Tag Archives: MICA

Mica sheets nurture origin of life?

It’s all over the place but I couldn’t resist bringing it here too. Helen Hansma at the University of California Santa Barbara has published her ‘between the sheets of mica’ theory for the origins of life in the September 7, 2010 issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Here’s a video I found at the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) website  (here) of Hansma discussing her theory,

Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara/National Science Foundation

I found more in a news item at Nanowerk,

Hansma’s passion for mica evolved gradually–starting when she began conducting pioneering, NSF-funded research in former husband Paul K. Hansma’s AFM [atomic force microscope] lab to develop techniques for imaging DNA and other biological molecules in the atomic force microscope (AFM)–a high-resolution imaging technique that allows researchers to observe and manipulate molecular and atomic level features.

Says Helen Hansma, “Mica sheets are atomically flat, so we can see DNA molecules on the mica surface without having to cover the DNA with something that makes it look bigger and easier to see. Sometimes we can even see DNA molecules swimming on the surface of mica, under water, in the AFM. Mica sheets are so thin (one nanometer) that there are a million of them in a millimeter-thick piece of mica.”

Hansma’s “life between the sheets” hypothesis first struck her a few years ago, after she and family members had collected some mica from a Connecticut mine. When she put water on a piece of the mica under her dissecting microscope, she noticed a greenish organic ‘crud’ at some step edges in the mica. “It occurred to me that this might be a good place for the origins of life–sheltered within these stacks of sheets that can move up and down in response to flowing water, which could have provided the mechanical energy for making and breaking chemical bonds,” says Hansma.

I’m sure Hansma is quite aware of what the ‘between the sheets’ phrase conjures and it works beautifully with her actual theory.  Here’s Hansma’s illustration of what might have happened (from the NSF site),

Diagram of biomolecules between sheets of mica in a primitive ocean. The green lines depict mica sheets and the grey structures depict various ancient biological molecules and fatty vesicles. In the 'between the sheets' mica hypothesis, water may have moved in and out of the spaces between stacks of sheets, thereby forcing the sheets to move up and down. This kind of energy may have ultimately pushed biological molecules and/or fatty acids together to form cells. Credit: Helen Greenwood Hansma, University of California, Santa Barbara

I’m thoroughly charmed.

Reimagining prosthetic arms; touchable holograms and brief thoughts on multimodal science communication; and nanoscience conference in Seattle

Reimagining the prosthetic arm, an article by Cliff Kuang in Fast Company (here) highlights a student design project at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Students were asked to improve prosthetic arms and were given four categories: decorative, playful, utilitarian, and awareness. This one by Tonya Douraghey and Carli Pierce caught my fancy, after all, who hasn’t thought of growing wings? (Rrom the Fast Company website),

Feathered cuff and wing arm

Feathered cuff and wing arm

I suggest reading Kuang’s article before heading off to the project website to see more student projects.

At the end of yesterday’s posting about MICA and multidimensional data visualization in spaces with up to 12 dimensions (here)  in virtual worlds such as Second Life, I made a comment about multimodal discourse which is something I think will become increasingly important. I’m not sure I can imagine 12 dimensions but I don’t expect that our usual means of visualizing or understanding data are going to be sufficient for the task. Consequently, I’ve been noticing more projects which engage some of our other senses, notably touch. For example, the SIGGRAPH 2009 conference in New Orleans featured a hologram that you can touch. This is another article by Cliff Kuang in Fast Company, Holograms that you can touch and feel. For anyone unfamiliar with SIGGRAPH, the show has introduced a number of important innovations, notably, clickable icons. It’s hard to believe but there was a time when everything was done by keyboard.

My August newsletter from NISE Net (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) brings news of a conference in Seattle, WA at the Pacific Science Centre, Sept. 8 – 11, 2009. It will feature (from the NISE Net blog),

Members of the NISE Net Program group and faculty and students at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University are teaming up to demonstrate and discuss potential collaborations between the social science community and the informal science education community at a conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies in Seattle in early September.

There’s more at the NISE Net blog here including a link to the conference site. (I gather the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Nanotechnologies is in its very early stages of organizing so this is a fairly informal call for registrants.)

The NISE Net nano haiku this month is,


Surface plasmon resonance
Silver looks yellow

by Dr. Katie D. Cadwell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison MRSEC.

Have a nice weekend!

Flies carry nanoparticles; EPA invites comments; scientific collaboration in virtual worlds

A new study is suggesting that flies exposed to nanoparticles in manufacturing areas or other places with heavy concentrations could accumulate the particles on their bodies and transport them elsewhere. From the media release on Nanowerk News,

During the experiments, the researchers noted that contaminated flies transferred nanoparticles to other flies, and realized that such transfer could also occur between flies and humans in the future. The transfer involved very low levels of nanoparticles, which did not have adverse effects on the fruit flies.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Flies pick up and transport all manner of entities so why wouldn’t they pick up nanoparticles in their vicinity?

In other news, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked for comments on case studies of nanoscale titanium dioxide in water treatment and sunscreens. Presumably you have to be a US citizen to participate. For more information on the call for comments, check out this item on Nanowerk News. From the item,

EPA is announcing a 45-day public comment period for the draft document, Nanomaterial Case Studies: Nanoscale Titanium Dioxide in Water Treatment and Topical Sunscreen (External Review Draft), as announced in the July 31, 2009 Federal Register Notice. The deadline for comments is September 14, 2009.

Yesterday, I came across an announcement about scientific collaboration in a virtual world (specifically Second Life). It’s the first professional scientific organization, Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics (MICA), based entirely in a virtual world.

This idea contrasts somewhat with the NanoLands concept from the National Physical Laboratory in the UK where an organization with a physical location creates a virtual location. (You can see my interview with Troy McConaghy, part of the original NanoLands design team, here.)  The project blog seems to have been newly revived and you can find out more about NanoLands and their latest machinima movies. (If you want to see the machinima, you need a Second Life account.)

What I found particularly interesting about MICA is this bit from their media release on Physorg.com,

In addition to getting people together in a free and convenient way, virtual worlds can offer new possibilities for scientific visualization or “visual analytics.” As data sets become larger and more complex, visualization can help researchers better understand different phenomena. Virtual worlds not only offer visualization, but also enable researchers to become immersed in data and simulations, which may help scientists think differently about data and patterns. Multi-dimensional data visualization can provide further advantages for certain types of data. The researchers found that they can encode data in spaces with up to 12 dimensions, although they run into the challenge of getting the human mind to easily grasp the encoded content.

Shades of multimodal discourse! More tomorrow.