Tag Archives: US

US White House establishes new initiatives to commercialize nanotechnology

As I’ve noted several times, there’s a strong push in the US to commercialize nanotechnology and May 20, 2015 was a banner day for the efforts. The US White House announced a series of new initiatives to speed commercialization efforts in a May 20, 2015 posting by Lloyd Whitman, Tom Kalil, and JJ Raynor,

Today, May 20 [2015], the National Economic Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy held a forum at the White House to discuss opportunities to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology.

In recognition of the importance of nanotechnology R&D, representatives from companies, government agencies, colleges and universities, and non-profits are announcing a series of new and expanded public and private initiatives that complement the Administration’s efforts to accelerate the commercialization of nanotechnology and expand the nanotechnology workforce:

  • The Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany, NY and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are launching the Nano Health & Safety Consortium to advance research and guidance for occupational safety and health in the nanoelectronics and other nanomanufacturing industry settings.
  • Raytheon has brought together a group of representatives from the defense industry and the Department of Defense to identify collaborative opportunities to advance nanotechnology product development, manufacturing, and supply-chain support with a goal of helping the U.S. optimize development, foster innovation, and take more rapid advantage of new commercial nanotechnologies.
  • BASF Corporation is taking a new approach to finding solutions to nanomanufacturing challenges. In March, BASF launched a prize-based “NanoChallenge” designed to drive new levels of collaborative innovation in nanotechnology while connecting with potential partners to co-create solutions that address industry challenges.
  • OCSiAl is expanding the eligibility of its “iNanoComm” matching grant program that provides low-cost, single-walled carbon nanotubes to include more exploratory research proposals, especially proposals for projects that could result in the creation of startups and technology transfers.
  • The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA) is partnering with Venture for America and working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote entrepreneurship in nanotechnology.  Three companies (PEN, NanoMech, and SouthWest NanoTechnologies), are offering to support NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program with mentorship for entrepreneurs-in-training and, along with three other companies (NanoViricides, mPhase Technologies, and Eikos), will partner with Venture for America to hire recent graduates into nanotechnology jobs, thereby strengthening new nanotech businesses while providing needed experience for future entrepreneurs.
  • TechConnect is establishing a Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Leaders Conference to bring together the leaders of nanotechnology student groups from across the country. The conference will highlight undergraduate research and connect students with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders.  Five universities have already committed to participating, led by the University of Virginia Nano and Emerging Technologies Club.
  • Brewer Science, through its Global Intern Program, is providing more than 30 students from high schools, colleges, and graduate schools across the country with hands-on experience in a wide range of functions within the company.  Brewer Science plans to increase the number of its science and engineering interns by 50% next year and has committed to sharing best practices with other nanotechnology businesses interested in how internship programs can contribute to a small company’s success.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology is expanding its partnership with the National Science Foundation to provide hands-on experience for students in NSF’s Advanced Technology Education program. The partnership will now run year-round and will include opportunities for students at Hudson Valley Community College and the University of the District of Columbia Community College.
  • Federal agencies participating in the NNI [US National Nanotechnology Initiative], supported by the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office [NNCO], are launching multiple new activities aimed at educating students and the public about nanotechnology, including image and video contests highlighting student research, a new webinar series focused on providing nanotechnology information for K-12 teachers, and a searchable web portal on nano.gov of nanoscale science and engineering resources for teachers and professors.

Interestingly, May 20, 2015 is also the day the NNCO held its second webinar for small- and medium-size businesses in the nanotechnology community. You can find out more about that webinar and future ones by following the links in my May 13, 2015 posting.

Since the US White House announcement, OCSiAl has issued a May 26, 2015 news release which provides a brief history and more details about its newly expanded NanoComm program,

OCSiAl launched the iNanoComm, which stands for the Integrated Nanotube Commercialization Award, program in February 2015 to help researchers lower the cost of their most promising R&D projects dedicated to SWCNT [single-walled carbon nanotube] applications. The first round received 33 applications from 28 university groups, including The Smalley-Curl Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University and the Concordia Center for Composites at Concordia University [Canada] among others. [emphasis mine] The aim of iNanoComm is to stimulate universities and research organizations to develop innovative market products based on nano-augmented materials, also known as clean materials.

Now the program’s criteria are being broadened to enable greater private sector engagement in potential projects and the creation of partnerships in commercializing nanotechnology. The program will now support early stage commercialization efforts connected to university research in the form of start-ups, technology transfers, new businesses and university spinoffs to support the mass commercialization of SWCNT products and technologies.

The announcement of the program’s expansion took place at the 2015 Roundtable of the US NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA), the world’s first non-profit association focused on the commercialization of nanotechnologies. NanoBCA is dedicated to creating an environment that nurtures research and innovation in nanotechnology, promotes tech-transfer of nanotechnology from academia to industry, encourages private capital investments in nanotechnology companies, and helps its corporate members bring innovative nanotechnology products to market.

“Enhancing iNanoComm as a ‘start-up incubator’ is a concrete step in promoting single-wall carbon nanotube applications in the commercial world,” said Max Atanassov, CEO of OCSiAl USA. “It was the logical thing for us to do, now that high quality carbon nanotubes have become broadly available and are affordably priced to be used on a mass industrial scale.”

Vince Caprio, Executive Director of NanoBCA, added that “iNanoComm will make an important contribution to translating fundamental nanotechnology research into commercial products. By facilitating the formation of more start-ups, it will encourage more scientists to pursue their dreams and develop their ideas into commercially successful businesses.”

For more information on the program expansion and how it can reduce the cost of early stage research connected to university projects, visit the iNanoComm website at www.inanocomm.org or contact [email protected].

h/t Azonano May 27, 2015 news item

Good enough for the real world? A new device consisting of a singular molecule

While molecular diodes (a diode consisting of a single molecule) have been developed before, Columbia University’s Latha Venkataraman and her team have developed a new technique which may take these devices from the lab to real life. From a May 25, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Under the direction of Latha Venkataraman, associate professor of applied physics at Columbia Engineering, researchers have designed a new technique to create a single-molecule diode, and, in doing so, they have developed molecular diodes that perform 50 times better than all prior designs. Venkataraman’s group is the first to develop a single-molecule diode that may have real-world technological applications for nanoscale devices.

A May 25, 2015 Columbia University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the new technique in greater detail,

“Our new approach created a single-molecule diode that has a high (>250) rectification and a high “on” current (~ 0.1 micro Amps),” says Venkataraman. “Constructing a device where the active elements are only a single molecule has long been a tantalizing dream in nanoscience. This goal, which has been the ‘holy grail’ of molecular electronics ever since its inception with Aviram and Ratner’s 1974 seminal paper, represents the ultimate in functional miniaturization that can be achieved for an electronic device.”

With electronic devices becoming smaller every day, the field of molecular electronics has become ever more critical in solving the problem of further miniaturization, and single molecules represent the limit of miniaturization. The idea of creating a single-molecule diode was suggested by Arieh Aviram and Mark Ratner who theorized in 1974 that a molecule could act as a rectifier, a one-way conductor of electric current. Researchers have since been exploring the charge-transport properties of molecules. They have shown that single-molecules attached to metal electrodes (single-molecule junctions) can be made to act as a variety of circuit elements, including resistors, switches, transistors, and, indeed, diodes. They have learned that it is possible to see quantum mechanical effects, such as interference, manifest in the conductance properties of molecular junctions.

Since a diode acts as an electricity valve, its structure needs to be asymmetric so that electricity flowing in one direction experiences a different environment than electricity flowing in the other direction. In order to develop a single-molecule diode, researchers have simply designed molecules that have asymmetric structures.

“While such asymmetric molecules do indeed display some diode-like properties, they are not effective,” explains Brian Capozzi, a PhD student working with Venkataraman and lead author of the paper. “A well-designed diode should only allow current to flow in one direction–the ‘on’ direction–and it should allow a lot of current to flow in that direction. Asymmetric molecular designs have typically suffered from very low current flow in both ‘on’ and ‘off’ directions, and the ratio of current flow in the two has typically been low. Ideally, the ratio of ‘on’ current to ‘off’ current, the rectification ratio, should be very high.”

In order to overcome the issues associated with asymmetric molecular design, Venkataraman and her colleagues–Chemistry Assistant Professor Luis Campos’ group at Columbia and Jeffrey Neaton’s group at the Molecular Foundry at UC Berkeley–focused on developing an asymmetry in the environment around the molecular junction. They created an environmental asymmetry through a rather simple method–they surrounded the active molecule with an ionic solution and used gold metal electrodes of different sizes to contact the molecule.

Their results achieved rectification ratios as high as 250: 50 times higher than earlier designs. The “on” current flow in their devices can be more than 0.1 microamps, which, Venkataraman notes, is a lot of current to be passing through a single-molecule. And, because this new technique is so easily implemented, it can be applied to all nanoscale devices of all types, including those that are made with graphene electrodes.

“It’s amazing to be able to design a molecular circuit, using concepts from chemistry and physics, and have it do something functional,” Venkataraman says. “The length scale is so small that quantum mechanical effects are absolutely a crucial aspect of the device. So it is truly a triumph to be able to create something that you will never be able to physically see and that behaves as intended.”

She and her team are now working on understanding the fundamental physics behind their discovery, and trying to increase the rectification ratios they observed, using new molecular systems.

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

Single-molecule diodes with high rectification ratios through environmental control by Brian Capozzi, Jianlong Xia, Olgun Adak, Emma J. Dell, Zhen-Fei Liu, Jeffrey C. Taylor, Jeffrey B. Neaton, Luis M. Campos, & Latha Venkataraman. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.97 Published online 25 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

McGill University researchers put the squeeze Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in quantum mechanics

McGill University (Montréal, Québec, Canada) researchers testing the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory had international help according to a May 15, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

We all know intuitively that normal liquids flow more quickly as the channel containing them tightens. Think of a river flowing through narrow rapids.

But what if a pipe were so amazingly tiny that only a few atoms of superfluid helium could squeeze through its opening at once? According to a longstanding quantum-mechanics model, the superfluid helium would behave differently from a normal liquid: far from speeding up, it would actually slow down.

For more than 70 years, scientists have been studying the flow of helium through ever smaller pipes. But only recently has nanotechnology made it possible to reach the scale required to test the theoretical model, known as the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory (after the scientists who developed it).

Now, a team of McGill University researchers, with collaborators at the University of Vermont and at Leipzig University in Germany, has succeeded in conducting experiments with the smallest channel yet – less than 30 atoms wide. In results published online today in Science Advances, the researchers report that the flow of superfluid helium through this miniature faucet does, indeed, appear to slow down.

A May 15, 2015 University of McGill news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and notes this is one step on the road to proving the theory,

“Our results suggest that a quantum faucet does show a fundamentally different behaviour,” says McGill physics professor Guillaume Gervais, who led the project. “We don’t have the smoking gun yet. But we think this a great step toward proving experimentally the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory in a real liquid.”

The zone where physics changes

Insights from the research could someday contribute to novel technologies, such as nano-sensors with applications in GPS systems. But for now, Gervais says, the results are significant simply because “we’re pushing the limit of understanding things on the nanoscale. We’re approaching the grey zone where all physics changes.”

Prof. Adrian Del Maestro from the University of Vermont has been employing high-performance computer simulations to understand just how small the faucet has to be before this new physics emerges. “The ability to study a quantum liquid at such diminutive length scales in the laboratory is extremely exciting as it allows us to extend our fundamental understanding of how atoms cooperate to form the superfluid state of matter,” he says. “The superfluid slowdown we observe signals that this cooperation is starting to break down as the width of the pipe narrows to the nanoscale” and edges closer to the exotic one-dimensional limit envisioned in the Tomonaga-Luttinger theory.

Building what is probably the world’s smallest faucet has been no simple task. Gervais hatched the idea during a five-minute conversation over coffee with a world-leading theoretical physicist. That was eight years ago. But getting the nano-plumbing to work took “at least 100 trials – maybe 200,” says Gervais, who is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

A beam of electrons as drill bit

Using a beam of electrons as a kind of drill bit, the team made holes as small as seven nanometers wide in a piece of silicon nitride, a tough material used in applications such as automotive diesel engines and high-performance ball bearings. By cooling the apparatus to very low temperatures, placing superfluid helium on one side of the pore and applying a vacuum to the other, the researchers were able to observe the flow of the superfluid through the channel. Varying the size of the channel, they found that the maximum speed of the flow slowed as the radius of the pore decreased.

The experiments take advantage of a unique characteristic of superfluids. Unlike ordinary liquids – water or maple syrup, for example – superfluids can flow without any viscosity. As a result, they can course through extremely narrow channels; and once in motion, they don’t need any pressure to keep going. Helium is the only element in nature known to become a superfluid; it does so when cooled to an extremely low temperature.

An inadvertent breakthrough

For years, however, the researchers were frustrated by a technical glitch: the tiny pore in the silicon nitride material kept getting clogged by contaminants. Then one day, while Gervais was away at a conference abroad, a new student in his lab inadvertently deviated from the team’s operating procedure and left a valve open in the apparatus. “It turned out that this open valve kept the hole open,” Gervais says. “It was the key to getting the experiment to work. Scientific breakthroughs don’t always happen by design!”

Prof. Bernd Rosenow, a quantum physicist at Leipzig University’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, also contributed to the study.

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

Critical flow and dissipation in a quasi–one-dimensional superfluid by Pierre-François Duc, Michel Savard, Matei Petrescu, Bernd Rosenow, Adrian Del Maestro, Guillaume Gervais. Science Advances 15 May 2015: Vol. 1 no. 4 e1400222 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400222

This is an open access paper.

Fermionic atoms and the microscopes that can see them

The new fermionic microscope built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) allows you to image 1000 or more fermionic atoms according to a May 13, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Fermions are the building blocks of matter, interacting in a multitude of permutations to give rise to the elements of the periodic table. Without fermions, the physical world would not exist.

Examples of fermions are electrons, protons, neutrons, quarks, and atoms consisting of an odd number of these elementary particles. Because of their fermionic nature, electrons and nuclear matter are difficult to understand theoretically, so researchers are trying to use ultracold gases of fermionic atoms as stand-ins for other fermions.

But atoms are extremely sensitive to light: When a single photon hits an atom, it can knock the particle out of place — an effect that has made imaging individual fermionic atoms devilishly hard.

Now a team of MIT physicists has built a microscope that is able to see up to 1,000 individual fermionic atoms. The researchers devised a laser-based technique to trap and freeze fermions in place, and image the particles simultaneously.

A May 13, 2015 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides intriguing detail about the microscope and fascinating insight into fermions (for those who are interested but not expert and sufficiently brave to endure certain failure to understand everything in this piece),

The new imaging technique uses two laser beams trained on a cloud of fermionic atoms in an optical lattice. The two beams, each of a different wavelength, cool the cloud, causing individual fermions to drop down an energy level, eventually bringing them to their lowest energy states — cool and stable enough to stay in place. At the same time, each fermion releases light, which is captured by the microscope and used to image the fermion’s exact position in the lattice — to an accuracy better than the wavelength of light.

With the new technique, the researchers are able to cool and image over 95 percent of the fermionic atoms making up a cloud of potassium gas. Martin Zwierlein, a professor of physics at MIT, says an intriguing result from the technique appears to be that it can keep fermions cold even after imaging.

“That means I know where they are, and I can maybe move them around with a little tweezer to any location, and arrange them in any pattern I’d like,” Zwierlein says.

Zwierlein and his colleagues, including first author and graduate student Lawrence Cheuk, have published their results today in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Seeing fermions from bosons

For the past two decades, experimental physicists have studied ultracold atomic gases of the two classes of particles: fermions and bosons — particles such as photons that, unlike fermions, can occupy the same quantum state in limitless numbers. In 2009, physicist Markus Greiner at Harvard University devised a microscope that successfully imaged individual bosons in a tightly spaced optical lattice. This milestone was followed, in 2010, by a second boson microscope, developed by Immanuel Bloch’s group at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics.

These microscopes revealed, in unprecedented detail, the behavior of bosons under strong interactions. However, no one had yet developed a comparable microscope for fermionic atoms.

“We wanted to do what these groups had done for bosons, but for fermions,” Zwierlein says. “And it turned out it was much harder for fermions, because the atoms we use are not so easily cooled. So we had to find a new way to cool them while looking at them.”

Techniques to cool atoms ever closer to absolute zero have been devised in recent decades. Carl Wieman, Eric Cornell, and MIT’s Wolfgang Ketterle were able to achieve Bose-Einstein condensation in 1995, a milestone for which they were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics. Other techniques include a process using lasers to cool atoms from 300 degrees Celsius to a few ten-thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.

A clever cooling technique

And yet, to see individual fermionic atoms, the particles need to be cooled further still. To do this, Zwierlein’s group created an optical lattice using laser beams, forming a structure resembling an egg carton, each well of which could potentially trap a single fermion. Through various stages of laser cooling, magnetic trapping, and further evaporative cooling of the gas, the atoms were prepared at temperatures just above absolute zero — cold enough for individual fermions to settle onto the underlying optical lattice. The team placed the lattice a mere 7 microns from an imaging lens, through which they hoped to see individual fermions.

However, seeing fermions requires shining light on them, causing a photon to essentially knock a fermionic atom out of its well, and potentially out of the system entirely.

“We needed a clever technique to keep the atoms cool while looking at them,” Zwierlein says.

His team decided to use a two-laser approach to further cool the atoms; the technique manipulates an atom’s particular energy level, or vibrational energy. Each atom occupies a certain energy state — the higher that state, the more active the particle is. The team shone two laser beams of differing frequencies at the lattice. The difference in frequencies corresponded to the energy between a fermion’s energy levels. As a result, when both beams were directed at a fermion, the particle would absorb the smaller frequency, and emit a photon from the larger-frequency beam, in turn dropping one energy level to a cooler, more inert state. The lens above the lattice collects the emitted photon, recording its precise position, and that of the fermion.

Zwierlein says such high-resolution imaging of more than 1,000 fermionic atoms simultaneously would enhance our understanding of the behavior of other fermions in nature — particularly the behavior of electrons. This knowledge may one day advance our understanding of high-temperature superconductors, which enable lossless energy transport, as well as quantum systems such as solid-state systems or nuclear matter.

“The Fermi gas microscope, together with the ability to position atoms at will, might be an important step toward the realization of a quantum computer based on fermions,” Zwierlein says. “One would thus harness the power of the very same intricate quantum rules that so far hamper our understanding of electronic systems.”

Zwierlein says it is a good time for Fermi gas microscopists: Around the same time his group first reported its results, teams from Harvard and the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow also reported imaging individual fermionic atoms in optical lattices, indicating a promising future for such microscopes.

Zoran Hadzibabic, a professor of physics at Trinity College [University of Cambridge, UK], says the group’s microscope is able to detect individual atoms “with almost perfect fidelity.”

“They detect them reliably, and do so without affecting their positions — that’s all you want,” says Hadzibabic, who did not contribute to the research. “So far they demonstrated the technique, but we know from the experience with bosons that that’s the hardest step, and I expect the scientific results to start pouring out.”

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

Quantum-Gas Microscope for Fermionic Atoms by Lawrence W. Cheuk, Matthew A. Nichols, Melih Okan, Thomas Gersdorf, Vinay V. Ramasesh, Waseem S. Bakr, Thomas Lompe, and Martin W. Zwierlein. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 193001 – Published 13 May 2015 (print: Vol. 114, Iss. 19 — 15 May 2015) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.193001

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

There is an earlier version available on arXiv.org,

A Quantum Gas Microscope for Fermionic Atoms by Lawrence W. Cheuk, Matthew A. Nichols, Melih Okan, Thomas Gersdorf, Vinay V. Ramasesh, Waseem S. Bakr, Thomas Lompe, Martin W. Zwierlein. (Submitted on 9 Mar 2015 (v1), last revised 10 Mar 2015 (this version, v2))

This an open access website.

Iridescent bird feathers inspire synthetic melanin for structural color/colour

I’m hoping one day they’ll be able to create textiles that rely on structure rather than pigment or dye for colour so my clothing will no longer fade with repeated washings and exposure to sunlight. There was one such textile, morphotex (named for the Blue Morpho butterfly, no longer produced by Japanese manufacturer Teijin but you can see a photo of the fabric which was fashioned into a dress by Australian designer Donna Sgro in my July 19, 2010 posting.

This particular project at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), sadly, is not textile-oriented, but has resulted in a film according to a May 13, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Inspired by the way iridescent bird feathers play with light, scientists have created thin films of material in a wide range of pure colors — from red to green — with hues determined by physical structure rather than pigments.

Structural color arises from the interaction of light with materials that have patterns on a minute scale, which bend and reflect light to amplify some wavelengths and dampen others. Melanosomes, tiny packets of melanin found in the feathers, skin and fur of many animals, can produce structural color when packed into solid layers, as they are in the feathers of some birds.

“We synthesized and assembled nanoparticles of a synthetic version of melanin to mimic the natural structures found in bird feathers,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. “We want to understand how nature uses materials like this, then to develop function that goes beyond what is possible in nature.”

A May 13, 2015 UCSD news release by Susan Brown (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the inspiration and the work in more detail,

Gianneschi’s work focuses on nanoparticles that can sense and respond to the environment. He proposed the project after hearing Matthew Shawkey, a biology professor at the University of Akron, describe his work on the structural color in bird feathers at a conference. Gianneschi, Shawkey and colleagues at both universities report the fruits of the resulting collaboration in the journal ACS Nano, posted online May 12 [2015].

To mimic natural melanosomes, Yiwen Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Gianneschi’s lab, chemically linked a similar molecule, dopamine, into meshes. The linked, or polydopamine, balled up into spherical particles of near uniform size. Ming Xiao, a graduate student who works with Shawkey and polymer science professor Ali Dhinojwala at the University of Akron, dried different concentrations of the particles to form thin films of tightly packed polydopamine particles.

The films reflect pure colors of light; red, orange, yellow and green, with hue determined by the thickness of the polydopamine layer and how tightly the particles packed, which relates to their size, analysis by Shawkey’s group determined.

The colors are exceptionally uniform across the films, according to precise measurements by Dimitri Deheyn, a research scientist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies how a wide variety of organisms use light and color to communicate. “This spatial mapping of spectra also tells you about color changes associated with changes in the size or depth of the particles,” Deheyn said.

The qualities of the material contribute to its potential application. Pure hue is a valuable trait in colorimetric sensors. And unlike pigment-based paints or dyes, structural color won’t fade. Polydopamine, like melanin, absorbs UV light, so coatings made from polydopamine could protect materials as well. Dopamine is also a biological molecule used to transmit information in our brains, for example, and therefore biodegradable.

“What has kept me fascinated for 15 years is the idea that one can generate colors across the rainbow through slight (nanometer scale) changes in structure,” said Shawkey whose interests range from the physical mechanisms that produce colors to how the structures grow in living organisms. “This idea of biomimicry can help solve practical problems but also enables us to test the mechanistic and developmental hypotheses we’ve proposed,” he said.

Natural melanosomes found in bird feathers vary in size and particularly shape, forming rods and spheres that can be solid or hollow. The next step is to vary the shapes of nanoparticles of polydopamine to mimic that variety to experimentally test how size and shape influence the particle’s interactions with light, and therefore the color of the material. Ultimately, the team hopes to generate a palette of biocompatible, structural color.

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

Bio-Inspired Structural Colors Produced via Self-Assembly of Synthetic Melanin Nanoparticles by Ming Xiao, Yiwen Li, Michael C. Allen, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Xiujun Yue, Jiuzhou Zhao, Nathan C. Gianneschi, Matthew D. Shawkey, and Ali Dhinojwala. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01298 Publication Date (Web): May 4, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who’d like to explore structural colour further, there’s this Feb. 7, 2013 posting which features excerpts from and a link to an excellent article by Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist.

Synthesizing nerve tissues with 3D printers and cellulose nanocrystals (CNC)

There are lots of stories about bioprinting and tissue engineering here and I think it’s time (again) for one which one has some good, detailed descriptions and, bonus, it features cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) and graphene. From a May 13, 2015 news item on Azonano,

The printer looks like a toaster oven with the front and sides removed. Its metal frame is built up around a stainless steel circle lit by an ultraviolet light. Stainless steel hydraulics and thin black tubes line the back edge, which lead to an inner, topside box made of red plastic.

In front, the metal is etched with the red Bio Bot logo. All together, the gray metal frame is small enough to fit on top of an old-fashioned school desk, but nothing about this 3D printer is old school. In fact, the tissue-printing machine is more like a sci-fi future in the flesh—and it has very real medical applications.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University hope to use this newly acquired 3D bioprinter to make synthesized nerve tissue. The key is developing the right “bioink” or printable tissue. The nanotechnology-inspired material could help regenerate damaged nerves for patients with spinal cord injuries, says Tolou Shokuhfar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering at Michigan Tech.

Shokuhfar directs the In-Situ Nanomedicine and Nanoelectronics Laboratory at Michigan Tech, and she is an adjunct assistant professor in the Bioengineering Department and the College of Dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In the bioprinting research, Shokuhfar collaborates with Reza Shahbazian-Yassar, the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech. Shahbazian-Yassar’s highly interdisciplinary background on cellulose nanocrystals as biomaterials, funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Biomaterials Program, helped inspire the lab’s new 3D printing research. “Cellulose nanocrystals with extremely good mechanical properties are highly desirable for bioprinting of scaffolds that can be used for live tissues,” says Shahbazian-Yassar. [emphases mine]

A May 11, 2015 Michigan Technological University (MTU) news release by Allison Mills, which originated the news item, explains the ‘why’ of the research,

“We wanted to target a big issue,” Shokuhfar says, explaining that nerve regeneration is a particularly difficult biomedical engineering conundrum. “We are born with all the nerve cells we’ll ever have, and damaged nerves don’t heal very well.”

Other facilities are trying to address this issue as well. Many feature large, room-sized machines that have built-in cell culture hoods, incubators and refrigeration. The precision of this equipment allows them to print full organs. But innovation is more nimble at smaller scales.

“We can pursue nerve regeneration research with a simpler printer set-up,” says Shayan Shafiee, a PhD student working with Shokuhfar. He gestures to the small gray box across the lab bench.

He opens the red box under the top side of the printer’s box. Inside the plastic casing, a large syringe holds a red jelly-like fluid. Shafiee replenishes the needle-tipped printer, pulls up his laptop and, with a hydraulic whoosh, he starts to print a tissue scaffold.

The news release expands on the theme,

At his lab bench in the nanotechnology lab at Michigan Tech, Shafiee holds up a petri dish. Inside is what looks like a red gummy candy, about the size of a half-dollar.

Here’s a video from MTU illustrating the printing process,

Back to the news release, which notes graphene could be instrumental in this research,

“This is based on fractal geometry,” Shafiee explains, pointing out the small crenulations and holes pockmarking the jelly. “These are similar to our vertebrae—the idea is to let a nerve pass through the holes.”

Making the tissue compatible with nerve cells begins long before the printer starts up. Shafiee says the first step is to synthesize a biocompatible polymer that is syrupy—but not too thick—that can be printed. That means Shafiee and Shokuhfar have to create their own materials to print with; there is no Amazon.com or even a specialty shop for bioprinting nerves.

Nerves don’t just need a biocompatible tissue to act as a carrier for the cells. Nerve function is all about electric pulses. This is where Shokuhfar’s nanotechnology research comes in: Last year, she was awarded a CAREER grant from NSF for her work using graphene in biomaterials research. [emphasis mine] “Graphene is a wonder material,” she says. “And it has very good electrical conductivity properties.”

The team is extending the application of this material for nerve cell printing. “Our work always comes back to the question, is it printable or not?” Shafiee says, adding that a successful material—a biocompatible, graphene-bound polymer—may just melt, mush or flat out fail under the pressure of printing. After all, imagine building up a substance more delicate than a soufflé using only the point of a needle. And in the nanotechnology world, a needlepoint is big, even clumsy.

Shafiee and Shokuhfar see these issues as mechanical obstacles that can be overcome.

“It’s like other 3D printers, you need a design to work from,” Shafiee says, adding that he will tweak and hone the methodology for printing nerve cells throughout his dissertation work. He is also hopeful that the material will have use beyond nerve regeneration.

This looks like a news release designed to publicize work funded at MTU by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) which is why there is no mention of published work.

One final comment regarding cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). They have also been called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), which you will still see but it seems CNC is emerging as the generic term. NCC has been trademarked by CelluForce, a Canadian company researching and producing CNC (or if you prefer, NCC) from forest products.

US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its whispering gallery for graphene electrons

I like this old introduction about research that invoked whispering galleries well enough to reuse it here. From a Feb. 8, 2012 post about whispering galleries for light,

Whispering galleries are always popular with all ages. I know that because I can never get enough time in them as I jostle with seniors, children, young adults, etc. For most humans, the magic of having someone across from you on the other side of the room sound as if they’re beside you whispering in your ear is ever fresh.

According to a May 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, the US Institute of National Standards and Technology’s (NIST) whispering gallery is not likely to cause any jostling for space as it exists at the nanoscale,

An international research group led by scientists at the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a technique for creating nanoscale whispering galleries for electrons in graphene. The development opens the way to building devices that focus and amplify electrons just as lenses focus light and resonators (like the body of a guitar) amplify sound.

The NIST has provided a rather intriguing illustration of this work,

Caption: An international research group led by scientists at NIST has developed a technique for creating nanoscale whispering galleries for electrons in graphene. The researchers used the voltage from a scanning tunneling microscope (right) to push graphene electrons out of a nanoscale area to create the whispering gallery (represented by the protuberances on the left), which is like a circular wall of mirrors to the electron. credit: Jon Wyrick, CNST/NIST

Caption: An international research group led by scientists at NIST has developed a technique for creating nanoscale whispering galleries for electrons in graphene. The researchers used the voltage from a scanning tunneling microscope (right) to push graphene electrons out of a nanoscale area to create the whispering gallery (represented by the protuberances on the left), which is like a circular wall of mirrors to the electron.
credit: Jon Wyrick, CNST/NIST

A May 8, 2015 NIST news release, which originated the news item, gives a delightful introduction to whispering galleries and more details about this research (Note: Links have been removed),

In some structures, such as the dome in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a person standing near a curved wall can hear the faintest sound made along any other part of that wall. This phenomenon, called a whispering gallery, occurs because sound waves will travel along a curved surface much farther than they will along a flat one. Using this same principle, scientists have built whispering galleries for light waves as well, and whispering galleries are found in applications ranging from sensing, spectroscopy and communications to the generation of laser frequency combs.

“The cool thing is that we made a nanometer scale electronic analogue of a classical wave effect,” said NIST researcher Joe Stroscio. “These whispering galleries are unlike anything you see in any other electron based system, and that’s really exciting.”

Ever since graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, was first created in 2004, the material has impressed researchers with its strength, ability to conduct electricity and heat and many interesting optical, magnetic and chemical properties.

However, early studies of the behavior of electrons in graphene were hampered by defects in the material. As the manufacture of clean and near-perfect graphene becomes more routine, scientists are beginning to uncover its full potential.

When moving electrons encounter a potential barrier in conventional semiconductors, it takes an increase in energy for the electron to continue flowing. As a result, they are often reflected, just as one would expect from a ball-like particle.

However, because electrons can sometimes behave like a wave, there is a calculable chance that they will ignore the barrier altogether, a phenomenon called tunneling. Due to the light-like properties of graphene electrons, they can pass through unimpeded—no matter how high the barrier—if they hit the barrier head on. This tendency to tunnel makes it hard to steer electrons in graphene.

Enter the graphene electron whispering gallery.

To create a whispering gallery in graphene, the team first enriched the graphene with electrons from a conductive plate mounted below it. With the graphene now crackling with electrons, the research team used the voltage from a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to push some of them out of a nanoscale-sized area. This created the whispering gallery, which is like a circular wall of mirrors to the electron.

“An electron that hits the step head-on can tunnel straight through it,” said NIST researcher Nikolai Zhitenev. “But if electrons hit it at an angle, their waves can be reflected and travel along the sides of the curved walls of the barrier until they began to interfere with one another, creating a nanoscale electronic whispering gallery mode.”

The team can control the size and strength, i.e., the leakiness, of the electronic whispering gallery by varying the STM tip’s voltage. The probe not only creates whispering gallery modes, but can detect them as well.

NIST researcher Yue Zhao fabricated the high mobility device and performed the measurements with her colleagues Fabian Natterer and Jon Wyrick. A team of theoretical physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed the theory describing whispering gallery modes in graphene.

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

Creating and probing electron whispering-gallery modes in graphene by Yue Zhao, Jonathan Wyrick, Fabian D. Natterer1, Joaquin F. Rodriguez-Nieva, Cyprian Lewandowski, Kenji Watanabe, Takashi Taniguchi, Leonid S. Levitov, Nikolai B. Zhitenev, & Joseph A. Stroscio. Science 8 May 2015:
Vol. 348 no. 6235 pp. 672-675 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa7469

This paper is behind a paywall.

Memristor, memristor, you are popular

Regular readers know I have a long-standing interest in memristor and artificial brains. I have three memristor-related pieces of research,  published in the last month or so, for this post.

First, there’s some research into nano memory at RMIT University, Australia, and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara). From a May 12, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

RMIT University researchers have mimicked the way the human brain processes information with the development of an electronic long-term memory cell.

Researchers at the MicroNano Research Facility (MNRF) have built the one of the world’s first electronic multi-state memory cell which mirrors the brain’s ability to simultaneously process and store multiple strands of information.

The development brings them closer to imitating key electronic aspects of the human brain — a vital step towards creating a bionic brain — which could help unlock successful treatments for common neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A May 11, 2015 RMIT University news release, which originated the news item, reveals more about the researchers’ excitement and about the research,

“This is the closest we have come to creating a brain-like system with memory that learns and stores analog information and is quick at retrieving this stored information,” Dr Sharath said.

“The human brain is an extremely complex analog computer… its evolution is based on its previous experiences, and up until now this functionality has not been able to be adequately reproduced with digital technology.”

The ability to create highly dense and ultra-fast analog memory cells paves the way for imitating highly sophisticated biological neural networks, he said.

The research builds on RMIT’s previous discovery where ultra-fast nano-scale memories were developed using a functional oxide material in the form of an ultra-thin film – 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Dr Hussein Nili, lead author of the study, said: “This new discovery is significant as it allows the multi-state cell to store and process information in the very same way that the brain does.

“Think of an old camera which could only take pictures in black and white. The same analogy applies here, rather than just black and white memories we now have memories in full color with shade, light and texture, it is a major step.”

While these new devices are able to store much more information than conventional digital memories (which store just 0s and 1s), it is their brain-like ability to remember and retain previous information that is exciting.

“We have now introduced controlled faults or defects in the oxide material along with the addition of metallic atoms, which unleashes the full potential of the ‘memristive’ effect – where the memory element’s behaviour is dependent on its past experiences,” Dr Nili said.

Nano-scale memories are precursors to the storage components of the complex artificial intelligence network needed to develop a bionic brain.

Dr Nili said the research had myriad practical applications including the potential for scientists to replicate the human brain outside of the body.

“If you could replicate a brain outside the body, it would minimise ethical issues involved in treating and experimenting on the brain which can lead to better understanding of neurological conditions,” Dr Nili said.

The research, supported by the Australian Research Council, was conducted in collaboration with the University of California Santa Barbara.

Here’s a link to and a citation for this memristive nano device,

Donor-Induced Performance Tuning of Amorphous SrTiO3 Memristive Nanodevices: Multistate Resistive Switching and Mechanical Tunability by  Hussein Nili, Sumeet Walia, Ahmad Esmaielzadeh Kandjani, Rajesh Ramanathan, Philipp Gutruf, Taimur Ahmed, Sivacarendran Balendhran, Vipul Bansal, Dmitri B. Strukov, Omid Kavehei, Madhu Bhaskaran, and Sharath Sriram. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201501019 Article first published online: 14 APR 2015

© 2015 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

The second published piece of memristor-related research comes from a UC Santa Barbara and  Stony Brook University (New York state) team but is being publicized by UC Santa Barbara. From a May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

In what marks a significant step forward for artificial intelligence, researchers at UC Santa Barbara have demonstrated the functionality of a simple artificial neural circuit (Nature, “Training and operation of an integrated neuromorphic network based on metal-oxide memristors”). For the first time, a circuit of about 100 artificial synapses was proved to perform a simple version of a typical human task: image classification.

A May 11, 2015 UC Santa Barbara news release (also on EurekAlert)by Sonia Fernandez, which originated the news item, situates this development within the ‘artificial brain’ effort while describing it in more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

“It’s a small, but important step,” said Dmitri Strukov, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. With time and further progress, the circuitry may eventually be expanded and scaled to approach something like the human brain’s, which has 1015 (one quadrillion) synaptic connections.

For all its errors and potential for faultiness, the human brain remains a model of computational power and efficiency for engineers like Strukov and his colleagues, Mirko Prezioso, Farnood Merrikh-Bayat, Brian Hoskins and Gina Adam. That’s because the brain can accomplish certain functions in a fraction of a second what computers would require far more time and energy to perform.

… As you read this, your brain is making countless split-second decisions about the letters and symbols you see, classifying their shapes and relative positions to each other and deriving different levels of meaning through many channels of context, in as little time as it takes you to scan over this print. Change the font, or even the orientation of the letters, and it’s likely you would still be able to read this and derive the same meaning.

In the researchers’ demonstration, the circuit implementing the rudimentary artificial neural network was able to successfully classify three letters (“z”, “v” and “n”) by their images, each letter stylized in different ways or saturated with “noise”. In a process similar to how we humans pick our friends out from a crowd, or find the right key from a ring of similar keys, the simple neural circuitry was able to correctly classify the simple images.

“While the circuit was very small compared to practical networks, it is big enough to prove the concept of practicality,” said Merrikh-Bayat. According to Gina Adam, as interest grows in the technology, so will research momentum.

“And, as more solutions to the technological challenges are proposed the technology will be able to make it to the market sooner,” she said.

Key to this technology is the memristor (a combination of “memory” and “resistor”), an electronic component whose resistance changes depending on the direction of the flow of the electrical charge. Unlike conventional transistors, which rely on the drift and diffusion of electrons and their holes through semiconducting material, memristor operation is based on ionic movement, similar to the way human neural cells generate neural electrical signals.

“The memory state is stored as a specific concentration profile of defects that can be moved back and forth within the memristor,” said Strukov. The ionic memory mechanism brings several advantages over purely electron-based memories, which makes it very attractive for artificial neural network implementation, he added.

“For example, many different configurations of ionic profiles result in a continuum of memory states and hence analog memory functionality,” he said. “Ions are also much heavier than electrons and do not tunnel easily, which permits aggressive scaling of memristors without sacrificing analog properties.”

This is where analog memory trumps digital memory: In order to create the same human brain-type functionality with conventional technology, the resulting device would have to be enormous — loaded with multitudes of transistors that would require far more energy.

“Classical computers will always find an ineluctable limit to efficient brain-like computation in their very architecture,” said lead researcher Prezioso. “This memristor-based technology relies on a completely different way inspired by biological brain to carry on computation.”

To be able to approach functionality of the human brain, however, many more memristors would be required to build more complex neural networks to do the same kinds of things we can do with barely any effort and energy, such as identify different versions of the same thing or infer the presence or identity of an object not based on the object itself but on other things in a scene.

Potential applications already exist for this emerging technology, such as medical imaging, the improvement of navigation systems or even for searches based on images rather than on text. The energy-efficient compact circuitry the researchers are striving to create would also go a long way toward creating the kind of high-performance computers and memory storage devices users will continue to seek long after the proliferation of digital transistors predicted by Moore’s Law becomes too unwieldy for conventional electronics.

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

Training and operation of an integrated neuromorphic network based on metal-oxide memristors by M. Prezioso, F. Merrikh-Bayat, B. D. Hoskins, G. C. Adam, K. K. Likharev,    & D. B. Strukov. Nature 521, 61–64 (07 May 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14441

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available through ReadCube Access.

The third and last piece of research, which is from Rice University, hasn’t received any publicity yet, unusual given Rice’s very active communications/media department. Here’s a link to and a citation for their memristor paper,

2D materials: Memristor goes two-dimensional by Jiangtan Yuan & Jun Lou. Nature Nanotechnology 10, 389–390 (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.94 Published online 07 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available through ReadCube Access.

Dexter Johnson has written up the RMIT research (his May 14, 2015 post on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website). He linked it to research from Mark Hersam’s team at Northwestern University (my April 10, 2015 posting) on creating a three-terminal memristor enabling its use in complex electronics systems. Dexter strongly hints in his headline that these developments could lead to bionic brains.

For those who’d like more memristor information, this June 26, 2014 posting which brings together some developments at the University of Michigan and information about developments in the industrial sector is my suggestion for a starting point. Also, you may want to check out my material on HP Labs, especially prominent in the story due to the company’s 2008 ‘discovery’ of the memristor, described on a page in my Nanotech Mysteries wiki, and the controversy triggered by the company’s terminology (there’s more about the controversy in my April 7, 2010 interview with Forrest H Bennett III).

CRISPR genome editing tools and human genetic engineering issues

This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.

First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,

CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare by Rajendran Subin Raj Cheri Kunnumal, Yau Yuan-Yeu, Pandey Dinesh, and Kumar Anil. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. May 2015, 19(5): 261-275. doi:10.1089/omi.2015.0023 Published Online Ahead of Print: April 14, 2015

Here’s more about the paper from a May 7, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publisher news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …

“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.

“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.

Intellectual property (patents)

The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.

….

Ethical and moral issues

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

….

Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

More than CRISPR

As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.

In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …

Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.

Canadian perspective?

I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.

Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.

Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find  more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.

Animal-based (some of it ‘fishy’) sunscreen from Oregon State University

In the Northern Hemisphere countries it’s time to consider one’s sunscreen options.While this Oregon State University into animal-based sunscreens is intriguing,  market-ready options likely won’t be available for quite some time. (There is a second piece of related research, more ‘fishy’ in nature [pun], featured later in this post.) From a May 12, 2015 Oregon State University news release,

Researchers have discovered why many animal species can spend their whole lives outdoors with no apparent concern about high levels of solar exposure: they make their own sunscreen.

The findings, published today in the journal eLife by scientists from Oregon State University, found that many fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds can naturally produce a compound called gadusol, which among other biologic activities provides protection from the ultraviolet, or sun-burning component of sunlight.

The researchers also believe that this ability may have been obtained through some prehistoric, natural genetic engineering.

Here’s an amusing image to illustrate the researchers’ point,

Gadusol is the gene found in some animals which gives natural sun protection. Courtesy: Oregon State University

Gadusol is the gene found in some animals which gives natural sun protection.
Courtesy: Oregon State University

The news release goes on to describe gadusol and its believed evolutionary pathway,

The gene that provides the capability to produce gadusol is remarkably similar to one found in algae, which may have transferred it to vertebrate animals – and because it’s so valuable, it’s been retained and passed along for hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution.

“Humans and mammals don’t have the ability to make this compound, but we’ve found that many other animal species do,” said Taifo Mahmud, a professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy, and lead author on the research.

The genetic pathway that allows gadusol production is found in animals ranging from rainbow trout to the American alligator, green sea turtle and a farmyard chicken.

“The ability to make gadusol, which was first discovered in fish eggs, clearly has some evolutionary value to be found in so many species,” Mahmud said. “We know it provides UV-B protection, it makes a pretty good sunscreen. But there may also be roles it plays as an antioxidant, in stress response, embryonic development and other functions.”

In their study, the OSU researchers also found a way to naturally produce gadusol in high volumes using yeast. With continued research, it may be possible to develop gadusol as an ingredient for different types of sunscreen products, cosmetics or pharmaceutical products for humans.

A conceptual possibility, Mahmud said, is that ingestion of gadusol could provide humans a systemic sunscreen, as opposed to a cream or compound that has to be rubbed onto the skin.

The existence of gadusol had been known of in some bacteria, algae and other life forms, but it was believed that vertebrate animals could only obtain it from their diet. The ability to directly synthesize what is essentially a sunscreen may play an important role in animal evolution, and more work is needed to understand the importance of this compound in animal physiology and ecology, the researchers said.

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

De novo synthesis of a sunscreen compound in vertebrates by Andrew R Osborn, Khaled H Almabruk, Garrett Holzwarth, Shumpei Asamizu, Jane LaDu, Kelsey M Kean, P Andrew Karplus, Robert L Tanguay, Alan T Bakalinsky, and Taifo Mahmud. eLife 2015;4:e05919 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.05919 Published May 12, 2015

This is an open access paper.

The second piece of related research, also published yesterday on May 12, 2015, comes from a pair of scientists at Harvard University. From a May 12, 2015  eLife news release on EurekAlert,

Scientists from Oregon State University [two authors are listed for the ‘zebrafish’ paper and both are from Harvard University] have discovered that fish can produce their own sunscreen. They have copied the method used by fish for potential use in humans.

In the study published in the journal eLife, scientists found that zebrafish are able to produce a chemical called gadusol that protects against UV radiation. They successfully reproduced the method that zebrafish use by expressing the relevant genes in yeast. The findings open the door to large-scale production of gadusol for sunscreen and as an antioxidant in pharmaceuticals.

Gadusol was originally identified in cod roe and has since been discovered in the eyes of the mantis shrimp, sea urchin eggs, sponges, and in the dormant eggs and newly hatched larvae of brine shrimps. It was previously thought that fish can only acquire the chemical through their diet or through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria.

Marine organisms in the upper ocean and on reefs are subject to intense and often unrelenting sunlight. Gadusol and related compounds are of great scientific interest for their ability to protect against DNA damage from UV rays. There is evidence that amphibians, reptiles, and birds can also produce gadusol, while the genetic machinery is lacking in humans and other mammals.

The team were investigating compounds similar to gadusol that are used to treat diabetes and fungal infections. It was believed that the biosynthetic enzyme common to all of them, EEVS, was only present in bacteria. The scientists were surprised to discover that fish and other vertebrates contain similar genes to those that code for EEVS.

Curious about their function in animals, they expressed the zebrafish gene in E. coli and analysis suggested that fish combine EEVS with another protein, whose production may be induced by light, to produce gadusol. To check that this combination is really sufficient, the scientists transferred the genes to yeast and set them to work to see what they would create. This confirmed the production of gadusol. Its successful production in yeast provides a viable route to commercialisation.

As well as providing UV protection, gadusol may also play a role in stress responses, in embryonic development, and as an antioxidant.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the second paper from this loosely affiliated team of Oregon State University and Harvard University researchers,

Biochemistry: Shedding light on sunscreen biosynthesis in zebrafish by Carolyn A Brotherton and Emily P Balskus. eLife 2015;4:e07961 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.07961 Published May 12, 2015

This paper, too, is open access.

One final bit and this is about the journal, eLife, from their news release on EurekAlert,

About eLife

eLife is a unique collaboration between the funders and practitioners of research to improve the way important research is selected, presented, and shared. eLife publishes outstanding works across the life sciences and biomedicine — from basic biological research to applied, translational, and clinical studies. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust. Learn more at elifesciences.org.

It seems this journal is a joint, US (Howard Hughes Medical Institute), German (Max Planck Society), UK (Wellcome Trust) effort.