Tag Archives: US

4-H Clubs declare (US) National Youth Science Day is October 7, 2015

Founded in the US in 1902, 4-H clubs for children and youth (aged 5 to 21) can be found in over 50 countries (Wikipedia entry). In the US, it is administered by the Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and I didn’t realize 4-H clubs still existed until receiving a Sept. 24, 2015 email about their (US) annual 4-H National Youth Science Day on Oct. 7, 2015. Here’s more about the event and about a special guest, from the email,

With only 16% of high school seniors interested in a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics], the nation faces a unique problem in the near future where there might be more STEM-related jobs than viable candidates to fill them. To help turn the tide and create a spark of interest in today’s youth, 4-H is hosting the eighth annual 4-H National Youth Science Day on Wednesday, October 7, 2015.

This year, NFL player-turned-NASA astronaut Leland Melvin and Emmy Award-winning TV host Mario Armstrong will join hundreds of thousands of 4-H’ers across the nation for the world’s largest, youth-led science experiment, Motion Commotion. This nationwide experiment empowers youth to explore the physics of motion and distracted driving through a simulated car crash and distracted driving demonstration.

At this point, it is a US program but nothing stops you from setting up your own Motion Commotion and trying to register it (you can find the appropriate links on the About 4H NYSD webpage) or you can be a renegade and use this video (roughly 8 mins.) as your guide and, if you like, let the organizers know informally afterwards *(ETA Oct. 2, 2015 at 1325 PST: You can notify organizers via Twitter at 4hnysd@4-h.org)*,

It does seem to be largely a cautionary tale about texting (and other distractions) while driving. I have a suggestion for changing the experiment (assuming the kids are a little older than 10, I don’t think they’re discussing quantum physics in grade five, not yet): keep the first half but emphasize that’s classical physics and  given an overview of the laws of quantum physics for the second half (Schrödinger’s cat is always a good story to use as an illustration). Finish up with a question about unifying the two theories. What would the kids propose as a way of unifying classical and quantum physics? I imagine finding out that adults don’t know but they (children) may find the answer would be exciting and who knows? Maybe even inspiring.

For anyone who wants the kit, you can go here to the 2015 National Youth Science Day kit webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

Due to the size of the kit, next day and second day air shipments of this product are subject to additional shipping fees. Please place rush orders for this item over the phone at 301-961-2934.

Designed for 8 youth ages 10 and up.

The 2015 National Youth Science Day Experiment, Motion Commotion, empowers youth to explore the physics of motion and distracted driving. Developed by Oregon State University Cooperative Extension, this exciting activity will combine a speeding car collision and a distracted driving demonstration in a simulated activity that investigates the physical and human factors of motion.

The two-part experiment will test young people’s knowledge of science, speed and safety by:

• Constructing a simulated runway to analyze the speed, momentum and kinetic energy of a car in motion, and will explore the science behind the car’s collisions
• Leading an experiment that uses the same physics principles to demonstrate the consequences of distracted driving

Kit Contains:

• 2 Rulers
• 2 Race Cars
• 4 ft Rubber Base
• 8 oz Assorted Colors Modeling Clay
• 4-H Clover & Motion Commotion Stickers
• 1 Facilitator Guide
• 5 Youth Guides Designed to be Shared by Youth

Register your NYSD event here! With registration you are able to download experiment guides and promotional toolkits, and your event will be added to our national map of 4-H NYSD events occurring around the nation on October 7, 2015. Join us!


For Canadians there is a separate 4H organization, which runs its own programmes but there’s no National Youth Science Day, yet.

* This is the second time I’ve published this piece within minutes. There’s some sort of a glitch and I lost a significant portion of text which was replaced with a few useless links. I apologize for any confusion and I will try to fix the situation but that may take a while as time is it a premium and this process still works, mostly.

Brown University (US) gets big bucks to study effect on nanomaterials on human health

In over seven years of blogging about nanotechnology, this is the most active funding period for health and environmental effects impacts I’ve seen yet. A Sept. 26, 2015 news item on Azonano features another such grant,

With a new federal grant of nearly $10.8 million over the next five years, Brown University researchers and students in the Superfund Research Program (SRP) will be able to advance their work studying how toxicant exposures affect health, how such exposures occur, how nanotechnologies could contain contamination, and how to make sure those technologies are safe.

A Sept. 24, 2015 Brown University news release, which originated the news item, describes of Brown’s SRP work already underway and how this new grant will support it,

“There is more research to be performed,” said Kim Boekelheide, program director, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, and fellow of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES). “Our scientific theme is integrated biomedical and engineering solutions to regulatory uncertainty, using interdisciplinary approaches to attack the really difficult contamination problems that matter.”

The program is pursuing four integrated projects. In one led by Boekelheide, a team is looking at the physiological effects of exposure to toxicants like trichloroethylene on the male reproductive system. In particular he hopes to find the subtle differences in biomolecular markers in sperm that could allow for very early detection of exposure. Meanwhile in another line of research, Eric Suuberg, professor of engineering, is studying how vapors from toxic material releases can re-emerge from the soil entering into buildings built at or near the polluted sites — and why it is hard to predict the level of exposure that inhabitants of these buildings may suffer.

In another project, Robert Hurt, an IBES fellow, SRP co-primary investigator and professor of engineering, is studying how graphene, an atomically thin carbon material, can be used to block the release and transport of toxicants to prevent human exposures. Hurt is also collaborating with Agnes Kane, an IBES fellow and chair and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, who is leading a study of nanomaterial effects on human health, so they can be designed and used safely in environmental and other applications.

The program will also continue the program’s community outreach efforts in which they work and share information with communities near the state’s Superfund-designated and Brownfield contaminated sites. Scott Frickel, an IBES fellow and associate professor of sociology, is the new leader of community engagement. The program also includes a research translation core in which researchers share their findings and expertise with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and professionals involved in contamination management and cleanup. A training core provides opportunities for interdisciplinary research, field work, and industry “externships” for graduate students in engineering, pathobiology, and social sciences at Brown.

It’s good to see they are integrating social sciences into this project although I hope they aren’t attempting this move as a means to coopt and/or stifle genuine dissent and disagreement by giving a superficial nod to the social sciences and public engagement  while wending on their merry way.

Cleaning up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans and elsewhere

I have a mini roundup of items (3) concerning nanotechnology and environmental applications with a special focus on carbon materials.

Carbon-capturing motors

First up, there’s a Sept. 23, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily which describes work with tiny carbon-capturing motors,

Machines that are much smaller than the width of a human hair could one day help clean up carbon dioxide pollution in the oceans. Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have designed enzyme-functionalized micromotors that rapidly zoom around in water, remove carbon dioxide and convert it into a usable solid form.

The proof of concept study represents a promising route to mitigate the buildup of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas in the environment, said researchers. …

A Sept 22, 2015 University of California at San Diego (UCSD) news release by Liezel Labios, which originated the news release, provides more details about the scientists’ hopes and the technology,

“We’re excited about the possibility of using these micromotors to combat ocean acidification and global warming,” said Virendra V. Singh, a postdoctoral scientist in Wang’s [nanoengineering professor and chair Joseph Wang] research group and a co-first author of this study.

In their experiments, nanoengineers demonstrated that the micromotors rapidly decarbonated water solutions that were saturated with carbon dioxide. Within five minutes, the micromotors removed 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a solution of deionized water. The micromotors were just as effective in a sea water solution and removed 88 percent of the carbon dioxide in the same timeframe.

“In the future, we could potentially use these micromotors as part of a water treatment system, like a water decarbonation plant,” said Kevin Kaufmann, an undergraduate researcher in Wang’s lab and a co-author of the study.

The micromotors are essentially six-micrometer-long tubes that help rapidly convert carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate, a solid mineral found in eggshells, the shells of various marine organisms, calcium supplements and cement. The micromotors have an outer polymer surface that holds the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which speeds up the reaction between carbon dioxide and water to form bicarbonate. Calcium chloride, which is added to the water solutions, helps convert bicarbonate to calcium carbonate.

The fast and continuous motion of the micromotors in solution makes the micromotors extremely efficient at removing carbon dioxide from water, said researchers. The team explained that the micromotors’ autonomous movement induces efficient solution mixing, leading to faster carbon dioxide conversion. To fuel the micromotors in water, researchers added hydrogen peroxide, which reacts with the inner platinum surface of the micromotors to generate a stream of oxygen gas bubbles that propel the micromotors around. When released in water solutions containing as little as two to four percent hydrogen peroxide, the micromotors reached speeds of more than 100 micrometers per second.

However, the use of hydrogen peroxide as the micromotor fuel is a drawback because it is an extra additive and requires the use of expensive platinum materials to build the micromotors. As a next step, researchers are planning to make carbon-capturing micromotors that can be propelled by water.

“If the micromotors can use the environment as fuel, they will be more scalable, environmentally friendly and less expensive,” said Kaufmann.

The researchers have provided an image which illustrates the carbon-capturing motors in action,

Nanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate. Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Nanoengineers have invented tiny tube-shaped micromotors that zoom around in water and efficiently remove carbon dioxide. The surfaces of the micromotors are functionalized with the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, which enables the motors to help rapidly convert carbon dioxide to calcium carbonate. Image credit: Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

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

Micromotor-Based Biomimetic Carbon Dioxide Sequestration: Towards Mobile Microscrubbers by Murat Uygun, Virendra V. Singh, Kevin Kaufmann, Deniz A. Uygun, Severina D. S. de Oliveira, and oseph Wang. Angewandte Chemie DOI: 10.1002/ange.201505155 Article first published online: 4 SEP 2015

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

This article is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotubes for carbon dioxide capture (carbon capture)

In a Sept. 22, 2015 posting by Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (located on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) describes research where carbon nanotubes are being used for carbon capture,

Now researchers at Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur have found that they can tailor the gas adsorption properties of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (VACNTs) by altering their thickness, height, and the distance between them.

“These parameters are fundamental for ‘tuning’ the hierarchical pore structure of the VACNTs,” explained Mahshid Rahimi and Deepu Babu, doctoral students at the Technische Universität Darmstadt who were the paper’s lead authors, in a press release. “This hierarchy effect is a crucial factor for getting high-adsorption capacities as well as mass transport into the nanostructure. Surprisingly, from theory and by experiment, we found that the distance between nanotubes plays a much larger role in gas adsorption than the tube diameter does.”

Dexter provides a good and brief summary of the research.

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

Double-walled carbon nanotube array for CO2 and SO2 adsorption by Mahshid Rahimi, Deepu J. Babu, Jayant K. Singh, Yong-Biao Yang, Jörg J. Schneider, and Florian Müller-Plathe. J. Chem. Phys. 143, 124701 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4929609

This paper is open access.

The market for nanotechnology-enabled environmental applications

Coincident with stumbling across these two possible capture solutions, I found this Sept. 23, 2015 BCC Research news release,

A groundswell of global support for developing nanotechnology as a pollution remediation technique will continue for the foreseeable future. BCC Research reveals in its new report that this key driver, along with increasing worldwide concerns over removing pollutants and developing alternative energy sources, will drive growth in the nanotechnology environmental applications market.

The global nanotechnology market in environmental applications is expected to reach $25.7 billion by 2015 and $41.8 billion by 2020, conforming to a five-year (2015-2020) compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.2%. Air remediation as a segment will reach $10.2 billion and $16.7 billion in 2015 and 2020, respectively, reflecting a five-year CAGR of 10.3%. Water remediation as a segment will grow at a five-year CAGR of 12.4% to reach $10.6 billion in 2020.

As nanoparticles push the limits and capabilities of technology, new and better techniques for pollution control are emerging. Presently, nanotechnology’s greatest potential lies in air pollution remediation.

“Nano filters could be applied to automobile tailpipes and factory smokestacks to separate out contaminants and prevent them from entering the atmosphere. In addition, nano sensors have been developed to sense toxic gas leaks at extremely low concentrations,” says BCC research analyst Aneesh Kumar. “Overall, there is a multitude of promising environmental applications for nanotechnology, with the main focus area on energy and water technologies.”

You can find links to the report, TOC (table of contents), and report overview on the BCC Research Nanotechnology in Environmental Applications: The Global Market report webpage.

A fatigue-free stretchable conductor for foldable electronics

There’s been a lot of talk about foldable, stretchable, and/or bendable electronics, which is exciting in itself but I find this work on developing a fatigue-free conductor particularly intriguing. After all, who hasn’t purchased something that stretches, folds, etc. only to find that it becomes ‘fatigued’ and is now ‘stretched out’.

A Sept. 23, 2015 news item on Azonano describes the new conductors,

Researchers have discovered a new stretchable, transparent conductor that can be folded or stretched and released, resulting in a large curvature or a significant strain, at least 10,000 times without showing signs of fatigue.

This is a crucial step in creating a new generation of foldable electronics – think a flat-screen television that can be rolled up for easy portability – and implantable medical devices. The work, published Monday [Sept. 21, 2015] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pairs gold nanomesh with a stretchable substrate made with polydimethylsiloxane, or PDMS.

The research is the result of an international collaboration including the University of Houston (US), Harvard University (US), Methodist Research Institute (US), Zhengzhou University (China), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL; US).

A Sept. 22, 2015 University of Houston news release by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, describes this -fatigue-free material in more detail,

The substrate is stretched before the gold nanomesh is placed on it – a process known as “prestretching” – and the material showed no sign of fatigue when cyclically stretched to a strain of more than 50 percent.

The gold nanomesh also proved conducive to cell growth, indicating it is a good material for implantable medical devices.

Fatigue is a common problem for researchers trying to develop a flexible, transparent conductor, making many materials that have good electrical conductivity, flexibility and transparency – all three are needed for foldable electronics – wear out too quickly to be practical, said Zhifeng Ren, a physicist at the University of Houston and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, who was the lead author for the paper.

The new material, produced by grain boundary lithography, solves that problem, he said.

In addition to Ren, other researchers on the project included Chuan Fei Guo and Ching-Wu “Paul” Chu, both from UH; Zhigang Suo, Qihan Liu and Yecheng Wang, all from Harvard University, and Guohui Wang and Zhengzheng Shi, both from the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

In materials science, “fatigue” is used to describe the structural damage to a material caused by repeated movement or pressure, known as “strain cycling.” Bend a material enough times, and it becomes damaged or breaks.    That means the materials aren’t durable enough for consumer electronics or biomedical devices.

“Metallic materials often exhibit high cycle fatigue, and fatigue has been a deadly disease for metals,” the researchers wrote.

“We weaken the constraint of the substrate by making the interface between the Au (gold) nanomesh and PDMS slippery, and expect the Au nanomesh to achieve superstretchability and high fatigue resistance,” they wrote in the paper. “Free of fatigue here means that both the structure and the resistance do not change or have little change after many strain cycles.”

As a result, they reported, “the Au nanomesh does not exhibit strain fatigue when it is stretched to 50 percent for 10,000 cycles.”

Many applications require a less dramatic stretch – and many materials break with far less stretching – so the combination of a sufficiently large range for stretching and the ability to avoid fatigue over thousands of cycles indicates a material that would remain productive over a long period of time, Ren said.

The grain boundary lithography involved a bilayer lift-off metallization process, which included an indium oxide mask layer and a silicon oxide sacrificial layer and offers good control over the dimensions of the mesh structure.

The researchers used mouse embryonic fibroblast cells to determine biocompatibility; that, along with the fact that the stretchability of gold nanomesh on a slippery substrate resembles the bioenvironment of tissue or organ surfaces, suggest the nanomesh “might be implanted in the body as a pacemaker electrode, a connection to nerve endings or the central nervous system, a beating heart, and so on,” they wrote.

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

Fatigue-free, superstretchable, transparent, and biocompatible metal electrodes by Chuan Fei Guo, Qihan Liu, Guohui Wang, Yecheng Wang, Zhengzheng Shi, Zhigang Suo, Ching-Wu Chu, and Zhifeng Ren. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516873112 Published online Sept. 21, 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

PrepareAthon and ShakeOut! Get ready for disaster


A Sept. 28, 2015 “prepareathon” notice came courtesy of the US Geological Survey (USGS). While this particular programme is US-centric (their ShakeOut mentioned later in this post is international in scope), sign-up or registration is not required and there is good general information about how to prepare and what to do in a variety of disaster-scenarios on the Hazards page of their website.  For those who can participate, here’s more,

Science Feature: Join America’s PrepareAthon!
Practice what to do in the event of a disaster or emergency.

Join millions of people participating in America’s PrepareAthon! on Sept. 30. This campaign encourages the nation to conduct drills, discussions and exercises to practice what to do before, during and after a disaster or emergency strikes.

The campaign will focus on preparing for floods, wildfires, hurricanes and power outages. Each year, the campaign holds two national days of action, with each day highlighting different hazards. This is the second national day of action this year.

Start with Science

USGS science is essential to understanding a wide range of hazards—including volcanoes, landslides, wildlife health and many others beyond this specific campaign—and provides a basis on which preparedness actions are developed.

USGS real-time monitoring of the nation’s rivers and streams provides officials with critical information for flood warnings, forecasts and evacuation warnings.

Before, during and after wildfire disasters, the USGS provides tools to identify wildfire risks and reduce subsequent hazards, such as landslides. USGS scientists also provide real-time maps and satellite imagery to firefighters.

For major storms or hurricanes, USGS science helps forecast the likelihood of coastal impacts. The USGS also measures storm surge and monitors water levels of inland rivers and streams.

Power outages can have many causes, including geomagnetic storms that result from the dynamic interaction of solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field. The USGS operates a unique network of observatories that provide real-time data on magnetic storm conditions.

Coordination and Community

America’s PrepareAthon! is part of President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 8: National Preparedness and led by The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The USGS is one of many supporting and contributing agencies. This campaign is coordinated with federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations.


The same Sept. 28, 2015 USGS notice includes some information about a “ShakeOut” (of particular interest to someone who lives in what’s known as the Ring of Fire or less colourfully as the circum-Pacific Belt earthquake/volcanic zone [Wikipedia entry]). This is an international (Japan, Italy, Canada, and others in addition to the US) event,

Get Ready to ShakeOut on October 15

Sign up for the next Great ShakeOut earthquake drill on October 15, 2015, and practice “drop, cover, and hold on,” the recommended safety action to take during an earthquake.

You can check out your state, province, or country, as I did for British Columbia (Canada). Here’s what I found,

On October 15* [2015], officially “ShakeOut BC Day,” millions of people worldwide will practice how to Drop, Cover, and Hold On at 10:15 a.m. during Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills!

British Columbians can join by registering for the 2015 Great British Columbia ShakeOut.

The page hosts an embedded video and it’s available en français. It also offers these statistics: 610,000 have already signed up the 2015 event; last year (2014), there were over 740,000 participants.

Brushing your way to nanofibres

The scientists are using what looks like a hairbrush to create nanofibres ,

Figure 2: Brush-spinning of nanofibers. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=41398.php]

Figure 2: Brush-spinning of nanofibers. (Reprinted with permission by Wiley-VCH Verlag)) [downloaded from http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=41398.php]

A Sept. 23, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article by Michael Berger provides an in depth look at this technique (developed by a joint research team of scientists from the University of Georgia, Princeton University, and Oxford University) which could make producing nanofibers for use in scaffolds (tissue engineering and other applications) more easily and cheaply,

Polymer nanofibers are used in a wide range of applications such as the design of new composite materials, the fabrication of nanostructured biomimetic scaffolds for artificial bones and organs, biosensors, fuel cells or water purification systems.

“The simplest method of nanofiber fabrication is direct drawing from a polymer solution using a glass micropipette,” Alexander Tokarev, Ph.D., a Research Associate in the Nanostructured Materials Laboratory at the University of Georgia, tells Nanowerk. “This method however does not scale up and thus did not find practical applications. In our new work, we introduce a scalable method of nanofiber spinning named touch-spinning.”

James Cook in a Sept. 23, 2015 article for Materials Views provides a description of the technology,

A glass rod is glued to a rotating stage, whose diameter can be chosen over a wide range of a few centimeters to more than 1 m. A polymer solution is supplied, for example, from a needle of a syringe pump that faces the glass rod. The distance between the droplet of polymer solution and the tip of the glass rod is adjusted so that the glass rod contacts the polymer droplet as it rotates.

Following the initial “touch”, the polymer droplet forms a liquid bridge. As the stage rotates the bridge stretches and fiber length increases, with the diameter decreasing due to mass conservation. It was shown that the diameter of the fiber can be precisely controlled down to 40 nm by the speed of the stage rotation.

The method can be easily scaled-up by using a round hairbrush composed of 600 filaments.

When the rotating brush touches the surface of a polymer solution, the brush filaments draw many fibers simultaneously producing hundred kilometers of fibers in minutes.

The drawn fibers are uniform since the fiber diameter depends on only two parameters: polymer concentration and speed of drawing.

Returning to Berger’s Spotlight article, there is an important benefit with this technique,

As the team points out, one important aspect of the method is the drawing of single filament fibers.

These single filament fibers can be easily wound onto spools of different shapes and dimensions so that well aligned one-directional, orthogonal or randomly oriented fiber meshes with a well-controlled average mesh size can be fabricated using this very simple method.

“Owing to simplicity of the method, our set-up could be used in any biomedical lab and facility,” notes Tokarev. “For example, a customized scaffold by size, dimensions and othermorphologic characteristics can be fabricated using donor biomaterials.”

Berger’s and Cook’s articles offer more illustrations and details.

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

Touch- and Brush-Spinning of Nanofibers by Alexander Tokarev, Darya Asheghal, Ian M. Griffiths, Oleksandr Trotsenko, Alexey Gruzd, Xin Lin, Howard A. Stone, and Sergiy Minko. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201502768ViewFirst published: 23 September 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Funding trends for US synthetic biology efforts

Less than 1% of total US federal funding for synthetic biology is dedicated to risk research according to a Sept. 16, 2015 Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars news release on EurekAlert,

A new analysis by the Synthetic Biology Project at the Wilson Center finds the Defense Department and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) fund much of the U.S. government’s research in synthetic biology, with less than 1 percent of total federal funding going to risk research.

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Wilson Center news release can also be found here on the Center’s report publication page where it goes on to provide more detail and where you can download the report,

The report, U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research, finds that between 2008 and 2014, the United States invested approximately $820 million dollars in synthetic biology research. In that time period, the Defense Department became a key funder of synthetic biology research. DARPA’s investments, for example, increased from near zero in 2010 to more than $100 million in 2014 – more than three times the amount spent by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The increase in DARPA research spending comes as NSF is winding down its initial investment in the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC,” says Dr. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate with the project. “After the SynBERC funding ends next year, it is unclear if there will be a dedicated synthetic biology research program outside of the Pentagon. There is also little investment addressing potential risks and ethical issues, which can affect public acceptance and market growth as the field advances.”

The new study found that less than one percent of the total U.S. funding is focused on synthetic biology risk research and approximately one percent addresses ethical, legal, and social issues.

Internationally, research funding is increasing. Last year, research investments by the European Commission and research agencies in the United Kingdom exceeded non-defense spending in the United States, the report finds.

The research spending comes at a time of growing interest in synthetic biology, particularly surrounding the potential presented by new gene-editing techniques. Recent research by the industry group SynBioBeta indicated that, so far in 2015, synthetic biology companies raised half a billion dollars – more than the total investments in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In a separate Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Sept. 16, 2015 announcement about the report, an upcoming event notice was included,

Save the date: On Oct. 7, 2015, the Synthetic Biology Project will be releasing a new report on synthetic biology and federal regulations. More details will be forthcoming, but the report release will include a noon event [EST] at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

I haven’t been able to find any more information about this proposed report launch but you may want to check the Synthetic Biology Project website for details as they become available. ETA Oct. 1, 2015: The new report titled: Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? will be launched on Oct. 15, 2015 according to an Oct. 1, 2015 notice,

As more applications based on synthetic biology come to market, are the existing federal regulations adequate to address the risks posed by this emerging technology?

Please join us for the release of our new report, Leveraging Synthetic Biology’s Promise and Managing Potential Risk: Are We Getting It Right? Panelists will discuss how synthetic biology applications would be regulated by the U.S. Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, how this would affect the market pathway of these applications and whether the existing framework will protect human health and the environment.

A light lunch will be served.


Lynn Bergeson, report author; Managing Partner, Bergeson & Campbell

David Rejeski, Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program

Thursday,October 15th, 2015
12:00pm – 2:00pm

6th Floor Board Room


Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000


Safety mechanisms needed before synthetic biology moves from the labs into the real world

A Sept. 17, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now makes note of an article where experts review the state of the synthetic biology field and discuss the need for safety as synthetic biology is poised to move from the laboratory into the real world,

Targeted cancer treatments, toxicity sensors and living factories: synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. But before the technology is ready for real-world applications, more attention needs to be paid to its safety and stability, say experts in a review article published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology.

Synthetic biology involves engineering microbes like bacteria to program them to behave in certain ways. For example, bacteria can be engineered to glow when they detect certain molecules, and can be turned into tiny factories to produce chemicals.

Synthetic biology has now reached a stage where it’s ready to move out of the lab and into the real world, to be used in patients and in the field. According to Professor Pamela Silver, one of the authors of the article from Harvard Medical School in the US, this move means researchers should increase focus on the safety of engineered microbes in biological systems like the human body.

A Sept. 16, 2015 Elsevier press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Historically, molecular biologists engineered microbes as industrial organisms to produce different molecules,” said Professor Silver. “The more we discovered about microbes, the easier it was to program them. We’ve now reached a very exciting phase in synthetic biology where we’re ready to apply what we’ve developed in the real world, and this is where safety is vital.”

Microbes have an impact on health; the way they interact with animals is being ever more revealed by microbiome research – studies on all the microbes that live in the body – and this is making them easier and faster to engineer. Scientists are now able to synthesize whole genomes, making it technically possible to build a microbe from scratch.

“Ultimately, this is the future – this will be the way we program microbes and other cell types,” said Dr. Silver. “Microbes have small genomes, so they’re not too complex to build from scratch. That gives us huge opportunities to design them to do specific jobs, and we can also program in safety mechanisms.”

One of the big safety issues associated with engineering microbial genomes is the transfer of their genes to wild microbes. Microbes are able to transfer segments of their DNA during reproduction, which leads to genetic evolution. One key challenge associated with synthetic biology is preventing this transfer between the engineered genome and wild microbial genomes.

There are already several levels of safety infrastructure in place to ensure no unethical research is done, and the kinds of organisms that are allowed in laboratories. The focus now, according to Dr. Silver, is on technology to ensure safety. When scientists build synthetic microbes, they can program in mechanisms called kill switches that cause the microbes to self-destruct if their environment changes in certain ways.

Microbial sensors and drug delivery systems can be shown to work in the lab, but researchers are not yet sure how they will function in a human body or a large-scale bioreactor. Engineered organisms have huge potential, but they will only be useful if proven to be reliable, predictable, and cost effective. Today, engineered bacteria are already in clinical trials for cancer, and this is just the beginning, says Dr. Silver.

“The rate at which this field is moving forward is incredible. I don’t know what happened – maybe it’s the media coverage, maybe the charisma – but we’re on the verge of something very exciting. Once we’ve figured out how to make genomes more quickly and easily, synthetic biology will change the way we work as researchers, and even the way we treat diseases.”

Lucy Goodchild van Hilten has written a Sept. 16, 2015 article for Elsevier abut this paper,

In January, the UK government announced a funding injection of £40 million to boost synthetic biology research, adding three new Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs) in Manchester, Edinburgh and Warwick. The additional funding takes the UK’s total public spending on synthetic biology to £200 million – an investment that hints at the commercial potential of synthetic biology.

In fact, according to the authors of a new review published in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize science and medicine. …

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

Synthetic biology expands chemical control of microorganisms by Tyler J Ford, Pamela A Silver. Current Opinion in Chemical Biology Volume 28, October 2015, Pages 20–28  doi:10.1016/j.cbpa.2015.05.012

I believe this paper is open access until January 16, 2016.

As the paper has a nice introductory description of synthetic biology, I thought I’d include it here, as well as, the conclusion which is not as safety-oriented as I expected,

Synthetic biology allows scientists to re-program interactions between genes, proteins, and small molecules. One of the goals of synthetic biology is to produce organisms that predictably carry out desired functions and thereby perform as well-controlled so-called biological devices. Together, synthetic and chemical biology can provide increased control over biological systems by changing the ways these systems respond to and produce chemical stimuli. Sensors, which detect small molecules and direct later cellular function, provide the basis for chemical control over biological systems. The techniques of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering can link sensors to metabolic processes and proteins with many different activities. In this review we stratify the activities affected by sensors to three different levels: sensor-reporters that provide a simple read-out of small molecule levels, sensor-effectors that alter the behavior of single organisms in response to small molecules, and sensor effectors that coordinate the activities of multiple organisms in response to small molecules …


We have come to the point in synthetic biology where there are many lab-scale or proof-of-concept examples of chemically controlled systems useful to sense small molecules, treat disease, and produce commercially useful compounds. These systems have great potential, but more attention needs to be paid to their stability, efficacy, and safety. Being that the sensor-effectors discussed above function in living, evolving organisms, it is unclear how well they will retain function when distributed in a patient or in a large-scale bioreactor. Future efforts should focus on developing these sensor-effectors for real-world application. Engineered organisms will only be useful if we can prove that their functions are reliable, predictable, and cost effective.

Science knowledge in the US circa 2014/15

The Pew Research Center has released a new report on the state of science knowledge in the US general public. From a Sept. 10, 2015 news item on phys.org,

There are substantial differences among Americans when it comes to knowledge and understanding of science topics, especially by educational levels as well as by gender, age, race and ethnicity, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

The representative survey of more than 3,200 U.S. adults finds that, on the 12 multiple-choice questions asked, Americans gave more correct than incorrect answers. The median was eight correct answers out of 12 (mean 7.9). Some 27% answered eight or nine questions correctly, while another 26% answered 10 or 11 items correctly. Just 6% of respondents got a perfect score.

You can test yourself if you like by taking the Pew Research Center’s online Science Knowledge Quiz.

Getting back to the study, a Sept. 10, 2015 Pew Research Center news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail including general results and demographic breakdowns by education, race and ethnicity, gender, and age.

  • Most Americans (86%) correctly identify the Earth’s inner layer, the core, as its hottest part, and nearly as many (82%) know uranium is needed to make nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.
  • Americans fare well as a whole when it comes to one aspect of science history: Fully 74% of Americans correctly identify Jonas Salk as the person who developed the polio vaccine from among a list of other scientists that included Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.
  • And most Americans can distinguish between astronomy and astrology. Seventy-three percent of adults recognize the definition of astrology as the study of how the position of the stars and planets can influence human behavior. By comparison, 22% of adults incorrectly associate this definition with astronomy, while another 5% give some other incorrect response.
  • But other science-related terms and applications are not as well understood. Far fewer are able to identify the property of a sound wave that determines loudness. Just 35% correctly answer amplitude, or height. Some 33% incorrectly say it is frequency and 23% say it is wavelength. And just 34% correctly state that water boils at a lower temperature in a high-altitude setting (Denver) compared with its boiling point near sea level (Los Angeles).

“As science issues become ever-more tied to policy questions, there are important insights that come from exploring how much Americans know about science,” said lead author Cary Funk, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center. “Science encompasses a vast array of fields and information. These data provide a fresh snapshot of what the public knows about some new and some older scientific developments – a mixture of textbook principles covered in K-12 education and topics discussed in the news.”

The data show that adults with higher education levels are more likely to answer questions about science correctly. In this survey, education proves to be a major factor distinguishing higher performers. While the questions asked relate to a small slice of science topics, there are sizeable differences by education on all 12 multiple-choice questions. This pattern is consistent with a 2013 Pew Research Center report on this topic and with analysis of the factual knowledge index in the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators.

  • Adults with a college or postgraduate degree are more than twice as likely to get at least eight out of 12 questions right, compared with adults with a high school diploma or less (82% vs. 40%). Those with a postgraduate degree score an average of 9.5 correct answers out of 12, while those with a high school education or less get an average of 6.8 correct.
  • Fully 57% of adults with a postgraduate degree get 10 to 12 correct answers, whereas this is true for 18% of those with a high school diploma or less.
  • On all 12 questions, there is at least a 13 percentage point difference in correct answers between the highest- and lowest-educated groups. The largest difference is found in a question about the loudness of a sound. A 62% majority of those with a postgraduate degree correctly identify the amplitude (height) of the sound wave as determining its loudness, as do 52% of those with a four-year college degree. By contrast, 20% of those with a high school education or less answer this question correctly.

In addition to educational differences, gender gaps are evident on these science topics. The survey also finds differences in science knowledge between men and women on these questions, most of which connect to physical sciences. Men, on average, are more likely to give correct answers, even when comparing men and women with similar levels of education.

  • Men score an average of 8.6 out of 12 correct answers, compared with women’s 7.3 correct answers. Some 24% of women answer 10 or more questions correctly, compared with 43% of men who did this.
  • The largest difference between men and women occurs on a question asking respondents to select from a set of four images that illustrate what happens to light when it passes through a magnifying glass. Some 55% of men and 37% of women identify the correct image showing the lines crossing after they pass through a magnifying glass, a difference of 18 percentage points.
  • Men (73%) and women (72%) are equally likely to identify the definition of astrology from a set of four options, however. And on the question about which layer of the Earth is hottest, there are only modest differences, with 89% of men and 84% of women selecting the correct response.
  • Past Pew Research Center studies found women were at least equally likely than men to answer several biomedical questions correctly such as that resistant bacteria is the major concern about overuse of antibiotics. And, women were slightly more likely than men to recognize a more effective way to test a drug treatment in one previous Pew Research Center survey.

The survey also found differences in science knowledge associated with race and ethnicity. Overall, whites know the correct answer to more of these questions than Hispanics or blacks. Whites score a mean of 8.4 items out of 12 correct, compared with 7.1 among Hispanics and 5.9 among blacks. The pattern across these groups and the size of the differences vary, however. These findings are consistent with prior Pew Research Center surveys on this topic. Racial and ethnic group differences are also found on the factual science knowledge index collected on the General Social Survey, even when controlling for education level.

  • One of the largest differences between blacks and whites occurs on a question about the ocean tides: 83% of whites compared with 46% of blacks correctly identify the gravitational pull of the moon as one factor in ocean tides. (Hispanics fall in between these two groups, with 70% answering this question correctly.)
  • On one of the more difficult questions, a roughly equal share of whites (36%) and blacks (33%) correctly identify a difference found in cooking at higher altitudes: that water boils at a lower temperature. A quarter (25%) of Hispanics answered this question correctly.

Generally, younger adults (ages 18 to 49) display slightly higher overall knowledge of science than adults ages 65 and older on the 12 questions in the survey. The oldest adults – ages 65 and up – score lower, on average 7.6 out of 12 items, compared with those under age 50. But adults under age 30 and those ages 30 to 49 tend to identify a similar mean number of items correctly.

  • Fully eight-in-ten (80%) adults ages 18 to 29 correctly identify radio waves as the technology underlying cell phone calls. By contrast, 57% of those ages 65 and older know this.
  • On some questions there are no differences in knowledge across age groups. And, when it comes to one aspect of science history, older adults (ages 65 and older) are more likely than younger adults to identify Jonas Salk as the person who developed the polio vaccine. Fully 86% of those ages 65 and older correctly identify Salk as the vaccine’s developer, compared with 68% of adults ages 18 to 29.

The findings are based on a nationally representative survey of 3,278 randomly-selected adults that participate in Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The survey was conducted Aug. 11-Sept. 3, 2014 and included 12 questions, some of which included images as part of the questions or answer options. …

Cary Funk and Sara Kehaulani Goo wrote the report titled, “A Look at What the Public Knows and Does Not Know About Science.”

Global overview of nano-enabled food and agriculture regulation

First off, this post features an open access paper summarizing global regulation of nanotechnology in agriculture and food production. From a Sept. 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

An overview of regulatory solutions worldwide on the use of nanotechnology in food and feed production shows a differing approach: only the EU and Switzerland have nano-specific provisions incorporated in existing legislation, whereas other countries count on non-legally binding guidance and standards for industry. Collaboration among countries across the globe is required to share information and ensure protection for people and the environment, according to the paper …

A Sept. 11, 2015 European Commission Joint Research Centre press release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, summarizes the paper in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The paper “Regulatory aspects of nanotechnology in the agri/feed/food sector in EU and non-EU countries” reviews how potential risks or the safety of nanotechnology are managed in different countries around the world and recognises that this may have implication on the international market of nano-enabled agricultural and food products.

Nanotechnology offers substantial prospects for the development of innovative products and applications in many industrial sectors, including agricultural production, animal feed and treatment, food processing and food contact materials. While some applications are already marketed, many other nano-enabled products are currently under research and development, and may enter the market in the near future. Expected benefits of such products include increased efficacy of agrochemicals through nano-encapsulation, enhanced bioavailability of nutrients or more secure packaging material through microbial nanoparticles.

As with any other regulated product, applicants applying for market approval have to demonstrate the safe use of such new products without posing undue safety risks to the consumer and the environment. Some countries have been more active than others in examining the appropriateness of their regulatory frameworks for dealing with the safety of nanotechnologies. As a consequence, different approaches have been adopted in regulating nano-based products in the agri/feed/food sector.

The analysis shows that the EU along with Switzerland are the only ones which have introduced binding nanomaterial definitions and/or specific provisions for some nanotechnology applications. An example would be the EU labelling requirements for food ingredients in the form of ‘engineered nanomaterials’. Other regions in the world regulate nanomaterials more implicitly mainly by building on non-legally binding guidance and standards for industry.

The overview of existing legislation and guidances published as an open access article in the Journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology is based on information gathered by the JRC, RIKILT-Wageningen and the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) through literature research and a dedicated survey.

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

Regulatory aspects of nanotechnology in the agri/feed/food sector in EU and non-EU countries by Valeria Amenta, Karin Aschberger, , Maria Arena, Hans Bouwmeester, Filipa Botelho Moniz, Puck Brandhoff, Stefania Gottardo, Hans J.P. Marvin, Agnieszka Mech, Laia Quiros Pesudo, Hubert Rauscher, Reinhilde Schoonjans, Maria Vittoria Vettori, Stefan Weigel, Ruud J. Peters. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology Volume 73, Issue 1, October 2015, Pages 463–476 doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2015.06.016

This is the most inclusive overview I’ve seen yet. The authors cover Asian countries, South America, Africa, and the MIddle East, as well as, the usual suspects in Europe and North America.

Given I’m a Canadian blogger I feel obliged to include their summary of the Canadian situation (Note: Links have been removed),

4.2. Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), who have recently joined the Health Portfolio of Health Canada, are responsible for food regulation in Canada. No specific regulation for nanotechnology-based food products is available but such products are regulated under the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks.11 In October 2011 Health Canada published a “Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials” (Health Canada, 2011), the document provides a (working) definition of NM which is focused, similarly to the US definition, on the nanoscale dimensions, or on the nanoscale properties/phenomena of the material (see Annex I). For what concerns general chemicals regulation in Canada, the New Substances (NS) program must ensure that new substances, including substances that are at the nano-scale (i.e. NMs), are assessed in order to determine their toxicological profile ( Environment Canada, 2014). The approach applied involves a pre-manufacture and pre-import notification and assessment process. In 2014, the New Substances program published a guidance aimed at increasing clarity on which NMs are subject to assessment in Canada ( Environment Canada, 2014).

Canadian and US regulatory agencies are working towards harmonising the regulatory approaches for NMs under the US-Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) Nanotechnology Initiative.12 Canada and the US recently published a Joint Forward Plan where findings and lessons learnt from the RCC Nanotechnology Initiative are discussed (Canada–United States Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) 2014).

Based on their summary of the Canadian situation, with which I am familiar, they’ve done a good job of summarizing. Here are a few of the countries whose regulatory instruments have not been mentioned here before (Note: Links have been removed),

In Turkey a national or regional policy for the responsible development of nanotechnology is under development (OECD, 2013b). Nanotechnology is considered as a strategic technological field and at present 32 nanotechnology research centres are working in this field. Turkey participates as an observer in the EFSA Nano Network (Section 3.6) along with other EU candidate countries Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Montenegro (EFSA, 2012). The Inventory and Control of Chemicals Regulation entered into force in Turkey in 2008, which represents a scale-down version of the REACH Regulation (Bergeson et al. 2010). Moreover, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning published a Turkish version of CLP Regulation (known as SEA in Turkish) to enter into force as of 1st June 2016 (Intertek).

The Russian legislation on food safety is based on regulatory documents such as the Sanitary Rules and Regulations (“SanPiN”), but also on national standards (known as “GOST”) and technical regulations (Office of Agricultural Affairs of the USDA, 2009). The Russian policy on nanotechnology in the industrial sector has been defined in some national programmes (e.g. Nanotechnology Industry Development Program) and a Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies was established in 2007.15 As reported by FAO/WHO (FAO/WHO, 2013), 17 documents which deal with the risk assessment of NMs in the food sector were released within such federal programs. Safe reference levels on nanoparticles impact on the human body were developed and implemented in the sanitary regulation for the nanoforms of silver and titanium dioxide and, single wall carbon nanotubes (FAO/WHO, 2013).

Other countries included in this overview are Brazil, India, Japan, China, Malaysia, Iran, Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, US, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, and the countries of the European Union.

*EurekAlert link added Sept. 14, 2015.