Tag Archives: Mexico

“transforming a plant is still an art” even with CRISPR

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more things stay the same), is an old French expression that came to mind when I stumbled across two stories about genetic manipulation of food-producing plants.

The first story involves CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats) gene editing and the second involves more ancient ways to manipulate plant genetics.

Getting ‘CRISPR’d’ plant cells to grow into plants

Plants often don’t grow from cells after researchers alter their genomes. Using a new technology, a team coaxed wheat (above) and other crops to more readily produce genome-edited healthy adult plants. Credit: Juan Debernardi

An October 13, 2020 news item on phys.org announces research about getting better results after a plant’s genome has been altered,

Researchers know how to make precise genetic changes within the genomes of crops, but the transformed cells often refuse to grow into plants. One team has devised a new solution.

Scientists who want to improve crops face a dilemma: it can be difficult to grow plants from cells after you’ve tweaked their genomes.

A new tool helps ease this process by coaxing the transformed cells, including those modified with the gene-editing system CRISPR-Cas9, to regenerate new plants. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Specialist Juan M. Debernardi and Investigator Jorge Dubcovsky, together with David Tricoli at the University of California, Davis [UC Davis] Plant Transformation Facility, Javier Palatnik from Argentina, and colleagues at the John Innes Center [UK], collaborated on the work. The team reports the technology, developed in wheat and tested in other crops, October 12, 2020, in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

An October 12, 2020 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The problem is that transforming a plant is still an art [emphasis mine],” Dubcovsky says. The success rate is often low – depending on the crop being modified, 100 attempts may yield only a handful of green shoots that can turn into full-grown plants. The rest fail to produce new plants and die. Now, however, “we have reduced this barrier,” says Dubcovsky, a plant geneticist at UC Davis. Using two genes that already control development in many plants, his team dramatically increased the formation of shoots in modified wheat, rice, citrus, and other crops.

Although UC Davis has a pending patent for commercial applications, Dubcovsky says the technique is available to any researcher who wants to use it for research, at no charge. A number of plant breeding companies have also expressed interested in licensing it. “Now people are trying it in multiple crops,” he says.

Humans have worked to improve plants since the dawn of agriculture, selecting wild grasses to produce cultivated maize and wheat, for example. Nowadays, though, CRISPR has given researchers the ability to make changes to the genome with surgical precision. They have used it to create wheat plants with larger grains, generate resistance to fungal infection, design novel tomato plant architectures, and engineer other traits in new plant varieties.

But the process isn’t easy. Scientists start out with plant cells or pieces of tissue, into which they introduce the CRISPR machinery and a small guide to the specific genes they’d like to edit. They must then entice the modified cells into forming a young plant. Most don’t sprout – a problem scientists are still working to understand.

They have tried to find work-arounds, including boosting the expression of certain genes that control early stages of plant development. While this approach has had some success, it can lead to twisted, stunted, sterile plants if not managed properly.Dubcovsky and his colleagues looked at two other growth-promoting genes, GRF and GIF, that work together in young tissues or organs of plants ranging from moss to fruit trees. The team put these genes side-by-side, like a couple holding hands, before adding them to plant cells. “If you go to a dance, you need to find your partner,” Dubcovsky says. “Here, you are tied with a rope to your partner.”

Dubcovsky’s team found that genetically altered wheat, rice, hybrid orange, and other crops produced many more shoots if those experiments included the linked GRF and GIF genes. In experiments with one variety of wheat, the appearance of shoots increased nearly eight-fold. The number of shoots in rice and the hybrid orange, meanwhile, more than doubled and quadrupled, respectively. What’s more, these shoots grew into healthy plants capable of reproducing on their own, with none of the defects that can result when scientists boost other development-controlling genes. That’s because one of the genes is naturally degraded in adult tissues, Dubcovsky says.

Caroline Roper, a plant pathologist at University of California, Riverside who was not involved in the work, plans to use the new technology to study citrus greening, a bacterial disease that kills trees and renders oranges hard and bitter.

To understand how citrus trees can protect themselves, she needs to see how removing certain genes alters their susceptibility to the bacterium — information that could lead to ways to fight the disease. With conventional techniques, it could take at least two years to generate the gene-edited plants she needs. She hopes Dubcovsky’s tool will shorten that timeline.  

“Time is of the essence. The growers, they wanted an answer yesterday, because they’re at the brink of having to abandon cultivating citrus,” she says.

For anyone who noticed the reference to citrus greening in the last paragraphs of this news release, I have more information aboutthe disease and efforts to it in an August 6, 2020 posting.

As for the latest in gene editing and regeneration, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A GRF–GIF chimeric protein improves the regeneration efficiency of transgenic plants by Juan M. Debernardi, David M. Tricoli, Maria F. Ercoli, Sadiye Hayta, Pamela Ronald, Javier F. Palatnik & Jorge Dubcovsky. Nature Biotechnology volume 38, pages 1274–1279(2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-020-0703-0 First Published Online: 12 October 2020 Journal Issue Date: November 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Ancient farming techniques for engineering crops

I stumbled on this story by Gabriela Serrato Marks for Massive Science almost three years late (it’s a Dec. 5, 2017 article),

There are more than 50 strains of maize, called landraces, grown in Mexico. A landrace is similar to a dog breed: Corgis and Huskies are both dogs, but they were bred to have different traits. Maize domestication worked the same way.

Some landraces of maize can grow in really dry conditions; others grow best in wetter soils. Early maize farmers selectively bred maize landraces that were well-adapted to the conditions on their land, a practice that still continues today in rural areas of Mexico.

If you think this sounds like an early version of genetic engineering, you’d be correct. But nowadays, modern agriculture is moving away from locally adapted strains and traditional farming techniques and toward active gene manipulation. The goal of both traditional landrace development and modern genetic modification has been to create productive, valuable crops, so these two techniques are not necessarily at odds.

But as more farmers converge on similar strains of (potentially genetically modified) seeds instead of developing locally adapted landraces, there are two potential risks: one is losing the cultural legacy of traditional agricultural techniques that have been passed on in families for centuries or even millennia, and another is decreasing crop resilience even as climate variability is increasing.

Mexico is the main importer of US-grown corn, but that imported corn is primarily used to feed livestock. The corn that people eat or use to make tortillas is grown almost entirely in Mexico, which is where landraces come in.

It is a common practice to grow multiple landraces with different traits as an insurance policy against poor growth conditions. The wide range of landraces contains a huge amount of genetic diversity, making it less likely that one adverse event, such as a drought or pest infestation, will wipe out an entire crop. If farmers only grow one type of corn, the whole crop is vulnerable to the same event.

Landraces are also different from most commercially available hybrid strains of corn because they are open pollinating, which means that farmers can save seeds and replant them the next year, saving money and preserving the strain. If a landrace is not grown anymore, its contribution to maize’s genetic diversity is permanently lost.

This diversity was cultivated over generations from maize’s wild cousin, teosinte, by 60 groups of indigenous people in Mexico. Teosinte looks like a skinny, hairier version of maize. It still grows wild in some parts of Central America, but its close relatives have been found, domesticated, at archaeological sites in the region over 9,000 years old. These early maize cobs could easily fit in the palm of your hand – not big enough to be a staple crop that early farmers could depend upon for sustenance. Genetically, they were more similar to wild teosinte than to modern maize.

[] archaeologists also found that the cobs in Honduras, which is outside the natural range of teosinte, were larger than cobs of the same age from the original domestication region in southern Mexico. The scientists think that people in Honduras were able to develop more productive maize landraces because their crops were isolated from wild teosinte.

The size and shape of the ancient cobs from Honduras show that early farmers engineered the maize crop [emphasis mine] to make it more productive. They developed unique landraces that were well adapted to local conditions and successfully cultivated enough maize to support their communities. In many ways, they were early geneticists. [emphasis mine] …

We have a lot to learn from the indigenous farmers who were growing maize 4,000 years ago. Their history provides examples of both environmentally sound genetic modification and effective adaptation to climate variability. [emphases mine] …

Plus ça change …, eh?

Natural nanodiamonds found in the ocean

An Oct. 16, 2020 news item on phys.org announces research that contradicts a common belief about how diamonds are formed ,

Natural diamonds can form through low pressure and temperature geological processes on Earth, as stated in an article published in the journal Geochemical Perspectives Letters. The newfound mechanism, far from the classic view on the formation of diamonds under ultra-high pressure, is confirmed in the study, which draws on the participation of experts from the Mineral Resources Research Group of the Faculty of Earth Sciences of the University of Barcelona (UB).

Other participants in the study are the experts from the Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology of the UB (IN2UB), the University of Granada (UGR), the Andalusian Institute of Earth Sciences (IACT), the Institute of Ceramics and Glass (CSIC), and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The study has been carried out within the framework of the doctoral thesis carried out by researcher Núria Pujol-Solà (UB), first author of the article, under the supervision of researchers Joaquín A. Proenza (UB) and Antonio García-Casco (UGR).

An Oct. 9, 2020 University of Barcelona (UB) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Oct. 16, 2020), which originated the news item, further explains the research,

A symbol of luxury and richness, the diamond (from the Greek αδ?μας, “invincible”) is the most valuable gem and the toughest mineral (value of 10 in Mohs scale). It formed by chemically pure carbon, and according to the traditional hypothesis, it crystalizes the cubic system under ultra-high-pressure conditions at great depths in the Earth’s mantle.

The study confirms for the first time the formation of the natural diamond under low pressures in oceanic rocks in the Moa-Baracoa Ophiolitic Massif, in Cuba. This great geological structure is in the north-eastern side of the island and is formed by ophiolites, representative rocks of the Oceanic lithosphere.

These oceanic rocks were placed on the continental edge of North America during the collision of the Caribbean oceanic island arch, between 70 and 40 million years ago. “During its formation in the abysmal marine seafloors, in the cretaceous period -about 120 million years ago-, these oceanic rocks underwent mineral alterations due to marine water infiltrations, a process that led to small fluid inclusions inside the olivine, the most common mineral in this kind of rock”, note Joaquín A. Proenza, member of the Department of Mineralogy, Petrology and Applied Geology at the UB and principal researcher of the project in which the article appears, and Antonio García-Casco, from the Department of Mineralogy and Petrology of the UGR.

“These fluid inclusions contain nanodiamonds -of about 200 and 300 nanometres-, apart from serpentine, magnetite, metallic silicon and pure methane. All these materials have formed under low pressure (<200 MPa) and temperature (<350 ºC), during the olivine alteration that contains fluid inclusions”, add the researchers.

“Therefore, this is the first description of ophiolitic diamond formed under low pressure and temperature, whose formation under natural processes does not bear any doubts”, they highlight.

Diamonds formed under low pressure and temperature

It is notable to bear in mind that the team published, in 2019, a first description of the formation of ophiolitic diamonds under low pressure conditions (Geology), a study carried out as part of the doctoral thesis by the UB researcher Júlia Farré de Pablo, supervised by Joaquín A. Proenza and the UGR professor José María González Jiménez. This study was highly debated on among the members of the international scientific community.

In the published article in Geochemical Perspectives Letters, a journal of the European Association of Geochemistry, the experts detected the nanodiamonds in small fluid inclusions under the surface of the samples. The finding was carried out by using the confocal Raman maps and using focused ion beams (FIB), combined with transmission electron microscopy (FIB-TEM). This is how they could confirm the presence of the diamond in the depth of the sample, and therefore, the formation of a natural diamond under low pressure in exhumed oceanic rocks. The Scientific and Technological Centres of the UB (CCiTUB) have taken part in this study, among other infrastructures supporting the country.

In this case, the study focuses its debate on the validity of some geodynamic models that, based on the presence of ophiolite diamonds, imply circulation in the mantle and large-scale lithosphere recycling. For instance, the ophiolitic diamond was thought to reflect the passing of ophiolitic rocks over the deep earth’s mantle up to the transition area (210-660 km deep) before settling into a normal ophiolite formed under low pressure (~10 km deep).

According to the experts, the low state of oxidation in this geological system would explain the formation of nano-çdiamonds instead of graphite -which would be expected under physical and chemical formation conditions of fluid inclusions.

The study counted on the support from the former Ministry for Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO), the Ramón y Cajal Program and the EU European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The researchers have an image showing inclusions which contain nanodiamonds,

Caption: The fluid inclusions inside the olivine contain nanodiamonds, apart from serpentine, magnetite, metallic silicon and pure methane.. Credit: UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA

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

Diamond forms during low pressure serpentinisation of oceanic lithosphere by
N. Pujol-Solà, A. Garcia-Casco, J.A. Proenza, J.M. González-Jiménez, A. del Campo, V. Colás, À. Canals, A. Sánchez-Navas, J. Roqué-Rosell. Geochemical Perspectives Letters v15 DOI: 10.7185/geochemlet.2029 Published 10 September 2020

This paper is open access.

Symbiosis (science education initiative) in British Columbia (Canada)

Is it STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or is it STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics)?

It’s STEAM as least as far as Dr. Scott Sampson is concerned. In his July 6, 2018 Creative Mornings Vancouver talk in Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) he mentioned a major science education/outreach initiative taking place in the province of British Columbia (BC) but intended for all of Canada, Symbiosis There was some momentary confusion as Sampson’s slide deck identified it as a STEM initiative. Sampson verbally added the ‘A’ for arts and henceforth described it as a STEAM initiative. (Part of the difficulty is that many institutions have used the term STEM and only recently come to the realization they might want to add ‘art’ leading to confusion in Canada and the US, if nowhere else, as old materials require updating. Actually, I vote for adding the humanities too so that we can have SHTEAM.)

You’ll notice, should you visit the Symbiosis website, that the STEM/STEAM confusion extends further than Sampson’s slide deck.

Sampson,  “a dinosaur paleontologist, science communicator, and passionate advocate for reimagining cities as places where people and nature thrive, serves (since 2016) as president and CEO of Science World British Columbia” or as they’re known on their website:  Science World at TELUS World of Science. Unwieldy, eh?

The STEM/STEAM announcement

None of us in the Creative Mornings crowd had heard of Symbiosis or Scott Sampson for that matter (apparently, he’s a huge star among the preschool set due to his work on the PBS [US Public Broadcasting Service] children’s show ‘Dinosaur Train’). Regardless, it was good to hear  of this effort although my efforts to learn more about it have been a bit frustrated.

First, here’s what I found: a May 25, 2017 Science World media release (PDF) about Symbiosis,

Science World Introduces Symbiosis
A First-of Its-Kind [sic] Learning Ecosystem forCanada

We live in a time of unprecedented change. High-tech innovations are rapidly transforming 21st century societies and the Canadian marketplace is increasingly dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM literate threatens the health of our youth, the economy and the places we live. STEM literacy needs to be integrated into the broader context of what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Also important is inclusion of an extra letter, “A,” for art and design, resulting in STEAM. The idea behind Symbiosis is to make STEAM learning accessible across Canada.

Every major Canadian city hosts dozens to hundreds of organizations that engage children and youth in STEAM learning. Yet, for the most part, these organizations operate in isolation. The result is that a huge proportion of Canadian youth, particularly in First Nations and other underserved communities, are not receiving quality STEAM learning opportunities.

In order to address this pressing need, Science World British Columbia (scienceworld.ca) is spearheading the creation of Symbiosis, a deeply collaborative STEAM learning ecosystem. Driven by a diverse network of cross-sector partners, Symbiosis will become a vibrant model for scaling the kinds of learning and careers needed in a knowledge-based economy.

Today [May 25, 2017], Science World is proud to announce that Symbiosis has been selected by STEM Learning Ecosystems, a US-based organization, to formally join a growing movement. In just two years, the STEM Learning Ecosystems  initiative has become a thriving network of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals, joined in regional partnerships with the objective of collaborating in new and creative ways to increase equity, quality, and STEM learning outcomes for all youth. Symbiosis will be the first member of this initiative outside the United States.

Symbiosis was selected to become part of the STEM Learning Ecosystem initiative because of a demonstrated [emphasis mine] commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom. As STEM Ecosystems evolve, students will be able to connect what they’ve learned, in and out of school, with real-world, community-based opportunities.

I wonder how Symbiosis demonstrated their commitment. Their website doesn’t seem to have existed prior to 2018 and there’s no information there about any prior activities.

A very Canadian sigh

I checked the STEM Learning Ecosystems website for its Press Room and found a couple of illuminating press releases. Here’s how the addition of Symbiosis was described in the May 25, 2017 press release,

The 17 incoming ecosystem communities were selected because they demonstrate a commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom—in afterschool and summer programs, at home, with local business and industry partners, and in science centers, libraries and other places both virtual and physical. As STEM Ecosystems evolve, students will be able to connect what is learned in and out of school with real-world opportunities.

“It makes complete sense to collaborate with like-minded regions and organizations,” said Matthew Felan of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance STEM Initiative, one of the founding Ecosystems. “STEM Ecosystems provides technical assistance and infrastructure support so that we are able to tailor quality STEM learning opportunities to the specific needs of our region in Michigan while leveraging the experience of similar alliances across the nation.”

The following ecosystem communities were selected to become part of this [US} national STEM Learning Ecosystem:

  • Arizona: Flagstaff STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • California: Region 5 STEAM in Expanded Learning Ecosystem (San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey Counties)
  • Louisiana: Baton Rouge STEM Learning Network
  • Massachusetts: Cape Cod Regional STEM Network
  • Michigan: Michigan STEM Partnership / Southeast Michigan STEM Alliance
  • Missouri: Louis Regional STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • New Jersey: Delran STEM Ecosystem Alliance (Burlington County)
  • New Jersey: Newark STEAM Coalition
  • New York: WNY STEM (Western New York State)
  • New York: North Country STEM Network (seven counties of Northern New York State)
  • Ohio: Upper Ohio Valley STEM Cooperative
  • Ohio: STEM Works East Central Ohio
  • Oklahoma: Mayes County STEM Alliance
  • Pennsylvania: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • Washington: The Washington STEM Network
  • Wisconsin: Greater Green Bay STEM Network
  • Canada: Symbiosis, British Columbia, Canada

Yes, somehow a Canadian initiative becomes another US regional community in their national ecosystem.

Then, they made everything better a year later in a May 29, 2018 press release,

New STEM Learning Ecosystems in the United States are:

  • California: East Bay STEM Network
  • Georgia: Atlanta STEAM Learning Ecosystem
  • Hawaii: Hawai’iloa ecosySTEM Cabinet
  • Illinois: South Suburban STEAM Network
  • Kentucky: Southeastern Kentucky STEM Ecosystem
  • Massachusetts: MetroWest STEM Education Network
  • New York: Greater Southern Tier STEM Learning Network
  • North Carolina: STEM SENC (Southeastern North Carolina)
  • North Dakota: North Dakota STEM Ecosystem
  • Texas: SA/Bexar STEM/STEAM Ecosystem

The growing global Community of Practice has added: [emphasis mine]

  • Kenya: Kenya National STEM Learning Ecosystem
  • México: Alianza Para Promover la Educación en STEM (APP STEM)

Are Americans still having fantasies about ‘manifest destiny’? For those unfamiliar with the ‘doctrine’,

In the 19th century, manifest destiny was a widely held belief in the United States that its settlers were destined to expand across North America.  …

They seem to have given up on Mexico but the dream of acquiring Canadian territory rears its head from time to time. Specifically, it happens when Quebec holds a referendum (the last one was in 1995) on whether or not it wishes to remain part of the Canadian confederation. After the last referendum, I’d hoped that was the end of ‘manifest destiny’ but it seems these 21st Century-oriented STEM Learning Ecosystems people have yet to give up a 19th century fantasy. (sigh)

What is Symbiosis?

For anyone interested in the definition of the word, from Wordnik,

symbiosis

Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Biology A close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member.
  • n. A relationship of mutual benefit or dependence.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A relationship of mutual benefit.
  • n. A close, prolonged association between two or more organisms of different species, regardless of benefit to the members.
  • n. The state of people living together in community.

As for this BC-based organization, Symbiosis, which they hope will influence Canadian STEAM efforts and learning as a whole, I don’t have much. From the Symbiosis About Us webpage,

A learning ecosystem is an interconnected web of learning opportunities that encompasses formal education to community settings such as out-of-school care, summer programs, science centres and museums, and experiences at home.

​In May 2017, Symbiosis was selected by STEM Learning Ecosystems, a US-based organization, to formally join a growing movement. As the first member of this initiative outside the United States, Symbiosis has demonstrated a commitment to cross-sector collaborations in schools and beyond the classroom. As Symbiosis evolves, students will be able to connect what they’ve learned, in and out of school, with real-world, community-based opportunities.

We live in a time of unprecedented change. High-tech innovations are rapidly transforming 21st century societies and the Canadian marketplace is increasingly dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM literate threatens the health of our youth, the economy, and the places we live. STEM literacy needs to be integrated into the broader context of what it means to be a 21st century citizen. Also important is inclusion of an extra letter, “A,” for art and design, resulting in STEAM.

In order to address this pressing need, Science World British Columbia is spearheading the creation of Symbiosis, a deeply collaborative STEAM learning ecosystem. Driven by a diverse network of cross-sector partners, Symbiosis will become a vibrant model for scaling the kinds of learning and careers needed in a knowledge-based economy.

Symbiosis:

  • Acknowledges the holistic connections among arts, science and nature
  • ​Is inclusive and equitable
  • Is learner-centered​
  • Fosters curiosity and life-long learning ​​
  • Is relevant—should reflect the community
  • Honours diverse perspectives, including Indigenous worldviews
  • Is partnerships, collaboration, and mentorship
  • ​Is a sustainable, thriving community, with resilience and flexibility
  • Is research-based, data-driven
  • Shares stories of success—stories of people/role models using STEAM and critical thinking to make a difference
  • Provides a  variety of access points that are available to all learners

I was looking for more concrete information such as:

  • what is your budget?
  • which organizations are partners?
  • where do you get your funding?
  • what have you done so far?

I did get an answer to my last question by going to the Symbiosis news webpage where I found these,

We’re hiring!

 7/3/2018 [Their deadline is July 13, 2018]

STAN conference

3/20/2018

Symbiosis on CKPG

3/12/2018

Design Studio #2 in March

2/15/2018

BC Science Outreach Workshop

2/7/2018

Make of that what you will. Also, there is a 2018 copyright notice (at the bottom of the webpages) but no copyright owner is listed.

There is some Symbiosis information

A magazine known as BC Business (!) offers some details in a May 11, 2018 opinion piece, Note: Links have been removed,

… Increasingly, the Canadian marketplace is dominated by novel, knowledge-based jobs requiring high levels of literacy in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Here in B.C., the tech sector now employs over 100,000 people, about 5 percent of the province’s total workforce. As the knowledge economy grows, these numbers will rise dramatically.

Yet technology-driven businesses are already struggling to fill many roles that require literacy in STEM. …

Today, STEM education in North America and elsewhere is struggling. One study found that 60 percent of students who enter high school interested in STEM fields change their minds by graduation. Lacking mentoring, students, especially girls, tend to lose interest in STEM. [emphasis mine]Today, only 22 percent of Canadian STEM jobs are held by women. Failing to prepare the next generation to be STEM-literate threatens the prospects of our youth, our economy and the places we live.

More and more, education is no longer confined to classrooms. … To kickstart this future, a “STEM learning ecosystem” movement has emerged in the United States, grounded in deeply collaborative, cross-sector networks of learning opportunities.

Symbiosis will concentrate on a trio of impacts:

1) Dramatically increasing the number of qualified STEM mentors in B.C.—from teachers and scientists to technologists and entrepreneurs;

2) Connecting this diversity of mentors with children and youth through networked opportunities, from classroom visits and on-site shadowing to volunteering and internships; and

3) Creating a digital hub that interweaves communities, hosts a library of resources and extends learning through virtual offerings. [emphases mine]

Science World British Columbia is spearheading Symbiosis, and organizations from many sectors have expressed strong interest in collaborating—among them K-12 education, higher education, industry, government and non-profits. Several of these organizations are founding members of the BC Science Charter, which formed in 2013.

Symbiosis will launch in fall of 2018 with two pilot communities: East Vancouver and Prince George. …

As for why students tend to lose interest in STEM, there’s a rather interesting longitudinal study taking place in the UK which attempts to answer at least some of that question. I first wrote about the ASPIRES study in a January 31, 2012 posting: Science attitude kicks in by 10 years old. This was based on preliminary data and it seemed to be confirmed by an unrelated US study of high school students also mentioned in that posting (scroll down about 40% of the way).

In short, both studies suggested that children are quite to open to science but when it comes time to think about careers, they tend to ‘aspire’ to what they see amongst family and friends. I don’t see that kind of thinking reflected in any of the information I’ve been able to find about Symbiosis and it was not present in Sampson’s, Creative Mornings talk.

However, I noted during Sampson’s talk that he mentioned his father, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and how he had based his career expectations on his father’s career. (Sampson is from Vancouver originally.) Sampson, like his father, was at one point a professor of ‘science’ at a university.

Perhaps one day someone from Symbiosis will look into the ASPIRE studies or even read my blog 🙂

You can find the latest about what is now called the ASPIRES 2 study here. (I will try to post my own update to the ASPIRES projects in the near future).

Best hopes

I am happy to see Symbiosis arrive on the scene and I wish all the best for the initiative. I am less concerned than the BC Business folks about supplying employers with the kind of employees they want to hire and hopeful that Symbiosis will attract not just the students, educators, mentors, and scientists to whom they are appealing but will cast a wider net to include philosophers, car mechanics, hairdressers, poets, visual artists, farmers, chefs, and others in a ‘pursuit of wonder’.

Aside: I was introduced to the phrase ‘pursuit of wonder’ by a friend who sent me a link to José Teodoro’s May 29, 2018 interview with Canadian filmmaker, Peter Mettler for the Brick. Mettler discusses his film about the Northern Lights and the technical challenges he met along the way.

Sunscreens: 2018 update

I don’t usually concern myself with SPF numbers on sunscreens as my primary focus has been on the inclusion of nanoscale metal particles (these are still considered safe). However, a recent conversation with a dental hygienist and coincidentally tripping across a June 19, 2018 posting on the blog shortly after the convo. has me reassessing my take on SPF numbers (Note: Links have been removed),

So, what’s the deal with SPF? A recent interview of Dr Steven Q Wang, M.D., chair of The Skin Cancer Foundation Photobiology Committee, finally will give us some clarity. Apparently, the SPF number, be it 15, 30, or 50, refers to the amount of UVB protection that that sunscreen provides. Rather than comparing the SPFs to each other, like we all do at the store, SPF is a reflection of the length of time it would take for the Sun’s UVB radiation to redden your skin (used exactly as directed), versus if you didn’t apply any sunscreen at all. In ideal situations (in lab settings), if you wore SPF 30, it would take 30 times longer for you to get a sunburn than if you didn’t wear any sunscreen.

What’s more, SPF 30 is not nearly half the strength of SPF 50. Rather, SPF 30 allows 3% of UVB rays to hit your skin, and SPF 50 allows about 2% of UVB rays to hit your skin. Now before you say that that is just one measly percent, it actually is much more. According to Dr Steven Q. Wang, SPF 30 allows around 1.5 times more UV radiation onto your skin than SPF 50. That’s an actual 150% difference [according to Wang’s article “… SPF 30 is allowing 50 percent more UV radiation onto your skin.”] in protection.

(author of the ‘eponymous’ blog) offers a good overview of the topic in a friendly, informative fashion albeit I found the ‘percentage’ to be a bit confusing. (S)he also provides a link to a previous posting about the ingredients in sunscreens (I do have one point of disagreement with regarding oxybenzone) as well as links to Dr. Steven Q. Wang’s May 24, 2018 Ask the Expert article about sunscreens and SPF numbers on skincancer.org. You can find the percentage under the ‘What Does the SPF Number Mean?’ subsection, in the second paragraph.

Ingredients: metallic nanoparticles and oxybenzone

The use of metallic nanoparticles  (usually zinc oxide and/or (titanium dioxide) in sunscreens was loathed by civil society groups, in particular Friends of the Earth (FOE) who campaigned relentlessly against their use in sunscreens. The nadir for FOE was in February 2012 when the Australian government published a survey showing that 13% of the respondents were not using any sunscreens due to their fear of nanoparticles. For those who don’t know, Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. (You can read about the debacle in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting.)

At the time, the only civil society group which supported the use of metallic nanoparticles in sunscreens was the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  After an examination of the research they, to their own surprise, came out in favour (grudgingly) of metallic nanoparticles. (The EWG were more concerned about the use of oxybenzone in sunscreens.)

Over time, the EWG’s perspective has been adopted by other groups to the point where sunscreens with metallic nanoparticles are commonplace in ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ sunscreens.

As for oxybenzones, in a May 23, 2018 posting about sunscreen ingredients notes this (Note: Links have been removed),

Oxybenzone – Chemical sunscreen, protects from UV damage. Oxybenzone belongs to the chemical family Benzophenone, which are persistent (difficult to get rid of), bioaccumulative (builds up in your body over time), and toxic, or PBT [or: Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs)]. They are a possible carcinogen (cancer-causing agent), endocrine disrupter; however, this is debatable. Also could cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, could cause organ system toxicity, as well as could cause irritation and potentially toxic to the environment.

It seems that the tide is turning against the use of oxybenzones (from a July 3, 2018 article by Adam Bluestein for Fast Company; Note: Links have been removed),

On July 3 [2018], Hawaii’s Governor, David Ig, will sign into law the first statewide ban on the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals that scientists say are damaging the Earth’s coral reefs. Passed by state legislators on May 1 [2018], the bill targets two chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are found in thousands of sunscreens and other skincare products. Studies published over the past 10 years have found that these UV-filtering chemicals–called benzophenones–are highly toxic to juvenile corals and other marine life and contribute to the fatal bleaching of coral reefs (along with global warming and runoff pollutants from land). (A 2008 study by European researchers estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunblock accumulates in coral reefs every year.) Also, though both substances are FDA-approved for use in sunscreens, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group notes numerous studies linking oxybenzone to hormone disruption and cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. In its 2018 annual sunscreen guide, the EWG found oxybenzone in two-thirds of the 650 products it reviewed.

The Hawaii ban won’t take effect until January 2021, but it’s already causing a wave of disruption that’s affecting sunscreen manufacturers, retailers, and the medical community.

For starters, several other municipalities have already or could soon join Hawaii’s effort. In May [2018], the Caribbean island of Bonaire announced a ban on chemicals sunscreens, and nonprofits such as the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation, along with dive industry and certain resort groups, are urging legislation to stop sunscreen pollution in California, Colorado, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Marine nature reserves in Mexico already prohibit oxybenzone-containing sunscreens, and the U.S. National Park Service website for South Florida, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa recommends the use of “reef safe” sunscreens, which use natural mineral ingredients–zinc oxide or titanium oxide–to protect skin.

Makers of “eco,” “organic,” and “natural” sunscreens that already meet the new standards are seizing on the news from Hawaii to boost their visibility among the islands’ tourists–and to expand their footprint on the shelves of mainland retailers. This past spring, for example, Miami-based Raw Elements partnered with Hawaiian Airlines, Honolulu’s Waikiki Aquarium, the Aqua-Aston hotel group (Hawaii’s largest), and the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa to get samples of its reef-safe zinc-oxide-based sunscreens to their guests. “These partnerships have had a tremendous impact raising awareness about this issue,” says founder and CEO Brian Guadagno, who notes that inquiries and sales have increased this year.

As Bluestein notes there are some concerns about this and other potential bans,

“Eliminating the use of sunscreen ingredients considered to be safe and effective by the FDA with a long history of use not only restricts consumer choice, but is also at odds with skin cancer prevention efforts […],” says Bayer, owner of the Coppertone brand, in a statement to Fast Company. Bayer disputes the validity of studies used to support the ban, which were published by scientists from U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, Tel Aviv University, the University of Hawaii, and elsewhere. “Oxybenzone in sunscreen has not been scientifically proven to have an effect on the environment. We take this issue seriously and, along with the industry, have supported additional research to confirm that there is no effect.”

Johnson & Johnson, which markets Neutrogena sunscreens, is taking a similar stance, worrying that “the recent efforts in Hawaii to ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone may actually adversely affect public health,” according to a company spokesperson. “Science shows that sunscreens are a key factor in preventing skin cancer, and our scientific assessment of the lab studies done to date in Hawaii show the methods were questionable and the data insufficient to draw factual conclusions about any impact on coral reefs.”

Terrified (and rightly so) about anything scaring people away from using sunblock, The American Academy of Dermatology, also opposes Hawaii’s ban. Suzanne M. Olbricht, president of the AADA, has issued a statement that the organization “is concerned that the public’s risk of developing skin cancer could increase due to potential new restrictions in Hawaii that impact access to sunscreens with ingredients necessary for broad-spectrum protection, as well as the potential stigma around sunscreen use that could develop as a result of these restrictions.”

The fact is that there are currently a large number of widely available reef-safe products on the market that provide “full spectrum” protection up to SPF50–meaning they protect against both UVB rays that cause sunburns as well as UVA radiation, which causes deeper skin damage. SPFs higher than 50 are largely a marketing gimmick, say advocates of chemical-free products: According to the Environmental Working Group, properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98% of UVB rays; SPF 100 blocks 99%. And a sunscreen lotion’s SPF rating has little to do with its ability to shield skin from UVA rays.

I notice neither Bayer nor Johnson & Johnson nor the American Academy of Dermatology make mention of oxybenzone’s possible role as a hormone disruptor.

Given the importance that coral reefs have to the environment we all share, I’m inclined to support the oxybenzone ban based on that alone. Of course, it’s conceivable that metallic nanoparticles may also have a deleterious effect on coral reefs as their use increases. It’s to be hoped that’s not the case but if it is, then I’ll make my decisions accordingly and hope we have a viable alternative.

As for your sunscreen questions and needs, the Environment Working Group (EWG) has extensive information including a product guide on this page (scroll down to EWG’s Sunscreen Guide) and a discussion of ‘high’ SPF numbers I found useful for my decision-making.

May 16, 2018: UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) First International Day of Light

Courtesy: UNESCO

From a May 11, 2018 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) press release (received via email),

UNESCO will welcome leading scientists on 16 May 2018 for the 1st edition of the International Day of Light (02:30-08:00 pm) to celebrate the role light plays in our daily lives. Researchers and intellectuals will examine how light-based technologies can contribute to meet pressing challenges in diverse areas, such as medicine, education, agriculture and energy.

            UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay will open this event, which will count with the participation of renowned scientists, including:

  • Kip Thorne, 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, California Institute of Technology (United States of America).
  • Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, Collège de France.
  • Khaled Toukan, Director of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) based in Allan, Jordan.

The programme of keynotes and roundtables will address many key issues including science policy, our perception of the universe, and international cooperation, through contributions from experts and scientists from around the world.

The programme also includes cultural events, an illumination of UNESCO Headquarters, a photonics science show and an exhibit on the advances of light-based technologies and art.

            The debates that flourished in 2015, in the framework of the International Year of Light, highlighted the importance of light sciences and light-based technologies in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Several thousand events were held in 147 countries during the Year placed under the auspices of UNESCO.  

The proclamation of 16 May as the International Day of Light was supported by UNESCO’s Executive Board following a proposal by Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, and approved by the UNESCO General Conference in November 2017.

More information:

I have taken a look at the programme which is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, I can’t excerpt parts of it for inclusion here as very odd things happen when I attempt to ‘copy and paste’. On the plus side. there’s a bit more information about this ‘new day’ on its event page,

Light plays a central role in our lives. On the most fundamental level, through photosynthesis, light is at the origin of life itself. The study of light has led to promising alternative energy sources, lifesaving medical advances in diagnostics technology and treatments, light-speed internet and many other discoveries that have revolutionized society and shaped our understanding of the universe. These technologies were developed through centuries of fundamental research on the properties of light – starting with Ibn Al-Haytham’s seminal work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), published in 1015 and including Einstein’s work at the beginning of the 20th century, which changed the way we think about time and light.

The International Day of Light celebrates the role light plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development, and in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, and energy. The will allow many different sectors of society worldwide to participate in activities that demonstrates how science, technology, art and culture can help achieve the goals of UNESCO – building the foundation for peaceful societies.

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

Happy International Day of Light on Wednesday, May 16, 2018!

Gold nanoparticles used to catalyze biofuel waste and create a useful additive

This work is the result of an international collaboration including Russia (from a May 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Gold nanoparticles serve as catalysts for obtaining valuable chemical products based on glycerol. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and their international colleagues are developing gold catalysts to recycle one of the main byproducts of biofuel production. The obtained products are in high demand in medicine, agriculture, cosmetic industry and other sectors.

Scientists from the University of Milano (Italy), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry of Madrid (Spain) and the University of Porto (Portugal) take part in the study of gold nanoparticles.

A May 23, 2027 Tomsk Polytechnic University press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Today the production of biofuels is an important area in many countries. They can be obtained from a great variety of biomasses. In Latin America it is orange and tangerine peel as well as banana skin. In USA biofuels are produced from corn, in the central part of Russia and Europe – from rape (Brassica napus). When processing these plants into biofuels a large amount of glycerol is formed. Its esters constitute the basis of oils and fats. Glycerol is widely used in cosmetic industry as an individual product. However, much more glycerol is obtained in the production of biofuels – many thousands of tons a year. As a result, unused glycerol merely becomes waste,’ describes the problem Alexey Pestryakov, the Head of the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry. ‘Now, a lot of research groups are engaged in this issue as to how to transform excess glycerol into other useful products. Along with our foreign colleagues we offered catalysts based on gold nanoparticles.’

The authors of the research note that catalytic oxidation on gold is one of the most effective techniques to obtain from glycerol such useful products as aldehydes, esters, carboxylic acids and other substances.

‘All these substances are products of fine organic chemistry and are in demand in a wide range of industries, first of all, in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. In agriculture they are applied as part of different feed additives, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, plant treatment products, etc.

Thus, unused glycerol after being processed will further be applied,’ sums up Alexey Pestryakov.

Gold catalysts are super active. They can enter into chemical reactions with other substances at room temperature (other catalysts need to be heated), in some case even under zero. However, gold can be a catalyst only at the nanolevel.

‘If you take a piece of gold, even very tiny, there will be no chemical reaction. In order to make gold become chemically active, the size of its particle should be less than two nanometers. Only then it gets its amazing properties,’ explains the scientist.

As a catalyst gold was discovered not so long ago, in the early 1990s, by Japanese chemists.

To date, TPU scientists and their colleagues are not the only ones who develop such catalysts.

Unlike their counterparts the gold catalysts developed at TPU are more stable (they retain their activity longer).

‘A great challenge in this area is that gold catalysts are very rapidly deactivated, not only during work, but even during storage. Our objective is to ensure their longer shelf life. It is also important to use oxygen as an oxidizer, since toxic and corrosive peroxide compounds are often used for such purposes,’ says Alexey Petryakov.

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

More Insights into Support and Preparation Method Effects in Gold Catalyzed Glycerol Oxidation by Nina Bogdanchikova, Inga Tuzovskaya, Laura Prati, Alberto Villa, Alexey Pestryakov, Mario Farías. Current Organic Synthesis VOLUME: 14 ISSUE: 3 Year: 2017Page: [377 – 382] Pages: 6 DOI: 10.2174/1570179413666161031114833

This paper is behind a paywall. (Scroll down the page to find the article.)

Cleaning wastewater with fruit peel

A March 23, 2017 news item on phys.org announces a water purification process based on fruit peel,’

A collaborative of researchers has developed a process to clean water containing heavy metals and organic pollutants using a new adsorbent material made from the peels of oranges and grapefruits.

A March 23, 2017 University of Granada press release explains more about the research (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR), and from the Center for Electrochemical Research and Technological Development (Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo Tecnológico en Electroquímica, CIDETEQ) and the Center of Engineering and Industrial Development (Centro de Ingeniería y Desarrollo Industrial, CIDESI), both in Mexico, have developed a process that allows to clean waters containing heavy metals and organic compounds considered pollutants, using a new adsorbent material made from the peels of fruits such as oranges and grapefruits.

Said peels are residues which pose a problem for the food industry, given that they take up a great volume and aren’t very useful nowadays. 38.2 million tons of said fruit peels are estimated to be produced worldwide each year in the food industry.

The research, in which the UGR participates, has served for designing a new process by which, thanks to an Instant Controlled Pressure Drop treatment, it is possible to modify the structure of said residues, giving them adsorbent properties such as a greater porosity and surface area.

Researcher Luis Alberto Romero Cano, from the Carbon Materials Research Team (Grupo de Investigación en Materiales de Carbón) at the Faculty of Science, UGR, explains that, by a subsequent chemical treatment, they “have managed to add functional groups to the material, thus making it selective in order to remove metals and organic pollutants present in water”.

A subsequent research carried out by the authors of this paper has showed that it is possible to pack those new materials in fixed bed columns, in a way similar to a filter by which wastewater runs on a constant flux process, like the usual wastewater treatments. This laboratory-scale study has allowed to obtain parameters to design a large-scale use of said materials.

“The results show a great potential for the use of said materials as adsorbents capable of competing with commercial activated carbon for the adsorption and recovery of metals present in wastewater, in a way that it could be possible to carry out sustainable processes in which products with a great commercial value could be obtained from food industry residues”, Romero Cano says.

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

Biosorbents prepared from orange peels using Instant Controlled Pressure Drop for Cu(II) and phenol removal by Luis A. Romero-Cano, Linda V. Gonzalez-Gutierrez, Leonardo A. Baldenegro-Perez. Industrial Crops and Products Volume 84, June 2016, Pages 344–349  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.indcrop.2016.02.027

I’m not sure why they decided to promote this research so long after it was published but I’m glad they did. It’s always good to see work designed to make use of what is currently waste. By the way, this paper is behind a paywall.

The character of water: both types

This is to use an old term, ‘mindblowing’. Apparently, there are two types of the liquid we call water according to a Nov. 10, 2016 news item on phys.org,

There are two types of liquid water, according to research carried out by an international scientific collaboration. This new peculiarity adds to the growing list of strange phenomena in what we imagine is a simple substance. The discovery could have implications for making and using nanoparticles as well as in understanding how proteins fold into their working shape in the body or misfold to cause diseases such as Alzheimer’s or CJD [Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease].

A Nov. 10, 2016 Inderscience Publishers news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Writing in the International Journal of Nanotechnology, Oxford University’s Laura Maestro and her colleagues in Italy, Mexico, Spain and the USA, explain how the physical and chemical properties of water have been studied for more than a century and revealed some odd behavior not seen in other substances. For instance, when water freezes it expands. By contrast, almost every other known substance contracts when it is cooled. Water also exists as solid, liquid and gas within a very small temperature range (100 degrees Celsius) whereas the melting and boiling points of most other compounds span a much greater range.

Many of water’s bizarre properties are due to the molecule’s ability to form short-lived connections with each other known as hydrogen bonds. There is a residual positive charge on the hydrogen atoms in the V-shaped water molecule either or both of which can form such bonds with the negative electrons on the oxygen atom at the point of the V. This makes fleeting networks in water possible that are frozen in place when the liquid solidifies. They bonds are so short-lived that they do not endow the liquid with any structure or memory, of course.

The team has looked closely at several physical properties of water like its dielectric constant (how well an electric field can permeate a substance) or the proton-spin lattice relaxation (the process by which the magnetic moments of the hydrogen atoms in water can lose energy having been excited to a higher level). They have found that these phenomena seem to flip between two particular characters at around 50 degrees Celsius, give or take 10 degrees, i.e. from 40 to 60 degrees Celsius. The effect is that thermal expansion, speed of sound and other phenomena switch between two different states at this crossover temperature.

These two states could have important implications for studying and using nanoparticles where the character of water at the molecule level becomes important for the thermal and optical properties of such particles. Gold and silver nanoparticles are used in nanomedicine for diagnostics and as antibacterial agents, for instance. Moreover, the preliminary findings suggest that the structure of liquid water can strongly influence the stability of proteins and how they are denatured at the crossover temperature, which may well have implications for understanding protein processing in the food industry but also in understanding how disease arises when proteins misfold.

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

On the existence of two states in liquid water: impact on biological and nanoscopic systems
by L.M. Maestro, M.I. Marqués, E. Camarillo, D. Jaque, J. García Solé, J.A. Gonzalo, F. Jaque, Juan C. Del Valle, F. Mallamace, H.E. Stanley.
International Journal of Nanotechnology (IJNT), Vol. 13, No. 8/9, 2016 DOI: 10.1504/IJNT.2016.079670

This paper is behind a paywall.

Breathing nanoparticles into your brain

Thanks to Dexter Johnson and his Sept. 8, 2016 posting (on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) for bringing this news about nanoparticles in the brain to my attention (Note: Links have been removed),

An international team of researchers, led by Barbara Maher, a professor at Lancaster University, in England, has found evidence that suggests that the nanoparticles that were first detected in the human brain over 20 years ago may have an external rather an internal source.

These magnetite nanoparticles are an airborne particulate that are abundant in urban environments and formed by combustion or friction-derived heating. In other words, they have been part of the pollution in the air of our cities since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

However, according to Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University, and a noted expert on the risks associated with nanomaterials,  the research indicates that this finding extends beyond magnetite to any airborne nanoscale particles—including those deliberately manufactured.

“The findings further support the possibility of these particles entering the brain via the olfactory nerve if inhaled.  In this respect, they are certainly relevant to our understanding of the possible risks presented by engineered nanomaterials—especially those that are iron-based and have magnetic properties,” said Maynard in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “However, ambient exposures to airborne nanoparticles will typically be much higher than those associated with engineered nanoparticles, simply because engineered nanoparticles will usually be manufactured and handled under conditions designed to avoid release and exposure.”

A Sept. 5, 2016 University of Lancaster press release made the research announcement,

Researchers at Lancaster University found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from 37 individuals aged three to 92-years-old who lived in Mexico City and Manchester. This strongly magnetic mineral is toxic and has been implicated in the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the human brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Barbara Maher, from Lancaster Environment Centre, and colleagues (from Oxford, Glasgow, Manchester and Mexico City) used spectroscopic analysis to identify the particles as magnetite. Unlike angular magnetite particles that are believed to form naturally within the brain, most of the observed particles were spherical, with diameters up to 150 nm, some with fused surfaces, all characteristic of high-temperature formation – such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines or open fires.

The spherical particles are often accompanied by nanoparticles containing other metals, such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt.

Professor Maher said: “The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

Other sources of magnetite nanoparticles include open fires and poorly sealed stoves within homes. Particles smaller than 200 nm are small enough to enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerve after breathing air pollution through the nose.

“Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,” added Professor Maher.

Leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

Damian Carrington’s Sept. 5, 2016 article for the Guardian provides a few more details,

“They [the troubling magnetite particles] are abundant,” she [Maher] said. “For every one of [the crystal shaped particles] we saw about 100 of the pollution particles. The thing about magnetite is it is everywhere.” An analysis of roadside air in Lancaster found 200m magnetite particles per cubic metre.

Other scientists told the Guardian the new work provided strong evidence that most of the magnetite in the brain samples come from air pollution but that the link to Alzheimer’s disease remained speculative.

For anyone who might be concerned about health risks, there’s this from Andrew Maynard’s comments in Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 8, 2016 posting,

“In most workplaces, exposure to intentionally made nanoparticles is likely be small compared to ambient nanoparticles, and so it’s reasonable to assume—at least without further data—that this isn’t a priority concern for engineered nanomaterial production,” said Maynard.

While deliberate nanoscale manufacturing may not carry much risk, Maynard does believe that the research raises serious questions about other manufacturing processes where exposure to high concentrations of airborne nanoscale iron particles is common—such as welding, gouging, or working with molten ore and steel.

It seems everyone is agreed that the findings are concerning but I think it might be good to remember that the percentage of people who develop Alzheimer’s Disease is much smaller than the population of people who have crystals in their brains. In other words, these crystals might (they don’t know) be a factor and likely there would have to be one or more factors to create the condition for developing Alzheimer’s.

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

Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain by Barbara A. Maher, Imad A. M. Ahmed, Vassil Karloukovski, Donald A. MacLaren, Penelope G. Fouldsd, David Allsop, David M. A. Mann, Ricardo Torres-Jardón, and Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605941113

This paper is behind a paywall but Dexter’s posting offers more detail for those who are still curious.

Canadian science petition and a science diplomacy event in Ottawa on June 21, 2016*

The Canadian science policy and science funding scene is hopping these days. Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, announced a new review of federal funding for fundamental science on Monday, June 13, 2016 (see my June 15, 2016 post for more details and a brief critique of the panel) and now, there’s a new Parliamentary campaign for a science advisor and a Canadian Science Policy Centre event on science diplomacy.

Petition for a science advisor

Kennedy Stewart, Canadian Member of Parliament (Burnaby South) and NDP (New Democratic Party) Science Critic, has launched a campaign for independent science advice for the government. Here’s more from a June 15, 2016 announcement (received via email),

After years of muzzling and misuse of science by the Conservatives, our scientists need lasting protections in order to finally turn the page on the lost Harper decade.

I am writing to ask your support for a new campaign calling for an independent science advisor.

While I applaud the new Liberal government for their recent promises to support science, we have a long way to go to rebuild Canada’s reputation as a global knowledge leader. As NDP Science Critic, I continue to push for renewed research funding and measures to restore scientific integrity.

Canada badly needs a new science advisor to act as a public champion for research and evidence in Ottawa. Although the Trudeau government has committed to creating a Chief Science Officer, the Minister of Science – Dr. Kirsty Duncan – has yet to state whether or not the new officer will be given real independence and a mandate protected by law.

Today, we’re launching a new parliamentary petition calling for just that: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Sign/e-415

Can you add your name right now?

Canada’s last national science advisor lacked independence from the government and was easily eliminated in 2008 after the anti-science Harper Conservatives took power.

That’s why the Minister needs to build the new CSO to last and entrench the position in legislation. Rhetoric and half-measures aren’t good enough.

Please add your voice for public science by signing our petition to the Minister of Science.

Thank you for your support,

Breakfast session on science diplomacy

One June 21, 2016 the Canadian Science Policy Centre is presenting a breakfast session on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, (from an announcement received via email),

“Science Diplomacy in the 21st Century: The Potential for Tomorrow”
Remarks by Dr. Vaughan Turekian,
Science and Technology Adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry

Event Information
Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Room 238-S, Parliament Hill
7:30am – 8:00am – Continental Breakfast
8:00am – 8:10am – Opening Remarks, MP Terry Beech
8:10am – 8:45am – Dr. Vaughan Turekian Remarks and Q&A

Dr. Turekian’s visit comes during a pivotal time as Canada is undergoing fundamental changes in numerous policy directions surrounding international affairs. With Canada’s comeback on the world stage, there is great potential for science to play an integral role in the conduct of our foreign affairs.  The United States is currently one of the leaders in science diplomacy, and as such, listening to Dr.Turekian will provide a unique perspective from the best practices of science diplomacy in the US.

Actually, Dr. Turekian’s visit comes before a North American Summit being held in Ottawa on June 29, 2016 and which has already taken a scientific turn. From a June 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Some 200 intellectuals, scientists and artists from around the world urged the leaders of Mexico, the United States and Canada on Wednesday to save North America’s endangered migratory Monarch butterfly.

US novelist Paul Auster, environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Canadian poet [Canadian media usually describe her as a writer] Margaret Atwood, British writer Ali Smith and India’s women’s and children’s minister Maneka Sanjay Gandhi were among the signatories of an open letter to the three leaders.

US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will hold a North American summit in Ottawa on June 29 [2016].

The letter by the so-called Group of 100 calls on the three leaders to “take swift and energetic actions to preserve the Monarch’s migratory phenomenon” when they meet this month.

In 1996-1997, the butterflies covered 18.2 hectares (45 acres) of land in Mexico’s central mountains.

It fell to 0.67 hectares in 2013-2014 but rose to 4 hectares this year. Their population is measured by the territory they cover.

They usually arrive in Mexico between late October and early November and head back north in March.

Given this turn of events, I wonder how Turekian, given that he’s held his current position for less than a year, might (or might not) approach the question of Monarch butterflies and diplomacy.

I did a little research about Turekian and found this Sept. 10, 2016 news release announcing his appointment as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State,

On September 8, Dr. Vaughan Turekian, formerly the Chief International Officer at The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was named the 5th Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. In this capacity, Dr. Turekian will advise the Secretary of State and the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment on international environment, science, technology, and health matters affecting the foreign policy of the United States. Dr. Turekian will draw upon his background in atmospheric chemistry and extensive policy experience to promote science, technology, and engineering as integral components of U.S. diplomacy.

Dr. Turekian brings both technical expertise and 14 years of policy experience to the position. As former Chief International Officer for The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Director of AAAS’s Center for Science Diplomacy, Dr. Turekian worked to build bridges between nations based on shared scientific goals, placing special emphasis on regions where traditional political relationships are strained or do not exist. As Editor-in-Chief of Science & Diplomacy, an online quarterly publication, Dr. Turekian published original policy pieces that have served to inform international science policy recommendations. Prior to his work at AAAS, Turekian worked at the State Department as Special Assistant and Adviser to the Under Secretary for Global Affairs on issues related to sustainable development, climate change, environment, energy, science, technology, and health and as a Program Director for the Committee on Global Change Research at the National Academy of Sciences where he was study director for a White House report on climate change science.

Turekian’s last editorial for Science & Diplomacy dated June 30, 2015 features a title (Evolving Institutions for Twenty-First Century [Science] Diplomacy) bearing a resemblance to the title for his talk in Ottawa and perhaps it provides a preview (spoilers),

Over the recent decade, its treatment of science and technology issues has increased substantially, with a number of cover stories focused on topics that bridge science, technology, and foreign affairs. This thought leadership reflects a broader shift in thinking within institutions throughout the world about the importance of better integrating the communities of science and diplomacy in novel ways.

In May, a high-level committee convened by Japan’s minister of foreign affairs released fifteen recommendations for how Japan could better incorporate its scientific and technological expertise into its foreign policy. While many of the recommendations were to be predicted, including the establishment of the position of science adviser to the foreign minister, the breadth of the recommendations highlighted numerous new ways Japan could leverage science to meet its foreign policy objectives. The report itself marks a turning point for an institution looking to upgrade its ability to meet and shape the challenges of this still young century.

On the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its own assessment of science in the U.S. Department of State. Their report, “Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Embedding a Culture of Science and Technology Throughout the Department of State,” builds on its landmark 1999 report, which, among other things, established the position of science and technology adviser to the secretary of state. The twenty-seven recommendations in the new report are wide ranging, but as a whole speak to the fact that while one of the oldest U.S. institutions of government has made much progress toward becoming more scientifically and technologically literate, there are many more steps that could be taken to leverage science and technology as a key element of U.S. foreign policy.

These two recent reports highlight the importance of foreign ministries as vital instruments of science diplomacy. These agencies of foreign affairs, like their counterparts around the world, are often viewed as conservative and somewhat inflexible institutions focused on stability rather than transformation. However, they are adjusting to a world in which developments in science and technology move rapidly and affect relationships and interactions at bilateral, regional, and global scales.

At the same time that some traditional national instruments of diplomacy are evolving to better incorporate science, international science institutions are also evolving to meet the diplomatic and foreign policy drivers of this more technical century. …

It’s an interesting read and I’m glad to see the mention of Japan in his article. I’d like to see Canadian science advice and policy initiatives take more notice of the rest of the world rather than focusing almost solely on what’s happening in the US and Great Britain (see my June 15, 2016 post for an example of what I mean). On another note, it was disconcerting to find out that Turekian believes that we are only now moving past the Cold War politics of the past.

Unfortunately for anyone wanting to attend the talk, ticket sales have ended even though they were supposed to be open until June 17, 2016. And, there doesn’t seem to be a wait list.

You may want to try arriving at the door and hoping that people have cancelled or fail to arrive therefore acquiring a ticket. Should you be an MP (Member of Parliament), Senator, or guest of the Canadian Science Policy Conference, you get a free ticket. Should you be anyone else, expect to pay $15, assuming no one is attempting to scalp (sell one for more than it cost) these tickets.

*’ … on June’ in headline changed to ‘ … on June 21, 2016’ on June 17, 2016.