Monthly Archives: February 2018

A 3D printed ‘living’ tattoo

MIT engineers have devised a 3-D printing technique that uses a new kind of ink made from genetically programmed living cells. Courtesy of the researchers [and MIT]

If that image isn’t enough, there’s also a video abstract (I don’t think I’ve seen one of these before) for the paper,

For those who’d still like to read the text, here’s more from a December 5, 2017 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) news release (also on EurekAlert),

MIT engineers have devised a 3-D printing technique that uses a new kind of ink made from genetically programmed living cells.

The cells are engineered to light up in response to a variety of stimuli. When mixed with a slurry of hydrogel and nutrients, the cells can be printed, layer by layer, to form three-dimensional, interactive structures and devices.

The team has then demonstrated its technique by printing a “living tattoo” — a thin, transparent patch patterned with live bacteria cells in the shape of a tree. Each branch of the tree is lined with cells sensitive to a different chemical or molecular compound. When the patch is adhered to skin that has been exposed to the same compounds, corresponding regions of the tree light up in response.

The researchers, led by Xuanhe Zhao, the Noyce Career Development Professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science, say that their technique can be used to fabricate “active” materials for wearable sensors and interactive displays. Such materials can be patterned with live cells engineered to sense environmental chemicals and pollutants as well as changes in pH and temperature.

What’s more, the team developed a model to predict the interactions between cells within a given 3-D-printed structure, under a variety of conditions. The team says researchers can use the model as a guide in designing responsive living materials.

Zhao, Lu, and their colleagues have published their results today [December 5, 2017] in the journal Advanced Materials. The paper’s co-authors are graduate students Xinyue Liu, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, German Alberto Parada, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, and postdoc Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez.

A hardy alternative

In recent years, scientists have explored a variety of responsive materials as the basis for 3D-printed inks. For instance, scientists have used inks made from temperature-sensitive polymers to print heat-responsive shape-shifting objects. Others have printed photoactivated structures from polymers that shrink and stretch in response to light.

Zhao’s team, working with bioengineers in Lu’s lab, realized that live cells might also serve as responsive materials for 3D-printed inks, particularly as they can be genetically engineered to respond to a variety of stimuli. The researchers are not the first to consider 3-D printing genetically engineered cells; others have attempted to do so using live mammalian cells, but with little success.

“It turns out those cells were dying during the printing process, because mammalian cells are basically lipid bilayer balloons,” Yuk says. “They are too weak, and they easily rupture.”

Instead, the team identified a hardier cell type in bacteria. Bacterial cells have tough cell walls that are able to survive relatively harsh conditions, such as the forces applied to ink as it is pushed through a printer’s nozzle. Furthermore, bacteria, unlike mammalian cells, are compatible with most hydrogels — gel-like materials that are made from a mix of mostly water and a bit of polymer. The group found that hydrogels can provide an aqueous environment that can support living bacteria.

The researchers carried out a screening test to identify the type of hydrogel that would best host bacterial cells. After an extensive search, a hydrogel with pluronic acid was found to be the most compatible material. The hydrogel also exhibited an ideal consistency for 3-D printing.

“This hydrogel has ideal flow characteristics for printing through a nozzle,” Zhao says. “It’s like squeezing out toothpaste. You need [the ink] to flow out of a nozzle like toothpaste, and it can maintain its shape after it’s printed.”

From tattoos to living computers

Lu provided the team with bacterial cells engineered to light up in response to a variety of chemical stimuli. The researchers then came up with a recipe for their 3-D ink, using a combination of bacteria, hydrogel, and nutrients to sustain the cells and maintain their functionality.

“We found this new ink formula works very well and can print at a high resolution of about 30 micrometers per feature,” Zhao says. “That means each line we print contains only a few cells. We can also print relatively large-scale structures, measuring several centimeters.”

They printed the ink using a custom 3-D printer that they built using standard elements combined with fixtures they machined themselves. To demonstrate the technique, the team printed a pattern of hydrogel with cells in the shape of a tree on an elastomer layer. After printing, they solidified, or cured, the patch by exposing it to ultraviolet radiation. They then adhere the transparent elastomer layer with the living patterns on it, to skin.

To test the patch, the researchers smeared several chemical compounds onto the back of a test subject’s hand, then pressed the hydrogel patch over the exposed skin. Over several hours, branches of the patch’s tree lit up when bacteria sensed their corresponding chemical stimuli.

The researchers also engineered bacteria to communicate with each other; for instance they programmed some cells to light up only when they receive a certain signal from another cell. To test this type of communication in a 3-D structure, they printed a thin sheet of hydrogel filaments with “input,” or signal-producing bacteria and chemicals, overlaid with another layer of filaments of an “output,” or signal-receiving bacteria. They found the output filaments lit up only when they overlapped and received input signals from corresponding bacteria .

Yuk says in the future, researchers may use the team’s technique to print “living computers” — structures with multiple types of cells that communicate with each other, passing signals back and forth, much like transistors on a microchip.

“This is very future work, but we expect to be able to print living computational platforms that could be wearable,” Yuk says.

For more near-term applications, the researchers are aiming to fabricate customized sensors, in the form of flexible patches and stickers that could be engineered to detect a variety of chemical and molecular compounds. They also envision their technique may be used to manufacture drug capsules and surgical implants, containing cells engineered produce compounds such as glucose, to be released therapeutically over time.

“We can use bacterial cells like workers in a 3-D factory,” Liu says. “They can be engineered to produce drugs within a 3-D scaffold, and applications should not be confined to epidermal devices. As long as the fabrication method and approach are viable, applications such as implants and ingestibles should be possible.”

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

3D Printing of Living Responsive Materials and Devices by Xinyue Liu, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, German Alberto Parada, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, Timothy K. Lu, and Xuanhe Zhao. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704821 Version of Record online: 5 DEC 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Entanglement and biological systems

I think it was about five years ago thatI wrote a paper on something I called ‘cognitive entanglement’ (mentioned in my July 20,2012 posting) so the latest from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois, US) reignited my interest in entanglement. A December 5, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest ‘entanglement’ research,

Nearly 75 years ago, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger wondered if the mysterious world of quantum mechanics played a role in biology. A recent finding by Northwestern University’s Prem Kumar adds further evidence that the answer might be yes.

Kumar and his team have, for the first time, created quantum entanglement from a biological system. This finding could advance scientists’ fundamental understanding of biology and potentially open doors to exploit biological tools to enable new functions by harnessing quantum mechanics.

A December 5, 2017 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Can we apply quantum tools to learn about biology?” said Kumar, professor of electrical engineering and computer science in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “People have asked this question for many, many years — dating back to the dawn of quantum mechanics. The reason we are interested in these new quantum states is because they allow applications that are otherwise impossible.”

Partially supported by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA], the research was published Dec. 5 [2017] in Nature Communications.

Quantum entanglement is one of quantum mechanics’ most mystifying phenomena. When two particles — such as atoms, photons, or electrons — are entangled, they experience an inexplicable link that is maintained even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. While entangled, the particles’ behavior is tied one another. If one particle is found spinning in one direction, for example, then the other particle instantaneously changes its spin in a corresponding manner dictated by the entanglement. Researchers, including Kumar, have been interested in harnessing quantum entanglement for several applications, including quantum communications. Because the particles can communicate without wires or cables, they could be used to send secure messages or help build an extremely fast “quantum Internet.”

“Researchers have been trying to entangle a larger and larger set of atoms or photons to develop substrates on which to design and build a quantum machine,” Kumar said. “My laboratory is asking if we can build these machines on a biological substrate.”

In the study, Kumar’s team used green fluorescent proteins, which are responsible for bioluminescence and commonly used in biomedical research. The team attempted to entangle the photons generated from the fluorescing molecules within the algae’s barrel-shaped protein structure by exposing them to spontaneous four-wave mixing, a process in which multiple wavelengths interact with one another to produce new wavelengths.

Through a series of these experiments, Kumar and his team successfully demonstrated a type of entanglement, called polarization entanglement, between photon pairs. The same feature used to make glasses for viewing 3D movies, polarization is the orientation of oscillations in light waves. A wave can oscillate vertically, horizontally, or at different angles. In Kumar’s entangled pairs, the photons’ polarizations are entangled, meaning that the oscillation directions of light waves are linked. Kumar also noticed that the barrel-shaped structure surrounding the fluorescing molecules protected the entanglement from being disrupted.

“When I measured the vertical polarization of one particle, we knew it would be the same in the other,” he said. “If we measured the horizontal polarization of one particle, we could predict the horizontal polarization in the other particle. We created an entangled state that correlated in all possibilities simultaneously.”

Now that they have demonstrated that it’s possible to create quantum entanglement from biological particles, next Kumar and his team plan to make a biological substrate of entangled particles, which could be used to build a quantum machine. Then, they will seek to understand if a biological substrate works more efficiently than a synthetic one.

Here’s an image accompanying the news release,

Featured in the cuvette on the left, green fluorescent proteins responsible for bioluninescence in jellyfish. Courtesy: Northwestern University

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

Generation of photonic entanglement in green fluorescent proteins by Siyuan Shi, Prem Kumar & Kim Fook Lee. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1934 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02027-9 Published online: 05 December 2017

This paper is open access.

Felted carbon nanotubes

Parachute (sculpted felt lantern). Artist and artisan felter: Chantal Cardinal. Studio: FELT à la main with LOVE

Scientists from Kiel University (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel; Germany) and the University of Trento (Italy) claim to have developed a new method for integrating carbon nanotubes (CNTs) into new materials in a technique they describe as similar to felting according to a November 21, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Extremely lightweight, electrically highly conductive, and more stable than steel: due to their unique properties, carbon nanotubes would be ideal for numerous applications, from ultra-lightweight batteries to high-performance plastics, right through to medical implants. However, to date it has been difficult for science and industry to transfer the extraordinary characteristics at the nanoscale into a functional industrial application. The carbon nanotubes either cannot be combined adequately with other materials, or if they can be combined, they then lose their beneficial properties.

Scientists from the Functional Nanomaterials working group at Kiel University (CAU) and the University of Trento have now developed an alternative method, with which the tiny tubes can be combined with other materials, so that they retain their characteristic properties. As such, they “felt” the thread-like tubes into a stable 3D network that is able to withstand extreme forces.

In contrast to the ‘felted’ image which opened this posting, here’s an image of the ‘felted’ carbon nanotubes,

In this new process, the tiny, thread-like carbon nanotubes (CNTs) arrange themselves – almost like felting – to form a stable, tear-resistant layer. Photo/Copyright: Fabian Schütt Courtesy: Kiel University

A November 21, 2017 Kiel University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme and adds another analogy,

Industry and science have been intensively researching the significantly less than one hundred nanometre wide carbon tubes (carbon nanotubes, CNTs), in order to make use of the extraordinary properties of rolled graphene. Yet much still remains just theory. “Although carbon nanotubes are flexible like fibre strands, they are also very sensitive to changes,” explained Professor Rainer Adelung, head of the Functional Nanomaterials working group at the CAU. “With previous attempts to chemically connect them with other materials, their molecular structure also changed. This, however, made their properties deteriorate – mostly drastically.”

In contrast, the approach of the research team from Kiel and Trento is based on a simple wet chemical infiltration process. The CNTs are mixed with water and dripped into an extremely porous ceramic material made of zinc oxide, which absorbs the liquid like a sponge. The dripped thread-like CNTs attach themselves to the ceramic scaffolding, and automatically form a stable layer together, similar to a felt. The ceramic scaffolding is coated with nanotubes, so to speak. This has fascinating effects, both for the scaffolding as well as for the coating of nanotubes.

On the one hand, the stability of the ceramic scaffold increases so massively that it can bear 100,000 times its own weight. “With the CNT coating, the ceramic material can hold around 7.5kg, and without it just 50g – as if we had fitted it with a close-fitting pullover made of carbon nanotubes, which provide mechanical support,” summarised first author Fabian Schütt. “The pressure on the material is absorbed by the tensile strength of the CNT felt. Compressive forces are transformed into tensile forces.”

The principle behind this is comparable with bamboo buildings [emphasis mine], such as those widespread in Asia. Here, bamboo stems are bound so tightly with a simple rope that the lightweight material can form extremely stable scaffolding, and even entire buildings. “We do the same at the nano-scale with the CNT threads, which wrap themselves around the ceramic material – only much, much smaller,” said Helge Krüger, co-author of the publication.

The materials scientists were able to demonstrate another major advantage of their process. In a second step, they dissolved the ceramic scaffolding by using a chemical etching process. All that remains is a fine 3D network of tubes, each of which consists of a layer of tiny CNT tubes. In this way, the researchers were able to greatly increase the felt surface, and thus create more opportunities for reactions. “We basically pack the surface of an entire beach volleyball field into a one centimetre cube,” explained Schütt. The huge hollow spaces inside the three-dimensional structure can then be filled with a polymer. As such, CNTs can be connected mechanically with plastics, without their molecular structure – and thus their properties – being modified. “We can specifically arrange the CNTs and manufacture an electrically conductive composite material. To do so only requires a fraction of the usual quantity of CNTs, in order to achieve the same conductivity,” said Schütt.

Applications for use range from battery and filter technology as a filling material for conductive plastics, implants for regenerative medicine, right through to sensors and electronic components at the nano-scale. The good electrical conductivity of the tear-resistant material could in future also be interesting for flexible electronics applications, in functional clothing or in the field of medical technology, for example. “Creating a plastic which, for example, stimulates bone or heart cells to grow is conceivable,” said Adelung. Due to its simplicity, the scientists agree that the process could also be transferred to network structures made of other nanomaterials – which will further expand the range of possible applications.

So, we have ‘felting’ and bamboo buildings. I can appreciate the temptation to use multiple analogies especially since I’ve given into it, on occasion.  But, it’s never considered good style, not even when I do it.

Getting back to the work at hand, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Hierarchical self-entangled carbon nanotube tube networks by Fabian Schütt, Stefano Signetti, Helge Krüger, Sarah Röder, Daria Smazna, Sören Kaps, Stanislav N. Gorb, Yogendra Kumar Mishra, Nicola M. Pugno, & Rainer Adelung. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1215 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01324-7 Published online: 31 October 2017

This is an open access paper.

One final comment, I notice that one of the authors is Nicola Pugno who was last mentioned here in an August 30, 2017 posting titled: Making spider silk stronger by feeding graphene and carbon nanotubes to spiders.

A transatlantic report highlighting the risks and opportunities associated with synthetic biology and bioengineering

I love e-Life, the open access journal where its editors noted that a submitted synthetic biology and bioengineering report was replete with US and UK experts (along with a European or two) but no expert input from other parts of the world. In response the authors added ‘transatlantic’ to the title. It was a good decision since it was too late to add any new experts if the authors planned to have their paper published in the foreseeable future.

I’ve commented many times here when panels of experts include only Canadian, US, UK, and, sometimes, European or Commonwealth (Australia/New Zealand) experts that we need to broaden our perspectives and now I can add: or at least acknowledge (e.g. transatlantic) that the perspectives taken are reflective of a rather narrow range of countries.

Now getting to the report, here’s more from a November 21, 2017 University of Cambridge press release,

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But as a new article out today highlights, these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing ‘real-world’ problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars, and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems [emphasis mine], potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic ‘cloud labs’ where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases—such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks—and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates, and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Dr Jenny Molloy comments: “One theme that emerged repeatedly was that of inequality of access to the technology and its benefits. The rise of open source, off-patent tools could enable widespread sharing of knowledge within the biological engineering field and increase access to benefits for those in developing countries.”

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research adds: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Christian R. Boehm concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science, and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus—whatever the public health benefits—could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research was made possible by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative (both at the University of Cambridge), and the Future of Humanity Institute (University of Oxford). It was based on a workshop co-funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

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

A transatlantic perspective on 20 emerging issues in biological engineering by Bonnie C Wintle, Christian R Boehm, Catherine Rhodes, Jennifer C Molloy, Piers Millett, Laura Adam, Rainer Breitling, Rob Carlson, Rocco Casagrande, Malcolm Dando, Robert Doubleday, Eric Drexler, Brett Edwards, Tom Ellis, Nicholas G Evans, Richard Hammond, Jim Haseloff, Linda Kahl, Todd Kuiken, Benjamin R Lichman, Colette A Matthewman, Johnathan A Napier, Seán S ÓhÉigeartaigh, Nicola J Patron, Edward Perello, Philip Shapira, Joyce Tait, Eriko Takano, William J Sutherland. eLife; 14 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.30247

This paper is open access and the editors have included their notes to the authors and the authors’ response.

You may have noticed that I highlighted a portion of the text concerning synthetic gene drives. Coincidentally I ran across a November 16, 2017 article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic where the topic is discussed within the context of a project in New Zealand, ‘Predator Free 2050’ (Note: A link has been removed),

Until the 13th century, the only land mammals in New Zealand were bats. In this furless world, local birds evolved a docile temperament. Many of them, like the iconic kiwi and the giant kakapo parrot, lost their powers of flight. Gentle and grounded, they were easy prey for the rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, and possums that were later introduced by humans. Between them, these predators devour more than 26 million chicks and eggs every year. They have already driven a quarter of the nation’s unique birds to extinction.

Many species now persist only in offshore islands where rats and their ilk have been successfully eradicated, or in small mainland sites like Zealandia where they are encircled by predator-proof fences. The songs in those sanctuaries are echoes of the New Zealand that was.

But perhaps, they also represent the New Zealand that could be.

In recent years, many of the country’s conservationists and residents have rallied behind Predator-Free 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious plan to save the country’s birds by eradicating its invasive predators. Native birds of prey will be unharmed, but Predator-Free 2050’s research strategy, which is released today, spells doom for rats, possums, and stoats (a large weasel). They are to die, every last one of them. No country, anywhere in the world, has managed such a task in an area that big. The largest island ever cleared of rats, Australia’s Macquarie Island, is just 50 square miles in size. New Zealand is 2,000 times bigger. But, the country has committed to fulfilling its ecological moonshot within three decades.

In 2014, Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at MIT, drew a Venn diagram that troubles him to this day. In it, he and his colleagues laid out several possible uses for gene drives—a nascent technology for spreading designer genes through groups of wild animals. Typically, a given gene has a 50-50 chance of being passed to the next generation. But gene drives turn that coin toss into a guarantee, allowing traits to zoom through populations in just a few generations. There are a few natural examples, but with CRISPR, scientists can deliberately engineer such drives.

Suppose you have a population of rats, roughly half of which are brown, and the other half white. Now, imagine there is a gene that affects each rat’s color. It comes in two forms, one leading to brown fur, and the other leading to white fur. A male with two brown copies mates with a female with two white copies, and all their offspring inherit one of each. Those offspring breed themselves, and the brown and white genes continue cascading through the generations in a 50-50 split. This is the usual story of inheritance. But you can subvert it with CRISPR, by programming the brown gene to cut its counterpart and replace it with another copy of itself. Now, the rats’ children are all brown-furred, as are their grandchildren, and soon the whole population is brown.

Forget fur. The same technique could spread an antimalarial gene through a mosquito population, or drought-resistance through crop plants. The applications are vast, but so are the risks. In theory, gene drives spread so quickly and relentlessly that they could rewrite an entire wild population, and once released, they would be hard to contain. If the concept of modifying the genes of organisms is already distasteful to some, gene drives magnify that distaste across national, continental, and perhaps even global scales.

These excerpts don’t do justice to this thought-provoking article. If you have time, I recommend reading it in its entirety  as it provides some insight into gene drives and, with some imagination on the reader’s part, the potential for the other technologies discussed in the report.

One last comment, I notice that Eric Drexler is cited as on the report’s authors. He’s familiar to me as K. Eric Drexler, the author of the book that popularized nanotechnology in the US and other countries, Engines of Creation (1986) .

New nanomapping technology: CRISPR-CAS9 as a programmable nanoparticle

A November 21, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes a rather extraordinary (to me, anyway) approach to using CRRISP ( Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-CAS9 (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of scientists led by Virginia Commonwealth University physicist Jason Reed, Ph.D., have developed new nanomapping technology that could transform the way disease-causing genetic mutations are diagnosed and discovered. Described in a study published today [November 21, 2017] in the journal Nature Communications (“DNA nanomapping using CRISPR-Cas9 as a programmable nanoparticle”), this novel approach uses high-speed atomic force microscopy (AFM) combined with a CRISPR-based chemical barcoding technique to map DNA nearly as accurately as DNA sequencing while processing large sections of the genome at a much faster rate. What’s more–the technology can be powered by parts found in your run-of-the-mill DVD player.

A November 21, 2017 Virginia Commonwealth University news release by John Wallace, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The human genome is made up of billions of DNA base pairs. Unraveled, it stretches to a length of nearly six feet long. When cells divide, they must make a copy of their DNA for the new cell. However, sometimes various sections of the DNA are copied incorrectly or pasted together at the wrong location, leading to genetic mutations that cause diseases such as cancer. DNA sequencing is so precise that it can analyze individual base pairs of DNA. But in order to analyze large sections of the genome to find genetic mutations, technicians must determine millions of tiny sequences and then piece them together with computer software. In contrast, biomedical imaging techniques such as fluorescence in situ hybridization, known as FISH, can only analyze DNA at a resolution of several hundred thousand base pairs.

Reed’s new high-speed AFM method can map DNA to a resolution of tens of base pairs while creating images up to a million base pairs in size. And it does it using a fraction of the amount of specimen required for DNA sequencing.

“DNA sequencing is a powerful tool, but it is still quite expensive and has several technological and functional limitations that make it difficult to map large areas of the genome efficiently and accurately,” said Reed, principal investigator on the study. Reed is a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center and an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Our approach bridges the gap between DNA sequencing and other physical mapping techniques that lack resolution,” he said. “It can be used as a stand-alone method or it can complement DNA sequencing by reducing complexity and error when piecing together the small bits of genome analyzed during the sequencing process.”

IBM scientists made headlines in 1989 when they developed AFM technology and used a related technique to rearrange molecules at the atomic level to spell out “IBM.” AFM achieves this level of detail by using a microscopic stylus — similar to a needle on a record player — that barely makes contact with the surface of the material being studied. The interaction between the stylus and the molecules creates the image. However, traditional AFM is too slow for medical applications and so it is primarily used by engineers in materials science.

“Our device works in the same fashion as AFM but we move the sample past the stylus at a much greater velocity and use optical instruments to detect the interaction between the stylus and the molecules. We can achieve the same level of detail as traditional AFM but can process material more than a thousand times faster,” said Reed, whose team proved the technology can be mainstreamed by using optical equipment found in DVD players. “High-speed AFM is ideally suited for some medical applications as it can process materials quickly and provide hundreds of times more resolution than comparable imaging methods.”

Increasing the speed of AFM was just one hurdle Reed and his colleagues had to overcome. In order to actually identify genetic mutations in DNA, they had to develop a way to place markers or labels on the surface of the DNA molecules so they could recognize patterns and irregularities. An ingenious chemical barcoding solution was developed using a form of CRISPR technology.

CRISPR has made a lot of headlines recently in regard to gene editing. CRISPR is an enzyme that scientists have been able to “program” using targeting RNA in order to cut DNA at precise locations that the cell then repairs on its own. Reed’s team altered the chemical reaction conditions of the CRISPR enzyme so that it only sticks to the DNA and does not actually cut it.

“Because the CRISPR enzyme is a protein that’s physically bigger than the DNA molecule, it’s perfect for this barcoding application,” Reed said. “We were amazed to discover this method is nearly 90 percent efficient at bonding to the DNA molecules. And because it’s easy to see the CRISPR proteins, you can spot genetic mutations among the patterns in DNA.”

To demonstrate the technique’s effectiveness, the researchers mapped genetic translocations present in lymph node biopsies of lymphoma patients. Translocations occur when one section of the DNA gets copied and pasted to the wrong place in the genome. They are especially prevalent in blood cancers such as lymphoma but occur in other cancers as well.

While there are many potential uses for this technology, Reed and his team are focusing on medical applications. They are currently developing software based on existing algorithms that can analyze patterns in sections of DNA up to and over a million base pairs in size. Once completed, it would not be hard to imagine this shoebox-sized instrument in pathology labs assisting in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases linked to genetic mutations.

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

DNA nanomapping using CRISPR-Cas9 as a programmable nanoparticle by Andrey Mikheikin, Anita Olsen, Kevin Leslie, Freddie Russell-Pavier, Andrew Yacoot, Loren Picco, Oliver Payton, Amir Toor, Alden Chesney, James K. Gimzewski, Bud Mishra, & Jason Reed. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1665 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01891-9 Published online: 21 November 2017

This paper is open access.

Paving the way for hardware neural networks?

I’m glad the Imperial College of London (ICL; UK) translated this research into something I can, more or less, understand because the research team’s title for their paper would have left me ‘confuzzled’ .Thank you for this November 20, 2017 ICL press release (also on EurekAlert) by Hayley Dunning,

Researchers have shown how to write any magnetic pattern desired onto nanowires, which could help computers mimic how the brain processes information.

Much current computer hardware, such as hard drives, use magnetic memory devices. These rely on magnetic states – the direction microscopic magnets are pointing – to encode and read information.

Exotic magnetic states – such as a point where three south poles meet – represent complex systems. These may act in a similar way to many complex systems found in nature, such as the way our brains process information.

Computing systems that are designed to process information in similar ways to our brains are known as ‘neural networks’. There are already powerful software-based neural networks – for example one recently beat the human champion at the game ‘Go’ – but their efficiency is limited as they run on conventional computer hardware.

Now, researchers from Imperial College London have devised a method for writing magnetic information in any pattern desired, using a very small magnetic probe called a magnetic force microscope.

With this new writing method, arrays of magnetic nanowires may be able to function as hardware neural networks – potentially more powerful and efficient than software-based approaches.

The team, from the Departments of Physics and Materials at Imperial, demonstrated their system by writing patterns that have never been seen before. They published their results today [November 20, 2017] in Nature Nanotechnology.

Interlocking hexagon patterns with complex magnetisation

‘Hexagonal artificial spin ice ground state’ – a pattern never demonstrated before. Coloured arrows show north or south polarisation

Dr Jack Gartside, first author from the Department of Physics, said: “With this new writing method, we open up research into ‘training’ these magnetic nanowires to solve useful problems. If successful, this will bring hardware neural networks a step closer to reality.”

As well as applications in computing, the method could be used to study fundamental aspects of complex systems, by creating magnetic states that are far from optimal (such as three south poles together) and seeing how the system responds.

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

Realization of ground state in artificial kagome spin ice via topological defect-driven magnetic writing by Jack C. Gartside, Daan M. Arroo, David M. Burn, Victoria L. Bemmer, Andy Moskalenko, Lesley F. Cohen & Will R. Branford. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/s41565-017-0002-1 Published online: 20 November 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

*Odd spacing eliminated and a properly embedded video added on February 6, 2018 at 18:16 hours PT.

Colliding organic nanoparticles caught on camera for the first time

There is high excitement about this development in a November 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

A Northwestern University research team is the first to capture on video organic nanoparticles colliding and fusing together. This unprecedented view of “chemistry in motion” will aid Northwestern nanoscientists developing new drug delivery methods as well as demonstrate to researchers around the globe how an emerging imaging technique opens a new window on a very tiny world.

A November 17, 2017 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item, further illuminates the matter,

This is a rare example of particles in motion. The dynamics are reminiscent of two bubbles coming together and merging into one: first they join and have a membrane between them, but then they fuse and become one larger bubble.

“I had an image in my mind, but the first time I saw these fusing nanoparticles in black and white was amazing,” said professor Nathan C. Gianneschi, who led the interdisciplinary study and works at the intersection of nanotechnology and biomedicine.

“To me, it’s literally a window opening up to this world you have always known was there, but now you’ve finally got an image of it. I liken it to the first time I saw Jupiter’s moons through a telescope. Nothing compares to actually seeing,” he said.

Gianneschi is the Jacob and Rosaline Cohn Professor in the department of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and in the departments of materials science and engineering and of biomedical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering.

The study, which includes videos of different nanoparticle fusion events, was published today (Nov. 1 [2017]7) by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The research team used liquid-cell transmission electron microscopy to directly image how polymer-based nanoparticles, or micelles, that Gianneschi’s lab is developing for treating cancer and heart attacks change over time. The powerful new technique enabled the scientists to directly observe the particles’ transformation and characterize their dynamics.

“We can see on the molecular level how the polymeric matter rearranges when the particles fuse into one object,” said Lucas R. Parent, first author of the paper and a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow in Gianneschi’s research group. “This is the first study of many to come in which researchers will use this method to look at all kinds of dynamic phenomena in organic materials systems on the nanoscale.”

In the Northwestern study, organic particles in water bounce off each other, and some collide and merge, undergoing a physical transformation. The researchers capture the action by shining an electron beam through the sample. The tiny particles — the largest are only approximately 200 nanometers in diameter — cast shadows that are captured directly by a camera below.

“We’ve observed classical fusion behavior on the nanoscale,” said Gianneschi, a member of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology. “Capturing the fundamental growth and evolution processes of these particles in motion will help us immensely in our work with synthetic materials and their interactions with biological systems.”

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Army Research Office supported the research.

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

Directly Observing Micelle Fusion and Growth in Solution by Liquid-Cell Transmission Electron Microscopy by Lucas R. Parent, Evangelos Bakalis, Abelardo Ramírez-Hernández, Jacquelin K. Kammeyer, Chiwoo Park, Juan de Pablo, Francesco Zerbetto, Joseph P. Patterson, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.7b09060 Publication Date (Web): November 17, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

A SciArt Gallery @ Science Rendezvous call for artists and a SciFi and Fantasy screenplay contest and

I’ve got two ‘creativity’ opportunities, one for people working on an art/sci (sciart) project and another for people with scripts,

SciArt Gallery @ Science Rendezvous

This notice arrived in a January 31, 2018 email from the ArtSci Salon people in Toronto (Ontario, Canada),

Science Rendezvous is a free Canada‐wide outreach festival that spurs interest in scientific research among the general public and last year at U of T, we attracted over 30,000 guests! This year we are hosting our first science-inspired art gallery called the SciArt Gallery! We are actively recruiting artists for the gallery to display their science-inspired works! Painting, design, music, dance, theatre, textiles, ceramics: We welcome all artists to apply!

To apply and for more information, please visit: http://bit.ly/SciArtGallery2018

The open call deadline is Friday, February 23rd, 2018 at 11:59pm!

To learn more about Science Rendezvous and this year’s festival on Saturday, May 12th, please visit www.ScienceRendezvousUofT.ca.

So you know what you might be getting into, the About Science Rendezvous webpage has this to say about what the organization does and about its origins,

We work with Canada’s top research institutes to present a coast-to-coast open house and festival that is FREE for everyone. With over 300 events across 30 cities and 1000’s of mind-blowing activities, Science Rendezvous is Canada’s largest celebration of the amazing feats of science and engineering happening right here at home.

In 2017, more than 210,000 attendees participated in our unique brand of hands-on science, a new landmark for such events in Canada. Science Rendezvous is the only organization that generates this level of public engagement with science, and direct face-to-face involvement with those at the very frontiers of innovation.

This SATURDAY, MAY 12th 2018 [emphasis mine] over 6,000 of Canada’s greatest innovators, researchers, engineers, and scientists from 125 partner organizations will open their doors and close city streets to present exciting demonstrations, hands-on activities, and explosive experiments. From the physics of rock and roll to the chemistry of ice-cream, Science Rendezvous has something for everyone!

History

Science Rendezvous began as a joint program between the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in 2008. These founding partners saw the need to work together in order to launch an event of great enough scale and exciting content to engage the public in the vast wonders of science and engineering. Since that time, Science Rendezvous has grown to include 40 of Canada’s top research institutions and over 85 community partnerships across 30 cities in 10 provinces and 2 territories. Today, it is a marquee event and signature partner of Science Odyssey [Note: This is a government of Canada annual national “celebration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, featuring fun and inspiring experiences in museums, research centres, laboratories and classrooms from coast to coast” which will run from May 11 – 20, 2018 this year], and is the single largest science festival in Canada.

Science Rendezvous is a science outreach pioneer in Canada. Offering direct engagement with 6,000 of Canada’s top researchers and scientists at 300 simultaneous events and 1000’s of hands-on experiments for the public to try themselves.

The Science Rendezvous head office acts as an umbrella organization that coordinates the efforts of all participating institutions, reinvents public engagement with science through festival programming, and offers direction for event organizers all while promoting both the festival and Canadian science on a national level.

To be clear, the call for sciart projects is from the physics department at the University of Toronto (U of T) and the deadline is February 23, 2018. I went to the U of T Science Rendezvous SciArt Gallery artist application page and found more details about the call,

The theme for SR 2018 is “Full S.T.E.A.M. Ahead!” – We’re placing an emphasis on the Art in S.T.E.M. [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] this year and hosting our first and hopefully annual SciArt Gallery! We want to create a gallery full of science-inspired art and showcase the talent of our local Toronto artists! We hope that artists will be able to share their enthusiasm and teach visitors about how science inspired you to create and the science behind the art!

Artists will be permitted to sell their wares and will be provided with tents, chairs, volunteers, t-shirts, and lunch if accepted to the gallery. SR2018 is currently accepting applications for its SciArt Gallery taking place on Saturday, May 12, 2018 from 11am to 5pm.

There will be a $20 table deposit fee that will be refunded upon your attendance at SR. SR hopes to showcase science-inspired works of art and host workshops to allow artists to inspire kids and adults about their art medium.

*** Applications will close on Friday, February 23rd, 2018 at 11:59pm! ***

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us at uoftsr.sciartgallery@gmail.com

For more information and to keep up-to-date about the SciArt Gallery, please visit our:

Website: http://www.sciencerendezvousuoft.ca/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/UofTSR/

The name and photo associated with your Google account will be recorded when you upload files and submit this form.

I don’t know if you noticed but the application page specifies Toronto artists while the email did not. You may want to contact the organizers for more details. At a guess, they don’t want to fund any trips or accommodation for out-of-town artists but if you’re willing to self-fund they’ll consider your application.

One final thing worth mentioning, there may be opportunities in your home community. So, it may be worthwhile to check out the Science Rendezvous website.

SciFi and fantasy screenplay contest

I got this January 31, 2018 withoutabox.com announcement via email,

… the 4th Annual ScreenCraft Sci-Fi & Fantasy Screenplay Contest, an out of this world screenplay competition set to discover talented writers. The 2018 contest judges are Steven Douglas-Craig, Development at Sony Pictures, the studio behind Passengers, Ghostbusters, Men In Black, Resident Evil, and Spider-Man; Jonathan Wu, Development Executive at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Avatar, X-Men, Another Earth, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Prometheus ; and Michael Doven, CEO of United Pictures, producer of such celebrated movies as Mission: Impossible, Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, and The Last Samurai.

The Grand Prize winner will receive a $1,000 USD cash award and personal introductions to producers, managers, agents and studio executives. Additionally, the top finalists will be circulated to ScreenCraft’s vetted network of over 60 producers, studio executives, managers and agents. Whether you’re writing a contained science fiction drama or an epic fantasy saga, ScreenCraft wants to read your sci-fi or fantasy feature film screenplay. Great science fiction explores the human condition against the backdrop of a heightened imagined world, impacted by technology and human creativity and imagination.

Past ScreenCraft winners have optioned their projects and signed with top representatives at top Hollywood companies including WME, CAA, 3Arts Entertainment, Anonymous Content, Paradigm Talent Agency, ICM, Bellevue Productions Zero Gravity Management, Kaplan/Perrone and many more.

UPCOMING DEADLINE
February 9, 2018 – Earlybird Deadline [March 30,2018 final deadline]

View submission details

MISSION AND OBJECTIVE
ScreenCraft’s screenwriting contests are dedicated to discovering talented screenwriters and connecting them with producers, agents and managers.

MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
ScreenCraft runs a suite of screenwriting competitions that have a long history of getting writers represented and working. The secret is that ScreenCraft actually determines the winners with judges who work in the particular genre or space – real industry executives (not just readers). The winners get actual meetings with actual executives, so that a relationship forms beyond just a great script.

I checked for more details and found this (from the withoutabox.com 4th Annual ScreenCraft Sci-Fi & Fantasy Screenplay Contest Submission webpage),

RULES:
Submissions are accepted via electronic submission only, between January 10, 2018 and March 30, 2018.
Entry fee for each feature film screenplay is $49 until the early deadline on February 9, 2018, then $69 until the final deadline on March 30, 2018.
Optional feedback from a professional reader may be requested at the time of entry. Requests for feedback after an entry is submitted will not be accepted.
Screenplays must be a minimum of 75 pages and a maximum of 150 pages.
There is no limit to the number of projects you may submit.
Entries must be received on or before the deadline dates by 11:59PM Pacific Time, and submission fee payment must be made in full at time of the submission. All entry fees are non-refundable.
All submitted material must be original, and all rights must be wholly owned by the writer(s).
Material must be submitted by the writer. Material written by writing teams must be submitted by one of the writers, with consent of the other(s). All writers must be credited on title page.
If a writing team is chosen as a winner, prizes will be given to the person who submits the project. Each team is responsible for dividing or sharing the prize money.
Substitutions of either corrected pages or new drafts of the entered material will be allowed for a limited time with a $5 reentry fee through Coverfly. Please proofread your script carefully before submitting.
It is recommended that original material be registered with the WGA or The Library of Congress before submitting to any competition, however we do not require registration.
Contact info may be included on the cover page of the screenplay, however it is not required.
All ownership and rights to the scripts submitted to this contest remains with the original rights holders.

ELIGIBILITY:
All writers at least 18 years of age are eligible. However, a writer who has earned more than $50,000 (or equivalent currency) from professional writing services for film or TV in the preceding year is not. (Contest winnings not included.)
All persons from anywhere in the world are eligible; however the material submitted must be in English (occasional dialogue in other languages is acceptable, if subtitle translation is provided).
All material submitted to other competitions or contests are eligible for this contest.
There are no requirements as to when the material was written.
Screenplay and intellectual property must be wholly owned and submitted by the writer(s).
Material should be submitted in standard screenplay format, font, spacing and margin.
We have no preferences regarding title page content. Title and name of writer would suffice.
Entries for this competition are managed on the submission platform Coverfly.
Adaptations are ineligible unless the underlying rights are owned by the writer or the work is in the public domain.
Feature screenplays longer than 150 pages will not be eligible.
All material must be submitted electronically as a PDF or it will not be eligible.

You can find out more about ScreenCraft here.

To everyone: good luck!

China is world leader in nanotechnology and in other fields too?

State of Chinese nanoscience/nanotechnology

China claims to be the world leader in the field in a white paper announced in an August 29, 2017 Springer Nature press release,

Springer Nature, the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, China and the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) released in both Chinese and English a white paper entitled “Small Science in Big China: An overview of the state of Chinese nanoscience and technology” at NanoChina 2017, an international conference on nanoscience and technology held August 28 and 29 in Beijing. The white paper looks at the rapid growth of China’s nanoscience research into its current role as the world’s leader [emphasis mine], examines China’s strengths and challenges, and makes some suggestions for how its contribution to the field can continue to thrive.

The white paper points out that China has become a strong contributor to nanoscience research in the world, and is a powerhouse of nanotechnology R&D. Some of China’s basic research is leading the world. China’s applied nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies have also begun to take shape. These achievements are largely due to China’s strong investment in nanoscience and technology. China’s nanoscience research is also moving from quantitative increase to quality improvement and innovation, with greater emphasis on the applications of nanotechnologies.

“China took an initial step into nanoscience research some twenty years ago, and has since grown its commitment at an unprecedented rate, as it has for scientific research as a whole. Such a growth is reflected both in research quantity and, importantly, in quality. Therefore, I regard nanoscience as a window through which to observe the development of Chinese science, and through which we could analyze how that rapid growth has happened. Further, the experience China has gained in developing nanoscience and related technologies is a valuable resource for the other countries and other fields of research to dig deep into and draw on,” said Arnout Jacobs, President, Greater China, Springer Nature.

The white paper explores at China’s research output relative to the rest of the world in terms of research paper output, research contribution contained in the Nano database, and finally patents, providing insight into China’s strengths and expertise in nano research. The white paper also presents the results of a survey of experts from the community discussing the outlook for and challenges to the future of China’s nanoscience research.

China nano research output: strong rise in quantity and quality

In 1997, around 13,000 nanoscience-related papers were published globally. By 2016, this number had risen to more than 154,000 nano-related research papers. This corresponds to a compound annual growth rate of 14% per annum, almost four times the growth in publications across all areas of research of 3.7%. Over the same period of time, the nano-related output from China grew from 820 papers in 1997 to over 52,000 papers in 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 24%.

China’s contribution to the global total has been growing steadily. In 1997, Chinese researchers co-authored just 6% of the nano-related papers contained in the Science Citation Index (SCI). By 2010, this grew to match the output of the United States. They now contribute over a third of the world’s total nanoscience output — almost twice that of the United States.

Additionally, China’s share of the most cited nanoscience papers has kept increasing year on year, with a compound annual growth rate of 22% — more than three times the global rate. It overtook the United States in 2014 and its contribution is now many times greater than that of any other country in the world, manifesting an impressive progression in both quantity and quality.

The rapid growth of nanoscience in China has been enabled by consistent and strong financial support from the Chinese government. As early as 1990, the State Science and Technology Committee, the predecessor of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), launched the Climbing Up project on nanomaterial science. During the 1990s, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) also funded nearly 1,000 small-scale projects in nanoscience. In the National Guideline on Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (for 2006−2020) issued in early 2006 by the Chinese central government, nanoscience was identified as one of four areas of basic research and received the largest proportion of research budget out of the four areas. The brain boomerang, with more and more foreign-trained Chinese researchers returning from overseas, is another contributor to China’s rapid rise in nanoscience.

The white paper clarifies the role of Chinese institutions, including CAS, in driving China’s rise to become the world’s leader in nanoscience. Currently, CAS is the world’s largest producer of high impact nano research, contributing more than twice as many papers in the 1% most-cited nanoscience literature than its closest competitors. In addition to CAS, five other Chinese institutions are ranked among the global top 20 in terms of output of top cited 1% nanoscience papers — Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, University of Science and Technology of China and Peking University.

Nano database reveals advantages and focus of China’s nano research

The Nano database (http://nano.nature.com) is a comprehensive platform that has been recently developed by Nature Research – part of Springer Nature – which contains nanoscience-related papers published in 167 peer-reviewed journals including Advanced Materials, Nano Letters, Nature, Science and more. Analysis of the Nano database of nanomaterial-containing articles published in top 30 journals during 2014–2016 shows that Chinese scientists explore a wide range of nanomaterials, the five most common of which are nanostructured materials, nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanodevices and nanoporous materials.

In terms of the research of applications, China has a clear leading edge in catalysis research, which is the most popular area of the country’s quality nanoscience papers. Chinese nano researchers also contributed significantly to nanomedicine and energy-related applications. China is relatively weaker in nanomaterials for electronics applications, compared to other research powerhouses, but robotics and lasers are emerging applications areas of nanoscience in China, and nanoscience papers addressing photonics and data storage applications also see strong growth in China. Over 80% of research from China listed in the database explicitly mentions applications of the nanostructures and nanomaterials described, notably higher than from most other leading nations such as the United States, Germany, the UK, Japan and France.

Nano also reveals the extent of China’s international collaborations in nano research. China has seen the percentage of its internationally collaborated papers increasing from 36% in 2014 to 44% in 2016. This level of international collaboration, similar to that of South Korea, is still much lower than that of the western countries, and the rate of growth is also not as fast as those in the United States, France and Germany.

The United States is China’s biggest international collaborator, contributing to 55% of China’s internationally collaborated papers on nanoscience that are included in the top 30 journals in the Nano database. Germany, Australia and Japan follow in a descending order as China’s collaborators on nano-related quality papers.

China’s patent output: topping the world, mostly applied domestically

Analysis of the Derwent Innovation Index (DII) database of Clarivate Analytics shows that China’s accumulative total number of patent applications for the past 20 years, amounting to 209,344 applications, or 45% of the global total, is more than twice as many as that of the United States, the second largest contributor to nano-related patents. China surpassed the United States and ranked the top in the world since 2008.

Five Chinese institutions, including the CAS, Zhejiang University, Tsinghua University, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. and Tianjin University can be found among the global top 10 institutional contributors to nano-related patent applications. CAS has been at the top of the global rankings since 2008, with a total of 11,218 patent applications for the past 20 years. Interestingly, outside of China, most of the other big institutional contributors among the top 10 are commercial enterprises, while in China, research or academic institutions are leading in patent applications.

However, the number of nano-related patents China applied overseas is still very low, accounting for only 2.61% of its total patent applications for the last 20 years cumulatively, whereas the proportion in the United States is nearly 50%. In some European countries, including the UK and France, more than 70% of patent applications are filed overseas.

China has high numbers of patent applications in several popular technical areas for nanotechnology use, and is strongest in patents for polymer compositions and macromolecular compounds. In comparison, nano-related patent applications in the United States, South Korea and Japan are mainly for electronics or semiconductor devices, with the United States leading the world in the cumulative number of patents for semiconductor devices.

Outlook, opportunities and challenges

The white paper highlights that the rapid rise of China’s research output and patent applications has painted a rosy picture for the development of Chinese nanoscience, and in both the traditionally strong subjects and newly emerging areas, Chinese nanoscience shows great potential.

Several interviewed experts in the survey identify catalysis and catalytic nanomaterials as the most promising nanoscience area for China. The use of nanotechnology in the energy and medical sectors was also considered very promising.

Some of the interviewed experts commented that the industrial impact of China’s nanotechnology is limited and there is still a gap between nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies. Therefore, they recommended that the government invest more in applied research to drive the translation of nanoscience research and find ways to encourage enterprises to invest more in R&D.

As more and more young scientists enter the field, the competition for research funding is becoming more intense. However, this increasing competition for funding was not found to concern most interviewed young scientists, rather, they emphasized that the soft environment is more important. They recommended establishing channels that allow the suggestions or creative ideas of the young to be heard. Also, some interviewed young researchers commented that they felt that the current evaluation system was geared towards past achievements or favoured overseas experience, and recommended the development of an improved talent selection mechanism to ensure a sustainable growth of China’s nanoscience.

I have taken a look at the white paper and found it to be well written. It also provides a brief but thorough history of nanotechnology/nanoscience even adding a bit of historical information that was new to me. As for the rest of the white paper, it relies on bibliometrics (number of published papers and number of citations) and number of patents filed to lay the groundwork for claiming Chinese leadership in nanotechnology. As I’ve stated many times before, these are problematic measures but as far as I can determine they are almost the only ones we have. Frankly, as a Canadian, it doesn’t much matter to me since Canada no matter how you slice or dice it is always in a lower tier relative to science leadership in major fields. It’s the Americans who might feel inclined to debate leadership with regard to nanotechnology and other major fields and I leave it to to US commentators to take up the cudgels should they be inclined. The big bonuses here are the history, the glimpse into the Chinese perspective on the field of nanotechnology/nanoscience, and the analysis of weaknesses and strengths.

Coming up fast on Google and Amazon

A November 16, 2017 article by Christina Bonnington for Slate explores the possibility that a Chinese tech giant, Baidu,  will provide Google and Amazon serious competition in their quests to dominate world markets (Note: Links have been removed,

raven_h
The company took a playful approach to the form—but it has functional reasons for the design, too. Baidu

 

One of the most interesting companies in tech right now isn’t based in Palo Alto, or San Francisco, or Seattle. Baidu, a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing, is taking on America’s biggest and most innovative tech titans—with style.

Baidu, a titan in its own right, leapt onto the scene as a competitor to Google in the search engine space. Since then, the company, largely underappreciated here in the U.S., has focused on beefing up its artificial intelligence efforts. Former AI chief Andrew Ng, upon leaving the company in March, credited Baidu’s CEO Robin Li on being one of the first technology leaders to fully appreciate the value of deep learning. Baidu now has a 1,300 person AI group, and that investment in AI has helped the company catch up to older, more established companies like Google and Amazon—both in emerging spaces, such as autonomous vehicles, and in consumer tech, as its latest announcement shows.

On Thursday [November 16, 2017], Baidu debuted its entrants to the popular virtual assistant space: a connected speaker and two robots. Baidu aims for the speaker to compete against options such as Amazon’s Echo line, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. Inside, the $256 device will utilize Baidu’s DuerOS conversational artificial intelligence platform, which is already used in more than 100 different smart home brands’ products. DuerOS will let you use your voice to do things like ask the speaker for information, play music, or hail a cab. Called the Raven H, the speaker includes high-end audio components from Tymphany and a unique design jointly created by acquired startup Raven Tech and Swedish consumer electronics company Teenage Engineering.

While the focus is on exciting new technology products from Baidu, the subtext, such as it is, suggests US companies had best keep an eye on its Chinese competitor(s).

Dutch/Chinese partnership to produce nanoparticles at the touch of a button

Now back to China and nanotechnology leadership and the production of nanoparticles. This announcement was made in a November 17, 2017 news item on Azonano,

Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] spin-off VSPARTICLE enters the booming Chinese market with a radical technology that allows researchers to produce nanoparticles at the push of a button. VSPARTICLE’s nanoparticle generator uses atoms, the worlds’ smallest building blocks, to provide a controllable source of nanoparticles. The start-up from Delft signed a distribution agreement with Bio-Sun to make their VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator available in China.

A November 16, 2017 VSPARTICLE press release, which originated the news item,

“We are honoured to cooperate with VSPARTICLE and bring the innovative VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator into the Chinese market. The VSP-G1 will create new possibilities for researchers in catalysis, aerosol, healthcare and electronics,” says Yinghui Cai, CEO of Bio-Sun.

With an exponential growth in nanoparticle research in the last decade, China is one of the leading countries in the field of nanotechnology and its applications. Vincent Laban, CFO of VSPARTICLE, explains: “Due to its immense investments in IOT, sensors, semiconductor technology, renewable energy and healthcare applications, China will eventually become one of our biggest markets. The collaboration with Bio-Sun offers a valuable opportunity to enter the Chinese market at exactly the right time.”

NANOPARTICLES ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE

Increasingly, scientists are focusing on nanoparticles as a key technology in enabling the transition to a sustainable future. Nanoparticles are used to make new types of sensors and smart electronics; provide new imaging and treatment possibilities in healthcare; and reduce harmful waste in chemical processes.

CURRENT RESEARCH TOOLKIT LACKS A FAST WAY FOR MAKING SPECIFIC BUILDING BLOCKS

With the latest tools in nanotechnology, researchers are exploring the possibilities of building novel materials. This is, however, a trial-and-error method. Getting the right nanoparticles often is a slow struggle, as most production methods take a substantial amount of effort and time to develop.

VSPARTICLE’S VSP-G1 NANOPARTICLE GENERATOR

With the VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator, VSPARTICLE makes the production of nanoparticles as easy as pushing a button. . Easy and fast iterations enable researchers to fast forward their research cycle, and verify their hypotheses.

VSPARTICLE

Born out of the research labs of Delft University of Technology, with over 20 years of experience in the synthesis of aerosol, VSPARTICLE believes there is a whole new world of possibilities and materials at the nanoscale. The company was founded in 2014 and has an international sales network in Europe, Japan and China.

BIO-SUN

Bio-Sun was founded in Beijing in 2010 and is a leader in promoting nanotechnology and biotechnology instruments in China. It serves many renowned customers in life science, drug discovery and material science. Bio-Sun has four branch offices in Qingdao, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan City, and a nationwide sale network.

That’s all folks!