Tag Archives: UCL

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.

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

[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.

Trachea transplants: an update

I got curious the other day about trachea transplants, a topic I first wrote about one an Aug. 22, 2011 posting featuring Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene and wondered how things had worked out for him. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, ,

In early July 2011, there were reports of a new kind of transplant involving a body part made of a biocomposite. Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene underwent a trachea transplant that required an artificial windpipe crafted by UK experts then flown to Sweden where Beyene’s stem cells were used to coat the windpipe before being transplanted into his body.

It is an extraordinary story not least because Beyene, a patient in a Swedish hospital planning to return to Eritrea after his PhD studies in Iceland, illustrates the international cooperation that made the transplant possible.

The scaffolding material for the artificial windpipe was developed by Professor Alex Seifalian at the University College London in a landmark piece of nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering. Tim Harper in his July 25, 2011 posting provides more details about the scaffolding,

A team led by Professor Alexander Seifalian (UCL Division of Surgery & Interventional Science; professor of nanotechnology and regenerative medicine at University College London, UK), whose laboratories are headquartered at the Royal Free Hospital, created a glass mold of the patient’s trachea from X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans of the patient. In CT, digital geometry processing is employed to generate a 3D image of the inside of an object from a large series of 2D X-ray images taken around one single axis of rotation.

Then, they manufactured a full size y-shaped trachea scaffold at Professor Seifalian’s laboratories. The scaffold of the trachea was built using a novel nanocomposite polymer developed and patented by Professor Seifalian. Professor Seifalian worked together with Professor Paolo Macchiarini at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (who also holds an Honorary appointment at UCL).

What I didn’t realize in 2011 was there had been some earlier transplants as Gretchen Vogel writes in her April 19, 2013  article (Trachea Transplants Test the Limits) which summarizes and critiques the work* on synthesized tracheas to date for Science magazine (the article is behind a a paywall),

More than a dozen ill people have received a bioengineered trachea seeded with stem cells during the past 5 years, but outcomes are mixed, and critics say the treatment may not do what its developers claim.

Although at first glance the trachea might seem like a simple tube, its thin but cartilage-reinforced walls must stand up to near-constant use as a person breathes, clears his throat, or coughs. Any transplant, therefore, has to be strong enough to withstand such pressures without collapsing. But a rigid prosthesis can rub against and damage the adjacent major blood vessels in the upper part of the chest, leaving a patient at risk for a fatal hemorrhage. At the same time, the natural blood supply for the trachea’s tissues is intricate, with vessels too small for surgeons to easily reconnect during a transplant operation. And because it is exposed to inhaled air, the wound between the implant and the remaining airway is especially vulnerable to infection.

Surgeons have tried for years to find ways around these challenges, without much success. When Castillo (Claudia Castillo,  first patient to receive a trachea transplant using her own stem cells) was hospitalized in Barcelona in March 2008, Macchiarini [Paolo Macchiarini], who was then at the University of Barcelona’s Hospital Clínic, and Birchall [Martin Birchall], then at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, had experimented with bioengineered transplants in pigs. They would take a trachea from a pig and remove its living cells to create a so-called decellularized scaffold. They seeded this with cells from the recipient pig: bone marrow cells on the outer layer, thought to help form new cartilage, and epithelial cells on the inside, which they hoped would regrow the trachea’s lining. They allowed the cells to grow on the scaffold for several days in a bioreactor designed to provide different conditions for the two types of cells. They hoped that the decellularized scaffold would not require immunosuppressive drugs to prevent its rejection and that the seeded cells would take over the removed cells’ roles, ultimately forming a living organ.

The main difference between the 2008 Castillo operation and the 2011 Teklesenbet Beyene,operation is the scaffolding. For Castillo, they used a cadaverous** trachea where living cells were removed to create a ‘decellularized’ scaffold. For Teklesenbet Beyene, they used a nanocomposite** polymer. According to Vogel, 14 people have had the operation using either the decellularized or the nanocomposite composite polymer as the base for a new trachea. There have been some problems and deaths although Castillo who is still alive did not respond to any of Vogel’s requests for a comment . As for Teklesenbet Beyene (from the article),

His current doctor, Tomas Gudbjartsson of Landspitali University Hospital in Reykjavik, tells Science that Beyene has had several stents, but is healthy enough that he was able to complete his studies last year [2012]. The researchers have mentioned other patients in passing in several papers, but no formal reports have been published about their health, and Science has not been able to independently verify the current status of all the patients.

Both Birchall and Macchiarini have received grants for clinical trials,

In March [2013?[, Birchall received a £2.8 million ($4.3 million) grant from the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council to conduct a trial of decellularized and stem cell–seeded upper trachea and larynx, with roughly 10 patients. Macchiarini has already completed two transplants in Russia as part of a clinical trial—funded with a $6 million grant from the Russian government—that he says should eventually enroll 20 or 25 patients. “We were allowed to do this type of transplantation only in extreme cases,” he says. “The clinical study for the first time gives us a chance to include patients who are not in such critical shape.”

Macchiarini is also the lead investigator on a 5-year, €4 million ($5.2 million) grant from the European Union to begin a clinical trial using decellularized tracheas and further develop the polymer scaffolds in large animal models. That project may need to be reorganized, however, following a legal dispute last year in Italy, where the transplants were supposed to take place—Macchiarini had a part-time position at Careggi Hospital in Florence. In September, however, Italy’s financial police accused him of attempted extortion, and briefly placed him under house arrest, for allegedly telling a patient that he could receive treatment in Germany for €150,000. Macchiarini and his lawyer say that he was simply informing the patient of possible options, not demanding payment. The main charges were soon dropped, but Macchiarini says that the charges stemmed from academic politics in Tuscany and he has severed ties with the hospital and university there. “There is no way to go back there.”

That last bit (in the excerpt) about academic politics in Tuscany seems downright Machiavellian (Wikipedia essay on Machiavelli here).

Getting back to the trachea transplants, there seems to be a major difference of opinion. While the researchers Macchiarini and Birchall have opted for human clinical trials other experts are suggesting that animal trials should be the next step for this research. I recommend reading Vogel’s article so you can fully appreciate the debate.

*’which a summary and critique of the work’ changed to ‘which summarizes and critiques the work’ for grammatical correctness on April 8, 2016.

**’pig trachea’ changed to ‘cadaverous trachea’ and ‘nanocompostie’ changed to ‘nanocomposite’ on April 19, 2016.