Category: Emerging Technology

Characterizing nanoparticles in the 1880s

On May 29th, there were 52,000 nanoparticles per cubic centimeter of air measured at the top of the Eiffel Tower. This may not seem the most compelling opening to an article, until you realize that the measurement was made in 1889 – over 100 years before nanotechnology and nanoparticles began hitting headlines as one of the most talked about emerging technologies in recent decades. The particles were measured by the Scottish scientist John Aitken, using his newly developed device for counting airborne dust particles.

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Politics don't always play a role in attitudes toward science issues 750x400

Comments provided for GENeS on the launch of the Pew Research Center attitudes survey on Americans, Politics and Science Issues (July 1 2015) Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S.  Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex set of factors. This latest survey uses tried and tested statistical approaches to assess the degree to which different factors predict attitudes toward science, technology and engineering related issues amongst American adults.  As well as investigating attitudes as a function of ideology and political party, the survey also looks at the influence of age, education and science knowledge, gender, race and ethnicity, and religion or religious activities. These factors are mapped onto 22 areas covering climate and energy, government funding of science and technology, evolution, biomedical research and applications, food safety, animal testing, and space research and exploration.  For each area, the analysis assesses how strongly or weakly each factor predicts public attitudes. As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results.  However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes.  Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering. As might be expected, the survey shows attitudes toward climate change and fossil fuel use to be strongly associated with political affiliation and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance of evolution due to natural processes is not strongly associated with political allegiances; rather, age and religion are stronger predictors of whether someone accepts

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Risk Innovation Clean 750x400

Five years ago, I joined the University of Michigan School of Public Health as Director of the U-M Risk Science Center. It’s been a good five years. However, last year, the good folks at Arizona State University made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to expand substantially my work on risk and innovation, at one of the most exciting and progressive universities in the U.S.

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Step by step guide to making a Risk Bites video

Just for the fun of it, I decided to live-tweet the making of the previous Risk Bites video (Five things worth knowing about nanoparticles and sunscreens – posted June 15 2014). [View the story “Making a Risk Bites video” on Storify] The whole six and a half hours from finalizing the script to posting the finished video can be relived at Storify – https://storify.com/2020science/making-a-risk-bites-video

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On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.  In the study, mice were injected with methylcholanthrene – a cancer initiating agent – and subsequently exposed to airborne multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Compared to a control group, the methylcholanthrene and carbon nanotube-exposed mice were significantly more likely to develop tumors than a control group, developed more tumors, and developed larger tumors.  The study provides a strong indication that this particular form of carbon nanotube material can synergistically increase the likelihood and severity of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.

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The World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has just published its annual list of the top ten emerging technology trends.  Based on expert assessment from council members and others, the list provides insight into technologies that have the potential to have a significant economic and social impact in the near to mid term. This year’s list includes:

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science. Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application. Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted: BIG DATA   Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum. Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include: High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated; “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being; Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline. CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH   Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant

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Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a shiver tingle down your spine.  That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues. The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids. To get a sense of what Parker et al. have achieved, it’s worth watching this video of the “medusoid” in action – the movement comes about by a single layer of heart muscles grown on the substrate contracting synchronously as an electric field is applied to the liquid. For a more detailed account of the research, I would also recommend reading Ed Young’s excellent piece, and the original paper. What particularly intrigues me here is the fusion between the biological and the non-biological.  While synthetic biology has typically focused on manipulating organisms through designer-DNA, this more practical approach to engineering biology could go a long way very fast – even before genetically engineered components are added. In the case of the machine above, the result is a relatively functionless entity that moves when an external voltage is applied.  But it wouldn’t take much to engineer in a self-contained voltage source and pulse regulator, and maybe some control elements – fueled by further hybrid biological components.  What you end up with is an engineering construction kits for biological machines that could be as attractive to the DIY bio community as mainstream technologists.  With the addition of genetically designed components, this is likely to be

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A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”: The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF87730C0E0C26FEA

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TEM images of carbon particles from foods containing caramelized sugar. Click to see larger image. Source: Palashudding et al. Nanotechnology leads to novel materials, new exposures and potentially unique health and environmental risks – or so the argument goes.  But an increasing body of research is showing that relatively uniformly sized nanometer scale particles are part and parcel of the environment we live in.  For instance a number of simple organisms such as bacteria and diatoms have the capability to produce nanoparticles, either as part of their natural behavior or under specific conditions.  Nanoscale minerals, it seems, play an important role in shaping the world we live in.  Metals like silver wantonly shed silver nanoparticles into our food and water according to research published last year.  And now a group of researchers have shown that food containing caramelized sugar contains uniformly sized amorphous carbon particles. This latest paper was published in the journal Science Progress a few weeks ago, and analyzes the carbon nanoparticle content of such everyday foods as bread, caramelized sugar, corn flakes and biscuits.  The authors found that products containing caramelized sugar – including baked goods such as bread – contained spherical carbon nanoparticles in the range 4 – 30 nm (with size being associated with the temperature of caramelization).  This isn’t that surprising as nanoparticle formation is closely associated with hot processes.

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It’s been hard to avoid the buzz surrounding nano quadrotors this week, following the posting of Vijay Kumar’s jaw-dropping TED talk – and the associated viral video of the semi-autonomous machines playing the James Bond theme. The quadrotors are impressive – incredibly impressive.  But I’m sure I am not the only person watching these videos who felt a shiver of apprehension about where the technology might lead. When people talk about emerging technologies – especially when the focus is on potential risks and unintended consequences – it doesn’t take long for the usual suspects to emerge: with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering usually appearing toward the top of the list.  But I wonder whether focusing on big, well-publicized technology trends sometimes masks some of the less discussed but more important technology innovations that are already impacting on people’s lives. Tim Harper and I underscored this concern in a report from the World Economic Forum last year where we suggested we should be focusing just as much on the innovations that build on synergistic connections between technology platforms (see below), because this is where many of the more significant disruptive and game-changing technologies will emerge. It’s partly because of this that I have been so intrigued by the nano quadrotor work coming out of the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Technology innovation – building on technology platforms. World Economic Forum: Building a Sustainable Future The nano quadrotors that Vijay Kumar’s team are developing are a prime example of synergistic innovation leading to a game-changing technology.  The quadrotors combine components from multiple technology platforms – sensors, materials, information processing and others – and as a result they present opportunities and risks that depend on the synergism between these platforms.  In other words, the potential disruption comes not from the platforms,

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A few weeks ago I spent some time chatting with Howard Lovy for an article for the Nanobusiness Commercialization Association.  That interview was posted by Vincent Caprio on his blog a few days ago, and raised a few eyebrows – was I showing signs of becoming a nano-risk skeptic? I hope not, as as I still feel emerging evidence and trends indicate major perceived and real risk-related barriers lie in the path of developing nanoscale science and engineering successfully, if we aren’t smart.  But I have always adhered to the idea that successful and responsible technology development depends on taking an evidence-based approach – even if that evidence is sometimes uncomfortable.  And so these days I sometimes worry that too much is made of artificial constructs surrounding “nanotechnology”, and not enough is made of the underlying science. Reading through Howard’s piece, I felt it was a pretty accurate reflection of our conversation.  There are a couple of places where it possibly indicates less concern on my part than is warranted.  Toward the end of the piece for instance I am quoted as saying “there is no need [for the nanobusiness community] to respond to individual challenges such as this lawsuit against the FDA”, referring to a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products. I’m pretty sure I did say something along these lines.  But the context was that lawsuits like these are a relatively widely used mechanism for holding federal agencies to account and prodding them into action.  And while they are often important, the nanobusiness community need to understand this context and be aware of the bigger picture when it comes to responsible and sustainable development. Overall though, the piece captures my increasing

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Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant: It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way. Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

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For the past few months, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has been working on identifying some of the most significant trends in technology innovation.  Published yesterday by WEF, these represent ten areas that we as a council felt are likely to shake things up over the next few years in terms of their economic and social impact. The plan is to update this assessment on an annual basis Here’s the list: Informatics for adding value to information The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new

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Another product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students.  This is a video from Gracie Trinidad, and explores the frisson between superstition and science through medieval paintings – with a contemporary twist at the end [make sure you watch to the very end of the video for the final quote].

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A product of the A World Of Surprises project with James King and a bunch of extremely talented public health and science students. The task was to explore the confluence between mundane and catastrophic risk, which the team does beautifully.  Love the technique, and the subtle touches (note the progressive effect of Rhino Bananas on their creator).  And the news/web mockups are priceless.  Brilliant! [Make sure you watch to the quote at the end] Many thanks to: Chad Warhola Janae Adams Anirudha Rathnam Sarah Kang Alejandro Mendoza (Needless to say, this is a bit of speculative fiction!)

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Credit: James King Last semester, speculative designer James King worked with myself and a small group of science and public health students at the University of Michigan to explore how a fusion of science and creative art can lead to new insights and modes of communication.  The exercise was part of the A World of Surprises project – a project James is working on as the Witt Artist in residence at the UM School of Art and Design. Part of the aim was to take these science-grounded students out of their comfort zone, expose them to some radical new ideas and perspectives, and see what happens. The results were impressive!  Once the students realized that they weren’t bound by the rigid limitations of their science education, they became enthused over using creative techniques to tell science-grounded stories that connected with people on a far deeper level than just the facts would allow. Today the group presented the fruits of their final assignment: to produce a piece of creative work that captures the tension – in narrative form – between imagined catastrophic risks and experienced mundane risks. As a group, we were interested in the tension between the catastrophic consequences often imagined to arise from human endeavors, and the mundane reality that often develops. I’ll try to showcase all of the projects over the next few weeks.  They were all, in their own way, quite brilliant.  Coming up in future posts there will be: The Tale of Rhino Banana (a brilliant story of a technological breakthrough that runs up against public resistance); Salutary lessons from the struggle between evil and the divine in the middle ages; A visual juxtaposition of comparative risks related to Fukushima; and A new-future story of technological sophistication and mundane consequences. (I’ll add the links as they

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The US National Academy of Science today published its long-awaited Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. I won’t comment extensively on the report as I was a member of the committee that wrote it.  But I did want to highlight a number of aspects of it that I think are particularly noteworthy: Great progress so far, but it’s time to change gears. Something we grappled with as a committee was what the value of yet another research strategy was going to be.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the US federal government published a well received strategy of its own.  A key driver behind our strategy was a sense that the past decade has been one of defining the challenges we face as the field of nanotechnology develops, while the next decade will require more focus as an ever greater number of nanotechnology-enabled products hit the market.  In other words, from a research perspective it’s time to change gears, building on past work but focusing on rapidly emerging challenges. Combining life cycle and value chain in a single framework for approaching nanomaterial risk research.  As a committee, we spent considerable time developing a conceptual framework for approaching research addressing the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials.  What we ended up using was a combination of value chain – ranging from raw materials to intermediate products to final products – and material/product life cycle at each stage of the value chain.  This effectively allows risk hot spots to be identified at each point of a material and product’s development, use and disposal cycle. Principles, not definitions.  Rather than rely on a single definition of engineered nanomaterial to guide risk-related research, we incorporated a set of principles into our conceptual framework to help identify

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window. Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight. Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences. But how does the report relate to public health more specifically? The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention

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Note to self: When being swept up in the inevitable innovation frenzies* that 2012 will bring, don’t forget to: Be aware of where change is needed, and where it is not; Focus on inventiveness that will foster new solutions to pressing challenges; Develop the foresight to explore and respond to the consequences of actions arising from new ideas; Have the humility to ask others for help in areas where expertise runs thin; and Not discount simple solutions to seemingly complex problems. Oh, and go easy on the chocolate and booze. Hope you all have a happy, fulfilled and productively innovative new year! Andrew __________________________________________________ *As well as working on and writing about technology innovation as usual, I’m expecting 2012 to be a big year for innovation in the “day job”, including exploring some new approaches to teaching and knowledge translation. 

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2020 Science is the personal blog of Andrew Maynard - Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. More ... 

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