Tag Archives: Oxford University

Brown recluse spider, one of the world’s most venomous spiders, shows off unique spinning technique

Caption: American Brown Recluse Spider is pictured. Credit: Oxford University

According to scientists from Oxford University this deadly spider could teach us a thing or two about strength. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Brown recluse spiders use a unique micro looping technique to make their threads stronger than that of any other spider, a newly published UK-US collaboration has discovered.

One of the most feared and venomous arachnids in the world, the American brown recluse spider has long been known for its signature necro-toxic venom, as well as its unusual silk. Now, new research offers an explanation for how the spider is able to make its silk uncommonly strong.

Researchers suggest that if applied to synthetic materials, the technique could inspire scientific developments and improve impact absorbing structures used in space travel.

The study, published in the journal Material Horizons, was produced by scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, together with a team from the Applied Science Department at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. Their surveillance of the brown recluse spider’s spinning behaviour shows how, and to what extent, the spider manages to strengthen the silk it makes.

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Oxford press release, which originated the news item,  provides more detail about the research,

From observing the arachnid, the team discovered that unlike other spiders, who produce round ribbons of thread, recluse silk is thin and flat. This structural difference is key to the thread’s strength, providing the flexibility needed to prevent premature breakage and withstand the knots created during spinning which give each strand additional strength.

Professor Hannes Schniepp from William & Mary explains: “The theory of knots adding strength is well proven. But adding loops to synthetic filaments always seems to lead to premature fibre failure. Observation of the recluse spider provided the breakthrough solution; unlike all spiders its silk is not round, but a thin, nano-scale flat ribbon. The ribbon shape adds the flexibility needed to prevent premature failure, so that all the microloops can provide additional strength to the strand.”

By using computer simulations to apply this technique to synthetic fibres, the team were able to test and prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the strength of the material.

William & Mary PhD student Sean Koebley adds: “We were able to prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the toughness of a simple synthetic sticky tape. Our observations open the door to new fibre technology inspired by the brown recluse.”

Speaking on how the recluse’s technique could be applied more broadly in the future, Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, expands: “Computer simulations demonstrate that fibres with many loops would be much, much tougher than those without loops. This right away suggests possible applications. For example carbon filaments could be looped to make them less brittle, and thus allow their use in novel impact absorbing structures. One example would be spider-like webs of carbon-filaments floating in outer space, to capture the drifting space debris that endangers astronaut lives’ and satellite integrity.”

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

Toughness-enhancing metastructure in the recluse spider’s looped ribbon silk by
S. R. Koebley, F. Vollrath, and H. C. Schniepp. Mater. Horiz., 2017, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6MH00473C First published online 15 Feb 2017

This paper is open access although you may need to register with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publishing site to get access.

The character of water: both types

This is to use an old term, ‘mindblowing’. Apparently, there are two types of the liquid we call water according to a Nov. 10, 2016 news item on phys.org,

There are two types of liquid water, according to research carried out by an international scientific collaboration. This new peculiarity adds to the growing list of strange phenomena in what we imagine is a simple substance. The discovery could have implications for making and using nanoparticles as well as in understanding how proteins fold into their working shape in the body or misfold to cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s or CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease].

A Nov. 10, 2016 Inderscience Publishers news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Writing in the International Journal of Nanotechnology, Oxford University’s Laura Maestro and her colleagues in Italy, Mexico, Spain and the USA, explain how the physical and chemical properties of water have been studied for more than a century and revealed some odd behavior not seen in other substances. For instance, when water freezes it expands. By contrast, almost every other known substance contracts when it is cooled. Water also exists as solid, liquid and gas within a very small temperature range (100 degrees Celsius) whereas the melting and boiling points of most other compounds span a much greater range.

Many of water’s bizarre properties are due to the molecule’s ability to form short-lived connections with each other known as hydrogen bonds. There is a residual positive charge on the hydrogen atoms in the V-shaped water molecule either or both of which can form such bonds with the negative electrons on the oxygen atom at the point of the V. This makes fleeting networks in water possible that are frozen in place when the liquid solidifies. They bonds are so short-lived that they do not endow the liquid with any structure or memory, of course.

The team has looked closely at several physical properties of water like its dielectric constant (how well an electric field can permeate a substance) or the proton-spin lattice relaxation (the process by which the magnetic moments of the hydrogen atoms in water can lose energy having been excited to a higher level). They have found that these phenomena seem to flip between two particular characters at around 50 degrees Celsius, give or take 10 degrees, i.e. from 40 to 60 degrees Celsius. The effect is that thermal expansion, speed of sound and other phenomena switch between two different states at this crossover temperature.

These two states could have important implications for studying and using nanoparticles where the character of water at the molecule level becomes important for the thermal and optical properties of such particles. Gold and silver nanoparticles are used in nanomedicine for diagnostics and as antibacterial agents, for instance. Moreover, the preliminary findings suggest that the structure of liquid water can strongly influence the stability of proteins and how they are denatured at the crossover temperature, which may well have implications for understanding protein processing in the food industry but also in understanding how disease arises when proteins misfold.

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

On the existence of two states in liquid water: impact on biological and nanoscopic systems
by L.M. Maestro, M.I. Marqués, E. Camarillo, D. Jaque, J. García Solé, J.A. Gonzalo, F. Jaque, Juan C. Del Valle, F. Mallamace, H.E. Stanley.
International Journal of Nanotechnology (IJNT), Vol. 13, No. 8/9, 2016 DOI: 10.1504/IJNT.2016.079670

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spider silk as a bio super-lens

Bangor University (Wales, UK) is making quite the impact these days. I’d never heard of the institution until their breakthrough with nanobeads (Sept. 7, 2016 posting) to break through a resolution barrier and now there’s a second breakthrough with their partners at Oxford University (England, UK). From an Aug. 19, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists at the UK’s Bangor and Oxford universities have achieved a world first: using spider-silk as a superlens to increase the microscope’s potential.

Extending the limit of classical microscope’s resolution has been the ‘El Dorado’ or ‘Holy Grail’ of microscopy for over a century. Physical laws of light make it impossible to view objects smaller than 200 nm — the smallest size of bacteria, using a normal microscope alone. However, superlenses which enable us to see beyond the current magnification have been the goal since the turn of the millennium.

Hot on the heels of a paper (Sci. Adv. 2 e1600901,2016) revealing that a team at Bangor University’s School of Electronic Engineering has used a nanobead-derived superlens to break the perceived resolution barrier, the same team has achieved another world first.

Now the team, led by Dr Zengbo Wang and in colloboration with Prof. Fritz Vollrath’s silk group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, has used a naturally occurring material — dragline silk of the golden web spider, as an additional superlens, applied to the surface of the material to be viewed, to provide an additional 2-3 times magnification.

This is the first time that a naturally occurring biological material has been used as a superlens.

An Aug. 19, 2016 Bangor University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about the new work,

In the paper in Nano Letters (DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b02641, Aug 17 2016), the joint team reveals how they used a cylindrical piece of spider silk from the thumb sized Nephila spider as a lens.

Dr Zengbo Wang said:

“We have proved that the resolution barrier of microscope can be broken using a superlens, but production of manufactured superlenses invovles some complex engineering processes which are not widely accessible to other reserchers. This is why we have been interested in looking for naturally occurring superlenses provided by ‘Mother Nature’, which may exist around us, so that everyone can access superlenses.”

Prof Fritz Vollrath adds:

“It is very exciting to find yet another cutting edge and totally novel use for a spider silk, which we have been studying for over two decades in my laboratory.”

These lenses could be used for seeing and viewing previously ‘invisible’ structures, including engineered nano-structures and biological micro-structures as well as, potentially, native germs and viruses.

The natural cylindrical structure at a micron- and submicron-scale make silks ideal candidates, in this case, the individual filaments had diameters of one tenth of a thin human hair.

The spider filament enabled the group to view details on a micro-chip and a blue- ray disk which would be invisible using the unmodified optical microscope.

In much the same was as when you look through a cylindrical glass or bottle, the clearest image only runs along the narrow strip directly opposite your line of vision, or resting on the surface being viewed, the single filament provides a one dimensional viewing image along its length.

Wang explains:

“The cylindrical silk lens has advantages in the larger field-of-view when compared to a microsphere superlens. Importantly for potential commercial applications, a spider silk nanoscope would be robust and economical, which in turn could provide excellent manufacturing platforms for a wide range of applications.”

James Monks, a co-author on the paper comments: “it has been an exciting time to be able to develop this project as part of my honours degree in electronic engineering at Bangor University and I am now very much looking forward to joining Dr Wang’s team as a PhD student in nano-photonics.”

The researchers have provided a close up image with details,

Caption: (a) Nephila edulis spider in its web. (b) Schematic drawing of reflection mode silk biosuperlens imaging. The spider silk was placed directly on top of the sample surface by using a soft tape, which magnify underlying nano objects 2-3 times (c) SEM image of Blu-ray disk with 200/100 nm groove and lines (d) Clear magnified image (2.1x) of Blu-ray disk under spider silk superlens. Credit: Bangor University/ University of Oxford

Caption: (a) Nephila edulis spider in its web. (b) Schematic drawing of reflection mode silk biosuperlens imaging. The spider silk was placed directly on top of the sample surface by using a soft tape, which magnify underlying nano objects 2-3 times (c) SEM image of Blu-ray disk with 200/100 nm groove and lines (d) Clear magnified image (2.1x) of Blu-ray disk under spider silk superlens. Credit: Bangor University/ University of Oxford

Here’s a link to and a citation for the ‘spider silk’ superlens paper,

Spider Silk: Mother Nature’s Bio-Superlens by James N. Monks, Bing Yan, Nicholas Hawkins, Fritz Vollrath, and Zengbo Wang. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b02641 Publication Date (Web): August 17, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Brushing your way to nanofibres

The scientists are using what looks like a hairbrush to create nanofibres ,

Figure 2: Brush-spinning of nanofibers. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=41398.php]

Figure 2: Brush-spinning of nanofibers. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=41398.php]

A Sept. 23, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article by Michael Berger provides an in depth look at this technique (developed by a joint research team of scientists from the University of Georgia, Princeton University, and Oxford University) which could make producing nanofibers for use in scaffolds (tissue engineering and other applications) more easily and cheaply,

Polymer nanofibers are used in a wide range of applications such as the design of new composite materials, the fabrication of nanostructured biomimetic scaffolds for artificial bones and organs, biosensors, fuel cells or water purification systems.

“The simplest method of nanofiber fabrication is direct drawing from a polymer solution using a glass micropipette,” Alexander Tokarev, Ph.D., a Research Associate in the Nanostructured Materials Laboratory at the University of Georgia, tells Nanowerk. “This method however does not scale up and thus did not find practical applications. In our new work, we introduce a scalable method of nanofiber spinning named touch-spinning.”

James Cook in a Sept. 23, 2015 article for Materials Views provides a description of the technology,

A glass rod is glued to a rotating stage, whose diameter can be chosen over a wide range of a few centimeters to more than 1 m. A polymer solution is supplied, for example, from a needle of a syringe pump that faces the glass rod. The distance between the droplet of polymer solution and the tip of the glass rod is adjusted so that the glass rod contacts the polymer droplet as it rotates.

Following the initial “touch”, the polymer droplet forms a liquid bridge. As the stage rotates the bridge stretches and fiber length increases, with the diameter decreasing due to mass conservation. It was shown that the diameter of the fiber can be precisely controlled down to 40 nm by the speed of the stage rotation.

The method can be easily scaled-up by using a round hairbrush composed of 600 filaments.

When the rotating brush touches the surface of a polymer solution, the brush filaments draw many fibers simultaneously producing hundred kilometers of fibers in minutes.

The drawn fibers are uniform since the fiber diameter depends on only two parameters: polymer concentration and speed of drawing.

Returning to Berger’s Spotlight article, there is an important benefit with this technique,

As the team points out, one important aspect of the method is the drawing of single filament fibers.

These single filament fibers can be easily wound onto spools of different shapes and dimensions so that well aligned one-directional, orthogonal or randomly oriented fiber meshes with a well-controlled average mesh size can be fabricated using this very simple method.

“Owing to simplicity of the method, our set-up could be used in any biomedical lab and facility,” notes Tokarev. “For example, a customized scaffold by size, dimensions and othermorphologic characteristics can be fabricated using donor biomaterials.”

Berger’s and Cook’s articles offer more illustrations and details.

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

Touch- and Brush-Spinning of Nanofibers by Alexander Tokarev, Darya Asheghal, Ian M. Griffiths, Oleksandr Trotsenko, Alexey Gruzd, Xin Lin, Howard A. Stone, and Sergiy Minko. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201502768ViewFirst published: 23 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

AI assistant makes scientific discovery at Tufts University (US)

In light of this latest research from Tufts University, I thought it might be interesting to review the “algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), robots, and world of work” situation before moving on to Tufts’ latest science discovery. My Feb. 5, 2015 post provides a roundup of sorts regarding work and automation. For those who’d like the latest, there’s a May 29, 2015 article by Sophie Weiner for Fast Company, featuring a predictive interactive tool designed by NPR (US National Public Radio) based on data from Oxford University researchers, which tells you how likely automating your job could be, no one knows for sure, (Note: A link has been removed),

Paralegals and food service workers: the robots are coming.

So suggests this interactive visualization by NPR. The bare-bones graphic lets you select a profession, from tellers and lawyers to psychologists and authors, to determine who is most at risk of losing their jobs in the coming robot revolution. From there, it spits out a percentage. …

You can find the interactive NPR tool here. I checked out the scientist category (in descending order of danger: Historians [43.9%], Economists, Geographers, Survey Researchers, Epidemiologists, Chemists, Animal Scientists, Sociologists, Astronomers, Social Scientists, Political Scientists, Materials Scientists, Conservation Scientists, and Microbiologists [1.2%]) none of whom seem to be in imminent danger if you consider that bookkeepers are rated at  97.6%.

Here at last is the news from Tufts (from a June 4, 2015 Tufts University news release, also on EurekAlert),

An artificial intelligence system has for the first time reverse-engineered the regeneration mechanism of planaria–the small worms whose extraordinary power to regrow body parts has made them a research model in human regenerative medicine.

The discovery by Tufts University biologists presents the first model of regeneration discovered by a non-human intelligence and the first comprehensive model of planarian regeneration, which had eluded human scientists for over 100 years. The work, published in PLOS Computational Biology, demonstrates how “robot science” can help human scientists in the future.

To mine the fast-growing mountain of published experimental data in regeneration and developmental biology Lobo and Levin developed an algorithm that would use evolutionary computation to produce regulatory networks able to “evolve” to accurately predict the results of published laboratory experiments that the researchers entered into a database.

“Our goal was to identify a regulatory network that could be executed in every cell in a virtual worm so that the head-tail patterning outcomes of simulated experiments would match the published data,” Lobo said.

The paper represents a successful application of the growing field of “robot science” – which Levin says can help human researchers by doing much more than crunch enormous datasets quickly.

“While the artificial intelligence in this project did have to do a whole lot of computations, the outcome is a theory of what the worm is doing, and coming up with theories of what’s going on in nature is pretty much the most creative, intuitive aspect of the scientist’s job,” Levin said. “One of the most remarkable aspects of the project was that the model it found was not a hopelessly-tangled network that no human could actually understand, but a reasonably simple model that people can readily comprehend. All this suggests to me that artificial intelligence can help with every aspect of science, not only data mining but also inference of meaning of the data.”

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

Inferring Regulatory Networks from Experimental Morphological Phenotypes: A Computational Method Reverse-Engineers Planarian Regeneration by Daniel Lobo and Michael Levin. PLOS (Computational Biology) DOI: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004295 Published: June 4, 2015

This paper is open access.

It will be interesting to see if attributing the discovery to an algorithm sets off criticism suggesting that the researchers overstated the role the AI assistant played.

Studying the “feather-legged lace weaver’s” (Uloborus plumipes) web weaving abilities

It’s more commonly known in Britain as a ‘garden centre spider’ but I like ‘feather-legged lace weaver’ better. Before getting to the story, here’s an image of the spider in question,

The "garden center spider" (Uloborus plumipes) combs and pulls its silk and builds up an electrostatic charge to create sticky filaments just a few nanometers thick. It could inspire a new way to make super long and strong nanofibers. Credit: Hartmut Kronenberger & Katrin Kronenberger (Oxford University)

The “garden center spider” (Uloborus plumipes) combs and pulls its silk and builds up an electrostatic charge to create sticky filaments just a few nanometers thick. It could inspire a new way to make super long and strong nanofibers.
Credit: Hartmut Kronenberger & Katrin Kronenberger (Oxford University)

A Jan. 27, 2015 Oxford University press release (also on EurekAlert and in a Jan. 29, 2015 news item on Azonano) describes the research,

A spider commonly found in garden centres in Britain is giving fresh insights into how to spin incredibly long and strong fibres just a few nanometres thick.

The majority of spiders spin silk threads several micrometres thick but unusually the ‘garden centre spider’ or ‘feather-legged lace weaver’ [1] Uloborus plumipes can spin nano-scale filaments. Now an Oxford University team think they are closer to understanding how this is done. Their findings could lead to technologies that would enable the commercial spinning of nano-scale filaments.

The research was carried out by Katrin Kronenberger and Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and is reported in the journal Biology Letters.

Instead of using sticky blobs of glue on their threads to capture prey Uloborus uses a more ancient technique – dry capture threads made of thousands of nano-scale filaments that it is thought to electrically charge to create these fluffed-up catching ropes.

To discover the secrets of its nano-fibres the Oxford researchers collected adult female Uloborus lace weavers from garden centres in Hampshire, UK. They then took photographs and videos of the spiders’ spinning action and used three different microscopy techniques to examine the spiders’ silk-generating organs. Of particular interest was the cribellum, an ancient spinning organ not found in many spiders and consisting of one or two plates densely covered in tiny silk outlet nozzles (spigots).

Uloborus has unique cribellar glands, amongst the smallest silk glands of any spider, and it’s these that yield the ultra-fine ‘catching wool’ of its prey capture thread,’ said Dr Katrin Kronenberger of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, the report’s first author. ‘The raw material, silk dope, is funnelled through exceptionally narrow and long ducts into tiny spinning nozzles or spigots. Importantly, the silk seems to form only just before it emerges at the uniquely-shaped spigots of this spider.’

False colour SEM image of a small part of the cribellum spinning plate with its unique silk outlets Image: Katrin Kronenberger (Oxford University) & David Johnston (University of Southampton)

False colour SEM image of a small part of the cribellum spinning plate with its unique silk outlets
Image: Katrin Kronenberger (Oxford University) & David Johnston (University of Southampton)

The cribellum of Uloborus is covered with thousands of tiny silk-producing units combining ducts that average 500 nanometres in length and spigots that narrow to a diameter of around 50 nanometres.

‘The swathe of gossamer, made of thousands of filaments, emerging from these spigots is actively combed out by the spider onto the capture thread’s core fibres using specialist hairs on its hind legs,’ said Professor Fritz Vollrath, the other author of the work. ‘This combing and hackling – violently pulling the thread – charges the fibres and the electrostatic interaction of this combination spinning process leads to regularly spaced, wool-like ‘puffs’ covering the capture threads. The extreme thinness of each filament, in addition to the charges applied during spinning, provides Van der Waals adhesion. And this makes these puffs immensely sticky.’

The cribellate capture thread of Uloborus plumipes, with its characteristic 'puffs', imaged with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Image: Fritz Vollrath (Oxford University)

The cribellate capture thread of Uloborus plumipes, with its characteristic ‘puffs’, imaged with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)
Image: Fritz Vollrath (Oxford University)

Conventionally, synthetic polymers fibres are produced by hot-melt extrusion: these typically have diameters of 10 micrometres or above. But because thread diameter is integral to filament strength, technology that could enable the commercial production of nano-scale filaments would make it possible to manufacture stronger and longer fibres.

‘Studying this spider is giving us valuable insights into how it creates nano-scale filaments,’ said Professor Vollrath. ‘If we could reproduce its neat trick of electro-spinning nano-fibres we could pave the way for a highly versatile and efficient new kind of polymer processing technology.’

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

Spiders spinning electrically charged nano-fibres by Katrin Kronenberger and Fritz Vollrath. January 2015 Volume: 11 Issue: 1 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0813 Published 28 January 2015

This is an open access paper. Note: Sometimes journals close access after a certain number of days so the paper may not be freely available after a certain time period.

More on Nanopolis in China’s Suzhou Industrial Park

As far as I can tell, the 2015 opening date for a new building is still in place but, in the meantime, publicists are working hard to remind everyone about China’s Nanopolis complex (mentioned here in a Jan. 20, 2014 posting, which includes an architectural rendering of the proposed new building).

For the latest information, there’s a Sept. 25  2014 news item on Nanowerk,

For several years now Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) has been channeling money, resources and talent into supporting three new strategic industries: nano-technology, biotechnology and cloud computing.

In 2011 it started building a hub for nano-tech development and commercialization called Nanopolis that today is a thriving and diverse economic community where research institutes, academics and start-up companies can co-exist and where new technology can flourish.

Nanopolis benefits from the cross-pollination of ideas that come from both academia and business as it is right next door to the Suzhou Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District and its 25 world-class universities.

Earlier this year the University of California, Los Angles [sic] (UCLA) set up an Institute for Technology Advancement that is developing R&D platforms focusing on areas such as new energy technology and in particular nanotechnology. And Oxford University will soon join the growing list of world-class universities setting up centers for innovation there.

To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs [initial public offerings {to raise money on stock exchanges}].

A Sept. 25, 2014 Suzhou Industrial Park news release (on Business Wire), which originated the news item, provides an interesting view of projects and ambitions for Nanopolis,

 To develop a critical mass at Nanopolis SIP has offered incentive plans and provided incubators and shared laboratories, even including nano-safety testing and evaluation. It has also helped companies access venture capital and private equity and eventually go public through IPOs.

Many companies in Nanopolis are already breaking new ground in the areas of micro and nano-manufacturing (nanofabrication, printed electronics and instruments and devices); energy and environment (batteries, power electronics, water treatment, air purification, clean tech); nano materials (nano particles, nano structure materials, functional nano materials, nano composite materials); and nano biotechnology (targeted drug delivery, nano diagnostics, nano medical devices and nano bio-materials).

Zhang Xijun, Nanopolis’ chief executive and president, says the high-tech hub goes beyond what typical incubators and accelerators provide their clients and he predicts that its importance will only grow over the next five years as demand for nano-technology applications continues to pick up speed.

“As more and more companies want upstream technology they are going to be looking more at nano-technology applications,” he says. “The regional and central government is taking this field very seriously–there is a lot of support.”

Nanopolis can also serve as a bridge for foreign companies in terms of China market entry. “Nanopolis has become like a gateway for companies to access the Chinese market, our research capabilities and Chinese talent,” he says.

Owen Huang, general manager of POLYNOVA, a nano-tech company that set up in SIP five years ago, counts Apple as one of its customers and has annual sales of US$4 million, says the excellent infrastructure, supply chain and international outlook in Nanopolis are part of its allure.

“This site works along the lines of foreign governments and there is no need to entertain local officials [as is often customary in other parts of China],” he says. “Everyone is treated the same according to international standards of business.”

Nanopolis also can serve as a kind of go-between for bilateral projects between businesses and governments in China and those from as far away as Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

In November 2012, for example, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and Finland’s Ministry of Employment and the Economy built the China-Finland Nano Innovation Centre to jointly develop cooperation in the research fields of micro-nanofabrication, functional materials and nano-biomedicine.

SIP is also raising the profile of nano-tech and its importance in Nanopolis by hosting international conferences and exhibitions. From Sept. 24-27 [2014] the industrial park is hosting the ChiNano conference, which will be attended by more than more 700 nano-tech specialists from over thirty countries.

Zhang emphasizes that collaboration between academia and industry is an essential aspect of innovation and commercialization and argues that Nanopolis’ appeal goes beyond professor-founded companies. “The companies are in a position to provide good internship programs for students and there are also joint professorship positions made possible,” he explains. “We can also optimize school courses so they are better linked to industry wherever possible.”

Nanopolis’ creators expect that their holistic approach to business development will attract more than 300 organizations and businesses and as many as 30,000 people to the site over the next five years.

Wang Yunjun, chief executive of Mesolight, is one of the success stories. Mesolight, a nano-tech company that specializes in semi-conductor nano-crystals or quantum dots used in flat panel TV screens, mobile phones and lighting devices, recently secured US$2 million in the first round of venture capital funding with the help of the industrial park’s connections in the industry.

Two years ago Wang moved to Nanopolis from Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had tried to get his company off the ground. He believes that returning to China and setting up his business in SIP was the best thing he could have done.

“The incubators in SIP are doing much more than the incubators in the United States,” he explains. “In the U.S. I was in an incubator but that just meant getting research space. Here I get a lot of resources. Most importantly, though, I was taught how to run a business.”

Albert Goldson, executive director of Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, notes that while the immediate benefits of the industrial park are evident, there are even greater implications over the long-term, including the loss of talented Chinese who leave China to study or set up companies abroad.

“If one creates an architecturally compelling urban design along with a high-tech and innovative hub it will attract young Chinese talent for the long term both professionally and personally,” he says.

Jiang Weiming, executive chairman of the Dushu Lake Science & Education Innovation District concedes that SIP is not Silicon Valley and says that is why the industrial park is evaluating its own DNA and working out its own solutions.

“We have put in place a plan to train nanotech-specific talent and the same for biotech and cloud computing,” he says. “I think the collaboration between the education institutions and the enterprises is fairly impressive.”

Jiang points to faculty members who have taken positions as chief technical officers and vice general managers of science at commercial enterprises so that they have a better idea of what the company needs and how educational institutes can support them. And that in turn is helpful for their own research and teaching.

“The biggest task is to create a healthy ecosystem here,” he concludes.

So far, at least, the ecosystem in Nanopolis and across the rest of the industrial park appears to be thriving.

“The companies will find the right partners,” SIP’s chairman Barry Yang says confidently. “It’s not what the government is here for. What we want to do is provide a good platform and a good environment …Companies are the actors and we build the theaters.”

Between the news item and Business Wire, the news release is here in its entirety since these materials can disappear from the web. While Nanowerk does make its materials available for years but it can’t hurt to have another copy here.

The Nanopolis website can be found here. Note: the English language option is not  operational as of today, Sept. 26, 2014. The Chinano 2014 conference (Sept. 24 – 26) website is here (English language version available).

Referencing Indo-Brazillian Associates LLC, a New York-based global advisory firm and think tank, may have been an indirect reference to the group of countries known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) or, sometimes, as BRIC ((Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Either of these entities may be mentioned with regard to a shift global power.

Self-assembling and disassembling nanotrain network

A Nov. 11, 2013 University of Oxford news release (also on EurekAlert dated as Nov. 10, 2013) highlights the first item I’ve seen about a nanostructure which both assembles and disassembles itself,

Tiny self-assembling transport networks, powered by nano-scale motors and controlled by DNA, have been developed by scientists at Oxford University and Warwick University.

The system can construct its own network of tracks spanning tens of micrometres in length, transport cargo across the network and even dismantle the tracks.

Researchers were inspired by the melanophore, used by fish cells to control their colour. Tracks in the network all come from a central point, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Motor proteins transport pigment around the network, either concentrating it in the centre or spreading it throughout the network. Concentrating pigment in the centre makes the cells lighter, as the surrounding space is left empty and transparent.

The researchers have provided an image,

Nanotrain network created by scientists at Oxford University: green dye-carrying shuttles after 'refuelling' with ATP travel towards the center of the network with their cargoes of green dye. Credit: Adam Wollman/Oxford University

Nanotrain network created by scientists at Oxford University: green dye-carrying shuttles after ‘refuelling’ with ATP travel towards the center of the network with their cargoes of green dye. Credit: Adam Wollman/Oxford University

The news release goes on to describe the system,

The system developed by the Oxford University team is very similar [to the melanophore used by fish cells], and is built from DNA and a motor protein called kinesin. Powered by ATP fuel, kinesins move along the micro-tracks carrying control modules made from short strands of DNA. ‘Assembler’ nanobots are made with two kinesin proteins, allowing them to move tracks around to assemble the network, whereas the ‘shuttles’ only need one kinesin protein to travel along the tracks.

‘DNA is an excellent building block for constructing synthetic molecular systems, as we can program it to do whatever we need,’ said Adam Wollman, who conducted the research at Oxford University’s Department of Physics. ‘We design the chemical structures of the DNA strands to control how they interact with each other. The shuttles can be used to either carry cargo or deliver signals to tell other shuttles what to do.

‘We first use assemblers to arrange the track into ‘spokes’, triggered by the introduction of ATP. We then send in shuttles with fluorescent green cargo which spread out across the track, covering it evenly. When we add more ATP, the shuttles all cluster in the centre of the track where the spokes meet. Next, we send signal shuttles along the tracks to tell the cargo-carrying shuttles to release the fluorescent cargo into the environment, where it disperses. We can also send shuttles programmed with ‘dismantle’ signals to the central hub, telling the tracks to break up.’

This demonstration used fluorescent green dyes as cargo, but the same methods could be applied to other compounds. As well as colour changes, spoke-like track systems could be used to speed up chemical reactions by bringing the necessary compounds together at the central hub. More broadly, using DNA to control motor proteins could enable the development of more sophisticated self-assembling systems for a wide variety of applications.

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

Transport and self-organization across different length scales powered by motor proteins and programmed by DNA by Adam J. M. Wollman, Carlos Sanchez-Cano, Helen M. J. Carstairs, Robert A. Cross, & Andrew J. Turberfield. Nature Nanotechnology (2013) doi:10.1038/nnano.2013.230 Published online 10 November 2013

This article is behind a paywall although you can preview it for free via ReadCube Access.

Get your online postgraduate certificate in nanotechnology from Oxford University

Oxford University (UK) is offering a number of nanotechnology programmes through its Continuing Education division. Excitingly, they are offering an online postgraduate certificate in nanotechnology. From the Feb. 29, 2012 notice,

Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education offers a number of technology and health-related courses and workshops. Please find below information about our Postgraduate Certificate in Nanotechnology.

Postgraduate Certificate in Nanotechnology

Developed by the University of Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park and the Department for Continuing Education, the Postgraduate Certificate in Nanotechnology is a quality online course aimed at professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds who wish to learn more about the foundations of nanotechnology, technological advances and the applications enabled by nanotechnology.

This part-time course is designed to be completed over nine months, using a blend of individual study of online learning materials, together with group work during online tutorials, discussions and research. The group sessions with tutors are particularly valuable because they offer highly authentic learning and assessment opportunities.

  • The Wider Context of Nanotechnology
  • The Fundamental Science of Nanotechnology
  • Fundamental Characterisation for Nanotechnology (featuring Nano-scale Materials Characterisation Residential Weekend)

Each of these modules may also be studied individually as a short course.

We are accepting applications for the new academic year. The deadline is 9 March 2012.

We are also accepting applications for the Fundamental Characterisation for Nanotechnology short course and Residential Weekend.

For further details, please visit our website (www.conted.ox.ac.uk/nano), or contact us on nano@conted.ox.ac.uk.

Given the deadline to apply for the postgraduate certificate studies in nanotechnology is March 9, 2012, you may want to rush here to apply.

Not mentioned is Oxford’s summer school programme in nanotechnology (from the Nanotechnology Summer School 2012 webpage),

Each year the Nanotechnology Summer School focuses on applications of nanotechnologies in a different field. Comprising presentations from leading researchers and practitioners from the University of Oxford and beyond, the Summer School is essential for anyone with an interest in these topics.

The theme of the fourth annual Nanotechnology Summer School in 2012 will be ‘Introduction to Bionanotechnology’.

It’s a one-week programme being held Monday July 2 – 6, 2012 at Oxford University. They are still taking applications but they have yet to decide on the programme fees. You can contact www.conted.ox.ac.uk/nano. for more information.

This course, The Wider Context of Nanotechnology, doesn’t start till October 2012 but you might want to start thinking about it now. A module that’s part of the online postgraduate certificate, it seems to have a residential component (two weeks). Here’s more from course description webpage,

Nanotechnology has received much attention from scientists and journalists in the last few years raising hopes of revolutionary developments in a wide range of technologies on an increasingly small scale, dramatic improvements to standards of living, and solutions to a variety of environmental, medical and communications problems. These have gone hand in hand with fears that a new technology will disrupt the markets of existing business sectors and that machines are running out of control.

The result has been a high degree of confusion at all levels of society as to the ethics, safety and business implications of this emerging series of technologies. The course addresses these issues and others in emphasising the interdisciplinary nature of nanotechnology. This is important because students who specialise in nanotechnology must be trained to appreciate a range of issues beyond the confines of pure science. Nanotechnology has applications in a broad range of fields and sectors of society. A student trained in electrical engineering, for example, who goes on to specialise in nanotechnology, may undertake a research project developing nanosensors that will be implanted in human subjects. He or she will therefore need to develop new skills to appreciate the broader ethical, societal and environmental implications of such research.

The development of interdisciplinary skills involves not only learning methods of reasoning and critical thinking, but also gaining experience with the dynamics and development of effective multi-disciplinary function. Technologists must become comfortable addressing various issues as an integral part of doing advanced research in a team that might draw upon the expertise of not only engineers, but also biologists, doctors, lawyers and business people. As the project evolves, knowledge of the place of nanotechnology in business, becomes increasingly important. The module teaches an understanding of the basic workings of how nanotechnology innovation is exploited, together with an understanding of the dynamics of entrepreneurship.

I highlighted a few bits I found particularly interesting. Perhaps not so oddly, there’s no mention of anyone from the arts such as writers, artists, dancers, etc. or anyone from the social sciences such as psychologists, sociologists, etc.  in these multidisciplinary teams.

Biology is the new physics?

Robin McKie, writing on the Guardian’s Science Desk blog (Notes & Theories), remarks on the fact that Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate for Medicine, is about be installed as president of the Royal Society at the end of November. From the Nov. 12, 2010 posting,

Paul Nurse has a modest way with his ideas. “Are you like me when you read books on relativity?” he asks. “You think you have got it and then you close the book, and you find it has all slipped away from you. And if you think you have trouble with relativity, wait till you take on quantum mechanics. It is utterly incomprehensible.” Not a bad admission for a Nobel prizewinner.

The point for Nurse is that biology is facing a similar leap into the incomprehensible as physics did at the beginning of the 20th century when the ordered world of Newtonian theory was replaced by relativity and quantum mechanics. [emphasis mine] Now a revolution awaits the study of living creatures.

There is a video of Paul Nurse talking about biology as a system on the Guardian site or you can take a look at this video (part 1 of 8 for a discussion on physics and unification theories that Nurse moderated  amongst Peter Galison, Sylvester James Gates Jr., Janna Levin and Leonard Susskind, at the 2008 World Science Festival in New York).

I find Nurse’s idea about biology facing some of the same issues as physics particularly interesting as I once found a piece written by a physicist who declared that science at the nanoscale meant that the study of biology was no longer necessary as we could amalgamate it with the study of chemistry and physics, i.e., we could return to the study of natural philosophy. About a year later I came across something written by a biologist declaring that physics and chemistry could be abolished as we could now fold them into the study of biology.

As I understand it, Nurse is not trying to abolish anything but merely pointing out that our understanding of biology may well undergo the same kind of transformation that physics did during the early part of the 20th century.