Category: Emerging Technology

Three ways synthetic biology could annihilate Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases

In just a few short weeks, Zika has shot from being an obscure infection to a headline-hitting public health disaster. The virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas (and potentially beyond), is suspected of being associated with birth defects that affect brain development and currently has no specific vaccine or treatment. Understandably, scientists are scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization is now calling a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito-borne disease, there are tried and tested approaches that include the liberal application of insecticides and repellents, widespread use of mosquito nets and elimination of breeding sites. Yet to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne disease, more is needed. Which is why scientists are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology for solutions. The joke goes that if you get 10 synthetic biologists in a room together, you’ll get 10 different explanations of what they do. After all, synthetic biology is a young and rapidly evolving field. But underneath this lack of clarity lies a clear and profound shift in our technological capabilities – the ability to “upload” genetic code to computers, edit and manipulate it, and then “download” it into living organisms. In effect, we’ve discovered how to hack biology – how to code in DNA and computer-design living things. It’s early days yet – biology is complex and messy and doesn’t follow the same rules as computer code. But increasingly, scientists are learning how to use synthetic biology to change how organisms operate – including insects that carry dangerous human diseases, such as Zika. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Paulo Whitaker Turn off a gene and goodbye mosquitoes Using synthetic biology-based genetic engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec (owned by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp) has

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Technology innovation and life in the 21st century Views from Civil Society

In 2009, I commissioned ten guest articles on technology innovation from people working for, associated with or generally reflecting the views of Civil Society groups. Over six years on, these essays still present insightful and often challenging views on technology innovation, and are well worth a revisit. The aim was to expose readers to perspectives on technology innovation that are sometimes drowned out in mainstream conversations, and to give a sense of the breadth of opinions and perspectives that are often lumped under the banners of “civic society” or “Non Government Organizations.” You may not agree with everything that’s written (I’d be surprised and disappointed if you were).  But whether you are a tech believer, a tech skeptic, or somewhere in between, I hope these articles will inform, challenge, surprise, and even amuse you. Biopolitics for the 21st Century Marcy Darnovsky, Center for Genetics & Society Innovation for whom? Innovation for what? The Impact of Ableism Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary Beyond safety: some bigger questions about new technologies Georgia Miller, Friends of the Earth Innovation for a well-fed world – what role for technology? Geoff Tansey, Food Ethics Council Stop and Think: A Luddite Perspective Jen Sass, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) A new era of responsible innovation Richard Owen, University of Westminster Ecology and Nanotechnology Richard Worthington, Loka Reversing the Technological Dilemma George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) Innovation in the Doc Tim Jackson, University of Surrey 21st Century Tech Governance? What would Ned Ludd do? Jim Thomas, ETC Group

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What if we approach risk like entrepreneurs approach innovation

If you’ve been following this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you’ll know with absolute certainty that the future is cool, shiny and stuffed to the brim with “must-have” gadgets. Reading the ebullient reports, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything other than overflowing optimism for how technology will transform our lives. And admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how smart shoes or a rollable TV screen could possibly be bad for us. From virtual reality so “there” you can almost touch it, to the Internet of every imaginable thing, we’re being dazzled by the seemingly infinite possibilities that modern tech has to offer. But I wonder whether, in all the buzz and hype, we’re in danger of losing sight of the darker side of technology innovation. CES and similar expos represent the glitzy face of deeper trends that could be destructive if developed without a sophisticated appreciation of potential risks. All technologies come with risks With the uncritical enthusiasm around CES, it’s easy to ignore the potential consequences of irresponsible technology innovation. It’s even easier to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face in developing technologies that are good for society as a whole, and don’t just enrich those who create them. Take for example robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – three trends that were amply represented at the show. While each holds the potential to profoundly change our lives for the better, these technologies are by no stretch of the imagination intrinsically safe. Fears over the consequences of irresponsible AI development have already been widely voiced, and the rapid rise of the Internet of Things threatens to make everyday objects vulnerable to cyber attacks. And all three have the potential to widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged. In today’s evolving social

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Steampunk smart pill

It’s that time of year again when technology pundits peer into their crystal balls, and predict the hottest tech trends of the coming twelve months. Let’s be honest though, these lists can get a little stale. So I thought I’d break ranks this year by imagining what a top tech trends list would look like in a “steampunk” world, where steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and retro-artistic flair, rule supreme.

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the real risk from consumer drones this holiday season

This holiday season, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is estimating that over one million small “Unmanned Aerial Systems” (sUAS’s) – drones, to the rest of us – will be sold to consumers. But as hordes of novice pilots take to the air, just how safe are these small bundles of metal, plastic, video cameras and whirling blades?

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Gene Drives

Gene editing and gene drives are rapidly emerging as the disruptive technologies du jour.  But what are they, what can they do, and why should you care? Just last week, research was published that took us a step closer to being able to re-engineer whole species by driving specific genes through successive generations   – the species in this case was mosquitoes, and the trait to be engineered was the ability to host malaria-causing parasites. And this week, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, together with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.’s Royal Society, are co-hosting an international summit on gene editing in humans – and especially the ethical and governance issues emerging capabilities raise. To help make sense of gene drives and the underlying gene editing technologies, there’s a new explainer video on Risk Bites.  Watch the video here, or read the transcript below. Transcript Imagine we could stop mosquitoes from carrying malaria. For good.  Or prevent ticks from transmitting lyme disease. Or eliminate the billions of dollars of damage caused by bugs to our food supplies each year. Gene drives are a radical new approach to genetic engineering that could help us achieve these goals, and a whole lot more.  Yet, as you might expect, the technology isn’t risk-free. Gene drives are designed to eliminate unwanted traits in insects and other animals.  They work by pushing out genetic modifications through whole species, until eventually, every critter has been changed into something we’ve intentionally engineered. The idea isn’t especially new.  But it’s only very recently that advanced gene editing techniques have made human-designed gene drives possible.  And at the heart of this revolution is a new technique for precision-editing genes – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or if you’re not into brain-bending tongue twisters, CRISPR for short.

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Are you breathing carbon nanotubes and should you be worried

For over two decades, carbon nanotubes have been attracting attention.  First, they were seen as a super-strong, super-conductive new form of carbon that could potentially revolutionize everything from space travel to drug delivery.  Later, concerns were raised that these long, thin, fiber-like materials might cause or exacerbate lung diseases if inhaled. Now, a new study in the journal EBioMedicine has suggested that these microscopic carbon fibers are ubiquitous in the air many of us breathe every day.  And the obvious question that results is: should you be worried? The new paper – a collaboration between scientists in Paris in France, and Texas in the US – analyzed carbon particles found in lung fluid samples from 64 asthmatic children living in Paris.  Using high resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they found carbon nanotube-like fibers in each sample.  Similar fibers were found in lung cells from five patients, and dust samples taken from deposits around vehicle tailpipes, and inside buildings close to minor roads. The authors concluded that carbon nanotube are the main component of inhaled particulate matter. At first blush, the paper seems alarming – carbon nanotubes that could be harmful were found in the lungs of children with a lung condition.  However – as the authors acknowledge in the paper – the results, while interesting, don’t provide evidence that these exposures are a health risk. To start with, it wasn’t too surprising that some fibrous carbon-based particle were found in the samples.  Research over the past ten years has indicated that carbon nanotube-like particles are incidentally formed as a by-product in a number of high temperature processes.  In 2006 for instance, Murr and Guerrero found multiwalled carbon nanotubes in soot collected from burning pine wood.  And in 2013, Jung and colleagues found carbon nanotubes amongst diesel exhaust particles under controlled

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New-report-on-sustainable-hydraulic-fracking

Back in 2011 – while I was Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center – I was part of a larger team exploring the possibility of conducting a full-blown assessment of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) possibilities and pitfalls in Michigan.  We were interested in applying the Integrated Assessment methodology developed at the University of Michigan to a growing challenge – the sustainable development and use of fracking. Four years later, the final report from the resulting program on high volume hydraulic fracturing in Michigan has just been published. This represents three intensive years of research and analysis by University of Michigan experts in evaluating fracking options across multiple dimensions, and developing options for proceeding sustainably. While the report focuses on Michigan, the analysis is broadly applicable to other states and beyond, and provides a deep and broad analysis of fracking. The program  set out to explore the best environmental, economic, social, and technological approaches for managing hydraulic fracturing in the State of Michigan.  Today’s final report presents options for moving forward sustainably that cover public participation in decision making, use of water resources, chemicals use policies.  It also provides a comprehensive introduction to fracking, and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Complimenting the final report are seven technical reports that address the technology of fracking; the geological/hydrological context of fracking; environment and ecology considerations; public health issues, policy and law aspects of fracking; the economics of fracking; and public perception around fracking. Together with today’s report, these provide an exceptionally comprehensive overview of the multidimensional challenges presented by fracking, and the options available to develop sustainable uses of the technology. While I’m no longer at Michigan, I’m proud that the Risk Science Center and its members were able to contribute support and expertise to this initiative, as part of helping enable informed decisions on risk within society. Feature image: Process of

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For tech innovation to succeed, we need parallel innovation in how we think about risk

In October 2014, Google announced it was working on an innovative nanotechnology-based approach to avoiding and managing disease. The idea was to create a pill that would deliver magnetic, functionalized nanoparticles from the gut to the bloodstream. Once there, they would circulate — presumably for days, or longer — picking up biomarkers of disease along the way. The particles would then be remotely interrogated directly by the patient, perhaps using a wrist-mounted monitor. In effect, the plan was to create the ultimate in wearable tech: a personal device that could give you up-to-the-minute information on health and wellness, much as wrist-worn devices provide feedback on fitness today. Google’s nanosensor concept is certainly audacious. Its success though will depend on overcoming a number of challenges — not least, addressing potential risks. Based on what is currently known about nanoparticle behaviour, the technology faces a plethora of possible health and environmental challenges. Failure to address these could leave the company with a non-starter on its hands. Yet the probability of causing harm is not the only risk that could prevent these nanosensors from becoming a reality. In the expanded list of potential risks, there is also the chance of outmoded or overly restrictive regulations blocking progress; or the possibility of investor ambivalence, consumer suspicion, or social media backlash. These hint at a much larger and murkier risk landscape that emerging technologies will have to navigate to be successful. Google’s nanoparticle sensors are indicative of a growing number of technologies that are facing increasingly complex risk-related challenges. Recently, the Future of Life Institute awarded close to US$7 million for research aimed at ensuring the robust and beneficial development of artificial intelligence — funding prompted by how unexpected risks could undermine the technology’s development. Earlier this year, published research into using the gene-editing technique

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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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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites

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