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Nanosponges to recover spilled oil (includes video)

absorbed oil being burned to regenerate clean nanosponge

Rice University graduate student Daniel Hashim burns oil out of a sponge-like material made of carbon nanotubes and a dash of boron. The sponge can soak up oil, which can then be burned off and the sponge reused. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

A new technique that dopes carbon nanotubes with boron atoms provides new evidence of the enormous practical utility of improving methods to control the structure of matter at the nanometer scale, even if the control is not yet atomically precise. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this Rice University news release written by Mike Williams “Nanosponges soak up oil again and again” (includes video):

Researchers at Rice University and Penn State University have discovered that adding a dash of boron to carbon while creating nanotubes turns them into solid, spongy, reusable blocks that have an astounding ability to absorb oil spilled in water.

That’s one of a range of potential innovations for the material created in a single step. The team found for the first time that boron puts kinks and elbows into the nanotubes as they grow and promotes the formation of covalent bonds, which give the sponges their robust qualities.

The researchers, who collaborated with peers in labs around the nation and in Spain, Belgium and Japan, revealed their discovery in Nature’s online open-access journal Scientific Reports [“Covalently bonded three-dimensional carbon nanotube solids via boron induced nanojunctions“].

Lead author Daniel Hashim, a graduate student in the Rice lab of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, said the blocks are both superhydrophobic (they hate water, so they float really well) and oleophilic (they love oil). The nanosponges, which are more than 99 percent air, also conduct electricity and can easily be manipulated with magnets.

To demonstrate, Hashim dropped the sponge into a dish of water with used motor oil floating on top. The sponge soaked it up. He then put a match to the material, burned off the oil and returned the sponge to the water to absorb more. The robust sponge can be used repeatedly and stands up to abuse; he said a sample remained elastic after about 10,000 compressions in the lab. The sponge can also store the oil for later retrieval, he said.

“These samples can be made pretty large and can be easily scaled up,” said Hashim, holding a half-inch square block of billions of nanotubes. “They’re super-low density, so the available volume is large. That’s why the uptake of oil can be so high.” He said the sponges described in the paper can absorb more than a hundred times their weight in oil.

Ajayan, Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and of chemistry, said multiwalled carbon nanotubes grown on a substrate via chemical vapor deposition usually stand up straight without any real connections to their neighbors. But the boron-introduced defects induced the nanotubes to bond at the atomic level, which tangled them into a complex network. Nanotube sponges with oil-absorbing potential have been made before, but this is the first time the covalent junctions between nanotubes in such solids have been convincingly demonstrated, he said.

“The interactions happen as they grow, and the material comes out of the furnace as a solid,” Ajayan said. “People have made nanotube solids via post-growth processing but without proper covalent connections. The advantage here is that the material is directly created during growth and comes out as a cross-linked porous network.

“It’s easy for us to make nano building blocks, but getting to the macroscale has been tough,” he said. “The nanotubes have to connect either through some clever way of creating topological defects, or they have to be welded together.” …

In this case, a scaleable method to introduce a few boron atoms while growing carbon nanotubes produces a novel molecular architecture with amazing and useful properties. Whether or not this specific technique adds to the toolkit that will eventually produce atomically precise manufacturing, it contributes a product that increases incentives for developing ever more precise methods of controlling the structure of matter at the nanometer scale.
—James Lewis, PhD

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Will piezoelectric graphene provide options for nanoscale manipulation?

This illustration shows lithium atoms (red) adhered to a graphene lattice that will produce electricity when bent, squeezed or twisted. Conversely, the graphene will deform when an electric field is applied, opening new possibilities in nanotechnology. Illustration: Mitchell Ong, Stanford School of Engineering

Bulk piezoelectric materials are already used for atomically precise nanopositioning to position the tips of scanning probe microscopes. Would there be any advantages to engineered control of piezoelectrical properties in a two-dimensional material? Currently piezoelectric properties of materials cannot be engineered—it is a property only available in certain 3D crystals. Now calculations have demonstrated that graphene can be made piezoelectric by adsorbing atoms on one surface. A hat tip to Physorg.com for reprinting this Stanford University news release written by Andrew Myers “Straintronics: Engineers create piezoelectric graphene“:

Graphene is a wonder material. It is a one-hundred-times-better conductor of electricity than silicon. It is stronger than diamond. And, at just one atom thick, it is so thin as to be essentially a two-dimensional material. Such promising physics have made graphene the most studied substance of the last decade, particularly in nanotechnology. In 2010, the researchers who first isolated it shared the Nobel Prize.

Yet, while graphene is many things, it is not piezoelectric. Piezoelectricity is the property of some materials to produce electric charge when bent, squeezed or twisted. Perhaps more importantly, piezoelectricity is reversible. When an electric field is applied, piezoelectric materials change shape, yielding a remarkable level of engineering control.

Piezoelectrics have found application in countless devices from watches, radios and ultrasound to the push-button starters on propane grills, but these uses all require relatively large, three-dimensional quantities of piezoelectric materials.

Now, in a paper published in the journal ACS Nano [abstract], two materials engineers at Stanford have described how they have engineered piezoelectrics into graphene, extending for the first time such fine physical control to the nanoscale.

“The physical deformations we can create are directly proportional to the electrical field applied. This represents a fundamentally new way to control electronics at the nanoscale,” said Evan Reed, head of the Materials Computation and Theory Group at Stanford and senior author of the study.

This phenomenon brings new dimension to the concept of ‘straintronics,’ he said, because of the way the electrical field strains—or deforms—the lattice of carbon, causing it to change shape in predictable ways.

“Piezoelectric graphene could provide an unparalleled degree of electrical, optical or mechanical control for applications ranging from touchscreens to nanoscale transistors,” said Mitchell Ong, a post-doctoral scholar in Reed’s lab and first author of the paper.

Using a sophisticated modeling application running on high-performance supercomputers, the engineers simulated the deposition of atoms on one side of a graphene lattice — a process known as doping — and measured the piezoelectric effect.

They modeled graphene doped with lithium, hydrogen, potassium and fluorine, as well as combinations of hydrogen and fluorine and lithium and fluorine on either side of the lattice. Doping just one side of the graphene, or doping both sides with different atoms, is key to the process as it breaks graphene’s perfect physical symmetry, which otherwise cancels the piezoelectric effect.

The results surprised both engineers.

“We thought the piezoelectric effect would be present, but relatively small. Yet, we were able to achieve piezoelectric levels comparable to traditional three-dimensional materials,” said Reed. “It was pretty significant.”

The researchers were further able to fine tune the effect by pattern doping the graphene—selectively placing atoms in specific sections and not others.

“We call it designer piezoelectricity because it allows us to strategically control where, when and how much the graphene is deformed by an applied electrical field with promising implications for engineering,” said Ong.

While the results in creating piezoelectric graphene are encouraging, the researchers believe that their technique might further be used to engineer piezoelectricity in nanotubes and other nanomaterials with applications ranging from electronics, photonics, and energy harvesting to chemical sensing and high-frequency acoustics.

“We’re already looking at new piezoelectric devices based on other 2D and low-dimensional materials, hoping they might open new and dramatic possibilities in nanotechnology,” said Reed.

Could piezoelectric graphene be used with, for example, DNA origami scaffolding to position molecular tools to execute programmed actions? To hear the researchers discussing their work and plans, including possible application to nanomechanical systems, an ACS Nano podcast is available.
—James Lewis, PhD

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Gold nanostars shuttled to cancer cell nucleus to release drug

One of the most promising current applications of nanotechnology to medicine is the use of nanoparticles to specifically target drug therapy to cancer cells. A variety of different types of nanoparticles using different drug delivery strategies are being investigated, including one type using biopolymers that we described here last week. Another report shows that a very different type of nanoparticle, composed of gold, works by delivering a drug directly to the nucleus of cancer cells. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this news release from Northwestern University written by Megan Fellman “Tiny hitchhikers attack cancer cells: Gold nanostars first to deliver drug directly to cancer cell nucleus“:

Nanotechnology offers powerful new possibilities for targeted cancer therapies, but the design challenges are many. Northwestern University scientists now are the first to develop a simple but specialized nanoparticle that can deliver a drug directly to a cancer cell’s nucleus — an important feature for effective treatment.

They also are the first to directly image at nanoscale dimensions how nanoparticles interact with a cancer cell’s nucleus.

“Our drug-loaded gold nanostars are tiny hitchhikers,” said Teri W. Odom, who led the study of human cervical and ovarian cancer cells. “They are attracted to a protein on the cancer cell’s surface that conveniently shuttles the nanostars to the cell’s nucleus. Then, on the nucleus’ doorstep, the nanostars release the drug, which continues into the nucleus to do its work.” …

Using electron microscopy, Odom and her team found their drug-loaded nanoparticles dramatically change the shape of the cancer cell nucleus. What begins as a nice, smooth ellipsoid becomes an uneven shape with deep folds. They also discovered that this change in shape after drug release was connected to cells dying and the cell population becoming less viable — both positive outcomes when dealing with cancer cells.

The results are published in the journal ACS Nano [abstract].

Since this initial research, the researchers have gone on to study effects of the drug-loaded gold nanostars on 12 other human cancer cell lines. The effect was much the same. “All cancer cells seem to respond similarly,” Odom said. “This suggests that the shuttling capabilities of the nucleolin protein for functionalized nanoparticles could be a general strategy for nuclear-targeted drug delivery.”

The nanoparticle is simple and cleverly designed. It is made of gold and shaped much like a star, with five to 10 points. (A nanostar is approximately 25 nanometers wide.) The large surface area allows the researchers to load a high concentration of drug molecules onto the nanostar. Less drug would be needed than current therapeutic approaches using free molecules because the drug is stabilized on the surface of the nanoparticle.

The drug used in the study is a single-stranded DNA aptamer called AS1411. Approximately 1,000 of these strands are attached to each nanostar’s surface.

The DNA aptamer serves two functions: it is attracted to and binds to nucleolin, a protein overexpressed in cancer cells and found on the cell surface (as well as within the cell). And when released from the nanostar, the DNA aptamer also acts as the drug itself.

Bound to the nucleolin, the drug-loaded gold nanostars take advantage of the protein’s role as a shuttle within the cell and hitchhike their way to the cell nucleus. The researchers then direct ultrafast pulses of light — similar to that used in LASIK surgery — at the cells. The pulsed light cleaves the bond attachments between the gold surface and the thiolated DNA aptamers, which then can enter the nucleus.

In addition to allowing a large amount of drug to be loaded, the nanostar’s shape also helps concentrate the light at the points, facilitating drug release in those areas. Drug release from nanoparticles is a difficult problem, Odom said, but with the gold nanostars the release occurs easily.

That the gold nanostar can deliver the drug without needing to pass through the nuclear membrane means the nanoparticle is not required to be a certain size, offering design flexibility. Also, the nanostars are made using a biocompatible synthesis, which is unusual for nanoparticles.

Odom envisions the drug-delivery method, once optimized, could be particularly useful in cases where tumors are fairly close to the skin’s surface, such as skin and some breast cancers. (The light source would be external to the body.) Surgeons removing cancerous tumors also might find the gold nanostars useful for eradicating any stray cancer cells in surrounding tissue.

A particular advantage of these nanostars is that the plasmonic electrons produced on the surface of the nanostars by the laser solves the problem of how to efficiently discharge the drug target from the nanoparticle vehicle.
—James Lewis, PhD

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Mounting graphene on boron nitride improves its electronic properties

When a sheet of graphene sits atop a sheet of boron nitride at an angle, a secondary hexagonal pattern emerges that determines how electrons flow across the sample. (Illustration by Brian LeRoy)

Despite its superlative properties, graphene has not been used to make electronic devices because electrons travel so well though it that they cannot be easily controlled. Now physicists have discovered that placing graphene sheets on boron nitride at the proper angle creates a superlattice that controls the movement of graphene electrons. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this University of Arizona news release written by Daniel Stolte “Microprocessors From Pencil Lead“:

Graphite, more commonly known as pencil lead, could become the next big thing in the quest for smaller and less power-hungry electronics.

Resembling chicken wire on a nano scale, graphene – single sheets of graphite – is only one atom thick, making it the world’s thinnest material. Two million graphene sheets stacked up would not be as thick as a credit card.

The tricky part physicists have yet to figure out how to control the flow of electrons through the material, a necessary prerequisite for putting it to work in any type of electronic circuit. Graphene behaves very different than silicon, the material currently used in semiconductors.

Last year, a research team led by UA physicists cleared the first hurdle by identifying boron nitride, a structurally identical but non-conducting material, as a suitable mounting surface for single-atom sheets of graphene. The team also showed that in addition to providing mechanical support, boron nitride improves the electronic properties of graphene by smoothening out fluctuations in the electronic charges.

Now the team found that boron nitride also influences how the electrons travel through the graphene. Published in Nature Physics [abstract], the results open up new ways of controlling the electron flow through graphene.

“If you want to make a transistor for example, you need to be able to stop the flow of electrons,” said Brian LeRoy, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona’s department of physics. “But in graphene, the electrons just keep going. It’s difficult to stop them.” …

However, as LeRoy’s group has now discovered, mounting graphene on boron nitride prevents some of the electrons from passing to the other side, a first step toward a more controlled electron flow.

The group achieved this feat by placing graphene sheets onto boron nitride at certain angles, resulting in the hexagonal structures in both materials to overlap in such a way that secondary, larger hexagonal patterns are created. The researchers call this structure a superlattice.

If the angle is just right, they found, a point is reached where almost no electrons go through.

The news release points out that the researchers cannot yet control the angle at which the graphene and boron nitride are oriented so that only 10-20% of the samples they make show the desired effect. This process must be automated before graphene electronics become practical.
—James Lewis, PhD

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The Nanocentury: Bringing Digital Control to the Physical World

Christine Peterson, Foresight Co-Founder & Past President

Christine Peterson, Foresight Co-Founder & Past President

August 8, 2012 Stanford University, Stanford, CA USA

Exploring the frontiers of knowledge and imagination, fostering interdisciplinary networking

Foresight Institute co-founder and Past President Christine Peterson will speak at the Leonardo Art/Science Evening Rendezvous of August 2012, chaired by Piero Scaruffi. Her talk is scheduled from 8:30-8:55pm and is titled “The Nanocentury: Bringing Digital Control to the Physical World”.

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Nanoparticles reduce tumors in clinical trial

An artist's rendering of BIND-014. Image credit: Digizyme, Inc.

An artist’s rendering of BIND-014. Image credit: Digizyme, Inc.

We have often reported here that targeted nanoparticles to treat cancer have shown great promise in animal studies. An MIT news release written by Anne Trafton now informs us that “Targeted nanoparticles show success in clinical trials“:

Targeted therapeutic nanoparticles that accumulate in tumors while bypassing healthy cells have shown promising results in an ongoing clinical trial, according to a new paper.

The nanoparticles feature a homing molecule that allows them to specifically attack cancer cells, and are the first such targeted particles to enter human clinical studies. Originally developed by researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the particles are designed to carry the chemotherapy drug docetaxel, used to treat lung, prostate and breast cancers, among others.

In the study, which appears April 4 in the journal Science Translational Medicine [abstract], the researchers demonstrate the particles’ ability to target a receptor found on cancer cells and accumulate at tumor sites. The particles were also shown to be safe and effective: Many of the patients’ tumors shrank as a result of the treatment, even when they received lower doses than those usually administered.

“The initial clinical results of tumor regression even at low doses of the drug validates our preclinical findings that actively targeted nanoparticles preferentially accumulate in tumors,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a senior author of the paper. “Previous attempts to develop targeted nanoparticles have not successfully translated into human clinical studies because of the inherent difficulty of designing and scaling up a particle capable of targeting tumors, evading the immune system and releasing drugs in a controlled way.”

The Phase I clinical trial was performed by researchers at BIND Biosciences, a company cofounded by Langer and Omid Farokhzad in 2007.

“This study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to generate medicines with both targeted and programmable properties that can concentrate the therapeutic effect directly at the site of disease, potentially revolutionizing how complex diseases such as cancer are treated,” says Farokhzad, director of the Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and a senior author of the paper. …

The news release goes on to detail several features of these nanoparticles that may be useful in evaluating other types of nanoparticles that are currently at earlier stages of development and have only been tested in animal models. First of all, nanoparticles of many different compositions have been developed, from gold to DNA. These, called AccurinsTM, use clinically validated biocompatible polymers and incorporate a “stealth” layer to avoid removal by the immune system. As explained in the news release:

One of the challenges in developing effective drug-delivery nanoparticles, Langer says, is designing them so they can perform two critical functions: evading the body’s normal immune response and reaching their intended targets.

“You need exactly the right combination of these properties, because if they don’t have the right concentration of targeting molecules, they won’t get to the cells you want, and if they don’t have the right stealth properties, they’ll get taken up by macrophages,” says Langer, also a member of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

The BIND-014 nanoparticles have three components: one that carries the drug, one that targets PSMA, and one that helps evade macrophages and other immune-system cells. A few years ago, Langer and Farokhzad developed a way to manipulate these properties very precisely, creating large collections of diverse particles that could then be tested for the ideal composition.

“They systematically made a set of materials that varied in the properties they thought would matter, and developed a way to screen them. That’s not been done in this kind of setting before,” says Mark Saltzman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Yale University who was not involved in this study. “They’ve taken the concept from the lab into clinical trials, which is quite impressive.”

The systematic way in which these researchers addressed multiple variables and issues gives us some indication of what will be required to move nanoparticles and other nanotherapeutics from laboratory studies into clinical trials.
—James Lewis, PhD

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Fast nanoscale 3D-printing (link to video)

285-micron racecar (credit: Vienna University of Technology)

For those interested in atomically precise manufacturing, 3D-printing is an interesting microscale technology for making centimeter-scale objects. We commented on this technology a few months ago with the introduction of two competing technologies for printing complex digitally-designed plastic consumer items. Foresight Senior Associate Charles Vollum sends word of the extension of 3D-printing to nanoscale (approximately 100 nm) resolution. In addition, the new procedure is much faster and enables true 3D fabrication, without requiring layer-by-layer fabrication. A hat tip to KurzweilAI for describing this Vienna University of Technology news release “3D-printer with nano-precision“:

Printing three dimensional objects with incredibly fine details is now possible using “two-photon lithography”. With this technology, tiny structures on a nanometer scale can be fabricated. Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) have now made a major breakthrough in speeding up this printing technique: The high-precision-3D-printer at TU Vienna is orders of magnitude faster than similar devices (see video). This opens up completely new areas of application, such as in medicine.

The video shows the 3d-printing process in real time. Due to the very fast guiding of the laser beam, 100 layers, consisting of approximately 200 single lines each, are produced in four minutes.

Setting a New World Record

The 3D printer uses a liquid resin, which is hardened at precisely the correct spots by a focused laser beam. The focal point of the laser beam is guided through the resin by movable mirrors and leaves behind a polymerized line of solid polymer, just a few hundred nanometers wide. This high resolution enables the creation of intricately structured sculptures as tiny as a grain of sand. “Until now, this technique used to be quite slow”, says Professor Jürgen Stampfl from the Institute of Materials Science and Technology at the TU Vienna. “The printing speed used to be measured in millimeters per second – our device can do five meters in one second.” In two-photon lithography, this is a world record. …

Photoactive Molecules Harden the Resin

3D-printing is not all about mechanics – chemists had a crucial role to play in this project too. “The resin contains molecules, which are activated by the laser light. They induce a chain reaction in other components of the resin, so-called monomers, and turn them into a solid”, says Jan Torgersen. These initiator molecules are only activated if they absorb two photons of the laser beam at once – and this only happens in the very center of the laser beam, where the intensity is highest. In contrast to conventional 3D-printing techniques, solid material can be created anywhere within the liquid resin rather than on top of the previously created layer only. Therefore, the working surface does not have to be specially prepared before the next layer can be produced (see Video), which saves a lot of time. A team of chemists led by Professor Robert Liska (TU Vienna) developed the suitable initiators for this special resin. …

Because of the dramatically increased speed, much larger objects can now be created in a given period of time. This makes two-photon-lithography an interesting technique for industry. At the TU Vienna, scientists are now developing bio-compatible resins for medical applications. They can be used to create scaffolds to which living cells can attach themselves facilitating the systematic creation of biological tissues. The 3d printer could also be used to create tailor made construction parts for biomedical technology or nanotechnology.

We are still three orders of magnitude away from atomic precision and limited in the choice of materials to one polymer; however, the more useful 3D printing technology becomes, the more interest to extend it toward general purpose atomically precise manufacturing.
—James Lewis, PhD

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Nano for younger kids

Miguel F. Aznar, Foresight’s Director of Education, sends the following nanotechnology education items.

Nano Outreach and Education in Latin America

Image of NanoDYF logo

NanoDYF promotes nanoscience / nanotechnology outreach and education in Latin America. The NanoDYF 2012 conference in Puebla, Mexico 2012 June 11 – 13, will draw together leaders in research, education, business, and politics to share discoveries and discuss objectives for this outreach. I will present on critical thinking about nanotechnology. More information is at http://www.nanodyf.org/ (use translate.Google.com if you don’t read Spanish). The NanoMex 2012 Conference runs immediately afterward, June 13 – 15, at the same location.

Buckyball Toy

Image of Buckyball model

Would you like a Buckyball model to hang from your ceiling? Trying to teach someone how hexagons and pentagons drive the shape of C60? Would you like to see which size Buckyballs can form? Having trouble visualizing armchair and zig-zag carbon nanotubes? Would you like to let your mind wander while toying with shapes that carbon can form? About $3 lets you model a C60. Buy 2 x $3 to model C70, C76, C82, etc. Buy more to model carbon nanotubes.

These are not general purpose models. Each “carbon” is black plastic with 3 equally distributed bonding bumps in a plane and “bonds” are white plastic tubes that fit snugly over the bumps. One of the three bonds is an implied double bond, so if identifying it is important, a permanent marker is easiest. Spray-painting 1/3 of the tubes might look better. Diamond cannot be modeled with this kit, as it requires all four bonds exposed for tetrahedral bonding. Also, this kit is much smaller than the near-standard Prentice-Hall molecular modeling kits. It will not connect to those.

The model is easy to assemble, but holds together for hanging, handing around, or rolling on the floor. The least expensive I’ve found is at Suntekstore.com, which ships free out of Hong Kong. See here. If you would like to sponsor a school by providing a class-set of these kits, I would be happy to facilitate (aznar@foresight.org).

Swiss Children Learn Nano Fundamentals

Image of Lego-laser AFM

The Switzerland-based Innovation Society has developed SimplyNano 1 (use translate.Google, if you don’t read German), an experiment kit being distributed to 7th – 10th grade classrooms in Switzerland. It focuses on nano dimensions, surfaces, and reactivity. It includes teaching guides plus materials to make a Lego + laser model of an atomic force microscope. Read a short article translated to English.

I have not received a kit yet, but if as good as it looks and priced reasonably, it could improve nano education in the US. When / if I can answer these questions in the affirmative, I will repost and welcome those who would like to sponsor a school for acquiring a set of these kits.

Miguel F. Aznar
Director of Education
Foresight Institute

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Webcast with Peter H. Diamandis on Abundance

Abundance

A couple months ago we noted that Abundance, by Foresight Advisor Peter Diamandis and science writer Steven Kotler hit #1 on both Amazon and BarnesAndNoble. On Wednesday, April 11, Singularity University will present a live webcast with co-founder and chairman Peter H. Diamandis on Abundance:

Diamandis will present the case that the world is getting better at an accelerating rate through the convergence of four powerful forces: the exponential advancement of technology, DIY (Do It Yourself) innovators, Techno-philanthropists, and the Rising Billion, which, acting together, will create abundance in the areas of clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier global health care, and ubiquitous energy – helping to solve humanity’s biggest challenges.

Diamandis co-authored Abundance with award-winning technology writer Steven Kotler, bringing together decades of data and extensive interviews with hundreds of innovators and entrepreneurs, including Larry Page, Steven Hawking, Dean Kamen, Daniel Kahneman, Elon Musk, Bill Joy, Stewart Brand, Jeff Skoll, Ray Kurzweil, Ratan Tata, and Craig Venter.

The Wall Street Journal called Abundance “a manifesto for the future that is grounded in practical solutions.” The Economist Magazine said it was “a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue!” Sir Richard Branson said: “Abundance provides proof that the proper combination of technology, people and capital can meet any grand challenge.”

Peter Diamandis co-founded Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil in 2008, and currently serves as its Chairman and a member of the Faculty. He is also Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and launching large incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs in the areas of exploration, energy and environment, education, global development and life sciences. Diamandis is a leading speaker on innovation, counseling senior business leaders how to utilize exponential technologies and incentivized innovation to dramatically accelerate their business and career objectives. Dr. Diamandis earned a BS in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT, and an MD from Harvard Medical School. He is also known for “Peter’s Laws,” including “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself!”

Webcast participation requires registration. Questions can be submitted in advance or during the webcast via Twitter (#whichwaynext).
—James Lewis, PhD

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Adding to the toolbox for making complex molecular machines

As synthetic biology seeks to build ever more complex biological machines, the possibility of a bridge from biological to artificial molecular machine systems grows less far-fetched. Recent advances in yeast molecular biology are leading to the ability to make more complex molecular machines in yeast, substantially augmenting the synthetic biology toolkit. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this AlphaGalileo news release from Imperial College London: “Scientists develop tools to make more complex biological machines from yeast“:

Scientists are one step closer to making more complex microscopic biological machines, following improvements in the way that they can “re-wire” DNA in yeast, according to research published today in the journal PLoS ONE [open access article].

The researchers, from Imperial College London, have demonstrated a way of creating a new type of biological “wire”, using proteins that interact with DNA and behave like wires in electronic circuitry. The scientists say the advantage of their new biological wire is that it can be re-engineered over and over again to create potentially billions of connections between DNA components. Previously, scientists have had a limited number of “wires” available with which to link DNA components in biological machines, restricting the complexity that could be achieved.

The team has also developed more of the fundamental DNA components, called “promoters”, which are needed for re-programming yeast to perform different tasks. Scientists currently have a very limited catalogue of components from which to engineer biological machines. By enlarging the components pool and making it freely available to the scientific community via rapid Open Access publication, the team in today’s study aims to spur on development in the field of synthetic biology.

Future applications of this work could include tiny yeast-based machines that can be dropped into water supplies to detect contaminants, and yeast that records environmental conditions during the manufacture of biofuels to determine if improvements can be made to the production process.

Dr Tom Ellis, senior author of the paper from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, says: “From viticulture to making bread, humans have been working with yeast for thousands of years to enhance society. Excitingly, our work is taking us closer to developing more complex biological machines with yeast. These tiny biological machines could help to improve things such as pollution monitoring and cleaner fuels, which could make a difference in all our lives.”

Dr Benjamin Blount, first author of the paper from the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, says: “Our new approach to re-wiring yeast opens the door to an exciting array of more complex biological devices, including cells engineered to carry out tasks similar to computers.”

In the study, the Imperial researchers modified a protein-based technology called TAL Effectors, which produce TALOR proteins, with similar qualities to wires in electronic devices. These TALORS can be easily re-engineered, which means that they can connect with many DNA-based components without causing a short circuit in the device.

The team says their research now provides biological engineers working in yeast with a valuable new toolbox.

Professor Richard Kitney, Co-Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at the College, adds: “The work by Dr Ellis and the team at the Centre really takes us closer to developing much more complex biological machines with yeast, which may help to usher in a new age where biological machines could help to improve our health, the way we work, play and live.”

Professor Paul Freemont, Co-Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at the College, concludes: “One of the core aims of the Centre is to provide tools and resources to the wider scientific community by sharing our research. Dr Ellis’s team has now begun to assemble characterised biological parts for yeast that will be available to researchers both in academia and industry.”

Promoters are DNA sequences that signal transcription of a gene to make a messenger RNA molecule that is then translated to make the protein product encoded by the gene. By systematically mutagenizing the core sequence of one promoter, the researchers created a library of 36 promoters that could be independently regulated. They also created a library of proteins to specifically turn off individual variant promoters. They thus designed a complex network of gene regulation that can be used for arbitrary engineering purposes rather than those networks that have evolved to fit the yeast’s own metabolic needs. One wonderful aspect of this work is that, not only are the results published in an open access journal rather than sequestered behind a pay wall, but the biological “parts” created are available to other biological engineers to elaborate the toolbox that is available to synthetic biology and, perhaps eventually, for a folded polymer path toward productive nanosystems. IMHO, this collaborative “Open Source-like” approach being pursued in synthetic biology provides an admirable paradigm for the development of advanced nanotechnology.
—James Lewis, PhD

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