Tag Archives: Germany

Science policy updates (INGSA in Canada and SCWIST)

I had just posted my Aug. 30, 2021 piece (4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments (INGSA2021) August 30 – September 2, 2021) when the organization issued a news release, which was partially embargoed. By the time this is published (after 8 am ET on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021), the embargo will have lifted and i can announce that Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec (Canada), has been selected to replace Sir Peter Gluckman (New Zealand) as President of INGSA.

Here’s the whole August 30, 2021 International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) news release on EurekAlert, Note: This looks like a direct translation from a French language news release, which may account for some unusual word choices and turns of phrase,

What? 4th International Conference on Science Advice to Governments, INGSA2021.

Where? Palais des Congrès de Montréal, Québec, Canada and online at www.ingsa2021.org

When? 30 August – 2 September, 2021.

CONTEXT: The largest ever independent gathering of interest groups, thought-leaders, science advisors to governments and global institutions, researchers, academics, communicators and diplomats is taking place in Montreal and online. Organized by Prof Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec, speakers from over 50 countries[1] from Brazil to Burkina Faso and from Ireland to Indonesia, plus over 2000 delegates from over 130 countries, will spotlight what is really at stake in the relationship between science and policy-making, both during crises and within our daily lives. From the air we breathe, the food we eat and the cars we drive, to the medical treatments or the vaccines we take, and the education we provide to children, this relationship, and the decisions it can influence, matter immensely.  

Prof Rémi Quirion, Conference Organizer, Chief Scientist of Québec and incoming President of INGSA added: “For those of us who believe wholeheartedly in evidence and the integrity of science, the past 18 months have been challenging. Information, correct and incorrect, can spread like a virus. The importance of open science and access to data to inform our UN sustainable development goals discussions or domestically as we strengthen the role of cities and municipalities, has never been more critical. I have no doubt that this transparent and honest platform led from Montréal will act as a carrier-wave for greater engagement”.

Chief Science Advisor of Canada and Conference co-organizer, Dr Mona Nemer, stated that: “Rapid scientific advances in managing the Covid pandemic have generated enormous public interest in evidence-based decision making. This attention comes with high expectations and an obligation to achieve results. Overcoming the current health crisis and future challenges will require global coordination in science advice, and INGSA is well positioned to carry out this important work. Canada and our international peers can benefit greatly from this collaboration.”

Sir Peter Gluckman, founding Chair of INGSA stated that: “This is a timely conference as we are at a turning point not just in the pandemic, but globally in our management of longer-term challenges that affect us all. INGSA has helped build and elevate open and ongoing public and policy dialogue about the role of robust evidence in sound policy making”.

He added that: “Issues that were considered marginal seven years ago when the network was created are today rightly seen as central to our social, environmental and economic wellbeing. The pandemic highlights the strengths and weaknesses of evidence-based policy-making at all levels of governance. Operating on all continents, INGSA demonstrates the value of a well-networked community of emerging and experienced practitioners and academics, from countries at all levels of development. Learning from each other, we can help bring scientific evidence more centrally into policy-making. INGSA has achieved much since its formation in 2014, but the energy shown in this meeting demonstrates our potential to do so much more”.

Held previously in Auckland 2014, Brussels 2016, Tokyo 2018 and delayed for one year due to Covid, the advantage of the new hybrid and virtual format is that organizers have been able to involve more speakers, broaden the thematic scope and offer the conference as free to view online, reaching thousands more people. Examining the complex interactions between scientists, public policy and diplomatic relations at local, national, regional and international levels, especially in times of crisis, the overarching INGSA2021 theme is: “Build back wiser: knowledge, policy & publics in dialogue”.

The first three days will scrutinize everything from concrete case-studies outlining successes and failures in our advisory systems to how digital technologies and AI are reshaping the profession itself. The final day targets how expertize and action in the cultural context of the French-speaking world is encouraging partnerships and contributing to economic and social development. A highlight of the conference is the 2 September announcement of a new ‘Francophonie Science Advisory Network’.       

Prof. Salim Abdool Karim, a member of the World Health Organization’s Science Council, and the face of South Africa’s Covid-19 science, speaking in the opening plenary outlined that: “As a past anti-apartheid activist now providing scientific advice to policy-makers, I have learnt that science and politics share common features. Both operate at the boundaries of knowledge and uncertainty, but approach problems differently. We scientists constantly question and challenge our assumptions, constantly searching for empiric evidence to determine the best options. In contrast, politicians are most often guided by the needs or demands of voters and constituencies, and by ideology”.

He added: “What is changing is that grass-roots citizens worldwide are no longer ill-informed and passive bystanders. And they are rightfully demanding greater transparency and accountability. This has brought the complex contradictions between evidence and ideology into the public eye. Covid-19 is not just a disease, its social fabric exemplifies humanity’s interdependence in slowing global spread and preventing new viral mutations through global vaccine equity. This starkly highlights the fault-lines between the rich and poor countries, especially the maldistribution of life-saving public health goods like vaccines. I will explore some of the key lessons from Covid-19 to guide a better response to the next pandemic”.

Speaking on a panel analysing different advisory models, Prof. Mark Ferguson, Chair of the European Innovation Council’s Advisory Board and Chief Science Advisor to the Government of Ireland, sounded a note of optimism and caution in stating that: “Around the world, many scientists have become public celebrities as citizens engage with science like never before. Every country has a new, much followed advisory body. With that comes tremendous opportunities to advance the status of science and the funding of scientific research. On the flipside, my view is that we must also be mindful of the threat of science and scientists being viewed as a political force”.

Strength in numbers

What makes the 4th edition of this biennial event stand out is the perhaps never-before assembled range of speakers from all continents working at the boundary between science, society and policy willing to make their voices heard. In a truly ‘Olympics’ approach to getting all stakeholders on-board, organisers succeeded in involving, amongst others, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the United Nations Development Programme, UNESCO and the OECD. The in-house science services of the European Commission and Parliament, plus many country-specific science advisors also feature prominently.

As organisers foster informed debate, we get a rare glimpse inside the science advisory worlds of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, the World Economic Forum and the Global Young Academy to name a few. From Canadian doctors, educators and entrepreneurs and charitable foundations like the Welcome Trust, to Science Europe and media organisations, the programme is rich in its diversity. The International Organisation of the Francophonie and a keynote address by H.E. Laurent Fabius, President of the Constitutional Council of the French Republic are just examples of two major draws on the final day dedicated to spotlighting advisory groups working through French. 

INGSA’s Elections: New Canadian President and Three Vice Presidents from Chile, Ethiopia, UK

The International Network for Government Science Advice has recently undertaken a series of internal reforms intended to better equip it to respond to the growing demands for support from its international partners, while realising the project proposals and ideas of its members.

Part of these reforms included the election in June, 2021 of a new President replacing Sir Peter Gluckman (2014 – 2021) and the creation of three new Vice President roles.

These results will be announced at 13h15 on Wednesday, 1st September during a special conference plenary and awards ceremony. While noting the election results below, media are asked to respect this embargo.

Professor Rémi Quirion, Chief Scientist of Québec (Canada), replaces Sir Peter Gluckman (New Zealand) as President of INGSA.
 

Professor Claire Craig (United Kingdom), CBE, Provost of Queen’s College Oxford and a member of the UK government’s AI Council, has been elected by members as the inaugural Vice President for Evidence.
 

Professor Binyam Sisay Mendisu (Egypt), PhD, Lecture at the University of Addis Ababa and Programme Advisor, UNESCO Institute for Building Capacity in Africa, has been elected by members as the inaugural Vice President for Capacity Building.
 

Professor Soledad Quiroz Valenzuela (Chile), Science Advisor on Climate Change to the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation of the government of Chile, has been elected by members as the Vice President for Policy.

Satellite Events: From 7 – 9 September, as part of INGSA2021, the conference is partnering with local,  national and international organisations to ignite further conversations about the science/policy/society interface. Six satellite events are planned to cover everything from climate science advice and energy policy, open science and publishing during a crisis, to the politicisation of science and pre-school scientific education. International delegates are equally encouraged to join in online. 

About INGSA: Founded in 2014 with regional chapters in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, INGSA has quicky established an important reputation as aa collaborative platform for policy exchange, capacity building and research across diverse global science advisory organisations and national systems. Currently, over 5000 individuals and institutions are listed as members. Science communicators and members of the media are warmly welcomed to join.

As the body of work detailed on its website shows (www.ingsa.org) through workshops, conferences and a growing catalogue of tools and guidance, the network aims to enhance the global science-policy interface to improve the potential for evidence-informed policy formation at sub-national, national and transnational levels. INGSA operates as an affiliated body of the International Science Council which acts as trustee of INGSA funds and hosts its governance committee. INGSA’s secretariat is based in Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Conference Programme: 4th International Conference on Science Advice to Government (ingsa2021.org)

Newly released compendium of Speaker Viewpoints: Download Essays From The Cutting Edge Of Science Advice – Viewpoints

[1] Argentina, Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Colombia, Costa Rica, Côte D’Ivoire, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, UK, USA. 

Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST)

As noted earlier this year in my January 28, 2021 posting, it’s SCWIST’s 40th anniversary and the organization is celebrating with a number of initiatives, here are some of the latest including as talk on science policy (from the August 2021 newsletter received via email),

SCWIST “STEM Forward Project”
Receives Federal Funding

SCWIST’s “STEM Forward for Economic Prosperity” project proposal was among 237 projects across the country to receive funding from the $100 million Feminist Response Recovery Fund of the Government of Canada through the Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) federal department.

Read more. 

iWIST and SCWIST Ink Affiliate MOU [memorandum of understanding]

Years in planning, the Island Women in Science and Technology (iWIST) of Victoria, British Columbia and SCWIST finally signed an Affiliate MOU (memorandum of understanding) on Aug 11, 2021.

The MOU strengthens our commitment to collaborate on advocacy (e.g. grants, policy and program changes at the Provincial and Federal level), events (networking, workshops, conferences), cross promotion ( event/ program promotion via digital media), and membership growth (discounts for iWIST members to join SCWIST and vice versa).

Dr. Khristine Carino, SCWIST President, travelled to Victoria to sign the MOU in person. She was invited as an honoured guest to the iWIST annual summer picnic by Claire Skillen, iWIST President. Khristine’s travel expenses were paid from her own personal funds.

Discovery Foundation x SBN x SCWIST Business Mentorship Program: Enhancing Diversity in today’s Biotechnology Landscape

The Discovery Foundation, Student Biotechnology Network, and Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology are proud to bring you the first-ever “Business Mentorship Program: Enhancing Diversity in today’s Biotechnology Landscape”. 

The Business Mentorship Program aims to support historically underrepresented communities (BIPOC, Women, LGBTQIAS+ and more) in navigating the growth of the biotechnology industry. The program aims to foster relationships between individuals and professionals through networking and mentorship, providing education and training through workshops and seminars, and providing 1:1 consultation with industry leaders. Participants will be paired with mentors throughout the week and have the opportunity to deliver a pitch for the chance to win prizes at the annual Building Biotechnology Expo. 

This is a one week intensive program running from September 27th – October 1st, 2021 and is limited to 10 participants. Please apply early. 

Events

September 10

Art of Science and Policy-Making Go Together

Science and policy-making go together. Acuitas’ [emphasis mine] Molly Sung shares her journey and how more scientists need to engage in this important area.

September 23

Au-delà de l’apparence :

des femmes de courage et de résilience en STIM

Dans le cadre de la semaine de l’égalité des sexes au Canada, ce forum de la division québécoise de la Société pour les femmes canadiennes en science et technologie (la SCWIST) mettra en vedette quatre panélistes inspirantes avec des parcours variés qui étudient ou travaillent en science, technologie, ingénierie et mathématiques (STIM) au Québec. Ces femmes immigrantes ont laissé leurs proches et leurs pays d’origine pour venir au Québec et contribuer activement à la recherche scientifique québécoise. 

….

The ‘Art and Science Policy-Making Go Together’ talk seems to be aimed at persuasion and is not likely to offer any insider information as to how the BC life sciences effort is progressing. For a somewhat less rosy view of science and policy efforts, you can check out my August 23, 2021 posting, Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?; scroll down to ‘The BC biotech gorillas’ subhead for more about Acuitas and some of the other life sciences companies in British Columbia (BC).

For some insight into how competitive the scene is here in BC, you can see my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan.

You can check out more at the SCWIST website and I’m not sure when the August issue will be placed there but they do have a Newsletter Archive.

Five country survey of reactions to food genome editing

Weirdly and even though most of this paper’s authors are from the University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada), only one press release was issued and that was by the lead author’s (Gesa Busch) home institution, the University of Göttingen (Germany).

I’m glad Busch, the other authors, and the work are getting some attention (if not as much as I think they should).

From a July 9, 2021 University of Göttingen press release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 12, 2021),

A research team from the University of Göttingen and the University of British Columbia (Canada) has investigated how people in five different countries react to various usages of genome editing in agriculture. The researchers looked at which uses are accepted and how the risks and benefits of the new breeding technologies are rated by people. The results show only minor differences between the countries studied – Germany, Italy, Canada, Austria and the USA. In all countries, making changes to the genome is more likely to be deemed acceptable when used in crops rather than in livestock. The study was published in Agriculture and Human Values.

Relatively new breeding technologies, such as CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing, have enabled a range of new opportunities for plant and animal breeding. In the EU, the technology falls under genetic engineering legislation and is therefore subject to rigorous restrictions. However, the use of gene technologies remains controversial. Between June and November 2019, the research team collected views on this topic via online surveys from around 3,700 people from five countries. Five different applications of gene editing were evaluated: three relate to disease resistance in people, plants, or animals; and two relate to achieving either better quality of produce or a larger quantity of product from cattle.

“We were able to observe that the purpose of the gene modification plays a major role in how it is rated,” says first author Dr Gesa Busch from the University of Göttingen. “If the technology is used to make animals resistant to disease, approval is greater than if the technology is used to increase the output from animals.” Overall, however, the respondents reacted very differently to the uses of the new breeding methods. Four different groups can be identified: strong supporters, supporters, neutrals, and opponents of the technology. The opponents (24 per cent) identify high risks and calls for a ban of the technology, regardless of possible benefits. The strong supporters (21 per cent) see few risks and many advantages. The supporters (26 per cent) see many advantages but also risks. Whereas those who were neutral (29 per cent) show no strong opinion on the subject.

This study was made possible through funding from the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano and Genome BC.

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

Citizen views on genome editing: effects of species and purpose by Gesa Busch, Erin Ryan, Marina A. G. von Keyserlingk & Daniel M. Weary. Agriculture and Human Values (2021) Published: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-021-10235-9

This paper is open access.

Methodology

I have one quick comment about the methodology. It can be difficult to get a sample that breaks down along demographic lines that is close to or identical to national statistics. That said, it was striking to me that every country was under represented in the ’60 years+ ‘ category. In Canada, it was by 10 percentage points (roughly). For other countries the point spread was significantly wider. In Italy, it was a 30 percentage point spread (roughly).

I found the data in the Supplementary Materials yesterday (July 13, 2021). When I looked this morning, that information was no longer there but you will find what appears to be the questionnaire. I wonder if this removal is temporary or permanent and, if permanent, I wonder why it was removed.

Participants for the Canadian portion of the survey were supplied by Dynata, a US-based market research company. Here’s the company’s Wikipedia entry and its website.

Information about how participants were recruited was also missing this morning (July 14, 2021).

Genome British Columbia (Genome BC)

I was a little surprised when I couldn’t find any information about the program or the project on the Genome BC website as the organization is listed as a funder.

There is a ‘Genomics and Society’ tab (seems promising, eh?) on the homepage where you can find the answer to this question: What is GE³LS Research?,

GE3LS research is interdisciplinary, conducted by researchers across many disciplines within social science and humanities, including economics, environment, law, business, communications, and public policy.

There’s also a GE3LS Research in BC page titled Project Search; I had no luck there either.

It all seems a bit mysterious to me and, just in case anything else disappears off the web, here’s a July 13, 2021 news item about the research on phys.org as backup to what I have here.

How do nanoscale crystals make volcanoes explode?

This research may have the answer as to why a supposedly peaceful volcano will suddenly explode violently. From a September 24, 2020 University of Bayreuth press release (also on EurekAlert),

Tiny crystals, ten thousand times thinner than a human hair, can cause explosive volcanic eruptions. This surprising connection has recently been discovered by a German-British research team led by Dr. Danilo Di Genova from the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry & Geophysics (BGI) at the University of Bayreuth. The crystals increase the viscosity of the underground magma. As a result, a build-up of rising gases occurs. The continuously rising pressure finally discharges in massive eruptions. The scientists present the results of their nanogeoscientific research in the journal “Science Advances“.

“Exactly what causes the sudden and violent eruption of apparently peaceful volcanoes has always been a mystery in geology research. Nanogeoscience research has now allowed us to find an explanation. Tiny crystal grains containing mostly iron, silicon, and aluminium are the first link in a chain of cause and effect that can end in catastrophe for people living in the vicinity of a volcano. The most powerful volcanic eruption in human history was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815”, says Dr. Danilo Di Genova. For the recently published study, he worked closely with scientists from the University of Bristol, the Clausthal University of Technology, and two European synchrotron radiation facilities.

Because of their diameter of a few nanometres, the crystals are also known as nanolites. Using spectroscopic and electron microscopy methods, the researchers have detected traces of these particles, invisible to the eye, in the ashes of active volcanoes. In the BGI’s laboratory, they were then able to describe these crystals and finally to demonstrate how they influence the properties of volcanic magma. The investigations focused on magma of low silicon oxide content cooling to form basalt on the earth’s surface after a volcanic eruption. Low silica magma is known for its low viscosity: It forms a thin lava that flows quickly and easily. The situation is different, however, if it contains a large number of nanolites. This makes the magma viscous – and far less permeable to gases rising from the earth’s interior. Instead of continuously escaping from the volcanic cone, the gases in the depths of the volcano become trapped in the hot magma. As a result, the magma is subjected to increasing pressure until it is finally ejected explosively from the volcano.

“Constant light plumes of smoke above a volcanic cone need not necessarily be interpreted as a sign of an imminent dangerous eruption. Conversely, however, the inactivity of apparently peaceful volcanoes can be deceptive. Rock analyses, written and archaeological sources suggest, for example, that people in the vicinity of Vesuvius were surprised by an extremely violent eruption of the volcano in 79 AD. Numerous fatalities and severe damage to buildings were the result”, says Di Genova. In his further research, the Bayreuth scientist hopes to use high-pressure facilites and computer simulation to model the geochemical processes that lead to such unexpected violent eruptions. The aim is to better understand these processes and thus also to reduce the risks for the population in the vicinity of volcanoes.

The researchers have included a nanocrystal image to illustrate their work,

Caption: A transmission electron microscopy image of a nano crystal (ca 25 nm in diameter) in a basaltic magma from Mt. Etna (Italy). The nano crystal is enriched in iron (Fe) and it was produced in a laboratory during at BGI. Credit Image: Nobuyoshi Miyajima.

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

In situ observation of nanolite growth in volcanic melt: A driving force for explosive eruptions by Danilo Di Genova, Richard A. Brooker, Heidy M. Mader, James W. E. Drewitt, Alessandro Longo, Joachim Deubener, Daniel R. Neuville, Sara Fanara, Olga Shebanova, Simone Anzellini, Fabio Arzilli, Emily C. Bamber, Louis Hennet, Giuseppe La Spina and Nobuyoshi Miyajima. Science Advances DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abb0413 Vol. 6, no. 39, eabb0413 Published: 23 Sep 2020

This paper appears to be open access.

Technical University of Munich: embedded ethics approach for AI (artificial intelligence) and storing a tv series in synthetic DNA

I stumbled across two news bits of interest from the Technical University of Munich in one day (Sept. 1, 2020, I think). The topics: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Embedded ethics and artificial intelligence (AI)

An August 27, 2020 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 1, 2020) features information about a proposal to embed ethicists in with AI development teams,

The increasing use of AI (artificial intelligence) in the development of new medical technologies demands greater attention to ethical aspects. An interdisciplinary team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) advocates the integration of ethics from the very beginning of the development process of new technologies. Alena Buyx, Professor of Ethics in Medicine and Health Technologies, explains the embedded ethics approach.

Professor Buyx, the discussions surrounding a greater emphasis on ethics in AI research have greatly intensified in recent years, to the point where one might speak of “ethics hype” …

Prof. Buyx: … and many committees in Germany and around the world such as the German Ethics Council or the EU Commission High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence have responded. They are all in agreement: We need more ethics in the development of AI-based health technologies. But how do things look in practice for engineers and designers? Concrete solutions are still few and far between. In a joint pilot project with two Integrative Research Centers at TUM, the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence (MSRM) with its director, Prof. Sami Haddadin, and the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), with Prof. Ruth Müller, we want to try out the embedded ethics approach. We published the proposal in Nature Machine Intelligence at the end of July [2020].

What exactly is meant by the “embedded ethics approach”?

Prof.Buyx: The idea is to make ethics an integral part of the research process by integrating ethicists into the AI development team from day one. For example, they attend team meetings on a regular basis and create a sort of “ethical awareness” for certain issues. They also raise and analyze specific ethical and social issues.

Is there an example of this concept in practice?

Prof. Buyx: The Geriatronics Research Center, a flagship project of the MSRM in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is developing robot assistants to enable people to live independently in old age. The center’s initiatives will include the construction of model apartments designed to try out residential concepts where seniors share their living space with robots. At a joint meeting with the participating engineers, it was noted that the idea of using an open concept layout everywhere in the units – with few doors or individual rooms – would give the robots considerable range of motion. With the seniors, however, this living concept could prove upsetting because they are used to having private spaces. At the outset, the engineers had not given explicit consideration to this aspect.

Prof.Buyx: The approach sounds promising. But how can we avoid “embedded ethics” from turning into an “ethics washing” exercise, offering companies a comforting sense of “being on the safe side” when developing new AI technologies?

That’s not something we can be certain of avoiding. The key is mutual openness and a willingness to listen, with the goal of finding a common language – and subsequently being prepared to effectively implement the ethical aspects. At TUM we are ideally positioned to achieve this. Prof. Sami Haddadin, the director of the MSRM, is also a member of the EU High-Level Group of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, he is guided by the concept of human centered engineering. Consequently, he has supported the idea of embedded ethics from the very beginning. But one thing is certain: Embedded ethics alone will not suddenly make AI “turn ethical”. Ultimately, that will require laws, codes of conduct and possibly state incentives.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper espousing the embedded ethics for AI development approach,

An embedded ethics approach for AI development by Stuart McLennan, Amelia Fiske, Leo Anthony Celi, Ruth Müller, Jan Harder, Konstantin Ritt, Sami Haddadin & Alena Buyx. Nature Machine Intelligence (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-0214-1 Published 31 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Religion, ethics and and AI

For some reason embedded ethics and AI got me to thinking about Pope Francis and other religious leaders.

The Roman Catholic Church and AI

There was a recent announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will be working with MicroSoft and IBM on AI and ethics (from a February 28, 2020 article by Jen Copestake for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online (Note: A link has been removed),

Leaders from the two tech giants met senior church officials in Rome, and agreed to collaborate on “human-centred” ways of designing AI.

Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted some people may “think of us as strange bedfellows” at the signing event.

“But I think the world needs people from different places to come together,” he said.

The call was supported by Pope Francis, in his first detailed remarks about the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity.

The Rome Call for Ethics [sic] was co-signed by Mr Smith, IBM executive vice-president John Kelly and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

It puts humans at the centre of new technologies, asking for AI to be designed with a focus on the good of the environment and “our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants”.

Framing the current era as a “renAIssance”, the speakers said the invention of artificial intelligence would be as significant to human development as the invention of the printing press or combustion engine.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization director Qu Dongyu and Italy’s technology minister Paola Pisano were also co-signatories.

Hannah Brockhaus’s February 28, 2020 article for the Catholic News Agency provides some details missing from the BBC report and I found it quite helpful when trying to understand the various pieces that make up this initiative,

The Pontifical Academy for Life signed Friday [February 28, 2020], alongside presidents of IBM and Microsoft, a call for ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence technologies.

According to the document, “the sponsors of the call express their desire to work together, in this context and at a national and international level, to promote ‘algor-ethics.’”

“Algor-ethics,” according to the text, is the ethical use of artificial intelligence according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

The signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics [PDF]” took place as part of the 2020 assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was held Feb. 26-28 [2020] on the theme of artificial intelligence.

One part of the assembly was dedicated to private meetings of the academics of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The second was a workshop on AI and ethics that drew 356 participants from 41 countries.

On the morning of Feb. 28 [2020], a public event took place called “renAIssance. For a Humanistic Artificial Intelligence” and included the signing of the AI document by Microsoft President Brad Smith, and IBM Executive Vice-president John Kelly III.

The Director General of FAO, Dongyu Qu, and politician Paola Pisano, representing the Italian government, also signed.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, was also present Feb. 28.

Pope Francis canceled his scheduled appearance at the event due to feeling unwell. His prepared remarks were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy for Life.

You can find Pope Francis’s comments about the document here (if you’re not comfortable reading Italian, hopefully, the English translation which follows directly afterward will be helpful). The Pope’s AI initiative has a dedicated website, Rome Call for AI ethics, and while most of the material dates from the February 2020 announcement, they are keeping up a blog. It has two entries, one dated in May 2020 and another in September 2020.

Buddhism and AI

The Dalai Lama is well known for having an interest in science and having hosted scientists for various dialogues. So, I was able to track down a November 10, 2016 article by Ariel Conn for the futureoflife.org website, which features his insights on the matter,

The question of what it means and what it takes to feel needed is an important problem for ethicists and philosophers, but it may be just as important for AI researchers to consider. The Dalai Lama argues that lack of meaning and purpose in one’s work increases frustration and dissatisfaction among even those who are gainfully employed.

“The problem,” says the Dalai Lama, “is … the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. … Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”

If feeling needed and feeling useful are necessary for happiness, then AI researchers may face a conundrum. Many researchers hope that job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation could, in the end, provide people with more leisure time to pursue enjoyable activities. But if the key to happiness is feeling useful and needed, then a society without work could be just as emotionally challenging as today’s career-based societies, and possibly worse.

I also found a talk on the topic by The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, first here’s a description from his bio at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values webspace on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website,

… an innovative thinker, philosopher, educator and a polymath monk. He is Director of the Ethics Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and President & CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Venerable Tenzin’s unusual background encompasses entering a Buddhist monastery at the age of ten and receiving graduate education at Harvard University with degrees ranging from Philosophy to Physics to International Relations. He is a Tribeca Disruptive Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Venerable Tenzin serves on the boards of a number of academic, humanitarian, and religious organizations. He is the recipient of several recognitions and awards and received Harvard’s Distinguished Alumni Honors for his visionary contributions to humanity.

He gave the 2018 Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society at Stanford University on the topic, “Religious and Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence.” The video runs over one hour but he is a sprightly speaker (in comparison to other Buddhist speakers I’ve listened to over the years).

Judaism, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths examine AI and ethics

I was delighted to find this January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event as it brought together a range of thinkers from various faiths and disciplines,

New technologies are transforming our world every day, and the pace of change is only accelerating.  In coming years, human beings will create machines capable of out-thinking us and potentially taking on such uniquely-human traits as empathy, ethical reasoning, perhaps even consciousness.  This will have profound implications for virtually every human activity, as well as the meaning we impart to life and creation themselves.  This conference will provide an introduction for non-specialists to Artificial Intelligence (AI):

What is it?  What can it do and be used for?  And what will be its implications for choice and free will; economics and worklife; surveillance economies and surveillance states; the changing nature of facts and truth; and the comparative intelligence and capabilities of humans and machines in the future? 

Leading practitioners, ethicists and theologians will provide cross-disciplinary and cross-denominational perspectives on such challenges as technology addiction, inherent biases and resulting inequalities, the ethics of creating destructive technologies and of turning decision-making over to machines from self-driving cars to “autonomous weapons” systems in warfare, and how we should treat the suffering of “feeling” machines.  The conference ultimately will address how we think about our place in the universe and what this means for both religious thought and theological institutions themselves.

UTS [Union Theological Seminary] is the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship.  JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism and a major center for academic scholarship in Jewish studies. The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation that has served as a focal point of global and national activism for peace and social justice since its inception and continues to serve God through word and public witness. The annual Greater Good Gathering, the following week at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, focuses on how technology is changing society, politics and the economy – part of a growing nationwide effort to advance conversations promoting the “greater good.”

They have embedded a video of the event (it runs a little over seven hours) on the January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event page. For anyone who finds that a daunting amount of information, you may want to check out the speaker list for ideas about who might be writing and thinking on this topic.

As for Islam, I did track down this November 29, 2018 article by Shahino Mah Abdullah, a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia,

As the global community continues to work together on the ethics of AI, there are still vast opportunities to offer ethical inputs, including the ethical principles based on Islamic teachings.

This is in line with Islam’s encouragement for its believers to convey beneficial messages, including to share its ethical principles with society.

In Islam, ethics or akhlak (virtuous character traits) in Arabic, is sometimes employed interchangeably in the Arabic language with adab, which means the manner, attitude, behaviour, and etiquette of putting things in their proper places. Islamic ethics cover all the legal concepts ranging from syariah (Islamic law), fiqh ( jurisprudence), qanun (ordinance), and ‘urf (customary practices).

Adopting and applying moral values based on the Islamic ethical concept or applied Islamic ethics could be a way to address various issues in today’s societies.

At the same time, this approach is in line with the higher objectives of syariah (maqasid alsyariah) that is aimed at conserving human benefit by the protection of human values, including faith (hifz al-din), life (hifz alnafs), lineage (hifz al-nasl), intellect (hifz al-‘aql), and property (hifz al-mal). This approach could be very helpful to address contemporary issues, including those related to the rise of AI and intelligent robots.

..

Part of the difficulty with tracking down more about AI, ethics, and various religions is linguistic. I simply don’t have the language skills to search for the commentaries and, even in English, I may not have the best or most appropriate search terms.

Television (TV) episodes stored on DNA?

According to a Sept. 1, 2020 news item on Nanowerk, the first episode of a tv series, ‘Biohackers’ has been stored on synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by a researcher at TUM and colleagues at another institution,

The first episode of the newly released series “Biohackers” was stored in the form of synthetic DNA. This was made possible by the research of Prof. Reinhard Heckel of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and his colleague Prof. Robert Grass of ETH Zürich.

They have developed a method that permits the stable storage of large quantities of data on DNA for over 1000 years.

A Sept. 1, 2020 TUM press release, which originated the news item, proceeds with more detail in an interview format,

Prof. Heckel, Biohackers is about a medical student seeking revenge on a professor with a dark past – and the manipulation of DNA with biotechnology tools. You were commissioned to store the series on DNA. How does that work?

First, I should mention that what we’re talking about is artificially generated – in other words, synthetic – DNA. DNA consists of four building blocks: the nucleotides adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Computer data, meanwhile, are coded as zeros and ones. The first episode of Biohackers consists of a sequence of around 600 million zeros and ones. To code the sequence 01 01 11 00 in DNA, for example, we decide which number combinations will correspond to which letters. For example: 00 is A, 01 is C, 10 is G and 11 is T. Our example then produces the DNA sequence CCTA. Using this principle of DNA data storage, we have stored the first episode of the series on DNA.

And to view the series – is it just a matter of “reverse translation” of the letters?

In a very simplified sense, you can visualize it like that. When writing, storing and reading the DNA, however, errors occur. If these errors are not corrected, the data stored on the DNA will be lost. To solve the problem, I have developed an algorithm based on channel coding. This method involves correcting errors that take place during information transfers. The underlying idea is to add redundancy to the data. Think of language: When we read or hear a word with missing or incorrect letters, the computing power of our brain is still capable of understanding the word. The algorithm follows the same principle: It encodes the data with sufficient redundancy to ensure that even highly inaccurate data can be restored later.

Channel coding is used in many fields, including in telecommunications. What challenges did you face when developing your solution?

The first challenge was to create an algorithm specifically geared to the errors that occur in DNA. The second one was to make the algorithm so efficient that the largest possible quantities of data can be stored on the smallest possible quantity of DNA, so that only the absolutely necessary amount of redundancy is added. We demonstrated that our algorithm is optimized in that sense.

DNA data storage is very expensive because of the complexity of DNA production as well as the reading process. What makes DNA an attractive storage medium despite these challenges?

First, DNA has a very high information density. This permits the storage of enormous data volumes in a minimal space. In the case of the TV series, we stored “only” 100 megabytes on a picogram – or a billionth of a gram of DNA. Theoretically, however, it would be possible to store up to 200 exabytes on one gram of DNA. And DNA lasts a long time. By comparison: If you never turned on your PC or wrote data to the hard disk it contains, the data would disappear after a couple of years. By contrast, DNA can remain stable for many thousands of years if it is packed right.

And the method you have developed also makes the DNA strands durable – practically indestructible.

My colleague Robert Grass was the first to develop a process for the “stable packing” of DNA strands by encapsulating them in nanometer-scale spheres made of silica glass. This ensures that the DNA is protected against mechanical influences. In a joint paper in 2015, we presented the first robust DNA data storage concept with our algorithm and the encapsulation process developed by Prof. Grass. Since then we have continuously improved our method. In our most recent publication in Nature Protocols of January 2020, we passed on what we have learned.

What are your next steps? Does data storage on DNA have a future?

We’re working on a way to make DNA data storage cheaper and faster. “Biohackers” was a milestone en route to commercialization. But we still have a long way to go. If this technology proves successful, big things will be possible. Entire libraries, all movies, photos, music and knowledge of every kind – provided it can be represented in the form of data – could be stored on DNA and would thus be available to humanity for eternity.

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

Reading and writing digital data in DNA by Linda C. Meiser, Philipp L. Antkowiak, Julian Koch, Weida D. Chen, A. Xavier Kohll, Wendelin J. Stark, Reinhard Heckel & Robert N. Grass. Nature Protocols volume 15, pages86–101(2020) Issue Date: January 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-019-0244-5 Published [online] 29 November 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for ‘Biohackers’, it’s a German science fiction television series and you can find out more about it here on the Internet Movie Database.

New design directions to increase variety, efficiency, selectivity and reliability for memristive devices

A May 11, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily provides a description of the current ‘memristor scene’ along with an announcement about a piece of recent research,

Scientists around the world are intensively working on memristive devices, which are capable in extremely low power operation and behave similarly to neurons in the brain. Researchers from the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA) and the German technology group Heraeus have now discovered how to systematically control the functional behaviour of these elements. The smallest differences in material composition are found crucial: differences so small that until now experts had failed to notice them. The researchers’ design directions could help to increase variety, efficiency, selectivity and reliability for memristive technology-based applications, for example for energy-efficient, non-volatile storage devices or neuro-inspired computers.

Memristors are considered a highly promising alternative to conventional nanoelectronic elements in computer Chips [sic]. Because of the advantageous functionalities, their development is being eagerly pursued by many companies and research institutions around the world. The Japanese corporation NEC installed already the first prototypes in space satellites back in 2017. Many other leading companies such as Hewlett Packard, Intel, IBM, and Samsung are working to bring innovative types of computer and storage devices based on memristive elements to market.

Fundamentally, memristors are simply “resistors with memory,” in which high resistance can be switched to low resistance and back again. This means in principle that the devices are adaptive, similar to a synapse in a biological nervous system. “Memristive elements are considered ideal candidates for neuro-inspired computers modelled on the brain, which are attracting a great deal of interest in connection with deep learning and artificial intelligence,” says Dr. Ilia Valov of the Peter Grünberg Institute (PGI-7) at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

In the latest issue of the open access journal Science Advances, he and his team describe how the switching and neuromorphic behaviour of memristive elements can be selectively controlled. According to their findings, the crucial factor is the purity of the switching oxide layer. “Depending on whether you use a material that is 99.999999 % pure, and whether you introduce one foreign atom into ten million atoms of pure material or into one hundred atoms, the properties of the memristive elements vary substantially” says Valov.

A May 11, 2020 Forschungszentrum Juelich press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves into the theme of increasing control over memristive systems,

This effect had so far been overlooked by experts. It can be used very specifically for designing memristive systems, in a similar way to doping semiconductors in information technology. “The introduction of foreign atoms allows us to control the solubility and transport properties of the thin oxide layers,” explains Dr. Christian Neumann of the technology group Heraeus. He has been contributing his materials expertise to the project ever since the initial idea was conceived in 2015.

“In recent years there has been remarkable progress in the development and use of memristive devices, however that progress has often been achieved on a purely empirical basis,” according to Valov. Using the insights that his team has gained, manufacturers could now methodically develop memristive elements selecting the functions they need. The higher the doping concentration, the slower the resistance of the elements changes as the number of incoming voltage pulses increases and decreases, and the more stable the resistance remains. “This means that we have found a way for designing types of artificial synapses with differing excitability,” explains Valov.

Design specification for artificial synapses

The brain’s ability to learn and retain information can largely be attributed to the fact that the connections between neurons are strengthened when they are frequently used. Memristive devices, of which there are different types such as electrochemical metallization cells (ECMs) or valence change memory cells (VCMs), behave similarly. When these components are used, the conductivity increases as the number of incoming voltage pulses increases. The changes can also be reversed by applying voltage pulses of the opposite polarity.

The JARA researchers conducted their systematic experiments on ECMs, which consist of a copper electrode, a platinum electrode, and a layer of silicon dioxide between them. Thanks to the cooperation with Heraeus researchers, the JARA scientists had access to different types of silicon dioxide: one with a purity of 99.999999 % – also called 8N silicon dioxide – and others containing 100 to 10,000 ppm (parts per million) of foreign atoms. The precisely doped glass used in their experiments was specially developed and manufactured by quartz glass specialist Heraeus Conamic, which also holds the patent for the procedure. Copper and protons acted as mobile doping agents, while aluminium and gallium were used as non-volatile doping.

Synapses, the connections between neurons, have the ability to transmit signals with varying degrees of strength when they are excited by a quick succession of electrical impulses. One effect of this repeated activity is to increase the concentration of calcium ions, with the result that more neurotransmitters are emitted. Depending on the activity, other effects cause long-term structural changes, which impact the strength of the transmission for several hours, or potentially even for the rest of the person’s life. Memristive elements allow the strength of the electrical transmission to be changed in a similar way to synaptic connections, by applying a voltage. In electrochemical metallization cells (ECMs), a metallic filament develops between the two metal electrodes, thus increasing conductivity. Applying voltage pulses with reversed polarity causes the filament to shrink again until the cell reaches its initial high resistance state. Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Tobias Schlößer

Record switching time confirms theory

Based on their series of experiments, the researchers were able to show that the ECMs’ switching times change as the amount of doping atoms changes. If the switching layer is made of 8N silicon dioxide, the memristive component switches in only 1.4 nanoseconds. To date, the fastest value ever measured for ECMs had been around 10 nanoseconds. By doping the oxide layer of the components with up to 10,000 ppm of foreign atoms, the switching time was prolonged into the range of milliseconds. “We can also theoretically explain our results. This is helping us to understand the physico-chemical processes on the nanoscale and apply this knowledge in the practice” says Valov. Based on generally applicable theoretical considerations, supported by experimental results, some also documented in the literature, he is convinced that the doping/impurity effect occurs and can be employed in all types memristive elements.

Top: In memristive elements (ECMs) with an undoped, high-purity switching layer of silicon oxide (SiO2), copper ions can move very fast. A filament of copper atoms forms correspondingly fast on the platinum electrode. This increases the total device conductivity respectively the capacity. Due to the high mobility of the ions, however, this filament is unstable at low forming voltages. Center: Gallium ions (Ga3+), which are introduced into the cell (non-volatile doping), bind copper ions (Cu2+) in the switching layer. The movement of the ions slows down, leading to lower switching times, but the filament, once formed remains longer stable. Bottom: Doping with aluminium ions (Al3+) slows down the process even more, since aluminium ions bind copper ions even stronger than gallium ions. Filament growth is even slower, while at the same time the stability of the filament is further increased. Depending on the chemical properties of the introduced doping elements, memristive cells – the artificial synapses – can be created with tailor-made switching and neuromorphic properties. Copyright: Forschungszentrum Jülich / Tobias Schloesser

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

Design of defect-chemical properties and device performance in memristive systems by M. Lübben, F. Cüppers, J. Mohr, M. von Witzleben, U. Breuer, R. Waser, C. Neumann, and I. Valov. Science Advances 08 May 2020: Vol. 6, no. 19, eaaz9079 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz9079

This paper is open access.

For anyone curious about the German technology group, Heraeus, there’s a fascinating history in its Wikipedia entry. The technology company was formally founded in 1851 but it can be traced back to the 17th century and the founding family’s apothecary.

You need a quantum mechanic for an atom-sized machine

This news comes from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Quantum Technologies according to a May 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Here’s a new chapter in the story of the miniaturisation of machines: researchers in a laboratory in Singapore have shown that a single atom can function as either an engine or a fridge. Such a device could be engineered into future computers and fuel cells to control energy flows.

“Think about how your computer or laptop has a lot of things inside it that heat up. Today you cool that with a fan that blows air. In nanomachines or quantum computers, small devices that do cooling could be something useful,” says Dario Poletti from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

This work gives new insight into the mechanics of such devices. The work is a collaboration involving researchers at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) and Department of Physics at the National University of Singapore (NUS), SUTD and at the University of Augsburg in Germany. The results were published in the peer-reviewed journal npj Quantum Information (“Single-atom energy-conversion device with a quantum load”).

The researchers have included an exceptionally pretty illustration with the press release,

Caption: Experiments with a single-atom device help researchers understand what quantum effects come into play when machinery shrinks to the atomic scale. Credit: Aki Honda / Centre for Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore

A May 4, 2020 National University of Singapore press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

Engines and refrigerators are both machines described by thermodynamics, a branch of science that tells us how energy moves within a system and how we can extract useful work. A classical engine turns energy into useful work. A refrigerator does work to transfer heat, reducing the local temperature. They are, in some sense, opposites.

People have made small heat engines before using a single atom, a single molecule and defects in diamond. A key difference about this device is that it shows quantumness in its action. “We want to understand how we can build thermodynamic devices with just a few atoms. The physics is not well understood so our work is important to know what is possible,” says Manas Mukherjee, a Principal Investigator at CQT, NUS, who led the experimental work.

The researchers studied the thermodynamics of a single barium atom. They devised a scheme in which lasers move one of the atom’s electrons between two energy levels as part of a cycle, causing some energy to be pushed into the atom’s vibrations. Like a car engine consumes petrol to both move pistons and charge up its battery, the atom uses energy from lasers as fuel to increase its vibrating motion. The atom’s vibrations act like a battery, storing energy that can be extracted later. Rearrange the cycle and the atom acts like a fridge, removing energy from the vibrations.

In either mode of operation, quantum effects show up in correlations between the atom’s electronic states and vibrations. “At this scale, the energy transfer between the engine and the load is a bit fuzzy. It is no longer possible to simply do work on the load, you are bound to transfer some heat,” says Poletti. He worked out the theory with collaborators Jiangbin Gong at NUS Physics and Peter Hänggi in Augsburg. The fuzziness makes the process less efficient, but the experimentalists could still make it work.

Mukherjee and colleagues Noah Van Horne, Dahyun Yum and Tarun Dutta used a barium atom from which an electron (a negative charge) is removed. This makes the atom positively charged, so it can be more easily held still inside a metal chamber by electrical fields. All other air is removed from around it. The atom is then zapped with lasers to move it through a four-stage cycle.

The researchers measured the atom’s vibration after applying 2 to 15 cycles. They repeated a given number of cycles up to 150 times, measuring on average how much vibrational energy was present at the end. They could see the vibrational energy increasing when the atom was zapped with an engine cycle, and decreasing when the zaps followed the fridge cycle.

Understanding the atom-sized machine involved both complicated calculations and observations. The team needed to track two thermodynamic quantities known as ergotropy, which is the energy that can be converted to useful work, and entropy, which is related to disorder in the system. Both ergotropy and entropy increase as the atom-machine runs. There’s still a simple way of looking at it, says first author and PhD student Van Horne, “Loosely speaking, we’ve designed a little machine that creates entropy as it is filled up with free energy, much like kids when they are given too much sugar.”

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

Single-atom energy-conversion device with a quantum load by Noah Van Horne, Dahyun Yum, Tarun Dutta, Peter Hänggi, Jiangbin Gong, Dario Poletti & Manas Mukherjee. npj Quantum Information volume 6, Article number: 37 (2020) Published: 01 May 2020

This paper is open access.

Trick your kidneys with sugar (molecules, that is)

A February 4, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research that makes it possible for kidneys to remove nanoparticles after they’ve been used in therapeutic remedies (Note: A link has been removed),

In the past decade nanomedicine has contributed to better detection and treatment of cancer. Nanoparticles are several 100 times smaller than the smallest grain of sand and can therefore easily travel in the blood stream to reach the tumor.

However, they are still too big to be removed by the kidneys. Since several doses of nanoparticles are necessary to treat a tumor, over time the nanoparticles can accumulate in the kidney and cause irreversible damage.

In a study published in the scientific journal Biomaterials (“Renal clearance of polymeric nanoparticles by mimicry of glycan surface of Viruses”), materials scientists at the University of Freiburg [Germany] led by Prof. Dr. Prasad Shastri from the Institute of Macromolecular Chemistry now present a natural solution to this problem: they built nanoparticles with the carbohydrate polysaccharides, which led to the excretion of the particles.

A February 4, 2020 University of Freiberg press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In nature viruses such as the herpes simplex virus-1 and the cytomegalovirus, which are able to pass through the kidney filtration apparatus despite their large size compared to nanoparticles. Shastri and his team identified that both viruses presents sugar molecules on their surface. Inspired by this observation, the scientists engineered nanoparticles containing polysaccharides. These carbohydrates are frequently found in the human tissue environment. Using a real-time imaging technique, which they have established in their laboratory, the team investigated in a mouse model the fate of these nanoparticles. They observed that the polysaccharide-enriched nanoparticles readily pass through the kidney and are excreted with the urine within a few hours after intravenous administration. The decisive factor for the researchers was that the nanoparticles continued to act as intended and were still able to target tumors.

“The ability to combine tumor accumulation and kidney clearance in the same nanoparticle represents a tipping point in ensuring that nanomedicines can be safely administered” says Shastri. “Our nature-inspired approach enabled us to trick the kidney environment to let nanoparticles pass through” adds Dr. Melika Sarem who was a co-author of the study.

Prasad Shastri is Professor of Biofunctional Macromolecular Chemistry at the Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry and Professor of Cell Signalling Environments in the Excellence Cluster BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies and at the University of Freiburg.

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

Renal clearance of polymeric nanoparticles by mimicry of glycan surface of viruses by Pradeep P.Wyss, Surya P.Lamichhane, Ahmed Abed, Daniel Vonwil, Oliver Kretz, Tobias B. Huber, Melika Sarema, V. Prasad Shastri. Biomaterials Volume 230, February 2020, 119643 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2019.119643 First published online November 23, 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Of puke, CRISPR, fruit flies, and monarch butterflies

I’ve never seen an educational institution use a somewhat vulgar slang term such as ‘puke’ before. Especially not in a news release. You’ll find that elsewhere online ‘puke’ has been replaced, in the headline, with the more socially acceptable ‘vomit’.

Since I wanted to catch this historic moment amid concerns that the original version of the news release will disappear, I’m including the entire news release as i saw it on EurekAlert.com (from an October 2, 2019 University of California at Berkeley news release),

News Release 2-Oct-2019

CRISPRed fruit flies mimic monarch butterfly — and could make you puke
Scientists recreate in flies the mutations that let monarch butterfly eat toxic milkweed with impunity

University of California – Berkeley

The fruit flies in Noah Whiteman’s lab may be hazardous to your health.

Whiteman and his University of California, Berkeley, colleagues have turned perfectly palatable fruit flies — palatable, at least, to frogs and birds — into potentially poisonous prey that may cause anything that eats them to puke. In large enough quantities, the flies likely would make a human puke, too, much like the emetic effect of ipecac syrup.

That’s because the team genetically engineered the flies, using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, to be able to eat milkweed without dying and to sequester its toxins, just as America’s most beloved butterfly, the monarch, does to deter predators.

This is the first time anyone has recreated in a multicellular organism a set of evolutionary mutations leading to a totally new adaptation to the environment — in this case, a new diet and new way of deterring predators.

Like monarch caterpillars, the CRISPRed fruit fly maggots thrive on milkweed, which contains toxins that kill most other animals, humans included. The maggots store the toxins in their bodies and retain them through metamorphosis, after they turn into adult flies, which means the adult “monarch flies” could also make animals upchuck.

The team achieved this feat by making three CRISPR edits in a single gene: modifications identical to the genetic mutations that allow monarch butterflies to dine on milkweed and sequester its poison. These mutations in the monarch have allowed it to eat common poisonous plants other insects could not and are key to the butterfly’s thriving presence throughout North and Central America.

Flies with the triple genetic mutation proved to be 1,000 times less sensitive to milkweed toxin than the wild fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

Whiteman and his colleagues will describe their experiment in the Oct. 2 [2019] issue of the journal Nature.

Monarch flies

The UC Berkeley researchers created these monarch flies to establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, which genetic changes in the genome of monarch butterflies were necessary to allow them to eat milkweed with impunity. They found, surprisingly, that only three single-nucleotide substitutions in one gene are sufficient to give fruit flies the same toxin resistance as monarchs.

“All we did was change three sites, and we made these superflies,” said Whiteman, an associate professor of integrative biology. “But to me, the most amazing thing is that we were able to test evolutionary hypotheses in a way that has never been possible outside of cell lines. It would have been difficult to discover this without having the ability to create mutations with CRISPR.”

Whiteman’s team also showed that 20 other insect groups able to eat milkweed and related toxic plants – including moths, beetles, wasps, flies, aphids, a weevil and a true bug, most of which sport the color orange to warn away predators – independently evolved mutations in one, two or three of the same amino acid positions to overcome, to varying degrees, the toxic effects of these plant poisons.

In fact, his team reconstructed the one, two or three mutations that led to each of the four butterfly and moth lineages, each mutation conferring some resistance to the toxin. All three mutations were necessary to make the monarch butterfly the king of milkweed.
Resistance to milkweed toxin comes at a cost, however. Monarch flies are not as quick to recover from upsets, such as being shaken — a test known as “bang” sensitivity.

“This shows there is a cost to mutations, in terms of recovery of the nervous system and probably other things we don’t know about,” Whiteman said. “But the benefit of being able to escape a predator is so high … if it’s death or toxins, toxins will win, even if there is a cost.”

Plant vs. insect

Whiteman is interested in the evolutionary battle between plants and parasites and was intrigued by the evolutionary adaptations that allowed the monarch to beat the milkweed’s toxic defense. He also wanted to know whether other insects that are resistant — though all less resistant than the monarch — use similar tricks to disable the toxin.

“Since plants and animals first invaded land 400 million years ago, this coevolutionary arms race is thought to have given rise to a lot of the plant and animal diversity that we see, because most animals are insects, and most insects are herbivorous: they eat plants,” he said.

Milkweeds and a variety of other plants, including foxglove, the source of digitoxin and digoxin, contain related toxins — called cardiac glycosides — that can kill an elephant and any creature with a beating heart. Foxglove’s effect on the heart is the reason that an extract of the plant, in the genus Digitalis, has been used for centuries to treat heart conditions, and why digoxin and digitoxin are used today to treat congestive heart failure.

These plants’ bitterness alone is enough to deter most animals, but a small minority of insects, including the monarch (Danaus plexippus) and its relative, the queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), have learned to love milkweed and use it to repel predators.

Whiteman noted that the monarch is a tropical lineage that invaded North America after the last ice age, in part enabled by the three mutations that allowed it to eat a poisonous plant other animals could not, giving it a survival edge and a natural defense against predators.

“The monarch resists the toxin the best of all the insects, and it has the biggest population size of any of them; it’s all over the world,” he said.

The new paper reveals that the mutations had to occur in the right sequence, or else the flies would never have survived the three separate mutational events.

Thwarting the sodium pump

The poisons in these plants, most of them a type of cardenolide, interfere with the sodium/potassium pump (Na+/K+-ATPase) that most of the body’s cells use to move sodium ions out and potassium ions in. The pump creates an ion imbalance that the cell uses to its favor. Nerve cells, for example, transmit signals along their elongated cell bodies, or axons, by opening sodium and potassium gates in a wave that moves down the axon, allowing ions to flow in and out to equilibrate the imbalance. After the wave passes, the sodium pump re-establishes the ionic imbalance.

Digitoxin, from foxglove, and ouabain, the main toxin in milkweed, block the pump and prevent the cell from establishing the sodium/potassium gradient. This throws the ion concentration in the cell out of whack, causing all sorts of problems. In animals with hearts, like birds and humans, heart cells begin to beat so strongly that the heart fails; the result is death by cardiac arrest.

Scientists have known for decades how these toxins interact with the sodium pump: they bind the part of the pump protein that sticks out through the cell membrane, clogging the channel. They’ve even identified two specific amino acid changes or mutations in the protein pump that monarchs and the other insects evolved to prevent the toxin from binding.

But Whiteman and his colleagues weren’t satisfied with this just so explanation: that insects coincidentally developed the same two identical mutations in the sodium pump 14 separate times, end of story. With the advent of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing in 2012, coinvented by UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna, Whiteman and colleagues Anurag Agrawal of Cornell University and Susanne Dobler of the University of Hamburg in Germany applied to the Templeton Foundation for a grant to recreate these mutations in fruit flies and to see if they could make the flies immune to the toxic effects of cardenolides.

Seven years, many failed attempts and one new grant from the National Institutes of Health later, along with the dedicated CRISPR work of GenetiVision of Houston, Texas, they finally achieved their goal. In the process, they discovered a third critical, compensatory mutation in the sodium pump that had to occur before the last and most potent resistance mutation would stick. Without this compensatory mutation, the maggots died.

Their detective work required inserting single, double and triple mutations into the fruit fly’s own sodium pump gene, in various orders, to assess which ones were necessary. Insects having only one of the two known amino acid changes in the sodium pump gene were best at resisting the plant poisons, but they also had serious side effects — nervous system problems — consistent with the fact that sodium pump mutations in humans are often associated with seizures. However, the third, compensatory mutation somehow reduces the negative effects of the other two mutations.

“One substitution that evolved confers weak resistance, but it is always present and allows for substitutions that are going to confer the most resistance,” said postdoctoral fellow Marianna Karageorgi, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist. “This substitution in the insect unlocks the resistance substitutions, reducing the neurological costs of resistance. Because this trait has evolved so many times, we have also shown that this is not random.”

The fact that one compensatory mutation is required before insects with the most resistant mutation could survive placed a constraint on how insects could evolve toxin resistance, explaining why all 21 lineages converged on the same solution, Whiteman said. In other situations, such as where the protein involved is not so critical to survival, animals might find different solutions.

“This helps answer the question, ‘Why does convergence evolve sometimes, but not other times?'” Whiteman said. “Maybe the constraints vary. That’s a simple answer, but if you think about it, these three mutations turned a Drosophila protein into a monarch one, with respect to cardenolide resistance. That’s kind of remarkable.”

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The research was funded by the Templeton Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Co-authors with Whiteman and Agrawal are co-first authors Marianthi Karageorgi of UC Berkeley and Simon Groen, now at New York University; Fidan Sumbul and Felix Rico of Aix-Marseille Université in France; Julianne Pelaez, Kirsten Verster, Jessica Aguilar, Susan Bernstein, Teruyuki Matsunaga and Michael Astourian of UC Berkeley; Amy Hastings of Cornell; and Susanne Dobler of Universität Hamburg in Germany.

Robert Sanders’ Oct. 2, 2019′ news release for the University of California at Berkeley (it’s also been republished as an Oct. 2, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily) has had its headline changed to ‘vomit’ but you’ll find the more vulgar word remains in two locations of the second paragraph of the revised new release.

If you have time, go to the news release on the University of California at Berkeley website just to admire the images that have been embedded in the news release. Here’s one,

Caption: A Drosophila melanogaster “monarch fly” with mutations introduced by CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing (V111, S119 and H122) to the sodium potassium pump, on a wing of a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Credit & Ccpyright: Julianne Pelaez

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

Genome editing retraces the evolution of toxin resistance in the monarch butterfly by Marianthi Karageorgi, Simon C. Groen, Fidan Sumbul, Julianne N. Pelaez, Kirsten I. Verster, Jessica M. Aguilar, Amy P. Hastings, Susan L. Bernstein, Teruyuki Matsunaga, Michael Astourian, Geno Guerra, Felix Rico, Susanne Dobler, Anurag A. Agrawal & Noah K. Whiteman. Nature (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1610-8 Published 02 October 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Words about a word

I’m glad they changed the headline and substituted vomit for puke. I think we need vulgar and/or taboo words to release anger or disgust or other difficult emotions. Incorporating those words into standard language deprives them of that power.

The last word: Genetivision

The company mentioned in the new release, Genetivision, is the place to go for transgenic flies. Here’s a sampling from the their Testimonials webpage,

GenetiVision‘s service has been excellent in the quality and price. The timeliness of its international service has been a big plus. We are very happy with its consistent service and the flies it generates.”
Kwang-Wook Choi, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Sciences
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology


“We couldn’t be happier with GenetiVision. Great prices on both standard P and PhiC31 transgenics, quick turnaround time, and we’re still batting 1000 with transformant success. We used to do our own injections but your service makes it both faster and more cost-effective. Thanks for your service!”
Thomas Neufeld, Ph.D.
Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development
University of Minnesota

You can find out more here at the Genetivision website.

Better anti-parasitic medicine delivery with chitosan-based nanocapsules

I mage: The common liver fluke which can cause fascioliasis. Credit: Wikimedia creative commons Courtesy: Leeds University

It looks like a pair of lips to me but, according to a December 12, 2018 news item on Nanowerk, this liver fluke heralds a flatworm infection is a serious health problem,

An international team, led by Professor Francisco Goycoolea from the University of Leeds [UK] and Dr Claudio Salomon from the Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina, and in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Münster, Germany, have developed a novel pharmaceutical formulation to administer triclabendazole – an anti-parasitic drug used to treat a type of flatworm infection – in billions of tiny capsules.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 2.4 million people are infected with fascioliasis, the disease caused by flatworms and treated with triclabendazole.

A December 12, 2018 University of Leeds  press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

Anti-parasitic drugs do not become effective until they dissolve and are absorbed. Traditionally, these medicines are highly insoluble and this limits their therapeutic effect.
In a bid to overcome this limitation and accomplish the new formulation, the team used “soft” nanotechnology and nanomedicine approaches, which utilises the self-assembly properties of organic nanostructures and uses techniques in which components, such as polymers and surfactants in solution, play key roles.

Their formulation produces capsules that are less than one micron in size – the diameter of a human hair is roughly 75 microns. These tiny capsules are loaded with triclabendazole and then bundled together to deliver the required dose.

The team used chitosan, a naturally-occurring sugar polymer found in the exoskeleton of shellfish and the cell walls of certain fungi, to coat the oil-core of capsules and bind the drug together, while stabilising the capsule and helping to preserve it.
In its nanocapsule form, the drug would be 100 times more soluble than its current tablet form.

Professor Goycoolea, from the School of Food Science and Nutrition at Leeds, said: “Solubility is critical challenge for effective anti-parasite medicine. We looked to tackle this problem at the particle level. Triclabendazole taken as a dose made up of billions of tiny capsules would mean the medicine would be more efficiently and quickly absorbed

“Through the use of nanocapsules and nanoemulsions, drug efficiency can be enhanced and new solutions can be considered for the best ways to target medicine delivery.”
Dr Salomon said: “To date, this is the first report on triclabendazole nanoencapsulation and we believe this type of formulation could be applied to other anti-parasitic drugs as well. But more research is needed to ensure this new pharmaceutical formulation of the drug does not diminish the anti-parasitic effect. Our ongoing research is working to answer this very question.”

Although there have been cases of fascioliasis in more than 70 countries worldwide, with increasing reports from Europe and the Americas, it is considered a neglected disease, as it does not receive much attention and often goes untreated.
Symptoms of the disease when it reaches the chronic phase include intermittent pain, jaundice and anaemia. Patients can also experience hardening of the liver in the case of long-term inflammation.

Because of the highly insoluble nature of anti-parasitic drugs, they need to be administered in very high dosages to ensure enough of the active ingredient is absorbed. This is particularly problematic when treating children for parasites. Tablets needs to be divided into smaller pieces to adjust the dosage and make swallowing easier, but this can cause side effects due to incorrect dosage.

The team’s technique to formulate triclabendazole into nanocapsules, published today [Dec. 12, 2018] in the journal PLOS ONE, would also allow for lower doses to be administered. s

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

Chitosan-based nanodelivery systems applied to the development of novel triclabendazole formulations by Daniel Real, Stefan Hoffmann, Darío Leonardi, Claudio Salomon, Francisco M. Goycoolea. PLOS DOI https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207625 Published: December 12, 2018

This paper is open access. BTW, I loved the title for the press release (Helping the anti-parasitic medicine go down) for its reference to the song, A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the 1964 film musical, Mary Poppins, and the shout out for the sort of sequel, Mary Poppins Returns, released on Dec. 19, 2018.

Membrane stretching as a new transport mechanism for nanomaterials

This work comes from Catalonia, Spain by way of a collaboration between Chinese, German, and, of course, Spanish scientists. From a December 12, 2018 Universitat Rovira i Virgili press release (also on EurekAlert),

Increasing awareness of bioeffects and toxicity of nanomaterials interacting with cells puts in focus the mechanisms by which nanomaterials can cross lipid membranes. Apart from well-discussed energy-dependent endocytosis for large objects and passive diffusion through membranes by solute molecules, there can exist other transport mechanisms based on physical principles. Based on this hypothesis, the team of theoretical physics at Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, led by Dr. Vladimir Baulin, designed a research project to investigate the interaction between nanotube and lipid membranes. In computer simulations, the researchers studied what they call a “model bilayer”, composed only by one type of lipids. Based on their calculations, the team of Dr. Baulin observed that ultra -short nanotube (10nm length) can insert perpendicularly to the lipid bilayer core.

They observed that these nanotubes stay trapped in the cell membrane, as commonly accepted by the scientific community. But a surprise appears when they stretched their model cell membrane, then inserted nanotubes which were trapped in the bilayer, suddenly started to escape from the bilayer on both sides. This means that it is possible to control the transport of nanomaterial across a cell membrane by tuning the membrane tension.

This is where Dr. Baulin contacted Dr. Jean-Baptiste Fleury at the Saarland University (Germany) to confirm this mechanism and to study experimentally this tension-mediated transport phenomena. Dr. Fleury and his team, designed a microfluidic experiment with a well-controlled phospholipid bilayer, an experimental model for cell membranes and added ultra-small carbon nanotubes (10nm in length) in solution. The nanotubes had an adsorbed lipid monolayer that guarantees their stable dispersion and prevent their clustering. Using a combination of optical fluorescent microscopy and electrophysiological measurements, the team of Dr. Fleury could follow individual nanotube crossing a bilayer and unravel their pathway on a molecular level. And as predicted by the simulations, they observed that nanotubes inserted into the bilayer by dissolving their lipid coating into the artificial membrane. When a tension of 4mN/m was applied to the bilayer, nanotubes spontaneously escaped the bilayer just in few milliseconds, while at lower tensions nanotubes remain trapped inside the membrane.

This discovery of translocation of tiny nanotubes through barriers protecting cells, i.e. lipid bilayer, may raise concerns about safety of nanomaterials for public health and suggest new mechanical mechanisms to control the drug delivery.

Caption: Nanotubes trapped inside the membrane. Credit: © URV

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

Tension-Induced Translocation of an Ultrashort Carbon Nanotube through a Phospholipid Bilayer by Yachong Guo, Marco Werner, Ralf Seemann, Vladimir A. Baulin, and Jean-Baptiste Fleury. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b04657 Publication Date (Web): November 19, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.