car will roll on the surface or simply slide. “We want to better understand the nature of the interaction between the molecule and the surface,” says Masson..

Adapted from www.nanocar-race.cnrs.fr

Simply watching the race progress is half the battle. After each attempted jolt, teams will take three minutes to scan their race track with the STM, and after each hour they will produce a short animation that will immediately be posted online. That way, says Joachim, everyone will be able to see the race streamed almost live.

Nanoscale races

The Toulouse laboratory has an unusual STM with four scanning tips — most have only one — that will allow four teams to race at the same time, each on a different section of the gold surface. Six teams will compete this week to qualify for one of the four spots; the final race will begin on 28 April at 11 a.m. local time. The competitors will face many obstacles during the contest. Individual molecules in the race will often be lost or get stuck, and the trickiest part may be to negotiate the two turns in the track, Joachim says. He thinks the racers may require multiple restarts to cover the distance.

For anyone who wants more information, go to the Nanocar Race website. There is also a highlights video,

Published on Apr 29, 2017

The best moments of the first-ever international race of molecule- cars.

An easier way to make highly ordered porous films for commercial sensors

An April 3, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes Japanese research into a new technique for producing MOF’s (metallic organic frameworks),

Osaka-based researchers developed a new method to create films of porous metal–organic frameworks fully aligned on inorganic substrates. The method is simple, requiring only that the substrate and an organic linker are mixed under mild conditions, and fast, producing perfectly aligned films within minutes. The films oriented fluorescent dye molecules within their pores, and the fluorescence response of these dyes was switched on or off simply by rotating the material in polarized light.

An April 3, 2017 Osaka University press release on the Alpha Gallileo news service, which originated the news item, explains more about MOFs and gives some details about the new technique,,

Metal–organic frameworks, or MOFs, are highly ordered crystalline structures made of metal ion nodes and organic molecule linkers. Many MOFs can take up and store gases, such as carbon dioxide or hydrogen, thanks to their porous, sponge-like structures.

MOFs are also potential chemical sensors. They can be designed to change color or display another optical signal if a particular molecule is taken up into the framework. However, most studies on MOFs are performed on tiny single crystals, which is not practical for the commercial development of these materials.

Chemists have now come a step closer to making commercially viable sensors that contain highly ordered MOFs, thanks to the collaboration of an international team of researchers at Osaka Prefecture University, Osaka University and Graz University of Technology. The method will allow researchers to fabricate large tailor-made MOF films on any substrate of any size, which will vastly improve their prospects for commercial development.

In a study recently published in Nature Materials and highlighted on the cover and in the ‘News and Views’ section of the journal, the Osaka-based researchers report a one-step method to prepare thin MOF films directly on inorganic copper hydroxide substrates. Using this method, the researchers produced large MOF films with areas of more than 1 cm2 that were, for the first time, fully aligned with the crystal lattice of the underlying substrate.

Noting that microcrystals of copper hydroxide can be converted into MOFs by adding organic linker molecules under mild conditions, the researchers used the same strategy to create a thin MOF layer on larger copper hydroxide substrates. They carefully chose the carboxylic acid-based linker molecule 1,4-dibenzenedicarboxylic acid because it fit exactly to the spacing between the copper atoms on the substrate surface.

A MOF film began to grow on the copper hydroxide substrates within minutes of mixing it with the linker molecule, making this technique much easier and faster than previous step-wise approaches to build up MOF films. Using microscopy and X-ray diffraction techniques, the researchers found that the film was precisely oriented along the copper hydroxide lattice.

To demonstrate the unique optical behavior of their films, the researchers filled the MOF’s ordered pores with fluorescent molecules, which fluoresce when light is shone on them in a particular direction. When they shone polarized light on the ordered material, the researchers found that they could easily switch the fluorescence response on or off simply by rotating the material.

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

Centimetre-scale micropore alignment in oriented polycrystalline metal–organic framework films via heteroepitaxial growth by Paolo Falcaro, Kenji Okada, Takaaki Hara, Ken Ikigaki, Yasuaki Tokudome, Aaron W. Thornton, Anita J. Hill, Timothy Williams, Christian Doonan, & Masahide Takahashi. Nature Materials 16, 342–348  (2017) doi:10.1038/nmat4815 Published online 05 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

A new platform for culturing stem cells: a Multiplexed Artificial Cellular Microenvironment array

Japanese scientists have developed a more precise method for culturing stem cells according to a March 14, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of researchers in Japan has developed a new platform for culturing human pluripotent stem cells that provides far more control of culture conditions than previous tools by using micro and nanotechnologies.

The Multiplexed Artificial Cellular Microenvironment (MACME) array places nanofibres, mimicking cellular matrices, into fluid-filled micro-chambers of precise sizes, which mimic extracellular environments.

Caption: The Multiplexed Artificial Cellular Microenvironment (MACME) array, consisted with a microfluidic structure and nanofibre array for mimicking cellular microenvironments. Credit: Kyoto University iCeMS

A March 17, 2017 Kyoto University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the research in more detail,

Human pluripotent stems cells (hPSCs) hold great promise for tissue engineering, regenerative medicine and cell-based therapies because they can become any type of cell. The environment surrounding the cells plays a major role in determining what tissues they become, if they replicate into more cells, or die. However, understanding these interactions has been difficult because researchers have lacked tools that work on the appropriate scale.

Often, stem cells are cultured in a cell culture medium in small petri dishes. While factors such as medium pH levels and nutrients can be controlled, the artificial set up is on the macroscopic scale and does not allow for precise control of the physical environment surrounding the cells.

The MACME array miniaturizes this set up, culturing stem cells in rows of micro-chambers of cell culture medium. It also takes it a step further by placing nanofibers in these chambers to mimic the structures found around cells.

Led by Ken-ichiro Kamei of Kyoto University’s Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS), the team tested a variety of nanofiber materials and densities, micro-chamber heights and initial stem cell densities to determine the best combination that encourages human pluripotent stem cells to replicate.

They stained the cells with several fluorescent markers and used a microscope to see if the cells died, replicated or differentiated into tissues.

Their analysis revealed that gelatin nanofibers and medium-sized chambers that create medium seed cell density provided the best environment for the stem cells to continue to multiply. The quantity and density of neighboring cells strongly influences cell survival.

The array is an “optimal and powerful approach for understanding how environmental cues regulate cellular functions,” the researchers conclude in a recently published paper in the journal Small.

This array appears to be the first time multiple kinds of extracellular environments can be mounted onto a single device, making it much easier to compare how different environments influence cells.

The MACME array could substantially reduce experiment costs compared to conventional tools, in part because it is low volume and requires less cell culture medium. The array does not require any special equipment and is compatible with both commonly used laboratory pipettes and automated pipette systems for performing high-throughput screening.

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

Microfluidic-Nanofiber Hybrid Array for Screening of Cellular Microenvironments by Ken-ichiro Kamei, Yasumasa Mashimo, Momoko Yoshioka, Yumie Tokunaga, Christopher Fockenberg, Shiho Terada, Yoshie Koyama, Minako Nakajima, Teiko Shibata-Seki, Li Liu, Toshihiro Akaike, Eiry Kobatake, Siew-Eng How, Motonari Uesugi, and Yong Chen. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201603104 Version of Record online: 8 MAR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanozymes as an antidote for pesticides

Should you have concerns about exposure to pesticides or chemical warfare agents (timely given events in Syria as per this April 4, 2017 news item on CBC [Canadian Broadcasting News Corporation] online) , scientists at the Lomonosov Moscow State University have developed a possible antidote according to a March 8,, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Members of the Faculty of Chemistry of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have developed novel nanosized agents that could be used as efficient protective and antidote modalities against the impact of neurotoxic organophosphorus compounds such as pesticides and chemical warfare agents. …

A March 7, 2017 Lomonosov Moscow State University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in detail,

A group of scientists from the Faculty of Chemistry under the leadership of Prof. Alexander Kabanov has focused their research supported by a “megagrant” on the nanoparticle-based delivery to an organism of enzymes, capable of destroying toxic organophosphorous compounds. Development of first nanosized drugs has started more than 30 years ago and already in the 90-s first nanomedicines for cancer treatment entered the market. First such medicines were based on liposomes – spherical vesicles made of lipid bilayers. The new technology, developed by Kabanov and his colleagues, uses an enzyme, synthesized at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, encapsulated into a biodegradable polymer coat, based on an amino acid (glutamic acid).

Alexander Kabanov, Doctor of Chemistry, Professor at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy of the University of North Carolina (USA) and the Faculty of Chemistry, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University, one of the authors of the article explains: “At the end of the 80-s my team (at that time in Moscow) and independently Japanese colleagues led by Prof. Kazunori Kataoka from Tokyo began using polymer micelles for small molecules delivery. Soon the nanomedicine field has “exploded”. Currently hundreds of laboratories across the globe work in this area, applying a wide variety of approaches to creation of such nanosized agents. A medicine on the basis of polymeric micelles, developed by a Korean company Samyang Biopharm, was approved for human use in 2006.”

Professor Kabanov’s team after moving to the USA in 1994 focused on development of polymer micelles, which could include biopolymers due to electrostatic interactions. Initially chemists were interested in usage of micelles for RNA and DNA delivery but later on scientists started actively utilizing this approach for delivery of proteins and, namely, enzymes, to the brain and other organs.

Alexander Kabanov says: “At the time I worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha (USA) and by 2010 we had a lot of results in this area. That’s why when my colleague from the Chemical Enzymology Department of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Prof. Natalia Klyachko offered me to apply for a megagrant the research theme of the new laboratory was quite obvious. Specifically, to use our delivery approach, which we’ve called a “nanozyme”, for “improvement” of enzymes, developed by colleagues at the Lomonosov Moscow State University for its further medical application.”

Scientists together with the group of enzymologists from the Lomonosov Moscow State University under the leadership of Elena Efremenko, Doctor of Biological Sciences, have chosen organophosphorus hydrolase as a one of the delivered enzymes. Organophosphorus hydrolase is capable of degrading toxic pesticides and chemical warfare agents with very high rate. However, it has disadvantages: because of its bacterial origin, an immune response is observed as a result of its delivery to an organism of mammals. Moreover, organophosphorus hydrolase is quickly removed from the body. Chemists have solved this problem with the help of a “self-assembly” approach: as a result of inclusion of organophosphorus hydrolase enzyme in a nanozyme particles the immune response becomes weaker and, on the contrary, both the storage stability of the enzyme and its lifetime after delivery to an organism considerably increase. Rat experiments have proved that such nanozyme efficiently protects organisms against lethal doses of highly toxic pesticides and even chemical warfare agents, such as VX nerve gas.

Alexander Kabanov summarizes: “The simplicity of our approach is very important. You could get an organophosphorus hydrolase nanozyme by simple mixing of aqueous solutions of anenzyme and safe biocompatible polymer. This nanozyme is self-assembled due to electrostatic interaction between a protein (enzyme) and polymer”.

According to the scientist’s words the simplicity and technological effectiveness of the approach along with the obtained promising results of animal experiments bring hope that this modality could be successful and in clinical use.

Members of the Faculty of Chemistry of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, along with scientists from the 27th Central Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Eshelman School of Pharmacy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNC) have taken part in the Project.

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

A simple and highly effective catalytic nanozyme scavenger for organophosphorus neurotoxins by Elena N. Efremenko, Ilya V. Lyagin, Natalia L. Klyachko, Tatiana Bronich, Natalia V. Zavyalova, Yuhang Jiang, Alexander V. Kabanov. Journal of Controlled Release Volume 247, 10 February 2017, Pages 175–181  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jconrel.2016.12.037

This paper is behind a paywall.

Matrix of gelatin nanofibres for culturing large quantities of human stem cells

A Feb. 14, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes work that may have a big influence on stem cell production,

A new nanofiber-on-microfiber matrix could help produce more and better quality stem cells for disease treatment and regenerative therapies.

A matrix made of gelatin nanofibers on a synthetic polymer microfiber mesh may provide a better way to culture large quantities of healthy human stem cells.

Developed by a team of researchers led by Ken-ichiro Kamei of Kyoto University’s Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (iCeMS), the ‘fiber-on-fiber’ (FF) matrix improves on currently available stem cell culturing techniques.

A Feb. 14/15, 2017 Kyoto University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why scientists are trying to find a new way to culture stem cells,

Researchers have been developing 3D culturing systems to allow human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) to grow and interact with their surroundings in all three dimensions, as they would inside the human body, rather than in two dimensions, like they do in a petri dish.

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into any type of adult cell and have huge potential for tissue regeneration therapies, treating diseases, and for research purposes.

Most currently reported 3D culturing systems have limitations, and result in low quantities and quality of cultured cells.

Kamei and his colleagues fabricated gelatin nanofibers onto a microfiber sheet made of synthetic, biodegradable polyglycolic acid. Human embryonic stem cells were then seeded onto the matrix in a cell culture medium.

The FF matrix allowed easy exchange of growth factors and supplements from the culture medium to the cells. Also, the stem cells adhered well to the matrix, resulting in robust cell growth: after four days of culture, more than 95% of the cells grew and formed colonies.

The team also scaled up the process by designing a gas-permeable cell culture bag in which multiple cell-loaded, folded FF matrices were placed. The system was designed so that minimal changes were needed to the internal environment, reducing the amount of stress placed on the cells. This newly developed system yielded a larger number of cells compared to conventional 2D and 3D culture methods.

“Our method offers an efficient way to expand hPSCs of high quality within a shorter term,” write the researchers in their study published in the journal Biomaterials. Also, because the use of the FF matrix is not limited to a specific type of culture container, it allows for scaling up production without loss of cell functions. “Additionally, as nanofiber matrices are advantageous for culturing other adherent cells, including hPSC-derived differentiated cells, FF matrix might be applicable to the large-scale production of differentiated functional cells for various applications,” the researchers conclude.

Human stem cells that grew on the ‘fiber-on-fiber’ culturing system

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

Nano-on-micro fibrous extracellular matrices for scalable expansion of human ES/iPS cells by Li Liu, Ken-ichiro Kamei, Momoko Yoshioka, Minako Nakajima, Junjun Li, Nanae Fujimoto, Shiho Terada, Yumie Tokunaga, Yoshie Koyama, Hideki Sato, Kouichi Hasegawa. Biomaterials Volume 124, April 2017, Pages 47–54  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.01.039

This paper is behind a paywall.