Glass-like wood windows protect against UV rays and insulate heat

Engineers at the University of Maryland designed a transparent ceiling made of wood that highlights the natural woodgrain pattern. Credit: A. James Clark School of Engineering, University of Maryland [downloaded from https://phys.org/news/2020-08-glass-like-wood-insulates-tough-blocks.html]

An August 7, 2020 news item by Martha Hell on phys.org announces the latest research (links to previous posts about this research at the end of this post) on ‘transparent’ wood from the University of Maryland,

Need light but want privacy? A new type of wood that’s transparent, tough, and beautiful could be the solution. This nature-inspired building material allows light to come through (at about 80%) to fill the room but the material itself is naturally hazy (93%), preventing others from seeing inside.

An August 16, 2020 University of Maryland news release (also on EurekAlert) describes the work in more detail,

Engineers at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland (UMD) demonstrate in a new study that windows made of transparent wood could provide more even and consistent natural lighting and better energy efficiency than glass

In a paper just published [July 31, 20202] in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Energy Materials [this seems to be an incorrectly cited journal; I believe it should be Nature Communications as indicated in the phys.org news item], the team, headed by Liangbing Hu of UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Center lay out research showing that their transparent wood provides better thermal insulation and lets in nearly as much light as glass, while eliminating glare and providing uniform and consistent indoor lighting. The findings advance earlier published work on their development of transparent wood.

The transparent wood lets through just a little bit less light than glass, but a lot less heat, said Tian Li, the lead author of the new study. “It is very transparent, but still allows for a little bit of privacy because it is not completely see-through. We also learned that the channels in the wood transmit light with wavelengths around the range of the wavelengths of visible light, but that it blocks the wavelengths that carry mostly heat,” said Li.

The team’s findings were derived, in part, from tests on tiny model house with a transparent wood panel in the ceiling that the team built. The tests showed that the light was more evenly distributed around a space with a transparent wood roof than a glass roof.

The channels in the wood direct visible light straight through the material, but the cell structure that still remains bounces the light around just a little bit, a property called haze. This means the light does not shine directly into your eyes, making it more comfortable to look at. The team photographed the transparent wood’s cell structure in the University of Maryland’s Advanced Imaging and Microscopy (AIM) Lab.

Transparent wood still has all the cell structures that comprised the original piece of wood. The wood is cut against the grain, so that the channels that drew water and nutrients up from the roots lie along the shortest dimension of the window. The new transparent wood uses theses natural channels in wood to guide the sunlight through the wood.

As the sun passes over a house with glass windows, the angle at which light shines through the glass changes as the sun moves. With windows or panels made of transparent wood instead of glass, as the sun moves across the sky, the channels in the wood direct the sunlight in the same way every time.

“This means your cat would not have to get up out of its nice patch of sunlight every few minutes and move over,” Li said. “The sunlight would stay in the same place. Also, the room would be more equally lighted at all times.”

Working with transparent wood is similar to working with natural wood, the researchers said. However, their transparent wood is waterproof due to its polymer component. It also is much less breakable than glass because the cell structure inside resists shattering.

The research team has recently patented their process for making transparent wood. The process starts with bleaching from the wood all of the lignin, which is a component in the wood that makes it both brown and strong. The wood is then soaked in epoxy, which adds strength back in and also makes the wood clearer. The team has used tiny squares of linden wood about 2 cm x 2 cm, but the wood can be any size, the researchers said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the July 31, 2020 paper,

Scalable aesthetic transparent wood for energy efficient buildings by Ruiyu Mi, Chaoji Chen, Tobias Keplinger, Yong Pei, Shuaiming He, Dapeng Liu, Jianguo Li, Jiaqi Dai, Emily Hitz, Bao Yang, Ingo Burgert & Liangbing Hu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3836 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17513-w Published 31 July 2020

This paper is open access.

There were two previous posts about this work at the University of Maryland,

University of Maryland looks into transparent wood May 11, 2016 posting

Transparent wood more efficient than glass in windows? Sept, 8, 2016 posting

I also have this posting, which is also from 2016 but features work in Sweden,

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes? April 1, 2016 posting

I seem to have stumbled across a number of transparent wood stories in 2016. Hmm I think I need to spend more time searching previous titles for my postings so I didn’t end up with too many that sound similar.

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 in the forest

It seems lignin is a bit of a problem. Its presence in a tree makes processing the wood into various products more difficult. (Of course, some people appreciate trees for other reasons both practical [carbon sequestration?] and/or aesthetic.)

In any event, scientists have been working on ways to reduce the amount of lignin in poplar trees since at least 2014 (see my April 7, 2014 posting titled ‘Good lignin, bad lignin: Florida researchers use plant waste to create lignin nanotubes while researchers in British Columbia develop trees with less lignin’; scroll down about 40% of the way for the ‘less lignin’ story).

(I don’t believe the 2014 research was accomplished with the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-Cas9 technique as it had only been developed in 2012.)

The latest in the quest to reduce the amount of lignin of poplar trees comes from a Belgian/US team, from an Oct. 6, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers led by prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent [Ghent University] Center for Plant Systems Biology) have discovered a way to stably finetune the amount of lignin in poplar by applying CRISPR/Cas9 technology. Lignin is one of the main structural substances in plants and it makes processing wood into, for example, paper difficult. This study is an important breakthrough in the development of wood resources for the production of paper with a lower carbon footprint, biofuels, and other bio-based materials. Their work, in collaboration with VIVES University College (Roeselare, Belgium) and University of Wisconsin (USA) appears in Nature Communications.

Picture Tailoring lignin and growth by creating CCR2 allelic variants (From left to right: wild type, CCR2(-/-), CCR2(-/*) line 206, CCR2(-/*) line 12) Courtesy: VIB (Flanders Institute of Biotechnology)

An Oct. 6, 2020 VIB (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie; Flanders Institute of Biotechnology) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the reason for this research and how CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology could help realize it,

Towards a bio-based economy

Today’s fossil-based economy results in a net increase of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and is a major cause of global climate change. To counter this, a shift towards a circular and bio-based economy is essential. Woody biomass can play a crucial role in such a bio-based economy by serving as a renewable and carbon-neutral resource for the production of many chemicals. Unfortunately, the presence of lignin hinders the processing of wood into bio-based products.

Prof. Wout Boerjan (VIB-UGent): “A few years ago, we performed a field trial with poplars that were engineered to make wood containing less lignin. Most plants showed large improvements in processing efficiency for many possible applications. The downside, however, was that the reduction in lignin accomplished with the technology we used then – RNA interference – was unstable and the trees grew less tall.”

New tools

Undeterred, the researchers went looking for a solution. They employed the recent CRISPR/Cas9 technology in poplar to lower the lignin amount in a stable way, without causing a biomass yield penalty. In other words, the trees grew just as well and as tall as those without genetic changes.

Dr. Barbara De Meester (VIB-UGent): “Poplar is a diploid species, meaning every gene is present in two copies. Using CRISPR/Cas9, we introduced specific changes in both copies of a gene that is crucial for the biosynthesis of lignin. We inactivated one copy of the gene, and only partially inactivated the other. The resulting poplar line had a stable 10% reduction in lignin amount while it grew normally in the greenhouse. Wood from the engineered trees had an up to 41% increase in processing efficiency”.

Dr. Ruben Vanholme (VIB-UGent): “The mutations that we have introduced through CRISPR/Cas9 are similar to those that spontaneously arise in nature. The advantage of the CRISPR/Cas9 method is that the beneficial mutations can be directly introduced into the DNA of highly productive tree varieties in only a fraction of the time it would take by a classical breeding strategy.”

The applications of this method are not only restricted to lignin but might also be useful to engineer other traits in crops, providing a versatile new breeding tool to improve agricultural productivity.

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

Tailoring poplar lignin without yield penalty by combining a null and haploinsufficient CINNAMOYL-CoA REDUCTASE2 allele by Barbara De Meester, Barbara Madariaga Calderón, Lisanne de Vries, Jacob Pollier, Geert Goeminne, Jan Van Doorsselaere, Mingjie Chen, John Ralph, Ruben Vanholme & Wout Boerjan. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 5020 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18822-w Published 06 October 2020

This paper is open access.

“Eat up your ceramic nanoparticles” says the European Space Agency

A Sept. 4, 2020 news item on phys.org showcases some intriguing research from the European Space Agency (ESA),

“Eat your vitamins” might be replaced with “ingest your ceramic nano-particles” in the future as space research is giving more weight to the idea that nanoscopic particles could help protect cells from common causes of damage.

A Sept, 4, 2020 ESA press release, which originated the news item, fills in some of the details and raises a question,

Oxidative stress occurs in our bodies when cells lose the natural balance of electrons in the molecules that we are made of. This is a common and constant occurrence that is part of our metabolism but also plays a role in the aging process and several pathological conditions, such as heart failure, muscle atrophy and Parkinson’s disease.

The best advice for keeping your body in balance and avoiding oxidative stress is still to have a healthy diet and eat enough vitamins, but nanoparticles are showing promising results in keeping cells in shape.

When in space, astronauts have been shown to suffer from more oxidative stress due to the extra radiation they receive and as a by-product of floating in weightlessness, so researchers in Italy were keen to see if nanoparticles would have the same protective effect on cells on the International Space Station as on Earth.

They prepared muscle cells that flew to the International Space Station and were cultured in ESA’s Kubik incubator before being frozen for storage.

A year ago [emphasis mine] our frozen samples splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on the Dragon spacecraft, and after comparing the samples we saw a marked effect in the cells treated with ceramic nanoparticles,” says Gianni Ciofani from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy. “The effect we observed seems to imply that nanoparticles work better and longer than traditional antioxidants such as vitamins.”

“The experiment setup resulted in excellent samples to analyze using state-of-the art RNA sequencing,” continues Gianni. “Conducting space research is nothing like traditional lab work, as we have less samples, we cannot do the work ourselves and we have to work around deadlines such as launch days, landing and storing the samples, it is challenging but thrilling research!” The team even found ways to improve and simplify the process for future studies.

Baby astronauts hypothesis

The research adds weight to the baby-astronaut hypothesis of weightlessness. The changes in muscle tissue observed are similar to how babies’ tissues develop in the womb.

“Some researchers see similarities to how human bodies adapt to living in space with pre-natal conditions: there are similarities with floating in a warm environment with different oxygen intake and we consider it a possibility of return to the state,” says Giada Genchi, also of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia’s Smart Bio-Interfaces department.

The team’s high-quality muscle tissue samples are being further analyzed and compared to samples from similar experiments that flew earlier. There is still much more to learn, such as what is the best way to administer nano-ceramics and how long do their protective effects last as well as possible unwanted side effects.

I highlighted a “A year ago” because that should mean 2019 but the research the ESA press release linked to was published in 2018. I cannot find anything more recent. So, for the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the 2018 research paper,

Modulation of gene expression in rat muscle cells following treatment with nanoceria in different gravity regimes by Giada Graziana Genchi, Andrea Degl’Innocenti, Alice Rita Salgarella, Ilaria Pezzini, Attilio Marino, Arianna Menciassi, Sara Piccirillo, Michele Balsamo & Gianni Ciofani. Nanomedicine Vol. 13, No. 22 Preliminary Communication DOI: https://doi.org/10.2217/nnm-2018-0316 Published Online: 18 Oct 2018 Print Version: 2018 Nov;13 (22): 2821-2833. DOI: 10.2217/nnm-2018-0316.

The paper is behind a paywall.

This image was used to illustrate the work,

Courtesy Nanomedicine (journal)

Regardless of when the research was published, it’s still pretty interesting work and I hope to hear more about it in the future.

Spinning gold out of nanocellulose

If you’re hoping for a Rumpelstiltskin reference (there is more about the fairy tale at the end of this posting) and despite the press release’s headline, you won’t find it in this August 10, 2020 news item on Nanowerk,

When nanocellulose is combined with various types of metal nanoparticles, materials are formed with many new and exciting properties. They may be antibacterial, change colour under pressure, or convert light to heat.

“To put it simply, we make gold from nanocellulose”, says Daniel Aili, associate professor in the Division of Biophysics and Bioengineering at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at Linköping University.

The research group, led by Daniel Aili, has used a biosynthetic nanocellulose produced by bacteria and originally developed for wound care. The scientists have subsequently decorated the cellulose with metal nanoparticles, principally silver and gold. The particles, no larger than a few billionths of a metre, are first tailored to give them the properties desired, and then combined with the nanocellulose.

An August 10, 2020 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,expands on a few details about the work (sob … without mentioning Rumpelstiltskin),

“Nanocellulose consists of thin threads of cellulose, with a diameter approximately one thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. The threads act as a three-dimensional scaffold for the metal particles. When the particles attach themselves to the cellulose, a material that consists of a network of particles and cellulose forms”, Daniel Aili explains.

The researchers can determine with high precision how many particles will attach, and their identities. They can also mix particles of different metals and with different shapes – spherical, elliptical and triangular.

In the first part of a scientific article published in Advanced Functional Materials, the group describes the process and explains why it works as it does. The second part focusses on several areas of application.

One exciting phenomenon is the way in which the properties of the material change when pressure is applied. Optical phenomena arise when the particles approach each other and interact, and the material changes colour. As the pressure increases, the material eventually appears to be gold.

“We saw that the material changed colour when we picked it up in tweezers, and at first we couldn’t understand why”, says Daniel Aili.

The scientists have named the phenomenon “the mechanoplasmonic effect”, and it has turned out to be very useful. A closely related application is in sensors, since it is possible to read the sensor with the naked eye. An example: If a protein sticks to the material, it no longer changes colour when placed under pressure. If the protein is a marker for a particular disease, the failure to change colour can be used in diagnosis. If the material changes colour, the marker protein is not present.

Another interesting phenomenon is displayed by a variant of the material that absorbs light from a much broader spectrum visible light and generates heat. This property can be used for both energy-based applications and in medicine.

“Our method makes it possible to manufacture composites of nanocellulose and metal nanoparticles that are soft and biocompatible materials for optical, catalytic, electrical and biomedical applications. Since the material is self-assembling, we can produce complex materials with completely new well-defined properties,” Daniel Aili concludes.

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

Self‐Assembly of Mechanoplasmonic Bacterial Cellulose–Metal Nanoparticle Composites by Olof Eskilson, Stefan B. Lindström, Borja Sepulveda, Mohammad M. Shahjamali, Pau Güell‐Grau, Petter Sivlér, Mårten Skog, Christopher Aronsson, Emma M. Björk, Niklas Nyberg, Hazem Khalaf, Torbjörn Bengtsson, Jeemol James, Marica B. Ericson, Erik Martinsson, Robert Selegård, Daniel Aili. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202004766 First published: 09 August 2020

This paper is open access.

As for Rumpelstiltskin, there’s this abut the story’s origins and its cross-cultural occurrence, from its Wikipedia entry,

“Rumpelstiltskin” (/ˌrʌmpəlˈstɪltskɪn/ RUMP-əl-STILT-skin[1]) is a fairy tale popularly associated with Germany (where it is known as Rumpelstilzchen). The tale was one collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 1812 edition of Children’s and Household Tales. According to researchers at Durham University and the NOVA University Lisbon, the story originated around 4,000 years ago.[2][3] However, many biases led some to take the results of this study with caution.[4]

The same story pattern appears in numerous other cultures: Tom Tit Tot in England (from English Fairy Tales, 1890, by Joseph Jacobs); The Lazy Beauty and her Aunts in Ireland (from The Fireside Stories of Ireland, 1870 by Patrick Kennedy); Whuppity Stoorie in Scotland (from Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1826); Gilitrutt in Iceland; جعيدان (Joaidane “He who talks too much”) in Arabic; Хламушка (Khlamushka “Junker”) in Russia; Rumplcimprcampr, Rampelník or Martin Zvonek in the Czech Republic; Martinko Klingáč in Slovakia; “Cvilidreta” in Croatia; Ruidoquedito (“Little noise”) in South America; Pancimanci in Hungary (from A Csodafurulya, 1955, by Emil Kolozsvári Grandpierre, based on the 19th century folktale collection by László Arany); Daiku to Oniroku (大工と鬼六 “A carpenter and the ogre”) in Japan and Myrmidon in France.

An earlier literary variant in French was penned by Mme. L’Héritier, titled Ricdin-Ricdon.[5] A version of it exists in the compilation Le Cabinet des Fées, Vol. XII. pp. 125-131.

The Cornish tale of Duffy and the Devil plays out an essentially similar plot featuring a “devil” named Terry-top.

All these tales are Aarne–Thompson type 500, “The Name of the Helper”.[6]

Should you be curious about the story as told by the Brothers Grimm, here’s the beginning to get you started (from the grimmstories.com Rumpelstiltskin webpage),

There was once a miller who was poor, but he had one beautiful daughter. It happened one day that he came to speak with the king, and, to give himself consequence, he told him that he had a daughter who could spin gold out of straw. The king said to the miller: “That is an art that pleases me well; if thy daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to my castle to-morrow, that I may put her to the proof.”

When the girl was brought to him, he led her into a room that was quite full of straw, and gave her a wheel and spindle, and said: “Now set to work, and if by the early morning thou hast not spun this straw to gold thou shalt die.” And he shut the door himself, and left her there alone. And so the poor miller’s daughter was left there sitting, and could not think what to do for her life: she had no notion how to set to work to spin gold from straw, and her distress grew so great that she began to weep. Then all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, who said: “Good evening, miller’s daughter; why are you crying?”

Enjoy! BTW, should you care to, you can find three other postings here tagged with ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. I think turning dross into gold is a popular theme in applied science.

Apply for faculty positions or entry to master’s programme at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

I think the title for this post says it all.

Faculty positions

From an Oct. 13, 2020 Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) announcement (received via email),

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is inviting applications for tenure-track Faculty positions in Quantum Matter and Quantum Information Science. For more information please visit our website.

We would be very grateful if you would circulate this information to outstanding early career candidates who may be interested in this opportunity.

Perimeter Institute offers a dynamic, multi-disciplinary environment with maximum research freedom and opportunity to collaborate. Consideration of applications will begin on December 1, 2020; however, applications will be considered until the positions are filled.

Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) master’s programme

From an Oct. 13, 2020 Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) announcement (received via email),

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is now accepting applications for the 2021/2022 Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) program. 

PSI is a master’s-level course in theoretical physics designed to bring highly qualified and exceptionally motivated graduate students to the cutting edge of the field in an inclusive training environment. 

This unique Master’s program, in partnership with the University of Waterloo, seeks not only students with stellar undergraduate physics and/or mathematics track records, but also those with diverse backgrounds, collaborative spirit, creativity, and other attributes that will set them apart as future innovators. 

Program features

– Removal of financial barriers: Most students who receive and accept offers of admission to PSI will receive a full scholarship. Perimeter Institute also helps with travel arrangements and any immigration arrangements necessary. 

– Students learn from many of the leading minds in theoretical physics while earning a Master’s degree from the University of Waterloo 

– Collaboration is valued over competition; deep understanding and creativity are valued over rote learning and examination 

– PSI recruits worldwide: 85 percent of students come from outside of Canada

– PSI seeks extraordinary talent who may have non-traditional academic backgrounds, but have demonstrated exceptional scientific aptitude 

Early application deadline: November 15, 2020. 
Final application deadline: February 1, 2021. 

Good luck!

Belated posting for Ada Lovelace Day (it was on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020)

For anyone who doesn’t know who Ada Lovelace was (from my Oct. 13, 2015 posting, ‘Ada Lovelace “… manipulative, aggressive, a drug addict …” and a genius but was she likable?‘)

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and mathematician Annabella Milbanke.

Her [Ada Lovelace’s] foresight was so extraordinary that it would take another hundred years and Alan Turing to recognise the significance of her work. But it was an achievement that was probably as much a product of her artistic heritage as her scientific training.

You can take the title of that October 13, 2015 post as a hint that I was using ‘Ada Lovelace “… manipulative, aggressive, a drug addict …” and a genius but was she likable?‘ to comment on the requirement that women be likable in a way that men never have to consider.

Hard to believe that 2015 was the last time I stumbled across information about the day. ’nuff said. This year I was lucky enough to see this Oct. 13, 2020 article by Zoe Kleinman for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online,

From caravans [campers] to kitchen tables, and podcast production to pregnancy, I’ve been speaking to many women in and around the technology sector about how they have adapted to the challenges of working during the coronavirus pandemic.

Research suggests women across the world have shouldered more family and household responsibilities than men as the coronavirus pandemic continues, alongside their working lives.

And they share their inspirations, frustrations but also their optimism.

“I have a new business and a new life,” says Clare Muscutt, who lost work, her relationship and her flatmate as lockdown hit.

This Tuesday [Oct. 13, 2020] is Ada Lovelace Day – an annual celebration of women working in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) sectors.

And, this year, it has a very different vibe.

Claire Broadley, technical writer, Leeds

Before lockdown, my husband and I ran our own company, producing user guides and written content for websites.

Business income dropped by about two-thirds during lockdown.

We weren’t eligible for any government grants. And because we still had a small amount of work, we couldn’t furlough ourselves.

It felt like we were slowly marching our family towards a cliff edge.

In May [2020], to my astonishment and relief, I was offered my dream job, remote writing about the internet and technology.

Working from home with the children has been the most difficult thing we’ve ever done.

My son is seven. He is very scared.

Sometimes, we can’t spend the time with him that we would like to. And most screen-time rules have gone completely out of the window.

The real issue for us now is testing.

My young daughter caught Covid in July [2020]. And she recently had a temperature again. But it took six days to get a test result, so my son was off school again. And my husband was working until midnight to fit everything in.

There are many other stories in Kleinman’s Oct. 13, 2020 article.

Nancy Doyle’s October 13, 2020 article for Forbes tends to an expected narrative about women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),

“21st century science has a problem. It is short of scientists. Technological innovations mean that the world needs many more specialists in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects than it is currently training. And this problem is compounded by the fact that women, despite clear evidence of aptitude and ability for science subjects, are not choosing to study STEM subjects, are not being recruited into the STEM workforce, are not staying in the STEM workplace.”

Why Don’t Women Do Science?

Professor Rippon [Gina Rippon, Professor of Neuroscience at Aston University in the UK] walked me through the main “neurotrash” arguments about the female brain and its feebleness.

“There is a long and fairly well-rehearsed ‘blame the brain’ story, with essentialist or biology-is-destiny type arguments historically asserting that women’s brains were basically inferior (thanks, Gustave le Bon and Charles Darwin!) or too vulnerable to withstand the rigours of higher education. A newer spin on this is that female brains do not endow their owners with the appropriate cognitive skills for science. Specifically, they are poor at the kind of spatial thinking that is core to success in science or, more generally, are not ‘hard-wired’ for the necessary understanding of systems fundamental to the theory and practice of science.

The former ‘spatial deficit’ description has been widely touted as one of the most robust of sex differences, quite possibly present from birth. But updated and more nuanced research has not been able to uphold this claim; spatial ability appears to be more a function of spatial experience (think toys, videogames, hobbies, sports, occupations) than sex. And it is very clearly trainable (in both sexes), resulting in clearly measurable brain changes as well as improvements in skill.”

You can find out more about women in STEM, Ada Lovelace, and events (year round) to celebrate her at the Ada Lovelace Day website.

Plus, I found this on Twitter about a new series of films about women in science from a Science Friday (a US National Public Radio podcast) tweet,

Science Friday @scifri

Celebrate #WomenInScience with a brand new season of #BreakthroughFilms, dropping today [October 14, 2020]! Discover the innovative research & deeply personal stories of six women working at the forefront of their STEM fields.

Get inspired at BreakthroughFilms.org

Here’s the Breakthrough Films trailer,

Enjoy!

If you want ‘shredded pecs’, train like a burrowing frog

Caption: Forward burrowers use pointed snouts and powerful forelimbs bolstered by strong pectoral muscles to scrabble into the earth. They’re often orb-shaped to improve their ability to hold water. Credit: Rachel Keeffe

It’s always enjoyable to see the scientific community indulge in a little fun and I’m using that as an excuse for including a frog story here.

From an August 31, 2020 Florida Museum of Natural History news release (also on EurekAlert but published on Sept. 1, 2020) by Halle Marchese announces some research into a little known frog,

You might think the buffest frogs would be high jumpers, but if you want shredded pecs, you should train like a burrowing frog. Though famously round, these diggers are the unsung bodybuilders of the frog world. We bring you tips from frog expert Rachel Keeffe, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, and physical therapist Penny Goldberg to help you get the burrowing body of your dreams.

But first, a caveat: According to Keeffe, no workout regimen can help you train your way into a highly specialized frog physique honed by 200 million years of evolution. To better understand burrowing frog anatomy, Keeffe and her adviser David Blackburn, Florida Museum of Natural History curator of herpetology, analyzed CT scans from all 54 frog families to show these frogs boast a robust and quirky skeleton that is more variable than previously thought.

“People think about frogs as being clean and smooth and slimy, or the classic ‘green frog on a lily pad,’ but a lot of them are dirty – they like to scoot around and be in the dirt,” Keeffe said. “Burrowing frogs are really diverse and can do a lot of cool things. And when you look at the skeletons of known burrowers, they’re very different from what you would call a ‘normal frog.'”

Burrowing frogs are found all over the world from deserts to swamps, but their underground lifestyle makes them difficult to study, Keeffe said. Most tunnel hind end-first with their back legs. But a few species are forward burrowers, using pointed snouts and powerful forelimbs bolstered by strong pectoral muscles to scrabble into the earth.

Keeffe’s sample of 89 frog species revealed radical differences in burrowing bone structure, from clavicles the size of eyelashes to other bones that are unusually thick.

“They’re so diverse that it’s challenging to think about even comparing them. It’s almost a black hole of work that we can do with forward burrowers because we tend to focus on the legs,” she said.

Some burrow to seek refuge, whether from arid temperatures or predators, and underground habitats can be hunting grounds or secluded hiding places. Other burrowing frogs can spend months at a time as deep as 3 feet belowground, surviving on a high-protein diet of termites and ants. The takeaway: If you want to compete for resources with the pros, don’t be afraid to put in the work.

Get the burly burrowing body

To train like a burrowing frog, Goldberg, assistant director of ReQuest Physical Therapy in Gainesville, recommended dedicating time to strengthening your upper back.

“In humans, the most important muscle group to focus on if you were to train like one of these frogs would be the scapular stabilizers,” she said. “These include 17 muscles, such as the lats and rotator cuff, with attachments all the way down to the pelvis that allow the upper back to generate power. To burrow like a forward burrower, you need to strengthen this entire region.”

One strengthening move Goldberg recommended is the “Prone W.” Lie facedown with elbows bent and palms on the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and toward your spine as you lift your arms to the ceiling for a couple seconds at a time.

Like any elite athlete, burrowing frogs also maintain an optimal form. They’re often orb-shaped to improve their ability to hold water.

“Personally, if I were a sphere, I think it would be hard for me to dig, but it doesn’t seem to affect these frogs at all,” Keeffe said. “However, frogs with stumpy legs are definitely worse at jumping, and they tend to stagger when they walk.”

For these frogs, time away from the tunnels might be spent swimming instead, Keeffe said. To compete here, Goldberg recommends the breaststroke, adding that her top training tips for getting the upper back and pecs of a forward burrower would include pullups and pushups to develop the shoulder blade area.

“In my world, we would use resistance bands and pushing or pulling motions to train this area,” Goldberg said. “Anything focusing predominantly on building strength in the upper back region.”

If resistance bands are part of your workout routine, try grasping one with both hands and extending your arms while keeping your elbows straight. For best results, Goldberg recommended starting with three sets of 10.

Burrowing frogs might also hold key answers to gaps in scientists’ understanding of amphibian evolution at large. Keeffe’s analysis also found that forward-burrowing behavior evolved independently at least eight times in about one-fifth of frog families, and the trait’s persistence in the frog family tree suggests it’s a beneficial adaptation. Keeffe also found that forward burrowers tended to have a highly contoured humerus, the bone that connects the shoulder to the elbow in humans.

Understanding how bone shape relates to musculature can help scientists identify which frogs, both modern and extinct, are forward burrowers, a helpful tool given their covert behavior.

“Even though it can be frustrating, I like them because they’re secretive,” Keeffe said. “But the whole thing underlying this study is that frogs can do a lot of cool things – they don’t just jump and they’re not just green.”

CT scans were generated from the National Science Foundation-funded oVert project.

Do take a look at the August 31, 2020 Florida Museum of Natural History news release as the researchers have provided pictures of real ‘forward burrowing frogs’ along with more cartoons and other other images that have been embedded in Marchese’s release.

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

Comparative morphology of the humerus in forward-burrowing frogs by Rachel Keeffe, David C Blackburn. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, blaa092, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blaa092 Published: 28 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Congratulations to winners of 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry: Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier & Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna (CRISPR-cas9)

It’s possible there’s a more dramatic development in the field of contemporary gene-editing but it’s indisputable that CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) -cas9 (CRISPR-associated 9 [protein]) ranks very highly indeed.

The technique, first discovered (or developed) in 2012, has brought recognition in the form of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to CRISPR’s two discoverers, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.

An October 7, 2020 news item on phys.org announces the news,

The Nobel Prize in chemistry went to two researchers Wednesday [October 7, 2020] for a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA, the code of life—technology already being used to try to cure a host of diseases and raise better crops and livestock.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States won for developing CRISPR-cas9, a very simple technique for cutting a gene at a specific spot, allowing scientists to operate on flaws that are the root cause of many diseases.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

More than 100 clinical trials are underway to study using CRISPR to treat diseases, and “many are very promising,” according to Victor Dzau, president of the [US] National Academy of Medicine.

“My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” said Doudna, who is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and is paid by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports The Associated Press’ Health and Science Department.

The prize-winning work has opened the door to some thorny ethical issues: When editing is done after birth, the alterations are confined to that person. Scientists fear CRISPR will be misused to make “designer babies” by altering eggs, embryos or sperm—changes that can be passed on to future generations.

Unusually for phys.org, this October 7, 2020 news item is not a simple press/news release reproduced in its entirety but a good overview of the researchers’ accomplishments and a discussion of some of the issues associated with CRISPR along with the press release at the end.

I have covered some CRISPR issues here including intellectual property (see my March 15, 2017 posting titled, “CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now‘) and designer babies (as exemplified by the situation with Dr. He Jiankui; see my July 28, 2020 post titled, “July 2020 update on Dr. He Jiankui (the CRISPR twins) situation” for more details about it).

An October 7, 2020 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company provides a business perspective (Note: A link has been removed),

Needless to say, research by the two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today has the potential to change the course of humanity. And with that potential comes lots of VC money and companies vying for patents on techniques and therapies derived from Charpentier’s and Doudna’s research.

One such company is Doudna’s Editas Medicine [according to my search, the only company associated with Doudna is Mammoth Biosciences, which she co-founded], while others include Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Therapeutics, and Casebia Therapeutics. Given the world-changing applications—and the amount of revenue such CRISPR therapies could bring in—it’s no wonder that such rivalry is often heated (and in some cases has led to lawsuits over the technology and its patents).

As Doudna explained in her book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, cowritten by Samuel H. Sternberg …, “… —but we could also have woolly mammoths, winged lizards, and unicorns.” And as for that last part, she made clear, “No, I am not kidding.”

Everybody makes mistakes and the reference to Editas Medicine is the only error I spotted. You can find out more about Mammoth Biosciences here and while Dr. Doudna’s comment, “My greatest hope is that it’s used for good, to uncover new mysteries in biology and to benefit humankind,” is laudable it would seem she wishes to profit from the discovery. Mammoth Biosciences is a for-profit company as can be seen at the end of the Mammoth Biosciences’ October 7, 2020 congratulatory news release,

About Mammoth Biosciences

Mammoth Biosciences is harnessing the diversity of nature to power the next-generation of CRISPR products. Through the discovery and development of novel CRISPR systems, the company is enabling the full potential of its platform to read and write the code of life. By leveraging its internal research and development and exclusive licensing to patents related to Cas12, Cas13, Cas14 and Casɸ, Mammoth Biosciences can provide enhanced diagnostics and genome editing for life science research, healthcare, agriculture, biodefense and more. Based in San Francisco, Mammoth Biosciences is co-founded by CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna and Trevor Martin, Janice Chen, and Lucas Harrington. The firm is backed by top institutional investors [emphasis mine] including Decheng, Mayfield, NFX, and 8VC, and leading individual investors including Brook Byers, Tim Cook, and Jeff Huber.

An October 7, 2029 Nobel Prize press release, which unleashed all this interest in Doudna and Charpentier, notes this,

Prize amount: 10 million Swedish kronor, to be shared equally between the Laureates.

In Canadian money that amount is $1,492,115.03 (as of Oct. 9, 2020 12:40 PDT when I checked a currency converter).

Ordinarily there’d be a mildly caustic comment from me about business opportunities and medical research but this is a time for congratulations to both Dr. Emanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna.

Spray-on coatings for cheaper smart windows

An August 6, 2020 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 5, 2020) by Gosia Kaszubska announces a coating that makes windows ‘smart’,

A simple method for making clear coatings that can block heat and conduct electricity could radically cut the cost of energy-saving smart windows and heat-repelling glass [electrochromic windows?].

The spray-on coatings developed by researchers at RMIT are ultra-thin, cost-effective and rival the performance of current industry standards for transparent electrodes.

Combining the best properties of glass and metals in a single component, a transparent electrode is a highly conductive clear coating that allows visible light through.

The coatings – key components of technologies including smart windows, touchscreen displays, LED lighting and solar panels – are currently made through time-consuming processes that rely on expensive raw materials.

The new spray-on method is fast, scalable and based on cheaper materials that are readily available.

The method could simplify the fabrication of smart windows, which can be both energy-saving and dimmable, as well as low-emissivity glass, where a conventional glass panel is coated with a special layer to minimise ultraviolet and infrared light.

Lead investigator Dr Enrico Della Gaspera said the pioneering approach could be used to substantially bring down the cost of energy-saving windows and potentially make them a standard part of new builds and retrofits.

“Smart windows and low-E glass can help regulate temperatures inside a building, delivering major environmental benefits and financial savings, but they remain expensive and challenging to manufacture,” said Della Gaspera, a senior lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT.

“We’re keen to collaborate with industry to further develop this innovative type of coating.

“The ultimate aim is to make smart windows much more widely accessible, cutting energy costs and reducing the carbon footprint of new and retrofitted buildings.”

The new method can also be precisely optimised to produce coatings tailored to the transparency and conductivity requirements of the many different applications of transparent electrodes.

Global demand for smart glazing

The global market size for smart glass and smart windows is expected to reach $6.9 billion by 2022, while the global low-E glass market is set to reach an estimated $39.4 billion by 2024.

New York’s Empire State Building reported energy savings of $US2.4 million and cut carbon emissions by 4,000 metric tonnes after installing smart glass windows.

Eureka Tower in Melbourne features a dramatic use of smart glass in its “Edge” tourist attraction, a glass cube that projects 3m out of the building and suspends visitors 300m over the city. The glass is opaque as the cube moves out over the edge of the building and becomes clear once fully extended.

First author Jaewon Kim, a PhD researcher in Applied Chemistry at RMIT,  said the next steps in the research were developing precursors that will decompose at lower temperatures, allowing the coatings to be deposited on plastics and used in flexible electronics, as well as producing larger prototypes by scaling up the deposition.

“The spray coater we use can be automatically controlled and programmed, so fabricating bigger proof-of-concept panels will be relatively simple,” he said.

Caption: The ultra-thin clear coatings are made with a new spray-on method that is fast, cost-effective and scalable. Credit: RMIT University

That is an impressive level of transparency. As per usual, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (should you wish to explore further),

Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis of Antimony‐Doped Tin Oxide Transparent Conductive Coatings by Jaewon Kim, Billy J. Murdoch, James G. Partridge, Kaijian Xing, Dong‐Chen Qi, Josh Lipton‐Duffin, Christopher F. McConville, Joel van Embden, Enrico Della Gaspera. Advanced Materials Interfaces DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/admi.202000655 First published: 05 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.