Saturday, February 26, 2005

Followup: A personal perspective on the UK governmental response to the Royal Society report

Richard Jones was at the press conference to announce the UK government's response to last year's Royal Society report on nanotechnology (see yesterday's post). Howard Lovy's NanoBot is hosting Richard's personal take on the proceedings and his thoughts on the official response.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Treading water?

The UK government seems to have adopted a holding position in terms of its stance on nanotechnology - see this story for news on its response to last year's Royal Society report.

If Smallpox strikes Portland...

Popular article from Scientific American on the use of multi-agent simulations and analysis of social networks to predict the spread of pathogens.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Announcing the the Lifewave Energy Patch, a "a new and innovative approach to performance enhancement allowing organic materials to interact with the human body to increase stamina, performance and energy."

I think that tells you all you need to know; yet another attempt to use "nanotechnology" to sell snake oil. There are so many things wrong with this advert that it's difficult to know where to begin, but please bear with me while I present a few choice quotes from the website:

Non-Transdermal - New nanotechnology patch; Nothing enters the body. So, presumably, wrapping myself in clingfilm will bring about the same benefits (apologies for the image...)

Nanotechnology is described as "Manufactured products that are made from atoms. The properties of those products depend on how those atoms are arranged. If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamonds. If we rearrange the atoms in sand we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes." It's that easy!

Increase muscle mass by "turning off" a regulatory protein known as myostatin. Gene therapy can learn a lot from this simple patch.

I could go on, but who am I to judge the scientific credentials of Ron Coleman, "7x Winner of Mr Olympia"?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Science and Industry

I was irritated by this article, in which industry leaders urge British Universities to spend more time considering the practical applications of the research they produce. This call seems to be trotted out on an annual basis, in a time when funding for "blue sky" research is ever dwindling. Indeed, even when money is set aside (say, by the Research Councils) for ambitious, long to medium-term proposals that may never lead to tangible "product", the message that pure research should be supported doesn't seem to have filtered down to referees. In this article, Stephen Rose outlines what he thinks are the core reasons for the perceived decline of British science.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Book Review: Soft Machines

Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life
By Richard A.L. Jones, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0 19 852855 (2004)

Book website

In this book, Richard Jones, a Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield, addresses the fundamental question: should nanotech aim to take "traditional" engineering principles down to the nanoscale (crudely, to build ever smaller cogs), or should it draw inspiration from nature?

The book opens with several chapters of introductory material, explaining the background to nanotech and the motivation behind it. I was particularly interested in Chapter 7 - Wetware, as coverage of the nanotechnological aspects of living systems are often overlooked in similar texts. Jones makes some interesting observations about bacteria and chemical computing that I would have liked to have seen developed further.

Jones concludes that the "top down" Drexlerian view of nanotechnology is less likely to succeed than the "bottom up" approach of bionanotechnology, whilst at the same time acknowledging the potential risks and public concerns of using modified bacteria as devices or substrates.

Overall, Jones makes his points well in a book that is written in a style somewhere between a popular science book and an introductory textbook. It is both wide-ranging and accessible, although I would have preferred to have seen a rather more extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the broader aspects of nanotechnology; it is certainly a welcome addition to my library.

Monday, February 21, 2005

New Position

My contract here will expire at the end of July (due to the ongoing job cuts occurring within the University which, contrary to news reports, have implications far beyond the simple removal of Chemistry and Music). I am therefore investigating new possibilities in terms of lectureships or assistant professorships. Any new leads would be much appreciated - my CV/resume is available on request, or please check my home page for further details of my work.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

"Intelligent design" in the classroom

A well-reasoned contribution to the ongoing debate on whether or not to teach "intelligent design" (ie. creationism) in the classroom alongside the theory of natural selection.

Nanotube scaffolding and bacteria

A taster article from the New Scientist this week, describing work on using nanotubes as "linkers" to cause cells to self-organise into "clumps". Potential applications include filtering E. coli out of drinking water.

The full article on which the piece was based is available here.

Followup: Profiles in Science

Following on from my post relating to Francis Crick's doodle of the double helix, the National Library of Medicine has made available their Profiles in Science site, containing fascinating archive material from prominent scientists such as Crick, Linus Pauling and Barbara McClintock.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Caught in the nanotech crossfire

Richard Jones and I have inadvertently been caught up in a rather unfortunate (and hopefully short-lived) spat. This initial post on TNTlog briefly reviewed our blogs, pointing out that we are both "real scientists" and celebrating the fact that we are "bailing out of our ivory towers". While there may be "no such thing as bad publicity", it quickly attracted a scathing response on Howard Lovy's NanoBot. Richard quickly stepped in to defuse the situation in admirable fashion, so I'll refrain from commenting further.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Protocell and other thoughts

I'm pleased to note that the traffic from Richard Jones' blog is already beginning to generate comments. One of those asked the following:

He implied that you might be keeping us up to date on the
Protocell project. Is that true, or will it pretty much happen through your general coverage of bio-computing?

I'll certainly be keeping a close eye on this project, and its partner PACE project (see below). Regular updates on both will appear here.


I had always thought that practical bio-computing would require some kind of lab-on-a-chip capability where you have a bunch of microfluidic pumps and sensors that maintain individual cells in their own little wells or something like that. Do you think that sort of thing is important for bio-computing and if so, how far off is that kind of capability?

Microfluidics are certainly interesting (indeed, John McCaskill, head of PACE, has done a lot of work on using these systems to implement DNA-based algorithms.) However, I'm not sure how applicable they will be to in vivo computation. Certainly, immobilisation or control of cellular positioning may be important in applications such as biosensing, but I think that the future of this may be in the integration of living cells with micro- or nano-scale systems such as the array of
carbon nanofibres developed by Mike Simpson's group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. See the book Cellular Computing (below) for a couple of chapters on this work, or go directly to Mike's lab web page.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Nanotechnology blog

Even though Richard Jones beat me to "Soft Machines" ;), I highly recommend his excellent nanotechnology weblog. It seems that Richard and I share a common perspective on the future of (bio)nanotechnology.

Monday, February 14, 2005

New journal: Molecular Systems Biology

This new journal, published by the Nature Publishing Group and EMBO, includes computational, mathematical, theoretical and synthetic biology within its areas of interest.

HIV vs. cancer

News article on using a modified form of HIV to target cancer cells.


The nature/nurture debate takes an amusing new twist...

Crick's first impressions

Francis Crick's first sketch of his vision of the DNA double-helix has been released onto the web (lots of nice links via this BBC page).

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Happy Darwin Day!

Celebrating science and humanity as we move towards the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (Feb. 12 2009).

Kitchen DNA extraction

A very nice tutorial from the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center on how to extract DNA from "anything living" (I'm not sure that's exactly what they mean...) using only a blender, household detergent, pineapple juice and rubbing alcohol.

Minimal cell project

Another short news article from Nature on the efforts to construct a minimal cell from scratch.

"Sex and the single robot"

A rather disappointing example of hype over content in The Guardian this week; in this article, Kim Jong-Hwan claims that his new robot constitutes "the origin of an artificial species". As far as I can tell from the sparse detail in the article, it's nothing more than a robot with a genetic algorithm controller. The spurious reference to I, Robot doesn't help, either.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Life from scratch

There was a very interesting article in this week's New Scientist, discussing attempts to create entirely new and artificial forms of life from the "bottom up". One of the projects mentioned from the European point of view is the Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution (PACE) initiative, headed by John McCaskill.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Book: Cellular Computing

Cellular Computing, edited by Martyn Amos
Lead volume in the Systems Biology Series, Oxford University Press USA
Published August 2004, ISBN 0195155394.

The completion of the first draft of the human genome has led to an explosion of interest in genetics and molecular biology. The view of the genome as a network of interacting computational components is well-established, but researchers are now trying to reverse the analogy, by using living organisms to construct logic circuits. The potential applications for such technologies is huge, ranging from bio-sensors, through industrial applications to drug delivery and diagnostics. This book is the first to deal with the implementation of this technology, describing several working experimental demonstrations using cells as components of logic circuits, building toward computers incorporating biological components in their functioning.

Book website.

OK, so the book's been out for six months, but I've only just set up this blog, so I thought I'd give it a mention.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Invited talks

Two dates for the diary: I'll be giving invited lectures at the following events:

BCTCS 2005, the British Colloquium for Theoretical Computer Science, in Nottingham, UK (March 22-24)

Annual Conference on Modelling and Simulation of Biological Processes in the Context of Genomics, Montpellier, France (April 4-8).


Welcome to my blog, which I hope you'll find of interest. I'll try to post daily, with links to articles and news that I think are of interest. My own work is available via my home page (see full profile to right); at the moment I'm just finishing off the index for a manuscript for Springer (Theoretical and Experimental DNA Computation), as well as a popular science book for Atlantic Books. I'll keep you posted on both.