Tag Archives: Northwestern University

The roles mathematics and light play in cellular communication

These are two entirely different types of research but taken together they help build a picture about how the cells in our bodies function.

Cells and light

An April 30, 2018 news item on phys.org describes work on controlling biology with light,

Over the past five years, University of Chicago chemist Bozhi Tian has been figuring out how to control biology with light.

A longterm science goal is devices to serve as the interface between researcher and body—both as a way to understand how cells talk among each other and within themselves, and eventually, as a treatment for brain or nervous system disorders [emphasis mine] by stimulating nerves to fire or limbs to move. Silicon—a versatile, biocompatible material used in both solar panels and surgical implants—is a natural choice.

In a paper published April 30 in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Tian’s team laid out a system of design principles for working with silicon to control biology at three levels—from individual organelles inside cells to tissues to entire limbs. The group has demonstrated each in cells or mice models, including the first time anyone has used light to control behavior without genetic modification.

“We want this to serve as a map, where you can decide which problem you would like to study and immediately find the right material and method to address it,” said Tian, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Researchers built this thin layer of silicon lace to modulate neural signals when activated by light. Courtesy of Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian

An April 30, 2018 University of Chicago news release by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

The scientists’ map lays out best methods to craft silicon devices depending on both the intended task and the scale—ranging from inside a cell to a whole animal.

For example, to affect individual brain cells, silicon can be crafted to respond to light by emitting a tiny ionic current, which encourages neurons to fire. But in order to stimulate limbs, scientists need a system whose signals can travel farther and are stronger—such as a gold-coated silicon material in which light triggers a chemical reaction.

The mechanical properties of the implant are important, too. Say researchers would like to work with a larger piece of the brain, like the cortex, to control motor movement. The brain is a soft, squishy substance, so they’ll need a material that’s similarly soft and flexible, but can bind tightly against the surface. They’d want thin and lacy silicon, say the design principles.

The team favors this method because it doesn’t require genetic modification or a power supply wired in, since the silicon can be fashioned into what are essentially tiny solar panels. (Many other forms of monitoring or interacting with the brain need to have a power supply, and keeping a wire running into a patient is an infection risk.)

They tested the concept in mice and found they could stimulate limb movements by shining light on brain implants. Previous research tested the concept in neurons.

“We don’t have answers to a number of intrinsic questions about biology, such as whether individual mitochondria communicate remotely through bioelectric signals,” said Yuanwen Jiang, the first author on the paper, then a graduate student at UChicago and now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. “This set of tools could address such questions as well as pointing the way to potential solutions for nervous system disorders.”

Other UChicago authors were Assoc. Profs. Chin-Tu Chen and Chien-Min Kao, Asst. Prof Xiaoyang, postdoctoral researchers Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Xiang Gao, Jiping Yue, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, Bing Liu and Yin Fang, graduate students Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, and Edward Sudzilovsky, and undergraduate student George Freyermuth.

Other researchers on the paper hailed from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The researchers have also made this video illustrating their work,

via Gfycat Tiny silicon nanowires (in blue), activated by light, trigger activity in neurons. (Courtesy Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian)

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

Rational design of silicon structures for optically controlled multiscale biointerfaces by Yuanwen Jiang, Xiaojian Li, Bing Liu, Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Fengyuan Shi, Xiang Gao, Edward Sudzilovsky, Ramya Parameswaran, Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, Jiping Yue, KuangHua Guo, Yin Fang, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, George Freyermuth, Raymond C. S. Wong, Chien-Min Kao, Chin-Tu Chen, Alan W. Nicholls, Xiaoyang Wu, Gordon M. G. Shepherd, & Bozhi Tian. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2018) doi:10.1038/s41551-018-0230-1 Published: 30 April 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mathematics and how living cells ‘think’

This May 2, 2018 Queensland University of Technology (QUT; Australia) press release is also on EurekAlert,

How does the ‘brain’ of a living cell work, allowing an organism to function and thrive in changing and unfavourable environments?

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Dr Robyn Araujo has developed new mathematics to solve a longstanding mystery of how the incredibly complex biological networks within cells can adapt and reset themselves after exposure to a new stimulus.

Her findings, published in Nature Communications, provide a new level of understanding of cellular communication and cellular ‘cognition’, and have potential application in a variety of areas, including new targeted cancer therapies and drug resistance.

Dr Araujo, a lecturer in applied and computational mathematics in QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, said that while we know a great deal about gene sequences, we have had extremely limited insight into how the proteins encoded by these genes work together as an integrated network – until now.

“Proteins form unfathomably complex networks of chemical reactions that allow cells to communicate and to ‘think’ – essentially giving the cell a ‘cognitive’ ability, or a ‘brain’,” she said. “It has been a longstanding mystery in science how this cellular ‘brain’ works.

“We could never hope to measure the full complexity of cellular networks – the networks are simply too large and interconnected and their component proteins are too variable.

“But mathematics provides a tool that allows us to explore how these networks might be constructed in order to perform as they do.

“My research is giving us a new way to look at unravelling network complexity in nature.”

Dr Araujo’s work has focused on the widely observed function called perfect adaptation – the ability of a network to reset itself after it has been exposed to a new stimulus.

“An example of perfect adaptation is our sense of smell,” she said. “When exposed to an odour we will smell it initially but after a while it seems to us that the odour has disappeared, even though the chemical, the stimulus, is still present.

“Our sense of smell has exhibited perfect adaptation. This process allows it to remain sensitive to further changes in our environment so that we can detect both very feint and very strong odours.

“This kind of adaptation is essentially what takes place inside living cells all the time. Cells are exposed to signals – hormones, growth factors, and other chemicals – and their proteins will tend to react and respond initially, but then settle down to pre-stimulus levels of activity even though the stimulus is still there.

“I studied all the possible ways a network can be constructed and found that to be capable of this perfect adaptation in a robust way, a network has to satisfy an extremely rigid set of mathematical principles. There are a surprisingly limited number of ways a network could be constructed to perform perfect adaptation.

“Essentially we are now discovering the needles in the haystack in terms of the network constructions that can actually exist in nature.

“It is early days, but this opens the door to being able to modify cell networks with drugs and do it in a more robust and rigorous way. Cancer therapy is a potential area of application, and insights into how proteins work at a cellular level is key.”

Dr Araujo said the published study was the result of more than “five years of relentless effort to solve this incredibly deep mathematical problem”. She began research in this field while at George Mason University in Virginia in the US.

Her mentor at the university’s College of Science and co-author of the Nature Communications paper, Professor Lance Liotta, said the “amazing and surprising” outcome of Dr Araujo’s study is applicable to any living organism or biochemical network of any size.

“The study is a wonderful example of how mathematics can have a profound impact on society and Dr Araujo’s results will provide a set of completely fresh approaches for scientists in a variety of fields,” he said.

“For example, in strategies to overcome cancer drug resistance – why do tumours frequently adapt and grow back after treatment?

“It could also help understanding of how our hormone system, our immune defences, perfectly adapt to frequent challenges and keep us well, and it has future implications for creating new hypotheses about drug addiction and brain neuron signalling adaptation.”

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

The topological requirements for robust perfect adaptation in networks of any size by Robyn P. Araujo & Lance A. Liotta. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1757 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04151-6 Published: 01 May 2018

This paper is open access.

Better hair dyes with graphene and a cautionary note

Beauty products aren’t usually the first applications that come to mind when discussing graphene or any other research and development (R&D) as I learned when teaching a course a few years ago. But research and development  in that field are imperative as every company is scrambling for a short-lived competitive advantage for a truly new products or a perceived competitive advantage in a field where a lot of products are pretty much the same.

This March 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes graphene as a potential hair dye,

Graphene, a naturally black material, could provide a new strategy for dyeing hair in difficult-to-create dark shades. And because it’s a conductive material, hair dyed with graphene might also be less prone to staticky flyaways. Now, researchers have put it to the test. In an article published March 15 [2018] in the journal Chem, they used sheets of graphene to make a dye that adheres to the surface of hair, forming a coating that is resistant to at least 30 washes without the need for chemicals that open up and damage the hair cuticle.

Courtesy: Northwestern University

A March 15, 2018 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, fills in more the of the story,

Most permanent hair dyes used today are harmful to hair. “Your hair is covered in these cuticle scales like the scales of a fish, and people have to use ammonia or organic amines to lift the scales and allow dye molecules to get inside a lot quicker,” says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern University. But lifting the cuticle makes the strands of the hair more brittle, and the damage is only exacerbated by the hydrogen peroxide that is used to trigger the reaction that synthesizes the dye once the pigment molecules are inside the hair.

These problems could theoretically be solved by a dye that coats rather than penetrates the hair. “However, the obvious problem of coating-based dyes is that they tend to wash out very easily,” says Huang. But when he and his team coated samples of human hair with a solution of graphene sheets, they were able to turn platinum blond hair black and keep it that way for at least 30 washes–the number necessary for a hair dye to be considered “permanent.”

This effectiveness has to do with the structure of graphene: it’s made of up thin, flexible sheets that can adapt to uneven surfaces. “Imagine a piece of paper. A business card is very rigid and doesn’t flex by itself. But if you take a much bigger sheet of newspaper–if you still can find one nowadays–it can bend easily. This makes graphene sheets a good coating material,” he says. And once the coating is formed, the graphene sheets are particularly good at keeping out water during washes, which keeps the water from eroding both the graphene and the polymer binder that the team also added to the dye solution to help with adhesion.

The graphene dye has additional advantages. Each coated hair is like a little wire in that it is able to conduct heat and electricity. This means that it’s easy for graphene-dyed hair to dissipate static electricity, eliminating the problem of flyaways on dry winter days. The graphene flakes are large enough that they won’t absorb through the skin like other dye molecules. And although graphene is typically black, its precursor, graphene oxide, is light brown. But the color of graphene oxide can be gradually darkened with heat or chemical reactions, meaning that this dye could be used for a variety of shades or even for an ombre effect.

What Huang thinks is particularly striking about this application of graphene is that it takes advantage of graphene’s most obvious property. “In many potential graphene applications, the black color of graphene is somewhat undesirable and something of a sore point,” he says. Here, though, it’s applied to a field where creating dark colors has historically been a problem.

The graphene used for hair dye also doesn’t need to be of the same high quality as it does for other applications. “For hair dye, the most important property is graphene being black. You can have graphene that is too lousy for higher-end electronic applications, but it’s perfectly okay for this. So I think this application can leverage the current graphene product as is, and that’s why I think that this could happen a lot sooner than many of the other proposed applications,” he says.

Making it happen is his next goal. He hopes to get funding to continue the research and make these dyes a reality for the people whose lives they would improve. “This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn’t sound very big and noble when we started working on it,” he says. “But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it’s one that graphene could really help to solve.”

Northwestern University’s Amanda Morris also wrote a March 15, 2018 news release (it’s repetitive but there are some interesting new details; Note: Links have been removed),

It’s an issue that has plagued the beauty industry for more than a century: Dying hair too often can irreparably damage your silky strands.

Now a Northwestern University team has used materials science to solve this age-old problem. The team has leveraged super material graphene to develop a new hair dye that is less harmful [emphasis mine], non-damaging and lasts through many washes without fading. Graphene’s conductive nature also opens up new opportunities for hair, such as turning it into in situ electrodes or integrating it with wearable electronic devices.

Dying hair might seem simple and ordinary, but it’s actually a sophisticated chemical process. Called the cuticle, the outermost layer of a hair is made of cells that overlap in a scale-like pattern. Commercial dyes work by using harsh chemicals, such as ammonia and bleach, to first pry open the cuticle scales to allow colorant molecules inside and then trigger a reaction inside the hair to produce more color. Not only does this process cause hair to become more fragile, some of the small molecules are also quite toxic.

Huang and his team bypassed harmful chemicals altogether by leveraging the natural geometry of graphene sheets. While current hair dyes use a cocktail of small molecules that work by chemically altering the hair, graphene sheets are soft and flexible, so they wrap around each hair for an even coat. Huang’s ink formula also incorporates edible, non-toxic polymer binders to ensure that the graphene sticks — and lasts through at least 30 washes, which is the commercial requirement for permanent hair dye. An added bonus: graphene is anti-static, so it keeps winter-weather flyaways to a minimum.

“It’s similar to the difference between a wet paper towel and a tennis ball,” Huang explained, comparing the geometry of graphene to that of other black pigment particles, such as carbon black or iron oxide, which can only be used in temporary hair dyes. “The paper towel is going to wrap and stick much better. The ball-like particles are much more easily removed with shampoo.”

This geometry also contributes to why graphene is a safer alternative. Whereas small molecules can easily be inhaled or pass through the skin barrier, graphene is too big to enter the body. “Compared to those small molecules used in current hair dyes, graphene flakes are humongous,” said Huang, who is a member of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Ever since graphene — the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms — burst onto the science scene in 2004, the possibilities for the promising material have seemed nearly endless. With its ultra-strong and lightweight structure, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices. But development of those applications often require graphene materials to be as structurally perfect as possible in order to achieve extraordinary electrical, mechanical or thermal properties.

The most important graphene property for Huang’s hair dye, however, is simply its color: black. So Huang’s team used graphene oxide, an imperfect version of graphene that is a cheaper, more available oxidized derivative.

“Our hair dye solves a real-world problem without relying on very high-quality graphene, which is not easy to make,” Huang said. “Obviously more work needs to be done, but I feel optimistic about this application.”

Still, future versions of the dye could someday potentially leverage graphene’s notable properties, including its highly conductive nature.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

So far, Huang has developed graphene-based hair dyes in multiple shades of brown and black. Next, he plans to experiment with more colors.

Interestingly, the tiny note of caution”less harmful” doesn’t appear in the Cell Press news release. Never fear, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) has written a March 20, 2018 essay on The Conversation suggesting a little further investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

Tiny materials, potentially bigger problems

Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren’t necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn’t indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it’s completely safe.

A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, over 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.

This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research “unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material.”

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It’s also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.

Undermining other efforts?

I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies – a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.

Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe “that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put.” Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else’s more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.

Overpromising results and overlooking risk

This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an “economy of promises” that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.

If you have time, I encourage you to read Andrew’s piece in its entirety.

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

Multifunctional Graphene Hair Dye by Chong Luo, Lingye Zhou, Kevin Chiou, and Jiaxing Huang. Chem DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2018.02.02 Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be open access.

*Two paragraphs (repetitions) were deleted from the excerpt of Dr. Andrew Maynard’s essay on August 14, 2018

Announcing the ‘memtransistor’

Yet another advance toward ‘brainlike’ computing (how many times have I written this or a variation thereof in the last 10 years? See: Dexter Johnson’s take on the situation at the end of this post): Northwestern University announced their latest memristor research in a February 21, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Computer algorithms might be performing brain-like functions, such as facial recognition and language translation, but the computers themselves have yet to operate like brains.

“Computers have separate processing and memory storage units, whereas the brain uses neurons to perform both functions,” said Northwestern University’s Mark C. Hersam. “Neural networks can achieve complicated computation with significantly lower energy consumption compared to a digital computer.”

A February 21, 2018 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about the latest work from this team,

In recent years, researchers have searched for ways to make computers more neuromorphic, or brain-like, in order to perform increasingly complicated tasks with high efficiency. Now Hersam, a Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, and his team are bringing the world closer to realizing this goal.

The research team has developed a novel device called a “memtransistor,” which operates much like a neuron by performing both memory and information processing. With combined characteristics of a memristor and transistor, the memtransistor also encompasses multiple terminals that operate more similarly to a neural network.

Supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation, the research was published online today, February 22 [2018], in Nature. Vinod K. Sangwan and Hong-Sub Lee, postdoctoral fellows advised by Hersam, served as the paper’s co-first authors.

The memtransistor builds upon work published in 2015, in which Hersam, Sangwan, and their collaborators used single-layer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) to create a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor for fast, reliable digital memory storage. Memristor, which is short for “memory resistors,” are resistors in a current that “remember” the voltage previously applied to them. Typical memristors are two-terminal electronic devices, which can only control one voltage channel. By transforming it into a three-terminal device, Hersam paved the way for memristors to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems, such as neuromorphic computing.

To develop the memtransistor, Hersam’s team again used atomically thin MoS2 with well-defined grain boundaries, which influence the flow of current. Similar to the way fibers are arranged in wood, atoms are arranged into ordered domains – called “grains” – within a material. When a large voltage is applied, the grain boundaries facilitate atomic motion, causing a change in resistance.

“Because molybdenum disulfide is atomically thin, it is easily influenced by applied electric fields,” Hersam explained. “This property allows us to make a transistor. The memristor characteristics come from the fact that the defects in the material are relatively mobile, especially in the presence of grain boundaries.”

But unlike his previous memristor, which used individual, small flakes of MoS2, Hersam’s memtransistor makes use of a continuous film of polycrystalline MoS2 that comprises a large number of smaller flakes. This enabled the research team to scale up the device from one flake to many devices across an entire wafer.

“When length of the device is larger than the individual grain size, you are guaranteed to have grain boundaries in every device across the wafer,” Hersam said. “Thus, we see reproducible, gate-tunable memristive responses across large arrays of devices.”

After fabricating memtransistors uniformly across an entire wafer, Hersam’s team added additional electrical contacts. Typical transistors and Hersam’s previously developed memristor each have three terminals. In their new paper, however, the team realized a seven-terminal device, in which one terminal controls the current among the other six terminals.

“This is even more similar to neurons in the brain,” Hersam said, “because in the brain, we don’t usually have one neuron connected to only one other neuron. Instead, one neuron is connected to multiple other neurons to form a network. Our device structure allows multiple contacts, which is similar to the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Next, Hersam and his team are working to make the memtransistor faster and smaller. Hersam also plans to continue scaling up the device for manufacturing purposes.

“We believe that the memtransistor can be a foundational circuit element for new forms of neuromorphic computing,” he said. “However, making dozens of devices, as we have done in our paper, is different than making a billion, which is done with conventional transistor technology today. Thus far, we do not see any fundamental barriers that will prevent further scale up of our approach.”

The researchers have made this illustration available,

Caption: This is the memtransistor symbol overlaid on an artistic rendering of a hypothetical circuit layout in the shape of a brain. Credit; Hersam Research Group

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

Multi-terminal memtransistors from polycrystalline monolayer molybdenum disulfide by Vinod K. Sangwan, Hong-Sub Lee, Hadallia Bergeron, Itamar Balla, Megan E. Beck, Kan-Sheng Chen, & Mark C. Hersam. Nature volume 554, pages 500–504 (22 February 2018 doi:10.1038/nature25747 Published online: 21 February 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

The team’s earlier work referenced in the news release was featured here in an April 10, 2015 posting.

Dexter Johnson

From a Feb. 23, 2018 posting by Dexter Johnson on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

While this all seems promising, one of the big shortcomings in neuromorphic computing has been that it doesn’t mimic the brain in a very important way. In the brain, for every neuron there are a thousand synapses—the electrical signal sent between the neurons of the brain. This poses a problem because a transistor only has a single terminal, hardly an accommodating architecture for multiplying signals.

Now researchers at Northwestern University, led by Mark Hersam, have developed a new device that combines memristors—two-terminal non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching—with transistors to create what Hersam and his colleagues have dubbed a “memtransistor” that performs both memory storage and information processing.

This most recent research builds on work that Hersam and his team conducted back in 2015 in which the researchers developed a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor that operated like a kind of synapse.

While this work was recognized as mimicking the low-power computing of the human brain, critics didn’t really believe that it was acting like a neuron since it could only transmit a signal from one artificial neuron to another. This was far short of a human brain that is capable of making tens of thousands of such connections.

“Traditional memristors are two-terminal devices, whereas our memtransistors combine the non-volatility of a two-terminal memristor with the gate-tunability of a three-terminal transistor,” said Hersam to IEEE Spectrum. “Our device design accommodates additional terminals, which mimic the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Hersam believes that these unique attributes of these multi-terminal memtransistors are likely to present a range of new opportunities for non-volatile memory and neuromorphic computing.

If you have the time and the interest, Dexter’s post provides more context,

L’Oréal introduces new wearable technology (UV sensor) as nail art?

Downloaded from https://inhabitat.com/tiny-yves-behar-designed-wearable-warns-you-when-youve-had-too-much-sun/uv-sense-by-loreal-and-yves-behar-2

(I should have published this a while ago but I think the content holds up even if it is a bit dated.) What you see on the model’s thumbnail (in the image above) is L’Oréal’s latest wearable tech as Lucy Wang notes in her January 8, 2018 preview article for inhabitat. (Note: The article is posted in a slide show, which offers quite a bit of detail (some of it technical) including this (Note: Links have been removed),

A tiny piece of innovative tech wants to help you stay away from sun-induced skin cancer. Global beauty leader L’Oréal teamed up with prolific designer Yves Behar of fuseproject to create UV Sense, the first battery-free wearable electronic UV sensor. Soon to be unveiled at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show [CES] kicking off tomorrow [January 9, 2018], this innovative technology collects and shares real-time data on individual UV exposure within a wearable so small and thin it fits on a fingernail.

Christina Bonnington in a January 28, 2018 article for Fast Company offers less technical detail while offering many other useful tidbits (Note: Links have been removed),

… in 2016, beauty brand L’Oreal entered the space with another solution: a stretchable UV-sensing skin patch developed by the company’s technology incubator. The My UV Patch was an experiment in giving beauty consumers access to their sun-exposure data. A heart-shaped design on the patch changed colors depending on your sun exposure, which could then be analyzed via photograph in its accompanying app. L’Oreal distributed more than 1 million of the patches to consumers for free and was surprised by the level of engagement and effectiveness of the project: 34 percent of users reported wearing sunscreen more often, and 37 percent tried to stay in the shade more frequently.

Now, L’Oreal has a new wearable device for people like me—people concerned with their long-term sun-exposure risks, people at risk for melanoma, and people who want to know if they should be wearing more sunscreen or reapplying more often. But calling it a device is a bit of a stretch. The UV Sense is a circular, nail-sized sticker that’s little more than a UV sensor and an antenna. Unlike most other wearables, it’s completely batteryless; the sensor is powered by near-field communications and only transmits data when you place your phone near the sensor. Developed in partnership with Northwestern University, UV Sense now boasts the title of world’s smallest wearable.

Guive Balooch, the global vice president of L’Oréal’s technology incubator, said that the company wanted to make sure the sensor was comfortable for longtime wear. My UV Patch, L’Oreal’s first tech-centric UV-sensing product, was a disposable: You wore it for up to three days, then threw it away. The UV Sense, by contrast, lasts as long as any other wearable on the market. And besides just being small, it’s notable for its unique form factor. Its tiny size—about as thick as a credit card and lighter than a Tic Tac—makes it ideal as a stick-on nail applique. “We knew that nail art was booming,” Balooch said. “We thought that could be really interesting.” However, it’s not exclusively a nail sticker—it can just as easily be positioned on a pair of sunglasses or on another accessory you typically wear outdoors, such as a watch. On a nail, the sensor lasts for two weeks, then it needs to be readhered. (“The reason is more for the nail than the sensor,” Balooch said. “The nail is a living part of your body. UV gel or nail art normally lasts about two weeks.”)

For anyone who’d like to bear down on the technical detail, there’s Daniel Cooper’s January 7, 2018 article for engadget (Note: Links have been removed),

L’Oreal is working with MC10, a medical technology wearables outfit established by professor John Rogers at Northwestern University. Rogers is famous for developing the “wearable tattoo,” circuit boards no thicker than a band-aid that attach to people’s skin. The eventual goal for such technology is that it will replace the bulky and invasive monitors strapped onto hospital patients.

Interesting, yes? And as the writers note it’s not L’Oréal’s first foray into wearable tech. For anyone interested in the 2016 version, there’s my January 6, 2016 posting about ‘my UV patch”  and its introduction a the 2016 CES.  As for John Rogers, one of my latest postings on him and his work is a May 15, 2015 posting.  You can find more using “John Rogers” as your blog search term.

Cloaking devices made from DNA and gold nanoparticles using top-down lithography

This new technique seems promising but there’ve been a lot of ‘cloaking’ devices announced in the years I’ve been blogging and, in all likelihood, I was late to the party so I’m exercising a little caution before getting too excited. For the latest development in cloaking devices, there’s a January 18, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Northwestern University researchers have developed a first-of-its-kind technique for creating entirely new classes of optical materials and devices that could lead to light bending and cloaking devices — news to make the ears of Star Trek’s Spock perk up.

Using DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] as a key tool, the interdisciplinary team took gold nanoparticles of different sizes and shapes and arranged them in two and three dimensions to form optically active superlattices. Structures with specific configurations could be programmed through choice of particle type and both DNA-pattern and sequence to exhibit almost any color across the visible spectrum, the scientists report.

A January 18, 2018 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item, delves into more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

“Architecture is everything when designing new materials, and we now have a new way to precisely control particle architectures over large areas,” said Chad A. Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. “Chemists and physicists will be able to build an almost infinite number of new structures with all sorts of interesting properties. These structures cannot be made by any known technique.”

The technique combines an old fabrication method — top-down lithography, the same method used to make computer chips — with a new one — programmable self-assembly driven by DNA. The Northwestern team is the first to combine the two to achieve individual particle control in three dimensions.

The study was published online by the journal Science today (Jan. 18). Mirkin and Vinayak P. Dravid and Koray Aydin, both professors in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, are co-corresponding authors.

Scientists will be able to use the powerful and flexible technique to build metamaterials — materials not found in nature — for a range of applications including sensors for medical and environmental uses.

The researchers used a combination of numerical simulations and optical spectroscopy techniques to identify particular nanoparticle superlattices that absorb specific wavelengths of visible light. The DNA-modified nanoparticles — gold in this case — are positioned on a pre-patterned template made of complementary DNA. Stacks of structures can be made by introducing a second and then a third DNA-modified particle with DNA that is complementary to the subsequent layers.

In addition to being unusual architectures, these materials are stimuli-responsive: the DNA strands that hold them together change in length when exposed to new environments, such as solutions of ethanol that vary in concentration. The change in DNA length, the researchers found, resulted in a change of color from black to red to green, providing extreme tunability of optical properties.

“Tuning the optical properties of metamaterials is a significant challenge, and our study achieves one of the highest tunability ranges achieved to date in optical metamaterials,” said Aydin, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at McCormick.

“Our novel metamaterial platform — enabled by precise and extreme control of gold nanoparticle shape, size and spacing — holds significant promise for next-generation optical metamaterials and metasurfaces,” Aydin said.

The study describes a new way to organize nanoparticles in two and three dimensions. The researchers used lithography methods to drill tiny holes — only one nanoparticle wide — in a polymer resist, creating “landing pads” for nanoparticle components modified with strands of DNA. The landing pads are essential, Mirkin said, since they keep the structures that are grown vertical.

The nanoscopic landing pads are modified with one sequence of DNA, and the gold nanoparticles are modified with complementary DNA. By alternating nanoparticles with complementary DNA, the researchers built nanoparticle stacks with tremendous positional control and over a large area. The particles can be different sizes and shapes (spheres, cubes and disks, for example).

“This approach can be used to build periodic lattices from optically active particles, such as gold, silver and any other material that can be modified with DNA, with extraordinary nanoscale precision,” said Mirkin, director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Mirkin also is a professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and professor of chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering in the McCormick School.

The success of the reported DNA programmable assembly required expertise with hybrid (soft-hard) materials and exquisite nanopatterning and lithographic capabilities to achieve the requisite spatial resolution, definition and fidelity across large substrate areas. The project team turned to Dravid, a longtime collaborator of Mirkin’s who specializes in nanopatterning, advanced microscopy and characterization of soft, hard and hybrid nanostructures.

Dravid contributed his expertise and assisted in designing the nanopatterning and lithography strategy and the associated characterization of the new exotic structures. He is the Abraham Harris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in McCormick and the founding director of the NUANCE center, which houses the advanced patterning, lithography and characterization used in the DNA-programmed structures.

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

Building superlattices from individual nanoparticles via template-confined DNA-mediated assembly by Qing-Yuan Lin, Jarad A. Mason, Zhongyang, Wenjie Zhou, Matthew N. O’Brien, Keith A. Brown, Matthew R. Jones, Serkan Butun, Byeongdu Lee, Vinayak P. Dravid, Koray Aydin, Chad A. Mirkin. Science 18 Jan 2018: eaaq0591 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0591

This paper is behind a paywall.

As noted earlier, it could be a while before cloaking devices are made available. In the meantime, you may find this image inspiring,

Caption: Northwestern University researchers have developed a new method to precisely arrange nanoparticles of different sizes and shapes in two and three dimensions, resulting in optically active superlattices. Credit: Northwestern University

Entanglement and biological systems

I think it was about five years ago thatI wrote a paper on something I called ‘cognitive entanglement’ (mentioned in my July 20,2012 posting) so the latest from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois, US) reignited my interest in entanglement. A December 5, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest ‘entanglement’ research,

Nearly 75 years ago, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger wondered if the mysterious world of quantum mechanics played a role in biology. A recent finding by Northwestern University’s Prem Kumar adds further evidence that the answer might be yes.

Kumar and his team have, for the first time, created quantum entanglement from a biological system. This finding could advance scientists’ fundamental understanding of biology and potentially open doors to exploit biological tools to enable new functions by harnessing quantum mechanics.

A December 5, 2017 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Can we apply quantum tools to learn about biology?” said Kumar, professor of electrical engineering and computer science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “People have asked this question for many, many years — dating back to the dawn of quantum mechanics. The reason we are interested in these new quantum states is because they allow applications that are otherwise impossible.”

Partially supported by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], the research was published Dec. 5 [2017] in Nature Communications.

Quantum entanglement is one of quantum mechanics’ most mystifying phenomena. When two particles — such as atoms, photons, or electrons — are entangled, they experience an inexplicable link that is maintained even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. While entangled, the particles’ behavior is tied one another. If one particle is found spinning in one direction, for example, then the other particle instantaneously changes its spin in a corresponding manner dictated by the entanglement. Researchers, including Kumar, have been interested in harnessing quantum entanglement for several applications, including quantum communications. Because the particles can communicate without wires or cables, they could be used to send secure messages or help build an extremely fast “quantum Internet.”

“Researchers have been trying to entangle a larger and larger set of atoms or photons to develop substrates on which to design and build a quantum machine,” Kumar said. “My laboratory is asking if we can build these machines on a biological substrate.”

In the study, Kumar’s team used green fluorescent proteins, which are responsible for bioluminescence and commonly used in biomedical research. The team attempted to entangle the photons generated from the fluorescing molecules within the algae’s barrel-shaped protein structure by exposing them to spontaneous four-wave mixing, a process in which multiple wavelengths interact with one another to produce new wavelengths.

Through a series of these experiments, Kumar and his team successfully demonstrated a type of entanglement, called polarization entanglement, between photon pairs. The same feature used to make glasses for viewing 3D movies, polarization is the orientation of oscillations in light waves. A wave can oscillate vertically, horizontally, or at different angles. In Kumar’s entangled pairs, the photons’ polarizations are entangled, meaning that the oscillation directions of light waves are linked. Kumar also noticed that the barrel-shaped structure surrounding the fluorescing molecules protected the entanglement from being disrupted.

“When I measured the vertical polarization of one particle, we knew it would be the same in the other,” he said. “If we measured the horizontal polarization of one particle, we could predict the horizontal polarization in the other particle. We created an entangled state that correlated in all possibilities simultaneously.”

Now that they have demonstrated that it’s possible to create quantum entanglement from biological particles, next Kumar and his team plan to make a biological substrate of entangled particles, which could be used to build a quantum machine. Then, they will seek to understand if a biological substrate works more efficiently than a synthetic one.

Here’s an image accompanying the news release,

Featured in the cuvette on the left, green fluorescent proteins responsible for bioluninescence in jellyfish. Courtesy: Northwestern University

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

Generation of photonic entanglement in green fluorescent proteins by Siyuan Shi, Prem Kumar & Kim Fook Lee. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1934 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02027-9 Published online: 05 December 2017

This paper is open access.

Colliding organic nanoparticles caught on camera for the first time

There is high excitement about this development in a November 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

A Northwestern University research team is the first to capture on video organic nanoparticles colliding and fusing together. This unprecedented view of “chemistry in motion” will aid Northwestern nanoscientists developing new drug delivery methods as well as demonstrate to researchers around the globe how an emerging imaging technique opens a new window on a very tiny world.

A November 17, 2017 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item, further illuminates the matter,

This is a rare example of particles in motion. The dynamics are reminiscent of two bubbles coming together and merging into one: first they join and have a membrane between them, but then they fuse and become one larger bubble.

“I had an image in my mind, but the first time I saw these fusing nanoparticles in black and white was amazing,” said professor Nathan C. Gianneschi, who led the interdisciplinary study and works at the intersection of nanotechnology and biomedicine.

“To me, it’s literally a window opening up to this world you have always known was there, but now you’ve finally got an image of it. I liken it to the first time I saw Jupiter’s moons through a telescope. Nothing compares to actually seeing,” he said.

Gianneschi is the Jacob and Rosaline Cohn Professor in the department of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and in the departments of materials science and engineering and of biomedical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering.

The study, which includes videos of different nanoparticle fusion events, was published today (Nov. 1 [2017]7) by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The research team used liquid-cell transmission electron microscopy to directly image how polymer-based nanoparticles, or micelles, that Gianneschi’s lab is developing for treating cancer and heart attacks change over time. The powerful new technique enabled the scientists to directly observe the particles’ transformation and characterize their dynamics.

“We can see on the molecular level how the polymeric matter rearranges when the particles fuse into one object,” said Lucas R. Parent, first author of the paper and a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow in Gianneschi’s research group. “This is the first study of many to come in which researchers will use this method to look at all kinds of dynamic phenomena in organic materials systems on the nanoscale.”

In the Northwestern study, organic particles in water bounce off each other, and some collide and merge, undergoing a physical transformation. The researchers capture the action by shining an electron beam through the sample. The tiny particles — the largest are only approximately 200 nanometers in diameter — cast shadows that are captured directly by a camera below.

“We’ve observed classical fusion behavior on the nanoscale,” said Gianneschi, a member of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology. “Capturing the fundamental growth and evolution processes of these particles in motion will help us immensely in our work with synthetic materials and their interactions with biological systems.”

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Army Research Office supported the research.

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

Directly Observing Micelle Fusion and Growth in Solution by Liquid-Cell Transmission Electron Microscopy by Lucas R. Parent, Evangelos Bakalis, Abelardo Ramírez-Hernández, Jacquelin K. Kammeyer, Chiwoo Park, Juan de Pablo, Francesco Zerbetto, Joseph P. Patterson, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.7b09060 Publication Date (Web): November 17, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold’s origin in the universe due to cosmic collision

An hypothesis for gold’s origins was first mentioned here in a May 26, 2016 posting,

The link between this research and my side project on gold nanoparticles is a bit tenuous but this work on the origins for gold and other precious metals being found in the stars is so fascinating and I’m determined to find a connection.

An artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

From a May 19, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The origin of many of the most precious elements on the periodic table, such as gold, silver and platinum, has perplexed scientists for more than six decades. Now a recent study has an answer, evocatively conveyed in the faint starlight from a distant dwarf galaxy.

In a roundtable discussion, published today [May 19, 2016?], The Kavli Foundation spoke to two of the researchers behind the discovery about why the source of these heavy elements, collectively called “r-process” elements, has been so hard to crack.

From the Spring 2016 Kavli Foundation webpage hosting the  “Galactic ‘Gold Mine’ Explains the Origin of Nature’s Heaviest Elements” Roundtable ,

Astronomers studying a galaxy called Reticulum II have just discovered that its stars contain whopping amounts of these metals—collectively known as “r-process” elements (See “What is the R-Process?”). Of the 10 dwarf galaxies that have been similarly studied so far, only Reticulum II bears such strong chemical signatures. The finding suggests some unusual event took place billions of years ago that created ample amounts of heavy elements and then strew them throughout the galaxy’s reservoir of gas and dust. This r-process-enriched material then went on to form Reticulum II’s standout stars.

Based on the new study, from a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the unusual event in Reticulum II was likely the collision of two, ultra-dense objects called neutron stars. Scientists have hypothesized for decades that these collisions could serve as a primary source for r-process elements, yet the idea had lacked solid observational evidence. Now armed with this information, scientists can further hope to retrace the histories of galaxies based on the contents of their stars, in effect conducting “stellar archeology.”

Researchers have confirmed the hypothesis according to an Oct. 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Gold’s origin in the Universe has finally been confirmed, after a gravitational wave source was seen and heard for the first time ever by an international collaboration of researchers, with astronomers at the University of Warwick playing a leading role.

Members of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, Professor Andrew Levan, Dr Joe Lyman, Dr Sam Oates and Dr Danny Steeghs, led observations which captured the light of two colliding neutron stars, shortly after being detected through gravitational waves – perhaps the most eagerly anticipated phenomenon in modern astronomy.

Marina Koren’s Oct. 16, 2017 article for The Atlantic presents a richly evocative view (Note: Links have been removed),

Some 130 million years ago, in another galaxy, two neutron stars spiraled closer and closer together until they smashed into each other in spectacular fashion. The violent collision produced gravitational waves, cosmic ripples powerful enough to stretch and squeeze the fabric of the universe. There was a brief flash of light a million trillion times as bright as the sun, and then a hot cloud of radioactive debris. The afterglow hung for several days, shifting from bright blue to dull red as the ejected material cooled in the emptiness of space.

Astronomers detected the aftermath of the merger on Earth on August 17. For the first time, they could see the source of universe-warping forces Albert Einstein predicted a century ago. Unlike with black-hole collisions, they had visible proof, and it looked like a bright jewel in the night sky.

But the merger of two neutron stars is more than fireworks. It’s a factory.

Using infrared telescopes, astronomers studied the spectra—the chemical composition of cosmic objects—of the collision and found that the plume ejected by the merger contained a host of newly formed heavy chemical elements, including gold, silver, platinum, and others. Scientists estimate the amount of cosmic bling totals about 10,000 Earth-masses of heavy elements.

I’m not sure exactly what this image signifies but it did accompany Koren’s article so presumably it’s a representation of colliding neutron stars,

NSF / LIGO / Sonoma State University /A. Simonnet. Downloaded from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/the-making-of-cosmic-bling/543030/

An Oct. 16, 2017 University of Warwick press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item on phys.org, provides more detail,

Huge amounts of gold, platinum, uranium and other heavy elements were created in the collision of these compact stellar remnants, and were pumped out into the universe – unlocking the mystery of how gold on wedding rings and jewellery is originally formed.

The collision produced as much gold as the mass of the Earth. [emphasis mine]

This discovery has also confirmed conclusively that short gamma-ray bursts are directly caused by the merging of two neutron stars.

The neutron stars were very dense – as heavy as our Sun yet only 10 kilometres across – and they collided with each other 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, in a relatively old galaxy that was no longer forming many stars.

They drew towards each other over millions of light years, and revolved around each other increasingly quickly as they got closer – eventually spinning around each other five hundred times per second.

Their merging sent ripples through the fabric of space and time – and these ripples are the elusive gravitational waves spotted by the astronomers.

The gravitational waves were detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO) on 17 August this year [2017], with a short duration gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi satellite just two seconds later.

This led to a flurry of observations as night fell in Chile, with a first report of a new source from the Swope 1m telescope.

Longstanding collaborators Professor Levan and Professor Nial Tanvir (from the University of Leicester) used the facilities of the European Southern Observatory to pinpoint the source in infrared light.

Professor Levan’s team was the first one to get observations of this new source with the Hubble Space Telescope. It comes from a galaxy called NGC 4993, 130 million light years away.

Andrew Levan, Professor in the Astronomy & Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick, commented: “Once we saw the data, we realised we had caught a new kind of astrophysical object. This ushers in the era of multi-messenger astronomy, it is like being able to see and hear for the first time.”

Dr Joe Lyman, who was observing at the European Southern Observatory at the time was the first to alert the community that the source was unlike any seen before.

He commented: “The exquisite observations obtained in a few days showed we were observing a kilonova, an object whose light is powered by extreme nuclear reactions. This tells us that the heavy elements, like the gold or platinum in jewellery are the cinders, forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.”

Dr Samantha Oates added: “This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: what happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made? In the space of about a week all three of these mysteries were solved.”

Dr Danny Steeghs said: “This is a new chapter in astrophysics. We hope that in the next few years we will detect many more events like this. Indeed, in Warwick we have just finished building a telescope designed to do just this job, and we expect it to pinpoint these sources in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy”.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved in this work!

Many, many research teams were  involved. Here’s a sampling of their news releases which focus on their areas of research,

University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uotw-wti101717.php

Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/wios-cns101717.php

Carnegie Institution for Science (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/cifs-dns101217.php

Northwestern University (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nu-adc101617.php

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/nrao-ru101317.php

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Germany)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/m-gwf101817.php

Penn State (Pennsylvania State University; US)

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/ps-stl101617.php

University of California – Davis

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/uoc–cns101717.php

The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) magazine, Science, has published seven papers on this research. Here’s an Oct. 16, 2017 AAAS news release with an overview of the papers,

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/aaft-btf101617.php

I’m sure there are more news releases out there and that there will be many more papers published in many journals, so if this interests, I encourage you to keep looking.

Two final pieces I’d like to draw your attention to: one answers basic questions and another focuses on how artists knew what to draw when neutron stars collide.

Keith A Spencer’s Oct. 18, 2017 piece on salon.com answers a lot of basic questions for those of us who don’t have a background in astronomy. Here are a couple of examples,

What is a neutron star?

Okay, you know how atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons in them? And you know how protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons are neutral?

Yeah, I remember that from watching Bill Nye as a kid.

Totally. Anyway, have you ever wondered why the negatively-charged electrons and the positively-charged protons don’t just merge into each other and form a neutral neutron? I mean, they’re sitting there in the atom’s nucleus pretty close to each other. Like, if you had two magnets that close, they’d stick together immediately.

I guess now that you mention it, yeah, it is weird.

Well, it’s because there’s another force deep in the atom that’s preventing them from merging.

It’s really really strong.

The only way to overcome this force is to have a huge amount of matter in a really hot, dense space — basically shove them into each other until they give up and stick together and become a neutron. This happens in very large stars that have been around for a while — the core collapses, and in the aftermath, the electrons in the star are so close to the protons, and under so much pressure, that they suddenly merge. There’s a big explosion and the outer material of the star is sloughed off.

Okay, so you’re saying under a lot of pressure and in certain conditions, some stars collapse and become big balls of neutrons?

Pretty much, yeah.

So why do the neutrons just stick around in a huge ball? Aren’t they neutral? What’s keeping them together? 

Gravity, mostly. But also the strong nuclear force, that aforementioned weird strong force. This isn’t something you’d encounter on a macroscopic scale — the strong force only really works at the type of distances typified by particles in atomic nuclei. And it’s different, fundamentally, than the electromagnetic force, which is what makes magnets attract and repel and what makes your hair stick up when you rub a balloon on it.

So these neutrons in a big ball are bound by gravity, but also sticking together by virtue of the strong nuclear force. 

So basically, the new ball of neutrons is really small, at least, compared to how heavy it is. That’s because the neutrons are all clumped together as if this neutron star is one giant atomic nucleus — which it kinda is. It’s like a giant atom made only of neutrons. If our sun were a neutron star, it would be less than 20 miles wide. It would also not be something you would ever want to get near.

Got it. That means two giant balls of neutrons that weighed like, more than our sun and were only ten-ish miles wide, suddenly smashed into each other, and in the aftermath created a black hole, and we are just now detecting it on Earth?

Exactly. Pretty weird, no?

Spencer does a good job of gradually taking you through increasingly complex explanations.

For those with artistic interests, Neel V. Patel tries to answer a question about how artists knew what draw when neutron stars collided in his Oct. 18, 2017 piece for Slate.com,

All of these things make this discovery easy to marvel at and somewhat impossible to picture. Luckily, artists have taken up the task of imagining it for us, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve already stumbled on coverage of the discovery. Two bright, furious spheres of light and gas spiraling quickly into one another, resulting in a massive swell of lit-up matter along with light and gravitational waves rippling off speedily in all directions, towards parts unknown. These illustrations aren’t just alluring interpretations of a rare phenomenon; they are, to some extent, the translation of raw data and numbers into a tangible visual that gives scientists and nonscientists alike some way of grasping what just happened. But are these visualizations realistic? Is this what it actually looked like? No one has any idea. Which is what makes the scientific illustrators’ work all the more fascinating.

“My goal is to represent what the scientists found,” says Aurore Simmonet, a scientific illustrator based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. Even though she said she doesn’t have a rigorous science background (she certainly didn’t know what a kilonova was before being tasked to illustrate one), she also doesn’t believe that type of experience is an absolute necessity. More critical, she says, is for the artist to have an interest in the subject matter and in learning new things, as well as a capacity to speak directly to scientists about their work.

Illustrators like Simmonet usually start off work on an illustration by asking the scientist what’s the biggest takeaway a viewer should grasp when looking at a visual. Unfortunately, this latest discovery yielded a multitude of papers emphasizing different conclusions and highlights. With so many scientific angles, there’s a stark challenge in trying to cram every important thing into a single drawing.

Clearly, however, the illustrations needed to center around the kilonova. Simmonet loves colors, so she began by discussing with the researchers what kind of color scheme would work best. The smash of two neutron stars lends itself well to deep, vibrant hues. Simmonet and Robin Dienel at the Carnegie Institution for Science elected to use a wide array of colors and drew bright cracking to show pressure forming at the merging. Others, like Luis Calcada at the European Southern Observatory, limited the color scheme in favor of emphasizing the bright moment of collision and the signal waves created by the kilonova.

Animators have even more freedom to show the event, since they have much more than a single frame to play with. The Conceptual Image Lab at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center created a short video about the new findings, and lead animator Brian Monroe says the video he and his colleagues designed shows off the evolution of the entire process: the rising action, climax, and resolution of the kilonova event.

The illustrators try to adhere to what the likely physics of the event entailed, soliciting feedback from the scientists to make sure they’re getting it right. The swirling of gas, the direction of ejected matter upon impact, the reflection of light, the proportions of the objects—all of these things are deliberately framed such that they make scientific sense. …

Do take a look at Patel’s piece, if for no other reason than to see all of the images he has embedded there. You may recognize Aurore Simmonet’s name from the credit line in the second image I have embedded here.

Measurably fewer nanoparticles in São Paulo’s (Brazil) air after ethanol use

An Aug. 28, 2017 news item on Nanotechnology Now features news about nanoparticles and the environment in São Paulo, Brazil,

When ethanol prices at the pump rise for whatever reason, it becomes economically advantageous for drivers of dual-fuel vehicles to fill up with gasoline. However, the health of the entire population pays a high price: substitution of gasoline for ethanol leads to a 30% increase in the atmospheric concentration of ultrafine particulate matter, which consists of particles with a diameter of less than 50 nanometers (nm).

An Aug. 23, 2017 Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (The São Paulo Research Foundation [FAPESP]) press release, which originated the news item, explains further,

The phenomenon was detected in São Paulo City, Brazil, in a study supported by FAPESP and published in July 2017 in Nature Communications.

“These polluting nanoparticles are so tiny that they behave like gas molecules. When inhaled, they can penetrate the respiratory system’s defensive barriers and reach the pulmonary alveoli, so that potentially toxic substances enter the bloodstream and may increase the incidence of respiratory and cardiovascular problems,” said Paulo Artaxo, Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Physics Institute (IF-USP) and a co-author of the study.

Levels of ultrafine particulate matter in the atmosphere are neither monitored nor regulated by environmental agencies not only in Brazil but practically anywhere in the world, according to Artaxo. The São Paulo State Environmental Corporation (CETESB), for example, routinely monitors only solid particles with diameters of 10,000 nm (PM10) and 2,500 nm (PM2.5) – as well as other gaseous pollutants such as ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

“Between 75% and 80% of the mass of the nanoparticles we measured in this study corresponds to organic compounds emitted by motor vehicles – carbon in different chemical forms. What these compounds are exactly and how they affect health are questions that require further research,” Artaxo said.

He added that a consensus is forming in the United States and Europe based on recent research indicating that these emissions are a potential health hazard and should be regulated. Several US states, such as California, have laws requiring a 20%-30% ethanol blend in gasoline, which also helps reduce emissions of ultrafine particulate matter.

Methodology

The data analyzed in the study were collected during the period of January-May 2011, when ethanol prices fluctuated sharply compared with gasoline prices, owing to macroeconomic factors such as variations in the international price of sugar (Brazilian ethanol is made from sugarcane).

Collection was performed at the top of a ten-story building belonging to IF-USP in the western part of São Paulo City. According to Artaxo, the site was chosen because it is relatively distant from the main traffic thoroughfares so that the aerosols there are “older” in the sense that they have already interacted with other substances present in the atmosphere.

“Generally speaking, the pollution we inhale every day at home or at work isn’t what comes out of vehicular exhaust pipes but particles already processed in the atmosphere,” he explained. “For this reason, we chose a site that isn’t directly impacted by primary vehicle emissions.”

The study was conducted during Joel Ferreira de Brito’s postdoctoral research, which Artaxo supervised. The model used to analyze the data was developed by Brazilian economist Alberto Salvo, a professor at the National University of Singapore and first author of the article. Franz Geiger, a chemist at Northwestern University in the US, also collaborated.

“We adapted a sophisticated statistical model originally developed for economic analysis and used here for the first time to analyze the chemistry of atmospheric nanoparticles,” Artaxo said. “The main strength of this tool is that it can work with a large number of variables, such as the presence or absence of rainfall, wind direction, traffic intensity, and levels of ozone, carbon monoxide and other pollutants.”

Analyses were performed before, during and after a sharp fluctuation in ethanol prices leading consumers to switch motor fuels in São Paulo City. While no significant changes were detected in levels of inhalable fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), the study proved in a real, day-to-day situation that choosing ethanol reduces emissions of ultrafine particles. To date, this phenomenon had only been observed in the laboratory.

“These results reinforce the need for public policies to encourage the use of biofuels, as they clearly show that the public lose in health what they save at the pump when opting for gasoline,” Artaxo said.

In São Paulo, a city with 7 million motor vehicles and the largest urban fleet of flexible-fuel cars, it would be feasible to run all buses on biofuel. “We have the technology for this in Brazil – and at a competitive price,” he said.

The fact that the city’s bus fleet still depends on diesel, Artaxo warned, creates an even worse health hazard in the shape of emissions of black carbon, one of the main components of soot and a pollutant that contributes to global warming. Alongside electricity generation, the transportation sector is the largest emitter of pollutants produced by the burning of fossil fuels.

For Artaxo, incentives for electric, hybrid or biofuel vehicles are vital to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “By incentivizing biofuels, we could solve several problems at once,” he said. “We could combat climate change, reduce harm to health and foster advances in automotive technology by offering a stimulus for auto makers to develop more economical and efficient cars fueled by ethanol.”

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

Reduced ultrafine particle levels in São Paulo’s atmosphere during shifts from gasoline to ethanol use by Alberto Salvo, Joel Brito, Paulo Artaxo, & Franz M. Geiger. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 77 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00041-5 Published online: 18 July 2017

This paper is open access.

Sugar in your bones might be better for you than you think

These days sugar is often  viewed as leading to health problems but there is an instance where it may be useful—bone regeneration. From a June 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

There hasn’t been a gold standard for how orthopaedic spine surgeons promote new bone growth in patients, but now Northwestern University scientists have designed a bioactive nanomaterial that is so good at stimulating bone regeneration it could become the method surgeons prefer.

While studied in an animal model of spinal fusion, the method for promoting new bone growth could translate readily to humans, the researchers say, where an aging but active population in the U.S. is increasingly receiving this surgery to treat pain due to disc degeneration, trauma and other back problems. Many other procedures could benefit from the nanomaterial, ranging from repair of bone trauma to treatment of bone cancer to bone growth for dental implants.

“Regenerative medicine can improve quality of life by offering less invasive and more successful approaches to promoting bone growth,” said Samuel I. Stupp, who developed the new nanomaterial. “Our method is very flexible and could be adapted for the regeneration of other tissues, including muscle, tendons and cartilage.”

Stupp is director of Northwestern’s Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology and the Board of Trustees Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Medicine and Biomedical Engineering.

For the interdisciplinary study, Stupp collaborated with Dr. Wellington K. Hsu, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, and Erin L. K. Hsu, research assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, both at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The husband-and-wife team is working to improve clinically employed methods of bone regeneration.

Sugar molecules on the surface of the nanomaterial provide its regenerative power. The researchers studied in vivo the effect of the “sugar-coated” nanomaterial on the activity of a clinically used growth factor, called bone morphogenetic protein 2 (BMP-2). They found the amount of protein needed for a successful spinal fusion was reduced to an unprecedented level: 100 times less of BMP-2 was needed. This is very good news, because the growth factor is known to cause dangerous side effects when used in the amounts required to regenerate high-quality bone, and it is expensive as well.

A June 19, 2017 Northwestern University news release by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item, tells the rest of the story,

Stupp’s biodegradable nanomaterial functions as an artificial extracellular matrix, which mimics what cells in the body usually interact with in their surroundings. BMP-2 activates certain types of stem cells and signals them to become bone cells. The Northwestern matrix, which consists of tiny nanoscale filaments, binds the protein by molecular design in the way that natural sugars bind it in our bodies and then slowly releases it when needed, instead of in one early burst, which can contribute to side effects.

To create the nanostructures, the research team led by Stupp synthesized a specific type of sugar that closely resembles those used by nature to activate BMP-2 when cell signaling is necessary for bone growth. Rapidly moving flexible sugar molecules displayed on the surface of the nanostructures “grab” the protein in a specific spot that is precisely the same one used in biological systems when it is time to deploy the signal. This potentiates the bone-growing signals to a surprising level that surpasses even the naturally occurring sugar polymers in our bodies.

In nature, the sugar polymers are known as sulfated polysaccharides, which have super-complex structures impossible to synthesize at the present time with chemical techniques. Hundreds of proteins in biological systems are known to have specific domains to bind these sugar polymers in order to activate signals. Such proteins include those involved in the growth of blood vessels, cell recruitment and cell proliferation, all very important biologically in tissue regeneration. Therefore, the approach of the Stupp team could be extended to other regenerative targets.

Spinal fusion is a common surgical procedure that joins adjacent vertebra together using a bone graft and growth factors to promote new bone growth, which stabilizes the spine. The bone used in the graft can come from the patient’s pelvis — an invasive procedure — or from a bone bank.

“There is a real need for a clinically efficacious, safe and cost-effective way to form bone,” said Wellington Hsu, a spine surgeon. “The success of this nanomaterial makes me excited that every spine surgeon may one day subscribe to this method for bone graft. Right now, if you poll an audience of spine surgeons, you will get 15 to 20 different answers on what they use for bone graft. We need to standardize choice and improve patient outcomes.”

In the in vivo portion of the study, the nanomaterial was delivered to the spine using a collagen sponge. This is the way surgeons currently deliver BMP-2 clinically to promote bone growth.

The Northwestern research team plans to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to launch a clinical trial studying the nanomaterial for bone regeneration in humans.

“We surgeons are looking for optimal carriers for growth factors and cells,” Wellington Hsu said. “With its numerous binding sites, the long filaments of this new nanomaterial is more successful than existing carriers in releasing the growth factor when the body is ready. Timing is critical for success in bone regeneration.”

In the new nanomaterial, the sugars are displayed in a scaffold built from self-assembling molecules known as peptide amphiphiles, first developed by Stupp 15 years ago. These synthetic molecules have been essential in his work on regenerative medicine.

“We focused on bone regeneration to demonstrate the power of the sugar nanostructure to provide a big signaling boost,” Stupp said. “With small design changes, the method could be used with other growth factors for the regeneration of all kinds of tissues. One day we may be able to fully do away with the use of growth factors made by recombinant biotechnology and instead empower the natural ones in our bodies.”

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

Sulfated glycopeptide nanostructures for multipotent protein activation by Sungsoo S. Lee, Timmy Fyrner, Feng Chen, Zaida Álvarez, Eduard Sleep, Danielle S. Chun, Joseph A. Weiner, Ralph W. Cook, Ryan D. Freshman, Michael S. Schallmo, Karina M. Katchko, Andrew D. Schneider, Justin T. Smith, Chawon Yun, Gurmit Singh, Sohaib Z. Hashmi, Mark T. McClendon, Zhilin Yu, Stuart R. Stock, Wellington K. Hsu, Erin L. Hsu, & Samuel I. Stupp. Nature Nanotechnology 12, 821–829 (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.109 Published online 19 June 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.