Tag Archives: University of Glasgow

Wearable technology: two types of sensors one from the University of Glasgow (Scotland) and the other from the University of British Columbia (Canada)

Sometimes it’s good to try and pull things together.

University of Glasgow and monitoring chronic conditions

A February 23, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the latest wearable tech from the University of Glasgow,

A new type of flexible, wearable sensor could help people with chronic conditions like diabetes avoid the discomfort of regular pin-prick blood tests by monitoring the chemical composition of their sweat instead.

In a new paper published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, a team of scientists from the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering outline how they have built a stretchable, wireless system which is capable of measuring the pH level of users’ sweat.

A February 22, 2018 University of Glasgow press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Ravinder Dahiya

 Courtesy: University of Glasgow

 

Sweat, like blood, contains chemicals generated in the human body, including glucose and urea. Monitoring the levels of those chemicals in sweat could help clinicians diagnose and monitor chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and some types of cancers without invasive tests which require blood to be drawn from patients.

However, non-invasive, wearable systems require consistent contact with skin to offer the highest-quality monitoring. Current systems are made from rigid materials, making it more difficult to ensure consistent contact, and other potential solutions such as adhesives can irritate skin. Wireless systems which use Bluetooth to transmit their information are also often bulky and power-hungry, requiring frequent recharging.

The University of Glasgow team’s new system is built around an inexpensively-produced sensor capable of measuring pH levels which can stretch and flex to better fit the contours of users’ bodies. Made from a graphite-polyurethane composite and measuring around a single square centimetre, it can stretch up to 53% in length without compromising performance. It will also continue to work after being subjected to flexes of 30% up to 500 times, which the researchers say will allow it to be used comfortably on human skin with minimal impact on the performance of the sensor.

The sensor can transmit its data wirelessly, and without external power, to an accompanying smartphone app called ‘SenseAble’, also developed by the team. The transmissions use near-field communication, a data transmission system found in many current smartphones which is used most often for smartphone payments like ApplePay, via a stretchable RFID antenna integrated into the system – another breakthrough innovation from the research team.

The smartphone app allows users to track pH levels in real time and was demonstrated in the lab using a chemical solution created by the researchers which mimics the composition of human sweat.

The research was led by Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group.

Professor Dahiya said: “Human sweat contains much of the same physiological information that blood does, and its use in diagnostic systems has the significant advantage of not needing to break the skin in order to administer tests.

“Now that we’ve demonstrated that our stretchable system can be used to monitor pH levels, we’ve already begun additional research to expand the capabilities of the sensor and make it a more complete diagnostic system. We’re planning to add sensors capable of measuring glucose, ammonia and urea, for example, and ultimately we’d like to see a system ready for market in the next few years.”

The team’s paper, titled ‘Stretchable Wireless System for Sweat pH Monitoring’, is published in Biosensors and Bioelectronics. The research was supported by funding from the European Commission and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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

Stretchable wireless system for sweat pH monitoring by Wenting Dang, Libu Manjakkal, William Taube Navaraj, Leandro Lorenzelli, Vincenzo Vinciguerra. Biosensors and Bioelectronics Volume 107, 1 June 2018, Pages 192–202 [Available online February 2018] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bios.2018.02.025

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of British Columbia (UBC; Okanagan) and monitor bio-signals

This is a completely other type of wearable tech monitor, from a February 22, 2018 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert) by Patty Wellborn (A link has been removed),

Creating the perfect wearable device to monitor muscle movement, heart rate and other tiny bio-signals without breaking the bank has inspired scientists to look for a simpler and more affordable tool.

Now, a team of researchers at UBC’s Okanagan campus have developed a practical way to monitor and interpret human motion, in what may be the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to wearable technology.

What started as research to create an ultra-stretchable sensor transformed into a sophisticated inter-disciplinary project resulting in a smart wearable device that is capable of sensing and understanding complex human motion, explains School of Engineering Professor Homayoun Najjaran.

The sensor is made by infusing graphene nano-flakes (GNF) into a rubber-like adhesive pad. Najjaran says they then tested the durability of the tiny sensor by stretching it to see if it can maintain accuracy under strains of up to 350 per cent of its original state. The device went through more than 10,000 cycles of stretching and relaxing while maintaining its electrical stability.

“We tested this sensor vigorously,” says Najjaran. “Not only did it maintain its form but more importantly it retained its sensory functionality. We have further demonstrated the efficacy of GNF-Pad as a haptic technology in real-time applications by precisely replicating the human finger gestures using a three-joint robotic finger.”

The goal was to make something that could stretch, be flexible and a reasonable size, and have the required sensitivity, performance, production cost, and robustness. Unlike an inertial measurement unit—an electronic unit that measures force and movement and is used in most step-based wearable technologies—Najjaran says the sensors need to be sensitive enough to respond to different and complex body motions. That includes infinitesimal movements like a heartbeat or a twitch of a finger, to large muscle movements from walking and running.

School of Engineering Professor and study co-author Mina Hoorfar says their results may help manufacturers create the next level of health monitoring and biomedical devices.

“We have introduced an easy and highly repeatable fabrication method to create a highly sensitive sensor with outstanding mechanical and electrical properties at a very low cost,” says Hoorfar.

To demonstrate its practicality, researchers built three wearable devices including a knee band, a wristband and a glove. The wristband monitored heartbeats by sensing the pulse of the artery. In an entirely different range of motion, the finger and knee bands monitored finger gestures and larger scale muscle movements during walking, running, sitting down and standing up. The results, says Hoorfar, indicate an inexpensive device that has a high-level of sensitivity, selectivity and durability.

Hoorfar and Najjaran are both members of the Okanagan node of UBC’s STITCH (SmarT Innovations for Technology Connected Health) Institute that creates and investigates advanced wearable devices.

The research, partially funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, was recently published in the Journal of Sensors and Actuators A: Physical.

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

Low-cost ultra-stretchable strain sensors for monitoring human motion and bio-signals by Seyed Reza Larimi, Hojatollah Rezaei Nejad, Michael Oyatsi, Allen O’Brien, Mina Hoorfar, Homayoun Najjaran. Sensors and Actuators A: Physical Volume 271, 1 March 2018, Pages 182-191 [Published online February 2018] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sna.2018.01.028

This paper is behind a paywall.

Final comments

The term ‘wearable tech’ covers a lot of ground. In addition to sensors, there are materials that harvest energy, detect poisons, etc.  making for a diverse field.

EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France from July 9 to July 14, 2018

A March 22, 2018 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2018 announcement (received via email) trumpets some of the latest news for this event being held July 9 to July 14, 2018 in Toulouse, France. (Located in the south in the region known as the Occitanie, it’s the fourth largest city in France. Toulouse is situated on the River Garonne. See more in its Wikipedia entry.) Here’s the latest from the announcement,

ESOF 2018 Plenary Sessions

Top speakers and hot topics confirmed for the Plenary Sessions at ESOF 2018

Lorna Hughes, Professor at the University of Glasgow, Chair of the Europeana Research Advisory Board, will give a plenary keynote on “Digital humanities”. John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, famous for his PLoS Medicine paper on “Why most Published Research Findings are False”, will talk about “Reproducibility”. A third plenary will involve Marìa Teresa Ruiz, a Chilean astronomer and the 2017 L’Oreal UNESCO award for Women in Science: she will talk about exoplanets.

 

ESOF under the spotlights

French President’s high patronage: ESOF is at the top of the institutional agendas in 2018.

“Sharing science”. But also putting science at the highest level making it a real political and societal issue in a changing world. ESOF 2018 has officially received the “High Patronage” from the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron. ESOF 2018 has also been listed by the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs among the 27 priority events for France.

A constellation of satellites around the ESOF planet!

Second focus on Satellite events:
4th GEO Blue Planet Symposium organised 4-6 July by Mercator Ocean.
ECSJ 2018, 5th European Conference of Science Journalists, co-organised by the French Association of Science Journalists in the News Press (AJSPI) and the Union of European Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA) on 8 July.
– Esprit de Découvertes (Discovery spirit) organised by the Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles Lettres de Toulouse on 8 July.

More Satellite events to come! Don’t forget to stay long enough in order to participate in these focused Satellite Events and … to discover the city.

The programme for ESOF 2018 can be found here.

Science meets poetry

As has become usual, there is a European City of Science event being held in Toulouse in concert (more or less) with and in celebration of the ESOF event. The City of Science event is being held from July 7 – July 16, 2018.

Organizers have not announced much in the way of programming for the City of Science other than a ‘Science meets Poetry’ meeting,

A unique feature of ESOF is the Science meets Poetry day, which is held at every Forum and brings poets and scientists together.

Indeed, there is today a real artistic movement of poets connected with ESOF. Famous participants from earlier meetings include contributors such as the late Seamus Heaney, Roald Hoffmann [sic] Jean-Pierre Luminet and Prince Henrik of Denmark, but many young and aspiring poets are also involved.

The meeting is in two parts:

  • lectures on subjects involving science with poetry
  • a poster session for contributed poems

There are competitions associated with the event and every Science meets Poetry day gives rise to the publication of Proceedings in book form.

In Toulouse, the event will be staged by EuroScience in collaboration with the Académie des Jeux Floraux of Toulouse, the Société des Poètes Français and the European Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, under patronage of UNESCO. The full programme will be announced later, but includes such themes as a celebration of the number 7 in honour of the seven Troubadours of Toulouse, who held the first Jeux Floraux in the year 1323, Space Travel and the first poets and scientists who wrote about it (including Cyrano de Bergerac and Johannes Kepler), from Metrodorus and Diophantes of Alexandria to Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Poetry of Ecology, Lafayette’s ship the Hermione seen from America and many other thought-provoking subjects.

The meeting will be held in the Hôtel d’Assézat, one of the finest old buildings of the ancient city of Toulouse.

Exceptionally, it will be open to registered participants from ESOF and also to some members of the public within the limits of available space.

Tentative Programme for the Science meets Poetry day on the 12th of July 2018

(some Speakers are still to be confirmed)

  • 09:00 – 09:30 A welcome for the poets : The legendary Troubadours of Toulouse and the poetry of the number 7 (Philippe Dazet-Brun, Académie des Jeux Floraux)
  • 09:30 – 10:00 The science and the poetry of violets from Toulouse (Marie-Thérèse Esquerré-Tugayé  Laboratoire de Recherche en Sciences Végétales, Université Toulouse III-CNRS)
  • 10:00 –10:30  The true Cyrano de Bergerac, gascon poet, and his celebrated travels to the Moon (Jean-Charles Dorge, Société des Poètes Français)
  • 10:30 – 11:00  Coffee Break (with poems as posters)
  • 11:00 – 11:30 Kepler the author and the imaginary travels of the famous astronomer to the Moon. (Uli Rothfuss, die Kogge International Society of German-language authors )
  • 11:30 – 12:00  Spoutnik and Space in Russian Literature (Alla-Valeria Mikhalevitch, Laboratory of the Russian Academy of Sciences  Saint-Petersburg)
  • 12:00 – 12:30  Poems for the planet Mars (James Philip Kotsybar, the ‘Bard of Mars’, California and NASA USA)
  • 12:30 – 14:00  Lunch and meetings of the Juries of poetry competitions
  • 14:00 – 14:30  The voyage of the Hermione and « Lafayette, here we come ! » seen by an American poet (Nick Norwood, University of Columbus Ohio)
  • 14:30 –  15:00 Alexandria, Toulouse and Oxford : the poem rendered by Eutrope and Fermat’s Last Theorem (Chaunes [Jean-Patrick Connerade], European Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, UNESCO)
  • 15:00 –15:30  How biology is celebrated in contemporary poetry (Assumpcio Forcada, biologist and poet from Barcelona)
  • 15:30 – 16:00  A book of poems around ecology : a central subject in modern poetry (Sam Illingworth, Metropolitan University of Manchester)
  • 16:00 – 16:30  Coffee break (with poems as posters)
  • 16:30 – 17:00 Toulouse and Europe : poetry at the crossroads of European Languages (Stefka Hrusanova (Bulgarian Academy and Linguaggi-Di-Versi)
  • 17:00 – 17:30 Round Table : seven poets from Toulouse give their views on the theme : Languages, invisible frontiers within both science and poetry
  • 17:30 – 18:00 The winners of the poetry competitions are announced
  • 18:00 – 18:15 Chaunes. Closing remarks

I’m fascinated as in all the years I’ve covered the European City of Science events I’ve never before tripped across a ‘Science meets Poetry’ meeting. Sadly, there’s no contact information for those organizers. However, you can sign up for a newsletter and there are contacts for the larger event, European City of Science or as they are calling it in Toulouse, the Science in the City Festival,

Contact

Camille Rossignol (Toulouse Métropole)

camille.rossignol@toulouse-metropole.fr

+33 (0)5 36 25 27 83

François Lafont (ESOF 2018 / So Toulouse)

francois.lafont@toulouse2018.esof.eu

+33 (0)5 61 14 58 47

Travel grants for media types

One last note and this is for journalists. It’s still possible to apply for a travel grant, which helps ease but not remove the pain of travel expenses. From the ESOF 2018 Media Travel Grants webpage,

ESOF 2018 – ECSJ 2018 Travel Grants

The 5th European Conference of Science Journalists (ECSJ2018) is offering 50 travel + accommodation grants of up to 400€ to international journalists interested in attending ECSJ and ESOF.

We are looking for active professional journalists who cover science or science policy regularly (not necessarily exclusively), with an interest in reflecting on their professional practices and ethics. Applicants can be freelancers or staff, and can work for print, web, or broadcast media.

More information

ESOF 2018 Nature Travel Grants

Springer Nature is a leading research, educational and professional publisher, providing quality content to its communities through a range of innovative platforms, products and services and is home of trusted brands including Nature Research.

Nature Research has supported ESOF since its very first meeting in 2004 and is funding the Nature Travel Grant Scheme for journalists to attend ESOF2018 with the aim of increasing the impact of ESOF. The Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers a lump sum of £400 for journalists based in Europe and £800 for journalists based outside of Europe, to help cover the costs of travel and accommodation to attend ESOF2018.

More information

Good luck!

(My previous posting about this ESOF 2018 was Sept. 4, 2017 [scroll down about 50% of the way] should you be curious.)

Artificial intelligence and metaphors

This is a different approach to artificial intelligence. From a June 27, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Ask Siri to find a math tutor to help you “grasp” calculus and she’s likely to respond that your request is beyond her abilities. That’s because metaphors like “grasp” are difficult for Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant to, well, grasp.

But new UC Berkeley research suggests that Siri and other digital helpers could someday learn the algorithms that humans have used for centuries to create and understand metaphorical language.

Mapping 1,100 years of metaphoric English language, researchers at UC Berkeley and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania have detected patterns in how English speakers have added figurative word meanings to their vocabulary.

The results, published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, demonstrate how throughout history humans have used language that originally described palpable experiences such as “grasping an object” to describe more intangible concepts such as “grasping an idea.”

Unfortunately, this image is not the best quality,

Scientists have created historical maps showing the evolution of metaphoric language. (Image courtesy of Mahesh Srinivasan)

A June 27, 2017 University of California at Berkeley (or UC Berkeley) news release by Yasmin Anwar, which originated the news item,

“The use of concrete language to talk about abstract ideas may unlock mysteries about how we are able to communicate and conceptualize things we can never see or touch,” said study senior author Mahesh Srinivasan, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley. “Our results may also pave the way for future advances in artificial intelligence.”

The findings provide the first large-scale evidence that the creation of new metaphorical word meanings is systematic, researchers said. They can also inform efforts to design natural language processing systems like Siri to help them understand creativity in human language.

“Although such systems are capable of understanding many words, they are often tripped up by creative uses of words that go beyond their existing, pre-programmed vocabularies,” said study lead author Yang Xu, a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley.

“This work brings opportunities toward modeling metaphorical words at a broad scale, ultimately allowing the construction of artificial intelligence systems that are capable of creating and comprehending metaphorical language,” he added.

Srinivasan and Xu conducted the study with Lehigh University psychology professor Barbara Malt.

Using the Metaphor Map of English database, researchers examined more than 5,000 examples from the past millennium in which word meanings from one semantic domain, such as “water,” were extended to another semantic domain, such as “mind.”

Researchers called the original semantic domain the “source domain” and the domain that the metaphorical meaning was extended to, the “target domain.”

More than 1,400 online participants were recruited to rate semantic domains such as “water” or “mind” according to the degree to which they were related to the external world (light, plants), animate things (humans, animals), or intense emotions (excitement, fear).

These ratings were fed into computational models that the researchers had developed to predict which semantic domains had been the sources or targets of metaphorical extension.

In comparing their computational predictions against the actual historical record provided by the Metaphor Map of English, researchers found that their models correctly forecast about 75 percent of recorded metaphorical language mappings over the past millennium.

Furthermore, they found that the degree to which a domain is tied to experience in the external world, such as “grasping a rope,” was the primary predictor of how a word would take on a new metaphorical meaning such as “grasping an idea.”

For example, time and again, researchers found that words associated with textiles, digestive organs, wetness, solidity and plants were more likely to provide sources for metaphorical extension, while mental and emotional states, such as excitement, pride and fear were more likely to be the targets of metaphorical extension.

Scientists have created historical maps showing the evolution of metaphoric language. (Image courtesy of Mahesh Srinivasan)

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

Evolution of word meanings through metaphorical mapping: Systematicity over the past millennium by Yang Xu, Barbara C. Malt, Mahesh Srinivasan. Cognitive Psychology Volume 96, August 2017, Pages 41–53 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2017.05.005

The early web version of this paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone interested in the ‘Metaphor Map of English’ database mentioned in the news release, you find it here on the University of Glasgow website. By the way, it also seems to be known as ‘Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus‘.

Solar-powered graphene skin for more feeling in your prosthetics

A March 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk highlights research that could put feeling into a prosthetic limb,

A new way of harnessing the sun’s rays to power ‘synthetic skin’ could help to create advanced prosthetic limbs capable of returning the sense of touch to amputees.

Engineers from the University of Glasgow, who have previously developed an ‘electronic skin’ covering for prosthetic hands made from graphene, have found a way to use some of graphene’s remarkable physical properties to use energy from the sun to power the skin.

Graphene is a highly flexible form of graphite which, despite being just a single atom thick, is stronger than steel, electrically conductive, and transparent. It is graphene’s optical transparency, which allows around 98% of the light which strikes its surface to pass directly through it, which makes it ideal for gathering energy from the sun to generate power.

A March 23, 2017 University of Glasgow press release, which originated the news item, details more about the research,

Ravinder Dahiya

Dr Ravinder Dahiya

A new research paper, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, describes how Dr Dahiya and colleagues from his Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group have integrated power-generating photovoltaic cells into their electronic skin for the first time.

Dr Dahiya, from the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, said: “Human skin is an incredibly complex system capable of detecting pressure, temperature and texture through an array of neural sensors which carry signals from the skin to the brain.

“My colleagues and I have already made significant steps in creating prosthetic prototypes which integrate synthetic skin and are capable of making very sensitive pressure measurements. Those measurements mean the prosthetic hand is capable of performing challenging tasks like properly gripping soft materials, which other prosthetics can struggle with. We are also using innovative 3D printing strategies to build more affordable sensitive prosthetic limbs, including the formation of a very active student club called ‘Helping Hands’.

“Skin capable of touch sensitivity also opens the possibility of creating robots capable of making better decisions about human safety. A robot working on a construction line, for example, is much less likely to accidentally injure a human if it can feel that a person has unexpectedly entered their area of movement and stop before an injury can occur.”

The new skin requires just 20 nanowatts of power per square centimetre, which is easily met even by the poorest-quality photovoltaic cells currently available on the market. And although currently energy generated by the skin’s photovoltaic cells cannot be stored, the team are already looking into ways to divert unused energy into batteries, allowing the energy to be used as and when it is required.

Dr Dahiya added: “The other next step for us is to further develop the power-generation technology which underpins this research and use it to power the motors which drive the prosthetic hand itself. This could allow the creation of an entirely energy-autonomous prosthetic limb.

“We’ve already made some encouraging progress in this direction and we’re looking forward to presenting those results soon. We are also exploring the possibility of building on these exciting results to develop wearable systems for affordable healthcare. In this direction, recently we also got small funds from Scottish Funding Council.”

For more information about this advance and others in the field of prosthetics you may want to check out Megan Scudellari’s March 30, 2017 article for the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum (Note: Links have been removed),

Cochlear implants can restore hearing to individuals with some types of hearing loss. Retinal implants are now on the market to restore sight to the blind. But there are no commercially available prosthetics that restore a sense of touch to those who have lost a limb.

Several products are in development, including this haptic system at Case Western Reserve University, which would enable upper-limb prosthetic users to, say, pluck a grape off a stem or pull a potato chip out of a bag. It sounds simple, but such tasks are virtually impossible without a sense of touch and pressure.

Now, a team at the University of Glasgow that previously developed a flexible ‘electronic skin’ capable of making sensitive pressure measurements, has figured out how to power their skin with sunlight. …

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

Energy-Autonomous, Flexible, and Transparent Tactile Skin by Carlos García Núñez, William Taube Navaraj, Emre O. Polat and Ravinder Dahiya. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201606287 Version of Record online: 22 MAR 2017

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

This paper is behind a paywall.

Researchers find ‘dark state’ transforms light and could lead to better solar energy harvesting

Researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) and the University of Glasgow (Scotland) have observed a dark state in caretinoids that is helps plants harvest solar energy (photosynthesis) more efficiently. From the April 4, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

Pigments found in plants and purple bacteria employed to provide protection from sun damage do more than just that. Researchers from the University of Toronto and University of Glasgow have found that they also help to harvest light energy during photosynthesis.

Carotenoids, the same pigments which give orange color to carrots and red to tomatoes, are often found together in plants with chlorophyll pigments that harvest solar energy. Their main function is photoprotection when rays of light from the sun are the most intense. However, a new study published in Science this week shows how they capture blue/green light and pass the energy on to chlorophylls, which absorb red light.

“This is an example of how nature exploits subtleties that we would likely overlook if we were designing a solar energy harvester,” says Greg Scholes, the D.J. LeRoy Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study.

Advanced optical probes using femtosecond lasers enable light harvesting processes to be examined in exquisite detail. Anticlockwise from top right: Purple bacteria and the structure of the light harvesting complex that gives these cells their distinctive purple colour. This special protein incorporates molecules of bacteriochlorophyll and carotenoid to capture the energy from sunlight. The lower part of the figure shows the protein data recorded from two-dimensional laser spectroscopy. (Illustration:  Credit: Evgeny Ostroumov Courtesy: University of Toronto

Advanced optical probes using femtosecond lasers enable light harvesting processes to be examined in exquisite detail. Anticlockwise from top right: Purple bacteria and the structure of the light harvesting complex that gives these cells their distinctive purple colour. This special protein incorporates molecules of bacteriochlorophyll and carotenoid to capture the energy from sunlight. The lower part of the figure shows the protein data recorded from two-dimensional laser spectroscopy. (Illustration:
Credit: Evgeny Ostroumov Courtesy: University of Toronto

The April 4, 2013 University of Toronto news release, which originated the EurekAlert news release, provides some details about the research,

A series of experiments showed that a special “dark state” of the carotenoid – a hidden level not used for light absorption at all – acts as a mediator to help pass the energy it absorbs very efficiently to a chlorophyll pigment.

The researchers performed broadband two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy – a technique used to measure the electronic structure and its dynamics in atoms and molecules – on light-harvesting proteins from purple bacteria. The aim was to characterize in more detail the whole sequence of quantum mechanical states of carotenoids that capture light and channel energy to bacteriochlorophyll molecules. The data revealed a signature of a special state in this sequence that was predicted decades earlier, and sought ever since. The results point to this state’s role in mediating energy flow from carotenoid to bacteriochlorophyll.

“It is utterly counter-intuitive that a state not participating in light absorption is used in this manner,” says Scholes. “It is amazing that nature uses so many aspects of a whole range of quantum mechanical states in carotenoid molecules, moreover, and puts those states to use in such diverse ways.”

The other significant aspect of the work is that the existence of these dark states has been speculated for decades and that the report by Scholes and his colleagues is the clearest evidence to date of their existence.

The implications of this observation (from the University of Toronto news release),

“The energy transfer processes in natural light-harvesting systems have been intensively studied for the last 60 years, yet certain details of the underlying mechanisms remain controversial. Our work really clears up this particular mystery,” says Richard Cogdell, the Hooker Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, co-author of the report.

“It makes us look differently at the potential of molecules as building blocks,” Scholes says. “Just imagine one molecule, a carotenoid, that can be used to harvest light, photoprotect, convert to a ‘safety valve’ in bright light to dissipate excitations, or even be employed as a heat transducer by purple bacteria such as are found in the black hole on the island of San Andros in the Bahamas.”

The University of Glasgow also issued a news release about this work on April 5, 2013.

Another nano diamond for the England’s Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee

Those wacky scientists at the the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre at the University of Glasgow have struck again (see my Jan. 20, 2012 posting for their nod to the Chinese New Year), this time they’ve created a diamond coin to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. From the May 31, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The ‘coin’, created at the University’s James Watt Nanofabrication Centre, measures just 750 nanometres across and features an image of the Queen’s profile just 580 nanometres high. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. Around 1300 of the diamond coins could fit side by side on the width of the smallest letter on a five pence piece, and 2,600 billion of the coins would fill a volume equivalent to that of a pound coin.

For reasons that escape me the University of Glasgow has not made their video of two scientists discussing the diamond coin and their other work with diamonds available for sharing but you can view it here. Meanwhile, here’s what the coin looks like after it’s been magnified for our human eyes,

James Watt Nanofabrication Centre, University of Glasgow

In my April 11, 2012 posting, I mentioned another diamond etched with her profile to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee, this time the work was done by a team at the University of Nottingham.

Neuronal dance and garage neuroscience experiments

I found two items about neuroscience in one day that tickled my fancy. The Watching Dance Project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council recently announced a study that found experienced dance spectators mirrored the movement they were watching. From the March 21, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Experienced ballet spectators with no physical expertise in ballet showed enhanced muscle-specific motor responses when watching live ballet, according to a Mar. 21 report in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

This result when watching such a formal dance as ballet is striking in comparison to the similar enhanced response the authors found in empathic observers when watching an Indian dance rich in hand gestures. This is important because it shows that motor expertise in the movements observed is not required to have enhanced neural motor responses when just watching dance performances.

The authors suggest that spectators covertly simulate the dance movements for styles that they regularly watch, causing the increased corticospinal excitability.

The article ‘Motor Simulation without Motor Expertise: Enhanced Corticospinal Excitability in Visually Experienced Dance Spectators‘ by Jola C, Abedian-Amiri A, Kuppuswamy A, Pollick FE, Grosbras M-H in PLoS ONE 7(3): e33343. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033343 is freely available for reading (open access).

I went searching for the Watching Dance Project website and found these images of dancers and a neuron, respectively,

From the Wtachng Dance Project website.

 

From the Watching Dance Project website.

According to the project’s About Us page,

‘Watching Dance: Kinesthetic Empathy’ uses audience research and neuroscience to explore how dance spectators respond to and identify with dance. It is a multidisciplinary project, involving collaboration across four institutions (University of Manchester, University of Glasgow, York St John University and Imperial College London).

The second neuroscience item for this posting is about listening to neurons. From the March 21, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Amateurs have a new tool for conducting simple neuroscience experiments in their own garage: the SpikerBox. As reported in the Mar. 21 issue of the open access journal PLoS ONE, the SpikerBox lets users amplify and listen to neurons’ electrical activity – like those in a cockroach leg or cricket torso – and is appropriate for use in middle or high school educational programs, or by amateurs.

The work was a project from Backyard Brains, a start-up company focused on developing neuroscience educational resources. In the paper, the authors, Timothy Marzullo and Gregory Gage, describe a sample experiment using a cockroach leg stuck with two needles and monitoring the electrical signals. They also provide instructions for using the SpikerBox to answer specific experimental questions, like how neurons carry information about touch, how the brain tells muscles to move, and how drugs affect neurons, and an online portal provides further instructional materials. These are just a few examples of the many ways this tool can be used.

“Our mission is to lower the barrier-to-entry for students interested in learning about the brain. We hope our manuscript finds its way into the hands of high school teachers around the world”, says Dr. Marzullo.

The article, The SpikerBox: A Low Cost, Open-Source BioAmplifier for Increasing Public Participation in Neuroscience Inquiry, by Timothy C. Marzullo and Gregory J. Gage can be found in PLoS ONE 7(3): e30837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030837 and is freely available for reading (open access).

Backyard Brains can be found here along with the SpikerBox kit and other kits for sale and for use in your garage and backyard neuroscience experiments.

Gung haggis fat choy and Scottish/Chinese nanotechnology

I was reminded of a local (Vancouver, Canada) tradition when I read about a nanotechnology Chinese New Year’s card produced by a nanofabrication centre  in Scotland.

Before I get started on the Scottish researchers and their efforts, here’s a little bit about  the Vancouver tradition, which combines Scottish and Chinese celebrations for this time of year (Robbie Burns Day and the Lunar New Year). Started in 1997 by Todd Wong, Gung Haggis Fay Choy is a dinner integrating both traditions. Here’s more from the Miss604 website about this year’s (2012) event (I have removed the links that were included in this excerpt of a longer, more entertaining post that you might want to read in its entirety),

Gung Haggis Fat Choy is one unique event where you can catch poetry and Kung Fu, highland dancers performing with sheng players, and delicious deep-fried haggis dumplings. It’s an annual Vancouver tradition that combines Chinese New Year with Robbie Burns Day in a single event.

Gung Haggis Fat Choy Dinner

  • Date: January 22, 2012 (Chinese New Year’s Eve)
  • Time: 5:00pm (doors) 6:00pm (dinner)
  • Where: Floata Restaurant at #400 – 180 Keefer St, Vancouver
  • What: An 8-course Scottish/Chinese banquet dinner complete with entertainment

  • Hosts: TV and radio host Tetsuro Shigematsu, Parliamentary Poet Laureate Fred Wah, and scholar Dr. Jan Walls.
  • What to Wear: Kilts and tartans, as well as Chinese jackets and cheong-sam dresses are preferred. But our guests are dressed both formal and casual – be comfortable, be outrageous, be yourself.
  • The Dinner: Appetizers will arrive at the tables by 6:00pm and soon after, the dinner formalities begin. From then on a new dish will appear somewhere around 15 minutes, quickly followed by a co-host introducing a poet or musical performer.
  • Finale: The evening will wrap up somewhere between 9:00pm and 9:30pm, with the singing of Auld Lang Syne. They start with a verse in Mandarin Chinese, then sing in English or Scottish [Gaelic?]. Participants can socialize further until 10:00pm.

Now for the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre”s (at the University of Glasgow) nod to the Chinese New Year, from the Jan. 19, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

It is so small that it cannot be seen by the naked eye – but a tiny Chinese New Year greetings card created by the University of Glasgow represents the huge potential for China to profit from Scottish innovation.

The card was produced by experts from the University’s James Watt Nanofabrication Centre to showcase their world-leading expertise in nanotechnology ahead of Chinese New Year celebrations, which begins on Monday 23 January [2012].

Here’s the card,

University of Glasgow's James Watt Nanofabrication Centre's 2012 Chinese New Year of the Dragon card

I was expecting to read nanoscale measurements but after reading the details, I’d say this card is not so much a nanoscale-sized card but a microscale-sized card. Still, there is a reference to the ‘nano’,  (from the University of Glasgow Jan. 19, 2012 news release,

The card is 300 micro-metres wide by 200 micro-metres tall (a micro-metre is one-millionth of a metre). It is so small that 21,600 of them could fit on an area the size of the China Post’s 36mm-by-36mm 2012 Chinese New Year commemorative stamp. The Chinese characters are just 45 micro-metres tall, and the dragon is just 116 micro-metres long. By comparison, the width of a human hair is about 100 micro-metres.

Professor David Cumming and Dr Qin Chen from the University’s School of Engineering etched the Chinese characters and dragon image onto a very small piece of glass. The manufacturing process took just 30 minutes.

“The colours were produced by plasmon resonance in a patterned aluminium film made in our James Watt Nanofabrication Centre. The underlying technology has some very important real world applications in bio-technology sensing, optical filtering and light control components, and advances in micro and nanofabrication for the electronics industry. [emphasis mine] …”

The most interesting (to me) part of this communication, after seeing the card, is this bit about Scotland-China relations,

 The card was developed in conjunction with Scottish Development International (SDI), Scotland’s international trade and investment body.

SDI Chief Executive Anne MacColl said: “Nanotechnology is just one area in which Scotland is considered a world leader. From renewable energy to life sciences, digital media to ICT and education to financial services, Scotland has a wealth of expertise, skilled people and knowledge.

“Chinese firms can gain a competitive edge by partnering with Scottish universities and companies across these critical high growth sectors. Innovation is key to China’s economic development and SDI’s offices in Beijing and Shanghai are on hand to help Chinese universities and firms learn more about the benefits of international partnership.”

Many examples of collaboration between Scotland and China exist today, particularly in the field of innovation-based research and development. Four mainland Chinese companies are investors in Scotland and a number of Scotland’s world-leading universities have research partnerships and joint ventures in place with Chinese academic institutions and corporations. Scotland’s First Minister recently made his third visit to China in two years, underpinning Scotland’s commitment to growing business and academic links with China even further.

To all of us, Happy New Year of the Dragon (Gung Hay Fat Choy)!

Responsible science communication and magic bullets; lego and pasta analogies; sing about physics

Cancer’s ‘magic bullet],  a term which has been around for decades, is falling into disuse and deservedly. So it’s disturbing to see it used by someone in McGill University’s (Montreal, Canada) communications department for a recent breakthrough by their researchers.

The reason ‘magic bullet for cancer’ has been falling into is disuse because it does not function well as a metaphor with what we now know about biology. (The term itself dates from the 19th century and chemist, Paul Erlich.) It continues to exist because it’s an easy (and lazy) way to get attention and headlines. Unfortunately, hyperbolic writing of this type obscures the extraordinary and exciting work that researchers are accomplishing. From the news release on the McGill website (also available on Nanowerk here),

A team of McGill Chemistry Department researchers led by Dr. Hanadi Sleiman has achieved a major breakthrough in the development of nanotubes – tiny “magic bullets” that could one day deliver drugs to specific diseased cells.

The lead researcher seems less inclined to irresponsible hyperbole,

One of the possible future applications for this discovery is cancer treatment. However, Sleiman cautions, “we are still far from being able to treat diseases using this technology; this is only a step in that direction. Researchers need to learn how to take these DNA nanostructures, such as the nanotubes here, and bring them back to biology to solve problems in nanomedicine, from drug delivery, to tissue engineering to sensors,” she said.

You’ll notice that the researcher says these ‘DNA nanotubes’ have to be brought “back to biology.” This comment brought to mind a recent post on 2020 Science (Andrew Maynard’s blog) about noted chemist and nanoscientist’s, George Whitesides, concerns/doubts about the direction for cancer and nanotechnology research. From Andrew’s post,

Cancer treatment has been a poster-child for nanotechnology for almost as long as I’ve been involved with the field. As far back as in 1999, a brochure on nanotechnology published by the US government described future “synthetic anti-body-like nanoscale drugs or devices that might seek out and destroy malignant cells wherever they might be in the body.”

So I was somewhat surprised to see the eminent chemist and nano-scientist George Whitesides questioning how much progress we’ve made in developing nanotechnology-based cancer treatments, in an article published in the Columbia Chronicle.

Whitesides comments are quite illuminating (from the article, Microscopic particles have huge possibilites [sic], by Ivana Susic,

George Whitesides, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, said that while the technology sounds impressive, he thinks the focus should be on using nanoparticles in imaging and diagnosing, not treatment.

The problem lies in being able to deliver the treatment to the right cells, and Whitesides said this has proven difficult.

“Cancer cells are abnormal cells, but they’re still us,” he said. [emphasis is mine]

The nanoparticles sent in to destroy the cancer cells may also destroy unaffected cells, because they can sometimes have cancer markers even if they’re healthy. Tumors have also been known to be “genetically flexible” and mutate around several different therapies, Whitesides explained. This keeps them from getting recognized by the therapeutic drugs.

The other problem with targeting cancer cells is the likelihood that only large tumors will be targeted, missing smaller clumps of developing tumors.

“We need something that finds isolated [cancer] clumps that’s somewhere else in the tissue … it’s not a tumor, it’s a whole bunch of tumors,” Whitesides said.

The upside to the treatment possibilities is that they buy the patient time, he said, which is very important to many cancer patients.

“It’s easy to say that one is going to have a particle that’s going to recognize the tumor once it gets there and will do something that triggers the death of the cell, it’s just that we don’t know how to do either one of these parts,” he said.

There is no simple solution. The more scientists learn about biology the more complicated it becomes, not less. [emphasis is mine] Whitesides said one effective way to deal with cancer is to reduce the risk of getting it by reducing the environmental factors that lead to cancer.

It’s a biology problem, not a particle problem,” he said. [emphasis is mine]

If you are interested , do read Andrew’s post and the comments that follow as well as the article that includes Whitesides’ comments and quotes from Andrew in his guise as Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

All of this discussion follows on yesterday’s (Mar.17.10) post about how confusing inaccurate science reporting can be.

Moving onwards to two analogies, lego and pasta. Researchers at the University of Glasgow have ‘built’ inorganic (not carbon-based) molecular structures which could potentionally be used as more energy efficient and environmentally friendly catalysts for industrial purposes. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers within the Department of Chemistry created hollow cube-based frameworks from polyoxometalates (POMs) – complex compounds made from metal and oxygen atoms – which stick together like LEGO bricks meaning a whole range of well-defined architectures can be developed with great ease.

The molecular sensing aspects of this new material are related to the potassium and lithium ions, which sit loosely in cavities in the framework. These can be displaced by other positively charged ions such as transition metals or small organic molecules while at the same time leaving the framework intact.

These characteristics highlight some of the many potential uses and applications of POM frameworks, but their principle application is their use as catalysts – a molecule used to start or speed-up a chemical reaction making it more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Moving from lego to pasta with a short stop at the movies, we have MIT researchers describing how they and their team have found a way to ‘imprint’ computer chips by using a new electron-beam lithography process to encourage copolymers to self-assemble on the chip. (Currently, manufacturers use light lasers in a photolithographic process which is becoming less effective as chips grow ever smaller and light waves become too large to use.) From the news item on Nanowerk,

The new technique uses “copolymers” made of two different types of polymer. Berggren [Karl] compares a copolymer molecule to the characters played by Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in the movie Midnight Run, a bounty hunter and a white-collar criminal who are handcuffed together but can’t stand each other. Ross [Caroline] prefers a homelier analogy: “You can think of it like a piece of spaghetti joined to a piece of tagliatelle,” she says. “These two chains don’t like to mix. So given the choice, all the spaghetti ends would go here, and all the tagliatelle ends would go there, but they can’t, because they’re joined together.” In their attempts to segregate themselves, the different types of polymer chain arrange themselves into predictable patterns. By varying the length of the chains, the proportions of the two polymers, and the shape and location of the silicon hitching posts, Ross, Berggren, and their colleagues were able to produce a wide range of patterns useful in circuit design.

ETA (March 18,2010): Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast continues with his his posts (maybe these will form a series?) about more accuracy in reporting, specifically the news item I’ve just highlighted. Check it out here.

To finish on a completely different note (pun intended), I have a link (courtesy of Dave Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog by way of the Science Cheerleader blog) to a website eponymously (not sure that’s the right term) named physicssongs.org. Do enjoy such titles as: I got Physics; Snel’s Law – Macarena Style!; and much, much more.

Tomorrow: I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do much more than link to it and point to some commentary but the UK’s Nanotechnologies Strategy has just been been released today.