Rebecca Trager in a March 5, 2021 news article for Chemistry World highlights support for Charles M. Lieber (Harvard professor and chair of the chemistry department) from his colleagues (Note: Links have been removed),
More than a year after the chair of Harvard University’s chemistry department was arrested for allegedly hiding his receipt of millions of dollars in research funding from China from his university and the US government, dozens of prominent researchers – including many Nobel Prize winners – are coming to Charles Lieber’s defence. They are calling the US Department of Justice (DOJ) case against him ‘unjust’ and urging the agency to drop it.
Following his January 2020 arrest, Lieber was placed on ‘indefinite’ paid administrative leave. The nanoscience pioneer was indicted in June  on charges of making false statements to federal authorities regarding his participation in China’s Thousand Talents plan – the country’s programme to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent from abroad. Lieber faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 (£179,000) if convicted.
A 1 March  open letter, drafted and coordinated by Harvard chemist Stuart Schreiber, co-founder of the Broad Institute, and professor emeritus Elias Corey, winner of the 1990 chemistry Nobel prize, says Lieber became the target of a ‘tragically misguided government campaign’. The letter refers to Lieber as ‘one of the great scientist of his generation’ and warns such government actions are discouraging US scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China. The open letter also notes that Lieber is fighting to salvage his reputation while suffering from incurable lymphoma.
Ferguson goes on to contrast Lieber’s treatment by Harvard to another embattled colleague’s treatment by his home institution (Note: Links have been removed),
Harvard’s treatment of Lieber stands in contrast to how the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) handled the more recent case of nanotechnologist Gang Chen, who was arrested in January  for failing to report his ties to the Chinese government. MIT agreed to cover his legal fees, and more than 100 faculty members signed a letter to their university’s president that picked apart the DOJ’s allegations against Chen.
Apparently the magic is in the lipid nanoparticles. A March 1, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announced research into lipid nanoparticles as a means to deliver CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to specific organs (Note: A link has been removed),
The genome editing technology CRISPR has emerged as a powerful new tool that can change the way we treat disease. The challenge when altering the genetics of our cells, however, is how to do it safely, effectively, and specifically targeted to the gene, tissue and organ that needs treatment.
Scientists at Tufts University and the Broad Institute of Harvard [University] and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have developed unique nanoparticles comprised of lipids — fat molecules — that can package and deliver gene editing machinery specifically to the liver.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS] (“Lipid nanoparticle-mediated codelivery of Cas9 mRNA and single-guide RNA achieves liver-specific in vivo genome editing of Angptl3”), they have shown that they can use the lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to efficiently deliver the CRISPR machinery into the liver of mice, resulting in specific genome editing and the reduction of blood cholesterol levels by as much as 57% — a reduction that can last for at least several months with just one shot.
The problem of high cholesterol plagues more than 29 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition is complex and can originate from multiple genes as well as nutritional and lifestyle choices, so it is not easy to treat. The Tufts and Broad researchers, however, have modified one gene that could provide a protective effect against elevated cholesterol if it can be shut down by gene editing.
The gene that the researchers focused on codes for the angiopoietin-like 3 enzyme (Angptl3). That enzyme tamps down the activity of other enzymes – lipases – that help break down cholesterol. If researchers can knock out the Angptl3 gene, they can let the lipases do their work and reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood. It turns out that some lucky people have a natural mutation in their Angptl3 gene, leading to consistently low levels of triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, commonly called “bad” cholesterol, in their bloodstream without any known clinical downsides.
“If we can replicate that condition by knocking out the angptl3 gene in others, we have a good chance of having a safe and long term solution to high cholesterol,” said Qiaobing Xu, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts’ School of Engineering and corresponding author of the study. “We just have to make sure we deliver the gene editing package specifically to the liver so as not to create unwanted side effects.”
Xu’s team was able to do precisely that in mouse models. After a single injection of lipid nanoparticles packed with mRNA coding for CRISPR-Cas9 and a single-guide RNA targeting Angptl3, they observed a profound reduction in LDL cholesterol by as much as 57% and triglyceride levels by about 29 %, both of which remained at those lowered levels for at least 100 days. The researchers speculate that the effect may last much longer than that, perhaps limited only by the slow turnover of cells in the liver, which can occur over a period of about a year. The reduction of cholesterol and triglycerides is dose dependent, so their levels could be adjusted by injecting fewer or more LNPs in the single shot, the researchers said.
By comparison, an existing, FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved version of CRISPR mRNA-loaded LNPs could only reduce LDL cholesterol by at most 15.7% and triglycerides by 16.3% when it was tested in mice, according to the researchers.
The trick to making a better LNP was in customizing the components – the molecules that come together to form bubbles around the mRNA. The LNPs are made up of long chain lipids that have a charged or polar head that is attracted to water, a carbon chain tail that points toward the middle of the bubble containing the payload, and a chemical linker between them. Also present are polyethylene glycol, and yes, even some cholesterol – which has a normal role in lipid membranes to make them less leaky – to hold their contents better.
The researchers found that the nature and relative ratio of these components appeared to have profound effects on the delivery of mRNA into the liver, so they tested LNPs with many combinations of heads, tails, linkers and ratios among all components for their ability to target liver cells. Because the in vitro potency of an LNP formulation rarely reflects its in vivo performance, they directly evaluated the delivery specificity and efficacy in mice that have a reporter gene in their cells that lights up red when genome editing occurs. Ultimately, they found a CRISPR mRNA-loaded LNP that lit up just the liver in mice, showing that it could specifically and efficiently deliver gene-editing tools into the liver to do their work.
The LNPs were built upon earlier work at Tufts, where Xu and his team developed LNPs with as much as 90% efficiency in delivering mRNA into cells. A unique feature of those nanoparticles was the presence of disulfide bonds between the long lipid chains. Outside the cells, the LNPs form a stable spherical structure that locks in their contents. When they are inside a cell, the environment within breaks the disulfide bonds to disassemble the nanoparticles. The contents are then quickly and efficiently released into the cell. By preventing loss outside the cell, the LNPs can have a much higher yield in delivering their contents.
“CRISPR is one of the most powerful therapeutic tools for the treatment of diseases with a genetic etiology. We have recently seen the first human clinical trail for CRISPR therapy enabled by LNP delivery to be administered systemically to edit genes inside the human body. Our LNP platform developed here holds great potential for clinical translation,” said Min Qiu, post-doctoral researcher in Xu’s lab at Tufts. “We envision that with this LNP platform in hand, we could now make CRISPR a practical and safe approach to treat a broad spectrum of liver diseases or disorders,” said Zachary Glass, graduate student in the Xu lab. Qiu and Glass are co-first authors of the study.
Since posting about Science Odyssey, I have received a number of emails announcing event and not all of them are part of the Odyssey experience.
From the looks of things, May 2021 is going to be a very busy month. Given how early it is in the month I expect to receive another batch of notices and most likely will post another May 2021 events roundup.
At this point, there’s a heavy emphasis on architecture (human and other) and design.
Proximal Spaces on May 3, 2021
This is one of those event within an event notices. There’s a festival: FACTT 20/21 – Improbable Times. Trans-disciplinary & Trans-national Festival of Art & Science in Portugal and within the festival there is Proximal Spaces in Toronto, Canada. Here’s more from the ArtScience Salon (ArtSci Salon) May 1, 2021 announcement (received via email),
May 3, 2021 – 3.00 PM (EST) [12 pm PST]
Join us at this poetry reading by six Canadian artists responding to the work of eight bioartists. Event with be streamed on Facebook Live.
Please note that you don’t need to sign up in order to access the streaming as it is public.
Proximal Spaces’ is a multi-modal exhibition that explores the environment at multiple scales in concentric circles of proximity to the body. Inspired by Edward Hall’s [Edward Twitchell Hall or E. T. Hall] 1961 notation of intimate (1.5ft), personal (4ft), social (12ft) and public (25ft) spaces in his “Proxemics” diagrams, the installation portion presents similar diagrams of his concentric circles affixed to the wall of the gallery space, as well as developed in Augmented Reality around the venue. Each of these diagrams is a montage of microscopic and sub-microscopic images of the everyday environment as experienced by a collaborative team of international bioartists, and arrayed in a fractal form. In addition, an AR-enabled application explores the invisible environments of computer generated bioaerosols suspended in the air of virtual space.
This work visualizes the variegated response of the biological environment to unprecedented levels of physical distancing and self-isolation and recent developments in vaccine design that impact our understanding of interpersonal and interspecies ‘messaging’. What continues to thrive in the 6ft ‘dead spaces’ between us? What invisible particles linger on and create a biological archive through our movements through space? The artwork presents an interesting mode of interspecies engagement through hybrid virtual and physical interaction.
In the spring of 2021, six Canadian poets – Kelley Aitken, nancy viva davis halifax, Maureen Hynes, Anita Lahey, Dilys Leman, & Sheila Stewart – came together to pursue a lyric response to Proximal Spaces. They were challenged and inspired by the virtual exhibition with its combination of art, science, and proxemics. The focus of the artworks – what inhabits and thrives in the spaces and environments where we live, work, and breathe—generated six distinctive poems.
Poets: Kelley Aitken, nancy viva davis halifax, Maureen Hynes, Anita Lahey, Dilys Leman, & Sheila Stewart
Bioartists: Roberta Buiani, Nathalie Dubois Calero, Sarah Choukah, Nicole Clouston, Jess Holtz, Mick Lorusso, Maro Pebo, Felipe Shibuya
This project is part of FACTT-Improbable Times (http://factt.arteinstitute.org/), a project spearheaded and promoted by the Arte Institute we are in or production and conception partners with Cultivamos Cultura and Ectopia (Portugal), InArts Lab@Ionian University (Greece), ArtSci Salon@The Fields Institute and Sensorium@York University (Canada), School of Visual Arts (USA), UNAM [National Autonomous University of Mexico], Arte+Ciência and Bioscénica (Mexico), and Central Academy of Fine Arts (China). Together we will work and bring into being our ideas and actions for this during the year of 2021!
Morphogenesis: Geometry, Physics, and Biology on May 5, 2021
i love this image, he seems so delighted to show off the bug (?),
Here’s more from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) April 30, 2021 announcement (received via email),
Earth is home to millions of different species – from simple plants and unicellular organisms to trees and whales and humans. The incredible diversity of life on Earth led Charles Darwin to lament that it is “enough to drive the sanest man mad.”
How can we make sense of this diversity of form, which arises from the process of morphogenesis that links molecular- and cellular-level processes to conspire and lead to the emergence of “endless forms most beautiful,” as Darwin said?
In his May 5  lecture webcast, Harvard professor L. Mahadevan [Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan] will take viewers on a journey into the mathematical, physical, and biological workings of morphogenesis to demonstrate how scientists are beginning to unlock many of the secrets that have vexed scientists since Darwin.
Possible Worlds: “How Will We Live Together?” on May 6, 2021
For those who are interested in human architecture, there’s this from a May 3, 3021 Berggruen institute announcement (received via email) about a talk by Chilean architect and 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Gastón Aravena Mori (Alejandro Aravena),
Possible Worlds: How Will We Live Together
May 6, 2021
11am — Virtual
Possible Worlds: The UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] – Berggruen Institute Speaker Series is a new partnership between the UCLA Division of Humanities and the Berggruen Institute.
Please click here to submit a question to Alejandro Aravena
About Alejandro Aravena Alejandro Aravena is an architect, founder and executive director of the firm Elemental. His works include the “Siamese Towers” at the Catholic University of Chile and the Novartis office campus in Shanghai. In 2016, the New York Times named Aravena one of the world’s “creative geniuses” who had helped define culture. He and Elemental have received numerous honors, including the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the 2015 London Design Museum’s Design of the Year award and the 2011 Index Award. Aravena currently serves as the president of the Pritzker Prize jury. Aravena’s lecture title, “How Will We Live Together?” echoes the theme of the upcoming international architecture exhibition, Biennale Architettura, in which Elemental will be participating.
Featuring a discussion with moderator Dana Cuff
Dana Cuff is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, where she is also Director of cityLAB, an award-winning think tank that advances goals of spatial justice through experimental urbanism and architecture (www.cityLAB.aud.ucla.edu). Since receiving her Ph.D. in Architecture from Berkeley, Cuff has published and lectured widely about affordable housing, the architectural profession, and Los Angeles’ urban history. She is author of several books, including The Provisional City about postwar housing in L.A., and a co-authored book called Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City, documenting her collaborative, crossdisciplinary research and teaching at UCLA funded by the Mellon Foundation. Based on cityLAB’s design research, Cuff co-authored landmark legislation that permits “backyard homes” on some 8.1 million single-family properties, doubling the density of suburbs across California (AB 2299, Bloom-2016). In 2019, cityLAB opened a satellite center in the MacArthur Park/Westlake neighborhood where a deep, multi-year exchange with community organizations is already demonstrating ways that humanistic design of the public realm can create more compassionate cities. Cuff recently received three awards that describe her career: Women in Architecture Activist of the Year (2019, Architectural Record); Distinguished Leadership in Architectural Research (2020, ARCC); and Educator of the Year (2021, American Institute of Architects Los Angeles).
About the Series Possible Worlds: The UCLA – Berggruen Institute Speaker Series is a new partnership between the UCLA Division of Humanities and the Berggruen Institute. This semiannual series will bring some of today’s most imaginative intellectual leaders and creators to deliver public talks on the future of humanity. Through the lens of their singular achievements and experiences, these trailblazers in creativity, innovation, philosophy and politics will lecture on provocative topics that explore current challenges and transformations in human progress.
UCLA faculty and students have long been at the forefront of interpreting the world’s legacy of language, literature, art and science. UCLA Humanities serves a vital role in readying future leaders to articulate their thoughts with clarity and imagination, to interpret the world of ideas, and to live as informed citizens in an increasingly complex world. We are proud to be partnering in this lecture series with the Berggruen Institute, whose work addresses the “Great Transformations” taking place in technology and culture, politics and economics, global power arrangements, and even how we perceive ourselves as humans. The Institute seeks to connect deep thought in the human sciences — philosophy and culture — to the pursuit of practical improvements in governance.
A selection committee comprising representatives of UCLA and the Berggruen Institute has been formed to make recommendations for lecturers. The committee includes:
• Ursula Heise, Professor and Chair, Department of English; Professor, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Marcia H. Howard Term Chair in Literary Studies • Pamela Hieronymi, Professor of Philosophy • Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Professor of Urban Planning; Associate Provost for Academic Planning • Todd Presner, Associate Dean, Digital Initiatives; Chair of the Digital Humanities Program; Michael and Irene Ross Endowed Chair of Yiddish Studies; Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature • Lynn Vavreck, Professor, Department of Political Science; Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy • David Schaberg, Senior Dean of the UCLA College; Dean of Humanities; Professor, Asian Languages & Cultures • Nils Gilman, Vice President of Programs, the Berggruen Institute
Generative Art and Computational Creativity starts May 7, 2021
A Spring 2021 MetaCreation Lab (Simon Fraser University; SFU) newsletter (received via email on April 23, 2021) highlights a number of festival submissions and papers along with some news about a free introductory course. First, the video introduction to the course,
This first course in the two-part program, Generative Art and Computational Creativity [there’s a fee for part two], proposes an introduction and overview of the history and practice of generative arts and computational creativity with an emphasis on the formal paradigms and algorithms used for generation. The full program will be taught by Associate Professor from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University and multi-disciplinary researcher, Philippe Pasquier.
On the technical side, we will study core techniques from mathematics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life that are used by artists, designers and musicians across the creative industry. We will start with processes involving chance operations, chaos theory and fractals and move on to see how stochastic processes, and rule-based approaches can be used to explore creative spaces. We will study agents and multi-agent systems and delve into cellular automata, and virtual ecosystems to explore their potential to create novel and valuable artifacts and aesthetic experiences.
The presentation is illustrated by numerous examples from past and current productions across creative practices such as visual art, new media, music, poetry, literature, performing arts, design, architecture, games, robot-art, bio-art and net-art. Students get to practice these algorithms first hand and develop new generative pieces through assignments and projects in MAX. Finally, the course addresses relevant philosophical, and societal debates associated with the automation of creative tasks.
Music for this course was composed with the StyleMachineLite Max for Live engine of Metacreative Inc.
Artistic direction: Philippe Pasquier, Programmation: Arne Eigenfeldt, Sound Production: Philippe Bertrand
This course is in adaptive mode and is open for enrollment. Learn more about adaptive courses here.
Session 1: Introduction and Typology of Generative Art (May 7, 2021) To start off this course, we define generative art and computational creativity and discuss how these relate through the study of prominent examples. We establish a typology of generative systems based on levels of autonomy and agency.
Session 2: History Of Generative Art, Chance Operations, and Chaos Theory (May 14, 2021) Generative art is nothing new, and this session goes through the history of the field from pre-history to the popularization of computers. We study chance, noise, fractals, chaos theory, and their applications in visual art and music.
Session 3: Rule-Based Systems, Grammars and Markov Chains (May 21, 2021) This session introduces and illustrate the generative potential of rule-based and expert systems. We study generative grammars through the Chomsky hierarchy, and introduce L-systems, shape grammars, and Markov chains. We discuss how these have been applied in visual art, music, design, architecture, and electronic literature.
Session 4: Cognitive Agents And Multiagent Systems (May 28, 2021) This session introduces the concepts underlying the notion of artificial agents. We study the belief, desire, and intention (BDI) cognitive architecture, and message based agent communication resting on the speech act theory. We discuss musical agents, conversational agents, chat bots and twitter bots and their artistic potential.
Session 5: Reactive Agents And Multiagent Systems (June 4, 2021) In this session, we introduce reactive agents and the subsumption architecture. We study boids, and detail how complex behaviors can emerge from a distributed population of simple artificial agents. We look at a myriad of applications from ant painting to swarm music and we discuss artistic approaches to virtual ecosystems.
Session 6: A-Life And Cellular Automaton (June 11, 2021) In this concluding session, we introduce artificial life (A-life). We study cellular automaton, multi-agent ecosystems for music, visual art, non-photorealistic rendering, and gaming. The session also concludes the class by reflecting on the state of the art in the field and its consequences on creative practices.
The human being – so fragile, so ethereal, speaking a sweet language. A piece of architecture – so physically imminent, so solid, speaking a language of hardness.
Photo by Oliviero Godi – Frantoio Ipogeo nel Salento
Join photographer & architect Oliviero Godi as he explores the relationship between the body & the material, the transient & the permanent, in search of the correct balance where neither element prevails.
To make your donation, please send an e-transfer to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Learn More [about this other upcoming Cultural Events]
Respiration and the Brain on May 25, 2021
Before getting to the April 29, 2021 BrainTalks announcement, here’s a little bit about BrainTalks from their webspace on the University of British Columbia (UBC) website,
BrainTalks is a series of talks inviting you to contemplate emerging research about the brain. Researchers studying the brain, from various disciplines including psychiatry, neuroscience, neuroimaging, and neurology, gather to discuss current leading edge topics on the mind.
As an audience member, you join the discussion at the end of the talk, both in the presence of the entire audience, and with an opportunity afterwards to talk with the speaker more informally in a catered networking session. The talks also serve as a connecting place for those interested in similar topics, potentially launching new endeavours or simply connecting people in discussions on how to approach their research, their knowledge, or their clinical practice.
For the general public, these talks serve as a channel where by knowledge usually sequestered in inaccessible journals or university classrooms, is now available, potentially allowing people to better understand their brains and minds, how they work, and how to optimize brain health.
[UBC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry]
Onto the April 29, 2021 BrainTalks announcement (received via email),
BrainTalks: Respiration and the Brain
Tuesday, May 25th, 2021 from 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM [PT]
Join us for a series of online talks exploring questions of respiration and the brain. Emerging empirical research will be presented on ventilation-associated brain injury and breathing-based interventions for the treatment of stress and anxiety disorders. We presenters will include Dr. Thiago Bassi, Dr. Lloyd Lalande and Taylor Willi, MSc.
Dr. Thiago Bassi will address the biological connection between the brain and lungs, exploring the potential adverse effects of mechanical ventilation on the brain. Dr. Bassi is a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, who worked clinically for more than ten years in Brazil. He joined the Lungpacer Medical team and C2B2 lab in 2017, and is currently completing his doctorate in Biomedicine Physiology at Simon Fraser University.
Dr. Lloyd Lalande will describe Guided Respiration Mindfulness Therapy (GRMT), as an emerging clinical breathwork intervention for its effectiveness in reducing depression, anxiety and stress, and in increasing mindfulness and sense of wellbeing. Dr. Lalonde is an Assistant Professor teaching psychology at the Buddhist TzuChi University of Science and Technology, and the developer of GRMT. His current research is based out of the TzuChi Buddhist General Hospital, investigating GRMT as an evidence-based treatment for a variety of outcomes.
Mr. Taylor Willi will present the findings of his dissertation research comparing the effect of performing daily brief relaxation techniques on measures of stress and anxiety. Mr. Willi completed a Masters Degree of Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, and is currently completing his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Simon Fraser University.
Each of the speakers will present an overview of their research findings investigating respiration in three unique ways. Following their presentations, the speakers will be available for an audience-drive panel discussion.
Where explosions are concerned you might expect to see some army research and you would be right. A June 29, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily breaks the news,
Since World War I, the vast majority of American combat casualties has come not from gunshot wounds but from explosions. Today, most soldiers wear a heavy, bullet-proof vest to protect their torso but much of their body remains exposed to the indiscriminate aim of explosive fragments and shrapnel.
Designing equipment to protect extremities against the extreme temperatures and deadly projectiles that accompany an explosion has been difficult because of a fundamental property of materials. Materials that are strong enough to protect against ballistic threats can’t protect against extreme temperatures and vice versa. As a result, much of today’s protective equipment is composed of multiple layers of different materials, leading to bulky, heavy gear that, if worn on the arms and legs, would severely limit a soldier’s mobility.
Now, Harvard University researchers, in collaboration with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center (CCDC SC) and West Point, have developed a lightweight, multifunctional nanofiber material that can protect wearers from both extreme temperatures and ballistic threats.
“When I was in combat in Afghanistan, I saw firsthand how body armor could save lives,” said senior author Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army Reserve. “I also saw how heavy body armor could limit mobility. As soldiers on the battlefield, the three primary tasks are to move, shoot, and communicate. If you limit one of those, you decrease survivability and you endanger mission success.”
“Our goal was to design a multifunctional material that could protect someone working in an extreme environment, such as an astronaut, firefighter or soldier, from the many different threats they face,” said Grant M. Gonzalez, a postdoctoral fellow at SEAS and first author of the paper.
In order to achieve this practical goal, the researchers needed to explore the tradeoff between mechanical protection and thermal insulation, properties rooted in a material’s molecular structure and orientation.
Materials with strong mechanical protection, such as metals and ceramics, have a highly ordered and aligned molecular structure. This structure allows them to withstand and distribute the energy of a direct blow. Insulating materials, on the other hand, have a much less ordered structure, which prevents the transmission of heat through the material.
Kevlar and Twaron are commercial products used extensively in protective equipment and can provide either ballistic or thermal protection, depending on how they are manufactured. Woven Kevlar, for example, has a highly aligned crystalline structure and is used in protective bulletproof vests. Porous Kevlar aerogels, on the other hand, have been shown to have high thermal insulation.
“Our idea was to use this Kevlar polymer to combine the woven, ordered structure of fibers with the porosity of aerogels to make long, continuous fibers with porous spacing in between,” said Gonzalez. “In this system, the long fibers could resist a mechanical impact while the pores would limit heat diffusion.”
The research team used immersion Rotary Jet-Spinning (iRJS), a technique developed by Parker’s Disease Biophysics Group, to manufacture the fibers. In this technique, a liquid polymer solution is loaded into a reservoir and pushed out through a tiny opening by centrifugal force as the device spins. When the polymer solution shoots out of the reservoir, it first passes through an area of open air, where the polymers elongate and the chains align. Then the solution hits a liquid bath that removes the solvent and precipitates the polymers to form solid fibers. Since the bath is also spinning — like water in a salad spinner — the nanofibers follow the stream of the vortex and wrap around a rotating collector at the base of the device.
By tuning the viscosity of the liquid polymer solution, the researchers were able to spin long, aligned nanofibers into porous sheets — providing enough order to protect against projectiles but enough disorder to protect against heat. In about 10 minutes, the team could spin sheets about 10 by 30 centimeters in size.
To test the sheets, the Harvard team turned to their collaborators to perform ballistic tests. Researchers at CCDC SC in Natick, Massachusetts simulated shrapnel impact by shooting large, BB-like projectiles at the sample. The team performed tests by sandwiching the nanofiber sheets between sheets of woven Twaron. They observed little difference in protection between a stack of all woven Twaron sheets and a combined stack of woven Twaron and spun nanofibers.
“The capabilities of the CCDC SC allow us to quantify the successes of our fibers from the perspective of protective equipment for warfighters, specifically,” said Gonzalez.
“Academic collaborations, especially those with distinguished local universities such as Harvard, provide CCDC SC the opportunity to leverage cutting-edge expertise and facilities to augment our own R&D capabilities,” said Kathleen Swana, a researcher at CCDC SC and one of the paper’s authors. “CCDC SC, in return, provides valuable scientific and soldier-centric expertise and testing capabilities to help drive the research forward.”
In testing for thermal protection, the researchers found that the nanofibers provided 20 times the heat insulation capability of commercial Twaron and Kevlar.
“While there are improvements that could be made, we have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible and started moving the field towards this kind of multifunctional material,” said Gonzalez.
“We’ve shown that you can develop highly protective textiles for people that work in harm’s way,” said Parker. “Our challenge now is to evolve the scientific advances to innovative products for my brothers and sisters in arms.”
Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has filed a patent application for the technology and is actively seeking commercialization opportunities.
Clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing has been largely confined to laboratory use or tested in agricultural trials. I believe that is true worldwide excepting the CRISPR twin scandal. (There are numerous postings about the CRISPR twins here including a Nov. 28, 2018 post, a May 17, 2019 post, and a June 20, 2019 post. Update: It was reported (3rd. para.) in December 2019 that He had been sentenced to three years jail time.)
Connie Lin in a May 7, 2020 article for Fast Company reports on this surprising decision by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Note: A link has been removed),
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted Emergency Use Authorization to a COVID-19 test that uses controversial gene-editing technology CRISPR.
This marks the first time CRISPR has been authorized by the FDA, although only for the purpose of detecting the coronavirus, and not for its far more contentious applications. The new test kit, developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Sherlock Biosciences, will be deployed in laboratories certified to carry out high-complexity procedures and is “rapid,” returning results in about an hour as opposed to those that rely on the standard polymerase chain reaction method, which typically requires six hours.
The announcement was made in the FDA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: May 7, 2020 Daily Roundup (4th item in the bulleted list), Or, you can read the May 6, 2020 letter (PDF) sent to John Vozella of Sherlock Biosciences by the FDA.
Sherlock Biosciences, an Engineering Biology company dedicated to making diagnostic testing better, faster and more affordable, today announced the company has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 kit for the detection of the virus that causes COVID-19, providing results in approximately one hour.
“While it has only been a little over a year since the launch of Sherlock Biosciences, today we have made history with the very first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR technology, which will be used to rapidly identify the virus that causes COVID-19,” said Rahul Dhanda, co-founder, president and CEO of Sherlock Biosciences. “We are committed to providing this initial wave of testing kits to physicians, laboratory experts and researchers worldwide to enable them to assist frontline workers leading the charge against this pandemic.”
The Sherlock™ CRISPR SARS-CoV-2 test kit is designed for use in laboratories certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA), 42 U.S.C. §263a, to perform high complexity tests. Based on the SHERLOCK method, which stands for Specific High-sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter unLOCKing, the kit works by programming a CRISPR molecule to detect the presence of a specific genetic signature – in this case, the genetic signature for SARS-CoV-2 – in a nasal swab, nasopharyngeal swab, oropharyngeal swab or bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) specimen. When the signature is found, the CRISPR enzyme is activated and releases a detectable signal. In addition to SHERLOCK, the company is also developing its INSPECTR™ platform to create an instrument-free, handheld test – similar to that of an at-home pregnancy test – that utilizes Sherlock Biosciences’ Synthetic Biology platform to provide rapid detection of a genetic match of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“When our lab collaborated with Dr. Feng Zhang’s team to develop SHERLOCK, we believed that this CRISPR-based diagnostic method would have a significant impact on global health,” said James J. Collins, co-founder and board member of Sherlock Biosciences and Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science for MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering. “During what is a major healthcare crisis across the globe, we are heartened that the first FDA-authorized use of CRISPR will aid in the fight against this global COVID-19 pandemic.”
Access to rapid diagnostics is critical for combating this pandemic and is a primary focus for Sherlock Biosciences co-founder and board member, David R. Walt, Ph.D., who co-leads the Mass [Massachusetts] General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation.
“SHERLOCK enables rapid identification of a single alteration in a DNA or RNA sequence in a single molecule,” said Dr. Walt. “That precision, coupled with its capability to be deployed to multiplex over 100 targets or as a simple point-of-care system, will make it a critical addition to the arsenal of rapid diagnostics already being used to detect COVID-19.”
This development is particularly interesting since there was a major intellectual property dispute over CRISPR between the Broad Institute (a Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] joint initiative), and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). The Broad Institute mostly won in the first round of the patent fight, as I noted in a March 15, 2017 post but, as far as I’m aware, UC Berkeley is still disputing that decision.
In the period before receiving authorization, it appears that Sherlock Biosciences was doing a little public relations and ‘consciousness raising’ work. Here’s a sample from a May 5, 2020 article by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),
The revolutionary genetic technique better known for its potential to cure thousands of inherited diseases could also solve the challenge of Covid-19 diagnostic testing, scientists announced on Tuesday. A team headed by biologist Feng Zhang of the McGovern Institute at MIT and the Broad Institute has repurposed the genome-editing tool CRISPR into a test able to quickly detect as few as 100 coronavirus particles in a swab or saliva sample.
Crucially, the technique, dubbed a “one pot” protocol, works in a single test tube and does not require the many specialty chemicals, or reagents, whose shortage has hampered the rollout of widespread Covid-19 testing in the U.S. It takes about an hour to get results, requires minimal handling, and in preliminary studies has been highly accurate, Zhang told STAT. He and his colleagues, led by the McGovern’s Jonathan Gootenberg and Omar Abudayyeh, released the protocol on their STOPCovid.science website.
Because the test has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it is only for research purposes for now. But minutes before speaking to STAT on Monday, Zhang and his colleagues were on a conference call with FDA officials about what they needed to do to receive an “emergency use authorization” that would allow clinical use of the test. The FDA has used EUAs to fast-track Covid-19 diagnostics as well as experimental therapies, including remdesivir, after less extensive testing than usually required.
For an EUA, the agency will require the scientists to validate the test, which they call STOPCovid, on dozens to hundreds of samples. Although “it is still early in the process,” Zhang said, he and his colleagues are confident enough in its accuracy that they are conferring with potential commercial partners who could turn the test into a cartridge-like device, similar to a pregnancy test, enabling Covid-19 testing at doctor offices and other point-of-care sites.
“It could potentially even be used at home or at workplaces,” Zhang said. “It’s inexpensive, does not require a lab, and can return results within an hour using a paper strip, not unlike a pregnancy test. This helps address the urgent need for widespread, accurate, inexpensive, and accessible Covid-19 testing.” Public health experts say the availability of such a test is one of the keys to safely reopening society, which will require widespread testing, and then tracing and possibly isolating the contacts of those who test positive.
I may be mistaken but the implication seems to be that Charles M. Lieber’s lies (he was charged today, January 28, 2020 ) are the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a very large problem. Ellen Barry’s January 28, 2020 article for the New York Times outlines at least part of what the US government is doing to discover and ultimately discourage the theft of biomedical research from US laboratories.
Dr. Lieber, a leader in the field of nanoscale electronics, was one of three Boston-area scientists accused on Tuesday [January 28, 2020] of working on behalf of China. His case involves work with the Thousand Talents Program, a state-run program that seeks to draw talent educated in other countries.
American officials are investigating hundreds of cases of suspected theft of intellectual property by visiting scientists, nearly all of them Chinese nationals or of Chinese descent. Some are accused of obtaining patents in China based on work that is funded by the United States government, and others of setting up laboratories in China that secretly duplicated American research.
Dr. Lieber, who was arrested on Tuesday [January 28, 2020], stands out among the accused scientists, because he is neither Chinese nor of Chinese descent. …
Lieber is the Chair of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and much more, according to his Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),
Charles M. Lieber (born 1959) is an American chemist and pioneer in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In 2011, Lieber was recognized by Thomson Reuters as the leading chemist in the world for the decade 2000-2010 based on the impact of his scientific publications. Lieber has published over 400 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has edited and contributed to many books on nanoscience. He is the principal inventor on over fifty issued US patents and applications, and founded the nanotechnology company Nanosys in 2001 and Vista Therapeutics in 2007. He is known for his contributions to the synthesis, assembly and characterization of nanoscale materials and nanodevices, the application of nanoelectronic devices in biology, and as a mentor to numerous leaders in nanoscience. Thompson Reuters predicted Lieber to be a recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry [to date, January 28, 2020, Lieber has not received a Nobel prize].
Should you search Charles Lieber or Charles M. Lieber on this blog’s search engine, you will find a number of postings about his and his students’ work dating from 2012 to as recently as November 15, 2019.
Here’s another example from Barry’s January 28, 2020 article for the New York Times which illustrates just how shocking this is (Note: Links have been removed),
In 2017 he was named a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty rank, one of only 26 professors to hold that status. The same year, he earned the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for inventing syringe-injectable mesh electronics that can integrate with the brain.
Harvard’s president at the time, Drew G. Faust, called him “an extraordinary scientist whose work has transformed nanoscience and nanotechnology and has led to a remarkable range of valuable applications that improve the quality of people’s lives.”
Here’s a bit more about the Chinese program that Lieber is affiliated with,
Launched in 2008, its [China] Thousand Talents Program is an effort to recruit Chinese and foreign academics and entrepreneurs. According to a report in the China Daily, new recruits receive 1 million yuan, or about $146,000, from the central government, and a pledge of 10 million yuan for their ongoing research from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The recruitment flows both ways. Researchers of Chinese descent make up nearly half of the work force in American research laboratories, in part because American-born scientists are drawn to the private sector and less interested in academic careers.
I encourage you to read Barry’s entire article. It is jaw-dropping and, where Lieber is concerned, sad. It’s beginning to look like US universities are corrupt. The Jeffrey Epstein (a wealthy and convicted sexual predator and more) connection to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which led to the resignation of a prominent faculty member (Sept. 19, 2019 article by Anna North for Vox.com), and the Fall 2019 cheating scandal (gaining admission to big name educational institutions by paying someone other than the student to take exams, among many other schemes) suggest a reckoning might be in order.
ETA January 28, 2020 at 1645 hours: I found a January 28, 2020 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT Technology Review which provides a few more details about Lieber’s situation,
Big money: According to the charging document, Lieber, starting in 2011, agreed to help set up a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology and “make strategic visionary and creative research proposals” so that China could do cutting-edge science.
He was well paid for it. Lieber earned a salary when he visited China worth up to $50,000 per month, as well as $150,000 a year in expenses in addition to research funds. According to the complaint, he got paid by way of a Chinese bank account but also was known to send emails asking for cash instead.
Harvard eventually wised up to the existence of a Wuhan lab using its name and logo, but when administrators confronted Lieber, he lied and said he didn’t know about a formal joint program, according to the government complaint.
I imagine the money paid by the Chinese government is in addition to Lieber’s Harvard salary (no doubt a substantial one especially since he’s chair of his department and one of a select number of Harvard’s University Professors) and in addition to any other deals he might have on the side.
We’re back on the cyborg trail or what I sometimes refer to as machine/flesh. A July 3, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest attempts to join machine with flesh,
Machine enhanced humans — or cyborgs as they are known in science fiction — could be one step closer to becoming a reality, thanks to new research Lieber Group at Harvard University, as well as scientists from University of Surrey and Yonsei University.
Researchers have conquered the monumental task of manufacturing scalable nanoprobe arrays small enough to record the inner workings of human cardiac cells and primary neurons.
The ability to read electrical activities from cells is the foundation of many biomedical procedures, such as brain activity mapping and neural prosthetics. Developing new tools for intracellular electrophysiology (the electric current running within cells) that push the limits of what is physically possible (spatiotemporal resolution) while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, as well as new directions for human-machine interfaces.
The Lieber Group at Harvard University provided this image illustrating the work,
In a paper published by Nature Nanotechnology, scientists from Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and Harvard University detail how they produced an array of the ultra-small U-shaped nanowire field-effect transistor probes for intracellular recording. This incredibly small structure was used to record, with great clarity, the inner activity of primary neurons and other electrogenic cells, and the device has the capacity for multi-channel recordings.
Dr Yunlong Zhao from the ATI at the University of Surrey said: “If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable.
“Our ultra-small, flexible, nanowire probes could be a very powerful tool as they can measure intracellular signals with amplitudes comparable with those measured with patch clamp techniques; with the advantage of the device being scalable, it causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell (cytosol dilation). Through this work, we found clear evidence for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.”
Professor Charles Lieber from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University said: “This work represents a major step towards tackling the general problem of integrating ‘synthesised’ nanoscale building blocks into chip and wafer scale arrays, and thereby allowing us to address the long-standing challenge of scalable intracellular recording.
“The beauty of science to many, ourselves included, is having such challenges to drive hypotheses and future work. In the longer term, we see these probe developments adding to our capabilities that ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality.”
Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI at the University of Surrey, said: “This incredibly exciting and ambitious piece of work illustrates the value of academic collaboration. Along with the possibility of upgrading the tools we use to monitor cells, this work has laid the foundations for machine and human interfaces that could improve lives across the world.”
Dr Yunlong Zhao and his team are currently working on novel energy storage devices, electrochemical probing, bioelectronic devices, sensors and 3D soft electronic systems. Undergraduate, graduate and postdoc students with backgrounds in energy storage, electrochemistry, nanofabrication, bioelectronics, tissue engineering are very welcome to contact Dr Zhao to explore the opportunities further.
Every time I think I’ve become inured to the idea of a fuzzy boundary between life and nonlife something new crosses my path such as integrating nanoelectronics with cells for cyborg organoids. An August 9, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,
What happens in the early days of organ development? How do a small group of cells organize to become a heart, a brain, or a kidney? This critical period of development has long remained the black box of developmental biology, in part because no sensor was small or flexible enough to observe this process without damaging the cells.
Now, researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have grown simplified organs known as organoids with fully integrated sensors. These so-called cyborg organoids offer a rare glimpse into the early stages of organ development.
“I was so inspired by the natural organ development process in high school, in which 3D organs start from few cells in 2D structures. I think if we can develop nanoelectronics that are so flexible, stretchable, and soft that they can grow together with developing tissue through their natural development process, the embedded sensors can measure the entire activity of this developmental process,” said Jia Liu, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS and senior author of the study. “The end result is a piece of tissue with a nanoscale device completely distributed and integrated across the entire three-dimensional volume of the tissue.”
This type of device emerges from the work that Liu began as a graduate student in the lab of Charles M. Lieber, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor. In Lieber’s lab, Liu once developed flexible, mesh-like nanoelectronics that could be injected in specific regions of tissue.
Building on that design, Liu and his team increased the stretchability of the nanoelectronics by changing the shape of the mesh from straight lines to serpentine structures (similar structures are used in wearable electronics). Then, the team transferred the mesh nanoelectronics onto a 2D sheet of stem cells, where the cells covered and interwove with the nanoelectronics via cell-cell attraction forces. As the stem cells began to morph into a 3D structure, the nanoelectronics seamlessly reconfigured themselves along with the cells, resulting in fully-grown 3D organoids with embedded sensors.
The stem cells were then differentiated into cardiomyocytes — heart cells — and the researchers were able to monitor and record the electrophysiological activity for 90 days.
“This method allows us to continuously monitor the developmental process and understand how the dynamics of individual cells start to interact and synchronize during the entire developmental process,” said Liu. “It could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids.”
In addition to helping answer fundamental questions about biology, cyborg organoids could be used to test and monitor patient-specific drug treatments and potentially used for transplantations.
An adhesive that US and Chinese scientists have developed shows great promise not just for bandages but wearable robotics too. From a December 14, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,
Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China have developed a new type of adhesive that can strongly adhere wet materials — such as hydrogel and living tissue — and be easily detached with a specific frequency of light.
The adhesives could be used to attach and painlessly detach wound dressings, transdermal drug delivery devices, and wearable robotics.
“Strong adhesion usually requires covalent bonds, physical interactions, or a combination of both,” said Yang Gao, first author of the paper and researcher at Xi’an Jiaotong University. “Adhesion through covalent bonds is hard to remove and adhesion through physical interactions usually requires solvents, which can be time-consuming and environmentally harmful. Our method of using light to trigger detachment is non-invasive and painless.”
The adhesive uses an aqueous solution of polymer chains spread between two, non-sticky materials — like jam between two slices of bread. On their own, the two materials adhere poorly together but the polymer chains act as a molecular suture, stitching the two materials together by forming a network with the two preexisting polymer networks. This process is known as topological entanglement.
When exposed to ultra-violet light, the network of stitches dissolves, separating the two materials.
The researchers, led by Zhigang Suo, the Allen E. and Marilyn M. Puckett Professor of Mechanics and Materials at SEAS, tested adhesion and detachment on a range of materials, sticking together hydrogels; hydrogels and organic tissue; elastomers; hydrogels and elastomers; and hydrogels and inorganic solids.
“Our strategy works across a range of materials and may enable broad applications,” said Kangling Wu, co-lead author and researcher at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China. While the researchers focused on using UV light to trigger detachment, their work suggests the possibility that the stitching polymer could detach with near-infrared light, a feature which could be applied to a range of new medical procedures.
“In nature, wet materials don’t like to adhere together,” said Suo. “We have discovered a general approach to overcome this challenge. Our molecular sutures can strongly adhere wet materials together. Furthermore, the strong adhesion can be made permanent, transient, or detachable on demand, in response to a cue. So, as we see it, nature is full of loopholes, waiting to be stitched.”
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Photodetachable Adhesion by Yang Gao, Kangling Wu, Zhigang Suo. https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.201806948 First published: 14 December 2018
As biologists have probed deeper into the molecular and genetic underpinnings of life, K-12 schools have struggled to provide a curriculum that reflects those advances. Hands-on learning is known to be more engaging and effective for teaching science to students, but even the most basic molecular and synthetic biology experiments require equipment far beyond an average classroom’s budget, and often involve the use of bacteria and other substances that can be difficult to manage outside a controlled lab setting.
Now, a collaboration between the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and Northwestern University has developed BioBits, new educational biology kits that use freeze-dried cell-free (FD-CF) reactions to enable students to perform a range of simple, hands-on biological experiments. The BioBits kits introduce molecular and synthetic biology concepts without the need for specialized lab equipment, at a fraction of the cost of current standard experimental designs. The kits are described in two papers published in Science Advances .
“The main motivation in developing these kits was to give students fun activities that allow them to actually see, smell, and touch the outcomes of the biological reactions they’re doing at the molecular level,” said Ally Huang, a co-first author on both papers who is an MIT graduate student in the lab of Wyss Founding Core Faculty member Jim Collins, Ph.D. “My hope is that they will inspire more kids to consider a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and, more generally, give all students a basic understanding of how biology works, because they may one day have to make personal or policy decisions based on modern science.”
Synthetic and molecular biology frequently make use of the cellular machinery found in E. coli bacteria to produce a desired protein. But this system requires that the bacteria be kept alive and contained for an extended period of time, and involves several complicated preparation and processing steps. The FD-CF reactions pioneered in Collins’ lab for molecular manufacturing, when combined with innovations from the lab of Michael Jewett, Ph.D. at Northwestern University, offer a solution to this problem by removing bacteria from the equation altogether.
“You can think of it like opening the hood of a car and taking the engine out: we’ve taken the ‘engine’ that drives protein production out of a bacterial cell and given it the fuel it needs, including ribosomes and amino acids, to create proteins from DNA outside of the bacteria itself,” explained Jewett, who is the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, and co-corresponding author of both papers. This collection of molecular machinery is then freeze-dried into pellets so that it becomes shelf-stable at room temperature. To initiate the transcription of DNA into RNA and the translation of that RNA into a protein, a student just needs to add the desired DNA and water to the freeze-dried pellets.
An expansion of the BioBits Bright kit, called BioBits Explorer, includes experiments that engage the senses of smell and touch and allow students to probe their environment using designer synthetic biosensors. In the first experiment, the FD-CF reaction pellets contain a gene that drives the conversion of isoamyl alcohol to isoamyl acetate, a compound that produces a strong banana odor. In the second experiment, the FD-CF reactions contain a gene coding for the enzyme sortase, which recognizes and links specific segments of proteins in a liquid solution together to form a squishy, semi-solid hydrogel, which the students can touch and manipulate. The third module uses another Wyss technology, the toehold switch sensor, to identify DNA extracted from a banana or a kiwi. The sensors are hairpin-shaped RNA molecules designed such that when they bind to a “trigger” RNA, they spring open and reveal a genetic sequence that produces a fluorescent protein. When fruit DNA is added to the sensor-containing FD-CF pellets, only the sensors that are designed to open in the presence of each fruit’s RNA will produce the fluorescent protein.
The researchers tested their BioBits kits in the Chicago Public School system, and demonstrated that students and teachers were able to perform the experiments in the kits with the same success as trained synthetic biology researchers. In addition to refining the kits’ design so that they can one day provide them to classrooms around the world, the authors hope to create an open-source online database where teachers and students can share their results and ideas for ways to modify the kits to explore different biological questions.
“Synthetic biology is going to be one of the defining technologies of the century, and yet it has been challenging to teach the fundamental concepts of the field in K-12 classrooms given that such efforts often require expensive, complicated equipment,” said Collins, who is a co-corresponding author of both papers and also the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science at MIT. “We show that it is possible to use freeze-dried, cell-free extracts along with freeze-dried synthetic biology components to conduct innovative educational experiments in classrooms and other low-resource settings. The BioBits kits enable us to expose young kids, older kids, and even adults to the wonders of synthetic biology and, as a result, are poised to transform science education and society.
“All scientists are passionate about what they do, and we are frustrated by the difficulty our educational system has had in inciting a similar level of passion in young people. This BioBits project demonstrates the kind of out-of-the-box thinking and refusal to accept the status quo that we value and cultivate at the Wyss Institute, and we all hope it will stimulate young people to be intrigued by science,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “It’s exciting to see this project move forward and become available to biology classrooms worldwide and, hopefully some of these students will pursue a path in science because of their experience.”
Additional authors of the papers include Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., Nina Donghia, and Tom Ferrante from the Wyss Institute; Melissa Takahashi, Ph.D. and Aaron Dy from MIT; Karen Hsu and Rachel Dubner from Northwestern University; Keith Pardee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto; and a number of teachers and students in the Chicago school system including: Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Tom Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander Hill, Jemima Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzales, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, and TaRhonda Woods.
This research was supported by the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence Grant, The Defense Threat Reduction Agency Grant, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada. [emphases mine]
Well, that list of funding agencies is quite interesting. The US Army and Air Force but not the Navy? As for what the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada is doing on that list, I can only imagine why.
This is what they were doing in 2018,
Now for the latest update, a May 7, 2019 news item on phys.org announces the BioBits Kits have been expanded,
How can high school students learn about a technology as complex and abstract as CRISPR? It’s simple: just add water.
A Northwestern University-led team has developed BioBits, a suite of hands-on educational kits that enable students to perform a range of biological experiments by adding water and simple reagents to freeze-dried cell-free reactions. The kits link complex biological concepts to visual, fluorescent readouts, so students know—after a few hours and with a single glance—the results of their experiments.
After launching BioBits last summer, the researchers are now expanding the kit to include modules for CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats] and antibiotic resistance. A small group of Chicago-area teachers and high school students just completed the first pilot study for these new modules, which include interactive experiments and supplementary materials exploring ethics and strategies.
“After we unveiled the first kits, we next wanted to tackle current topics that are important for society,” said Northwestern’s Michael Jewett, principal investigator of the study. “That led us to two areas: antibiotic resistance and gene editing.”
Called BioBits Health, the new kits and pilot study are detailed in a paper published today (May 7 ) in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.
Jewett is a professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology. Jessica Stark, a graduate student in Jewett’s laboratory, led the study.
Test in a tube
Instead of using live cells, the BioBits team removed the essential cellular machinery from inside the cells and freeze-dried them for shelf stability. Keeping cells alive and contained for an extended period of time involves several complicated, time-consuming preparation and processing steps as well as expensive equipment. Freeze-dried cell-free reactions bypass those complications and costs.
“These are essentially test-tube biological reactions,” said Stark, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow. “We break the cells open and use their guts, which still contain all of the necessary biological machinery to carry out a reaction. We no longer need living cells to demonstrate biology.”
This method to harness biological systems without intact, living cells became possible over the last two decades thanks to multiple innovations, including many in cell-free synthetic biology by Jewett’s lab. Not only are these experiments doable in the classroom, they also only cost pennies compared to standard high-tech experimental designs.
“I’m hopeful that students get excited about engineering biology and want to learn more,” Jewett said.
One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past decade, CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The powerful gene-editing technology uses enzymes to cut DNA in precise locations to turn off or edit targeted genes. It could be used to halt genetic diseases, develop new medicines, make food more nutritious and much more.
BioBits Health uses three components required for CRISPR: an enzyme called the Cas9 protein, a target DNA sequence encoding a fluorescent protein and an RNA molecule that targets the fluorescent protein gene. When students add all three components — and water — to the freeze-dried cell-free system, it creates a reaction that edits, or cuts, the DNA for the fluorescent protein. If the DNA is cut, the system does not glow. If the DNA is not cut, the fluorescent protein is made, and the system glows fluorescent.
“We have linked this abstract, really advanced biological concept to the presence or absence of a fluorescent protein,” Stark said. “It’s something students can see, something they can visually understand.”
The curriculum also includes activities that challenge students to consider the ethical questions and dilemmas surrounding the use of gene-editing technologies.
“There is a lot of excitement about being able to edit genomes with these technologies,” Jewett said. “BioBits Health calls attention to a lot of important questions — not only about how CRISPR technology works but about ethics that society should be thinking about. We hope that this promotes a conversation and dialogue about such technologies.”
Jewett and Stark are both troubled by a prediction that, by the year 2050, drug-resistant bacterial infections could outpace cancer as a leading cause of death. This motivated them to help educate the future generation of scientists about how antibiotic resistance emerges and inspire them to take actions that could help limit the emergence of resistant bacteria. In this module, students run two sets of reactions to produce a glowing fluorescent protein — one set with an antibiotic resistance gene and one set without. Students then add antibiotics. If the experiment glows, the fluorescent protein has been made, and the reaction has become resistant to antibiotics. If the experiment does not glow, then the antibiotic has worked.
“Because we’re using cell-free systems rather than organisms, we can demonstrate drug resistance in a way that doesn’t create drug-resistant bacteria,” Stark explained. “We can demonstrate these concepts without the risks.”
A supporting curriculum piece challenges students to brainstorm and research strategies for slowing the rate of emerging antibiotic resistant strains.
Part of something cool
After BioBits was launched in summer 2018, 330 schools from around the globe requested prototype kits for their science labs. The research team, which includes members from Northwestern and MIT, has received encouraging feedback from teachers, students and parents.
“The students felt like scientists and doctors by touching and using the laboratory materials provided during the demo,” one teacher said. “Even the students who didn’t seem engaged were secretly paying attention and wanted to take their turn pipetting. They knew they were part of something really cool, so we were able to connect with them in a way that was new to them.”
“My favorite part was using the equipment,” a student said. “It was a fun activity that immerses you into what top scientists are currently doing.”
The study, “BioBits Health: Classroom activities exploring engineering, biology and human health with fluorescent readouts,” was supported by the Army Research Office (award number W911NF-16-1-0372), the National Science Foundation (grant numbers MCB-1413563 and MCB-1716766), the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence (grant number FA8650-15-2-5518), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (grant number HDTRA1-15-10052/P00001), the Department of Energy (grant number DE-SC0018249), the Human Frontiers Science Program (grant number RGP0015/2017), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (grant number DE-EE008343) and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program. [emphases mine]
This is an image you’ll find in the abstract for the 2019 paper,
Here are links and citations for the 2018 papers and the 2019 paper,
BioBits™ Explorer: A modular synthetic biology education kit by Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Jessica C. Stark, Melissa K. Takahashi, Nina Donghia, Tom Ferrante, Aaron J. Dy, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Keith Pardee, Michael C. Jewett, and James J. Collins. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5105 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5105
BioBits™ Bright: A fluorescent synthetic biology education kit by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Rachel S. Dubner, Karen J. Hsu, Thomas C. Ferrante, Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica S. Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Thomas Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander R. Hill, Jemima F. Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzalzles, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, TaRhonda Woods, Nina Donghia, Keith Pardee, James J. Collins, and Michael C. Jewett. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5107 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5107
Both of the 2018 papers appear to be open access while the 2019 paper is behind a paywall.
Should you be interested in acquiring a BioBits kit, you can check out the BioBits website. As for ‘conguering’ CRISPR, do we really need to look at it that way? Maybe a more humble appraoch could work just as well or even better, eh?