Tag Archives: University of Pittsburgh

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature (a three year Canadian project nearing its end date)

Working on a grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the  Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature project has been establishing a ‘cosmopolitanism’ research network that critiques the eurocentric approach so beloved of Canadian academics and has set up nodes across Canada and in India and Southeast Asia.

I first wrote about the project in a Dec. 12, 2014 posting which also featured a job listing. It seems I was there for the beginning and now for the end. For one of the project’s blog postings in its final months, they’re profiling one of their researchers (Dr. Letitia Meynell, Sept. 6, 2017 posting),

1. What is your current place of research?

I am an associate professor in philosophy at Dalhousie University, cross appointed with gender and women studies.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

My 1st degree was in Theater, which I did at York University. I did, however, minor in Philosophy and I have always had a particular interest in philosophy of science. So, my minor was perhaps a little anomalous, comprising courses on philosophy of physics, philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of Karl Popper along with courses on aesthetics and existentialism. After taking a few more courses in philosophy at the University of Calgary, I enrolled there for a Master’s degree, writing a thesis on conceptualization, with a view to its role in aesthetics and epistemology. From there I moved to the University of Western Ontario where I brought these three interests together, writing a thesis on the epistemology of pictures in science. Throughout these studies I maintained a keen interest in feminist philosophy, especially the politics of knowledge, and I have always seen my work on pictures in science as fitting into broader feminist commitments.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

As feminist philosophers have long realized, having perspectives on a topic that are quite different to your own is incredibly powerful for critically assessing both your own views and those of others. So, for instance, if you want to address the exploitation of nonhuman animals in our society it is incredibly powerful to consider how people from, say, South Asian traditions have thought about the differences, similarities, and relationships between humans and other animals. Keeping non-western perspectives in mind, even as one works in a western philosophical tradition, helps one to be both more rigorous in one’s analyses and less dogmatic. Rigor and critical openness are, in my opinion, central virtues of philosophy and, indeed, science.

Dr. Maynell will be speaking at the ‘Bridging the Gap: Scientific Imagination Meets Aesthetic Imagination‘ conference Oct. 5-6, 2017 at the London School of Economics,

On 5–6 October, this 2-day conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play.

Why, how, and when do scientists imagine, and what epistemological roles does the imagination play in scientific progress? Over the past few years, many philosophical accounts have emerged that are relevant to these questions. Roman Frigg, Arnon Levy, and Adam Toon have developed theories of scientific models that place imagination at the heart of modelling practice. And James R. Brown, Tamar Gendler, James McAllister, Letitia Meynell, and Nancy Nersessian have developed theories that recognize the indispensable role of the imagination in the performance of thought experiments. On the other hand, philosophers like Michael Weisberg dismiss imagination-based views of scientific modelling as mere “folk ontology”, and John D. Norton seems to claim that thought experiments are arguments whose imaginary components are epistemologically irrelevant.

In this conference we turn to aesthetics for help in addressing issues concerning scientific imagination-use. Aesthetics is said to have begun in 1717 with an essay called “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by Joseph Addison, and ever since imagination has been what Michael Polyani called “the cornerstone of aesthetic theory”. In recent years Kendall Walton has fruitfully explored the fundamental relevance of imagination for understanding literary, visual and auditory fictions. And many others have been inspired to do the same, including Greg Currie, David Davies, Peter Lamarque, Stein Olsen, and Kathleen Stock.

This conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play. Specific topics may include:

  • What kinds of imagination are involved in science?
  • What is the relation between scientific imagination and aesthetic imagination?
  • What are the structure and limits of knowledge and understanding acquired through imagination?
  • From a methodological point of view, how can aesthetic considerations about imagination play a role in philosophical accounts of scientific reasoning?
  • What can considerations about scientific imagination contribute to our understanding of aesthetic imagination?

The conference will include eight invited talks and four contributed papers. Two of the four slots for contributed papers are being reserved for graduate students, each of whom will receive a travel bursary of £100.

Invited speakers

Margherita Arcangeli (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Andrej Bicanski (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London)

Gregory Currie (University of York)

Jim Faeder (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Tim de Mey (Erasmus University of Rotterdam)

Laetitia Meynell (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Adam Toon (University of Exeter)

Margot Strohminger (Humboldt University, Berlin)

This event is organised by LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and it is co-sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics, the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 654034.

I wonder if they’ll be rubbing shoulders with Angelina Jolie? She is slated to be teaching there in Fall 2017 according to a May 23, 2016 news item in the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

The Hollywood actor and director has been appointed a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, teaching a course on the impact of war on women.

From 2017, Jolie will join the former foreign secretary William Hague as a “professor in practice”, the university announced on Monday, as part of a new MSc course on women, peace and security, which LSE says is the first of its kind in the world.

The course, it says, is intended to “[develop] strategies to promote gender equality and enhance women’s economic, social and political participation and security”, with visiting professors playing an active part in giving lectures, participating in workshops and undertaking their own research.

Getting back to ‘Cosmopolitanism’, some of the principals organized a summer 2017 event (from a Sept. 6, 2017 posting titled: Summer Events – 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology),

CosmoLocal partners Lesley Cormack (University of Alberta, Canada), Gordon McOuat (University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada), and Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India) organized a symposium “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature” as part of the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology.  The conference was held July 23-29, 2017, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The abstract of the CosmoLocal symposium is below, and a pdf version can be found here.

Science, and its associated technologies, is typically viewed as “universal”. At the same time we were also assured that science can trace its genealogy to Europe in a period of rising European intellectual and imperial global force, ‘going outwards’ towards the periphery. As such, it is strikingly parochial. In a kind of sad irony, the ‘subaltern’ was left to retell that tale as one of centre-universalism dominating a traditionalist periphery. Self-described ‘modernity’ and ‘the west’ (two intertwined concepts of recent and mutually self-supporting origin) have erased much of the local engagement and as such represent science as emerging sui generis, moving in one direction. This story is now being challenged within sociology, political theory and history.

… Significantly, scholars who study the history of science in Asia and India have been examining different trajectories for the origin and meaning of science. It is now time for a dialogue between these approaches. Grounding the dialogue is the notion of a “cosmopolitical” science. “Cosmopolitics” is a term borrowed from Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and modern civil society, imagining shared political, moral and economic spaces within which trade, politics and reason get conducted.  …

The abstract is a little ‘high falutin’ but I’m glad to see more efforts being made in  Canada to understand science and its history as a global affair.

Building metal nanoparticles: one step closer

University of Pittsburgh scientists have researched why metal nanoparticles form, a necessary first step before developing techniques for synthesizing them commercially. From a July 10, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Although scientists have for decades been able to synthesize nanoparticles in the lab, the process is mostly trial and error, and how the formation actually takes place is obscure. A new study explains how metal nanoparticles form.

Caption: This is a structure of a ligand-protected Au25 nanocluster. Credit: Computer-Aided Nano and Energy Lab (C.A.N.E.LA.)

A July 10, 2017 University of Pittsburgh news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

“Even though there is extensive research into metal nanoparticle synthesis, there really isn’t a rational explanation why a nanoparticle is formed,” Dr. Mpourmpakis [Giannis Mpourmpakis, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering] said. “We wanted to investigate not just the catalytic applications of nanoparticles, but to make a step further and understand nanoparticle stability and formation. This new thermodynamic stability theory explains why ligand-protected metal nanoclusters are stabilized at specific sizes.”

A ligand is a molecule that binds to metal atoms to form metal cores that are stabilized by a shell of ligands, and so understanding how they contribute to nanoparticle stabilization is essential to any process of nanoparticle application. Dr. Mpourmpakis explained that previous theories describing why nanoclusters stabilized at specific sizes were based on empirical electron counting rules – the number of electrons that form a closed shell electronic structure, but show limitations since there have been metal nanoclusters experimentally synthesized that do not necessarily follow these rules.

“The novelty of our contribution is that we revealed that for experimentally synthesizable nanoclusters there has to be a fine balance between the average bond strength of the nanocluster’s metal core, and the binding strength of the ligands to the metal core,” he said. “We could then relate this to the structural and compositional characteristic of the nanoclusters, like size, number of metal atoms, and number of ligands.

“Now that we have a more complete understanding of this stability, we can better tailor the nanoparticle morphologies and in turn properties, to applications from biolabeling of individual cells and targeted drug delivery to catalytic reactions, thereby creating more efficient and sustainable production processes.”

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

Thermodynamic stability of ligand-protected metal nanoclusters by Michael G. Taylor & Giannis Mpourmpakis. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15988 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms15988 Published online: 07 July 2017

This paper is open access.

Centralized depot (Wikipedia style) for data on neurons

The decades worth of data that has been collected about the billions of neurons in the brain is astounding. To help scientists make sense of this “brain big data,” researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used data mining to create http://www.neuroelectro.org, a publicly available website that acts like Wikipedia, indexing physiological information about neurons.

opens a March 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

The site will help to accelerate the advance of neuroscience research by providing a centralized resource for collecting and comparing data on neuronal function. A description of the data available and some of the analyses that can be performed using the site are published online by the Journal of Neurophysiology

A March 30, 2015 Carnegie Mellon University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes, in more detail,  the endeavour and what the scientists hope to achieve,

The neurons in the brain can be divided into approximately 300 different types based on their physical and functional properties. Researchers have been studying the function and properties of many different types of neurons for decades. The resulting data is scattered across tens of thousands of papers in the scientific literature. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon turned to data mining to collect and organize these data in a way that will make possible, for the first time, new methods of analysis.

“If we want to think about building a brain or re-engineering the brain, we need to know what parts we’re working with,” said Nathan Urban, interim provost and director of Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHubSM neuroscience initiative. “We know a lot about neurons in some areas of the brain, but very little about neurons in others. To accelerate our understanding of neurons and their functions, we need to be able to easily determine whether what we already know about some neurons can be applied to others we know less about.”

Shreejoy J. Tripathy, who worked in Urban’s lab when he was a graduate student in the joint Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) Program in Neural Computation, selected more than 10,000 published papers that contained physiological data describing how neurons responded to various inputs. He used text mining algorithms to “read” each of the papers. The text mining software found the portions of each paper that identified the type of neuron studied and then isolated the electrophysiological data related to the properties of that neuronal type. It also retrieved information about how each of the experiments in the literature was completed, and corrected the data to account for any differences that might be caused by the format of the experiment. Overall, Tripathy, who is now a postdoc at the University of British Columbia, was able to collect and standardize data for approximately 100 different types of neurons, which he published on the website http://www.neuroelectro.org.

Since the data on the website was collected using text mining, the researchers realized that it was likely to contain errors related to extraction and standardization. Urban and his group validated much of the data, but they also created a mechanism that allows site users to flag data for further evaluation. Users also can contribute new data with minimal intervention from site administrators, similar to Wikipedia.

“It’s a dynamic environment in which people can collect, refine and add data,” said Urban, who is the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and a member of the CNBC. “It will be a useful resource to people doing neuroscience research all over the world.”

Ultimately, the website will help researchers find groups of neurons that share the same physiological properties, which could provide a better understanding of how a neuron functions. For example, if a researcher finds that a type of neuron in the brain’s neocortex fires spontaneously, they can look up other neurons that fire spontaneously and access research papers that address this type of neuron. Using that information, they can quickly form hypotheses about whether or not the same mechanisms are at play in both the newly discovered and previously studied neurons.

To demonstrate how neuroelectro.org could be used, the researchers compared the electrophysiological data from more than 30 neuron types that had been most heavily studied in the literature. These included pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus, which are responsible for memory, and dopamine neurons in the midbrain, thought to be responsible for reward-seeking behaviors and addiction, among others. The site was able to find many expected similarities between the different types of neurons, and some similarities that were a surprise to researchers. Those surprises represent promising areas for future research.

In ongoing work, the Carnegie Mellon researchers are comparing the data on neuroelectro.org with other kinds of data, including data on neurons’ patterns of gene expression. For example, Urban’s group is using another publicly available resource, the Allen Brain Atlas, to find whether groups of neurons with similar electrical function have similar gene expression.

“It would take a lot of time, effort and money to determine both the physiological properties of a neuron and its gene expression,” Urban said. “Our website will help guide this research, making it much more efficient.”

The researchers have produced a brief video describing neurons and their project,

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

Brain-wide analysis of electrophysiological diversity yields novel categorization of mammalian neuron types by Shreejoy J Tripathy, Shawn D. Burton, Matthew Geramita, Richard C. Gerkin, and Nathaniel N. Urban. Journal of Neurophysiology Published 25 March 2015 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00237.2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Call for papers (IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] 10th annual NEMS conference in 2015

The deadline for submissions is Nov. 15, 2014 and here’s more from the notice on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website for the IEEE-NEMS [nano/micro engineered and moecular systems] 2015,

The 10th Annual IEEE International Conference on Nano/ Micro Engineered and Molecular Systems (IEEE-NEMS 2015)
Xi’an, China
April 7-11, 2015

The IEEE International Conference on Nano/Micro Engineered and Molecular Systems (IEEE-NEMS) is a series of successful conferences that began in Zhuhai, China in 2006, and has been a premier IEEE annual conference series held mostly in Asia which focuses on MEMS, nanotechnology, and molecular technology. Prior conferences were held in Waikiki Beach (USA, 2014), Suzhou (China, 2013), Kyoto (Japan, 2012), Kaohsiung (Taiwan, 2011), Xiamen (China, 2010), Shenzhen (China, 2009), Hainan Island (China, 2008), Bangkok (Thailand, 2007), and Zhuhai (China, 2006). The conference typically has ~350 attendees with participants from more than 20 countries and regions world-wide.

In 2015, the conference will be held in Xi’an, one of the great ancient capitals of China. Xi’an has more than 3,100 years of history, and was known as Chang’an before the Ming dynasty. Xi’an is the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

We now invite contributions describing the latest scientific and technological research results in subjects including, but are not limited to:

  • Nanophotonics
  • Nanomaterials
  • Nanobiology, Nanomedicine, Nano-bio-informatics
  • Micro/Nano Fluidics, BioMEMS, and Lab-on-Chips
  • Molecular Sensors, Actuators, and Systems
  • Micro/Nano Sensors, Actuators, and Systems
  • Carbon Nanotube/Graphene/Diamond based Devices
  • Micro/Nano/Molecular Heat Transfer & Energy Conversion
  • Micro/Nano/Molecular Fabrication
  • Nanoscale Metrology
  • Micro/Nano Robotics, Assembly & Automation
  • Integration & Application of MEMS/NEMS
  • Flexible MEMS, Sensors and Printed Electronics
  • Commercialization of MEMS/NEMS/Nanotechnology
  • Nanotechnology Safety and Education

Important Dates:

Nov. 15, 2014 – Abstract/Full Paper Submission
Dec. 31, 2014 – Notification of Acceptance
Jan. 31, 2015 – Final Full Paper Submission

We hope to see you at Xi’an, China, in April 2015!

General Chair: Ning Xi, Michigan State University, USA
Program Chair: Guangyong Li, University of Pittsburgh, USA
Organizing Chair: Wen J. Li, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Local Arrangement Chair: Xiaodong Zhang, Xi’an Jiaotong University, China

The 2015 IEEE-NEMS webpage offers more general information about the conference,

The IEEE-NEMS is a key conference series sponsored by the IEEE Nanotechnology Council focusing on advanced research areas related to MEMS, nanotechnology, and molecular technology. … The conference typically has ~350 attendees with participants from more than 20 countries and regions world-wide.

Good luck!

Replacement cartilage grown on laboratory chip

Most of us don’t think too much about cartilage (soft, flexible connective tissue found in the body) unless it’s damaged in which case it’s importance becomes immediately apparent. There is no substitute for cartilage although scientists are working on that problem and it seems that one team may have made a significant breakthrough according to an April 27, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a significant step toward reducing the heavy toll of osteoarthritis around the world, scientists have created the first example of living human cartilage grown on a laboratory chip. The researchers ultimately aim to use their innovative 3-D printing approach to create replacement cartilage for patients with osteoarthritis or soldiers with battlefield injuries.

“Osteoarthritis has a severe impact on quality of life, and there is an urgent need to understand the origin of the disease and develop effective treatments” said Rocky Tuan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, member of the American Association of Anatomists and the study’s senior investigator. “We hope that the methods we’re developing will really make a difference, both in the study of the disease and, ultimately, in treatments for people with cartilage degeneration or joint injuries.”

Osteoarthritis is marked by a gradual disintegration of cartilage, a flexible tissue that provides padding where bones come together in a joint. Causing severe pain and loss of mobility in joints such as knees and fingers, osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of physical disability in the United States. It is estimated that up to 1 in 2 Americans will develop some form of the disease in their lifetime.

Although some treatments can help relieve arthritis symptoms, there is no cure. Many patients with severe arthritis ultimately require a joint replacement.

An April 27,2014 Experimental Biology (EB) 2014 news release provides more insight,

Tuan said artificial cartilage built using a patient’s own stem cells could offer enormous therapeutic potential. “Ideally we would like to be able to regenerate this tissue so people can avoid having to get a joint replacement, which is a pretty drastic procedure and is unfortunately something that some patients have to go through multiple times,” said Tuan.

In addition to offering relief for people with osteoarthritis, Tuan said replacement cartilage could also be a game-changer for people with debilitating joint injuries, such as soldiers with battlefield injuries. “We really want these technologies to help wounded warriors return to service or pursue a meaningful post-combat life,” said Tuan, who co-directs the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a national consortium focused on developing regenerative therapies for injured soldiers. “We are on a mission.”

Creating artificial cartilage requires three main elements: stem cells, biological factors to make the cells grow into cartilage, and a scaffold to give the tissue its shape. Tuan’s 3-D printing approach achieves all three by extruding thin layers of stem cells embedded in a solution that retains its shape and provides growth factors. “We essentially speed up the development process by giving the cells everything they need, while creating a scaffold to give the tissue the exact shape and structure that we want,” said Tuan.

The ultimate vision is to give doctors a tool they can thread through a catheter to print new cartilage right where it’s needed in the patient’s body. Although other researchers have experimented with 3-D printing approaches for cartilage, Tuan’s method represents a significant step forward because it uses visible light, while others have required UV light, which can be harmful to living cells.

In another significant step, Tuan has successfully used the 3-D printing method to produce the first “tissue-on-a-chip” replica of the bone-cartilage interface. Housing 96 blocks of living human tissue 4 millimeters across by 8 millimeters deep, the chip could serve as a test-bed for researchers to learn about how osteoarthritis develops and develop new drugs. “With more testing, I think we’ll be able to use our platform to simulate osteoarthritis, which would be extremely useful since scientists really know very little about how the disease develops,” said Tuan.

As a next step, the team is working to combine their 3-D printing method with a nanofiber spinning technique they developed previously. They hope combining the two methods will provide a more robust scaffold and allow them to create artificial cartilage that even more closely resembles natural cartilage.

Rocky Tuan presented the research during the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting on Sunday, April 27 [2014].

I haven’t been able to find any papers published on this work but you can find Rocky Tuan’s faculty page (along with a list of publications) here and you may have more luck with the EB 2014 conference website than I did.

Using magnets to attract nanoparticles containing anesthesia

An April 11, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily, researchers describe a technique that would require far less anesthesia to numb the pain of various surgical procedures,

A technique using anesthesia-containing nanoparticles — drawn to the targeted area of the body by magnets — could one day provide a useful alternative to nerve block for local anesthesia in patients, suggests an experimental study in the April issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).

“We have established proof of principle that it is possible to produce ankle block in the rat by intravenous injection of magnetic nanoparticles associated with ropivacaine and magnet application at the ankle,” write Dr Venkat R.R. Mantha and colleagues of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. With further study, the nano-anesthesia technique might allow more potent doses of local anesthetics to be delivered safely during local anesthesia in humans.

The April 11, 2014 Walters Kluwer news release, which originated the news item, preliminary research,

The experimental pilot study evaluated the use of magnet-directed nanoparticles containing the local anesthetic drug ropivacaine (MNP/Ropiv) to produce anesthesia of the limbs.  The researchers engineered nanoparticle complexes containing small amounts of ropivacaine and the iron oxide mineral magnetite.  The MNP/Ropiv complexes were injected into the veins (intravenously, or IV) of anesthetized rats.

The researchers then placed magnets around the ankle of the right paw for 15, 30, or 60 minutes.  The goal was to use the magnets to draw the nanoparticles to ankle. Once there, the particles would release the anesthetic, numbing the nerves around the ankle.

Sensation in the right paw was assessed by comparing the right paw to the left paw, which was not affected. Other groups of rats received standard nerve block, with ropivacaine injected directly into the ankle; or IV injection of ropivacaine alone, not incorporated into nanoparticles.

Injection of MNP/Ropiv complexes followed by magnet application produced significant nerve block in the right ankle, similar to a standard nerve block.  The left ankle was unaffected.

The ankle block produced by MNP/Ropiv injection was greatest when the magnet was applied for 30 minutes—likely reflecting the time of maximum ropivacaine release.  High ropivacaine concentrations were found in right ankles of the MNP/Ropiv group, suggesting “sequestration of the drug locally by the magnet.”
In rats receiving MNP/Ropiv, the nanoparticles contained a total of 14 milligrams of ropivacaine—a dose high enough to cause potentially fatal toxic effects.  Yet none of the animals in the MNP/Ropiv group had apparent adverse effects of ropivacaine.  This was similar to the findings in rats receiving 1 milligram of plain ropivacaine.  Thus the safe dose of ropivacaine combined with nanoparticles could be at least 14 times higher, compared to IV ropivacaine alone.

Magnet-directed nanoparticles have previously been used for targeted delivery of chemotherapy drugs.  The new study suggests that a similar technique could be used to attract local anesthetic-containing nanoparticles to specific areas, as an alternative to local anesthetic block—like that used for foot and ankle surgery, for example.

Additional animal experiments would be needed before the MNP/Ropiv technique can be tested in humans.  But if it proved safe, the magnet-directed approach could provide a useful new alternative for regional anesthesia—delivering high concentrations of local anesthetics directly to the desired area, without increasing toxic effects.

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

Nanoanesthesia: A Novel, Intravenous Approach to Ankle Block in the Rat by Magnet-Directed Concentration of Ropivacaine-Associated Nanoparticles by Venkat R. R. Mantha, Harsha K. Nair, Raman Venkataramanan, Yuan Yue Gao, Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Hongchen Dong, Wenwen Li, Doug Landsittel, Elan Cohen, William R. Lariviere. Anesthesia & Analgesia: doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000000175

This paper is open access.

‘Zero-dimensional’ carbon nanotubes

They never say (at least not in the news releases I read) but I get the impression that the carbon nanotube researchers are pretty competitive with the graphene researchers since graphene has largely replaced carbon nanotubes as the basis for magic materials that will transform electronics and make everything thinner, lighter, and stronger. I exaggerate the claims but not by much. At any rate, members of the carbon nanotube research community from the University of Pittsburgh have announced the smallest, thinnest carbon nanotubes yet in a Dec. 9, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Dec. 10, 2013),

Synthetic, man-made cells and ultrathin electronics built from a new form of “zero-dimensional” carbon nanotube may be possible through research at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering. The research, ““Zero-Dimensional” Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes,” was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

“Since its discovery, carbon nanotubes have held the promise to revolutionize the field of electronics, material science and even medicine,” says Dr. Little [Steven R. Little, PhD, associate professor]. “Zero-dimensional carbon nanotubes present the possibility to build ultrathin, superfast electronic devices, far superior to the best existing ones and it could be possible to build strong and ultralight cars, bridges, and airplanes.”

One of the most difficult hurdles is processing the carbon nanotubes into smaller forms. However, previous research at Pitt has managed to cut the carbon nanotubes into the smallest dimensions ever to overcome this problem.

“We have confirmed that these shorter nanotubes are more dispersible and potentially easier to process for industrial as well as biomedical application, and could even constitute the building blocks for the creation of synthetic cells,” says Dr. Gottardi.

The organization of the atoms within nanotubes makes them particularly interesting materials to work with. However, they are barely soluble, making industrial processing difficult. One aspect of the team’s research will focus on creating more soluble and therefore more usable carbon nanotubes. These shorter nanotubes have the same dimensions as many proteins that compose the basic machinery of living cells, presenting the potential for cell or protein-level biomedical imaging, protein or nucleic acid vaccination carriers, drug delivery vehicles, or even components of synthetic cells.

Overall, the project is aimed at developing and working with these more dispersible carbon nanotubes with the aim of making them easier to process. The creation of the smaller nanotubes is the first step toward reaching this goal.

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

“Zero-Dimensional” Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Dr. Kaladhar Kamalasanan, Dr. Riccardo Gottard, Dr. Susheng Tan, Dr. Yanan Chen, Dr. Bhaskar Godugu, Dr. Sam Rothstein, Dr. Anna C. Balazs, Dr. Alexander Star, Dr. Steven R. Little. Angewandte Chemie Volume 125, Issue 43, pages 11518–11522, October 18, 2013 Article first published online: 5 SEP 2013 DOI: 10.1002/ange.201305526

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

Squishy wonderfulness: new possibilities for hydrogels

i have two items for this posting about hydrogels and biomimicry (aka biomimetics). One concerns the use of light to transform hydrogels and the other concerns the potential for using hydrogels in ‘soft’ robotics. First, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found a way to make hydrogels change their shapes, from an Aug. 1, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Some animals—like the octopus and cuttlefish—transform their shape based on environment, fending off attackers or threats in the wild. For decades, researchers have worked toward mimicking similar biological responses in non-living organisms, as it would have significant implications in the medical arena.

Now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated such a biomimetic response using hydrogels—a material that constitutes most contact lenses and microfluidic or fluid-controlled technologies.

The Aug. 1, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release, which originated the news item, offers this description from the paper’s lead authorl,

“Imagine an apartment with a particular arrangement of rooms all in one location,” said lead author Anna Balazs, Pitt Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering. “Now, consider the possibility of being able to shine a particular configuration of lights on this structure and thereby completely changing not only the entire layout, but also the location of the apartment. This is what we’ve demonstrated with hydrogels.”

The news release goes on to provide more specific details about the work,

Together with Olga Kuksenok, research associate professor in the Swanson School, Balazs experimented with a newer type of hydrogel containing spirobenzopyran molecules. Such materials had been previously shown to form distinct 2-D patterns on initially flat surfaces when introduced to varying displays of light and are hydrophilic (“liking” water) in the dark but become hydrophobic (“disliking” water) under blue light illumination. Therefore, Balazs and Kuksenok anticipated that light could be a useful stimulus for tailoring the gel’s shape.

Using computer modeling, the Pitt team demonstrated that the gels “ran away” when exposed to the light, exhibiting direct, sustained motion. The team also factored in heat—combining the light and local variations in temperature to further control the samples’ motions. Controlling a material with light and temperature could be applicable, Balazs said, in terms of regulating the movement of a microscopic “conveyor belt” or “elevator” in a microfluidic device.

“This theoretical modeling points toward a new way of configuring the gels into any shape, while simultaneously driving the gels to move due to the presence of light,” said Kuksenok.

“Consider, for example, that you could take one sheet of hydrogel and, with the appropriate use of light, fashion it into a lens-shaped object, which could be used in optical applications”, added Balazs.

The team also demonstrated that the gels could undergo dynamic reconfiguration, meaning that, with a different combination of lights, the gel could be used for another purpose. Reconfigurable systems are particularly useful because they are reusable, leading to a significant reduction in cost.

“You don’t need to construct a new device for every new application,” said Balazs. “By swiping light over the system in different directions, you can further control the movements of a system, further regulating the flow of materials.”

Balazs said this type of dynamic reconfiguration in response to external cues is particularly advantageous in the realm of functional materials. Such processes, she said, would have a dramatic effect on manufacturing and sustainability, since the same sample could be used and reused for multiple applications.

The team will now study the effect of embedding microscopic fibers into the gel to further control the shape and response of the material to other stimuli.

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

Modeling the Photoinduced Reconfiguration and Directed Motion of Polymer Gels by Olga Kuksenok and Anna C. Balazs. Article first published online: 31 JUL 2013, Adv. Funct. Mater.. doi: 10.1002/adfm.201203876

© 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall. However, there is a video of Anna Balazs’s June 27, 2013 talk (Reconfigurable assemblies of active, auto-chemotactic gels) on these gels at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Meanwhile, researchers at North Carolina State University are pursuing a different line of query involving hydrogels. From an Aug. 2, 2013 North Carolina State University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a new technique for creating devices out of a water-based hydrogel material that can be patterned, folded and used to manipulate objects. The technique holds promise for use in “soft robotics” and biomedical applications.

“This work brings us one step closer to developing new soft robotics technologies that mimic biological systems and can work in aqueous environments,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“In the nearer term, the technique may have applications for drug delivery or tissue scaffolding and directing cell growth in three dimensions, for example,” says Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State, the second senior author of the paper.

The technique they’ve developed uses hydrogels, which are water-based gels composed of water and a small fraction of polymer molecules. Hydrogels are elastic, translucent and – in theory – biocompatible. The researchers found a way to modify and pattern sections of hydrogel electrically by using a copper electrode to inject positively charged copper ions into the material. Those ions bond with negatively charged sites on the polymer network in the hydrogel, essentially linking the polymer molecules to each other and making the material stiffer and more resilient. The researchers can target specific areas with the electrodes to create a framework of stiffened material within the hydrogel. The resulting patterns of ions are stable for months in water.

“The bonds between the biopolymer molecules and the copper ions also pull the molecular strands closer together, causing the hydrogel to bend or flex,” Velev says. “And the more copper ions we inject into the hydrogel by flowing current through the electrodes, the further it bends.”

The researchers were able to take advantage of the increased stiffness and bending behavior in patterned sections to make the hydrogel manipulate objects. For example, the researchers created a V-shaped segment of hydrogel. When copper ions were injected into the bottom of the V, the hydrogel flexed – closing on an object as if the hydrogel were a pair of soft tweezers. By injecting ions into the back side of the hydrogel, the tweezers opened – releasing the object.

The researchers also created a chemically actuated “grabber” out of an X-shaped segment of hydrogel with a patterned framework on the back of the X. When the hydrogel was immersed in ethanol, the non-patterned hydrogel shrank. But because the patterned framework was stiffer than the surrounding hydrogel, the X closed like the petals of a flower, grasping an object. When the X-shaped structure was placed in water, the hydrogel expanded, allowing the “petals” to unfold and release the object. Video of the hydrogels in action is available here.

“We are currently planning to use this technique to develop motile, biologically compatible microdevices,” Velev says.

“It’s also worth noting that this technique works with ions other than copper, such as calcium, which are biologically relevant,” Dickey says.

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

Reversible patterning and actuation of hydrogels by electrically assisted ionoprinting by Etienne Palleau, Daniel Morales, Michael D. Dickey & Orlin D. Velev. Nature Communications 4, Article number: 2257 doi:10.1038/ncomms3257 Published 02 August 2013

This article is behind a paywall.

Connecting the dots in quantum computing—the secret is in the spins

The Feb. 26, 2013 University of Pittsburgh news release puts it a lot better than I can,

Recent research offers a new spin on using nanoscale semiconductor structures to build faster computers and electronics. Literally.

University of Pittsburgh and Delft University of Technology researchers reveal in the Feb. 17 [2013]online issue of Nature Nanotechnology a new method that better preserves the units necessary to power lightning-fast electronics, known as qubits (pronounced CUE-bits). Hole spins, rather than electron spins, can keep quantum bits in the same physical state up to 10 times longer than before, the report finds.

“Previously, our group and others have used electron spins, but the problem was that they interacted with spins of nuclei, and therefore it was difficult to preserve the alignment and control of electron spins,” said Sergey Frolov, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, who did the work as a postdoctoral fellow at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Whereas normal computing bits hold mathematical values of zero or one, quantum bits live in a hazy superposition of both states. It is this quality, said Frolov, which allows them to perform multiple calculations at once, offering exponential speed over classical computers. However, maintaining the qubit’s state long enough to perform computation remains a long-standing challenge for physicists.

“To create a viable quantum computer, the demonstration of long-lived quantum bits, or qubits, is necessary,” said Frolov. “With our work, we have gotten one step closer.”

Thankfully, an explanation of the hole spins vs. electron spins issue follows,

The holes within hole spins, Frolov explained, are literally empty spaces left when electrons are taken out. Using extremely thin filaments called InSb (indium antimonide) nanowires, the researchers created a transistor-like device that could transform the electrons into holes. They then precisely placed one hole in a nanoscale box called “a quantum dot” and controlled the spin of that hole using electric fields. This approach- featuring nanoscale size and a higher density of devices on an electronic chip-is far more advantageous than magnetic control, which has been typically employed until now, said Frolov.

“Our research shows that holes, or empty spaces, can make better spin qubits than electrons for future quantum computers.”

“Spins are the smallest magnets in our universe. Our vision for a quantum computer is to connect thousands of spins, and now we know how to control a single spin,” said Frolov. “In the future, we’d like to scale up this concept to include multiple qubits.”

This graphic displays spin qubits within a nanowire. [downloaded from http://www.news.pitt.edu/connecting-quantum-dots]

This graphic displays spin qubits within a nanowire. [downloaded from http://www.news.pitt.edu/connecting-quantum-dots]

From the news release,

Coauthors of the paper include Leo Kouwenhoven, Stevan Nadj-Perge, Vlad Pribiag, Johan van den Berg, and Ilse van Weperen of Delft University of Technology; and Sebastien Plissard and Erik Bakkers from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

The paper, “Electrical control over single hole spins in nanowire quantum dots,” appeared online Feb. 17 in Nature Nanotechnology. The research was supported by the Dutch Organization for Fundamental Research on Matter, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, and the European Research Council.

According to the scientists we’re going to be waiting a bit longer for a quantum computer but this work is promising. Their paper is behind a paywall.