Tag Archives: Northwestern University

Neural and technological inequalities

I’m always happy to see discussions about the social implications of new and emerging technologies. In this case, the discussion was held at the Fast Company (magazine) European Innovation Festival. KC Ifeanyi wrote a July 10, 2019 article for Fast Company highlighting a session between two scientists focusing on what I’ve termed ‘machine/flesh’ or is, sometimes, called a cyborg but not with these two scientists (Note: A link has been removed),

At the Fast Company European Innovation Festival today, scientists Moran Cerf and Riccardo Sabatini had a wide-ranging discussion on the implications of technology that can hack humanity. From ethical questions to looking toward human biology for solutions, here are some of the highlights:

The ethics of ‘neural inequality’

There are already chips that can be implanted in the brain to help recover bodily functions after a stroke or brain injury. However, what happens if (more likely when) a chip in your brain can be hacked or even gain internet access, essentially making it possible for some people (more likely wealthy people) to process information much more quickly than others?

“It’s what some call neural inequality,” says Cerf, a neuroscientist and business professor at the Kellogg School of Management and at the neuroscience program at Northwestern University. …

Opening new pathways to thought through bionics

Cerf mentioned a colleague who was born without his left hand. He engineered a bionic one that he can control with an app and that has the functionality of doing things no human hand can do, like rotating 360 degrees. As fun of a party trick as that is, Cerf brings up a good point in that his colleague’s brain is processing something we can’t, thereby possibly opening new pathways of thought.

“The interesting thing, and this is up to us to investigate, is his brain can think thoughts that you cannot think [emphasis mine] because he has a function you don’t have,” Cerf says. …

The innovation of your human body

As people look to advanced bionics to amplify their senses or abilities, Sabatini, chief data scientist at Orionis Biosciences, makes the argument that our biological bodies are far more advanced than we give them credit for. …

Democratizing tech’s edges

Early innovation so often comes with a high price tag. The cost of experimenting with nascent technology or running clinical trials can be exorbitant. And Sabatini believes democratizing that part of the process is where the true innovation will be. …

Earlier technology that changed our thinking and thoughts

This isn’t the first time that technology has altered our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have as per ” brain can think thoughts that you cannot think.” According to Walter J. Ong’s 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,that’s what writing did to us; it changed our thinking and the kinds of thoughts we have.

It took me quite a while to understand ‘writing’ as a technology, largely due to how much I took it for granted. Once I made that leap, it changed how I understood the word technology. Then, the idea that ‘writing’ could change your brain didn’t require as dramatic a leap although it fundamentally altered my concept of the relationship between technology and humans. Up to that time, I had viewed technology as an instrument that allowed me to accomplish goals (e.g., driving a car from point a to point b) but it had very little impact on me as a person.

You can find out more about Walter J. Ong and his work in his Wikipedia entry. Pay special attention to the section about, Orality and Literacy.

Who’s talking about technology and our thinking?

The article about the scientists (Cerf and Sabatini) at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival (held July 9 -10, 2019 in Milan, Italy) never mentions cyborgs. Presumably, neither did Sabatini or Cerf. It seems odd. Two thinkers were discussing ‘neural inequality’ and there was no mention of a cyborg (human and machine joined together).

Interestingly, the lead sponsor for this innovation festival was Gucci. That company would not have been my first guess or any other guess for that matter as having an interest in neural inequality.

So, Gucci sponsored a festival that is not not cheap. A two-day pass was $1600. (early birds got a discount of $457) and a ‘super’ pass was $2,229 (with an early bird discount of $629). So, you didn’t get into the room unless you had a fair chunk of change and time.

The tension, talking about inequality at a festival or other venue that most people can’t afford to attend, is discussed at more length in Anand Giridharadas’s 2018 book, ‘Winners Take All; The Elite Charade of Changing the World’.

It’s not just who gets to discuss ‘neural inequality’, it’s when you get to discuss it, which affects how the discussion is framed.

There aren’t an easy answers to these questions but I find the easy assumption that the wealthy and the science and technology communities get first dibs at the discussion a little disconcerting while being perfectly predictable.

On the plus side, there are artists and others who have jumped in and started the discussion by turning themselves into cyborgs. This August 14, 2015 article (Body-hackers: the people who turn themselves into cyborgs) by Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian is very informative and not for the faint of heart.

For the curious, I’ve been covering these kinds of stories here since 2009. The category ‘human enhancement’ and the search term ‘machine/flesh’ should provide you with an assortment of stories on the topic.

There’s no ‘I’ in team: coaching scientists to work together

While it’s true enough in English where you don’t spell the word team with the letter ‘I’, that’s not the case in French where the word is ‘equipe’. it makes me wonder how many other languages in the world have an ‘I’ in team.

Moving on. This English language saying is true enough in its way but there is no team unless you have a group of ‘I’s’ and the trick is getting them to work together as a July 18, 2019 Northwestern University news release (received via email) about a new online training tool notes,

Coaching scientists to play well together

Free tool shows how to avoid fights over data and authorship conflicts   

‘You stole my idea’ or ‘I’m not getting credit for my work’ are common disputes
Only tool validated by research to help scientists collaborate smoothly
Many NSF [US National Science Foundation] and NIH [US National Institutes of Health] grants now require applicants to show readiness for team science
Scientists can’t do it on their own

CHICAGO — When scientists from different disciplines collaborate – as is increasingly necessary to confront the complexity of challenging research problems – interpersonal tussles often arise. One scientist may accuse another of stealing her ideas. Or, a researcher may feel he is not getting credit for his work or doesn’t have access to important data. 
 
“Interdisciplinary team science is now the state of the art across all branches of science and engineering,” said Bonnie Spring, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “But very few scientists have been trained to work with others outside of their own disciplinary silo.”
 
The skill is critical because many National Institute[s] of Health and National Science Foundationgrants require applicants to show readiness for team science.
 
A free, online training tool developed by Northwestern — teamscience.net — has been been proven to help scientists develop skills to work with other scientists outside their own discipline. 
 
A new study led by Spring showed scientists who completed the program’s modules – called COALESCE – significantly boosted their knowledge about team science and increased their self-confidence about being able to successfully work in scientific teams. Most people who completed one or more modules (84%) said that the experience of taking the modules was very likely to positively impact their future research.
 
The study will be published July 18 [2019] in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science.
 
There are few training resources to teach scientists how to collaborate, and the ones that are available don’t have evidence of their effectiveness. Teamscience.net is the only free, validated-by-research tool available to anyone at any time. 
 
Almost 1,000 of the COALESCE users opted voluntarily to respond to questions about the learning modules, providing information about how taking each module influenced team science knowledge, skills and attitudes.
 
‘You stole my idea’
 
The most common area of dispute among collaborating scientists is authorship concerns, such as accusations that one person stole ideas from another or that a contributor was not getting credit for his or her work, the study authors said. Other disputes arise around access to and analysis of data, utilization of materials or resources and the general direction of the research itself. Underlying all of these issues is a common failure to prepare for working collaboratively with other scientists. 
 
“Preparing in advance before starting to collaborate, often through the creation of a formal collaboration agreement document, is the best way to head off these types of disputes,” said Angela Pfammatter, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Feinberg and a coauthor on the paper.
  
Spring suggested “having scientists discuss their expectations of one another and the collaboration to prevent acrimonious conflicts.” 
 
Skills to play well together
 
These skills are critical to a successful scientific team, the authors said: 

The ability to choose team members who have the right mix of expertise, temperament and accessibility to round out a team. 
The ability to anticipate what could go wrong and to develop contingency plans in advance. 
The ability to manage conflict within the team 

The teamscience.net modules help scientists acquire these skills by letting them interact with different problem scenarios that can arise in team-based research. Scientists can try out different solutions and learn from mistakes in a safe, online environment. 
 
More than 16,000 people have accessed the resource in the past six years.  Demand for team science training is expected to increase as interdisciplinary teams set out to tackle some of science’s most challenging problems. 
 
Other Northwestern authors on the paper are Ekaterina Klyachko, Phillip Rak, H. Gene McFadden, Juned Siddique and Leland Bardsley. 
 
Funding support for COALESCE is from the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences grants 3UL1RR025741 and UL1TR001422 and its Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

i once got caught here on this blog between two warring scientists. My August 24, 2015 posting was a pretty standard one for me. Initially, it was one of my more minimalistic pieces with a copy of the text from a university news release announcing the research and a link to the academic paper. I can’t remember if the problem was which scientist was listed first and which was listed last but one of them took exception and contacted me explaining how it was wrong. (Note: These decisions are not made by me.) I did my best to fix whatever the problem was and then the other scientist contacted me. After the dust settled, I ended up with a dog’s breakfast for my posting and a new policy.

Getting back to COALESCE: I wish the Northwestern University researchers all the best as they look for ways to help scientists work together more smoothly and cooperatively.

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

Online, cross-disciplinary team science training for health and medical professionals: Evaluation of COALESCE (teamscience.net) by Bonnie Spring, Ekaterina A. Klyachko, Phillip W. Rak, H. Gene McFadden, Donald Hedeker, Juned Siddique, Leland R. Bardsley, and Angela Fidler Pfammatter. Jurnal of Clinical and Translational Science DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/cts.2019.383 Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 July 2019

This paper is open access.

How do nanoparticles interact with the environment and with humans over time?

I meant to get this piece published sooner but good intentions don’t get you far.

At Northwestern University, scientists have researched the impact engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) might have as they enter the food chain. An October 18, 2019 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Megan Fellman describes research on an investigation of ENPs and their interaction with living organisms,

Personal electronic devices — smartphones, computers, TVs, tablets, screens of all kinds — are a significant and growing source of the world’s electronic waste. Many of these products use nanomaterials, but little is known about how these modern materials and their tiny particles interact with the environment and living things.

Now a research team of Northwestern University chemists and colleagues from the national Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology has discovered that when certain coated nanoparticles interact with living organisms it results in new properties that cause the nanoparticles to become sticky. Fragmented lipid coronas form on the particles, causing them to stick together and grow into long kelp-like strands. Nanoparticles with 5-nanometer diameters form long structures that are microns in size in solution. The impact on cells is not known.

“Why not make a particle that is benign from the beginning?” said Franz M. Geiger, professor of chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He led the Northwestern portion of the research.

“This study provides insight into the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems,” Geiger said. “This may help us understand and predict why some nanomaterial/ligand coating combinations are detrimental to cellular organisms while others are not. We can use this to engineer nanoparticles that are benign by design.”

Using experiments and computer simulations, the research team studied how gold nanoparticles wrapped in strings having positively charged beads interact with a variety of bilayer membrane models. The researchers found that a nearly circular layer of lipids forms spontaneously around the particles. Formation of these “fragmented lipid coronas” have never been seen before to form from membranes.

The study points to solving problems with chemistry. Scientists can use the findings to design a better ligand coating for nanoparticles that avoids the ammonium-phosphate interaction, which causes the aggregation. (Ligands are used in nanomaterials for layering.)

The results will be published Oct. 18 [2018] in the journal Chem.

Geiger is the study’s corresponding author. Other authors include scientists from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology’s other institutional partners. Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the center studies engineered nanomaterials and their interaction with the environment, including biological systems — both the negative and positive aspects.

“The nanoparticles pick up parts of the lipid cellular membrane like a snowball rolling in a snowfield, and they become sticky,” Geiger said. “This unintended effect happens because of the presence of the nanoparticle. It can bring lipids to places in cells where lipids are not meant to be.”

The experiments were conducted in idealized laboratory settings that nevertheless are relevant to environments found during the late summer in a landfill — at 21-22 degrees Celsius and a couple feet below ground, where soil and groundwater mix and the food chain begins.

By pairing spectroscopic and imaging experiments with atomistic and coarse-grain simulations, the researchers identified that ion pairing between the lipid head groups of biological membranes and the polycations’ ammonium groups in the nanoparticle wrapping leads to the formation of fragmented lipid coronas. These coronas engender new properties, including composition and stickiness, to the particles with diameters below 10 nanometers.

The study’s insights help predict the impact that the increasingly widespread use of engineered nanomaterials has on the nanoparticles’ fate once they enter the food chain, which many of them may eventually do.

“New technologies and mass consumer products are emerging that feature nanomaterials as critical operational components,” Geiger said. “We can upend the existing paradigm in nanomaterial production towards one in which companies design nanomaterials to be sustainable from the beginning, as opposed to risking expensive product recalls — or worse — down the road.” [emphases mine]

Here’s an image illustrating the work,

Caption: This is a computer simulation of a lipid corona around a 5-nanometer nanoparticle showing ammonium-phosphate ion pairing. Credit: Northwestern University

The curious can find the paper here,

Lipid Corona Formation from Nanoparticle Interactions with Bilayers by Laura L. Olenick, Julianne M. Troiano, Ariane Vartanian, Eric S. Melby, Arielle C. Mensch, Leili Zhang, Jiewei Hong, Oluwaseun Mesele, Tian Qiu, Jared Bozich, Samuel Lohse, Xi Zhang, Thomas R. Kuech, Augusto Millevolte, Ian Gunsolus, Alicia C. McGeachy, Merve Doğangün, Tianzhe Li, Dehong Hu, Stephanie R. Walter, Aurash Mohaimani, Angela Schmoldt, Marco D. Torelli, Katherine R. Hurley, Joe Dalluge, Gene Chong, Z. Vivian Feng, Christy L. Haynes, Robert J. Hamers, Joel A. Pedersen, Qiang Cui, Rigoberto Hernandez, Rebecca Klaper, Galya Orr, Catherine J. Murphy, Franz M. Geiger. Chem Volume 4, ISSUE 11, P2709-2723, November 08, 2018 DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2018.09.018 Published:October 18, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Teaching molecular and synthetic biology in grades K-12

This* story actually started in 2018 with an August 1, 2018 Harvard University news release (h/t Aug. 1, 2018 news item on phys.org) by Leslie Brownell announcing molecular and synthetic biology educational kits that been tested in the classroom. (In 2019, a new kit was released but more about that later.)

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 [2018].

“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.

The researchers designed a range of molecular experiments that can be performed using this system, and coupled each of them to a signal that the students can easily detect with their sense of sight, smell, or touch. The first, called BioBits Bright, contains six different freeze-dried DNA templates that each encode a protein that fluoresces a different color when illuminated with blue light. To produce the proteins, students simply add these DNA templates and water to the FD-CF machinery and put the reactions in an inexpensive incubator (~$30) for several hours, and then view them with a blue light illuminator (~$15). The students can also design their own experiments to produce a desired collection of colors that they can then arrange into a visual image, a bit like using a Light Brite ©. “Challenging the students to build their own in vitro synthetic programs also allows educators to start to talk about how synthetic biologists might control biology to make important products, such as medicines or chemicals,” explained Jessica Stark, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Jewett lab at Northwestern University who is co-first author on both papers.

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.

A May 7, 2019 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert and received via email) by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, provides more details,

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 [2019]) 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.

Conquering CRISPR

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.”

Reducing resistance

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,

[downloaded from https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381]

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

BioBits Health: Classroom Activities Exploring Engineering, Biology, and Human Health with Fluorescent Readouts by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Jason Forbrook, Suzanne Marshalla, Faith Rodriguez, Mechelle Washington, Grant A. Rybnicky, Peter Q. Nguyen, Brenna Hasselbacher, Ramah Jabri, Rijha Kamran, Veronica Koralewski, Will Wightkin, Thomas Martinez, and Michael C. Jewett. ACS Synth. Biol., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381 Publication Date (Web): March 29, 2019

Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

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?

*’is’ removed from sentence on May 9, 2019.

It’s a very ‘carbony’ time: graphene jacket, graphene-skinned airplane, and schwarzite

In August 2018, I been stumbled across several stories about graphene-based products and a new form of carbon.

Graphene jacket

The company producing this jacket has as its goal “… creating bionic clothing that is both bulletproof and intelligent.” Well, ‘bionic‘ means biologically-inspired engineering and ‘intelligent‘ usually means there’s some kind of computing capability in the product. This jacket, which is the first step towards the company’s goal, is not bionic, bulletproof, or intelligent. Nonetheless, it represents a very interesting science experiment in which you, the consumer, are part of step two in the company’s R&D (research and development).

Onto Vollebak’s graphene jacket,

Courtesy: Vollebak

From an August 14, 2018 article by Jesus Diaz for Fast Company,

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that have long threatened to revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. …

Despite its immense promise, graphene still hasn’t found much use in consumer products, thanks to the fact that it’s hard to manipulate and manufacture in industrial quantities. The process of developing Vollebak’s jacket, according to the company’s cofounders, brothers Steve and Nick Tidball, took years of intensive research, during which the company worked with the same material scientists who built Michael Phelps’ 2008 Olympic Speedo swimsuit (which was famously banned for shattering records at the event).

The jacket is made out of a two-sided material, which the company invented during the extensive R&D process. The graphene side looks gunmetal gray, while the flipside appears matte black. To create it, the scientists turned raw graphite into something called graphene “nanoplatelets,” which are stacks of graphene that were then blended with polyurethane to create a membrane. That, in turn, is bonded to nylon to form the other side of the material, which Vollebak says alters the properties of the nylon itself. “Adding graphene to the nylon fundamentally changes its mechanical and chemical properties–a nylon fabric that couldn’t naturally conduct heat or energy, for instance, now can,” the company claims.

The company says that it’s reversible so you can enjoy graphene’s properties in different ways as the material interacts with either your skin or the world around you. “As physicists at the Max Planck Institute revealed, graphene challenges the fundamental laws of heat conduction, which means your jacket will not only conduct the heat from your body around itself to equalize your skin temperature and increase it, but the jacket can also theoretically store an unlimited amount of heat, which means it can work like a radiator,” Tidball explains.

He means it literally. You can leave the jacket out in the sun, or on another source of warmth, as it absorbs heat. Then, the company explains on its website, “If you then turn it inside out and wear the graphene next to your skin, it acts like a radiator, retaining its heat and spreading it around your body. The effect can be visibly demonstrated by placing your hand on the fabric, taking it away and then shooting the jacket with a thermal imaging camera. The heat of the handprint stays long after the hand has left.”

There’s a lot more to the article although it does feature some hype and I’m not sure I believe Diaz’s claim (August 14, 2018 article) that ‘graphene-based’ hair dye is perfectly safe ( Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that will one day revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. Its diverse uses are seemingly endless: It can stop a bullet if you add enough layers. It can change the color of your hair with no adverse effects. [emphasis mine] It can turn the walls of your home into a giant fire detector. “It’s so strong and so stretchy that the fibers of a spider web coated in graphene could catch a falling plane,” as Vollebak puts it in its marketing materials.

Not unless things have changed greatly since March 2018. My August 2, 2018 posting featured the graphene-based hair dye announcement from March 2018 and a cautionary note from Dr. Andrew Maynard (scroll down ab out 50% of the way for a longer excerpt of Maynard’s comments),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

The full text of Dr. Maynard’s comments about graphene hair dyes and risk can be found here.

Bearing in mind  that graphene-based hair dye is an entirely different class of product from the jacket, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss risks; I would like to know what kind of risk assessment and safety testing has been done. Due to their understandable enthusiasm, the brothers Tidball have focused all their marketing on the benefits and the opportunity for the consumer to test their product (from graphene jacket product webpage),

While it’s completely invisible and only a single atom thick, graphene is the lightest, strongest, most conductive material ever discovered, and has the same potential to change life on Earth as stone, bronze and iron once did. But it remains difficult to work with, extremely expensive to produce at scale, and lives mostly in pioneering research labs. So following in the footsteps of the scientists who discovered it through their own highly speculative experiments, we’re releasing graphene-coated jackets into the world as experimental prototypes. Our aim is to open up our R&D and accelerate discovery by getting graphene out of the lab and into the field so that we can harness the collective power of early adopters as a test group. No-one yet knows the true limits of what graphene can do, so the first edition of the Graphene Jacket is fully reversible with one side coated in graphene and the other side not. If you’d like to take part in the next stage of this supermaterial’s history, the experiment is now open. You can now buy it, test it and tell us about it. [emphasis mine]

How maverick experiments won the Nobel Prize

While graphene’s existence was first theorised in the 1940s, it wasn’t until 2004 that two maverick scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were able to isolate and test it. Through highly speculative and unfunded experimentation known as their ‘Friday night experiments,’ they peeled layer after layer off a shaving of graphite using Scotch tape until they produced a sample of graphene just one atom thick. After similarly leftfield thinking won Geim the 2000 Ig Nobel prize for levitating frogs using magnets, the pair won the Nobel prize in 2010 for the isolation of graphene.

Should you be interested, in beta-testing the jacket, it will cost you $695 (presumably USD); order here. One last thing, Vollebak is based in the UK.

Graphene skinned plane

An August 14, 2018 news item (also published as an August 1, 2018 Haydale press release) by Sue Keighley on Azonano heralds a new technology for airplans,

Haydale, (AIM: HAYD), the global advanced materials group, notes the announcement made yesterday from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) about the recent unveiling of the world’s first graphene skinned plane at the internationally renowned Farnborough air show.

The prepreg material, developed by Haydale, has potential value for fuselage and wing surfaces in larger scale aero and space applications especially for the rapidly expanding drone market and, in the longer term, the commercial aerospace sector. By incorporating functionalised nanoparticles into epoxy resins, the electrical conductivity of fibre-reinforced composites has been significantly improved for lightning-strike protection, thereby achieving substantial weight saving and removing some manufacturing complexities.

Before getting to the photo, here’s a definition for pre-preg from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Pre-preg is “pre-impregnated” composite fibers where a thermoset polymer matrix material, such as epoxy, or a thermoplastic resin is already present. The fibers often take the form of a weave and the matrix is used to bond them together and to other components during manufacture.

Haydale has supplied graphene enhanced prepreg material for Juno, a three-metre wide graphene-enhanced composite skinned aircraft, that was revealed as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018. [downloaded from https://www.azonano.com/news.aspx?newsID=36298]

A July 31, 2018 University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) press release provides a tiny bit more (pun intended) detail,

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has unveiled the world’s first graphene skinned plane at an internationally renowned air show.

Juno, a three-and-a-half-metre wide graphene skinned aircraft, was revealed on the North West Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) stand as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018.

The University’s aerospace engineering team has worked in partnership with the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute (NGI), Haydale Graphene Industries (Haydale) and a range of other businesses to develop the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which also includes graphene batteries and 3D printed parts.

Billy Beggs, UCLan’s Engineering Innovation Manager, said: “The industry reaction to Juno at Farnborough was superb with many positive comments about the work we’re doing. Having Juno at one the world’s biggest air shows demonstrates the great strides we’re making in leading a programme to accelerate the uptake of graphene and other nano-materials into industry.

“The programme supports the objectives of the UK Industrial Strategy and the University’s Engineering Innovation Centre (EIC) to increase industry relevant research and applications linked to key local specialisms. Given that Lancashire represents the fourth largest aerospace cluster in the world, there is perhaps no better place to be developing next generation technologies for the UK aerospace industry.”

Previous graphene developments at UCLan have included the world’s first flight of a graphene skinned wing and the launch of a specially designed graphene-enhanced capsule into near space using high altitude balloons.

UCLan engineering students have been involved in the hands-on project, helping build Juno on the Preston Campus.

Haydale supplied much of the material and all the graphene used in the aircraft. Ray Gibbs, Chief Executive Officer, said: “We are delighted to be part of the project team. Juno has highlighted the capability and benefit of using graphene to meet key issues faced by the market, such as reducing weight to increase range and payload, defeating lightning strike and protecting aircraft skins against ice build-up.”

David Bailey Chief Executive of the North West Aerospace Alliance added: “The North West aerospace cluster contributes over £7 billion to the UK economy, accounting for one quarter of the UK aerospace turnover. It is essential that the sector continues to develop next generation technologies so that it can help the UK retain its competitive advantage. It has been a pleasure to support the Engineering Innovation Centre team at the University in developing the world’s first full graphene skinned aircraft.”

The Juno project team represents the latest phase in a long-term strategic partnership between the University and a range of organisations. The partnership is expected to go from strength to strength following the opening of the £32m EIC facility in February 2019.

The next step is to fly Juno and conduct further tests over the next two months.

Next item, a new carbon material.

Schwarzite

I love watching this gif of a schwarzite,

The three-dimensional cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

An August 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the new carbon structure,

The discovery of buckyballs [also known as fullerenes, C60, or buckminsterfullerenes] surprised and delighted chemists in the 1980s, nanotubes jazzed physicists in the 1990s, and graphene charged up materials scientists in the 2000s, but one nanoscale carbon structure – a negatively curved surface called a schwarzite – has eluded everyone. Until now.

University of California, Berkeley [UC Berkeley], chemists have proved that three carbon structures recently created by scientists in South Korea and Japan are in fact the long-sought schwarzites, which researchers predict will have unique electrical and storage properties like those now being discovered in buckminsterfullerenes (buckyballs or fullerenes for short), nanotubes and graphene.

An August 13, 2018 UC Berkeley news release by Robert Sanders, which originated the news item, describes how the Berkeley scientists and the members of their international  collaboration from Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and Italy, have contributed to the current state of schwarzite research,

The new structures were built inside the pores of zeolites, crystalline forms of silicon dioxide – sand – more commonly used as water softeners in laundry detergents and to catalytically crack petroleum into gasoline. Called zeolite-templated carbons (ZTC), the structures were being investigated for possible interesting properties, though the creators were unaware of their identity as schwarzites, which theoretical chemists have worked on for decades.

Based on this theoretical work, chemists predict that schwarzites will have unique electronic, magnetic and optical properties that would make them useful as supercapacitors, battery electrodes and catalysts, and with large internal spaces ideal for gas storage and separation.

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Efrem Braun and his colleagues identified these ZTC materials as schwarzites based of their negative curvature, and developed a way to predict which zeolites can be used to make schwarzites and which can’t.

“We now have the recipe for how to make these structures, which is important because, if we can make them, we can explore their behavior, which we are working hard to do now,” said Berend Smit, an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley and an expert on porous materials such as zeolites and metal-organic frameworks.

Smit, the paper’s corresponding author, Braun and their colleagues in Switzerland, China, Germany, Italy and Russia will report their discovery this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Smit is also a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Playing with carbon

Diamond and graphite are well-known three-dimensional crystalline arrangements of pure carbon, but carbon atoms can also form two-dimensional “crystals” — hexagonal arrangements patterned like chicken wire. Graphene is one such arrangement: a flat sheet of carbon atoms that is not only the strongest material on Earth, but also has a high electrical conductivity that makes it a promising component of electronic devices.

schwarzite carbon cage

The cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. The zeolite is subsequently dissolved to release the new material. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

Graphene sheets can be wadded up to form soccer ball-shaped fullerenes – spherical carbon cages that can store molecules and are being used today to deliver drugs and genes into the body. Rolling graphene into a cylinder yields fullerenes called nanotubes, which are being explored today as highly conductive wires in electronics and storage vessels for gases like hydrogen and carbon dioxide. All of these are submicroscopic, 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

To date, however, only positively curved fullerenes and graphene, which has zero curvature, have been synthesized, feats rewarded by Nobel Prizes in 1996 and 2010, respectively.

In the 1880s, German physicist Hermann Schwarz investigated negatively curved structures that resemble soap-bubble surfaces, and when theoretical work on carbon cage molecules ramped up in the 1990s, Schwarz’s name became attached to the hypothetical negatively curved carbon sheets.

“The experimental validation of schwarzites thus completes the triumvirate of possible curvatures to graphene; positively curved, flat, and now negatively curved,” Braun added.

Minimize me

Like soap bubbles on wire frames, schwarzites are topologically minimal surfaces. When made inside a zeolite, a vapor of carbon-containing molecules is injected, allowing the carbon to assemble into a two-dimensional graphene-like sheet lining the walls of the pores in the zeolite. The surface is stretched tautly to minimize its area, which makes all the surfaces curve negatively, like a saddle. The zeolite is then dissolved, leaving behind the schwarzite.

soap bubble schwarzite structure

A computer-rendered negatively curved soap bubble that exhibits the geometry of a carbon schwarzite. (Felix Knöppel image)

“These negatively-curved carbons have been very hard to synthesize on their own, but it turns out that you can grow the carbon film catalytically at the surface of a zeolite,” Braun said. “But the schwarzites synthesized to date have been made by choosing zeolite templates through trial and error. We provide very simple instructions you can follow to rationally make schwarzites and we show that, by choosing the right zeolite, you can tune schwarzites to optimize the properties you want.”

Researchers should be able to pack unusually large amounts of electrical charge into schwarzites, which would make them better capacitors than conventional ones used today in electronics. Their large interior volume would also allow storage of atoms and molecules, which is also being explored with fullerenes and nanotubes. And their large surface area, equivalent to the surface areas of the zeolites they’re grown in, could make them as versatile as zeolites for catalyzing reactions in the petroleum and natural gas industries.

Braun modeled ZTC structures computationally using the known structures of zeolites, and worked with topological mathematician Senja Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Sion, Switzerland, to determine which of the minimal surfaces the structures resembled.

The team determined that, of the approximately 200 zeolites created to date, only 15 can be used as a template to make schwarzites, and only three of them have been used to date to produce schwarzite ZTCs. Over a million zeolite structures have been predicted, however, so there could be many more possible schwarzite carbon structures made using the zeolite-templating method.

Other co-authors of the paper are Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi and Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Rocio Mercado of UC Berkeley, Igor Baburin of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany and Davide Proserpio of the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy and Samara State Technical University in Russia.

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

Generating carbon schwarzites via zeolite-templating by Efrem Braun, Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi, Senja Barthel, Rocio Mercado, Igor A. Baburin, Davide M. Proserpio, and Berend Smit. PNAS August 14, 2018. 201805062; published ahead of print August 14, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805062115

This paper appears to be open access.

Colo(u)r-changing nanolaser inspired by chameleons

Caption: Novel nanolaser leverages the same color-changing mechanism that a chameleon uses to camouflage its skin. Credit: Egor Kamelev Courtesy: Northwestern University

I wish there was some detail included about how those colo(u)rs were achieved in that photograph. Strangely, Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois, US) is more interested in describing the technology that chameleons have inspired. A June 20, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily announces the research,

As a chameleon shifts its color from turquoise to pink to orange to green, nature’s design principles are at play. Complex nano-mechanics are quietly and effortlessly working to camouflage the lizard’s skin to match its environment.

Inspired by nature, a Northwestern University team has developed a novel nanolaser that changes colors using the same mechanism as chameleons. The work could open the door for advances in flexible optical displays in smartphones and televisions, wearable photonic devices and ultra-sensitive sensors that measure strain.

A June 20, 2018 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Chameleons can easily change their colors by controlling the spacing among the nanocrystals on their skin, which determines the color we observe,” said Teri W. Odom, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “This coloring based on surface structure is chemically stable and robust.”

The research was published online yesterday [June 19, 2018] in the journal Nano Letters. Odom, who is the associate director of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology, and George C. Schatz, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in Weinberg, served as the paper’s co-corresponding authors.

The same way a chameleon controls the spacing of nanocrystals on its skin, the Northwestern team’s laser exploits periodic arrays of metal nanoparticles on a stretchable, polymer matrix. As the matrix either stretches to pull the nanoparticles farther apart or contracts to push them closer together, the wavelength emitted from the laser changes wavelength, which also changes its color.

“Hence, by stretching and releasing the elastomer substrate, we could select the emission color at will,” Odom said.

The resulting laser is robust, tunable, reversible and has a high sensitivity to strain. These properties are critical for applications in responsive optical displays, on-chip photonic circuits and multiplexed optical communication.

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

Stretchable Nanolasing from Hybrid Quadrupole Plasmons by Danqing Wang, Marc R. Bourgeois, Won-Kyu Lee, Ran Li, Dhara Trivedi, Michael P. Knudson, Weijia Wang, George C. Schatz, and Teri W. Odom. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.8b01774 Publication Date (Web): June 18, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Shape-conforming hydrogel and the body’s own healing mechanisms

A June 11, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily announces a development of interest to people with diabetes or those who treat them,

A simple scrape or sore might not cause alarm for most people. But for diabetic patients, an untreated scratch can turn into an open wound that could potentially lead to a limb amputation or even death.

A Northwestern University team has developed a new device, called a regenerative bandage, that quickly heals these painful, hard-to-treat sores without using drugs. During head-to-head tests, Northwestern’s bandage healed diabetic wounds 33 percent faster than one of the most popular bandages currently on the market.

A June 11, 2018 Northwestern University news release by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The novelty is that we identified a segment of a protein in skin that is important to wound healing, made the segment and incorporated it into an antioxidant molecule that self-aggregates at body temperature to create a scaffold that facilitates the body’s ability to regenerate tissue at the wound site,” said Northwestern’s Guillermo Ameer, who led the study. “With this newer approach, we’re not releasing drugs or outside factors to accelerate healing. And it works very well.”

Because the bandage leverages the body’s own healing power without releasing drugs or biologics, it faces fewer regulatory hurdles. This means patients could see it on the market much sooner.

The research was published today, June 11 [2018], in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Although Ameer’s laboratory is specifically interested in diabetes applications, the bandage can be used to heal all types of open wounds.

An expert in biomaterials and regenerative engineering, Ameer is the Daniel Hale Williams Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering, professor of surgery in the Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s new Center for Advanced Regenerative Engineering (CARE).

The difference between a sore in a physically healthy person versus a diabetic patient? Diabetes can cause nerve damage that leads to numbness in the extremities. People with diabetes, therefore, might experience something as simple as a blister or small scratch that goes unnoticed and untreated because they cannot feel it to know it’s there. As high glucose levels also thicken capillary walls, blood circulation slows, making it more difficult for these wounds to heal. It’s a perfect storm for a small nick to become a limb-threatening — or life-threatening — wound.

The secret behind Ameer’s regenerative bandage is laminin, a protein found in most of the body’s tissues including the skin. Laminin sends signals to cells, encouraging them to differentiate, migrate and adhere to one another. Ameer’s team identified a segment of laminin — 12 amino acids in length — called A5G81 that is critical for the wound-healing process.

“This particular sequence caught our eye because it activates cellular receptors to get cells to adhere, migrate and proliferate,” Ameer said. “Then we cut up the sequence to find the minimum size that we needed for it to work.”

By using such a small fragment of laminin rather than the entire protein, it can be easily synthesized in the laboratory — making it more reproducible while keeping manufacturing costs low. Ameer’s team incorporated A5G81 into an antioxidant hydrogel bandage that it previously developed in the laboratory.

The bandage’s antioxidant nature counters inflammation. And the hydrogel is thermally responsive: It is a liquid when applied to the wound bed, then rapidly solidifies into a gel when exposed to body temperature. This phase change allows it to conform to the exact shape of the wound — a property that helped it out-perform other bandages on the market.

“Wounds have irregular shapes and depths. Our liquid can fill any shape and then stay in place,” Ameer said. “Other bandages are mostly based on collagen films or sponges that can move around and shift away from the wound site.”

Patients also must change bandages often, which can rip off the healing tissue and re-injure the site. Ameer’s bandage, however, can be rinsed off with cool saline, so the regenerating tissue remains undisturbed.

Not only will the lack of drugs or biologics make the bandage move to market faster, it also increases the bandage’s safety. So far, Ameer’s team has not noticed any adverse side effects in animal models. This is a stark difference from another product on the market, which contains a growth factor linked to cancer.

“It is not acceptable for patients who are trying to heal an open sore to have to deal with an increased risk of cancer,” Ameer said.

Next, Ameer’s team will continue to investigate the bandage in a larger pre-clinical model.

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

Potent laminin-inspired antioxidant regenerative dressing accelerates wound healing in diabetes by Yunxiao Zhu, Zdravka Cankova, Marta Iwanaszko, Sheridan Lichtor, Milan Mrksich, and Guillermo A. Ameer. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Science] June 11, 2018. 201804262; published ahead of print June 11, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804262115

This paper is behind a paywall.

The roles mathematics and light play in cellular communication

These are two entirely different types of research but taken together they help build a picture about how the cells in our bodies function.

Cells and light

An April 30, 2018 news item on phys.org describes work on controlling biology with light,

Over the past five years, University of Chicago chemist Bozhi Tian has been figuring out how to control biology with light.

A longterm science goal is devices to serve as the interface between researcher and body—both as a way to understand how cells talk among each other and within themselves, and eventually, as a treatment for brain or nervous system disorders [emphasis mine] by stimulating nerves to fire or limbs to move. Silicon—a versatile, biocompatible material used in both solar panels and surgical implants—is a natural choice.

In a paper published April 30 in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Tian’s team laid out a system of design principles for working with silicon to control biology at three levels—from individual organelles inside cells to tissues to entire limbs. The group has demonstrated each in cells or mice models, including the first time anyone has used light to control behavior without genetic modification.

“We want this to serve as a map, where you can decide which problem you would like to study and immediately find the right material and method to address it,” said Tian, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Researchers built this thin layer of silicon lace to modulate neural signals when activated by light. Courtesy of Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian

An April 30, 2018 University of Chicago news release by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

The scientists’ map lays out best methods to craft silicon devices depending on both the intended task and the scale—ranging from inside a cell to a whole animal.

For example, to affect individual brain cells, silicon can be crafted to respond to light by emitting a tiny ionic current, which encourages neurons to fire. But in order to stimulate limbs, scientists need a system whose signals can travel farther and are stronger—such as a gold-coated silicon material in which light triggers a chemical reaction.

The mechanical properties of the implant are important, too. Say researchers would like to work with a larger piece of the brain, like the cortex, to control motor movement. The brain is a soft, squishy substance, so they’ll need a material that’s similarly soft and flexible, but can bind tightly against the surface. They’d want thin and lacy silicon, say the design principles.

The team favors this method because it doesn’t require genetic modification or a power supply wired in, since the silicon can be fashioned into what are essentially tiny solar panels. (Many other forms of monitoring or interacting with the brain need to have a power supply, and keeping a wire running into a patient is an infection risk.)

They tested the concept in mice and found they could stimulate limb movements by shining light on brain implants. Previous research tested the concept in neurons.

“We don’t have answers to a number of intrinsic questions about biology, such as whether individual mitochondria communicate remotely through bioelectric signals,” said Yuanwen Jiang, the first author on the paper, then a graduate student at UChicago and now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. “This set of tools could address such questions as well as pointing the way to potential solutions for nervous system disorders.”

Other UChicago authors were Assoc. Profs. Chin-Tu Chen and Chien-Min Kao, Asst. Prof Xiaoyang, postdoctoral researchers Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Xiang Gao, Jiping Yue, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, Bing Liu and Yin Fang, graduate students Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, and Edward Sudzilovsky, and undergraduate student George Freyermuth.

Other researchers on the paper hailed from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The researchers have also made this video illustrating their work,

via Gfycat Tiny silicon nanowires (in blue), activated by light, trigger activity in neurons. (Courtesy Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian)

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

Rational design of silicon structures for optically controlled multiscale biointerfaces by Yuanwen Jiang, Xiaojian Li, Bing Liu, Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Fengyuan Shi, Xiang Gao, Edward Sudzilovsky, Ramya Parameswaran, Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, Jiping Yue, KuangHua Guo, Yin Fang, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, George Freyermuth, Raymond C. S. Wong, Chien-Min Kao, Chin-Tu Chen, Alan W. Nicholls, Xiaoyang Wu, Gordon M. G. Shepherd, & Bozhi Tian. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2018) doi:10.1038/s41551-018-0230-1 Published: 30 April 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mathematics and how living cells ‘think’

This May 2, 2018 Queensland University of Technology (QUT; Australia) press release is also on EurekAlert,

How does the ‘brain’ of a living cell work, allowing an organism to function and thrive in changing and unfavourable environments?

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Dr Robyn Araujo has developed new mathematics to solve a longstanding mystery of how the incredibly complex biological networks within cells can adapt and reset themselves after exposure to a new stimulus.

Her findings, published in Nature Communications, provide a new level of understanding of cellular communication and cellular ‘cognition’, and have potential application in a variety of areas, including new targeted cancer therapies and drug resistance.

Dr Araujo, a lecturer in applied and computational mathematics in QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, said that while we know a great deal about gene sequences, we have had extremely limited insight into how the proteins encoded by these genes work together as an integrated network – until now.

“Proteins form unfathomably complex networks of chemical reactions that allow cells to communicate and to ‘think’ – essentially giving the cell a ‘cognitive’ ability, or a ‘brain’,” she said. “It has been a longstanding mystery in science how this cellular ‘brain’ works.

“We could never hope to measure the full complexity of cellular networks – the networks are simply too large and interconnected and their component proteins are too variable.

“But mathematics provides a tool that allows us to explore how these networks might be constructed in order to perform as they do.

“My research is giving us a new way to look at unravelling network complexity in nature.”

Dr Araujo’s work has focused on the widely observed function called perfect adaptation – the ability of a network to reset itself after it has been exposed to a new stimulus.

“An example of perfect adaptation is our sense of smell,” she said. “When exposed to an odour we will smell it initially but after a while it seems to us that the odour has disappeared, even though the chemical, the stimulus, is still present.

“Our sense of smell has exhibited perfect adaptation. This process allows it to remain sensitive to further changes in our environment so that we can detect both very feint and very strong odours.

“This kind of adaptation is essentially what takes place inside living cells all the time. Cells are exposed to signals – hormones, growth factors, and other chemicals – and their proteins will tend to react and respond initially, but then settle down to pre-stimulus levels of activity even though the stimulus is still there.

“I studied all the possible ways a network can be constructed and found that to be capable of this perfect adaptation in a robust way, a network has to satisfy an extremely rigid set of mathematical principles. There are a surprisingly limited number of ways a network could be constructed to perform perfect adaptation.

“Essentially we are now discovering the needles in the haystack in terms of the network constructions that can actually exist in nature.

“It is early days, but this opens the door to being able to modify cell networks with drugs and do it in a more robust and rigorous way. Cancer therapy is a potential area of application, and insights into how proteins work at a cellular level is key.”

Dr Araujo said the published study was the result of more than “five years of relentless effort to solve this incredibly deep mathematical problem”. She began research in this field while at George Mason University in Virginia in the US.

Her mentor at the university’s College of Science and co-author of the Nature Communications paper, Professor Lance Liotta, said the “amazing and surprising” outcome of Dr Araujo’s study is applicable to any living organism or biochemical network of any size.

“The study is a wonderful example of how mathematics can have a profound impact on society and Dr Araujo’s results will provide a set of completely fresh approaches for scientists in a variety of fields,” he said.

“For example, in strategies to overcome cancer drug resistance – why do tumours frequently adapt and grow back after treatment?

“It could also help understanding of how our hormone system, our immune defences, perfectly adapt to frequent challenges and keep us well, and it has future implications for creating new hypotheses about drug addiction and brain neuron signalling adaptation.”

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

The topological requirements for robust perfect adaptation in networks of any size by Robyn P. Araujo & Lance A. Liotta. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1757 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04151-6 Published: 01 May 2018

This paper is open access.

Better hair dyes with graphene and a cautionary note

Beauty products aren’t usually the first applications that come to mind when discussing graphene or any other research and development (R&D) as I learned when teaching a course a few years ago. But research and development  in that field are imperative as every company is scrambling for a short-lived competitive advantage for a truly new products or a perceived competitive advantage in a field where a lot of products are pretty much the same.

This March 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes graphene as a potential hair dye,

Graphene, a naturally black material, could provide a new strategy for dyeing hair in difficult-to-create dark shades. And because it’s a conductive material, hair dyed with graphene might also be less prone to staticky flyaways. Now, researchers have put it to the test. In an article published March 15 [2018] in the journal Chem, they used sheets of graphene to make a dye that adheres to the surface of hair, forming a coating that is resistant to at least 30 washes without the need for chemicals that open up and damage the hair cuticle.

Courtesy: Northwestern University

A March 15, 2018 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, fills in more the of the story,

Most permanent hair dyes used today are harmful to hair. “Your hair is covered in these cuticle scales like the scales of a fish, and people have to use ammonia or organic amines to lift the scales and allow dye molecules to get inside a lot quicker,” says senior author Jiaxing Huang, a materials scientist at Northwestern University. But lifting the cuticle makes the strands of the hair more brittle, and the damage is only exacerbated by the hydrogen peroxide that is used to trigger the reaction that synthesizes the dye once the pigment molecules are inside the hair.

These problems could theoretically be solved by a dye that coats rather than penetrates the hair. “However, the obvious problem of coating-based dyes is that they tend to wash out very easily,” says Huang. But when he and his team coated samples of human hair with a solution of graphene sheets, they were able to turn platinum blond hair black and keep it that way for at least 30 washes–the number necessary for a hair dye to be considered “permanent.”

This effectiveness has to do with the structure of graphene: it’s made of up thin, flexible sheets that can adapt to uneven surfaces. “Imagine a piece of paper. A business card is very rigid and doesn’t flex by itself. But if you take a much bigger sheet of newspaper–if you still can find one nowadays–it can bend easily. This makes graphene sheets a good coating material,” he says. And once the coating is formed, the graphene sheets are particularly good at keeping out water during washes, which keeps the water from eroding both the graphene and the polymer binder that the team also added to the dye solution to help with adhesion.

The graphene dye has additional advantages. Each coated hair is like a little wire in that it is able to conduct heat and electricity. This means that it’s easy for graphene-dyed hair to dissipate static electricity, eliminating the problem of flyaways on dry winter days. The graphene flakes are large enough that they won’t absorb through the skin like other dye molecules. And although graphene is typically black, its precursor, graphene oxide, is light brown. But the color of graphene oxide can be gradually darkened with heat or chemical reactions, meaning that this dye could be used for a variety of shades or even for an ombre effect.

What Huang thinks is particularly striking about this application of graphene is that it takes advantage of graphene’s most obvious property. “In many potential graphene applications, the black color of graphene is somewhat undesirable and something of a sore point,” he says. Here, though, it’s applied to a field where creating dark colors has historically been a problem.

The graphene used for hair dye also doesn’t need to be of the same high quality as it does for other applications. “For hair dye, the most important property is graphene being black. You can have graphene that is too lousy for higher-end electronic applications, but it’s perfectly okay for this. So I think this application can leverage the current graphene product as is, and that’s why I think that this could happen a lot sooner than many of the other proposed applications,” he says.

Making it happen is his next goal. He hopes to get funding to continue the research and make these dyes a reality for the people whose lives they would improve. “This is an idea that was inspired by curiosity. It was very fun to do, but it didn’t sound very big and noble when we started working on it,” he says. “But after we deep-dived into studying hair dyes, we realized that, wow, this is actually not at all a small problem. And it’s one that graphene could really help to solve.”

Northwestern University’s Amanda Morris also wrote a March 15, 2018 news release (it’s repetitive but there are some interesting new details; Note: Links have been removed),

It’s an issue that has plagued the beauty industry for more than a century: Dying hair too often can irreparably damage your silky strands.

Now a Northwestern University team has used materials science to solve this age-old problem. The team has leveraged super material graphene to develop a new hair dye that is less harmful [emphasis mine], non-damaging and lasts through many washes without fading. Graphene’s conductive nature also opens up new opportunities for hair, such as turning it into in situ electrodes or integrating it with wearable electronic devices.

Dying hair might seem simple and ordinary, but it’s actually a sophisticated chemical process. Called the cuticle, the outermost layer of a hair is made of cells that overlap in a scale-like pattern. Commercial dyes work by using harsh chemicals, such as ammonia and bleach, to first pry open the cuticle scales to allow colorant molecules inside and then trigger a reaction inside the hair to produce more color. Not only does this process cause hair to become more fragile, some of the small molecules are also quite toxic.

Huang and his team bypassed harmful chemicals altogether by leveraging the natural geometry of graphene sheets. While current hair dyes use a cocktail of small molecules that work by chemically altering the hair, graphene sheets are soft and flexible, so they wrap around each hair for an even coat. Huang’s ink formula also incorporates edible, non-toxic polymer binders to ensure that the graphene sticks — and lasts through at least 30 washes, which is the commercial requirement for permanent hair dye. An added bonus: graphene is anti-static, so it keeps winter-weather flyaways to a minimum.

“It’s similar to the difference between a wet paper towel and a tennis ball,” Huang explained, comparing the geometry of graphene to that of other black pigment particles, such as carbon black or iron oxide, which can only be used in temporary hair dyes. “The paper towel is going to wrap and stick much better. The ball-like particles are much more easily removed with shampoo.”

This geometry also contributes to why graphene is a safer alternative. Whereas small molecules can easily be inhaled or pass through the skin barrier, graphene is too big to enter the body. “Compared to those small molecules used in current hair dyes, graphene flakes are humongous,” said Huang, who is a member of Northwestern’s International Institute of Nanotechnology.

Ever since graphene — the two-dimensional network of carbon atoms — burst onto the science scene in 2004, the possibilities for the promising material have seemed nearly endless. With its ultra-strong and lightweight structure, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices. But development of those applications often require graphene materials to be as structurally perfect as possible in order to achieve extraordinary electrical, mechanical or thermal properties.

The most important graphene property for Huang’s hair dye, however, is simply its color: black. So Huang’s team used graphene oxide, an imperfect version of graphene that is a cheaper, more available oxidized derivative.

“Our hair dye solves a real-world problem without relying on very high-quality graphene, which is not easy to make,” Huang said. “Obviously more work needs to be done, but I feel optimistic about this application.”

Still, future versions of the dye could someday potentially leverage graphene’s notable properties, including its highly conductive nature.

“People could apply this dye to make hair conductive on the surface,” Huang said. “It could then be integrated with wearable electronics or become a conductive probe. We are only limited by our imagination.”

So far, Huang has developed graphene-based hair dyes in multiple shades of brown and black. Next, he plans to experiment with more colors.

Interestingly, the tiny note of caution”less harmful” doesn’t appear in the Cell Press news release. Never fear, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University) has written a March 20, 2018 essay on The Conversation suggesting a little further investigation (Note: Links have been removed),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

Tiny materials, potentially bigger problems

Engineered nanomaterials like graphene and graphene oxide (the particular form used in the dye experiments) aren’t necessarily harmful. But nanomaterials can behave in unusual ways that depend on particle size, shape, chemistry and application. Because of this, researchers have long been cautious about giving them a clean bill of health without first testing them extensively. And while a large body of research to date doesn’t indicate graphene is particularly dangerous, neither does it suggest it’s completely safe.

A quick search of scientific papers over the past few years shows that, since 2004, over 2,000 studies have been published that mention graphene toxicity; nearly 500 were published in 2017 alone.

This growing body of research suggests that if graphene gets into your body or the environment in sufficient quantities, it could cause harm. A 2016 review, for instance, indicated that graphene oxide particles could result in lung damage at high doses (equivalent to around 0.7 grams of inhaled material). Another review published in 2017 suggested that these materials could affect the biology of some plants and algae, as well as invertebrates and vertebrates toward the lower end of the ecological pyramid. The authors of the 2017 study concluded that research “unequivocally confirms that graphene in any of its numerous forms and derivatives must be approached as a potentially hazardous material.”

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

Unfortunately, graphene-based hair dyes tick both of these boxes. Used in this way, the substance is potentially inhalable (especially with spray-on products) and ingestible through careless use. It’s also almost guaranteed that excess graphene-containing dye will wash down the drain and into the environment.

Undermining other efforts?

I was alerted to just how counterproductive such headlines can be by my colleague Tim Harper, founder of G2O Water Technologies – a company that uses graphene oxide-coated membranes to treat wastewater. Like many companies in this area, G2O has been working to use graphene responsibly by minimizing the amount of graphene that ends up released to the environment.

Yet as Tim pointed out to me, if people are led to believe “that bunging a few grams of graphene down the drain every time you dye your hair is OK, this invalidates all the work we are doing making sure the few nanograms of graphene on our membranes stay put.” Many companies that use nanomaterials are trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to justify the time and expense of being responsible when someone else’s more cavalier actions undercut your efforts.

Overpromising results and overlooking risk

This is where researchers and their institutions need to move beyond an “economy of promises” that spurs on hyperbole and discourages caution, and think more critically about how their statements may ultimately undermine responsible and beneficial development of a technology. They may even want to consider using guidelines, such as the Principles for Responsible Innovation developed by the organization Society Inside, for instance, to guide what they do and say.

If you have time, I encourage you to read Andrew’s piece in its entirety.

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

Multifunctional Graphene Hair Dye by Chong Luo, Lingye Zhou, Kevin Chiou, and Jiaxing Huang. Chem DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2018.02.02 Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof

This paper appears to be open access.

*Two paragraphs (repetitions) were deleted from the excerpt of Dr. Andrew Maynard’s essay on August 14, 2018

Announcing the ‘memtransistor’

Yet another advance toward ‘brainlike’ computing (how many times have I written this or a variation thereof in the last 10 years? See: Dexter Johnson’s take on the situation at the end of this post): Northwestern University announced their latest memristor research in a February 21, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Computer algorithms might be performing brain-like functions, such as facial recognition and language translation, but the computers themselves have yet to operate like brains.

“Computers have separate processing and memory storage units, whereas the brain uses neurons to perform both functions,” said Northwestern University’s Mark C. Hersam. “Neural networks can achieve complicated computation with significantly lower energy consumption compared to a digital computer.”

A February 21, 2018 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about the latest work from this team,

In recent years, researchers have searched for ways to make computers more neuromorphic, or brain-like, in order to perform increasingly complicated tasks with high efficiency. Now Hersam, a Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, and his team are bringing the world closer to realizing this goal.

The research team has developed a novel device called a “memtransistor,” which operates much like a neuron by performing both memory and information processing. With combined characteristics of a memristor and transistor, the memtransistor also encompasses multiple terminals that operate more similarly to a neural network.

Supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation, the research was published online today, February 22 [2018], in Nature. Vinod K. Sangwan and Hong-Sub Lee, postdoctoral fellows advised by Hersam, served as the paper’s co-first authors.

The memtransistor builds upon work published in 2015, in which Hersam, Sangwan, and their collaborators used single-layer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) to create a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor for fast, reliable digital memory storage. Memristor, which is short for “memory resistors,” are resistors in a current that “remember” the voltage previously applied to them. Typical memristors are two-terminal electronic devices, which can only control one voltage channel. By transforming it into a three-terminal device, Hersam paved the way for memristors to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems, such as neuromorphic computing.

To develop the memtransistor, Hersam’s team again used atomically thin MoS2 with well-defined grain boundaries, which influence the flow of current. Similar to the way fibers are arranged in wood, atoms are arranged into ordered domains – called “grains” – within a material. When a large voltage is applied, the grain boundaries facilitate atomic motion, causing a change in resistance.

“Because molybdenum disulfide is atomically thin, it is easily influenced by applied electric fields,” Hersam explained. “This property allows us to make a transistor. The memristor characteristics come from the fact that the defects in the material are relatively mobile, especially in the presence of grain boundaries.”

But unlike his previous memristor, which used individual, small flakes of MoS2, Hersam’s memtransistor makes use of a continuous film of polycrystalline MoS2 that comprises a large number of smaller flakes. This enabled the research team to scale up the device from one flake to many devices across an entire wafer.

“When length of the device is larger than the individual grain size, you are guaranteed to have grain boundaries in every device across the wafer,” Hersam said. “Thus, we see reproducible, gate-tunable memristive responses across large arrays of devices.”

After fabricating memtransistors uniformly across an entire wafer, Hersam’s team added additional electrical contacts. Typical transistors and Hersam’s previously developed memristor each have three terminals. In their new paper, however, the team realized a seven-terminal device, in which one terminal controls the current among the other six terminals.

“This is even more similar to neurons in the brain,” Hersam said, “because in the brain, we don’t usually have one neuron connected to only one other neuron. Instead, one neuron is connected to multiple other neurons to form a network. Our device structure allows multiple contacts, which is similar to the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Next, Hersam and his team are working to make the memtransistor faster and smaller. Hersam also plans to continue scaling up the device for manufacturing purposes.

“We believe that the memtransistor can be a foundational circuit element for new forms of neuromorphic computing,” he said. “However, making dozens of devices, as we have done in our paper, is different than making a billion, which is done with conventional transistor technology today. Thus far, we do not see any fundamental barriers that will prevent further scale up of our approach.”

The researchers have made this illustration available,

Caption: This is the memtransistor symbol overlaid on an artistic rendering of a hypothetical circuit layout in the shape of a brain. Credit; Hersam Research Group

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

Multi-terminal memtransistors from polycrystalline monolayer molybdenum disulfide by Vinod K. Sangwan, Hong-Sub Lee, Hadallia Bergeron, Itamar Balla, Megan E. Beck, Kan-Sheng Chen, & Mark C. Hersam. Nature volume 554, pages 500–504 (22 February 2018 doi:10.1038/nature25747 Published online: 21 February 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

The team’s earlier work referenced in the news release was featured here in an April 10, 2015 posting.

Dexter Johnson

From a Feb. 23, 2018 posting by Dexter Johnson on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

While this all seems promising, one of the big shortcomings in neuromorphic computing has been that it doesn’t mimic the brain in a very important way. In the brain, for every neuron there are a thousand synapses—the electrical signal sent between the neurons of the brain. This poses a problem because a transistor only has a single terminal, hardly an accommodating architecture for multiplying signals.

Now researchers at Northwestern University, led by Mark Hersam, have developed a new device that combines memristors—two-terminal non-volatile memory devices based on resistance switching—with transistors to create what Hersam and his colleagues have dubbed a “memtransistor” that performs both memory storage and information processing.

This most recent research builds on work that Hersam and his team conducted back in 2015 in which the researchers developed a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor that operated like a kind of synapse.

While this work was recognized as mimicking the low-power computing of the human brain, critics didn’t really believe that it was acting like a neuron since it could only transmit a signal from one artificial neuron to another. This was far short of a human brain that is capable of making tens of thousands of such connections.

“Traditional memristors are two-terminal devices, whereas our memtransistors combine the non-volatility of a two-terminal memristor with the gate-tunability of a three-terminal transistor,” said Hersam to IEEE Spectrum. “Our device design accommodates additional terminals, which mimic the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Hersam believes that these unique attributes of these multi-terminal memtransistors are likely to present a range of new opportunities for non-volatile memory and neuromorphic computing.

If you have the time and the interest, Dexter’s post provides more context,