Tag Archives: Weizmann Institute of Science

Synthetic human embryos—what now? (2 of 2)

The term they’re using in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s (Israel) announcement is “a generally accurate human embryo model.” This is in contrast to previous announcements including the one from the University of Cambridge team highlighted in Part 1.

From a September 6, 2023 news item on phys.org, Note: A link has been removed,

A research team headed by Prof. Jacob Hanna at the Weizmann Institute of Science has created complete models of human embryos from stem cells cultured in the lab—and managed to grow them outside the womb up to day 14. As reported today [September 6, 2023] in Nature, these synthetic embryo models had all the structures and compartments characteristic of this stage, including the placenta, yolk sac, chorionic sac and other external tissues that ensure the models’ dynamic and adequate growth.

Cellular aggregates derived from human stem cells in previous studies could not be considered genuinely accurate human embryo models, because they lacked nearly all the defining hallmarks of a post-implantation embryo. In particular, they failed to contain several cell types that are essential to the embryo’s development, such as those that form the placenta and the chorionic sac. In addition, they did not have the structural organization characteristic of the embryo and revealed no dynamic ability to progress to the next developmental stage.

Given their authentic complexity, the human embryo models obtained by Hanna’s group may provide an unprecedented opportunity to shed new light on the embryo’s mysterious beginnings. Little is known about the early embryo because it is so difficult to study, for both ethical and technical reasons, yet its initial stages are crucial to its future development. During these stages, the clump of cells that implants itself in the womb on the seventh day of its existence becomes, within three to four weeks, a well-structured embryo that already contains all the body organs.

“The drama is in the first month, the remaining eight months of pregnancy are mainly lots of growth,” Hanna says. “But that first month is still largely a black box. Our stem cell–derived human embryo model offers an ethical and accessible way of peering into this box. It closely mimics the development of a real human embryo, particularly the emergence of its exquisitely fine architecture.”

A stem cell–derived human embryo model at a developmental stage equivalent to that of a day 14 embryo. The model has all the compartments that define this stage: the yolk sac (yellow) and the part that will become the embryo itself, topped by the amnion (blue) – all enveloped by cells that will become the placenta (pink) Courtesy: Weizmann Institute of Science

A September 6, 2023 Weizmann Institute of Science press release, which originated the news item, offers a wealth of detail, Note: Links have been removed,

Letting the embryo model say “Go!”

Hanna’s team built on their previous experience in creating synthetic stem cell–based models of mouse embryos. As in that research, the scientists made no use of fertilized eggs or a womb. Rather, they started out with human cells known as pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to differentiate into many, though not all, cell types. Some were derived from adult skin cells that had been reverted to “stemness.” Others were the progeny of human stem cell lines that had been cultured for years in the lab.

The researchers then used Hanna’s recently developed method to reprogram pluripotent stem cells so as to turn the clock further back: to revert these cells to an even earlier state – known as the naïve state – in which they are capable of becoming anything, that is, specializing into any type of cell. This stage corresponds to day 7 of the natural human embryo, around the time it implants itself in the womb. Hanna’s team had in fact been the first to start describing methods to generate human naïve stem cells, back in 2013; they continued to improve these methods, which stand at the heart of the current project, over the years.

The scientists divided the cells into three groups. The cells intended to develop into the embryo were left as is. The cells in each of the other groups were treated only with chemicals, without any need for genetic modification, so as to turn on certain genes, which was intended to cause these cells to differentiate toward one of three tissue types needed to sustain the embryo: placenta, yolk sac or the extraembryonic mesoderm membrane that ultimately creates the chorionic sac.

Soon after being mixed together under optimized, specifically developed conditions, the cells formed clumps, about 1 percent of which self-organized into complete embryo-like structures. “An embryo is self-driven by definition; we don’t need to tell it what to do – we must only unleash its internally encoded potential,” Hanna says. “It’s critical to mix in the right kinds of cells at the beginning, which can only be derived from naïve stem cells that have no developmental restrictions. Once you do that, the embryo-like model itself says, ‘Go!’”

The stem cell–based embryo-like structures (termed SEMs) developed normally outside the womb for 8 days, reaching a developmental stage equivalent to day 14 in human embryonic development. That’s the point at which natural embryos acquire the internal structures that enable them to proceed to the next stage: developing the progenitors of body organs.

Complete human embryo models match classic diagrams in terms of structure and cell identity

When the researchers compared the inner organization of their stem cell–derived embryo models with illustrations and microscopic anatomy sections in classical embryology atlases from the 1960s, they found an uncanny structural resemblance between the models and the natural human embryos at the corresponding stage. Every compartment and supporting structure was not only there, but in the right place, size and shape. Even the cells that make the hormone used in pregnancy testing were there and active: When the scientists applied secretions from these cells to a commercial pregnancy test, it came out positive.

In fact, the study has already produced a finding that may open a new direction of research into early pregnancy failure. The researchers discovered that if the embryo is not enveloped by placenta-forming cells in the right manner at day 3 of the protocol (corresponding to day 10 in natural embryonic development), its internal structures, such as the yolk sac, fail to properly develop.

“An embryo is not static. It must have the right cells in the right organization, and it must be able to progress – it’s about being and becoming,” Hanna says. “Our complete embryo models will help researchers address the most basic questions about what determines its proper growth.”

This ethical approach to unlocking the mysteries of the very first stages of embryonic development could open numerous research paths. It might help reveal the causes of many birth defects and types of infertility. It could also lead to new technologies for growing transplant tissues and organs. And it could offer a way around experiments that cannot be performed on live embryos – for example, determining the effects of exposure to drugs or other substances on fetal development.

For people who are visually inclined, there are two videos embedded in the September 6, 2023 Weizmann Institute of Science press release.

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

Complete human day 14 post-implantation embryo models from naïve ES cells by Bernardo Oldak, Emilie Wildschutz, Vladyslav Bondarenko, Mehmet-Yunus Comar, Cheng Zhao, Alejandro Aguilera-Castrejon, Shadi Tarazi, Sergey Viukov, Thi Xuan Ai Pham, Shahd Ashouokhi, Dmitry Lokshtanov, Francesco Roncato, Eitan Ariel, Max Rose, Nir Livnat, Tom Shani, Carine Joubran, Roni Cohen, Yoseph Addadi, Muriel Chemla, Merav Kedmi, Hadas Keren-Shaul, Vincent Pasque, Sophie Petropoulos, Fredrik Lanner, Noa Novershtern & Jacob H. Hanna. Nature (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06604-5 Published: 06 September 2023

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for the question I asked in the head “what now?” I have absolutely no idea.

Digital aromas? And a potpourri of ‘scents and sensibility’

Mmm… smelly books. Illustration by Dorothy Woodend.[downloaded from https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2020/11/19/Smell-More-Important-Than-Ever/]

I don’t get to post about scent as often as I would like, although I have some pretty interesting items here, those links to follow towards of this post).

Digital aromas

This Nov. 11, 2020 Weizmann Institute of Science press release (also on EurekAlert published on Nov. 19, 2020) from Israel gladdened me,

Fragrances – promising mystery, intrigue and forbidden thrills – are blended by master perfumers, their recipes kept secret. In a new study on the sense of smell, Weizmann Institute of Science researchers have managed to strip much of the mystery from even complex blends of odorants, not by uncovering their secret ingredients, but by recording and mapping how they are perceived. The scientists can now predict how any complex odorant will smell from its molecular structure alone. This study may not only revolutionize the closed world of perfumery, but eventually lead to the ability to digitize and reproduce smells on command. The proposed framework for odors, created by neurobiologists, computer scientists, and a master-perfumer, and funded by a European initiative [NanoSmell] for Future Emerging Technologies (FET-OPEN), was published in Nature.

“The challenge of plotting smells in an organized and logical manner was first proposed by Alexander Graham Bell [emphasis mine] over 100 years ago,” says Prof. Noam Sobel of the Institute’s Neurobiology Department. Bell threw down the gauntlet: “We have very many different kinds of smells, all the way from the odor of violets [emphasis mine] and roses up to asafoetida. But until you can measure their likenesses and differences you can have no science of odor.” This challenge had remained unresolved until now.

This century-old challenge indeed highlighted the difficulty in fitting odors into a logical system: There are millions of odor receptors in our noses, consisting hundreds of different subtypes, each shaped to detect particular molecular features. Our brains potentially perceive millions of smells in which these single molecules are mixed and blended at varying intensities. Thus, mapping this information has been a challenge. But Sobel and his colleagues, led by graduate student Aharon Ravia and Dr. Kobi Snitz, found there is an underlying order to odors. They reached this conclusion by adopting Bell’s concept – namely to describe not the smells themselves, but rather the relationships between smells as they are perceived.

In a series of experiments, the team presented volunteer participants with pairs of smells and asked them to rate these smells on how similar the two seemed to one another, ranking the pairs on a similarity scale ranging from “identical” to “extremely different.” In the initial experiment, the team created 14 aromatic blends, each made of about 10 molecular components, and presented them two at a time to nearly 200 volunteers, so that by the end of the experiment each volunteer had evaluated 95 pairs.

To translate the resulting database of thousands of reported perceptual similarity ratings into a useful layout, the team refined a physicochemical measure they had previously developed. In this calculation, each odorant is represented by a single vector that combines 21 physical measures (polarity, molecular weight, etc.). To compare two odorants, each represented by a vector, the angle between the vectors is taken to reflect the perceptual similarity between them. A pair of odorants with a low angle distance between them are predicted similar, those with high angle distance between them are predicted different.

To test this model, the team first applied it to data collected by others, primarily a large study in odor discrimination by Bushdid [C. Bushdid] and colleagues from the lab of Prof. Leslie Vosshall at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. The Weizmann team found that their model and measurements accurately predicted the Bushdid results: Odorants with low angle distance between them were hard to discriminate; odors with high angle distance between them were easy to discriminate. Encouraged by the model accurately predicting data collected by others, the team continued to test for themselves.

The team concocted new scents and invited a fresh group of volunteers to smell them, again using their method to predict how this set of participants would rate the pairs – at first 14 new blends and then, in the next experiment, 100 blends. The model performed exceptionally well. In fact, the results were in the same ballpark as those for color perception – sensory information that is grounded in well-defined parameters. This was especially surprising considering each individual likely has a unique complement of smell receptor subtypes, which can vary by as much as 30% across individuals.

Because the “smell map,” [emphasis mine] or “metric” predicts the similarity of any two odorants, it can also be used to predict how an odorant will ultimately smell. For example, any novel odorant that is within 0.05 radians or less from banana will smell exactly like banana. As the novel odorant gains distance from banana, it will smell banana-ish, and beyond a certain distance, it will stop resembling banana.

The team is now developing a web-based tool. This set of tools not only predicts how a novel odorant will smell, but can also synthesize odorants by design. For example, one can take any perfume with a known set of ingredients, and using the map and metric, generate a new perfume with no components in common with the original perfume, but with exactly the same smell. Such creations in color vision, namely non-overlapping spectral compositions that generate the same perceived color, are called color metamers, and here the team generated olfactory metamers.

The study’s findings are a significant step toward realizing a vision of Prof. David Harel of the Computer and Applied Mathematics Department, who also serves as Vice President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and who was a co-author of the study: Enabling computers to digitize and reproduce smells. In addition, of course, to being able to add realistic flower or sea aromas to your vacation pictures on social media, giving computers the ability to interpret odors in the way that humans do could have an impact on environmental monitoring and the biomedical and food industries, to name a few. Still, master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, who is also a co-author of the study, remarks that he is not concerned for his profession just yet.

Sobel concludes: “100 years ago, Alexander Graham Bell posed a challenge. We have now answered it: The distance between rose and violet is 0.202 radians (they are remotely similar), the distance between violet and asafoetida is 0.5 radians (they are very different), and the difference between rose and asafoetida is 0.565 radians (they are even more different). We have converted odor percepts into numbers, and this should indeed advance the science of odor.”

I emphasized Alexander Graham Bell and the ‘smell map’ because I thought they were interesting and violets because they will be mentioned again later in this post.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (the proposed framework for odors),

A measure of smell enables the creation of olfactory metamers by Aharon Ravia, Kobi Snitz, Danielle Honigstein, Maya Finkel, Rotem Zirler, Ofer Perl, Lavi Secundo, Christophe Laudamiel, David Harel & Noam Sobel. Nature volume 588, pages 118–123 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2891-7 Published online: 11 November 2020 Journal Issue Date: 03 December 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Smelling like an old book

Some folks are missing the smell of bookstores and according to Dorothy Woodend’s Nov. 19, 2020 article for The Tyee, that longing has resulted in a perfume (Note: Links have been removed),

The news that Powell’s Books, Portland’s (Oregon, US) beloved bookstore, had released a signature scent was greeted with bemusement by some, confusion by others. But to me it made perfect scents. (Err, sense.) If you love something, I mean really love it, you love the way it smells.

Old books have a distinctive peppery aroma that draws bibliophiles like bears to honey. Some people are very specific about their book smells, preferring vintage Penguin paperbacks from the mid to late 1960s. Those orange spines aged like fine wine.

Powell’s created the scent after people complained about missing the smell of the store during lockdown. It got me thinking about how identity is often bound up with smell and, more widely, how smells belong to cultural, even historic moments.

Olfactory obsolescence can have weird side effects … . Memories of one’s grandfather smelling like pipe tobacco are pretty much now only a literary conceit. But pipe smoke isn’t the only dinosaur smell that is going extinct. Even in my lifetime, I remember the particular aroma of baseball cards and chalk dust.

Remember violets? Here’s more about Powell’s Unisex Fragrance (from Powell’s purchase webpage),

• Wood
• Violet
• Biblichor

Like the crimson rhododendrons in Rebecca, the heady fragrance of old paper creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility. Invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings, Powell’s by Powell’s delivers the wearer to a place of wonder, discovery, and magic heretofore only known in literature.

How to wear:
This scent contains the lives of countless heroes and heroines. Apply to the pulse points when seeking sensory succor or a brush with immortality.

• 1 ounce
• Glass bottle
• Limited-edition item available while supplies last

Shipping details:
Powell’s Unisex Fragrance ships separately and only in the contiguous United States [emphasis mine]. Special shipping rates apply.

Links: oPhone and heritage smells

Some years I was quite intrigued by the oPhone (scent by telephone) and wrote these: For the smell of it, a Feb. 14, 2014 posting, and Smelling Paris in New York (update on the oPhone), a June 18, 2014 posting. I haven’t found any updates about oPhone in my brief searches on the web.

There was a previous NANOSMELL (sigh, these projects have various approaches to capitalization) posting: Scented video games: a nanotechnology project in Europe published here in a May 27, 2016 posting.

More recently on the smell front, there was this May 22, 2017 posting, Preserving heritage smells (scents). FYI, the authors of the 2017 paper are part of the Odeuropa project described in the next subsection.

Context: NanoSmell and Odeuropa

Science funding is intimately linked to science policy. Examination of science funding can be useful for understanding some of the contrasts between how science is conducted in different jurisdictions, e.g., Europe and Canada.

Before launching into the two ‘scent’ projects, NanoSmell and Odeuropa, I’m offering a brief description of one of the European Union’s (EU) most comprehensive and substantive (many, many Euros) science funding initiatives.The latest iteration of this initiative has funded and is funding both NanoSmell and Odeuropa.

Horizon Europe

The initiative has gone under different names: Framework Programmes 1-7, then in 2014, it was called Horizon 2020 with its end date part of its name. The latest initiative, Horizon Europe is destined to start in 2021 and end in 2027.

The most recent Horizon Europe budget information I’ve been able to find is in this Nov. 10, 2020 article by Éanna Kelly and Goda Naujokaitytė for ScienceBusiness.net,

EU governments and the European Parliament on Tuesday [Nov. 10, 2020] afternoon announced an extra €4 billion will be added to the EU’s 2021-2027 research budget, following one-and-a-half days of intense negotiations in Brussels.

The deal, which still requires a final nod from parliament and member states, puts Brussels closer to implementing its gigantic €1.8 trillion budget and COVID-19 recovery package. [emphasis mine]

In all, a series of EU programmes gained an additional €15 billion. Among them, the student exchange programme Erasmus+ went up by €2.2 billion, health spending in EU4Health by €3.4 billion, and the InvestEU programme got an additional €1 billion.

Parliamentarians have been fighting to reverse cuts [emphasis mine] made to science and other investment programmes since July [2020], when EU leaders settled on €80.9 billion (at 2018 prices) for Horizon Europe, significantly less than €94.4 billion proposed by the European Commission.

“I am really proud that we fought – all six of us as a team,” said van Overtveldt [Johan Van Overtveldt, Belgian MEP {member of European Parliament} on the budget committee], pointing to the other budget MEPs who headed talks with the German Presidency of the Council. “You can take the term ‘fight’ literally. We had to fight for what we got.”

“We are all very proud of what we achieved, not for the parliament’s pride but in the interest of European citizens short-term and long-term,” van Overveldt said.

One of the most visible campaigners for science in the Parliament, MEP Christian Ehler, spokesman on Horizon Europe for the European Peoples’ Party, called the deal “a victory for researchers, scientists and citizens alike.” [emphasis mine]

The challenge now for negotiators will be to figure out how to divide extra funds [emphasis mine] within Horizon Europe fairly, with officials attached to public-private partnerships, the European Research Council, the new research missions, and the European Innovation Council all baying for more cash.

To sum up, in July 2020, legislators settled on the figure of €80.9 billion for science funding over the seven year period of 2021 – 2027 to administered by Horizon Europe. After fighting €4 billion was added for a total of €84.9 billion in research funding over the next seven years.

This is fascinating to me; I don’t recall ever seeing any mention of Canadian legislators arguing over how much money should be allocated to research in articles about the Canadian budget. The usual approach is treat the announcement as a fait accompli and a matter for celebration or intense criticism.

Smell of money?

All this talk of budgets and heritage smells has me thinking about the ‘smell of money’. What happens as money or currency becomes virtual rather than actual? And, what happened to the smell of Canadian money which is now made of plastic?

I haven’t found any answers to those questions but I did find an interesting June 14, 2012 article by Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.org titled, Sniffing out what money smells like. The focus is on money made of cotton and linen. One other note, this is not the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Marketplace television programme. This is a US programme from American Public Media (from the Markeplace.org FAQs webpage).

Now onto the funding for European smell research.


The Israeli researchers’ work was funded by Horizon 2020’s NanoSmell project which ran from Sept. 1, 2015 – August 31, 2019 and this was their objective (from the CORDIS NanoSmell project page),

“Despite years of promise, an odor-emitting component in devices such as televisions, phones, computers and more has yet to be developed. Two major obstacles in the way of such development are poor understanding of the olfactory code (the link between odorant structure, neural activity, and odor perception), and technical inability to emit odors in a reversible manner. Here we propose a novel multidisciplinary path to solving this basic scientific question (the code), and in doing so generate a solution to the technical limitation (controlled odor emission). The Bachelet lab will design DNA strands that assume a 3D structure that will specifically bind to a single type of olfactory receptor and induce signal transduction. These DNA-based “”artificial odorants”” will be tagged with a nanoparticle that changes their conformation in response to an external electromagnetic field. Thus, we will have in hand an artificial odorant that is remotely switchable. The Hansson lab will use tissue culture cells expressing insect olfactory receptors, functional imaging, and behavioral tests to validate the function and selectivity of these switchable odorants in insects. The Carleton lab will use imaging in order to investigate the patterns of neural activity induced by these artificial odorants in rodents. The Sobel lab will apply these artificial odorants to the human olfactory system, [emphasis mine] and measure perception and neural activity following switching the artificial smell on and off. Finally, given a potential role for olfactory receptors in skin, the Del Rio lab will test the efficacy of these artificial odorants in promoting wound healing. At the basic science level, this approach may allow solving the combinatorial code of olfaction. At the technology level, beyond novel pharmacology, we will provide proof-of-concept for countless novel applications ranging from insect pest-control to odor-controlled environments and odor-emitting devices such as televisions, phones, and computers.” [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything on the NanoSmell Project Results page with links to any proof-of-concept publications or pilot projects for the applications mentioned. Mind you, I wouldn’t have recognized the Israeli team’s A measure of smell enables the creation of olfactory metamers as a ‘smell map’.


Remember the ‘heritage smells’ 2017 posting? The research paper listed there has two authors, both of whom form one of the groups (University College London; scroll down) associated with Odeuropa’s Horizon 2020 project announced in a Nov. 17, 2020 posting by the project lead, Inger Leemans on the Odeuropa website (Note: A link has been removed),

The Odeuropa consortium is very proud to announce that it has been awarded a €2.8M grant from the EU Horizon 2020 programme for the project, “ODEUROPA: Negotiating Olfactory and Sensory Experiences in Cultural Heritage Practice and Research”.Smell is an urgent topic which is fast gaining attention in different communities. Amongst the questions the Odeuropa project will focus on are: what are the key scents, fragrant spaces, and olfactory practices that have shaped our cultures? How can we extract sensory data from large-scale digital text and image collections? How can we represent smell in all its facets in a database? How should we safeguard our olfactory heritage? And — why should we? …

The project bundles an array of academic expertise from across many disciplines—history, art history, computational linguistics, computer vision, semantic web, museology, heritage science, and chemistry, with further expertise from cultural heritage institutes, intangible heritage organisations, policy makers, and the creative and fragrance industries.

I’m glad to see this interest in scent, heritage, communication, and more. Perhaps one day we’ll see similar interest here in Canada. Subtle does not mean unimportant, eh?

Gold’s origin in the universe due to cosmic collision

An hypothesis for gold’s origins was first mentioned here in a May 26, 2016 posting,

The link between this research and my side project on gold nanoparticles is a bit tenuous but this work on the origins for gold and other precious metals being found in the stars is so fascinating and I’m determined to find a connection.

An artist's impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

An artist’s impression of two neutron stars colliding. (Credit: Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital, Inc.) Courtesy: Kavli Foundation

From a May 19, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The origin of many of the most precious elements on the periodic table, such as gold, silver and platinum, has perplexed scientists for more than six decades. Now a recent study has an answer, evocatively conveyed in the faint starlight from a distant dwarf galaxy.

In a roundtable discussion, published today [May 19, 2016?], The Kavli Foundation spoke to two of the researchers behind the discovery about why the source of these heavy elements, collectively called “r-process” elements, has been so hard to crack.

From the Spring 2016 Kavli Foundation webpage hosting the  “Galactic ‘Gold Mine’ Explains the Origin of Nature’s Heaviest Elements” Roundtable ,

Astronomers studying a galaxy called Reticulum II have just discovered that its stars contain whopping amounts of these metals—collectively known as “r-process” elements (See “What is the R-Process?”). Of the 10 dwarf galaxies that have been similarly studied so far, only Reticulum II bears such strong chemical signatures. The finding suggests some unusual event took place billions of years ago that created ample amounts of heavy elements and then strew them throughout the galaxy’s reservoir of gas and dust. This r-process-enriched material then went on to form Reticulum II’s standout stars.

Based on the new study, from a team of researchers at the Kavli Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the unusual event in Reticulum II was likely the collision of two, ultra-dense objects called neutron stars. Scientists have hypothesized for decades that these collisions could serve as a primary source for r-process elements, yet the idea had lacked solid observational evidence. Now armed with this information, scientists can further hope to retrace the histories of galaxies based on the contents of their stars, in effect conducting “stellar archeology.”

Researchers have confirmed the hypothesis according to an Oct. 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Gold’s origin in the Universe has finally been confirmed, after a gravitational wave source was seen and heard for the first time ever by an international collaboration of researchers, with astronomers at the University of Warwick playing a leading role.

Members of Warwick’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Group, Professor Andrew Levan, Dr Joe Lyman, Dr Sam Oates and Dr Danny Steeghs, led observations which captured the light of two colliding neutron stars, shortly after being detected through gravitational waves – perhaps the most eagerly anticipated phenomenon in modern astronomy.

Marina Koren’s Oct. 16, 2017 article for The Atlantic presents a richly evocative view (Note: Links have been removed),

Some 130 million years ago, in another galaxy, two neutron stars spiraled closer and closer together until they smashed into each other in spectacular fashion. The violent collision produced gravitational waves, cosmic ripples powerful enough to stretch and squeeze the fabric of the universe. There was a brief flash of light a million trillion times as bright as the sun, and then a hot cloud of radioactive debris. The afterglow hung for several days, shifting from bright blue to dull red as the ejected material cooled in the emptiness of space.

Astronomers detected the aftermath of the merger on Earth on August 17. For the first time, they could see the source of universe-warping forces Albert Einstein predicted a century ago. Unlike with black-hole collisions, they had visible proof, and it looked like a bright jewel in the night sky.

But the merger of two neutron stars is more than fireworks. It’s a factory.

Using infrared telescopes, astronomers studied the spectra—the chemical composition of cosmic objects—of the collision and found that the plume ejected by the merger contained a host of newly formed heavy chemical elements, including gold, silver, platinum, and others. Scientists estimate the amount of cosmic bling totals about 10,000 Earth-masses of heavy elements.

I’m not sure exactly what this image signifies but it did accompany Koren’s article so presumably it’s a representation of colliding neutron stars,

NSF / LIGO / Sonoma State University /A. Simonnet. Downloaded from: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/10/the-making-of-cosmic-bling/543030/

An Oct. 16, 2017 University of Warwick press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item on phys.org, provides more detail,

Huge amounts of gold, platinum, uranium and other heavy elements were created in the collision of these compact stellar remnants, and were pumped out into the universe – unlocking the mystery of how gold on wedding rings and jewellery is originally formed.

The collision produced as much gold as the mass of the Earth. [emphasis mine]

This discovery has also confirmed conclusively that short gamma-ray bursts are directly caused by the merging of two neutron stars.

The neutron stars were very dense – as heavy as our Sun yet only 10 kilometres across – and they collided with each other 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, in a relatively old galaxy that was no longer forming many stars.

They drew towards each other over millions of light years, and revolved around each other increasingly quickly as they got closer – eventually spinning around each other five hundred times per second.

Their merging sent ripples through the fabric of space and time – and these ripples are the elusive gravitational waves spotted by the astronomers.

The gravitational waves were detected by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Adv-LIGO) on 17 August this year [2017], with a short duration gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi satellite just two seconds later.

This led to a flurry of observations as night fell in Chile, with a first report of a new source from the Swope 1m telescope.

Longstanding collaborators Professor Levan and Professor Nial Tanvir (from the University of Leicester) used the facilities of the European Southern Observatory to pinpoint the source in infrared light.

Professor Levan’s team was the first one to get observations of this new source with the Hubble Space Telescope. It comes from a galaxy called NGC 4993, 130 million light years away.

Andrew Levan, Professor in the Astronomy & Astrophysics group at the University of Warwick, commented: “Once we saw the data, we realised we had caught a new kind of astrophysical object. This ushers in the era of multi-messenger astronomy, it is like being able to see and hear for the first time.”

Dr Joe Lyman, who was observing at the European Southern Observatory at the time was the first to alert the community that the source was unlike any seen before.

He commented: “The exquisite observations obtained in a few days showed we were observing a kilonova, an object whose light is powered by extreme nuclear reactions. This tells us that the heavy elements, like the gold or platinum in jewellery are the cinders, forged in the billion degree remnants of a merging neutron star.”

Dr Samantha Oates added: “This discovery has answered three questions that astronomers have been puzzling for decades: what happens when neutron stars merge? What causes the short duration gamma-ray bursts? Where are the heavy elements, like gold, made? In the space of about a week all three of these mysteries were solved.”

Dr Danny Steeghs said: “This is a new chapter in astrophysics. We hope that in the next few years we will detect many more events like this. Indeed, in Warwick we have just finished building a telescope designed to do just this job, and we expect it to pinpoint these sources in this new era of multi-messenger astronomy”.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved in this work!

Many, many research teams were  involved. Here’s a sampling of their news releases which focus on their areas of research,

University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)


Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel)


Carnegie Institution for Science (US)


Northwestern University (US)


National Radio Astronomy Observatory (US)


Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (Germany)


Penn State (Pennsylvania State University; US)


University of California – Davis


The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) magazine, Science, has published seven papers on this research. Here’s an Oct. 16, 2017 AAAS news release with an overview of the papers,


I’m sure there are more news releases out there and that there will be many more papers published in many journals, so if this interests, I encourage you to keep looking.

Two final pieces I’d like to draw your attention to: one answers basic questions and another focuses on how artists knew what to draw when neutron stars collide.

Keith A Spencer’s Oct. 18, 2017 piece on salon.com answers a lot of basic questions for those of us who don’t have a background in astronomy. Here are a couple of examples,

What is a neutron star?

Okay, you know how atoms have protons, neutrons, and electrons in them? And you know how protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons are neutral?

Yeah, I remember that from watching Bill Nye as a kid.

Totally. Anyway, have you ever wondered why the negatively-charged electrons and the positively-charged protons don’t just merge into each other and form a neutral neutron? I mean, they’re sitting there in the atom’s nucleus pretty close to each other. Like, if you had two magnets that close, they’d stick together immediately.

I guess now that you mention it, yeah, it is weird.

Well, it’s because there’s another force deep in the atom that’s preventing them from merging.

It’s really really strong.

The only way to overcome this force is to have a huge amount of matter in a really hot, dense space — basically shove them into each other until they give up and stick together and become a neutron. This happens in very large stars that have been around for a while — the core collapses, and in the aftermath, the electrons in the star are so close to the protons, and under so much pressure, that they suddenly merge. There’s a big explosion and the outer material of the star is sloughed off.

Okay, so you’re saying under a lot of pressure and in certain conditions, some stars collapse and become big balls of neutrons?

Pretty much, yeah.

So why do the neutrons just stick around in a huge ball? Aren’t they neutral? What’s keeping them together? 

Gravity, mostly. But also the strong nuclear force, that aforementioned weird strong force. This isn’t something you’d encounter on a macroscopic scale — the strong force only really works at the type of distances typified by particles in atomic nuclei. And it’s different, fundamentally, than the electromagnetic force, which is what makes magnets attract and repel and what makes your hair stick up when you rub a balloon on it.

So these neutrons in a big ball are bound by gravity, but also sticking together by virtue of the strong nuclear force. 

So basically, the new ball of neutrons is really small, at least, compared to how heavy it is. That’s because the neutrons are all clumped together as if this neutron star is one giant atomic nucleus — which it kinda is. It’s like a giant atom made only of neutrons. If our sun were a neutron star, it would be less than 20 miles wide. It would also not be something you would ever want to get near.

Got it. That means two giant balls of neutrons that weighed like, more than our sun and were only ten-ish miles wide, suddenly smashed into each other, and in the aftermath created a black hole, and we are just now detecting it on Earth?

Exactly. Pretty weird, no?

Spencer does a good job of gradually taking you through increasingly complex explanations.

For those with artistic interests, Neel V. Patel tries to answer a question about how artists knew what draw when neutron stars collided in his Oct. 18, 2017 piece for Slate.com,

All of these things make this discovery easy to marvel at and somewhat impossible to picture. Luckily, artists have taken up the task of imagining it for us, which you’ve likely seen if you’ve already stumbled on coverage of the discovery. Two bright, furious spheres of light and gas spiraling quickly into one another, resulting in a massive swell of lit-up matter along with light and gravitational waves rippling off speedily in all directions, towards parts unknown. These illustrations aren’t just alluring interpretations of a rare phenomenon; they are, to some extent, the translation of raw data and numbers into a tangible visual that gives scientists and nonscientists alike some way of grasping what just happened. But are these visualizations realistic? Is this what it actually looked like? No one has any idea. Which is what makes the scientific illustrators’ work all the more fascinating.

“My goal is to represent what the scientists found,” says Aurore Simmonet, a scientific illustrator based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. Even though she said she doesn’t have a rigorous science background (she certainly didn’t know what a kilonova was before being tasked to illustrate one), she also doesn’t believe that type of experience is an absolute necessity. More critical, she says, is for the artist to have an interest in the subject matter and in learning new things, as well as a capacity to speak directly to scientists about their work.

Illustrators like Simmonet usually start off work on an illustration by asking the scientist what’s the biggest takeaway a viewer should grasp when looking at a visual. Unfortunately, this latest discovery yielded a multitude of papers emphasizing different conclusions and highlights. With so many scientific angles, there’s a stark challenge in trying to cram every important thing into a single drawing.

Clearly, however, the illustrations needed to center around the kilonova. Simmonet loves colors, so she began by discussing with the researchers what kind of color scheme would work best. The smash of two neutron stars lends itself well to deep, vibrant hues. Simmonet and Robin Dienel at the Carnegie Institution for Science elected to use a wide array of colors and drew bright cracking to show pressure forming at the merging. Others, like Luis Calcada at the European Southern Observatory, limited the color scheme in favor of emphasizing the bright moment of collision and the signal waves created by the kilonova.

Animators have even more freedom to show the event, since they have much more than a single frame to play with. The Conceptual Image Lab at NASA’s [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Goddard Space Flight Center created a short video about the new findings, and lead animator Brian Monroe says the video he and his colleagues designed shows off the evolution of the entire process: the rising action, climax, and resolution of the kilonova event.

The illustrators try to adhere to what the likely physics of the event entailed, soliciting feedback from the scientists to make sure they’re getting it right. The swirling of gas, the direction of ejected matter upon impact, the reflection of light, the proportions of the objects—all of these things are deliberately framed such that they make scientific sense. …

Do take a look at Patel’s piece, if for no other reason than to see all of the images he has embedded there. You may recognize Aurore Simmonet’s name from the credit line in the second image I have embedded here.

Life-on-a-chip; protein synthesis could be possible with artificial cells

An Aug. 18, 2014 Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel) news release (also on EurekAlert but dated Aug. 19, 2014) describes an artificial cell system and its ability to synthesize protein,

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, but mimicking the intricate networks and dynamic interactions that are inherent to living cells is difficult to achieve outside the cell. Now, as published in Science, Weizmann Institute scientists have created an artificial, network-like cell system that is capable of reproducing the dynamic behavior of protein synthesis. This achievement is not only likely to help gain a deeper understanding of basic biological processes, but it may, in the future, pave the way toward controlling the synthesis of both naturally-occurring and synthetic proteins for a host of uses.

The system, designed by PhD students Eyal Karzbrun and Alexandra Tayar in the lab of Prof. Roy Bar-Ziv of the Weizmann Institute’s Materials and Interfaces Department, in collaboration with Prof. Vincent Noireaux of the University of Minnesota, comprises multiple compartments “etched” onto a biochip. These compartments – artificial cells, each a mere millionth of a meter in depth – are connected via thin capillary tubes, creating a network that allows the diffusion of biological substances throughout the system. Within each compartment, the researchers insert a cell genome – strands of DNA designed and controlled by the scientists themselves. In order to translate the genes into proteins, the scientists relinquished control to the bacterium E. coli: Filling the compartments with E. coli cell extract – a solution containing the entire bacterial protein-translating machinery, minus its DNA code – the scientists were able to sit back and observe the protein synthesis dynamics that emerged.

By coding two regulatory genes into the sequence, the scientists created a protein synthesis rate that was periodic, spontaneously switching from periods of being “on” to “off.” The amount of time each period lasted was determined by the geometry of the compartments. Such periodic behavior – a primitive version of cell cycle events – emerged in the system because the synthesized proteins could diffuse out of the compartment through the capillaries, mimicking natural protein turnover behavior in living cells. At the same time fresh nutrients were continuously replenished, diffusing into the compartment and enabling the protein synthesis reaction to continue indefinitely. “The artificial cell system, in which we can control the genetic content and protein dilution times, allows us to study the relation between gene network design and the emerging protein dynamics. This is quite difficult to do in a living system,” says Karzbrun. “The two-gene pattern we designed is a simple example of a cell network, but after proving the concept, we can now move forward to more complicated gene networks. One goal is to eventually design DNA content similar to a real genome that can be placed in the compartments. ”

The scientists then asked whether the artificial cells actually communicate and interact with one another like real cells. Indeed, they found that the synthesized proteins that diffused through the array of interconnected compartments were able to regulate genes and produce new proteins in compartments farther along the network. In fact, this system resembles the initial stages of morphogenesis – the biological process that governs the emergence of the body plan in embryonic development. “We observed that when we place a gene in a compartment at the edge of the array, it creates a diminishing protein concentration gradient; other compartments within the array can sense and respond to this gradient – similar to how morphogen concentration gradients diffuse through the cells and tissues of an embryo during early development. We are now working to expand the system and to introduce gene networks that will mimic pattern formation, such as the striped patterns that appear during fly embryogenesis,” explains Tayar.

With the artificial cell system, according to Bar-Ziv, one can, in principle, encode anything: “Genes are like Lego in which you can mix and match various components to produce different outcomes; you can take a regulatory element from E. coli that naturally controls gene X, and produce a known protein; or you can take the same regulatory element but connect it to gene Y instead to get different functions that do not naturally occur in nature. ” This research may, in the future, help advance the synthesis of such things as fuel, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the production of enzymes for industrial use, to name a few.

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

Programmable on-chip DNA compartments as artificial cells by Eyal Karzbrun, Alexandra M. Tayar, Vincent Noireaux,and Roy H. Bar-Ziv. Science 15 August 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6198 pp. 829-832 DOI: 10.1126/science.1255550

This paper is behind a paywall.

While trying to find more information about the work on artificial cells and the Weizmann Institute, I discovered a Canadian chapter of what is, in addition to being a scientific research institute in Israel, a worldwide organization. Here’s more from the Weizmann Institute Canada About us webpage,

Weizmann Canada is part of a worldwide network of supporting organizations for the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel.

The Weizmann Institute is one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary research institutions. Hundreds of scientists, laboratory technicians and research students embark on fascinating journeys into the unknown. Every day, these researchers attempt to push the limits of scientific knowledge, exploring the Earth’s mysteries and making the world a better place.

Since 1964, Canadian supporters have helped fund some of the world’s most talented scientists who are conducting cutting-edge research, which has a major impact on the world we live in.

Behind every scientist, there is a donor who has made it possible for them to carry out their groundbreaking research.

With over 1200 research projects, there are over 1200 ways in which you can support the Weizmann Institute.

As I noted earlier today in an Aug. 19, 2014 posting about 14nm computer chips and limits to computation, the question about limits can be applied to other areas of endeavour including the creation of artificial cell systems.

Montréal Neuro and one of Europe’s biggest research enterprises, the Human Brain Project

Its official title is the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital (Montréal Neuro) which is and has been, for several decades, an international centre for cutting edge neurological research. From the Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

The Neuro

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, The Neuro is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. The Neuro is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre.

Neuro researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. For more information, visit theneuro.com.

Nonetheless, it was a little surprising to see that ‘The Neuro’ is part one of the biggest research projects in history since it’s the European Union, which is bankrolling the project (see my posting about the Jan. 28, 2013 announcement of the winning FET Flagship Initatives). Here’s more information about the project, its lead researchers, and Canada’s role, from the news release,

The goal of the Human Brain Project is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations. The models offer the prospect of a new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies. On January 28 [2013], the European Commission supported this vision, announcing that it has selected the HBP as one of two projects to be funded through the new FET [Future and Emerging Technologies] Flagship Program.

Federating more than 80 European and international research institutions, the Human Brain Project is planned to last ten years (2013-2023). The cost is estimated at 1.19 billion euros. The project will also associate some important North American and Japanese partners. It will be coordinated at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University, Germany, and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

Canada’s role in this international project is through Dr. Alan Evans of the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University. His group has developed a high-performance computational platform for neuroscience (CBRAIN) and multi-site databasing technologies that will be used to assemble brain imaging data across the HBP. He is also collaborating with European scientists on the creation of ultra high-resolution 3D brain maps. «This ambitious project will integrate data across all scales, from molecules to whole-brain organization. It will have profound implications for our understanding of brain development in children and normal brain function, as well as for combatting brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease,» said Dr. Evans. “The MNI’s pioneering work on brain imaging technology has led to significant advances in our understanding of the brain and neurological disorders,” says Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the MNI. “I am proud that our expertise is a key contributor to this international program focused on improving quality of life worldwide.”

“The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is delighted to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Dr. Evans and his team. Their work on the CBRAIN infrastructure and this leading-edge HBP will allow the integration of Canadian neuroscientists into an eventual global brain project,” said Dr. Anthony Phillips, Scientific Director for the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction. “Congratulations to the Canadian and European researchers who will be working collaboratively towards the same goal which is to provide insights into neuroscience that will ultimately improve people’s health.”

“From mapping the sensory and motor cortices of the brain to pioneering work on the mechanisms of memory, McGill University has long been synonymous with world-class neuroscience research,” says Dr. Rose Goldstein, Vice-Principal (Research and International Relations). “The research of Dr. Evans and his team marks an exciting new chapter in our collective pursuit to unlock the potential of the human brain and the entire nervous system – a critical step that would not be possible without the generous support of the European Commission and the FET Flagship Program.”

Canada is not the only non-European Union country making an announcement about its role in this extraordinary project. There’s a Jan. 28, 2013 news release on EurekAlert touting Israel’s role,

The European Commission has chosen the Human Brain Project, in which the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is participating, as one of two Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship topics. The enterprise will receive funding of 1.19 billion euros over the next decade.

The project will bring together top scientists from around the world who will work on one of the great challenges of modern science: understanding the human brain. Participating from Israel will a team of eight scientists, led by Prof. Idan Segev of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University, Prof. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Dr. Mira Marcus-Kalish of Tel Aviv University.

More than 80 universities and research institutions in Europe and the world will be involved in the ten-year Human Brain Project, which will commence later this year and operate until the year 2023. The project will be centered at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, headed by Prof. Henry Markram, a former Israeli who was recruited ten years ago to the EPFL.

The participation of the Israeli scientists testifies to the leading role that Israeli brain research occupies in the world, said Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Israel has put brain research at the heart of its efforts for the coming decade, and our country is already spearheading the global effort towards the betterment of our understanding of mankind. I am confident that the forthcoming discoveries will benefit a wide range of domains, from health to industry, as well as our society as a whole,” Peres said.

“The human brain is the most complex and amazing structure in the universe, yet we are very far from understanding it. In a way, we are strangers to ourselves. Unraveling the mysteries of the brain will help us understand our functioning, our choices, and ultimately ourselves. I congratulate the European Commission for its vision in selecting the Human Brain Project as a Flagship Mission for the forthcoming decade,” said Peres.

What’s amusing is that as various officials and interested parties (such as myself) wax lyrical about these projects, most of the rest of the world is serenely oblivious to it all.

Asia’s research effort in nano-, bio-, and information technology integrated in Asian Research Network

The Feb. 29, 2012 news item by Cameron Chai on Azonano spells it out,

An Asian Research Network (ARN) has been formed by the Hanyang University of Korea and RIKEN of Japan in collaboration with other institutes and universities in Asia. This network has been launched to reinforce a strong education and research collaboration throughout Asia.

The Asian Research Network website is here. You will need to use your scroll bars as it appears to be partially constructed (or maybe my system is so creaky that I just can’t see everything on the page). Towards the bottom (right side) of the home page,there are a couple of red buttons for PDFs of the ARN Pamphlet and Research Articles.

From page 2 of the ARN pamphlet, here’s a listing of the member organizations,


Hanyang University
Samsung Electronics
Electronics and Telecommunication Research Institute
Seoul National University
Institute of Pasteur Korea
Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology
Korea Advanced Nano Fab Center




National Chemical Laboratory
Shivaji University
Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research
Pune University
Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (In Progress)
Indian Institute of Science (In Progress)


University of Texas at Dallas
UCLA (In Progress)
f d i i ( )


National Center for Nanoscience and Technology
Peking University


National University of Singapore
Nanyang Technological University (In Progress)
Stanford University In Progress)
University of Maryland (In Progress)


Weizmann Institute of Science (In Progress)
Hebrew University Jerusalem


National Science and Technology Development Agency (In Progress)

I was a little surprised to see Israel on the list and on an even more insular note, why no Canada?

Getting back to the ARN, here are their aims, from page 2 of the ARN pamphlet,

We are committed to fostering talented human resources, creating a research network in which researchers in the region share their knowledge and experiences, and establishing a future-oriented partnership to globalize our research capabilities. To this end, we will achieve excellence in all aspects of education, research, and development in the area of fusion research between BT [biotechnology] and IT [information technology] based on NT [nanotechnology] in general. We will make a substantial contribution to the betterment of the global community as well as the Asian society.

I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.