Tag Archives: Colombia

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

An app for nanomaterial risks (NanoRisk)

It seems past time for someone to have developed an app for nanomaterial risks. A Nov. 12, 2015 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

The NanoRisk App is a guide to help the researcher in the risk assessment of nanomaterials. This evaluation is determined based on the physicochemical characteristics and the activities to be carried out by staff in research laboratories.

The NanoRisk App was developed at the University of Los Andes or Universidad de los Andes in Colombia (there also seems to be one in Chile). From the Nano Risk App homepage,

The NanoRisk App application was developed at the University of Los Andes by the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and implemented in cooperation with the Department of Occupational Health at the University of Los Andes. This application focuses on the use of manufactured nanomaterials.


Homero Fernando Pastrana Rendón MD, MsC, PhD Candidate. Alba Graciela Ávila, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Felipe Muñoz Giraldo, Professor Associate Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Los Andes.

Acknowledgements to Diego Angulo and Diana Fernandez, from the Imagine group, for all the support in the development of this application.

About the App

The app is a guide to help the researcher in the risk assessment of nanomaterials. This evaluation is determined based on the physicochemical characteristics and the activities to be carried out by staff in research laboratories. This is based on nano risk management strategies from various institutions such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. (NIOSH), the New Development Organization of Japan Energy and Industrial Technology (NEDO), the European Commission (Nanosafe Program) and the work developed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (California, USA) in conjunction with the Safety Science Group at the University of Delft in the Netherlands.


The app will estimates the risk at four levels (low, medium, high and very high) for the hazard of the nanomaterial and the probability to be exposed to the material. Then it will recommend measures to contain the risk by applying engineering measures (controlled ventilation system, biosafety cabinet and glovebox).

They have a copyright notice on the page, as well as, instructions on how to access the App and the information.

Colombia, copyright, and sharing a science thesis

You’d think that posting a thesis online while giving full attribution to the author would be considered laudable. Apparently, there’s one person in Colombia that disagrees. And, since many educational institutions ask for copies of a student’s thesis for inclusion in their academic libraries you might believe the making said thesis more widely available (most students would be thrilled at the attention to their work) wouldn’t pose a problem. Apparently the Colombia legal system disagrees as it is preparing to take a student to court (and possible to jail) for sharing scientific information.

While the story seems to be popping up everywhere, this Aug. 1, 2014 article by Kerry Gren for The Scientist acted as my first notice (Note: Links have been removed),

Three years ago, Diego Gómez, a conservation biology student at the University of Quindío in Colombia, posted another scientist’s graduate thesis online. “I thought it was something that could be of interested [sic] for other groups, so I shared it on the web,” Gómez wrote on the website of Fundación Karisma, an education advocacy group in Colombia. “I never imagined that this activity could be considered a crime.”

But the author of the thesis disagreed, and last year complained to the Colombian police about the posting. Gómez now faces up to eight years in jail and at least $6,000 in fines for violating copyright. His case highlights the plight of scientists in certain parts of the world who are less able to access and share scientific information.

This wouldn’t have gone far in a US court at all,” said Michael Carroll, the director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University’s Washington School of Law. [emphasis mine] “I’m really upset about this case,” he added. “It bothers me when copyright law gets in the way of scientists doing their science.” [emphasis mine]

While I too am bothered by copyright law being used to subvert science or, in this case, science sharing, Carroll’s comment about US courts (an indirect reference to US law) seems ironic after reading Tim Cushing’s July 28, 2014 Techdirt posting on the case (Note: Links have been removed),

Upload a document to Scribd, go to prison for at least four years. Ridiculous and more than a bit frightening, but in a case that has some obvious parallels with Aaron Swartz’s prosecution, that’s the reality Colombian student Diego Gomez is facing. In the course of his research, he came across a paper integral to his research. In order to ensure others could follow his line of thinking, Gomez uploaded this document for others to view.

According to Gomez, this was a common citation practice among Colombian students …

To be clear, Gomez did not try to profit from the paper. He also wasn’t acting as some sort of indiscriminate distributor of infringing works. But under Colombian law, none of that matters. But to really see who’s to blame here for this ridiculous level of rights enforcement, you have to look past the local laws, past the paper’s author and directly at the US government.

[Gomez] is being sued under a criminal law that was reformed in 2006, following the conclusion of a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. The new law was meant to fulfill the trade agreement’s restrictive copyright standards, and it expanded criminal penalties for copyright infringement, increasing possible prison sentences and monetary fines.

More details on the awfulness of Colombia’s law (spurred on by US special interests) are available in the EFF’s [Electronic Frontier Federation] earlier coverage. Colombia gave the US copyright industry everything it wanted in order to secure this free trade agreement… and then it just kept going. …

This bill was hastily passed as a welcoming gift for President Obama, shoved through the legislative process in order to get out ahead of the administration’s appearance at a Colombia-hosted conference. This deference to the US government could cost Gomez at least four years of his life.

While Colombia seemed very eager to take the worst parts of US copyright law (and make them even more terrible), it was less inclined to take any of the good. …

Beneath all of this lies the ugly reality of the academic research market. Just as in the US, plenty of useful information is locked up and inaccessible to anyone unable to afford the frequently exorbitant fees charged by various gatekeepers. Copyright’s original intent — “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts” — isn’t served by this behavior. …

Erik Stokstad’s July 31, 2014 article for ScienceInsider offers more details such as these,

In 2011, Gómez came across a master’s thesis, completed at the National University of Colombia in 2006, that would be useful for identifying amphibians he had seen in protected areas. He posted the thesis on Scribd to allow it to be easily downloaded by other researchers and students. At the time, the downloads were free. When Scribd started charging unregistered users $5 per download, Gómez removed the thesis.

The author of the thesis, a Colombian herpetologist, however, had already notified police that it had been posted without his permission. After being contacted by police, Gómez cooperated with the investigation. In April 2013, a criminal complaint was filed. This past fall, he learned that the office of the attorney general was going to bring the case to trial. Gómez “was in a panic,” says Carolina Botero, an attorney at Fundación Karisma, a digital rights advocacy organization in Bogotá, which is advocating on his behalf.

The Electronic Frontier Federation’s July 23, 2014 posting by Maira Sutton places this incident within an international context and outlines Colombia’s legal framework as it pertains to this case.

Diego Gomez has written about his situation (English language version and Spanish language version) as per some July 2014 postings.

As for Aaron Swartz mentioned in the excerpt from Tim Cushing’s Techdirt post, anyone unfamiliar with the case can find all the information they might want in this Wikipedia entry.

Nano-enabled fique fiber filters harmful dyes from water

A Sept. 30, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily highlights a new technique for cleaning water,

A cheap and simple process using natural fibers embedded with nanoparticles can almost completely rid water of harmful textile dyes in minutes, report Cornell University and Colombian researchers who worked with native Colombian plant fibers.

Dyes, such as indigo blue used to color blue jeans, threaten waterways near textile plants in South America, India and China. Such dyes are toxic, and they discolor the water, thereby reducing light to the water plants, which limits photosynthesis and lowers the oxygen in the water.

The study, published in the August issue of the journal Green Chemistry, describes a proof of principle, but the researchers are testing how effectively their method treats such endocrine-disrupting water pollutants as phenols, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and phthalates.

The Sept. 30, 2013 Cornell University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,, describes the research in more detail,

The research takes advantage of nano-sized cavities found in cellulose that co-author Juan Hinestroza, Cornell associate professor of fiber science, has previously used to produce nanoparticles inside cotton fibers.

The paper describes the method: Colombian fique plant fibers, commonly used to make coffee bags, are immersed in a solution of sodium permanganate and then treated with ultrasound; as a result, manganese oxide molecules grow in the tiny cellulose cavities. Manganese oxides in the fibers react with the dyes and break them down into non-colored forms.

In the study, the treated fibers removed 99 percent of the dye from water within minutes. Furthermore, the same fibers can be used repeatedly — after eight cycles, the fibers still removed between 97 percent and 99 percent of the dye.

“No expensive or particular starting materials are needed to synthesize the biocomposite,” said Combariza [Marianny Combariza, co-author and researcher at Colombia’s Universidad Industrial de Santander]. “The synthesis can be performed in a basic chemistry lab.”

“This is the first evidence of the effectiveness of this simple technique,” said Hinestroza. “It uses water-based chemistry, and it is easily transferable to real-world situations.”

The researchers are testing their process on other types of pollutants, other fibers and composite materials. “We are working now on developing a low-cost filtering unit prototype to treat polluted waters,” said Combariza. “We are not only focused on manganese oxides, we also work on a variety of materials based on transition metal oxides that show exceptional degradation activity.”

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

Biocomposite of nanostructured MnO2 and fique fibers for efficient dye degradation by Martha L. Chacón-Patiño,a   Cristian Blanco-Tirado, Juan P. Hinestroza, and  Marianny Y. Combariza. Green Chem., 2013,15, 2920-2928 DOI: 10.1039/C3GC40911B First published online 19 Aug 2013

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone not familiar with the fique plant,

The native Columbian fique plant, Frucraea Andina. (Credit: Vasyl Kacapyr)

The native Columbian fique plant, Frucraea Andina. (Credit: Vasyl Kacapyr)

I have mentioned Juan Hinestroza and the research he and his students perform on nano-enabled textiles a number of times including this May 15, 2012 posting on anti-malaria textiles.

Brains in the US Congress

Tomorrow, May 24, 2012, Jean Paul Allain, associate professor of nuclear engineering at Purdue University (Illinois) will be speaking to members of the US Congress about repairing brain injuries using nanotechnology-enabled bioactive coatings for stents. From the May 21, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

“Stents coated with a bioactive coating might be inserted at the site of an aneurism to help heal the inside lining of the blood vessel,” said Jean Paul Allain, an associate professor of nuclear engineering. “Aneurisms are saclike bulges in blood vessels caused by weakening of artery walls. We’re talking about using a regenerative approach, attracting cells to reconstruct the arterial wall.”

He will speak before Congress on Thursday (May 24) during the first Brain Mapping Day to discuss the promise of nanotechnology in treating brain injury and disease.

The May 21, 2012 news release (by Emil Venere) for Purdue University offers insight into some of the difficulties of dealing with aneurysms using today’s technologies,

Currently, aneurisms are treated either by performing brain surgery, opening the skull and clipping the sac, or by inserting a catheter through an artery into the brain and implanting a metallic coil into the balloon-like sac.

Both procedures risk major complications, including massive bleeding or the formation of potentially fatal blood clots.

“The survival rate is about 50/50 or worse, and those who do survive could be impaired,” said Allain, who holds a courtesy appointment with materials engineering and is affiliated with the Birck Nanotechnology Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park.

Allain goes on to explain how his team’s research addresses these issues (from the May 21, 2012 Purdue University news release),

Cells needed to repair blood vessels are influenced by both the surface texture – features such as bumps and irregular shapes as tiny as 10 nanometers wide – as well as the surface chemistry of the stent materials.

“We are learning how to regulate cell proliferation and growth by tailoring both the function of surface chemistry and topology,” Allain said. “There is correlation between surface chemistry and how cells send signals back and forth for proliferation. So the surface needs to be tailored to promote regenerative healing.”

The facility being used to irradiate the stents – the Radiation Surface Science and Engineering Laboratory in Purdue’s School of Nuclear Engineering – also is used for work aimed at developing linings for experimental nuclear fusion reactors for power generation.

Irradiating materials with the ion beams causes surface features to “self-organize” and also influences the surface chemistry, Allain said.

The stents are made of nonmagnetic materials, such as stainless steel and an alloy of nickel and titanium. Only a certain part of the stents is rendered magnetic to precisely direct the proliferation of cells to repair a blood vessel where it begins bulging to form the aneurism.

Researchers will study the stents using blood from pigs during the first phase in collaboration with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The stent coating’s surface is “functionalized” so that it interacts properly with the blood-vessel tissue. Some of the cells are magnetic naturally, and “magnetic nanoparticles” would be injected into the bloodstream to speed tissue regeneration. Researchers also are aiming to engineer the stents so that they show up in medical imaging to reveal how the coatings hold up in the bloodstream.

The research is led by Allain and co-principal investigator Lisa Reece of the Birck Nanotechnology Center. This effort has spawned new collaborations with researchers around the world including those at Universidad de Antioquía, University of Queensland. The research also involves doctoral students Ravi Kempaiah and Emily Walker.

The work is funded with a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Army. Cells needed to repair blood vessels are influenced by both the surface texture – features such as bumps and irregular shapes as tiny as 10 nanometers wide – as well as the surface chemistry of the stent materials.

As I find the international flavour to the pursuit of science quite engaging, I want to highlight this bit in the May 21, 2012 news item on Nanowerk which mentions a few other collaborators on this project,

Purdue researchers are working with Col. Rocco Armonda, Dr. Teodoro Tigno and other neurosurgeons at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Collaborations also are planned with research scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia, Universidad de Antioquía and Universidad de Los Andes, both in Colombia.

The US Congress is not the only place to hear about this work, Allain will also be speaking in Toronto at the 9th Annual World Congress of Society for Brain Mapping & Therapeutics (SBMT) being held June 2 – 4, 2012.

Nano education in Colombia, in Russia and in Iran

In the last month there have been three nano education announcements. Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast featured a project with NanoProfessor (a division of NanoInk)  in Colombia. From Dexter’s May 26, 2010 post,

According to Tom Levesque, General Manager of NanoInk in the Americas, he visited a school in Bogota, Colombia where about 350 teenagers in conjunction with the NanoProfessor curriculum work with atomic force microscopes [AFM] and end up with better training than many receive at private universities in the country.

While making available an AFM for 350 kids seems almost as incredible as the idea that these kids have a better education than those at the best private schools, one has to wonder why this program has taken off in foreign countries and has not fared as well in the United States.

I too find the idea of an AFM for 350 kids extraordinary and his point about the initiative (or something else like it) not being widely adopted in the US, as I understand it, holds true for Canada.

Meanwhile, the Russians held an international conference on nanoeducation, May 18 – 20, 2010. From the news item on Nanowerk,

On May 18-20th the nanotechnology equipment manufacturer in Russia NT-MDT Co. and one of the main Russian scientific nanocenters the Kurchatov Institute held an international conference “Nanoeducation: the main approaches and perspectives”. The meeting had a unique format – the first educational international conference with trainings on working with nanoeducational equipment for teachers. 185 participants took part in the event, including representatives from Russia, the USA, Europe and CIS. The conference has become an essential part of Russian Government Federal Program.

The main goal of the conference was to overcome the gap between impetuous development of the modern nanoscience and the conservative system of education, especially in schools, where the teachers suffer serious problems in working with new equipment.

I find their direct approach to describing some of the issues quite refreshing. The topics covered were,

… controversial areas as contemporary approaches to nanoeducation, educational process organizing and leading, the newest educational technologies, international university cooperation all over the world concerning personnel trainings for teachers and professors and etc. The discussion has touched all the educational levels at schools as well as in universities.

In Iran, they’re launching a student competition (from the Fars News Agency item),

Iran’s Nanoclub (a club for students that works under the supervision of Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council) plans to hold the first stage of Nanotechnology Olympiad for Students in a number of provincial capitals on June 25.

All students familiar with nanotechnology will compete scientifically in two stages in this scientific competition entitled ‘Nanotechnology Olympiad for Students’ throughout the country. The Olympiad will be held in two stages on June 25 and August 9, 2010.

The test for the first stage will be held in 2010-2011 educational year in 10 capitals of Iranian provinces that are more active in the field of nanotechnology and enjoy more students familiar with nanotechnology, according to statistics.

The Promotion and Public Education Workgroup of Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council will give three 1000-dollar awards to the top three winners of the first Nanotechnology Olympiad for Students.

Very exciting news and if you know of any comparable programmes for children in Canada, please do let me know.