Tag Archives: UCL

Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons

This ‘think’ piece is going to cover a fair bit of ground including science literacy in the general public and in the US Supreme Court, and what that might mean for science advice and UK Members of Parliament (MPs).

Science literacy generally and in the US Supreme Court

A science literacy report for the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), due sometime from early to mid 2017, is being crafted with an eye to capturing a different perspective according to a March 24, 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release by Terry Dewitt,

What does it mean to be science literate? How science literate is the American public? How do we stack up against other countries? What are the civic implications of a public with limited knowledge of science and how it works? How is science literacy measured?

These and other questions are under the microscope of a 12-member National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel — including University of Wisconsin—Madison Life Sciences Communication Professor Dominique Brossard and School of Education Professor Noah Feinstein — charged with sorting through the existing data on American science and health literacy and exploring the association between knowledge of science and public perception of and support for science.

The committee — composed of educators, scientists, physicians and social scientists — will take a hard look at the existing data on the state of U.S. science literacy, the questions asked, and the methods used to measure what Americans know and don’t know about science and how that knowledge has changed over time. Critically for science, the panel will explore whether a lack of science literacy is associated with decreased public support for science or research.

Historically, policymakers and leaders in the scientific community have fretted over a perceived lack of knowledge among Americans about science and how it works. A prevailing fear is that an American public unequipped to come to terms with modern science will ultimately have serious economic, security and civic consequences, especially when it comes to addressing complex and nuanced issues like climate change, antibiotic resistance, emerging diseases, environment and energy choices.

While the prevailing wisdom, inspired by past studies, is that Americans don’t stack up well in terms of understanding science, Brossard is not so convinced. Much depends on what kinds of questions are asked, how they are asked, and how the data is analyzed.

It is very easy, she argues, to do bad social science and past studies may have measured the wrong things or otherwise created a perception about the state of U.S. science literacy that may or may not be true.

“How do you conceptualize scientific literacy? What do people need to know? Some argue that scientific literacy may be as simple as an understanding of how science works, the nature of science, [emphasis mine]” Brossard explains. “For others it may be a kind of ‘civic science literacy,’ where people have enough knowledge to be informed and make good decisions in a civics context.”

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

For judges who are under the impression that scientific facts are out there somewhere waiting to be discovered diversity must seem irrelevant. It is not. Who you are affects the questions you ask and how you approach science. The easiest example is to look at how women were viewed when they were subjects in medical research. The fact that women’s physiology is significantly different (and not just in child-bearing ways) was never considered relevant when reporting results. Today, researchers consider not only gender, but age (to some extent), ethnicity, and more when examining results. It’s still not a perfect but it was a step forward.

So when Brossard included “… an understanding of how science works, the nature of science …” as an aspect of science literacy, the judges seemed to present a good example of how not understanding science can have a major impact on how others live.

I’d almost forgotten this science literacy piece as I’d started the draft some months ago but then I spotted a news item about a science advice/MP ‘dating’ service in the UK.

Science advice and UK MPs

First, the news, then, the speculation (from a June 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily),

MPs have expressed an overwhelming willingness to use a proposed new service to swiftly link them with academics in relevant areas to help ensure policy is based on the latest evidence.

A June 6, 2016 University of Exeter press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the proposed service and the research providing the supporting evidence (Note: A link has been removed),

The government is pursuing a drive towards evidence-based policy, yet policy makers still struggle to incorporate evidence into their decisions. One reason for this is limited easy access to the latest research findings or to academic experts who can respond to questions about evidence quickly.

Researchers at Cardiff University, the University of Exeter and University College London have today published results of the largest study to date reporting MPs’ attitudes to evidence in policy making and their reactions to a proposed Evidence Information Service (EIS) – a rapid match-making advisory service that would work alongside existing systems to put MPs in touch with relevant academic experts.

Dr Natalia Lawrence, of the University of Exeter, said: “It’s clear from our study that politicians want to ensure their decisions incorporate the most reliable evidence, but it can sometimes be very difficult for them to know how to access the latest research findings. This new matchmaking service could be a quick and easy way for them to seek advice from cutting-edge researchers and to check their understanding and facts. It could provide a useful complement to existing highly-valued information services.”

The research, published today in the journal Evidence and Policy, reports the findings of a national consultation exercise between politicians and the public. The researchers recruited members of the public to interview their local parliamentary representative. In total 86, politicians were contacted with 56 interviews completed. The MPs indicated an overwhelming willingness to use a service such as the EIS, with 85% supporting the idea, but noted a number of potential reservations related to the logistics of the EIS such as response time and familiarity with the service. Yet, the MPs indicated that their logistical reservations could be overcome by accessing the EIS via existing highly-valued parliamentary information services such as those provided by the House of Commons and Lords Libraries. Furthermore prior to rolling out the EIS on a nationwide basis it would first need to be piloted.

Developing the proposed EIS in line with feedback from this consultation of MPs would offer the potential to provide policy makers with rapid, reliable and confidential evidence from willing volunteers from the research community.

Professor Chris Chambers, of Cardiff University, said: “The government has given a robust steer that MPs need to link in more with academics to ensure decisions shaping the future of the country are evidence-based. It’s heartening to see that there is a will to adopt this system and we now need to move into a phase of developing a service that is both simple and effective to meet this need.”

The next steps for the project are parallel consultations of academics and members of the public and a pilot of the EIS, using funding from GW4 alliance of universities, made up of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

What this study shows:
• The consultation shows that politicians recognise the importance of evidence-based policy making and agree on the need for an easier and more direct linkage between academic experts and policy makers.
• Politicians would welcome the creation of the EIS as a provider of rapid, reliable and confidential evidence.

What this study does not show:
• This study does not show how academics would provide evidence. This was a small-scale study which consulted politicians and has not attempted to give voice to the academic community.
• This study does not detail the mechanism of an operational EIS. Instead it indicates the need for a service such as the EIS and suggests ways in which the EIS can be operationalized.

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

Service as a new platform for supporting evidence-based policy: a consultation of UK parliamentarians by Natalia Lawrence, Jemma Chambers, Sinead Morrison, Sven Bestmann, Gerard O’Grady, Christopher Chambers, Andrew Kythreotis. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/174426416X14643531912169 Appeared or available online: June 6, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall open access. *Corrected June 17, 2016.*

It’s an interesting idea and I can understand the appeal. However, operationalizing this ‘dating’ or ‘matchmaking’ service could prove quite complex. I appreciate the logistics issues but I’m a little more concerned about the MPs’ science literacy. Are they going to be like the two US justices who believe that science is the pursuit of immutable facts? What happens if two MPs are matched up with a different scientist and those two scientists didn’t agree about what the evidence says. Or, what happens if one scientist is more cautious than the other. There are all kinds of pitfalls. I’m not arguing against the idea but it’s going to require a lot of careful consideration.

Drone fly larvae avoid bacterial contamination due to their nanopillars

This is some fascinating bug research. From an April 6, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The immature stage of the drone fly (Eristalis tenax) is known as a “rat-tailed maggot” because it resembles a hairless baby rodent with a “tail” that is actually used as a breathing tube. Rat-tailed maggots are known to live in stagnant, fetid water that is rich in bacteria, fungi, and algae. However, despite this dirty environment, they are able to avoid infection by these microorganisms.

An April 6, 2016 Entomological Society of America news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the findings,

Recently, Matthew Hayes, a cell biologist at the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London in England, discovered never-before-seen structures that appear to keep the maggot mostly free of bacteria, despite living where microorganisms flourish. …

With scanning and transmission electron microscopes, Hayes carefully examined the larva and saw that much of its body is covered with thin spines, or “nanopillars,” that narrow to sharp points. Once he confirmed the spiky structures were indeed part of the maggot, he noticed a direct relationship between the presence of the spines and the absence of bacteria on the surface of the larva. He speculated that the carpet of spines simply makes it impossible for the bacteria to find enough room to adhere to the larva’s body surface.

Here’s an image of the nanopillars,

Caption: This electron-microscope image expose the spines, or "nanopillars," that poke up from the body of the rat-tailed maggot. The length and density of the spines vary as shown in this cross-section image of the cuticle. Credit: Matthew Hayes

Caption: This electron-microscope image expose the spines, or “nanopillars,” that poke up from the body of the rat-tailed maggot. The length and density of the spines vary as shown in this cross-section image of the cuticle. Credit: Matthew Hayes

Back to the news release,

“They’re much like anti-pigeon spikes that keep the birds away because they can’t find a nice surface to land on,” he said.

Hayes also ventured that the spines could possibly have superoleophobic properties (the ability to repel oils), which would also impede the bacteria from colonizing and forming a biofilm that could ultimately harm or kill the maggot. The composition of the spines is as unique as the structures themselves, Hayes said. Each spine appears to consist of a stack of hollow-cored disks, the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top.

“What I really think they look like is the baby’s toy with the stack of rings of decreasing size, but on a very small scale,” he said. “I’ve worked in many different fields and looked at lots of different things, and I’ve never seen anything that looks like it.”

This work with the rat-tailed maggot is leading him to examine other insects as well, including the ability of another aquatic invertebrate — the mosquito larva — to thwart bacteria. Such antibacterial properties have applications in many different fields, including ophthalmology and other medical fields where biofilms can foul surgical instruments or implanted devices.

For now, though, he’s thrilled about shedding light on the underappreciated rat-tailed maggot and revealing its spiny armor.

“I’ve loved insects since I was a child, when I would breed butterflies and moths,” he said. “I’m just so chuffed to have discovered something a bit new about insects!”

I am charmed by Hayes’s admission of being “chuffed.”

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

Identification of Nanopillars on the Cuticle of the Aquatic Larvae of the Drone Fly (Diptera: Syrphidae) by Matthew J. Hayes, Timothy P. Levine, Roger H. Wilson. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jisesa/iew019 36 First published online: 30 March 2016

This is an open access paper.

Observing silica microspheres leads to theories about schools of fish and human crowds

Researchers developing theories about the crowd behaviour of tiny particles believe the theories may have some relevance to macro world phenomena.

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[downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0316/090316-crowd-control]

From a March 9, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Crowds formed from tiny particles disperse as their environment becomes more disordered, according to scientists from UCL [University College London, UK], Bilkent University [Turkey] and Université Pierre et Marie Curie [France].

The new mechanism is counterintuitive and might help describe crowd behaviour in natural, real-world systems where many factors impact on individuals’ responses to either gather or disperse.

“Bacterial colonies, schools of fish, flocking birds, swarming insects and pedestrian flow all show collective and dynamic behaviours which are sensitive to changes in the surrounding environment and their dispersal or gathering can be sometimes the difference between life and death,” said lead researcher, Dr Giorgio Volpe, UCL Chemistry.

A March 9, 2016 UCL press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“The crowd often has different behaviours to the individuals within it and we don’t know what the simple rules of motion are for this. If we understood these and how they are adapted in complex environments, we could externally regulate active systems. Examples include controlling the delivery of biotherapeutics in nanoparticle carriers to the target in the body, or improving crowd security in a panic situation.”

The study, published today in Nature Communications, investigated the behaviour of active colloidal particles in a controllable system to find out the rules of motion for individuals gathering or dispersing in response to external factors.

Colloidal particles are free to diffuse through a solution and for this study suspended silica microspheres were used. The colloidal particles became active with the addition of E. coli bacteria to the solution. Active colloidal particles were chosen as a model system because they move of their own accord using the energy from their environment, which is similar to how animals move to get food.

Initially, the active colloidal particles gathered at the centre of the area illuminated by a smooth beam which provided an active potential. Disorder was introduced using a speckle beam pattern which disordered the attractive potential and caused the colloids to disperse from the area at a rate of 0.6 particles per minute over 30 minutes. The particles switched between gathering and dispersing proportional to the level of external disorder imposed.

Erçağ Pinçe, who is first author of the study with Dr Sabareesh K. P. Velu, both Bilkent University, said: “We didn’t expect to see this mechanism as it’s counterintuitive but it might already be at play in natural systems. Our finding suggests there may be a way to control active matter through external factors. We could use it to control an existing system, or to design active agents that exploit the features of the environment to perform a given task, for example designing distinct depolluting agents for different types of polluted terrains and soils.”

Co-author, Dr Giovanni Volpe, Bilkent University, added: “Classical statistical physics allows us to understand what happens when a system is at equilibrium but unfortunately for researchers, life happens far from equilibrium. Behaviours are often unpredictable as they strongly depend on the characteristic of the environment. We hope that understanding these behaviours will help reveal the physics behind living organisms, but also help deliver innovative technologies in personalised healthcare, environmental sustainability and security.”

The team now plan on applying their findings to real-life situations to improve society. In particular, they want to exploit the main conclusions from their work to develop intelligent nanorobots for applications in drug-delivery and environmental sustainability that are capable of efficiently navigate through complex natural environments.

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

Disorder-mediated crowd control in an active matter system by Erçağ Pinçe, Sabareesh K. P. Velu, Agnese Callegari, Parviz Elahi, Sylvain Gigan, Giovanni Volpe, & Giorgio Volpe. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10907 doi:10.1038/ncomms10907 Published 09 March 2016

This is an open access paper.

Revolutionary ‘smart’ windows from the UK

This is the first time I’ve seen self-cleaning and temperature control features mentioned together with regard to a ‘smart’ window, which makes this very exciting news. From a Jan. 20, 2016 UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) press release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolutionary new type of smart window could cut window-cleaning costs in tall buildings while reducing heating bills and boosting worker productivity. Developed by University College London (UCL) with support from EPSRC, prototype samples confirm that the glass can deliver three key benefits:

Self-cleaning: The window is ultra-resistant to water, so rain hitting the outside forms spherical droplets that roll easily over the surface – picking up dirt, dust and other contaminants and carrying them away. This is due to the pencil-like, conical design of nanostructures engraved onto the glass, trapping air and ensuring only a tiny amount of water comes into contact with the surface. This is different from normal glass, where raindrops cling to the surface, slide down more slowly and leave marks behind.
Energy-saving: The glass is coated with a very thin (5-10nm) film of vanadium dioxide which during cold periods stops thermal radiation escaping and so prevents heat loss; during hot periods it prevents infrared radiation from the sun entering the building. Vanadium dioxide is a cheap and abundant material, combining with the thinness of the coating to offer real cost and sustainability advantages over silver/gold-based and other coatings used by current energy-saving windows.
Anti-glare: The design of the nanostructures also gives the windows the same anti-reflective properties found in the eyes of moths and other creatures that have evolved to hide from predators. It cuts the amount of light reflected internally in a room to less than 5 per cent – compared with the 20-30 per cent achieved by other prototype vanadium dioxide coated, energy-saving windows – with this reduction in ‘glare’ providing a big boost to occupant comfort.

This is the first time that a nanostructure has been combined with a thermochromic coating. The bio-inspired nanostructure amplifies the thermochromics properties of the coating and the net result is a self-cleaning, highly performing smart window, said Dr Ioannis Papakonstantinou of UCL.

The UCL team calculate that the windows could result in a reduction in heating bills of up to 40 per cent, with the precise amount in any particular case depending on the exact latitude of the building where they are incorporated. Windows made of the ground-breaking glass could be especially well-suited to use in high-rise office buildings.

Dr Ioannis Papakonstantinou of UCL, project leader, explains: It’s currently estimated that, because of the obvious difficulties involved, the cost of cleaning a skyscraper’s windows in its first 5 years is the same as the original cost of installing them. Our glass could drastically cut this expenditure, quite apart from the appeal of lower energy bills and improved occupant productivity thanks to less glare. As the trend in architecture continues towards the inclusion of more glass, it’s vital that windows are as low-maintenance as possible.

So, when can I buy these windows? (from the press release; Note: Links have been removed)

Discussions are now under way with UK glass manufacturers with a view to driving this new window concept towards commercialisation. The key is to develop ways of scaling up the nano-manufacturing methods that the UCL team have specially developed to produce the glass, as well as scaling up the vanadium dioxide coating process. Smart windows could begin to reach the market within around 3-5 years [emphasis mine], depending on the team’s success in securing industrial interest.

Dr Papakonstantinou says: We also hope to develop a ‘smart’ film that incorporates our nanostructures and can easily be added to conventional domestic, office, factory and other windows on a DIY [do-it-yourself] basis to deliver the triple benefit of lower energy use, less light reflection and self-cleaning, without significantly affecting aesthetics.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said: This project is an example of how investing in excellent research drives innovation to produce tangible benefits. In this case the new technique could deliver both energy savings and cost reductions.

A 5-year European Research Council (ERC) starting grant (IntelGlazing) has been awarded to fabricate smart windows on a large scale and test them under realistic, outdoor environmental conditions.

The UCL team that developed the prototype smart window includes Mr Alaric Taylor, a PhD student in Dr Papakonstantinou’s group, and Professor Ivan Parkin from UCL’s Department of Chemistry.

I wish them good luck.

One last note, these new windows are the outcome of a 2.5 year EPSRC funded project: Biologically Inspired Nanostructures for Smart Windows with Antireflection and Self-Cleaning Properties, which ended in Sept.  2015.

Using quantum dots to detect and identify explosives

This research is courtesy of the University College London (UCL) according to a Dec. 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

A new test for detecting multiple explosives simultaneously has been developed by UCL scientists. The proof-of-concept sensor is designed to quickly identify and quantify five commonly used explosives in solution to help track toxic contamination in waste water and improve the safety of public spaces.

Lead researcher, Dr William Peveler (UCL Chemistry), said: “This is the first time multiple explosives have been detected using a single sensor before, demonstrating proof-of-concept for this approach. Our sensor changes colour within 10 seconds to give information about how much and what explosives are present in a sample. Following further development, we hope it will be used to quickly analyse the nature of threats and inform tailored responses.”

A Dec. 9, 2015 UCL press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Dr Peveler, added: “We analysed explosives which are commonly used for industrial and military purposes to create a useful tool for environmental and security monitoring. For example, DNT is a breakdown product from landmines, and RDX and PETN have been used in terror plots in recent years as they can be hard to detect using sniffer dogs. Our test can quickly identify these compounds so we see it having a variety of applications from monitoring the waste water of munitions factories and military ranges to finding evidence of illicit activities.”

The sensor is made of quantum dots, which are tiny light-emitting particles or nanomaterials, to which explosive targeting receptors are attached. As each explosive binds to the quantum dot, it quenches the light being emitted to a different degree. The distinct changes in colour are analysed computationally in a variety of conditions to give a unique fingerprint for each compound, allowing multiple explosives to be detected with a single test.

Senior author, Professor Ivan Parkin (UCL Chemistry), said: “Our sensor is a significant step forward for multiple explosives detection. Current methods can be laborious and require expensive equipment but our test is designed to be inexpensive, fast and use a much smaller volume of sample than previously possible. Although all of these factors are important, speed and accuracy are crucial when identifying explosive compounds.”

The team plan to take it from the laboratory into the field by blind testing it with contaminated waste water samples. They also hope to improve the sensitivity of the test by tailoring the surfaces of the quantum dots. Currently, its limit is less than one part per million which the team hope to increase into the part per billion range.

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

Multichannel Detection and Differentiation of Explosives with a Quantum Dot Array by William J. Peveler, Alberto Roldan, Nathan Hollingsworth, Michael J. Porte‡, and Ivan P. Parkin. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b06433 Publication Date (Web): November 18, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Using scientific methods and technology to explore living systems as artistic subjects: bioart

There is a fascinating set of stories about bioart designed to whet your appetite for more (*) in a Nov. 23, 2015 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Joe Davis is an artist who works not only with paints or pastels, but also with genes and bacteria. In 1986, he collaborated with geneticist Dan Boyd to encode a symbol for life and femininity into an E. coli bacterium. The piece, called Microvenus, was the first artwork to use the tools and techniques of molecular biology. Since then, bioart has become one of several contemporary art forms (including reclamation art and nanoart) that apply scientific methods and technology to explore living systems as artistic subjects. A review of the field, published November 23, can be found in Trends in Biotechnology.

Bioart ranges from bacterial manipulation to glowing rabbits, cellular sculptures, and–in the case of Australian-British artist Nina Sellars–documentation of an ear prosthetic that was implanted onto fellow artist Stelarc’s arm. In the pursuit of creating art, practitioners have generated tools and techniques that have aided researchers, while sometimes crossing into controversy, such as by releasing invasive species into the environment, blurring the lines between art and modern biology, raising philosophical, societal, and environmental issues that challenge scientific thinking.

“Most people don’t know that bioart exists, but it can enable scientists to produce new ideas and give us opportunities to look differently at problems,” says author Ali K. Yetisen, who works at Harvard Medical School and the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. “At the same time there’s been a lot of ethical and safety concerns happening around bioart and artists who wanted to get involved in the past have made mistakes.”

Here’s a sample of Joe Davis’s work,

 Caption This photograph shows polyptich paintings by Joe Davis of his 28-mer Microvenus DNA molecule (2006 Exhibition in Greece at Athens School of Fine Arts). Credit: Courtesy of Joe Davis

This photograph shows polyptich paintings by Joe Davis of his 28-mer Microvenus DNA molecule (2006 Exhibition in Greece at Athens School of Fine Arts). Credit: Courtesy of Joe Davis

The news release goes on to recount a brief history of bioart, which stretches back to 1928 and then further back into the 19th and 18th centuries,

In between experiments, Alexander Fleming would paint stick figures and landscapes on paper and in Petri dishes using bacteria. In 1928, after taking a brief hiatus from the lab, he noticed that portions of his “germ paintings,” had been killed. The culprit was a fungus, penicillin–a discovery that would revolutionize medicine for decades to come.

In 1938, photographer Edward Steichen used a chemical to genetically alter and produce interesting variations in flowering delphiniums. This chemical, colchicine, would later be used by horticulturalists to produce desirable mutations in crops and ornamental plants.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the arts and sciences moved away from traditionally shared interests and formed secular divisions that persisted well into the 20th century. “Appearance of environmental art in the 1970s brought about renewed awareness of special relationships between art and the natural world,” Yetisen says.

To demonstrate how we change landscapes, American sculptor Robert Smithsonian paved a hillside with asphalt, while Bulgarian artist Christo Javacheffa (of Christo and Jeanne-Claude) surrounded resurfaced barrier islands with bright pink plastic.

These pieces could sometimes be destructive, however, such as in Ten Turtles Set Free by German-born Hans Haacke. To draw attention to the excesses of the pet trade, he released what he thought were endangered tortoises back to their natural habitat in France, but he inadvertently released the wrong subspecies, thus compromising the genetic lineages of the endangered tortoises as the two varieties began to mate.

By the late 1900s, technological advances began to draw artists’ attention to biology, and by the 2000s, it began to take shape as an artistic identity. Following Joe Davis’ transgenic Microvenus came a miniaturized leather jacket made of skin cells, part of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (initiated in 1996) by duo Oran Catts and Ionat Zurr. Other examples of bioart include: the use of mutant cacti to simulate appearance of human hair in the place of cactus spines by Laura Cinti of University College London’s C-Lab; modification of butterfly wings for artistic purposes by Marta de Menezes of Portugal; and photographs of amphibian deformation by American Brandon Ballengée.

“Bioart encourages discussions about societal, philosophical, and environmental issues and can help enhance public understanding of advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering,” says co-author Ahmet F. Coskun, who works in the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at California Institute of Technology.

Life as a Bioartist

Today, Joe Davis is a research affiliate at MIT Biology and “Artist-Scientist” at the George Church Laboratory at Harvard–a place that fosters creativity and technological development around genetic engineering and synthetic biology. “It’s Oz, pure and simple,” Davis says. “The total amount of resources in this environment and the minds that are accessible, it’s like I come to the city of Oz every day.”

But it’s not a one-way street. “My particular lab depends on thinking outside the box and not dismissing things because they sound like science fiction,” says [George M.] Church, who is also part of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. “Joe is terrific at keeping us flexible and nimble in that regard.”

For example, Davis is working with several members of the Church lab to perform metagenomics analyses of the dust that accumulates at the bottom of money-counting machines. Another project involves genetically engineering silk worms to spin metallic gold–an homage to the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin.

“I collaborate with many colleagues on projects that don’t necessarily have direct scientific results, but they’re excited to pursue these avenues of inquiry that they might not or would not look into ordinarily–they might try to hide it, but a lot of scientists have poetic souls,” Davis says. “Art, like science, has to describe the whole word and you can’t describe something you’re basically clueless about. The most exciting part of these activities is satiating overwhelming curiosity about everything around you.”

The number of bioartists is still small, Davis says, partly because of a lack of federal funding of the arts in general. Accessibility to the types of equipment bioartists want to experiment with can also be an issue. While Davis has partnered with labs over the past few decades, other artists affiliate themselves with community access laboratories that are run by do-it-yourself biologists. One way that universities can help is to create departmental-wide positions for bioartists to collaborate with scientists.

“In the past, there have been artists affiliated with departments in a very utilitarian way to produce figures or illustrations,” Church says. “Having someone like Joe stimulates our lab to come together in new ways and if we had more bioartists, I think thinking out of the box would be a more common thing.”

“In the era of genetic engineering, bioart will gain new meanings and annotations in social and scientific contexts,” says Yetisen. “Bioartists will surely take up new roles in science laboratories, but this will be subject to ethical criticism and controversy as a matter of course.”

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

Bioart by Ali K. Yetisen, Joe Davis, Ahmet F. Coskun, George M. Church, Seok Hyun. Trends in Biotechnology,  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tibtech.2015.09.011 Published Online: November 23, 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

*Removed the word ‘featured’ on Dec. 1, 2015 at 1030 hours PDT.

Superposition in biological processes

Applying the concept of superposition to photosynthesis and olfaction is not the first thought that would have occurred to me on stumbling across the European Union’s PAPETS project (Phonon-Assisted Processes for Energy Transfer and Sensing). Thankfully, a July 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk sets the record straight (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum physics is helping researchers to better understand photosynthesis and olfaction.

Can something be for instance in two different places at the same time? According to quantum physics, it can. More precisely, in line with the principle of ‘superposition’, a particle can be described as being in two different states simultaneously.

While it may sound like voodoo to the non-expert, superposition is based on solid science. Researchers in the PAPETS project are exploring this and other phenomena on the frontier between biology and quantum physics. Their goal is to determine the role of vibrational dynamics in photosynthesis and olfaction.

A July 7, 2015 research news article on the CORDIS website, which originated the news item, further explains (Note: A link has been removed),

Quantum effects in a biological system, namely in a photosynthetic complex, were first observed by Greg Engel and collaborators in 2007, in the USA. These effects were reproduced in different laboratories at a temperature of around -193 degrees Celsius and subsequently at ambient temperature.

‘What’s surprising and exciting is that these quantum effects have been observed in biological complexes, which are large, wet and noisy systems,’ says PAPETS project coordinator, Dr. Yasser Omar, researcher at Instituto de Telecomunicações and professor at Universidade de Lisboa [Portugal]. ‘Superposition is fragile and we would expect it to be destroyed by the environment.’

Superposition contributes to more efficient energy transport. An exciton, a quantum quasi-particle carrying energy, can travel faster along the photosynthetic complex due to the fact that it can exist in two states simultaneously. When it comes to a bifurcation it need not choose left or right. It can proceed down both paths simultaneously.

‘It’s like a maze,’ says Dr. Omar. ‘Only one door leads to the exit but the exciton can probe both left and right at the same time. It’s more efficient.’

Dr. Omar and his colleagues believe that a confluence of factors help superposition to be effected and maintained, namely the dynamics of the vibrating environment, whose role is precisely what the PAPETS project aims to understand and exploit.

Theory and experimentation meet

The theories being explored by PAPETS are also tested in experiments to validate them and gain further insights. To study quantum transport in photosynthesis, for example, researchers shoot fast laser pulses into biological systems. They then observe interference along the transport network, a signature of wavelike phenomena.

‘It’s like dropping stones into a lake,’ explains Dr. Omar. ‘You can then see whether the waves that are generated grow bigger or cancel each other when they meet.’

Applications: more efficient solar cells and odour detection

While PAPETS is essentially an exploratory project, it is generating insights that could have practical applications. PAPETS’ researchers are getting a more fundamental understanding of how photosynthesis works and this could result in the design of much more efficient solar cells.

Olfaction, the capacity to recognise and distinguish different odours, is another promising area. Experiments focus on the behaviour of Drosophila flies. So far, researchers suspect that the tunnelling of electrons associated to the internal vibrations of a molecule may be a signature of odour. Dr. Omar likens this tunnelling to a ping-pong ball resting in a bowl that goes through the side of the bowl to appear outside it.

This work could have applications in the food, water, cosmetics or drugs industries. Better artificial odour sensing could be used to detect impurities or pollution, for example.

‘Unlike seeing, hearing or touching, the sense of smell is difficult to reproduce artificially with high efficacy,’ says Dr. Omar.

The PAPETS project, involving 7 partners, runs from September 2014 to August 2016 and has a budgeted EU contribution funding of EUR 1.8 million.

You can find out more about PAPETS here. In the meantime, I found the other partners in the project (in addition to Portugal), from the PAPETS Partners webpage (Note: Links have been removed),

– Controlled Quantum Dynamics Group, Universität Ulm (UULM), Germany. PI: Martin Plenio and Susana Huelga.
– Biophysics Research Group, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA), Netherlands. PI: Rienk van Grondelle and Roberta Croce.
– Department of Chemical Sciences, Università degli Studi di Padova (UNIPD), Italy. PI: Elisabetta Collini.
– Biomedical Sciences Research Centre “Alexander Fleming” (FLEMING), Athens, Greece. PI: Luca Turin and Efthimios M. Skoulakis.
– Biological Physics and Complex Systems Group, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Orléans, France. PI: Francesco Piazza.
– Quantum Physics of Biomolecular Processes, University College London (UCL), UK. PI: Alexandra Olaya-Castro.

Wilson Center hosts ‘Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public’ on April 29, 2014

Here’s a description of the Wilson Center event, Environmental Information: The Roles of Experts and the Public,

Access to environmental information and use of it for environmental decision making are central pillars of environmental democracy. Yet, not much attention is paid to the question of who is producing it, and for whom? By examining the history of environmental information, since NEPA in 1969, three eras can be identified: information produced by experts, for experts (1969-1992); information produced by experts, to be shared by experts and the public (1992-2011); and finally, information produced by experts and the public to be shared by experts and the public.

Underlying these are changes in access to information, rise in levels of education and rapid change due to digital technologies. The three eras and their implication to environmental decision making will be explored, with special attention to the role of geographical information and geographical information systems and to citizen science.  [emphasis mine]

Tuesday, April 29th from 10:00 – 11:30am. [EST]

I hope the speaker description and the paper being distributed on the event page mean this may be a bit more interesting to those of us curious about citizen science than is immediately apparent from the event description,

Muki (Mordechai) Haklay

Muki Haklay is a Professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London.  He is also the Director of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science group, which is dedicated to allowing any community, regardless of their literacy, to use scientific methods and tools to collect, analyze and interpret and use information about their area and activities.

His research interests include Public access and use of Environmental Information; Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering aspects of GIS; and Societal aspects of GIS use – in particular, participatory mapping and Citizen Science.

Here’s the paper,

Citizen Science and Volunteered Geographic Information – overview and typology of participation

You can RSVP from the event page if you’re planning to attend this event in Washington, DC in person, alternatively you can watch a livestream webcast by returning to the event page on April 29, 2014 at 10 am (that will be 7 am, if you’re on the West Coast),

UK’s National Physical Laboratory reaches out to ‘BioTouch’ MIT and UCL

This March 27, 2014 news item on Azonano is an announcement for a new project featuring haptics and self-assembly,

NPL (UK’s National Physical Laboratory) has started a new strategic research partnership with UCL (University College of London) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) focused on haptic-enabled sensing and micromanipulation of biological self-assembly – BioTouch.

The NPL March 27, 2014 news release, which originated the news item, is accompanied by a rather interesting image,

A computer operated dexterous robotic hand holding a microscope slide with a fluorescent human cell (not to scale) embedded into a synthetic extracellular matrix. Courtesy: NPL

A computer operated dexterous
robotic hand holding a microscope
slide with a fluorescent human cell
(not to scale) embedded into a
synthetic extracellular matrix. Courtesy: NPL

The news release goes on to describe the BioTouch project in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The project will probe sensing and application of force and related vectors specific to biological self-assembly as a means of synthetic biology and nanoscale construction. The overarching objective is to enable the re-programming of self-assembled patterns and objects by directed micro-to-nano manipulation with compliant robotic haptic control.

This joint venture, funded by the European Research Council, EPSRC and NPL’s Strategic Research Programme, is a rare blend of interdisciplinary research bringing together expertise in robotics, haptics and machine vision with synthetic and cell biology, protein design, and super- and high-resolution microscopy. The research builds on the NPL’s pioneering developments in bioengineering and imaging and world-leading haptics technologies from UCL and MIT.

Haptics is an emerging enabling tool for sensing and manipulation through touch, which holds particular promise for the development of autonomous robots that need to perform human-like functions in unstructured environments. However, the path to all such applications is hampered by the lack of a compliant interface between a predictably assembled biological system and a human user. This research will enable human directed micro-manipulation of experimental biological systems using cutting-edge robotic systems and haptic feedback.

Recently the UK government has announced ‘eight great technologies’ in which Britain is to become a world leader. Robotics, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and advanced materials are four of these technologies for which this project serves as a merging point providing thus an excellent example of how multidisciplinary collaborative research can shape our future.

If it read this rightly, it means they’re trying to design systems where robots will work directly with materials in the labs while humans direct the robots’ actions from a remote location. My best example of this (it’s not a laboratory example) would be of a surgery where a robot actually performs the work while a human directs the robot’s actions based on haptic (touch) information the human receives from the robot. Surgeons don’t necessarily see what they’re dealing with, they may be feeling it with their fingers (haptic information). In effect, the robot’s hands become an extension of the surgeon’s hands. I imagine using a robot’s ‘hands’ would allow for less invasive procedures to be performed.