Monthly Archives: January 2022

Asparagus spinal cord?

I love this picture,

Pelling in the kitchen with asparagus, the veggie that inspired his work on spinal cord injuries. Credit: Andrew Pelling?

The image accompanies Cari Shane’s August 4, 2021 article for Atlas Obscura’s Gastro Obscura about Andrew Pelling and his asparagus-based scaffolds for spinal cord stem cells (Note: A link has been removed),

Around 10 years ago, Pelling [Dr. Andrew Pelling at the University of Ottawa], a biophysicist, started thinking with his team about materials that could be used to reconstruct damaged or diseased human tissues. Surrounded by a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables at his University of Ottawa lab, Pelling and his team dismantle biological systems, mixing and matching parts, and put them back together in new and creative ways. It’s a little bit like a hacker who takes parts from a phone, a computer, and a car to build a robotic arm. Or like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who built a monster out of cadavers. Except Pelling’s team has turned an apple into an ear and, most recently, a piece of asparagus into a scaffold for spinal-cord implants.

Pelling believes the future of regenerative medicine—which uses external therapies to help the body heal, the same way a cut heals by itself or a broken bone can mend without surgery—is in the supermarket produce aisle. He calls it “augmented biology,” and it’s a lot less expensive—by thousands and thousands of dollars—than implanting organs donated by humans, taken from animals, or manmade or bioengineered from animal tissue.

Decellularization as a process for implantation is fairly new, developed in the mid 1990s primarily by Doris Taylor. By washing out the genetic materials that make an apple an apple, for example, you are left with plant tissue, or a “cellulose mesh,” explains Pelling. “What we’re doing is washing out all the plant DNA, RNA proteins, all that sort of stuff that can cause immune responses, and rejection. And we’re just leaving behind the fiber in a plant—like literally the stuff that gets stuck in your teeth.”

When Pelling noticed the resemblance between a decellularized apple slice and an ear, he saw the true potential of his lab games. If he implanted the apple scaffolding into a living animal, he wondered, would it “be accepted” and vascularize? That is, would the test animal’s body glom onto the plant cells as if they weren’t a dangerous, foreign body and instead send out signals to create a blood supply, allowing the plant tissue to become a living part of the animal’s body? The answer was yes. “Suddenly, and by accident, we developed a material that has huge therapeutic and regenerative potential,” says Pelling. The apple ear does not enable hearing, and it remains in the animal-testing phase, but it may have applications for aesthetic implantation.

Soon after his breakthrough apple experiment, which was published in 2016 and earned him the moniker of “mad scientist,” Pelling shifted his focus to asparagus. The idea hit him when he was cooking. Looking at the end of a spear, he thought, “Hey, it looks like a spinal cord. What the hell? Maybe we can do something,” he says.

… Pelling implanted decellularized asparagus tissue under the skin of a lab rat. In just a few weeks, blood vessels flowed through the asparagus scaffolding; healthy cells from the animal moved into the tissue and turned the scaffold into living tissue. “The surprise here was that the body, instead of rejecting this material, it actually integrated into the material,” says Pelling. In the bioengineering world, getting that to happen has typically been a major challenge.

And then came the biggest surprise of all. Rats with severed spinal cords that had been implanted with the asparagus tissue were able to walk again, just a few weeks after implantation. …

While using asparagus tissue as scaffolding to repair spinal cords is not a “miracle cure,” says Pelling, it’s unlike the kinds of implants that have come before. Donated or manufactured organs are historically both more complicated and more expensive. Pelling’s implants were “done without stem cells or electrical stimulation or exoskeletons, or any of the usual approaches, but rather using very low cost, accessible materials that we honestly just bought at the grocery store,” he says, “and, we achieved the same level of recovery.” (At least in animal tests.) Plus, whereas patients usually need lifelong immunosuppressants, which can have negative side effects, to prevent their body from rejecting an implant, that doesn’t seem necessary with Pelling’s plant-based implants. And, so far, the plant-based implants don’t seem to break down over time like traditional spinal-cord implants. “The inertness of plant tissue is exactly why it’s so biocompatible,” says Pelling.

In October 2020, the asparagus implant was designated as a “breakthrough device” by the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]. The designation means human trials will be fast-tracked and likely begin in a few years. …

Shane’s August 4, 2021 article is fascinating and well illustrated with a number of embedded images. If you have the time and the inclination, do read it.

More of Pelling’s work can be found here at the Pelling Lab website. He was mentioned (by name only as a participant in the second Canadian DIY Biology Summit organized by the Public Health Agency of Canada [PHAC]) here in an April 21, 2020 posting (my 10 year review of science culture in Canada). You’ll find the Pelling mention under the DIY Biology subhead about 20% of the way down the screen.

Tiny Matters: podcast from the American Chemical Society (ACS)

I was expecting a news release mentioning some of the smaller scales at which scientists work, e.g., micro, nano, pico, femto, etc. That was not the case.

From a January 26, 2022 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release on EurekAlert,

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is producing a new, biweekly science podcast called Tiny Matters, which is available wherever you listen to podcasts. Head to ACS’ website or your favorite platform and subscribe.

The first episode drops today. Hosts Sam Jones, Ph.D., and Deboki Chakravarti, Ph.D., chat with experts about the ancient beasts that went extinct 65 million years ago, but whose remains still captivate us today — dinosaurs. Scientists around the world regularly discover new fossils, and that helps piece together the mystery of what dinosaurs and other extinct creatures were like. That information doesn’t just inspire movies like “Jurassic Park”; it also helps researchers predict Earth’s future and could even lead to more sustainable technology.

Tiny Matters is a science podcast about things small in size but big in impact. Every other Wednesday, the hosts will uncover little stuff that makes big stuff possible. Upcoming episodes will find them answering questions such as “How does our brain form memories?”, “Why haven’t we terraformed Mars yet?” and “Why isn’t there a vaccine for HIV?” Tune in!

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS’ mission is to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and all its people. The Society is a global leader in promoting excellence in science education and providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple research solutions, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, eBooks and weekly news periodical Chemical & Engineering News. ACS journals are among the most cited, most trusted and most read within the scientific literature; however, ACS itself does not conduct chemical research. As a leader in scientific information solutions, its CAS division partners with global innovators to accelerate breakthroughs by curating, connecting and analyzing the world’s scientific knowledge. ACS’ main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

I was not expecting dinosaurs and fossils. So, I listened.

First, it’s not that easy to define what a fossil is. (I had no idea this was a problem.) And, the hosts interview a scientist who studies what happens to fossils at the molecular level, which in this case means DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and proteins. it;s a field known as molecular taphonomy.

I found the programme fascinating (scientists think dinosaurs were feathered; they mention evolutionary photonics and structural colour). This despite the fact I’m not very interested in dinosaurs or fossils. Bravo to the hosts for keeping it interesting and light while providing lots of technical information.

(I imagine that the excessive perkiness and multiple declarations that something or other is cool are a consequence of nerves when recording the first episode in a brand new podcast series.)

Getting back to the strengths, the hosts (Jones and Chakravarti) have taken some very technical material and found a way to describe it without patronizing the listener or making it impossible to understand.

For people who prefer to read, there’s a transcript of the first episode here. The scientists interviewed in the “Dinosaur Fossils: Inspiring Jurassic Park and helping us predict Earth’s future” episode were Caitlin Colleary, a paleontologist at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (Ohio), Emma Dunne, a paleobiologist at University of Birmingham (England), and Vinod Saranathan, a physicist and evolutionary biologist at Yale-NUS [National University of Singapore] College in Singapore.

Orca-shaped puzzle pieces in puzzle for orca conservation

H/t to Rebecca Bollwitt’s’s January 26, 2022 posting about a puzzle being used to help raise funds for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. ($20 from each puzzle sold will be donated to the foundation.)

[puzzle image downloaded from]

I am fascinated by the orca-shaped pieces. Here’s more about the puzzle from the January 26, 2022 Miss604 posting (Note: A link has been removed),

The Rise puzzle is unique in its design, even for the innovative Puzzle Lab. It features 206 identical orca-shaped pieces in an Escher-style tessellation pattern. The technology in Puzzle Lab draws from cofounder Andrew Robev’s knowledge of parametric, computational, and generative design, involving writing custom computer algorithms to generate highly complex geometry and digital fabrication (using robotic tools such as a laser cutter, 3D printer, or CNC router). 

The January 26, 2022 Miss604 posting features an image of the whole puzzle along with a succinct description of the project and the people behind it.

Puzzle Lab?

According to Puzzle Lab’s About Us page, they make puzzles you can feel good about,

Puzzle Lab was founded by Tinka Robev and Andrew Azzopardi, who met studying architecture at the University of Waterloo in 2012.

The couple moved to Victoria, BC in 2014 where they started Studio Robazzo, a multidisciplinary design & branding agency.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they came up with the idea to launch a puzzle company to encourage more people to get off their devices and into the real world. Sharon Parker joined them and Puzzle Lab was born in the fall of 2020.

Since its founding, Puzzle Lab has been dedicated to fabricating heirloom-quality puzzles as well as providing a platform for talented Canadian artists.

a next-level puzzling experience

Our heirloom-quality wood puzzles merge technology, art, and nature.

We start by curating stunning graphics and local art. Next, the wacky puzzle pieces are created in our digital laboratory with custom computer algorithms. Then, they’re laser cut at our studio in the heart of Victoria, BC.

Each puzzle design has a unique cut pattern, so you won’t find the same piece twice!

You won’t find the same shape twice? it seems an exception has been made for Rise.


The company solicits artwork for its puzzles (from the Artist Submission page),

Winter 2021-2022

Please fill out the form below to submit your artwork, and/or share this page with artists in your community to help us spread the word!This is a paid opportunity: all selected artists receive ongoing royalties on the puzzles sold using their licensed artwork(s).

The Rise artwork is by Art by Di,

Beauty of nature is the key inspiration behind Di’s contemporary west coast acrylic paintings. With a focus on light, color and movement Di seeks to reduce the endless detail of life into simple form and palette, allowing viewers’ imaginations to fill in details of time and place. …

… The artist lives and works on Bowen Island, Canada.

Filling in the last pieces

You can find more of Puzzle Lab’s work on their Instagram account. Should you be interested in purchasing a Rise wood jigsaw puzzle,

Strength. Resilience. Recovery. ‘Rise’ is a celebration of life – a celebration of Howe Sound. It is a celebration of cleaner air, cleaner water, cleaner land. Lose yourself in this enchanting west coast scene as you take on a uniquely challenging wood jigsaw puzzle composed of just over 200 identical orca-shaped pieces seamlessly tiled in an Escher-style tessellation pattern.

This exciting Puzzle with a Purpose supports the wildlife conservation efforts of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

It is $100.

Again, the organization receiving the $20 donation from the purchase price is the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Highly scalable neuromorphic (brainlike) computing hardware

This work comes from Korea (or South Korea, if you prefer). An August 5, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily announces a step forward in the future production of neuromorphic hardware,

KAIST [The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology] researchers fabricated a brain-inspired highly scalable neuromorphic hardware by co-integrating single transistor neurons and synapses. Using standard silicon complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology, the neuromorphic hardware is expected to reduce chip cost and simplify fabrication procedures.

Caption: Single transistor neurons and synapses fabricated using a standard silicon CMOS process. They are co-integrated on the same 8-inch wafer. Credit: KAIST

An August 5, 2021 The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The research team led by Yang-Kyu Choi and Sung-Yool Choi produced a [sic] neurons and synapses based on single transistor for highly scalable neuromorphic hardware and showed the ability to recognize text and face images. This research was featured in Science Advances on August 4 [2021].

Neuromorphic hardware has attracted a great deal of attention because of its artificial intelligence functions, but consuming ultra-low power of less than 20 watts by mimicking the human brain. To make neuromorphic hardware work, a neuron that generates a spike when integrating a certain signal, and a synapse remembering the connection between two neurons are necessary, just like the biological brain. However, since neurons and synapses constructed on digital or analog circuits occupy a large space, there is a limit in terms of hardware efficiency and costs. Since the human brain consists of about 1011 neurons and 1014 synapses, it is necessary to improve the hardware cost in order to apply it to mobile and IoT devices.

To solve the problem, the research team mimicked the behavior of biological neurons and synapses with a single transistor, and co-integrated them onto an 8-inch wafer. The manufactured neuromorphic transistors have the same structure as the transistors for memory and logic that are currently mass-produced. In addition, the neuromorphic transistors proved for the first time that they can be implemented with a ‘Janus structure’ that functions as both neuron and synapse, just like coins have heads and tails.

Professor Yang-Kyu Choi said that this work can dramatically reduce the hardware cost by replacing the neurons and synapses that were based on complex digital and analog circuits with a single transistor. “We have demonstrated that neurons and synapses can be implemented using a single transistor,” said Joon-Kyu Han, the first author. “By co-integrating single transistor neurons and synapses on the same wafer using a standard CMOS process, the hardware cost of the neuromorphic hardware has been improved, which will accelerate the commercialization of neuromorphic hardware,” Han added.This research was supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and IC Design Education Center (IDEC). 

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

Cointegration of single-transistor neurons and synapses by nanoscale CMOS fabrication for highly scalable neuromorphic hardware by Joon-Kyu Han, Jungyeop Oh, Gyeong-Jun Yun, Dongeun Yoo, Myung-Su Kim, Ji-Man Yu, Sung-Yool Choi, and Yang-Kyu Choi. Science Advances 04 Aug 2021: Vol. 7, no. 32, eabg8836 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abg8836

This article appears to be open access.

Night of ideas/Nuit des idées 2022: (Re)building Together on January 27, 2022 (7th edition in Canada)

Vancouver and other Canadian cities are participating in an international culture event, Night of ideas/Nuit des idées, organized by the French Institute (Institut de France), a French Learned society first established in 1795 (during the French Revolution, which ran from 1789 to 1799 [Wikipedia entry]).

Before getting to the Canadian event, here’s more about the Night of Ideas from the event’s About Us page,

Initiated in 2016 during an exceptional evening that brought together in Paris foremost French and international thinkers invited to discuss the major issues of our time, the Night of Ideas has quickly become a fixture of the French and international agenda. Every year, on the last Thursday of January, the French Institute invites all cultural and educational institutions in France and on all five continents to celebrate the free flow of ideas and knowledge by offering, on the same evening, conferences, meetings, forums and round tables, as well as screenings, artistic performances and workshops, around a theme each one of them revisits in its own fashion.

“(Re)building together

For the 7th Night of Ideas, which will take place on 27 January 2022, the theme “(Re)building together” has been chosen to explore the resilience and reconstruction of societies faced with singular challenges, solidarity and cooperation between individuals, groups and states, the mobilisation of civil societies and the challenges of building and making our objects. This Nuit des Idées will also be marked by the beginning of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

According to the About Us page, the 2021 event counted participants in 104 countries/190 cities/with other 200 events.

The French embassy in Canada (Ambassade de France au Canada) has a Night of Ideas/Nuit des idées 2022 webpage listing the Canadian events (Note: The times are local, e.g., 5 pm in Ottawa),

Ottawa: (Re)building through the arts, together

Moncton: (Re)building Together: How should we (re)think and (re)habilitate the post-COVID world?

Halifax: (Re)building together: Climate change — Building bridges between the present and future

Toronto: A World in Common

Edmonton: Introduction of the neutral pronoun “iel” — Can language influence the construction of identity?

Vancouver: (Re)building together with NFTs

Victoria: Committing in a time of uncertainty

Here’s a little more about the Vancouver event, from the Night of Ideas/Nuit des idées 2022 webpage,

Vancouver: (Re)building together with NFTs [non-fungible tokens]

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, can be used as blockchain-based proofs of ownership. The new NFT “phenomenon” can be applied to any digital object: photos, videos, music, video game elements, and even tweets or highlights from sporting events.

Millions of dollars can be on the line when it comes to NFTs granting ownership rights to “crypto arts.” In addition to showing the signs of being a new speculative bubble, the market for NFTs could also lead to new experiences in online video gaming or in museums, and could revolutionize the creation and dissemination of works of art.

This evening will be an opportunity to hear from artists and professionals in the arts, technology and academia and to gain a better understanding of the opportunities that NFTs present for access to and the creation and dissemination of art and culture. Jesse McKee, Head of Strategy at 221A, Philippe Pasquier, Professor at School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SFU) and Rhea Myers, artist, hacker and writer will share their experiences in a session moderated by Dorothy Woodend, cultural editor for The Tyee.

- 7 p.m on Zoom (registration here) Event broadcast online on France Canada Culture’s Facebook. In English.

Not all of the events are in both languages.

One last thing, if you have some French and find puppets interesting, the event in Victoria, British Columbia features both, “Catherine Léger, linguist and professor at the University of Victoria, with whom we will discover and come to accept the diversity of French with the help of marionnettes [puppets]; … .”

Resisting silver’s microbial properties?

Yes, it is possible for bacteria to become resistant to silver nanoparticles. However, that yes comes with some qualifications according to a July 13, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

Antimicrobials are used to kill or slow the growth of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. They can be in the form of antibiotics, used to treat bodily infections, or as an additive or coating on commercial products used to keep germs at bay. These life-saving tools are essential to preventing and treating infections in humans, animals and plants, but they also pose a global threat to public health when microorganisms develop resistance to them, a concept known as antimicrobial resistance.

One of the main drivers of antimicrobial resistance is the misuse and overuse of antimicrobial agents, which includes silver nanoparticles, [emphases mine] an advanced material with well-documented antimicrobial properties. It is increasingly used in commercial products that boast enhanced germ-killing performance — it has been woven into textiles, coated onto toothbrushes, and even mixed into cosmetics as a preservative.

The Gilbertson Group at the University of Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania, US} Swanson School of Engineering used laboratory strains of E.coli to better understand bacterial resistance to silver nanoparticles and attempt to get ahead of the potential misuse of this material. The team recently published their results in Nature Nanotechnology.

Caption: A depiction of hyper-motile E.coli, a strain of bacteria found to resist silver nanoparticles’ antimicrobial properties after repeated exposure. Credit: Lisa Stabryla/University of Pittsburgh.

A July 13, 2021 University of Pittsburgh news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

“Bacterial resistance to silver nanoparticles is understudied, so our group looked at the mechanisms behind this event,” said Lisa Stabryla, lead author on the paper and a recent civil and environmental PhD graduate at Pitt. “This is a promising innovation to add to our arsenal of antimicrobials, but we need to consciously study it and perhaps regulate its use to avoid decreased efficacy like we’ve seen with some common antibiotics.”

Stabryla exposed E.coli to 20 consecutive days of silver nanoparticles and monitored bacterial growth over time. Nanoparticles are roughly 50 times smaller than a bacterium.

“In the beginning, bacteria could only survive at low concentrations of silver nanoparticles, but as the experiment continued, we found that they could survive at higher doses,” Stabryla noted. “Interestingly, we found that bacteria developed resistance to the silver nanoparticles but not their released silver ions alone.”

The group sequenced the genome of the E.coli that had been exposed to silver nanoparticles and found a mutation in a gene that corresponds to an efflux pump that pushes heavy metal ions out of the cell.

“It is possible that some form of silver is getting into the cell, and when it arrives, the cell mutates to quickly pump it out,” she added. “More work is needed to determine if researchers can perhaps overcome this mechanism of resistance through particle design.”

The group then studied two different types of E.coli: a hyper-motile strain that swims through its environment more quickly than normally motile bacteria and a non-motile strain that does not have physical means for moving around. They found that only the hyper-motile strain developed resistance.

“This finding could suggest that silver nanoparticles may be a good option to target certain types of bacteria, particularly non-motile strains,” Stabryla said.

In the end, bacteria will still find a way to evolve and evade antimicrobials. The hope is that an understanding of the mechanisms that lead to this evolution and a mindful use of new antimicrobials will lessen the impact of antimicrobial resistance.

“We are the first to look at bacterial motility effects on the ability to develop resistance to silver nanoparticles,” said Leanne Gilbertson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt. “The observed difference is really interesting and merits further investigation to understand it and how to link the genetic response – the efflux pump regulation – to the bacteria’s ability to move in the system.

“The results are promising for being able to tune particle properties for a desired response, such as high efficacy while avoiding resistance.”

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

Role of bacterial motility in differential resistance mechanisms of silver nanoparticles and silver ions by Lisa M. Stabryla, Kathryn A. Johnston, Nathan A. Diemler, Vaughn S. Cooper, Jill E. Millstone, Sarah-Jane Haig & Leanne M. Gilbertson. Nature Nanotechnology (2021) DOI: Published: 21 June 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

“The Immune System: Our Great Protector Against Dangerous Stuff” talk at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Café Scientifique on Thursday January 27, 2022 from 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm PST

This is from a January 13, 2022 SFU Café Scientifique notice (received via email),

Happy New Year! We are excited to announce our next virtual SFU Café

 Thursday January 27, 2022, 5:00-6:30 pm

 Dr. Jonathan Choy, SFU Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

The Immune System: Our Great Protector Against Dangerous Stuff

Our bodies are constantly in contact with material in the environment,
such as microbes, that are harmful to our health. Despite this, most
people are healthy because the immune system patrols our bodies and
protects us from these harmful environmental components. In this Cafe
Scientifique, Dr. Jonathan Choy from the Department of Molecular Biology
and Biochemistry will discuss how the immune system does this.

Register here to receive a zoom invite:

I found Dr. Choy’s profile page on the SFU website and found this description for his research interests,

T Cell Biology 

T cells are specialized cells of the immune system that protect host organisms from infection but that also contribute to a wide array of human diseases. Research in my laboratory is focused on understanding the mechanisms by which T cells become inappropriately activated in disease settings and how they cause organ damage. We have provided particular attention to how innate immune signals, such as cytokines secreted by innate immune cells and vascular cells, control the outcome of T cell responses. Within this context, processes that inhibit the activation of T cells are also being studied in order to potentially prevent disease-causing immune responses. Our studies on this topic are applied most directly to inflammatory vascular diseases, such as transplant arteriosclerosis and giant cell arteritis.

Nitric Oxide Signaling and Production 

Nitric oxide (NO) is a bioactive gas that controls many cell biological responses. Dysregulation of its production and/or bioactivity is involved in many diseases. My laboratory is interested in understanding how NO effects cell signaling and how its production is controlled by NO synthases. We are specifically interested in how NO-mediated protein S-nitrosylation, a post-translational modification caused by NO, affects cell signaling pathways and cellular functions.

I gather from the Café Scientifique write up that Dr. Choy’s talk is intended for a more general audience as opposed to the description of his research interests which are intended for students of molecular biology and biochemistry/

For those who are unfamiliar with it, Simon Fraser University is located in the Vancouver area (Canada).

East/West collaboration on scholarship and imagination about humanity’s long-term future— six new fellows at Berggruen Research Center at Peking University

According to a January 4, 2022 Berggruen Institute (also received via email), they have appointed a new crop of fellows for their research center at Peking University,

The Berggruen Institute has announced six scientists and philosophers to serve as Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. These eminent scholars will work together across disciplines to explore how the great transformations of our time may shift human experience and self-understanding in the decades and centuries to come.

The new Fellows are Chenjian Li, University Chair Professor at Peking University; Xianglong Zhang, professor of philosophy at Peking University; Xiaoli Liu, professor of philosophy at Renmin University of China; Jianqiao Ge, lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University; Xiaoping Chen, Director of the Robotics Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China; and Haidan Chen, associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University.

“Amid the pandemic, climate change, and the rest of the severe challenges of today, our Fellows are surmounting linguistic and cultural barriers to imagine positive futures for all people,” said Bing Song, Director of the China Center and Vice President of the Berggruen Institute. “Dialogue and shared understanding are crucial if we are to understand what today’s breakthroughs in science and technology really mean for the human community and the planet we all share.”

The Fellows will investigate deep questions raised by new understandings and capabilities in science and technology, exploring their implications for philosophy and other areas of study.  Chenjian Li is considering the philosophical and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. Meanwhile, Haidan Chen is exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China, while Xiaoli Liu is studying philosophical issues arising from the intersections among psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art.

Jianqiao Ge’s project considers the impact of artificial intelligence on the human brain, given the relative recency of its evolution into current form. Xianglong Zhang’s work explores the interplay between literary culture and the development of technology. Finally, Xiaoping Chen is developing a new concept for describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Fellows at the China Center meet monthly with the Institute’s Los Angeles-based Fellows. These fora provide an opportunity for all Fellows to share and discuss their work. Through this cross-cultural dialogue, the Institute is helping to ensure continued high-level of ideas among China, the United States, and the rest of the world about some of the deepest and most fundamental questions humanity faces today.

“Changes in our capability and understanding of the physical world affect all of humanity, and questions about their implications must be pondered at a cross-cultural level,” said Bing. “Through multidisciplinary dialogue that crosses the gulf between East and West, our Fellows are pioneering new thought about what it means to be human.”

Haidan Chen is associate professor of medical ethics and law at the School of Health Humanities at Peking University. She was a visiting postgraduate researcher at the Institute for the Study of Science Technology and Innovation (ISSTI), the University of Edinburgh; a visiting scholar at the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland; and a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University. Her research interests embrace the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of genetics and genomics, and the governance of emerging technologies, in particular stem cells, biobanks, precision medicine, and brain science. Her publications appear at Social Science & MedicineBioethics and other journals.

Xiaoping Chen is the director of the Robotics Laboratory at University of Science and Technology of China. He also currently serves as the director of the Robot Technical Standard Innovation Base, an executive member of the Global AI Council, Chair of the Chinese RoboCup Committee, and a member of the International RoboCup Federation’s Board of Trustees. He has received the USTC’s Distinguished Research Presidential Award and won Best Paper at IEEE ROBIO 2016. His projects have won the IJCAI’s Best Autonomous Robot and Best General-Purpose Robot awards as well as twelve world champions at RoboCup. He proposed an intelligent technology pathway for robots based on Open Knowledge and the Rong-Cha principle, which have been implemented and tested in the long-term research on KeJia and JiaJia intelligent robot systems.

Jianqiao Ge is a lecturer at the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (AAIS) at Peking University. Before, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago and the Principal Investigator / Co-Investigator of more than 10 research grants supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and Beijing Municipal Science & Technology Commission. She has published more than 20 peer-reviewed articles on leading academic journals such as PNAS, the Journal of Neuroscience, and has been awarded two national patents. In 2008, by scanning the human brain with functional MRI, Ge and her collaborator were among the first to confirm that the human brain engages distinct neurocognitive strategies to comprehend human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Ge received her Ph.D. in psychology, B.S in physics, a double B.S in mathematics and applied mathematics, and a double B.S in economics from Peking University.

Chenjian Li is the University Chair Professor of Peking University. He also serves on the China Advisory Board of Eli Lilly and Company, the China Advisory Board of Cornell University, and the Rhodes Scholar Selection Committee. He is an alumnus of Peking University’s Biology Department, Peking Union Medical College, and Purdue University. He was the former Vice Provost of Peking University, Executive Dean of Yuanpei College, and Associate Dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. Prior to his return to China, he was an associate professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and the Aidekman Endowed Chair of Neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Li’s academic research focuses on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of neurological diseases, cancer drug development, and gene-editing and its philosophical and ethical considerations. Li also writes as a public intellectual on science and humanity, and his Chinese translation of Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? received the 2001 National Publisher’s Book Award.

Xiaoli Liu is professor of philosophy at Renmin University. She is also Director of the Chinese Society of Philosophy of Science Leader. Her primary research interests are philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science and philosophy of cognitive science. Her main works are “Life of Reason: A Study of Gödel’s Thought,” “Challenges of Cognitive Science to Contemporary Philosophy,” “Philosophical Issues in the Frontiers of Cognitive Science.” She edited “Symphony of Mind and Machine” and series of books “Mind and Cognition.” In 2003, she co-founded the “Mind and Machine workshop” with interdisciplinary scholars, which has held 18 consecutive annual meetings. Liu received her Ph.D. from Peking University and was a senior visiting scholar in Harvard University.

Xianglong Zhang is a professor of philosophy at Peking University. His research areas include Confucian philosophy, phenomenology, Western and Eastern comparative philosophy. His major works (in Chinese except where noted) include: Heidegger’s Thought and Chinese Tao of HeavenBiography of HeideggerFrom Phenomenology to ConfuciusThe Exposition and Comments of Contemporary Western Philosophy; The Exposition and Comments of Classic Western PhilosophyThinking to Take Refuge: The Chinese Ancient Philosophies in the GlobalizationLectures on the History of Confucian Philosophy (four volumes); German Philosophy, German Culture and Chinese Philosophical ThinkingHome and Filial Piety: From the View between the Chinese and the Western.

About the Berggruen China Center
Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and life science have led to the fourth scientific and technological revolution. The Berggruen China Center is a hub for East-West research and dialogue dedicated to the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of the transformations affecting humanity. Intellectual themes for research programs are focused on frontier sciences, technologies, and philosophy, as well as issues involving digital governance and globalization.

About the Berggruen Institute:
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and launched Noema, a new publication that brings thought leaders from around the world together to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award, is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.

You can find out more about the Berggruen China Center here and you can access a list along with biographies of all the Berggruen Institute fellows here.

Getting ready

I look forward to hearing about the projects from these thinkers.

Gene editing and ethics

I may have to reread some books in anticipation of Chenjian Li’s philosophical work and ethical considerations of gene editing technology. I wonder if there’ll be any reference to the He Jiankui affair.

(Briefly for those who may not be familiar with the situation, He claimed to be the first to gene edit babies. In November 2018, news about the twins, Lulu and Nana, was a sensation and He was roundly criticized for his work. I have not seen any information about how many babies were gene edited for He’s research; there could be as many as six. My July 28, 2020 posting provided an update. I haven’t stumbled across anything substantive since then.)

There are two books I recommend should you be interested in gene editing, as told through the lens of the He Jiankui affair. If you can, read both as that will give you a more complete picture.

In no particular order: This book provides an extensive and accessible look at the science, the politics of scientific research, and some of the pressures on scientists of all countries. Kevin Davies’ 2020 book, “Editing Humanity; the CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing” provides an excellent introduction from an insider. Here’s more from Davies’ biographical sketch,

Kevin Davies is the executive editor of The CRISPR Journal and the founding editor of Nature Genetics . He holds an MA in biochemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of London. He is the author of Cracking the Genome, The $1,000 Genome, and co-authored a new edition of DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution with Nobel Laureate James D. Watson and Andrew Berry. …

The other book is “The Mutant Project; Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans” (2020) by Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist who has an undergraduate degree in one of the sciences. He too provides scientific underpinning but his focus is on the cultural and personal underpinnings of the He Jiankui affair, on the culture of science research, irrespective of where it’s practiced, and the culture associated with the DIY (do-it-yourself) Biology community. Here’s more from Kirksey’s biographical sketch,

EBEN KIRKSEY is an American anthropologist and Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been published in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Sunday Times . He is sought out as an expert on science in society by the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Democracy Now, Time and the BBC, among other media outlets. He speaks widely at the world’s leading academic institutions including Oxford, Yale, Columbia, UCLA, and the International Summit of Human Genome Editing, plus music festivals, art exhibits, and community events. Professor Kirksey holds a long-term position at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Brain/computer interfaces (BCI)

I’m happy to see that Haidan Chen will be exploring the social implications of brain/computer interface technologies in China. I haven’t seen much being done here in Canada but my December 23, 2021 posting, Your cyborg future (brain-computer interface) is closer than you think, highlights work being done at the Imperial College London (ICL),

“For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial,” said Rylie Green, one of the authors. “It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self.”

You might also find my September 17, 2020 posting has some useful information. Check under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead for another story about attachment to one’s brain implant and also the “Finally” subhead for more reading suggestions.

Artificial intelligence (AI), art, and the brain

I’ve lumped together three of the thinkers, Xiaoli Liu, Jianqiao Ge and Xianglong Zhang, as there is some overlap (in my mind, if nowhere else),

  • Liu’s work on philosophical issues as seen in the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and art
  • Ge’s work on the evolution of the brain and the impact that artificial intelligence may have on it
  • Zhang’s work on the relationship between literary culture and the development of technology

A December 3, 2021 posting, True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read), is both a review of a recent episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) science television series,The Nature of Things, and a dive into a number of issues as can be seen under subheads such as “AI and Creativity,” “Kazuo Ishiguro?” and “Evolution.”

You may also want to check out my December 27, 2021 posting, Ai-Da (robot artist) writes and performs poem honouring Dante’s 700th anniversary, for an eye opening experience. If nothing else, just watch the embedded video.

This suggestion relates most closely to Ge’s and Zhang’s work. If you haven’t already come across it, there’s Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.” From the introductory page of the 2002 edition (PDF),

This classic work explores the vast differences between oral and
literate cultures and offers a brilliantly lucid account of the
intellectual, literary and social effects of writing, print and
electronic technology. In the course of his study, Walter J.Ong
offers fascinating insights into oral genres across the globe and
through time and examines the rise of abstract philosophical and
scientific thinking. He considers the impact of orality-literacy
studies not only on literary criticism and theory but on our very
understanding of what it is to be a human being, conscious of self
and other.

In 2013, a 30th anniversary edition of the book was released and is still in print.

Philosophical traditions

I’m very excited to learn more about Xiaoping Chen’s work describing innovation that draws from Daoist, Confucianist, and ancient Greek philosophical traditions.

Should any of my readers have suggestions for introductory readings on these philosophical traditions, please do use the Comments option for this blog. In fact, if you have suggestions for other readings on these topics, I would be very happy to learn of them.

Congratulations to the six Fellows at the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University in Beijing, China. I look forward to reading articles about your work in the Berggruen Institute’s Noema magazine and, possibly, attending your online events.

Tree music

Hidden Life Radio livestreams music generated from trees (their biodata, that is). Kristin Toussaint in her August 3, 2021 article for Fast Company describes the ‘radio station’, Note: Links have been removed,

Outside of a library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an over-80-year-old copper beech tree is making music.

As the tree photosynthesizes and absorbs and evaporates water, a solar-powered sensor attached to a leaf measures the micro voltage of all that invisible activity. Sound designer and musician Skooby Laposky assigned a key and note range to those changes in this electric activity, turning the tree’s everyday biological processes into an ethereal song.

That music is available on Hidden Life Radio, an art project by Laposky, with assistance from the Cambridge Department of Public Works Urban Forestry, and funded in part by a grant from the Cambridge Arts Council. Hidden Life Radio also features the musical sounds of two other Cambridge trees: a honey locust and a red oak, both located outside of other Cambridge library branches. The sensors on these trees are solar-powered biodata sonification kits, a technology that has allowed people to turn all sorts of plant activity into music.

… Laposky has created a musical voice for these disappearing trees, and he hopes people tune into Hidden Life Radio and spend time listening to them over time. The music they produce occurs in real time, affected by the weather and whatever the tree is currently doing. Some days they might be silent, especially when there’s been several days without rain, and they’re dehydrated; Laposky is working on adding an archive that includes weather information, so people can go back and hear what the trees sound like on different days, under different conditions. The radio will play 24 hours a day until November, when the leaves will drop—a “natural cycle for the project to end,” Laposky says, “when there aren’t any leaves to connect to anymore.”

The 2021 season is over but you can find an archive of Hidden Life Radio livestreams here. Or, if you happen to be reading this page sometime after January 2022, you can try your luck and click here at Hidden Life Radio livestreams but remember, even if the project has started up again, the tree may not be making music when you check in. So, if you don’t hear anything the first time, try again.

Want to create your own biodata sonification project?

Toussaint’s article sent me on a search for more and I found a website where you can get biodata sonification kits. Sam Cusumano’s electricity for progress website offers lessons, as well as, kits and more.

Sophie Haigney’s February 21, 2020 article for NPR ([US] National Public Radio) highlights other plant music and more ways to tune in to and create it. (h/t Kristin Toussaint)