The sadly predictable hyping of things nano reached a nadir recently with the promotion of silver nanoparticles (aka “silver bullet”) as a treatment for ebola virus. There has been a great discussion of this and other aspects of silver nanoparticles by Andrew Maynard (here, here for ebola and here for the essential Risk Bites video).
It may surprise some, but until a few weeks ago, there was no simple, direct published method to quantify non-destructively silver nanoparticles. Yet, the non-destructive quantification of silver nanoparticles is essential to any experiment that aims to prepare and use these in a biological context. Without it any experimental work is likely to be qualitative and simple things, such as determining the stoichiometry of functonalisation, become difficult. Indeed, so important is simple quantification of nanoparticles that we validated and published a method for gold nanoparticles in 2007 that has been very well received by the community and which we use daily in the lab. (more…)
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Steven Salzberg on his blog discusses the plan by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands to engineer a new stain of H7N9 that could be far more virulent than the current wild one.
I wonder how much will be learned about ‘flu viruses through these experiments? The work has garnered a lot of headlines and I think it is another case of the summer’s outbreak of vanity science, which I posted on recently.
There is another facet, which is somewhat disturbing, the problem of accidents. The definition of an accident is that it will happen. Our health and safety measures aim to reduce the probability, but this can never be zero. While a nuclear power plant accident is a terrible thing, it is geographically localised. In contrast, a biological agent that lacks built in disabling mechanisms cannot be contained if it gets out. The mobility of a human pathogen = human mobility. So at some point when we have an accident where an engineered strain of a pathogen is released, it would be good to have a stockpile of vaccine. Maybe a more useful endeavor would be for them to produce a cheap and effective vaccine.
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Is it just me, or has this summer seen a rise in the number of vanity science headlines?
The latest bit of vanity science is out today, the “grown in the lab piece of tissue”, labelled as a hamburger (US)/beefburger (UK), to be eaten for lunch. The publicity trail has been carefully laid – you just have to follow the hashtag #culturedbeef on Twitter to see the game being played. Many comments, e.g., following the Guardian’s article, raise the issue of cost, something like £200,000. This demonstrates in itself a profound lack of critical thinking. Those who don’t like the idea of killing animals on the grounds of cruelty can simply not eat meat and, in an open society, they can argue the point against meat eating. This is done with some success. The real problem with eating meat is that much of it (but not all – mountain sheep, for example, eat grass) comes from animals eating food humans can consume – grain. So the primary reason for livestock farming, to use the animal and its microbiome to convert the inedible (grass) into the edible has been removed by what could be termed the Fordist industrialisation of food. The cost is ecological: loss of habitat, methane production (a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and, I suspect, greater energy costs too. (more…)
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