Tag Archives: Switzerland

World heritage music stored in DNA

It seems a Swiss team from the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) have collaborated with American companies Twist Bioscience and Microsoft, as well as, the University of Washington (state) to preserve two iconic jazz pieces on DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) according to a Sept. 29, 2017 news item on phys.org,,

Thanks to an innovative technology for encoding data in DNA strands, two items of world heritage – songs recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival [held in Switzerland] and digitized by EPFL – have been safeguarded for eternity. This marks the first time that cultural artifacts granted UNESCO heritage status have been saved in such a manner, ensuring they are preserved for thousands of years. The method was developed by US company Twist Bioscience and is being unveiled today in a demonstrator created at the EPFL+ECAL Lab.

“Tutu” by Miles Davis and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple have already made their mark on music history. Now they have entered the annals of science, for eternity. Recordings of these two legendary songs were digitized by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) as part of the Montreux Jazz Digital Project, and they are the first to be stored in the form of a DNA sequence that can be subsequently decoded and listened to without any reduction in quality.

A Sept. 29, 2017 EPFL press release by Emmanuel Barraud, which originated the news item, provides more details,

This feat was achieved by US company Twist Bioscience working in association with Microsoft Research and the University of Washington. The pioneering technology is actually based on a mechanism that has been at work on Earth for billions of years: storing information in the form of DNA strands. This fundamental process is what has allowed all living species, plants and animals alike, to live on from generation to generation.

The entire world wide web in a shoe box

All electronic data storage involves encoding data in binary format – a series of zeros and ones – and then recording it on a physical medium. DNA works in a similar way, but is composed of long strands of series of four nucleotides (A, T, C and G) that make up a “code.” While the basic principle may be the same, the two methods differ greatly in terms of efficiency: if all the information currently on the internet was stored in the form of DNA, it would fit in a shoe box!

Recent advances in biotechnology now make it possible for humans to do what Mother Nature has always done. Today’s scientists can create artificial DNA strands, “record” any kind of genetic code on them and then analyze them using a sequencer to reconstruct the original data. What’s more, DNA is extraordinarily stable, as evidenced by prehistoric fragments that have been preserved in amber. Artificial strands created by scientists and carefully encapsulated should likewise last for millennia.

To help demonstrate the feasibility of this new method, EPFL’s Metamedia Center provided recordings of two famous songs played at the Montreux Jazz Festival: “Tutu” by Miles Davis, and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Twist Bioscience and its research partners encoded the recordings, transformed them into DNA strands and then sequenced and decoded them and played them again – without any reduction in quality.

The amount of artificial DNA strands needed to record the two songs is invisible to the naked eye, and the amount needed to record all 50 years of the Festival’s archives, which have been included in UNESCO’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] Memory of the World Register, would be equal in size to a grain of sand. “Our partnership with EPFL in digitizing our archives aims not only at their positive exploration, but also at their preservation for the next generations,” says Thierry Amsallem, president of the Claude Nobs Foundation. “By taking part in this pioneering experiment which writes the songs into DNA strands, we can be certain that they will be saved on a medium that will never become obsolete!”

A new concept of time

At EPFL’s first-ever ArtTech forum, attendees got to hear the two songs played after being stored in DNA, using a demonstrator developed at the EPFL+ECAL Lab. The system shows that being able to store data for thousands of years is a revolutionary breakthrough that can completely change our relationship with data, memory and time. “For us, it means looking into radically new ways of interacting with cultural heritage that can potentially cut across civilizations,” says Nicolas Henchoz, head of the EPFL+ECAL Lab.

Quincy Jones, a longstanding Festival supporter, is particularly enthusiastic about this technological breakthrough: “With advancements in nanotechnology, I believe we can expect to see people living prolonged lives, and with that, we can also expect to see more developments in the enhancement of how we live. For me, life is all about learning where you came from in order to get where you want to go, but in order to do so, you need access to history! And with the unreliability of how archives are often stored, I sometimes worry that our future generations will be left without such access… So, it absolutely makes my soul smile to know that EPFL, Twist Bioscience and their partners are coming together to preserve the beauty and history of the Montreux Jazz Festival for our future generations, on DNA! I’ve been a part of this festival for decades and it truly is a magnificent representation of what happens when different cultures unite for the sake of music. Absolute magic. And I’m proud to know that the memory of this special place will never be lost.

A Sept. 29, 2017 Twist Bioscience news release is repetitive in some ways but interesting nonetheless,

Twist Bioscience, a company accelerating science and innovation through rapid, high-quality DNA synthesis, today announced that, working with Microsoft and University of Washington researchers, they have successfully stored archival-quality audio recordings of two important music performances from the archives of the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival.
These selections are encoded and stored in nature’s preferred storage medium, DNA, for the first time. These tiny specks of DNA will preserve a part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Archive, where valuable cultural heritage collections are recorded. This is the first time DNA has been used as a long-term archival-quality storage medium.
Quincy Jones, world-renowned Entertainment Executive, Music Composer and Arranger, Musician and Music Producer said, “With advancements in nanotechnology, I believe we can expect to see people living prolonged lives, and with that, we can also expect to see more developments in the enhancement of how we live. For me, life is all about learning where you came from in order to get where you want to go, but in order to do so, you need access to history! And with the unreliability of how archives are often stored, I sometimes worry that our future generations will be left without such access…So, it absolutely makes my soul smile to know that EPFL, Twist Bioscience and others are coming together to preserve the beauty and history of the Montreux Jazz Festival for our future generations, on DNA!…I’ve been a part of this festival for decades and it truly is a magnificent representation of what happens when different cultures unite for the sake of music. Absolute magic. And I’m proud to know that the memory of this special place will never be lost.”
“Our partnership with EPFL in digitizing our archives aims not only at their positive exploration, but also at their preservation for the next generations,” says Thierry Amsallem, president of the Claude Nobs Foundation. “By taking part in this pioneering experiment which writes the songs into DNA strands, we can be certain that they will be saved on a medium that will never become obsolete!”
The Montreux Jazz Digital Project is a collaboration between the Claude Nobs Foundation, curator of the Montreux Jazz Festival audio-visual collection and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to digitize, enrich, store, show, and preserve this notable legacy created by Claude Nobs, the Festival’s founder.
In this proof-of-principle project, two quintessential music performances from the Montreux Jazz Festival – Smoke on the Water, performed by Deep Purple and Tutu, performed by Miles Davis – have been encoded onto DNA and read back with 100 percent accuracy. After being decoded, the songs were played on September 29th [2017] at the ArtTech Forum (see below) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Smoke on the Water was selected as a tribute to Claude Nobs, the Montreux Jazz Festival’s founder. The song memorializes a fire and Funky Claude’s rescue efforts at the Casino Barrière de Montreux during a Frank Zappa concert promoted by Claude Nobs. Miles Davis’ Tutu was selected for the role he played in music history and the Montreux Jazz Festival’s success. Miles Davis died in 1991.
“We archived two magical musical pieces on DNA of this historic collection, equating to 140MB of stored data in DNA,” said Karin Strauss, Ph.D., a Senior Researcher at Microsoft, and one of the project’s leaders.  “The amount of DNA used to store these songs is much smaller than one grain of sand. Amazingly, storing the entire six petabyte Montreux Jazz Festival’s collection would result in DNA smaller than one grain of rice.”
Luis Ceze, Ph.D., a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, said, “DNA, nature’s preferred information storage medium, is an ideal fit for digital archives because of its durability, density and eternal relevance. Storing items from the Montreux Jazz Festival is a perfect way to show how fast DNA digital data storage is becoming real.”
Nature’s Preferred Storage Medium
Nature selected DNA as its hard drive billions of years ago to encode all the genetic instructions necessary for life. These instructions include all the information necessary for survival. DNA molecules encode information with sequences of discrete units. In computers, these discrete units are the 0s and 1s of “binary code,” whereas in DNA molecules, the units are the four distinct nucleotide bases: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).
“DNA is a remarkably efficient molecule that can remain stable for millennia,” said Bill Peck, Ph.D., chief technology officer of Twist Bioscience.  “This is a very exciting project: we are now in an age where we can use the remarkable efficiencies of nature to archive master copies of our cultural heritage in DNA.   As we develop the economies of this process new performances can be added any time.  Unlike current storage technologies, nature’s media will not change and will remain readable through time. There will be no new technology to replace DNA, nature has already optimized the format.”
DNA: Far More Efficient Than a Computer 
Each cell within the human body contains approximately three billion base pairs of DNA. With 75 trillion cells in the human body, this equates to the storage of 150 zettabytes (1021) of information within each body. By comparison, the largest data centers can be hundreds of thousands to even millions of square feet to hold a comparable amount of stored data.
The Elegance of DNA as a Storage Medium
Like music, which can be widely varied with a finite number of notes, DNA encodes individuality with only four different letters in varied combinations. When using DNA as a storage medium, there are several advantages in addition to the universality of the format and incredible storage density. DNA can be stable for thousands of years when stored in a cool dry place and is easy to copy using polymerase chain reaction to create back-up copies of archived material. In addition, because of PCR, small data sets can be targeted and recovered quickly from a large dataset without needing to read the entire file.
How to Store Digital Data in DNA
To encode the music performances into archival storage copies in DNA, Twist Bioscience worked with Microsoft and University of Washington researchers to complete four steps: Coding, synthesis/storage, retrieval and decoding. First, the digital files were converted from the binary code using 0s and 1s into sequences of A, C, T and G. For purposes of the example, 00 represents A, 10 represents C, 01 represents G and 11 represents T. Twist Bioscience then synthesizes the DNA in short segments in the sequence order provided. The short DNA segments each contain about 12 bytes of data as well as a sequence number to indicate their place within the overall sequence. This is the process of storage. And finally, to ensure that the file is stored accurately, the sequence is read back to ensure 100 percent accuracy, and then decoded from A, C, T or G into a two-digit binary representation.
Importantly, to encapsulate and preserve encoded DNA, the collaborators are working with Professor Dr. Robert Grass of ETH Zurich. Grass has developed an innovative technology inspired by preservation of DNA within prehistoric fossils.  With this technology, digital data encoded in DNA remains preserved for millennia.
About UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register
UNESCO established the Memory of the World Register in 1992 in response to a growing awareness of the perilous state of preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage in various parts of the world.  Through its National Commissions, UNESCO prepared a list of endangered library and archive holdings and a world list of national cinematic heritage.
A range of pilot projects employing contemporary technology to reproduce original documentary heritage on other media began. These included, for example, a CD-ROM of the 13th Century Radzivill Chronicle, tracing the origins of the peoples of Europe, and Memoria de Iberoamerica, a joint newspaper microfilming project involving seven Latin American countries. These projects enhanced access to this documentary heritage and contributed to its preservation.
“We are incredibly proud to be a part of this momentous event, with the first archived songs placed into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register,” said Emily Leproust, Ph.D., CEO of Twist Bioscience.
About ArtTech
The ArtTech Foundation, created by renowned scientists and dignitaries from Crans-Montana, Switzerland, wishes to stimulate reflection and support pioneering and innovative projects beyond the known boundaries of culture and science.
Benefitting from the establishment of a favorable environment for the creation of technology companies, the Foundation aims to position itself as key promoter of ideas and innovative endeavors within a landscape of “Culture and Science” that is still being shaped.
Several initiatives, including our annual global platform launched in the spring of 2017, are helping to create a community that brings together researchers, celebrities in the world of culture and the arts, as well as investors and entrepreneurs from Switzerland and across the globe.
 
About EPFL
EPFL, one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, based in Lausanne, is Europe’s most cosmopolitan technical university with students, professors and staff from over 120 nations. A dynamic environment, open to Switzerland and the world, EPFL is centered on its three missions: teaching, research and technology transfer. EPFL works together with an extensive network of partners including other universities and institutes of technology, developing and emerging countries, secondary schools and colleges, industry and economy, political circles and the general public, to bring about real impact for society.
About Twist Bioscience
At Twist Bioscience, our expertise is accelerating science and innovation by leveraging the power of scale. We have developed a proprietary semiconductor-based synthetic DNA manufacturing process featuring a high throughput silicon platform capable of producing synthetic biology tools, including genes, oligonucleotide pools and variant libraries. By synthesizing DNA on silicon instead of on traditional 96-well plastic plates, our platform overcomes the current inefficiencies of synthetic DNA production, and enables cost-effective, rapid, high-quality and high throughput synthetic gene production, which in turn, expedites the design, build and test cycle to enable personalized medicines, pharmaceuticals, sustainable chemical production, improved agriculture production, diagnostics and biodetection. We are also developing new technologies to address large scale data storage. For more information, please visit www.twistbioscience.com. Twist Bioscience is on Twitter. Sign up to follow our Twitter feed @TwistBioscience at https://twitter.com/TwistBioscience.

If you hadn’t read the EPFL press release first, it might have taken a minute to figure out why EPFL is being mentioned in the Twist Bioscience news release. Presumably someone was rushing to make a deadline. Ah well, I’ve seen and written worse.

I haven’t been able to find any video or audio recordings of the DNA-preserved performances but there is an informational video (originally published July 7, 2016) from Microsoft and the University of Washington describing the DNA-based technology,

I also found this description of listening to the DNA-preserved music in an Oct. 6, 2017 blog posting for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Day 6 radio programme,

To listen to them, one must first suspend the DNA holding the songs in a solution. Next, one can use a DNA sequencer to read the letters of the bases forming the molecules. Then, algorithms can determine the digital code those letters form. From that code, comes the music.

It’s complicated but Ceze says his team performed this process without error.

You can find out more about UNESCO’s Memory of the World and its register here , more about the EPFL+ECAL Lab here, and more about Twist Bioscience here.

Hallucinogenic molecules and the brain

Psychedelic drugs seems to be enjoying a ‘moment’. After decades of being vilified and  declared illegal (in many jurisdictions), psychedelic (or hallucinogenic) drugs are once again being tested for use in therapy. A Sept. 1, 2017 article by Diana Kwon for The Scientist describes some of the latest research (I’ve excerpted the section on molecules; Note: Links have been removed),

Mind-bending molecules

© SEAN MCCABE

All the classic psychedelic drugs—psilocybin, LSD, and N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active component in ayahuasca—activate serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors, which are distributed throughout the brain. In all likelihood, this receptor plays a key role in the drugs’ effects. Krähenmann [Rainer Krähenmann, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Zurich]] and his colleagues in Zurich have discovered that ketanserin, a 5-HT2A receptor antagonist, blocks LSD’s hallucinogenic properties and prevents individuals from entering a dreamlike state or attributing personal relevance to the experience.12,13

Other research groups have found that, in rodent brains, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine (DOI), a highly potent and selective 5-HT2A receptor agonist, can modify the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that, among other things, regulates neuronal survival, differentiation, and synaptic plasticity. This has led some scientists to hypothesize that, through this pathway, psychedelics may enhance neuroplasticity, the ability to form new neuronal connections in the brain.14 “We’re still working on that and trying to figure out what is so special about the receptor and where it is involved,” says Katrin Preller, a postdoc studying psychedelics at the University of Zurich. “But it seems like this combination of serotonin 2A receptors and BDNF leads to a kind of different organizational state in the brain that leads to what people experience under the influence of psychedelics.”

This serotonin receptor isn’t limited to the central nervous system. Work by Charles Nichols, a pharmacology professor at Louisiana State University, has revealed that 5-HT2A receptor agonists can reduce inflammation throughout the body. Nichols and his former postdoc Bangning Yu stumbled upon this discovery by accident, while testing the effects of DOI on smooth muscle cells from rat aortas. When they added this drug to the rodent cells in culture, it blocked the effects of tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), a key inflammatory cytokine.

“It was completely unexpected,” Nichols recalls. The effects were so bewildering, he says, that they repeated the experiment twice to convince themselves that the results were correct. Before publishing the findings in 2008,15 they tested a few other 5-HT2A receptor agonists, including LSD, and found consistent anti-inflammatory effects, though none of the drugs’ effects were as strong as DOI’s. “Most of the psychedelics I have tested are about as potent as a corticosteroid at their target, but there’s something very unique about DOI that makes it much more potent,” Nichols says. “That’s one of the mysteries I’m trying to solve.”

After seeing the effect these drugs could have in cells, Nichols and his team moved on to whole animals. When they treated mouse models of system-wide inflammation with DOI, they found potent anti-inflammatory effects throughout the rodents’ bodies, with the strongest effects in the small intestine and a section of the main cardiac artery known as the aortic arch.16 “I think that’s really when it felt that we were onto something big, when we saw it in the whole animal,” Nichols says.

The group is now focused on testing DOI as a potential therapeutic for inflammatory diseases. In a 2015 study, they reported that DOI could block the development of asthma in a mouse model of the condition,17 and last December, the team received a patent to use DOI for four indications: asthma, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. They are now working to move the treatment into clinical trials. The benefit of using DOI for these conditions, Nichols says, is that because of its potency, only small amounts will be required—far below the amounts required to produce hallucinogenic effects.

In addition to opening the door to a new class of diseases that could benefit from psychedelics-inspired therapy, Nichols’s work suggests “that there may be some enduring changes that are mediated through anti-inflammatory effects,” Griffiths [Roland Griffiths, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University] says. Recent studies suggest that inflammation may play a role in a number of psychological disorders, including depression18 and addiction.19

“If somebody has neuroinflammation and that’s causing depression, and something like psilocybin makes it better through the subjective experience but the brain is still inflamed, it’s going to fall back into the depressed rut,” Nichols says. But if psilocybin is also treating the inflammation, he adds, “it won’t have that rut to fall back into.”

If it turns out that psychedelics do have anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, the drugs’ therapeutic uses could be even broader than scientists now envision. “In terms of neurodegenerative disease, every one of these disorders is mediated by inflammatory cytokines,” says Juan Sanchez-Ramos, a neuroscientist at the University of South Florida who in 2013 reported that small doses of psilocybin could promote neurogenesis in the mouse hippocampus.20 “That’s why I think, with Alzheimer’s, for example, if you attenuate the inflammation, it could help slow the progression of the disease.”

For anyone who was never exposed to the anti-hallucinogenic drug campaigns, this turn of events is mindboggling. There was a great deal of concern especially with LSD in the 1960s and it was not entirely unfounded. In my own family, a distant cousin, while under the influence of the drug, jumped off a building believing he could fly.  So, Kwon’s story opening with a story about someone being treated successfully for depression with a psychedelic drug was surprising to me . Why these drugs are being used successfully for psychiatric conditions when so much damage was apparently done under the influence in decades past may have something to do with taking the drugs in a controlled environment and, possibly, smaller dosages.

Congratulate China on the world’s first quantum communication network

China has some exciting news about the world’s first quantum network; it’s due to open in late August 2017 so you may want to have your congratulations in order for later this month.

An Aug. 4, 2017 news item on phys.org makes the announcement,

As malicious hackers find ever more sophisticated ways to launch attacks, China is about to launch the Jinan Project, the world’s first unhackable computer network, and a major milestone in the development of quantum technology.

Named after the eastern Chinese city where the technology was developed, the network is planned to be fully operational by the end of August 2017. Jinan is the hub of the Beijing-Shanghai quantum network due to its strategic location between the two principal Chinese metropolises.

“We plan to use the network for national defence, finance and other fields, and hope to spread it out as a pilot that if successful can be used across China and the whole world,” commented Zhou Fei, assistant director of the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology, who was speaking to Britain’s Financial Times.

An Aug. 3, 2017 CORDIS (Community Research and Development Research Information Service [for the European Commission]) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the technology,

By launching the network, China will become the first country worldwide to implement quantum technology for a real life, commercial end. It also highlights that China is a key global player in the rush to develop technologies based on quantum principles, with the EU and the United States also vying for world leadership in the field.

The network, known as a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) network, is more secure than widely used electronic communication equivalents. Unlike a conventional telephone or internet cable, which can be tapped without the sender or recipient being aware, a QKD network alerts both users to any tampering with the system as soon as it occurs. This is because tampering immediately alters the information being relayed, with the disturbance being instantly recognisable. Once fully implemented, it will make it almost impossible for other governments to listen in on Chinese communications.

In the Jinan network, some 200 users from China’s military, government, finance and electricity sectors will be able to send messages safe in the knowledge that only they are reading them. It will be the world’s longest land-based quantum communications network, stretching over 2 000 km.

Also speaking to the ‘Financial Times’, quantum physicist Tim Byrnes, based at New York University’s (NYU) Shanghai campus commented: ‘China has achieved staggering things with quantum research… It’s amazing how quickly China has gotten on with quantum research projects that would be too expensive to do elsewhere… quantum communication has been taken up by the commercial sector much more in China compared to other countries, which means it is likely to pull ahead of Europe and US in the field of quantum communication.’

However, Europe is also determined to also be at the forefront of the ‘quantum revolution’ which promises to be one of the major defining technological phenomena of the twenty-first century. The EU has invested EUR 550 million into quantum technologies and has provided policy support to researchers through the 2016 Quantum Manifesto.

Moreover, with China’s latest achievement (and a previous one already notched up from July 2017 when its quantum satellite – the world’s first – sent a message to Earth on a quantum communication channel), it looks like the race to be crowned the world’s foremost quantum power is well and truly underway…

Prior to this latest announcement, Chinese scientists had published work about quantum satellite communications, a development that makes their imminent terrestrial quantum network possible. Gabriel Popkin wrote about the quantum satellite in a June 15, 2017 article Science magazine,

Quantum entanglement—physics at its strangest—has moved out of this world and into space. In a study that shows China’s growing mastery of both the quantum world and space science, a team of physicists reports that it sent eerily intertwined quantum particles from a satellite to ground stations separated by 1200 kilometers, smashing the previous world record. The result is a stepping stone to ultrasecure communication networks and, eventually, a space-based quantum internet.

“It’s a huge, major achievement,” says Thomas Jennewein, a physicist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “They started with this bold idea and managed to do it.”

Entanglement involves putting objects in the peculiar limbo of quantum superposition, in which an object’s quantum properties occupy multiple states at once: like Schrödinger’s cat, dead and alive at the same time. Then those quantum states are shared among multiple objects. Physicists have entangled particles such as electrons and photons, as well as larger objects such as superconducting electric circuits.

Theoretically, even if entangled objects are separated, their precarious quantum states should remain linked until one of them is measured or disturbed. That measurement instantly determines the state of the other object, no matter how far away. The idea is so counterintuitive that Albert Einstein mocked it as “spooky action at a distance.”

Starting in the 1970s, however, physicists began testing the effect over increasing distances. In 2015, the most sophisticated of these tests, which involved measuring entangled electrons 1.3 kilometers apart, showed once again that spooky action is real.

Beyond the fundamental result, such experiments also point to the possibility of hack-proof communications. Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be “quantum keys” that secure communications. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.

But entangled photons degrade rapidly as they pass through the air or optical fibers. So far, the farthest anyone has sent a quantum key is a few hundred kilometers. “Quantum repeaters” that rebroadcast quantum information could extend a network’s reach, but they aren’t yet mature. Many physicists have dreamed instead of using satellites to send quantum information through the near-vacuum of space. “Once you have satellites distributing your quantum signals throughout the globe, you’ve done it,” says Verónica Fernández Mármol, a physicist at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. …

Popkin goes on to detail the process for making the discovery in easily accessible (for the most part) writing and in a video and a graphic.

Russell Brandom writing for The Verge in a June 15, 2017 article about the Chinese quantum satellite adds detail about previous work and teams in other countries also working on the challenge (Note: Links have been removed),

Quantum networking has already shown promise in terrestrial fiber networks, where specialized routing equipment can perform the same trick over conventional fiber-optic cable. The first such network was a DARPA-funded connection established in 2003 between Harvard, Boston University, and a private lab. In the years since, a number of companies have tried to build more ambitious connections. The Swiss company ID Quantique has mapped out a quantum network that would connect many of North America’s largest data centers; in China, a separate team is working on a 2,000-kilometer quantum link between Beijing and Shanghai, which would rely on fiber to span an even greater distance than the satellite link. Still, the nature of fiber places strict limits on how far a single photon can travel.

According to ID Quantique, a reliable satellite link could connect the existing fiber networks into a single globe-spanning quantum network. “This proves the feasibility of quantum communications from space,” ID Quantique CEO Gregoire Ribordy tells The Verge. “The vision is that you have regional quantum key distribution networks over fiber, which can connect to each other through the satellite link.”

China isn’t the only country working on bringing quantum networks to space. A collaboration between the UK’s University of Strathclyde and the National University of Singapore is hoping to produce the same entanglement in cheap, readymade satellites called Cubesats. A Canadian team is also developing a method of producing entangled photons on the ground before sending them into space.

I wonder if there’s going to be an invitational event for scientists around the world to celebrate the launch.

Bandage with a voice (sort of)

Researchers at Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) have not developed a talking bandage despite the title (Bandage with a Voice) for a July 4, 2017 Empa press release  (also a July 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

A novel bandage alerts the nursing staff as soon as a wound starts healing badly. Sensors incorporated into the base material glow with a different intensity if the wound’s pH level changes. This way even chronic wounds could be monitored at home.

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Using a UV lamp, the pH level in the wound can be verified without removing the bandage and the healing process can continue unimpeded. Image: Empa / CSEM

All too often, changing bandages is extremely unpleasant, even for smaller, everyday injuries. It stings and pulls, and sometimes a scab will even start bleeding again. And so we prefer to wait until the bandage drops off by itself.

It’s a different story with chronic wounds, though: normally, the nursing staff has to change the dressing regularly – not just for reasons of hygiene, but also to examine the wound, take swabs and clean it. Not only does this irritate the skin unnecessarily; bacteria can also get in, the risk of infection soars. It would be much better to leave the bandage on for longer and have the nursing staff “read” the condition of the wound from outside.

The idea of being able to see through a wound dressing gave rise to the project Flusitex (Fluorescence sensing integrated into medical textiles), which is being funded by the Swiss initiative Nano-Tera. Researchers from Empa teamed up with ETH Zurich, Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM) and University Hospital Zurich to develop a high-tech system that is supposed to supply the nursing staff with relevant data about the condition of a wound. As Luciano Boesel from Empa’s Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles, who is coordinating the project at Empa, explains: “The idea of a smart wound dressing with integrated sensors is to provide continuous information on the state of the healing process without the bandages having to be changed any more frequently than necessary.” This would mean a gentler treatment for patients, less work for the nursing staff and, therefore, lower costs: globally, around 17 billion $ were spent on treating wounds last year.

When wounds heal, the body produces specific substances in a complex sequence of biochemical processes, which leads to a significant variation in a number of metabolic parameters. For instance, the amount of glucose and oxygen rises and falls depending on the phase of the healing process; likewise does the pH level change. All these variations can be detected with specialized sensors. With this in mind, Empa teamed up with project partner CSEM to develop a portable, cheap and easy-to-use device for measuring fluorescence that is capable of monitoring several parameters at once. It should enable nursing staff to keep tabs on the pH as well as on glucose and oxygen levels while the wound heals. If these change, conclusions about other key biochemical processes involved in wound healing can be drawn.

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The bandage reveals ist measurings in UV light.
A high pH signals chronic wounds

The pH level is particularly useful for chronic wounds. If the wound heals normally, the pH rises to 8 before falling to 5 or 6. If a wound fails to close and becomes chronic, however, the pH level fluctuates between 7 and 8. Therefore, it would be helpful if a signal on the bandage could inform the nursing staff that the wound pH is permanently high. If the bandage does not need changing for reasons of hygiene and pH levels are low, on the other hand, they could afford to wait.

But how do the sensors work? The idea: if certain substances appear in the wound fluid, “customized” fluorescent sensor molecules respond with a physical signal. They start glowing and some even change color in the visible or ultra-violet (UV) range. Thanks to a color scale, weaker and stronger changes in color can be detected and the quantity of the emitted substance be deduced.

Empa chemist Guido Panzarasa from the Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles vividly demonstrates how a sample containing sensor molecules begins to fluoresce in the lab. He carefully drips a solution with a pH level of 7.5 into a dish. Under a UV light, the change is plain to see. He adds another solution and the luminescence fades. A glance at the little bottle confirms it: the pH level of the second solution is lower.

Luminous molecules under UV

The Empa team designed a molecule composed of benzalkonium chloride and pyranine. While benzalkonium chloride is a substance also used for conventional medical soap to combat bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms, pyranine is a dye found in highlighters that glows under UV light. “This biomarker works really well,” says Panzarasa; “especially at pH levels between 5.5 and 7.5. The colors can be visualized with simple UV lamps available in electronics stores.” The Empa team recently published their results in the journal “Sensors and Actuators”.

The designer molecule has another advantage: thanks to the benzalkonium chloride, it has an antimicrobial effect, as researchers from Empa’s Laboratory for Biointerfaces confirmed for the bacteria strain Staphylococcus aureus. Unwelcome bacteria might potentially also be combatted by selecting the right bandage material in future. As further investigations, such as on the chemical’s compatibility with cells and tissues, are currently lacking, however, the researchers do not yet know how their sensor works in a complex wound.

Keen interest from industry

In order to illustrate what a smart wound dressing might actually look like in future, Boesel places a prototype on the lab bench. “You don’t have to cover the entire surface of wound dressings with sensors,” he explains. “It’s enough for a few small areas to be impregnated with the pyranine benzalkonium molecules and integrated into the base material. This means the industrial wound dressings won’t be much pricier than they are now – only up to 20% more expensive.” Empa scientists are currently working on this in the follow-up project FlusiTex-Gateway in cooperation with industrial partners Flawa, Schöller, Kenzen and Theranoptics.
Panzarasa now drips various liquids with different pH levels onto all the little cylinders on the wound pad prototype. Sure enough, the lighter and darker dots are also clearly discernible as soon as the UV lamp is switched on. They are even visible to the naked eye and glow in bright yellow if liquids with a high pH come into contact with the sensor. The scientists are convinced: since the pH level is so easy to read and provides precise information about the acidic or alkaline state of the sample, this kind of wound dressing is just the ticket as a diagnostic tool. Using the fluorescence meter developed by CSEM, more accurate, quantitative measure-ments of the pH level can be accomplished for medical purposes.

According to Boesel, it might one day even be possible to read the signals with the aid of a smartphone camera. Combined with a simple app, nursing staff and doctors would have a tool that enables them to easily and conveniently read the wound status “from outside”, even without a UV lamp. And patients would then also have the possibility of detecting the early onset of a chronic wound at home.

I wonder how long or even if this innovation will ever make its way into medical practice. I’m guessing this stage would be described as ‘proof of concept’ and that clinical testing is still many years away.

The metaphor in the press release’s title helped to wake me up. Thank you to whoever wrote it.

Brain stuff: quantum entanglement and a multi-dimensional universe

I have two brain news bits, one about neural networks and quantum entanglement and another about how the brain operates on more than three dimensions.

Quantum entanglement and neural networks

A June 13, 2017 news item on phys.org describes how machine learning can be used to solve problems in physics (Note: Links have been removed),

Machine learning, the field that’s driving a revolution in artificial intelligence, has cemented its role in modern technology. Its tools and techniques have led to rapid improvements in everything from self-driving cars and speech recognition to the digital mastery of an ancient board game.

Now, physicists are beginning to use machine learning tools to tackle a different kind of problem, one at the heart of quantum physics. In a paper published recently in Physical Review X, researchers from JQI [Joint Quantum Institute] and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland showed that certain neural networks—abstract webs that pass information from node to node like neurons in the brain—can succinctly describe wide swathes of quantum systems.

An artist’s rendering of a neural network with two layers. At the top is a real quantum system, like atoms in an optical lattice. Below is a network of hidden neurons that capture their interactions (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)

A June 12, 2017 JQI news release by Chris Cesare, which originated the news item, describes how neural networks can represent quantum entanglement,

Dongling Deng, a JQI Postdoctoral Fellow who is a member of CMTC and the paper’s first author, says that researchers who use computers to study quantum systems might benefit from the simple descriptions that neural networks provide. “If we want to numerically tackle some quantum problem,” Deng says, “we first need to find an efficient representation.”

On paper and, more importantly, on computers, physicists have many ways of representing quantum systems. Typically these representations comprise lists of numbers describing the likelihood that a system will be found in different quantum states. But it becomes difficult to extract properties or predictions from a digital description as the number of quantum particles grows, and the prevailing wisdom has been that entanglement—an exotic quantum connection between particles—plays a key role in thwarting simple representations.

The neural networks used by Deng and his collaborators—CMTC Director and JQI Fellow Sankar Das Sarma and Fudan University physicist and former JQI Postdoctoral Fellow Xiaopeng Li—can efficiently represent quantum systems that harbor lots of entanglement, a surprising improvement over prior methods.

What’s more, the new results go beyond mere representation. “This research is unique in that it does not just provide an efficient representation of highly entangled quantum states,” Das Sarma says. “It is a new way of solving intractable, interacting quantum many-body problems that uses machine learning tools to find exact solutions.”

Neural networks and their accompanying learning techniques powered AlphaGo, the computer program that beat some of the world’s best Go players last year (link is external) (and the top player this year (link is external)). The news excited Deng, an avid fan of the board game. Last year, around the same time as AlphaGo’s triumphs, a paper appeared that introduced the idea of using neural networks to represent quantum states (link is external), although it gave no indication of exactly how wide the tool’s reach might be. “We immediately recognized that this should be a very important paper,” Deng says, “so we put all our energy and time into studying the problem more.”

The result was a more complete account of the capabilities of certain neural networks to represent quantum states. In particular, the team studied neural networks that use two distinct groups of neurons. The first group, called the visible neurons, represents real quantum particles, like atoms in an optical lattice or ions in a chain. To account for interactions between particles, the researchers employed a second group of neurons—the hidden neurons—which link up with visible neurons. These links capture the physical interactions between real particles, and as long as the number of connections stays relatively small, the neural network description remains simple.

Specifying a number for each connection and mathematically forgetting the hidden neurons can produce a compact representation of many interesting quantum states, including states with topological characteristics and some with surprising amounts of entanglement.

Beyond its potential as a tool in numerical simulations, the new framework allowed Deng and collaborators to prove some mathematical facts about the families of quantum states represented by neural networks. For instance, neural networks with only short-range interactions—those in which each hidden neuron is only connected to a small cluster of visible neurons—have a strict limit on their total entanglement. This technical result, known as an area law, is a research pursuit of many condensed matter physicists.

These neural networks can’t capture everything, though. “They are a very restricted regime,” Deng says, adding that they don’t offer an efficient universal representation. If they did, they could be used to simulate a quantum computer with an ordinary computer, something physicists and computer scientists think is very unlikely. Still, the collection of states that they do represent efficiently, and the overlap of that collection with other representation methods, is an open problem that Deng says is ripe for further exploration.

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

Quantum Entanglement in Neural Network States by Dong-Ling Deng, Xiaopeng Li, and S. Das Sarma. Phys. Rev. X 7, 021021 – Published 11 May 2017

This paper is open access.

Blue Brain and the multidimensional universe

Blue Brain is a Swiss government brain research initiative which officially came to life in 2006 although the initial agreement between the École Politechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IBM was signed in 2005 (according to the project’s Timeline page). Moving on, the project’s latest research reveals something astounding (from a June 12, 2017 Frontiers Publishing press release on EurekAlert),

For most people, it is a stretch of the imagination to understand the world in four dimensions but a new study has discovered structures in the brain with up to eleven dimensions – ground-breaking work that is beginning to reveal the brain’s deepest architectural secrets.

Using algebraic topology in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.

The research, published today in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, shows that these structures arise when a group of neurons forms a clique: each neuron connects to every other neuron in the group in a very specific way that generates a precise geometric object. The more neurons there are in a clique, the higher the dimension of the geometric object.

“We found a world that we had never imagined,” says neuroscientist Henry Markram, director of Blue Brain Project and professor at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, “there are tens of millions of these objects even in a small speck of the brain, up through seven dimensions. In some networks, we even found structures with up to eleven dimensions.”

Markram suggests this may explain why it has been so hard to understand the brain. “The mathematics usually applied to study networks cannot detect the high-dimensional structures and spaces that we now see clearly.”

If 4D worlds stretch our imagination, worlds with 5, 6 or more dimensions are too complex for most of us to comprehend. This is where algebraic topology comes in: a branch of mathematics that can describe systems with any number of dimensions. The mathematicians who brought algebraic topology to the study of brain networks in the Blue Brain Project were Kathryn Hess from EPFL and Ran Levi from Aberdeen University.

“Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time. It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures – the trees in the forest – and see the empty spaces – the clearings – all at the same time,” explains Hess.

In 2015, Blue Brain published the first digital copy of a piece of the neocortex – the most evolved part of the brain and the seat of our sensations, actions, and consciousness. In this latest research, using algebraic topology, multiple tests were performed on the virtual brain tissue to show that the multi-dimensional brain structures discovered could never be produced by chance. Experiments were then performed on real brain tissue in the Blue Brain’s wet lab in Lausanne confirming that the earlier discoveries in the virtual tissue are biologically relevant and also suggesting that the brain constantly rewires during development to build a network with as many high-dimensional structures as possible.

When the researchers presented the virtual brain tissue with a stimulus, cliques of progressively higher dimensions assembled momentarily to enclose high-dimensional holes, that the researchers refer to as cavities. “The appearance of high-dimensional cavities when the brain is processing information means that the neurons in the network react to stimuli in an extremely organized manner,” says Levi. “It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building then razing a tower of multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes (3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc. The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates.”

The big question these researchers are asking now is whether the intricacy of tasks we can perform depends on the complexity of the multi-dimensional “sandcastles” the brain can build. Neuroscience has also been struggling to find where the brain stores its memories. “They may be ‘hiding’ in high-dimensional cavities,” Markram speculates.

###

About Blue Brain

The aim of the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss brain initiative founded and directed by Professor Henry Markram, is to build accurate, biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the rodent brain, and ultimately, the human brain. The supercomputer-based reconstructions and simulations built by Blue Brain offer a radically new approach for understanding the multilevel structure and function of the brain. http://bluebrain.epfl.ch

About Frontiers

Frontiers is a leading community-driven open-access publisher. By taking publishing entirely online, we drive innovation with new technologies to make peer review more efficient and transparent. We provide impact metrics for articles and researchers, and merge open access publishing with a research network platform – Loop – to catalyse research dissemination, and popularize research to the public, including children. Our goal is to increase the reach and impact of research articles and their authors. Frontiers has received the ALPSP Gold Award for Innovation in Publishing in 2014. http://www.frontiersin.org.

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

Cliques of Neurons Bound into Cavities Provide a Missing Link between Structure and Function by Michael W. Reimann, Max Nolte, Martina Scolamiero, Katharine Turner, Rodrigo Perin, Giuseppe Chindemi, Paweł Dłotko, Ran Levi, Kathryn Hess, and Henry Markram. Front. Comput. Neurosci., 12 June 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fncom.2017.00048

This paper is open access.

A nano fabrication technique used to create next generation heart valve

I am going to have take the researchers’ word that these somehow lead to healthy heart valve tissue,

In rotary jet spinning technology, a rotating nozzle extrudes a solution of extracellular matrix (ECM) into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. By using a series of mandrels with different sizes, the manufacturing process becomes fully scalable and is able to provide JetValves for all age groups and heart sizes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

From a May 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The human heart beats approximately 35 million times every year, effectively pumping blood into the circulation via four different heart valves. Unfortunately, in over four million people each year, these delicate tissues malfunction due to birth defects, age-related deteriorations, and infections, causing cardiac valve disease.

Today, clinicians use either artificial prostheses or fixed animal and cadaver-sourced tissues to replace defective valves. While these prostheses can restore the function of the heart for a while, they are associated with adverse comorbidity and wear down and need to be replaced during invasive and expensive surgeries. Moreover, in children, implanted heart valve prostheses need to be replaced even more often as they cannot grow with the child.

A team lead by Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently developed a nanofiber fabrication technique to rapidly manufacture heart valves with regenerative and growth potential. In a paper published in Biomaterials, Andrew Capulli, Ph.D. and colleagues fabricated a valve-shaped nanofiber network that mimics the mechanical and chemical properties of the native valve extracellular matrix (ECM). To achieve this, the team used the Parker lab’s proprietary rotary jet spinning technology — in which a rotating nozzle extrudes an ECM solution into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. “Our setup is like a very fast cotton candy machine that can spin a range of synthetic and natural occurring materials. In this study, we used a combination of synthetic polymers and ECM proteins to fabricate biocompatible JetValves that are hemodynamically competent upon implantation and support cell migration and re-population in vitro. Importantly, we can make human-sized JetValves in minutes — much faster than possible for other regenerative prostheses,” said Parker.

A May 18,2017 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of Jetvalves,

To further develop and test the clinical potential of JetValves, Parker’s team collaborated with the translational team of Simon P. Hoerstrup, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which is a partner institution with the Wyss Institute. As a leader in regenerative heart prostheses, Hoerstrup and his team in Zurich have previously developed regenerative, tissue-engineered heart valves to replace mechanical and fixed-tissue heart valves. In Hoerstrup’s approach, human cells directly deposit a regenerative layer of complex ECM on biodegradable scaffolds shaped as heart valves and vessels. The living cells are then eliminated from the scaffolds resulting in an “off-the-shelf” human matrix-based prostheses ready for implantation.

In the paper, the cross-disciplinary team successfully implanted JetValves in sheep using a minimally invasive technique and demonstrated that the valves functioned properly in the circulation and regenerated new tissue. “In our previous studies, the cell-derived ECM-coated scaffolds could recruit cells from the receiving animal’s heart and support cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, tissue regeneration, and even animal growth. While these valves are safe and effective, their manufacturing remains complex and expensive as human cells must be cultured for a long time under heavily regulated conditions. The JetValve’s much faster manufacturing process can be a game-changer in this respect. If we can replicate these results in humans, this technology could have invaluable benefits in minimizing the number of pediatric re-operations,” said Hoerstrup.

In support of these translational efforts, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth. The team is also working towards a GMP-grade version of their customizable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing process that would enable deployment to a large patient population. In addition, the new heart valve would be compatible with minimally invasive procedures to serve both pediatric and adult patients.

The project will be led jointly by Parker and Hoerstrup. Parker is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Hoerstrup is Chair and Director of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM), Co-Director of the recently founded Wyss Translational Center Zurich and a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member.

Since JetValves can be manufactured in all desired shapes and sizes, and take seconds to minutes to produce, the team’s goal is to provide customized, ready-to-use, regenerative heart valves much faster and at much lower cost than currently possible.

“Achieving the goal of minimally invasive, low-cost regenerating heart valves could have tremendous impact on patients’ lives across age-, social- and geographical boundaries. Once again, our collaborative team structure that combines unique and leading expertise in bioengineering, regenerative medicine, surgical innovation and business development across the Wyss Institute and our partner institutions, makes it possible for us to advance technology development in ways not possible in a conventional academic laboratory,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

This scanning electron microscopy image shows how extracellular matrix (ECM) nanofibers generated with JetValve technology are arranged in parallel networks with physical properties comparable to those found in native heart tissue. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

JetValve: Rapid manufacturing of biohybrid scaffolds for biomimetic heart valve replacement by Andrew K. Capulli, Maximillian Y. Emmert, Francesco S. Pasqualini, b, Debora Kehl, Etem Caliskan, Johan U. Lind, Sean P. Sheehy, Sung Jin Park, Seungkuk Ahn, Benedikt Webe, Josue A. Goss. Biomaterials Volume 133, July 2017, Pages 229–241  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.04.033

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanoparticle behaviour in the environment unpredictable

These Swiss researchers took on a fairly massive project according to an April 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The nanotech industry is booming. Every year, several thousands of tonnes of man-made nanoparticles are produced worldwide; sooner or later, a certain part of them will end up in bodies of water or soil. But even experts find it difficult to say exactly what happens to them there. It is a complex question, not only because there are many different types of man-made (engineered) nanoparticles, but also because the particles behave differently in the environment depending on the prevailing conditions.

Researchers led by Martin Scheringer, Senior Scientist at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, wanted to bring some clarity to this issue. They reviewed 270 scientific studies, and the nearly 1,000 laboratory experiments described in them, looking for patterns in the behaviour of engineered nanoparticles. The goal was to make universal predictions about the behaviour of the particles.

An April 19, 2017ETH Zurich press release by Fabio Bergamin (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, elaborates,

Particles attach themselves to everything

However, the researchers found a very mixed picture when they looked at the data. “The situation is more complex than many scientists would previously have predicted,” says Scheringer. “We need to recognise that we can’t draw a uniform picture with the data available to us today.”

Nicole Sani-Kast, a doctoral student in Scheringer’s group and first author of the analysis published in the journal PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences], adds: “Engineered nanoparticles behave very dynamically and are highly reactive. They attach themselves to everything they find: to other nanoparticles in order to form agglomerates, or to other molecules present in the environment.”

Network analysis

To what exactly the particles react, and how quickly, depends on various factors such as the acidity of the water or soil, the concentration of the existing minerals and salts, and above all, the composition of the organic substances dissolved in the water or present in the soil. The fact that the engineered nanoparticles often have a surface coating makes things even more complicated. Depending on the environmental conditions, the particles retain or lose their coating, which in turn influences their reaction behaviour.

To evaluate the results available in the literature, Sani-Kast used a network analysis for the first time in this research field. It is a technique familiar in social research for measuring networks of social relations, and allowed her to show that the data available on engineered nanoparticles is inconsistent, insufficiently diverse and poorly structured.

More method for machine learning

“If more structured, consistent and sufficiently diverse data were available, it may be possible to discover universal patterns using machine learning methods,” says Scheringer, “but we’re not there yet.” Enough structured experimental data must first be available.

“In order for the scientific community to carry out such experiments in a systematic and standardised manner, some kind of coordination is necessary,” adds Sani-Kast, but she is aware that such work is difficult to coordinate. Scientists are generally well known for preferring to explore new methods and conditions rather than routinely performing standardized experiments.

[additional material]

Distinguishing man-made and natural nanoparticles

In addition to the lack of systematic research, there is also a second tangible problem in researching the behaviour of engineered nanoparticles: many engineered nanoparticles consist of chemical compounds that occur naturally in the soil. So far it has been difficult to measure the engineered particles in the environment since it is hard to distinguish them from naturally occurring particles with the same chemical composition.

However, researchers at ETH Zurich’s Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, under the direction of ETH Professor Detlef Günther, have recently established an effective method that makes such a distinction possible in routine investigations. They used a state-of-the-art and highly sensitive mass spectrometry technique (called spICP-TOF mass spectrometry) to determine which chemical elements make up individual nanoparticles in a sample.

In collaboration with scientists from the University of Vienna, the ETH researchers applied the method to soil samples with natural cerium-containing particles, into which they mixed engineered cerium dioxide nanoparticles. Using machine learning methods, which were ideally suited to this particular issue, the researchers were able to identify differences in the chemical fingerprints of the two particle classes. “While artificially produced nanoparticles often consist of a single compound, natural nanoparticles usually still contain a number of additional chemical elements,” explains Alexander Gundlach-Graham, a postdoc in Günther’s group.

The new measuring method is very sensitive: the scientists were able to measure engineered particles in samples with up to one hundred times more natural particles.

The researchers have produced a visualization of their network analysis,

The researchers evaluated the experimental data published in the scientific literature using a network analysis. This analysis reveals which types of nanoparticles (blue) have been studied under which environmental conditions (red). (Visualisations: Thomas Kast)

Here are links and citation for two papers associated with this research,

A network perspective reveals decreasing material diversity in studies on nanoparticle interactions with dissolved organic matter by Nicole Sani-Kast, Jérôme Labille, Patrick Ollivier, Danielle Slomberg, Konrad Hungerbühler, and Martin Scheringer. PNAS 2017, 114: E1756-E1765, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1608106114

Single-particle multi-element fingerprinting (spMEF) using inductively-coupled plasma time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ICP-TOFMS) to identify engineered nanoparticles against the elevated natural background in soils by Antonia Praetorius, Alexander Gundlach-Graham, Eli Goldberg, Willi Fabienke, Jana Navratilova, Andreas Gondikas, Ralf Kaegi, Detlef Günther, Thilo Hofmann, and Frank von der Kammer. Environonmental Science: Nano 2017, 4: 307-314, DOI: 10.1039/c6en00455e

Both papers are behind a paywall.

Nanocar Race winners!

In fact, there was a tie although it seems the Swiss winners were a little more excited. A May 1, 2017 news item on swissinfo.ch provides fascinating detail,

“Swiss Nano Dragster”, driven by scientists from Basel, has won the first international car race involving molecular machines. The race involved four nano cars zipping round a pure gold racetrack measuring 100 nanometres – or one ten-thousandth of a millimetre.

The two Swiss pilots, Rémy Pawlak and Tobias Meier from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the Department of Physicsexternal link at the University of Basel, had to reach the chequered flag – negotiating two curves en route – within 38 hours. [emphasis mine*]

The winning drivers, who actually shared first place with a US-Austrian team, were not sitting behind a steering wheel but in front of a computer. They used this to propel their single-molecule vehicle with a small electric shock from a scanning tunnelling microscope.

During such a race, a tunnelling current flows between the tip of the microscope and the molecule, with the size of the current depending on the distance between molecule and tip. If the current is high enough, the molecule starts to move and can be steered over the racetrack, a bit like a hovercraft.

….

The race track was maintained at a very low temperature (-268 degrees Celsius) so that the molecules didn’t move without the current.

What’s more, any nudging of the molecule by the microscope tip would have led to disqualification.

Miniature motors

The race, held in Toulouse, France, and organised by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), was originally going to be held in October 2016, but problems with some cars resulted in a slight delay. In the end, organisers selected four of nine applicants since there were only four racetracks.

The cars measured between one and three nanometres – about 30,000 times smaller than a human hair. The Swiss Nano Dragster is, in technical language, a 4′-(4-Tolyl)-2,2′:6′,2”-terpyridine molecule.

The Swiss and US-Austrian teams outraced rivals from the US and Germany.

The race is not just a bit of fun for scientists. The researchers hope to gain insights into how molecules move.

I believe this Basel University .gif is from the race,

*Emphasis added on May 9, 2017 at 12:26 pm PT. See my May 9, 2017 posting: Nanocar Race winners: The US-Austrian team for the other half of this story.

Bidirectional prosthetic-brain communication with light?

The possibility of not only being able to make a prosthetic that allows a tetraplegic to grab a coffee but to feel that coffee  cup with their ‘hand’ is one step closer to reality according to a Feb. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Since the early seventies, scientists have been developing brain-machine interfaces; the main application being the use of neural prosthesis in paralyzed patients or amputees. A prosthetic limb directly controlled by brain activity can partially recover the lost motor function. This is achieved by decoding neuronal activity recorded with electrodes and translating it into robotic movements. Such systems however have limited precision due to the absence of sensory feedback from the artificial limb. Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, asked whether it was possible to transmit this missing sensation back to the brain by stimulating neural activity in the cortex. They discovered that not only was it possible to create an artificial sensation of neuroprosthetic movements, but that the underlying learning process occurs very rapidly. These findings, published in the scientific journal Neuron, were obtained by resorting to modern imaging and optical stimulation tools, offering an innovative alternative to the classical electrode approach.

A Feb. 22, 2017 Université de Genève press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Motor function is at the heart of all behavior and allows us to interact with the world. Therefore, replacing a lost limb with a robotic prosthesis is the subject of much research, yet successful outcomes are rare. Why is that? Until this moment, brain-machine interfaces are operated by relying largely on visual perception: the robotic arm is controlled by looking at it. The direct flow of information between the brain and the machine remains thus unidirectional. However, movement perception is not only based on vision but mostly on proprioception, the sensation of where the limb is located in space. “We have therefore asked whether it was possible to establish a bidirectional communication in a brain-machine interface: to simultaneously read out neural activity, translate it into prosthetic movement and reinject sensory feedback of this movement back in the brain”, explains Daniel Huber, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE.

Providing artificial sensations of prosthetic movements

In contrast to invasive approaches using electrodes, Daniel Huber’s team specializes in optical techniques for imaging and stimulating brain activity. Using a method called two-photon microscopy, they routinely measure the activity of hundreds of neurons with single cell resolution. “We wanted to test whether mice could learn to control a neural prosthesis by relying uniquely on an artificial sensory feedback signal”, explains Mario Prsa, researcher at UNIGE and the first author of the study. “We imaged neural activity in the motor cortex. When the mouse activated a specific neuron, the one chosen for neuroprosthetic control, we simultaneously applied stimulation proportional to this activity to the sensory cortex using blue light”. Indeed, neurons of the sensory cortex were rendered photosensitive to this light, allowing them to be activated by a series of optical flashes and thus integrate the artificial sensory feedback signal. The mouse was rewarded upon every above-threshold activation, and 20 minutes later, once the association learned, the rodent was able to more frequently generate the correct neuronal activity.

This means that the artificial sensation was not only perceived, but that it was successfully integrated as a feedback of the prosthetic movement. In this manner, the brain-machine interface functions bidirectionally. The Geneva researchers think that the reason why this fabricated sensation is so rapidly assimilated is because it most likely taps into very basic brain functions. Feeling the position of our limbs occurs automatically, without much thought and probably reflects fundamental neural circuit mechanisms. This type of bidirectional interface might allow in the future more precisely displacing robotic arms, feeling touched objects or perceiving the necessary force to grasp them.

At present, the neuroscientists at UNIGE are examining how to produce a more efficient sensory feedback. They are currently capable of doing it for a single movement, but is it also possible to provide multiple feedback channels in parallel? This research sets the groundwork for developing a new generation of more precise, bidirectional neural prostheses.

Towards better understanding the neural mechanisms of neuroprosthetic control

By resorting to modern imaging tools, hundreds of neurons in the surrounding area could also be observed as the mouse learned the neuroprosthetic task. “We know that millions of neural connections exist. However, we discovered that the animal activated only the one neuron chosen for controlling the prosthetic action, and did not recruit any of the neighbouring neurons”, adds Daniel Huber. “This is a very interesting finding since it reveals that the brain can home in on and specifically control the activity of just one single neuron”. Researchers can potentially exploit this knowledge to not only develop more stable and precise decoding techniques, but also gain a better understanding of most basic neural circuit functions. It remains to be discovered what mechanisms are involved in routing signals to the uniquely activated neuron.

Caption: A novel optical brain-machine interface allows bidirectional communication with the brain. While a robotic arm is controlled by neuronal activity recorded with optical imaging (red laser), the position of the arm is fed back to the brain via optical microstimulation (blue laser). Credit: © Daniel Huber, UNIGE

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

Rapid Integration of Artificial Sensory Feedback during Operant Conditioning of Motor Cortex Neurons by Mario Prsa, Gregorio L. Galiñanes, Daniel Huber. Neuron Volume 93, Issue 4, p929–939.e6, 22 February 2017 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2017.01.023 Open access funded by European Research Council

This paper is open access.

Imprinting fibres at the nanometric scale

Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) announces a discovery in a Jan. 24, 2017 press release (also on EurkeAlert),

Researchers at EPFL have come up with a way of imprinting nanometric patterns on the inside and outside of polymer fibers. These fibers could prove useful in guiding nerve regeneration and producing optical effects, for example, as well as in eventually creating artificial tissue and smart bandages.

Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fibre Devices, which is run by Fabien Sorin, have come up with a simple and innovative technique for drawing or imprinting complex, nanometric patterns on hollow polymer fibers. Their work has been published in Advanced Functional Materials.

The potential applications of this breakthrough are numerous. The imprinted designs could be used to impart certain optical effects on a fiber or make it water-resistant. They could also guide stem-cell growth in textured fiber channels or be used to break down the fiber at a specific location and point in time in order to release drugs as part of a smart bandage.

Stretching the fiber like molten plastic

To make their nanometric imprints, the researchers began with a technique called thermal drawing, which is the technique used to fabricate optical fibers. Thermal drawing involves engraving or imprinting millimeter-sized patterns on a preform, which is a macroscopic version of the target fiber. The imprinted preform is heated to change its viscosity, stretched like molten plastic into a long, thin fiber and then allowed to harden again. Stretching causes the pattern to shrink while maintaining its proportions and position. Yet this method has a major shortcoming: the pattern does not remain intact below the micrometer scale. “When the fiber is stretched, the surface tension of the structured polymer causes the pattern to deform and even disappear below a certain size, around several microns,” said Sorin.

To avoid this problem, the EPFL researchers came up with the idea of sandwiching the imprinted preform in a sacrificial polymer [emphasis mine]. This polymer protects the pattern during stretching by reducing the surface tension. It is discarded once the stretching is complete. Thanks to this trick, the researchers are able to apply tiny and highly complex patterns to various types of fibers. “We have achieved 300-nanometer patterns, but we could easily make them as small as several tens of nanometers,” said Sorin. This is the first time that such minute and highly complex patterns have been imprinted on flexible fiber on a very large scale. “This technique enables to achieve textures with feature sizes two order of magnitude smaller than previously reported,” said Sorin. “It could be applied to kilometers of fibers at a highly reasonable cost.”

To highlight potential applications of their achievement, the researchers teamed up with the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology, led by Stéphanie Lacour. Working in vitro, they were able to use their fibers to guide neurites from a spinal ganglion (on the spinal nerve). This was an encouraging step toward using these fibers to help nerves regenerate or to create artificial tissue.

This development could have implications in many other fields besides biology. “Fibers that are rendered water-resistant by the pattern could be used to make clothes. Or we could give the fibers special optical effects for design or detection purposes. There is also much to be done with the many new microfluidic systems out there,” said Sorin. The next step for the researchers will be to join forces with other EPFL labs on initiatives such as studying in vivo nerve regeneration. All this, thanks to the wonder of imprinted polymer fibers.

I like the term “sacrificial polymer.”

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

Controlled Sub-Micrometer Hierarchical Textures Engineered in Polymeric Fibers and Microchannels via Thermal Drawing by Tung Nguyen-Dang, Alba C. de Luca, Wei Yan, Yunpeng Qu, Alexis G. Page, Marco Volpi, Tapajyoti Das Gupta, Stéphanie P. Lacour, and Fabien Sorin. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201605935 Version of Record online: 24 JAN 2017

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

This paper is behind a paywall.