Tag Archives: Virginia Tech

Frogs: monitoring them, finding new species, and research about the golden ones in Panama

I have three frog-oriented items and while they’re not strictly speaking in my usual range of topics, given this blog’s name and the fact I haven’t posted a frog piece in quite a while, it seems this is a good moment to address that lack.

Monitoring frogs and amphibians at Trent University (Ontario, Canada)

From a March 23, 2015 Trent University news release,

With the decline of amphibian populations around the world, a team of researchers led by Trent University’s Dr. Dennis Murray will seek to establish environmental DNA (eDNA) monitoring of amphibian occupancy and aquatic ecosystem risk assessment with the help of a significant grant of over $596,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Awarded to Professor Murray, a Canada research chair in integrative wildlife conservation, bioinformatics, and ecological modelling and professor at Trent University along with colleagues Dr. Craig Brunetti of the Biology department, and Dr. Chris Kyle of the Forensic Science program, and partners at Laurentian University, University of Toronto, McGill University, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Environment Canada, the grant will support the development of tools that will promote a cleaner aquatic environment.

The project will use amphibian DNA found in natural breeding habitats to determine the presence and abundance of amphibians as well as their pathogens. This new technology capitalizes on Trent University’s expertise and infrastructure in the areas of wildlife DNA and water quality.

“We’re honoured to have received the grant to help us drive the project forward,” said Prof. Murray. “Our plan is to place Canada, and Trent, in a leadership position with respect to aquatic wildlife monitoring and amphibian conservation.”

Amphibian populations are declining worldwide, yet in Canada, amphibian numbers are not monitored closely, meaning changes in their distribution or abundance may be unnoticeable. Amphibian monitoring in Canada is conducted by citizen scientists who record frog breeding calls when visiting bodies of water during the spring. However, the lack of formalized amphibian surveys leaves Canada in a vulnerable position regarding the status of its diverse amphibian community.

Prof. Murray believes that the protocols developed from this project could revolutionize how amphibian populations are monitored in Canada and in turn lead to new insights regarding the population trends for several amphibian species across the country.

Here’s more about NSERC and Trent University from the news release,

About NSERC

NSERC is a federal agency that helps make Canada a country of discoverers and innovators. The agency supports almost 30,000 post-secondary students and postdoctoral fellows in their advanced studies. NSERC promotes discovery by funding approximately 12,000 professors every year and fosters innovation by encouraging over 2,400 Canadian companies to participate and invest in post-secondary research projects.

The NSERC Strategic Project Grants aim to increase research and training in areas that could strongly influence Canada’s economy, society or environment in the next 10 years in four target areas: environmental science and technologies; information and communications technologies; manufacturing; and natural resources and energy.

About Trent University

One of Canada’s top universities, Trent University was founded on the ideal of interactive learning that’s personal, purposeful and transformative. Consistently recognized nationally for leadership in teaching, research and student satisfaction, Trent attracts excellent students from across the country and around the world. Here, undergraduate and graduate students connect and collaborate with faculty, staff and their peers through diverse communities that span residential colleges, classrooms, disciplines, hands-on research, co-curricular and community-based activities. Across all disciplines, Trent brings critical, integrative thinking to life every day. As the University celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014/15, Trent’s unique approach to personal development through supportive, collaborative community engagement is in more demand than ever. Students lead the way by co-creating experiences rooted in dialogue, diverse perspectives and collaboration. In a learning environment that builds life-long passion for inclusion, leadership and social change, Trent’s students, alumni, faculty and staff are engaged global citizens who are catalysts in developing sustainable solutions to complex issues. Trent’s Peterborough campus boasts award-winning architecture in a breathtaking natural setting on the banks of the Otonabee River, just 90 minutes from downtown Toronto, while Trent University Durham delivers a distinct mix of programming in the GTA.

Trent University’s expertise in water quality could be traced to its proximity to Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a much beleaguered research environment due to federal political imperatives. You can read more about the area and the politics in this Wikipedia entry. BTW, I am delighted to learn that it still exists under the auspices of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD),

Taking this post into nanotechnology territory while mentioning the ELA, Trent University published a Dec. 8, 2014 news release about research into silver nanoparticles,

For several years, Trent University’s Dr. Chris Metcalfe and Dr. Maggie Xenopoulos have dedicated countless hours to the study of aquatic contaminants and the threat they pose to our environment.

Now, through the efforts of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), their research is reaching a wider audience thanks to a new video (Note: A link has been removed).

The video is one of a five-part series being released by the IISD that looks into environmental issues in Canada. The video entitled “Distilling Science at the Experimental Lakes Area: Nanosilver” and featuring Professors Metcalfe and Xenopoulos profiles their research around nanomaterials at the Experimental Lakes Area.

Prof. Xenopolous’ involvement in the project falls in line with other environmental issues she has tackled. In the past, her research has examined how human activities – including climate change, eutrophication and land use – affect ecosystem structure and function in lakes and rivers. She has also taken an interest in how land use affects the material exported and processed in aquatic ecosystems.

Prof. Metcalfe’s ongoing research on the fate and distribution of pharmaceutical and personal care products in the environment has generated considerable attention both nationally and internationally.

Together, their research into nanomaterials is getting some attention. Nanomaterials are submicroscopic particles whose physical and chemical properties make them useful for a variety of everyday applications. They can be found in certain pieces of clothing, home appliances, paint, and kitchenware. Initial laboratory research conducted at Trent University showed that nanosilver could strongly affect aquatic organisms at the bottom of the food chain, such as bacteria, algae and zooplankton.

To further examine these effects in a real ecosystem, a team of researchers from Trent University, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada has been conducting studies at undisclosed lakes in northwestern Ontario. The Lake Ecosystem Nanosilver (LENS) project has been monitoring changes in the lakes’ ecosystem that occur after the addition of nanosilver.

“In our particular case, we will be able to study and understand the effects of only nanosilver because that is the only variable that is going to change,” says Prof. Xenopoulos. “It’s really the only place in the world where we can do that.”

The knowledge gained from the study will help policy-makers make decisions about whether nanomaterials can be a threat to aquatic ecosystems and whether regulatory action is required to control their release into the environment.

You can find the 13 mins. video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nJai_B4YH0#action=share

Shapeshifting frogs, a new species in Ecuador

Caption: This image shows skin texture variation in one individual frog (Pristimantis mutabilis) from Reserva Las Gralarias. Note how skin texture shifts from highly tubercular to almost smooth; also note the relative size of the tubercles on the eyelid, lower lip, dorsum and limbs. Credit: Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

Caption: This image shows skin texture variation in one individual frog (Pristimantis mutabilis) from Reserva Las Gralarias. Note how skin texture shifts from highly tubercular to almost smooth; also note the relative size of the tubercles on the eyelid, lower lip, dorsum and limbs.
Credit: Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

Here’s more about the shapeshifting and how the scientists figured out what the frogs were doing (from a March 23, 2015 Case Western Research University news release on EurekAlert; Note: A link has been removed),

A frog in Ecuador’s western Andean cloud forest changes skin texture in minutes, appearing to mimic the texture it sits on.

Originally discovered by a Case Western Reserve University PhD student and her husband, a projects manager at Cleveland Metroparks’ Natural Resources Division, the amphibian is believed to be the first known to have this shape-shifting capability.

But the new species, called Pristimantis mutabilis, or mutable rainfrog, has company. Colleagues working with the couple recently found that a known relative of the frog shares the same texture-changing quality–but it was never reported before.

The frogs are found at Reserva Las Gralarias, a nature reserve originally created to protect endangered birds in the Parish of Mindo, in north-central Ecuador.

The researchers, Katherine and Tim Krynak, and colleagues from Universidad Indoamérica and Tropical Herping (Ecuador) co-authored a manuscript describing the new animal and skin texture plasticity in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society this week. They believe their findings have broad implications for how species are and have been identified. The process may now require photographs and longer observations in the field to ensure the one species is not mistakenly perceived as two because at least two species of rain frogs can change their appearance.

Katherine Krynak believes the ability to change skin texture to reflect its surroundings may enable P. mutabilis to help camouflage itself from birds and other predators.

The Krynaks originally spotted the small, spiny frog, nearly the width of a marble, sitting on a moss-covered leaf about a yard off the ground on a misty July night in 2009. The Krynaks had never seen this animal before, though Tim had surveyed animals on annual trips to Las Gralarias since 2001, and Katherine since 2005.

They captured the little frog and tucked it into a cup with a lid before resuming their nightly search for wildlife. They nicknamed it “punk rocker” because of the thorn-like spines covering its body.

The next day, Katherine Krynak pulled the frog from the cup and set it on a smooth white sheet of plastic for Tim to photograph. It wasn’t “punk “–it was smooth-skinned. They assumed that, much to her dismay, she must have picked up the wrong frog.

“I then put the frog back in the cup and added some moss,” she said. “The spines came back… we simply couldn’t believe our eyes, our frog changed skin texture!

“I put the frog back on the smooth white background. Its skin became smooth.”

“The spines and coloration help them blend into mossy habitats, making it hard for us to see them,” she said. “But whether the texture really helps them elude predators still needs to be tested.”

During the next three years, a team of fellow biologists studied the frogs. They found the animals shift skin texture in a little more than three minutes.

Juan M. Guayasamin, from Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Ecuador, the manuscript’s first author, performed morphological and genetic analyses showing that P. mutabilis was a unique and undescribed species. Carl R. Hutter, from the University of Kansas, studied the frog’s calls, finding three songs the species uses, which differentiate them from relatives. The fifth author of the paper, Jamie Culebras, assisted with fieldwork and was able to locate a second population of the species. Culebras is a member of Tropical Herping, an organization committed to discovering, and studying reptiles and amphibians.

Guayasamin and Hutter discovered that Prismantis sobetes, a relative with similar markings but about twice the size of P. mutabilis, has the same trait when they placed a spiny specimen on a sheet and watched its skin turn smooth. P. sobetes is the only relative that has been tested so far.

Because the appearance of animals has long been one of the keys to identifying them as a certain species, the researchers believe their find challenges the system, particularly for species identified by one or just a few preserved specimens. With those, there was and is no way to know if the appearance is changeable.

The Krynaks, who helped form Las Gralarias Foundation to support the conservation efforts of the reserve, plan to return to continue surveying for mutable rain frogs and to work with fellow researchers to further document their behaviors, lifecycle and texture shifting, and estimate their population, all in effort to improve our knowledge and subsequent ability to conserve this paradigm shifting species.

Further, they hope to discern whether more relatives have the ability to shift skin texture and if that trait comes from a common ancestor. If P. mutabilis and P. sobetes are the only species within this branch of Pristimantis frogs to have this capability, they hope to learn whether they retained it from an ancestor while relatives did not, or whether the trait evolved independently in each species.

Golden frog of Panama and its skin microbiome

Caption: Researchers studied microbial communities on the skin of Panamanian golden frogs to learn more about amphibian disease resistance. Panamanian golden frogs live only in captivity. Continued studies may help restore them back to the wild. Credit: B. Gratwicke/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Caption: Researchers studied microbial communities on the skin of Panamanian golden frogs to learn more about amphibian disease resistance. Panamanian golden frogs live only in captivity. Continued studies may help restore them back to the wild.
Credit: B. Gratwicke/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Among many of the pressures on frog populations, there’s a lethal fungus which has affected some 200 species of frogs. A March 23, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes some recent research into the bacterial communities present on frog skin,

A team of scientists including Virginia Tech researchers is one step closer to understanding how bacteria on a frog’s skin affects its likelihood of contracting disease.

A frog-killing fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, has already led to the decline of more than 200 amphibian species including the now extinct-in-the-wild Panamanian golden frog.

In a recent study, the research team attempted to apply beneficial bacteria found on the skin of various Bd-resistant wild Panamanian frog species to Panamanian golden frogs in captivity, to see if this would stimulate a defense against the disease.

A March 23, 2015 Virginia Tech University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a twist and a turn in the story (Note: Links have been removed),

They found that while the treatment with beneficial bacteria was not successful due to its inability to stick to the skin, there were some frogs that survived exposure to the fungus.

These survivors actually had unique bacterial communities on their skin before the experiments started.

The next step is to explore these new bacterial communities.

“We were disappointed that the treatment didn’t work, but glad to have discovered new information about the relationship between these symbiotic microbial communities and amphibian disease resistance,” said Lisa Belden, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, and a faculty member with the new Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. “Every bit of information gets us closer to getting these frogs back into nature.”

Studying the microbial communities of Panamanian golden frogs was the dissertation focus of Belden’s former graduate student Matthew Becker, who graduated with a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Virginia Tech in 2014 and is now a fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“Anything that can help us predict resistance to this disease is very useful because the ultimate goal of this research is to establish healthy populations of golden frogs in their native habitat,” Becker told Smithsonian Science News. “I think identifying alternative probiotic treatment methods that optimize dosages and exposure times will be key for moving forward with the use of probiotics to mitigate chytridiomycosis.”

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

Composition of symbiotic bacteria predicts survival in Panamanian golden frogs infected with a lethal fungus by Matthew H. Becker , Jenifer B. Walke , Shawna Cikanek , Anna E. Savage , Nichole Mattheus , Celina N. Santiago , Kevin P. C. Minbiole , Reid N. Harris , Lisa K. Belden , Brian Gratwicke. April 2015 Volume: 282 Issue: 1805 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2881 Published 18 March 2015

This is an open access paper.

For anyone curious about the article in the Smithsonian mentioned in the news release, you can find it here.

 

Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), also known as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and toxicity; some Celluforce news; anti-petroleum extremists

The February 2015 issue of Industrial Biotechnology is hosting a special in depth research section on the topic of cellulose nanotechnology. A Feb. 19, 2015 news item on Phys.org features a specific article in the special section (Note: A link has been removed),

Novel nanomaterials derived from cellulose have many promising industrial applications, are biobased and biodegradable, and can be produced at relatively low cost. Their potential toxicity—whether ingested, inhaled, on contact with the skin, or on exposure to cells within the body—is a topic of intense discussion, and the latest evidence and insights on cellulose nanocrystal toxicity are presented in a Review article in Industrial Biotechnology.

Maren Roman, PhD, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, describes the preparation of cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) and highlights the key factors that are an essential part of studies to assess the potential adverse health effects of CNCs by various types of exposure. In the article “Toxicity of Cellulose Nanocrystals: A Review” , Dr. Roman discusses the current literature on the pulmonary, oral, dermal, and cytotoxicity of CNCs, provides an in-depth view on their effects on human health, and suggests areas for future research.

There has been much Canadian investment both federal and provincial in cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). There’s also been a fair degree of confusion regarding the name. In Canada, which was a research leader initially, it was called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) but over time a new term was coined cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). The new name was more in keeping with the naming conventions for other nanoscale cellulose materials such as  cellulose nanofibrils, etc. Hopefully, this confusion will resolve itself now that Celluforce, a Canadian company, has trademarked NCC. (More about Celluforce later in this post.)

Getting back to toxicity and CNC, here’s a link to and a citation for Maron’s research paper,

Toxicity of Cellulose Nanocrystals: A Review by Roman Maren. Industrial Biotechnology. February 2015, 11(1): 25-33. doi:10.1089/ind.2014.0024.

The article is open access at this time. For anyone who doesn’t have the time to read it, here’s the conclusion,

Current studies of the oral and dermal toxicity of CNCs have shown a lack of adverse health effects. The available studies, however, are still very limited in number (two oral toxicity studies and three dermal toxicity studies) and in the variety of tested CNC materials (CelluForce’s NCC). Additional oral and dermal toxicity studies are needed to support the general conclusion that CNCs are nontoxic upon ingestion or contact with the skin. Studies of pulmonary and cytotoxicity, on the other hand, have yielded discordant results. The questions of whether CNCs have adverse health effects on inhalation and whether they elicit inflammatory or oxidative stress responses at the cellular level therefore warrant further investigation. The toxicity of CNCs will depend strongly on their physicochemical properties—in particular, surface chemistry, including particle charge, and degree of aggregation, which determines particle shape and dimensions. Therefore, these properties—which in turn depend strongly on the cellulose source, CNC preparation procedure, and post-processing or sample preparation methods, such as lyophilization, aerosolization, sonication, or sterilization—need to be carefully measured in the final samples.

Another factor that might affect the outcomes of toxicity studies are sample contaminants, such as endotoxins or toxic chemical impurities. Samples for exposure tests should therefore be carefully analyzed for such contaminants prior to testing. Ideally, because detection of toxic chemical contaminants may be difficult, control experiments should be carried out with suitable blanks from which the CNCs have been removed, for example by membrane filtration. Moreover, especially in cytotoxicity assessments, the effect of CNCs on pH and their aggregation in the cell culture medium need to be monitored. Only by careful particle characterization and exclusion of interfering factors will we be able to develop a detailed understanding of the potential adverse health effects of CNCs.

If I understand this rightly, CNC seems safe (more or less) when ingested orally (food/drink) or applied to the skin (dermal application) but inhalation seems problematic and there are indications that this could lead to inflammation of lung cells. Other conclusions suggest both the source for the cellulose and CNC preparation may affect its toxicity. I encourage you to read the whole research paper as this author provides good explanations of the terms and summaries of previous research, as well as, some very well considered research.

Here’s more about Industrial Biotechnology’s special research section in the February 2015 issue, from a Feb. 19, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publishers press release (also on EurekAlert*),

The article is part of an IB IN DEPTH special research section entitled “Cellulose Nanotechnology: Fundamentals and Applications,” led by Guest Editors Jose Moran-Mirabal, PhD and Emily Cranston, PhD, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. In addition to the Review article by Dr. Roman, the issue includes Reviews by M. Rose, M. Babi, and J. Moran-Mirabal (“The Study of Cellulose Structure and Depolymerization Through Single-Molecule Methods”) and by X.F. Zhao and W.T. Winter (“Cellulose/cellulose-based nanospheres: Perspectives and prospective”); Original Research articles by A. Rivkin, T. Abitbol, Y. Nevo, et al. (“Bionanocomposite films from resilin-CBD bound to cellulose nanocrystals), and P. Criado, C. Fraschini, S. Salmieri, et al. (“Evaluation of antioxidant cellulose nanocrystals and applications in gellan gum films”); and the Overview article “Cellulose Nanotechnology on the Rise,” by Drs. Moran-Mirabal and Cranston.

Meanwhile Celluforce announces a $4M ‘contribution’ from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), from a Feb. 16, 2015 Celluforce news release,

CelluForce welcomes the announcement by Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) of a contribution of $4.0 million to optimize the extraction process of Nanocrystaline Cellulose (NCC) from dry wood pulp and develop applications for its use in the oil and gas sector. The announcement was made in Quebec City today [Feb. 16, 2015] by the Honourable Greg Rickford, Minister of Natural Resources and Minister for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.

NCC is a fundamental building block of trees that can be extracted from the forest biomass and has unique properties that offer a wide range of potential applications. Measured in units as small as nanometres, these tiny structures have strength properties comparable to steel and will have uses in a variety of industrial sectors. In particular, NCC is touted as having the potential to significantly advance the oil and gas industry.

Our Government is positioning Canada as a global leader in the clean technology sector by supporting innovative projects aimed at growing our economy while contributing to a cleaner environment,” said the Honourable Greg Rickford, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources. [emphasis mine] “By developing our resources responsibly, exploring next-generation transportation and advancing clean energy technology, the projects announced today will create jobs and improve innovation opportunities in Quebec and across Canada.”

“World-class research led to the development of this ground breaking extraction process and placed Canada at the leading edge of NCC research”, stated René Goguen, Acting President of CelluForce Inc. “This announcement by SDTC sets the stage for the pre-commercial development of applications that will not only support Canada’s forest sector but also the oil and gas sector, both of which are important drivers of the Canadian economy.”

This project will further improve and optimize the process developed by CelluForce to extract nanocrystalline cellulose (CelluForce NCC™) from dry wood pulp. In addition to improving the extraction process, this project will investigate additional applications for the oil-and-gas industry such as cementing using this renewable forestry resource.

There’s very little information in this news release other than the fact that CelluForce’s $4M doesn’t need to be repaid seeing it’s described as a ‘contribution’ rather than an investment. The difference between a contribution and a grant, which is what these funds used to be called, somewhat mystifies me unless this is a translation issue.

As for the news release content, it is remarkably scant. This $4M will be spent on improving the extraction process and on applications for the oil and gas industry. Neither the improvements nor the possible applications are described. Hopefully, the government has some means of establishing whether or not those funds (sorry, the contribution) were used for the purposes described.

I am glad to see this in this news release, “Our Government is positioning Canada as a global leader in the clean technology sector …” although I’m not sure how it fits with recent attempts to brand environmentalists as part of an ‘anti-petroleum’ movement as described in a Feb. 19, 2015 post by Glyn Moody for Techdirt (Note: A link has been removed),

As Techdirt has been warning for some time, one of the dangers with the flood of “anti-terrorist” laws and powers is that they are easily redirected against other groups for very different purposes. A story in the Globe and Mail provides another chilling reminder of how that works:

The RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] has labelled the “anti-petroleum” movement as a growing and violent threat to Canada’s security, raising fears among environmentalists that they face increased surveillance, and possibly worse, under the Harper government’s new terrorism legislation.

As the Globe and Mail article makes clear, environmentalists are now being considered as part of an “anti-petroleum” movement. That’s not just some irrelevant rebranding: it means that new legislation supposedly targeting “terrorism” can be applied.

It seems logically incoherent to me that the government wants clean tech while condemning environmentalists. Whether or not you buy climate change science (for the record, I do), you have to admit that we are running out of petroleum. At heart, both the government and the environmentalists have to agree that we need new sources for fuel. It doesn’t make any sense to spend valuable money, time, and resources on pursuing environmentalists.

This business about the ‘anti-petroleum’ movement reminds me of a copyright kerfuffle including James Moore, currently the Minister of Industry, and writer Cory Doctorow. Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage at the time, at some sort of public event, labeled Doctorow as a ‘radical extremist’ regarding his (Doctorow’s) views on copyright. The comments achieved notoriety when it appeared that Moore and the organizers denied the comments ever took place. The organizers seemed to have edited the offending video and Moore made public denials. You can read more about the incident in my June 25, 2010 post. Here’s an excerpt from the post which may explain why I feel there is a similarity,

… By simultaneously linking individuals who use violence to achieve their ends (the usual application for the term ‘radical extremists’) to individuals who are debating, discussing, and writing commentaries critical of your political aims you render the term into a joke and you minimize the violence associated with it.

Although with ‘anti-petroleum’, it seems they could decide any dissension is a form of violence. It should be noted that in Canada the Ministry of Industry, is tightly coupled with the Ministry of Natural Resources since the Canadian economy has been and continues to be largely resource-based.

For anyone interested in CelluForce and NCC/CNC, here’s a sampling of my previous posts on the topic,

CelluForce (nanocrystalline cellulose) plant opens (Dec. 15, 2011)

Double honours for NCC (ArboraNano and CelluForce recognized) (May 25, 2012)

You say nanocrystalline cellulose, I say cellulose nanocrystals; CelluForce at Japan conference and at UK conference (Oct. 15, 2012)

Designing nanocellulose (?) products in Finland; update on Canada’s CelluForce (Oct. 3, 2013) Note: CelluForce stopped producing NCC due to a growing stockpile.

There’s a lot more about CNC on this blog* should you care to search. One final note, I gather there’s a new interim boss at CelluForce, René Goguen replacing Jean Moreau.

* EurekAlert link added Feb. 20, 2015.

* ‘on the CNC blog’ changed to ‘about CNC on this blog’ on March 4, 2015.

Of airborne nanomaterials, bacterial microbiomes, viral microbiomes, and paper sensors

There’s a Jan. 14, 2015 news item on Nanowerk from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) which is largely a personal profile featuring some basic information (useful for those new to the topic) about airborne nanoparticles (Note: A link has been removed),

The Harvard educated undergraduate [Linsey Marr,  professor of civil and environmental engineering, Virginia Tech] who obtained her Ph.D. from University of California at Berkeley and trained as a postdoctoral researcher with a Nobel laureate of chemistry at MIT is now among a handful of researchers in the world who are addressing concerns about engineered nanomaterials in the atmosphere.

Marr is part of the National Science Foundation’s Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and her research group has characterized airborne nanoparticles at every point of their life cycle. This cycle includes production at a commercial manufacturing facility, use by consumers in the home, and disposal via incineration.

A Jan. 14, 2015 Virginia Tech news release, which originated the news item, quotes Marr on the current thinking about airborne nanoparticles,

“Results have shown that engineered nanomaterials released into the air are often aggregated with other particulate matter, such as combustion soot or ingredients in consumer spray products, and that the size of such aggregates may range from smaller than 10 nanometers to larger than 10 microns,” Marr revealed. She was referring to studies completed by research group members Marina Quadros Vance of Florianopolis, Brazil, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science, and Eric Vejerano, of Ligao, Philippines, a post-doctoral associate in civil and environmental engineering.

Size matters if these aggregates are inhaled.

Another concern is the reaction of a nanomaterial such as a fullerene with ozone at environmentally relevant concentration levels. Marr’s graduate student, Andrea Tiwari, of Mankato, Minnesota, said the resulting changes in fullerene could lead to enhanced toxicity.

The story then segues into airborne pathogens and viruses eventually honing in on virus microbiomes and bacterial microbiomes (from the news release),

Marr is a former Ironman triathlete who obviously has strong interests in what she is breathing into her own body. So it would be natural for her to expand her study of engineered nanoparticles traveling in the atmosphere to focus on airborne pathogens.

She did so by starting to consider the influenza virus as an airborne pollutant. She applied the same concepts and tools used for studying environmental contaminants and ambient aerosols to the examination of the virus.

She looked at viruses as “essentially self-assembled nanoparticles that are capable of self-replication.”

Her research team became the first to measure influenza virus concentrations in ambient air in a children’s day care center and on airplanes. When they conducted their studies, the Virginia Tech researchers collected samples from a waiting room of a health care center, two toddlers’ rooms and one babies’ area of a childcare center, as well as three cross-country flights between Roanoke, Virginia., and San Francisco. They collected 16 samples between Dec. 10, 2009 and Apr. 22, 2010.

“Half of the samples were confirmed to contain aerosolized influenza A viruses,” Marr said. The childcare samples were the most infected at 75 percent. Next, airplane samples reached 67 percent contamination, and health center numbers came in at 33 percent.

This study serves as a foundation for new work started about a year ago in her lab.

Marr collaborated with Aaron J. Prussin II, of Blacksburg, Virginia, and they successfully secured for him a postdoctoral fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to characterize the bacterial and viral microbiome — the ecological community of microorganisms — of the air in a daycare center.

They are now attempting to determine seasonal changes of both the viral microbiome and the bacterial microbiome in a daycare setting, and examine how changes in the microbiome are related to naturally occurring changes in the indoor environment.

“Little is known about the viral component of the microbiome and it is important because viruses are approximately 10 times more abundant than bacteria, and they help shape the bacterial community. Research suggests that viruses do have both beneficial and harmful interactions with bacteria,” Prussin said.

With Prussin and Marr working together they hope to verify their hypothesis that daycare centers harbor unique, dynamic microbiomes with plentiful bacteria and viruses. They are also looking at what seasonal changes might bring to a daycare setting.

They pointed to the effect of seasonal changes because in previous work, Marr, her former graduate student Wan Yang, of Shantou, China, and Elankumaran Subbiah, a virologist in the biomedical sciences and pathobiology department of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, measured the influenza A virus survival rate at various levels of humidity.

Their 2012 study presented for the first time the relationship between the influenza A virus viability in human mucus and humidity over a large range of relative humidities, from 17 percent to 100 percent. They found the viability of the virus was highest when the relative humidity was either close to 100 percent or below 50 percent. The results in human mucus may help explain influenza’s seasonality in different regions.

According to the news release Marr and her colleagues have developed a fast and cheap technology for detection of airborne pathogens (Note: A link has been removed),

With the urgent need to understand the dynamics of airborne pathogens, especially as one considers the threats of bioterrorism, pandemic influenza, and other emerging infectious diseases, Marr said “a breakthrough technology is required to enable rapid, low-cost detection of pathogens in air.”

Along with Subbiah and Peter Vikesland,  professor of civil and environmental engineering, they want to develop readily deployable, inexpensive, paper-based sensors for airborne pathogen detection.

In 2013 they received funding of almost $250,000 from Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, a supporter of the clustering of research groups, to support their idea of creating paper-based sensors based on their various successes to date.

Marr explained the sensors “would use a sandwich approach. The bottom layer is paper containing specialized DNA that will immobilize the virus. The middle layer is the virus, which sticks to the specialized DNA on the bottom layer. The top layer is additional specialized DNA that sticks to the virus. This DNA is attached to gold nanoparticles that are easily detectable using a technique known as Raman microscopy.”

They key to their approach is that it combines high-tech with low-tech in the hopes of keeping the assay costs low. Their sampling method will use a bicycle pump, and low cost paper substrates. They hope that they will be able to incorporate smart-phone based signal transduction for the detection. Using this approach, they believe “even remote corners of the world” would be able to use the technique.

Vikesland previously received funding from the Gates Foundation to detect the polio virus via paper-based diagnostics. Polio is still found in countries on the continents of Asia and Africa.

I have previously mentioned Linsey Marr in an Oct. 18, 2013 post about the revival of the Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory (originally developed by the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies) by academics at Virginia Tech and first mentioned CEINT in an Aug. 15, 2011 post about a special project featuring a mesocosm at Duke University (North Carolina).

A labradoodle, gold nanoparticles, and cancer treatment for dogs and cats

Here’s the labradoodle,

Caption: Dr. Shawna Klahn, an assistant professor of oncology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, performs a checkup on "Grayton" four weeks after the animal's experimental cancer treatment involving gold nanoparticles and a targeted laser therapy. Credit: Virginia Tech

Caption: Dr. Shawna Klahn, an assistant professor of oncology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, performs a checkup on “Grayton” four weeks after the animal’s experimental cancer treatment involving gold nanoparticles and a targeted laser therapy.
Credit: Virginia Tech

An Aug. 6, 2014 news item on Azonano outlines ‘Grayton’s’ story and how gold nanoparticles will factor in,

When Michael and Sandra Friedlander first came to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine three years ago with their dog, Grayton, they learned some bad news: Grayton had nasal adenocarcinoma, a form of cancer with a short life expectancy.

“Most dogs with this form of cancer are with their owners no more than a few months after the diagnosis, but here Grayton is three years later,” said Michael Friedlander, who is the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and senior dean at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

No stranger to medical research, Friedlander was referred by Veterinary Teaching Hospital clinicians to an experimental treatment at the University of Florida called stereotactic radiation therapy, which delivers precise, high dosages of radiation to a tumor and can only be performed once.

“That shrunk the tumor down to almost nothing,” said Friedlander, who is also the associate provost for health sciences at Virginia Tech. “We knew when Grayton had the procedure that we couldn’t do it again, but now the cancer is back.”

An Aug. 4, 2014 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert) by Michael Sutphin, which originated the news item, explains what occasioned the release and how gold nanoparticles are being used in veterinary treatment for cancer,

Today [Aug. 4, 2014], the 11-year-old Labradoodle is the first patient at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in a new clinical trial that is testing the use of gold nanoparticles and a targeted laser treatment for solid tumors in dogs and cats. The study is one of several on new treatments for client-owned companion animals at the college. In January [2014], the college established the Veterinary Clinical Research Office to help facilitate this work.

“Clinical research at the veterinary college involves both primary research focused on advancing the treatment and diagnosis of veterinary diseases and translational research in which spontaneous diseases in animals can be used as models of human disease,” said Dr. Greg Daniel, head of the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “In the latter situation, we can provide our companion animal patients with treatment and diagnostic options that are not yet available in mainstream human medicine.”

Although medical researchers have tested gold nanoparticles with targeted laser treatments on human patients with some success, the treatment is still new to both human and veterinary medicine. The college is one of four current veterinary schools around the country testing the AuroLase therapy developed by Nanospectra Biosciences Inc., a startup company based in Houston, Texas. The others are Texas A&M University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Georgia.

Dr. Nick Dervisis, assistant professor of oncology in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, is leading the Nanospectra-funded study. Following a rhinoscopy performed on Grayton by Dr. David Grant, associate professor of internal medicine, Dervisis began the one-time, experimental therapy.

“The treatment involves two phases,” Dervisis said. “First, we infuse the patient with the gold nanoparticles. Although the nanoparticles distribute throughout the body, they tend to concentrate around blood vessels associated with tumors. Within 36 hours, they have cleared the bloodstream except for tumors. The gold nanoparticles are small enough to circulate freely in the bloodstream and become temporarily captured within the incomplete blood vessel walls common in solid tumors. Then, we use a non-ablative laser on the patient.”

Dervisis explained that a non-ablative laser is not strong enough to harm the skin or normal tissue, but “it does cause the remaining nanoparticles to absorb the laser energy and convert it into heat so that they damage the tumor cells.”

Like all clinical trials, the study involves many unknowns, including the treatment’s usefulness and effectiveness. One month after the AuroLase treatment, the nosebleeds that initially brought Grayton back to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital had stopped and Grayton has no other side effects.

“I’m delighted with the care and service that Grayton has received at the veterinary college,” said Friedlander, who explained that the treatment appears to be safe even though researchers do not know whether it is effective yet. “Grayton recently came with us on our annual vacation at the beach. We didn’t know if he would be able to come again, so it was great to have him with us swimming, catching fish and crabs, and doing what dogs do.”

Current clinical trials at the veterinary college range from the use of MRI to distinguish between benign and cancerous lymph nodes in dogs with oral melanoma, to a new chemotherapy drug for dogs with brain tumors, to the treatment of invasive skin cancer in horses with high-voltage, high-frequency electrical pulses. A complete list of current trials can be found at the college’s new clinical trials website.

Mindy Quigley, who oversees the college’s Veterinary Clinical Research Office, explained that veterinary trials, which follow a four-phase process and a variety of regulations similar to human medicine, have another layer of complexity that human trials do not.

“Variation among species means that a therapy that has proven safe and effective in, for example, humans or dogs, may not work for horses,” said Quigley, who comes to the college from the University of Edinburgh’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, where she helped set up a new neurology research clinic with funding from author J.K. Rowling. “Many veterinary clinical trials must therefore take therapies that have worked in one species and test them in other species with similar conditions. This is a necessary step to determine if a proposed treatment is safe and effective for our companion animals.”

Grayton may be the first companion animal in the AuroLase study at the veterinary college, but he certainly won’t be the last. Dervisis is continuing to enroll patients in the study and is seeking dogs and cats of a certain size with solid tumors who have not recently received radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Interested parties can check this site for current clinical trials, including the Aurolase study,  being held by the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Putting a new spin on it: Whirling Dervishes and physics and ballet dancers and neuroscience

Many years ago I was dragged to a movie about J. Krishnamurti (a philosopher and spiritual teacher; there’s more in this Wikipedia essay) which, for some reason, featured Whirling Dervishes amongst many other topics. Watching those dervishes was hypnotic and I now find out it was also an experience in physics, according to a Nov. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A force that intricately links the rotation of the Earth with the direction of weather patterns in the atmosphere has been shown to play a crucial role in the creation of the hypnotic patterns created by the skirts of the Whirling Dervishes.

This is according to an international group of researchers who have demonstrated how the Coriolis force is essential for creating the archetypal, and sometimes counterintuitive, patterns that form on the surface of the Whirling Dervishes skirts by creating a set of very simple equations which govern how fixed or free-flowing cone-shaped structures behave when rotating.

The Nov. 26, 2013 Institute of Physics (IOP) news release on EurekAlert (also on the IOP website but dated Nov. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, gives an explanation of Whirling Dervishes and describes the research further,

The Whirling Dervishes, who have become a popular tourist attraction in Turkey, are a religious movement who commemorate the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, by spinning on the spot and creating mesmerising patterns with their long skirts. A YouTube video of the Whirling Dervishes in action can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_Cf-ZxDfZA.

Co-author of the study James Hanna, from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, said: “The dancers don’t do much but spin around at a fixed speed, but their skirts show these very striking, long-lived patterns with sharp cusp-like features which seem rather counterintuitive.”

Hanna, along with Jemal Guven at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Martin Michael Müller at Université de Lorraine, found that it was the presence of a Coriolis force that was essential in the formation of the different patterns.

The Coriolis effect accounts for the deflection of objects on a rotating surface and is most commonly encountered when looking at the Earth’s rotations and its effect on the atmosphere around it. The rotation of the Earth creates the Coriolis force which causes winds to be deflected clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere – it is this effect which is responsible for the rotation of cyclones.

“Because the sheet is conically symmetric, material can flow along its surface without stretching or deforming. You can think of the rotating Earth, for example, with the air of the atmosphere free to flow around it.

“The flow of a sheet of material is much more restrictive than the flow of the atmosphere, but nonetheless it results in Coriolis forces. What we found was that this flow, and the associated Coriolis forces, plays a crucial role in forming the dervish-like patterns,” Hanna continued.

By providing a basic mathematical description of the spinning skirts of the Dervishes, the researchers hope their future research will discern how different patterns are selected, how stable these patterns are and if gravity or any other effects make a qualitative difference.

The news release notes,

The equations, which have been published today, 27 November,[2013], in the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics, were able to reproduce the sharp peaks and gentle troughs that appear along the flowing surface of the Dervishes’ skirts and showed a significant resemblance to real-life images.

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

Whirling skirts and rotating cones by Jemal Guven, J A Hanna, and Martin Michael Müller. New Journal of Physics Volume 15 November 2013 doi:10.1088/1367-2630/15/11/113055  Published 26 November 2013

© IOP Publishing and Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft

This paper is open access.

While the Whirling Dervishes and the fabric in their clothing provide insights into aspects of physics, ballet dancers are providing valuable information to neuroscientists and geriatric specialists with pirouettes, according to a Sept. 26, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists have discovered differences in the brain structure of ballet dancers that may help them avoid feeling dizzy when they perform pirouettes.

The research suggests that years of training can enable dancers to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear.

The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, could help to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness. Around one in four people experience this condition at some time in their lives.

The Imperial College of London (ICL) Sept. 26, 2013 news release on EurekAlert (also on the ICL website but dated Sept. 27, 2013), which originated the news item, describes dizziness, this research, and ballet dancers’ unique brains in more detail,

Normally, the feeling of dizziness stems from the vestibular organs in the inner ear. These fluid-filled chambers sense rotation of the head through tiny hairs that sense the fluid moving. After turning around rapidly, the fluid continues to move, which can make you feel like you’re still spinning.

Ballet dancers can perform multiple pirouettes with little or no feeling of dizziness. The findings show that this feat isn’t just down to spotting, a technique dancers use that involves rapidly moving the head to fix their gaze on the same spot as much as possible.

Researchers at Imperial College London recruited 29 female ballet dancers and, as a comparison group, 20 female rowers whose age and fitness levels matched the dancers’.

The volunteers were spun around in a chair in a dark room. They were asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped. The researchers also measured eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs. Later, they examined the participants’ brain structure with MRI scans.

In dancers, both the eye reflexes and their perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than in the rowers.

Dr Barry Seemungal, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, said: “Dizziness, which is the feeling that we are moving when in fact we are still, is a common problem. I see a lot of patients who have suffered from dizziness for a long time. Ballet dancers seem to be able to train themselves not to get dizzy, so we wondered whether we could use the same principles to help our patients.”

The brain scans revealed differences between the groups in two parts of the brain: an area in the cerebellum where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed and in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for the perception of dizziness.

The area in the cerebellum was smaller in dancers. Dr Seemungal thinks this is because dancers would be better off not using their vestibular systems, relying instead on highly co-ordinated pre-programmed movements.

“It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy. If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”

Another finding in the study may be important for how chronic dizzy patients are tested in the clinic. In the control group, the perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals, but in dancers, the two were uncoupled.

“This shows that the sensation of spinning is separate from the reflexes that make your eyes move back and forth,” Dr Seemungal said. “In many clinics, it’s common to only measure the reflexes, meaning that when these tests come back normal the patient is told that there is nothing wrong. But that’s only half the story. You need to look at tests that assess both reflex and sensation.”

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

The Neuroanatomical Correlates of Training-Related Perceptuo-Reflex Uncoupling in Dancers by Yuliya Nigmatullina, Peter J. Hellyer, Parashkev Nachev, David J. Sharp, and Barry M. Seemungal. Cereb. Cortex (2013) doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht266 First published online: September 26, 2013

Delightfully, this article too is open access.

I love these kinds of stories where two very different branches of science find information of interest in something as ordinary as spinning around.

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Courtesy: Imperial College of London (downloaded from: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_26-9-2013-17-43-4]

Here are some Whirling Dervishes,

Istanbul - Monestir Mevlevi - Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

Istanbul – Monestir Mevlevi – Dervixos dansaires Credit: Josep Renalias [downloaded from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Istanbul_-_Monestir_Mevlevi_-_Dervixos_dansaires.JPG]

ETA Nov. 28, 2013: I was most diverted by the Nov. 27, 2013 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert) which describes how two physicists and an engineer came to study Whirling Dervishes,

James Hanna likes to have fun with his engineering views of physics.

So when he and his colleague Jemal Guven visited their friend Martin Michael Müller in France on a rainy, dreary day, the three intellects decided to stay in. Guven, absent-mindedly switching between channels on the television, stumbled upon a documentary on whirling dervishes, best described as a Sufi religious order, who commemorate the teachings of 13th century Persian mystic and poet Rumi through spinning at a fixed speed in their floor length skirts.

“Their skirts showed these very striking, long-lived patterns,” Hanna, the engineer, recalled.

The film caused physicists Guven and Müller to think about structures with conical symmetry, or those shapes that can be defined as a series of straight lines emanating from a single point. By contrast, Hanna, the engineer with a physicist’s background, thought about rotating flexible structures, namely strings or sheets.

Duke University’s (North Carolina, US) Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) wins $15M grant

A Nov. 13, 2013 news item on Azonano announces that the Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke University has been awarded $15M,

A pioneering, multi-institution research center headquartered at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering has just won $15-million grant renewal from the National Science Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency to continue learning more about where nanoparticles accumulate, how they interact with other chemicals and how they affect the environment.

Founded in 2008, the Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) has been evaluating the effect of long-term nanomaterial exposure on organisms and ecosystems.

“The previous focus has been on studying simple, uniform nanomaterials in simple environments,” said Mark Wiesner, James L. Meriam Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and director of CEINT. “As we look to the next five years, we envision a dramatically different landscape. We will be evaluating more complex nanomaterials in more realistic natural environments such as agricultural lands and water treatment systems where these materials are likely to be found.”

The Nov. 11, 2013 Duke University news release by Karyn Hede, which originated the news item, provides some history and context for CEINT (Note: Links have been removed),

When CEINT formed, little research had been done on how materials manufactured at the nanoscale—about 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair—enter the environment and whether their size and unique properties render them a new category of environmental risk. For example, nanoparticles can be highly reactive with other chemicals in the environment and had been shown to disrupt activities in living organisms. Indeed, nanosilver is used in clothing precisely because it effectively kills odor-causing bacteria.

To tackle this expansive research agenda, CEINT leadership assembled a multi-institutional research team encompassing expertise in ecosystems biology, chemistry, geology, materials science, computational science, mathematical modeling and other specialties, to complement its engineering expertise. The Center has 29 faculty collaborators, as well as 76 graduate and undergraduate students participating in research. Over its first five years, CEINT has answered some of the most pressing questions about environmental risk and has learned where to focus future research.

The center also pioneered the use of a new test chamber, called a mesocosm, that replicates a small wetland environment. “Over the long term, we want to evaluate how nanoparticles bioaccumulate in complex food webs,” said Emily Bernhardt, an associate professor of biology at Duke and ecosystem ecologist who helped design the simulated ecosystems. “The additional funding will allow us to study the subtle effect of low-dose exposure on ecosystems over time, as well as complex interactions among nanoparticles and other environmental contaminants.”

Looking forward, the investigators at CEINT plan to expand the use of systems modeling and to create a “knowledge commons,” a place to store various kinds of data that can then be analyzed as a whole, said CEINT Executive Director Christine Hendren.

“Our investigators and collaborators are located across the globe,” Hendren added. “We are committed to disseminating information that can be translated into responsible regulatory frameworks and that will be available to compare with results of future research.”

Key findings from CEINT’s first five years include:

Naturally occurring nanomaterials far outnumber engineered particles. CEINT scientist Michael Hochella, a geoscientist at Virginia Tech, inventoried nanoparticles and concluded that natural nanoparticles are found everywhere, from dust in the atmosphere to sea spray to volcanoes. The environmental risks of these natural nanomaterials are difficult to separate from engineered nanomaterials.

Engineered nanoparticles change once they enter the environment. Gregory V. Lowry, deputy director of CEINT and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, along with colleagues from the University of Birmingham, U.K. and the University of South Carolina found that the relatively large surface area of nanoparticles makes them highly reactive once they enter the environment. These transformations will alter their movement and toxicity and must be considered when studying nanomaterials. Their review article on this topic was named the best feature article of 2012 by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Nanoparticles can be visualized, even in complex environmental samples. A research team led by CEINT investigators Jie Liu, associate professor of chemistry at Duke, and CEINT Director Mark Wiesner showed that more than a dozen types of engineered nanoparticles, including silver, gold, and titanium dioxide, along with carbon nanotubes, can be surveyed using a technique called hyperspectral imaging, which measures light scattering caused by different types of nanoparticles. The new technique, co-developed by postdoctoral researcher Appala Raju Badireddy, is sensitive enough to analyze nanoparticles found in water samples ranging from ultrapurified to wastewater. It will be used in future long-term studies of how nanoparticles move and accumulate in ecological systems.

It is possible to estimate current and future volume of engineered nanomaterials. Understanding the volume of nanomaterials being produced and released into the environment is a crucial factor in risk assessment. CEINT researchers led by Christine Hendren measured the upper- and lower-bound annual U.S. production of five classes of nanomaterials, totaling as much as a combined 40,000 metric tons annually as of 2011.

Silver nanoparticles caused environmental stress in a simulated wetland environment. CEINT has developed  “mesocosms,”  open-air terrarium-like structures that simulate wetland ecosystems that can be evaluated over time. Even low doses of silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products produced about a third less biomass in a mesocosm. The researchers will now  look at how nanomaterials are transferred between organisms in a mesocosm.

I have written about CEINT and its work, including the mesocosm, many times. My August 15, 2011 posting offers an introduction to the CEINT mesocosm.

Rising from the dead: the inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products

The inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products or the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI) is still cited in articles about nanotechnology and its pervasive use in consumer products despite the fact that the inventory was effectively rendered inactive (i.e., dead) in 2009 and that  it was a voluntary system with no oversight, meaning whoever made the submission to the inventory could make any claims they wanted. Now that it’s 2013, things are about to change according to an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

As a resource for consumers, scientists, and policy makers, the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN) has joined the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to renew and expand the Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory, an important source of information about products using nanomaterials.

“We want people to appreciate the revolution, such as in electronics and medicine. But we also want them to be informed,” said Nina Quadros, a research scientist at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and associate director of VTSuN, who leads a team of Virginia Tech faculty members and students on this project. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate, and David Rajeski, director of the science and technology innovation program, lead this project at the Wilson Center.

The Oct. 28, 2013 Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) news release by Susan Trulove (which originated the news item),provides a brief history of the inventory and a description of its revivification,

The Wilson Center and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology created the inventory in 2005. It grew from 54 to more than 1,000 products, many of which have come and gone. The inventory became the most frequently cited resource, showcasing the widespread applications of nanotechnology. However, in 2009, the project was no longer funded.

“I used it in publications and presentations when talking about all the ways nano is part of people’s lives in consumer products,” said Matthew Hull, who manages the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science’s investment portfolio in nanoscale science and engineering, which includes the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. “But the inventory was criticized by researchers, regulators, and manufacturers for the lack of scientific information available to support product claims.”

In a meeting with his friend, Andrew Maynard, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, who had initiated the inventory when he was at the Wilson Center, Hull proposed leveraging Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology resources to improve the inventory.

“My role was to ask ‘what if’ and [the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology] ran with it,” said Hull.

A partnership was formed and, with funding from the Virginia Tech institute, the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology restructured the inventory to improve the reliability, functionality, and scientific credibility of the database.

“Specifically, we added scientific significance and usefulness by including qualitative and quantitative descriptors for the products and the nanomaterials contained in these products, such as size, concentration, and potential exposure routes,” said Quadros. For example, an intentional exposure route would be the way a medicine is administered. An unintentional exposure would be when a child chews on a toy that has been treated with silver nanoparticles that are used as an antimicrobial. The potential health effect of nanomaterials on children was Quadros doctoral research and she used the inventory to find products designed for children that use nanomaterials, such as plush toys.

“One of the best things about the new version of the inventory is the additional information and the ability to search by product type or the type of nanomaterial,” she said. “When researchers were first attempting to assess the potential environmental impacts of nanotechnology, one main challenge was understanding how these nanomaterials might end up in the environment in the first place. After searching the CPI and seeing the vast applications of nanotechnologies in consumer products it was easier to narrow down scenarios.”

For example, Quadros said many silver nanoparticles are used in clothing for antimicrobial protection, so we can infer that some silver nanoparticles may end up in wastewater treatment plants after clothes washing. This helped justify some of the research on the effects of silver nanoparticle in the biological wastewater treatment processes. Currently, the inventory lists 188 products under the ‘clothing’ category.”

This team also included published scientific data related to those products, where available, and developed a metric to assess the reliability of the data on each inventory entry.

The team interviewed more than 50 nanotechnology experts with more than 350 combined years of experience in nanotechnology, Quadros said. “Their answers provided valuable guidance to help us address diverse stakeholder needs.”

In addition, the site’s users can log in and add information based on their own expertise. “Anyone can suggest edits. The curator and reviewer will approve the edits, and then the new information will go live,” Quadros said.

“We’ve added the horsepower of [the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology], but opened it by means of crowdsourcing to new information, such as refuting or supporting claims made about products,” Hull said.

“The goal of this work is to create a living, growing inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano­enabled consumer products,” Quadros said. “Improved information sharing will allow citizens, manufacturers, scientists, policymakers, and others to better understand how nanotechnology is being used in the consumer marketplace,” she said.

As of October 2013,

The inventory currently lists more than 1,600 consumer products that claim to contain nanotechnology or have been found to contain nanomaterials.

Quadros will give a presentation about the inventory at the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization conference in Santa Barbara on Nov. 3-5 and will present to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation in the spring.

Key collaborators at Virginia Tech are Sean McGinnis, an associate research professor in the materials science and engineering department; Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering; her postdoc, Eric Vejerano, who was instrumental in development of product categories; and Michael Hochella, a university distinguished professor in the geosciences department and Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology director.

You can find the Consumer Products Inventory here where it is still hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The website for the Second Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization Conference where Quadros will be presenting can be found here and is where this conference description can be found,

The objective of this conference is to bring together scientific experts from academia, industry, and government agencies from around the world to present and discuss current research findings on the subject of nanotechnology and sustainability.

The conference program will address the critical aspects of sustainable nanotechnology such as life cycle assessment, green synthesis, green energy, industrial partnerships, environmental and biological fate, and the overall sustainability of engineered nanomaterials. In principle, this involves the fundamental/applied research on the chemistry of producing new green nanomaterials; eco-manufacturing processing of nanomaterials and products, using nanotechnology to benefit society, and examining possible harmful effects of nanotechnology.

The conference will also foster new collaborations between academic and industrial participants. This community of users, researchers and developers of engineered nanomaterials will provide a long-term, scientific assessment of where the science is for sustainable nano, where it should be heading, and what steps academics, government agencies and others can take now to reach targeted goals. In addition, the conference will serve as the platform to initiate the formation of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO), a non-profit, international professional society dedicated to advancing sustainable nanotechnology through education, research, and promotion of responsible development of nanotechnology.

Finally because I can resist no longer, especially so near to Hallowe’en, I guess you could call the ‘renewed’ CPI, a zombie CPI as it’s back from the dead and it needs brains,

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Nonfood to food: transforming cellulose

With concerns about having enough food to feed everyone, the news that researchers from Virginia Tech have found a way to transform cellulose into starch is encouraging. From the Apr. 17, 2013 news item on Azonano,

A team of Virginia Tech researchers has succeeded in transforming cellulose into starch, a process that has the potential to provide a previously untapped nutrient source from plants not traditionally thought of as food crops.

Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, led a team of researchers in the project that could help feed a growing global population that is estimated to swell to 9 billion by 2050. Starch is one of the most important components of the human diet and provides 20-40 percent of our daily caloric intake.

The Apr. 15, 2013 Virginia Tech news release, which originated the news item, describes cellulose and some of the other benefits to be had from transforming it into starch,

Cellulose is the supporting material in plant cell walls and is the most common carbohydrate on earth. This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant, reducing the need for crops to be grown on valuable land that requires fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water. The type of starch that Zhang’s team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber. It has been proven to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes.

This discovery holds promise on many fronts beyond food systems.

“Besides serving as a food source, the starch can be used in the manufacture of edible, clear films for biodegradable food packaging,” Zhang said.  “It can even serve as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier that could solve problems related to hydrogen storage and distribution.”

The news release goes on to provide details about the new process,

“Cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula,” Zhang said. “The difference is in their chemical linkages. Our idea is to use an enzyme cascade to break up the bonds in cellulose, enabling their reconfiguration as starch.”

The new approach takes cellulose from non-food plant material, such as corn stover, converts about 30 percent to amylose, and hydrolyzes the remainder to glucose suitable for ethanol production. Corn stover consists of the stem, leaves, and husk of the corn plant remaining after ears of corn are harvested. However, the process works with cellulose from any plant.

This bioprocess called “simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation” is easy to scale up for commercial production. It is environmentally friendly because it does not require expensive equipment, heat, or chemical reagents, and does not generate any waste. The key enzymes immobilized on the magnetic nanoparticles can easily be recycled using a magnetic force.

Zhang designed the experiments and conceived the cellulose-to-starch concept. Zhang and Virginia Tech visiting scholar Hongge Chen are the inventors of the cellulose-to-starch biotransformation, which is covered under a provisional patent application. [emphasis mine] Chun You, a postdoctoral researcher from China at Virginia Tech, and Chen conducted most of the research work.

I think we’re still a long way from being able to munch on corn stalks instead of corn. Also, it’s with some interest I note the researchers’ patent application. Exactly what are they trying to patent?

It takes more than research to change energy sources and use

Much of the talk about reducing or eliminating dependency on fossil fuels is focused on research to accomplish these goals or policies to support and promote new patterns of energy use as opposed to the details needed to implement a change in the infrastructures. For example, one frequently sees news about various energy research efforts such as this one at the University of Texas at Dallas featured in a Feb. 14, 2013 news item on Azonano,

University of Texas at Dallas researchers and their colleagues at other institutions are investigating ways to harvest energy from such diverse sources as mechanical vibrations, wasted heat, radio waves, light and even movements of the human body.

The goal is to develop ways to convert this unused energy into a form that can self-power the next generation of electronics, eliminating or reducing the need for bulky, limited-life batteries.

Beyond the more familiar wind and solar power, energy harvesting has a wide range of potential applications. These include: powering wireless sensor networks placed in “intelligent” buildings, or in hard-to-reach or dangerous areas; monitoring the structural health of aircraft; and biomedical implants that might transmit health data to your doctor or treat a chronic condition.

The Feb. 14, 2013 University of Texas at Dallas news release, which originated the news item, describes a recent energy research event and highlights some of the work being performed by the Center for Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems (CEHMS) consortium (Note: A link has been removed),

At a recent scientific conference held at UT Dallas, experts from academia, industry and government labs gathered to share their latest research on energy harvesting. Energy Summit 2013 focused on research initiatives at UT Dallas, Virginia Tech and Leibniz University in Germany, which form a consortium called the Center for Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems (CEHMS).

Founded in 2010, CEHMS is an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center funded in part by the National Science Foundation. It includes not only academic institutions, but also corporate members who collaborate on research projects and also provide funding for the center.  Roger Nessen, manager of sales and marketing at Exelis Inc. is chairman of the CEHMS advisory board.

Here are some examples of the research,

For example, Dr. Mario Rotea, the Erik Jonsson Chair and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UT Dallas, discussed some of his work aimed at advancing the development of wind energy systems. He represents UT Dallas in a proposed new consortium of universities and companies called WindSTAR that would collaborate with CEHMS on wind energy science and technology issues.

On the chemistry front, Smith’s [Dennis Smith, co-director of CEHMS and the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at UT Dallas] synthetic chemistry lab is working with advanced materials that use piezoelectrics. If a piezoelectric material is deformed by a mechanical stress – such as stepping on it or subjecting it to vibrations – it produces an electric current. Smith’s lab is investigating whether the addition of nanoparticles to certain piezoelectric materials can boost this so-called piezoelectric effect.

CEHMS co-director Dr. Shashank Priya, professor of mechanical engineering and the James and Elizabeth Turner Fellow of Engineering at Virginia Tech, collaborates with Smith on piezoelectric research. Among many projects, researchers at Virginia Tech are incorporating piezoelectrics into “smart” tiles that produce electricity when stepped upon, as well as into materials that might be applied like wallpaper to gather light and vibrational energy from walls.

Other university and industry projects include:

  • Investigating how to redesign systems to require less power.
  • An intelligent tire system that harvests energy from the vibrations in a rotating tire, powering embedded sensors that gather and report data on tire pressure, tire conditions and road conditions.
  • A new class of magnetoelectric materials that can simultaneously convert magnetic fields and vibrations into energy.
  • A textile-type material that converts wasted thermal energy into electricity, which could be wrapped around hot pipes or auto exhaust pipes to generate power.
  • Flexible solar cells that could be integrated into textiles, and worn by hikers or soldiers to power portable electronic devices far away from an electric socket.

It’s exciting to talk about research, startups, and policies but at some point one needs to develop an infrastructure to support these efforts as Kyle Vanhemert points out (in an elliptical fashion) in his Feb.14, 2013 article, A Deeply Thought-Out Plan for EV [electric vehicle] Charging Stations, on the Fast Company website,

Currently, the best estimates suggest that upwards of 80% of electric vehicle charging happens at home. … If we want to see wider adoption of EVs, however, one thing is obvious: We need to make it possible for drivers to charge in places other than their garage. It’s a more complex problem than it might seem, but a series of reports by the New York-based architecture and design studio WXY will at least give urban planners and prospective charging station entrepreneurs a place to start.

The studies, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, address a major obstacle standing in the way of more ubiquitous charging–namely, that no one knows exactly what ubiquitous charging looks like. And in fairness, that’s because it doesn’t look like any one thing.  …

The WXY design studio has developed guidelines for these hypothetical EV charging stations,

The study identifies 22 design elements in all, divided into three categories: installation, access, and operation. The first looks at the infrastructural nuts and bolts of the site, including factors like physical dimensions of the station and its proximity to the power grid. Access deals with the factors that shape the basic user experience, things like proximity to traffic and building entrances, lighting, and signage. …

Vanhemert’s article includes some design diagrams, more details about these charging stations, and links to the design studio’s report and other reports that have been commissioned for the US Northeast Electric Vehicle Network.

Thank you to Kyle Vanhemert for a thought-provoking article, which raises questions about what kinds of changes will need to be made to infrastructure and everyday gadgets as we transition to new energy sources.

It really is a nanoscale window into the biological world

The researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTC Research Institute) have sandwiched together a couple of chips, each with a hole (window) in the middle giving themselves a peek into biological processes as they occur, they hope. Here’s a more technical explanation from the Dec. 20, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Investigators at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have invented a way to directly image biological structures at their most fundamental level and in their natural habitats. The technique is a major advancement toward the ultimate goal of imaging biological processes in action at the atomic level.

The technique involves taking two silicon-nitride microchips with windows etched in their centers and pressing them together until only a 150-nanometer space between them remains. The researchers then fill this pocket with a liquid resembling the natural environment of the biological structure to be imaged, creating a microfluidic chamber.

Then, because free-floating structures yield images with poor resolution, the researchers coat the microchip’s interior surface with a layer of natural biological tethers, such as antibodies, which naturally grab onto a virus and hold it in place.

The lead researcher describes the difference between the usual imaging techniques and their newly developed technique (from the EurekAlert news release),

“It’s sort of like the difference between seeing Han Solo frozen in carbonite and watching him walk around blasting stormtroopers,” said Deborah Kelly, an assistant professor at the VTC Research Institute and a lead author on the paper describing the first successful test of the new technique. “Seeing viruses, for example, in action in their natural environment is invaluable.”

Ken Kingery’s Dec. ??, 2012 Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute article, which originated the news release, describes the specific virus the researchers used the ‘window’ to spy on,

Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea among infants and children. By the age of five, nearly every child in the world has been infected at least once. And although the disease tends to be easily managed in the developed world, in developing countries rotavirus kills more than 450,000 children a year.

At the second step in the pathogen’s life cycle, rotavirus sheds its outer layer, which allows it to enter a cell, and becomes what is called a double-layered particle. Once its second layer is exposed, the virus is ready to begin using the cell’s own infrastructure to produce more viruses. It was the viral structure at this stage that the researchers imaged in the new study.

Kelly and McDonald [Sarah McDonald, an assistant professor at the VTC Research Institute] coated the interior window of the microchip with antibodies to the virus. The antibodies, in turn, latched onto the rotaviruses that were injected into the microfluidic chamber and held them in place. The researchers then used a transmission electron microscope to image the prepared slide.

The technique worked perfectly.

The experiment gave results that resembled those achieved using traditional freezing methods to prepare rotavirus for electron microscopy, proving that the new technique can deliver accurate results. “It’s the first time scientists have imaged anything on this scale in liquid,” said Kelly.

There’s more to work to be done of course as the researchers refine the technique and try to ‘spy’ on more of the processes. In the meantime, the paper about this latest imaging research will be published in print in 2013 or it can be viewed online now (this is a open access article in a journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry [RSC], you will need to sign up but this too is free),

Visualizing viral assemblies in a nanoscale biosphere
Brian L. Gilmore ,  Shannon P. Showalter ,  Madeline J. Dukes ,  Justin R. Tanner ,  Andrew C. Demmert ,  Sarah M. McDonald and Deborah F. Kelly

Lab Chip, 2013,13, 216-219

DOI: 10.1039/C2LC41008G Received 15 Jun 2012, Accepted 13 Nov 2012 First published on the web 19 Nov 201