Archive February 2010

Incredible infographic: the evidence for health supplements aimee whitcroft Feb 26


To paraphrase: not much, and what there is is often conflicting.

information is beautiful - snake oil

So says a fantastic new infographic from my favourite data visualisation prOn website, Information Is Beautiful.  Even better, the graphic is actually interactive,  which means you can have a look at individual conditions, from sex to cancer and plenty in between, and split it down by type of supplement as well.

And, for those who’re interested, it would appear that there’s nothing you can take for sex, supplement-wise, whereas cancer has a mix of intriguing things that might actually work and those that won’t.

Have fun playing!  I certainly have been…

In other hilarity, and for those who’d like a TGIF giggle, I have another gift.  Having been chatting about failblogs last night, I woke up this morning to find a new one doing the rounds today: a science failblog!

HT: friend (and soon to be podcast co-host) Geoff Palmer, who blogs over at PCWorld.

I’m a Research Blogging Awards finalist! aimee whitcroft Feb 26


Bizarre, I know.  O_o

In the category ‘best blog – chemistry, physics or astronomy‘.  And I’m a newbie… No one’s confessed to nominating me, though.

Research Blogging Awards 2010 Finalist

To be perfectly honest, I had no idea they existed, let alone that I had been nominated, until fellow Sciblogger David Winter popped up on chat this morning to say congratulations.

David’s also a nominee, in the category ‘best lay-level blog‘.  Nicely done, David!

So, to my mysterious fan(s), thanks :)  And please, do all feel free to vote for me when voting opens.  I would not be in the least bit upset.  You have to be a Research Blogger to do so, so if you’re not, either become one or else get your Research Blogging friends to vote for me!  I’m up primarily against astronomy blogs, it would seem…

And keep  your eyes peeled: I should have the chance two write some cool stuff in the near future (and hopefully backreference some old pieces as well).

A full list of the nominees is available here.

Would you like something scanned with an electron microscope? aimee whitcroft Feb 22

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Of course you would!  Who wouldn’t?

SEM pollen

And have it you can.  As I came into the work this morning, blearily clearing emails as I attempted to mainline some caffeine, I came upon an email most arresting.

From an American company, ASPEX, it said that the company in question had a bit of an offer going at the moment: anyone who sent them a sample could have it photographed, for free, using a scanning electron microscope* (SEM).  The campaign, entitled Send Us Your Sample, takes your sample, makes stunning pictures using said sample, and posts them online for the whole world to see.  And marvel at.

And they’ll send you an email as well, just so you know it’s up.

Now, for those of us in New Zealand, I’d suggest being a little careful in choosing your sample – I have a sneaking suspicion that anything plant/animal-related might get stopped.  For obvious reasons. Luckily, biological stuff isn’t the only thing that looks brilliant under SEM: just about anything does.

Extra: boring anecdote about personal use of SEM

Sadly, I have lost the images I took during my degree’s third year.  Well, I haven’t lost them, but they’re in a book (probably) in Dubai.  Probably.  Anyway, it was great good fun to play with.  We were looking at actinomycetes, and in particular, were hoping to to find a novel antitubercular one.  We didn’t.

For the uninitiated, actinomycetes are found in soils, generally floating about, and on your bread when it goes a little postal.  That blue fluffy mould stuff?  That’s actually a type of bacteria:  the actinomyctes.  They come in a range of different flavours, though, and I had great fun watching the wars that broke out between competing groups on my petri dishes.  I think my favourites were the black fluffy colonies which hung out, alone, at the fringe of the petri dish.  Apparently, goth-like behaviour isn’t limited to human beings…

And as for the antitubercular bit?  Well, actinomycetes are most famous for their ability to produce antibiotics.  Like penicillin (that blue bread mould again).  And antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is a major issue in Africa.  Hence looking for a new one.

Anyway, at the end of it all we needed to take pictures of our chosen actinomycete, with an SEM.  This was quite an interesting challenge, as we were trying to take nice clear pictures of the tiiiiiiiny filaments which make up the structure thereof.  The only problem being, that focusing too intently on a filament would destroy it – they’re actually fragile enough that a beam of electrons would destroy them!  Fun stuff.

* If you’d like to see what  cool machines look like in real life, have a look at some of ASPEX’s Scanning Electron Microscope range.

Geopolitics and science activity: 30 years’ worth aimee whitcroft Feb 18

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I just boggled.  Quite a lot.


I’ve just started skimming through an extremely interesting paper entitled 30 Years in Science: Secular Movements in Knowledge Creation.

It takes global publication data from the Web of Science (Thomson Reuters) database over the last 30 years, and then plots the change in papers published against geopolitical events that have happened.  Why published papers, you ask?  Well, it’s a proxy for scientific activity…

I’ve embedded the document below for your full perusal (it seems unfair to try to reduce something this interesting to a couple of pithy paragraphs), but a couple of interesting things did come out of it.  For example, while one would expect that the rise in China’s activity would be pretty spectacular, it’s apparently surpassed expectations!   Also, the Middle East is definitely on the up and up as well* (which can only be a good thing) – its output grew at almost 4 times the worldwide level.  I find it interesting that Iran and Turkey are the Middle East countries leading the pack, though…

Basically, Asia is fast catching up with the Western world in terms of scientific output, having already surpasses North America.  Happily for those of us who identify with Europe, Europe’s still in the lead, with a full third of the global output.

I’d really encourage you all, though, to scan through the document – it’s cogent, concise, and also has pretty graphs.  Yay!

There’s also a brilliant interactive presentation where you can plot the activity of countries against each other.  New Zealand’s.  For example (and just by inspection), New Zealand and Denmark have a similar number of papers published, and a similar rise therein.  However, plot the two of us against, say, the US and Canada, and you’ll see much sharper rises.  Then, just for fun, add China.  Wow.

*I spent a few weeks in Doha a couple of years back on a consulting project.  What they’re doing there with the university ‘city’ they’re building is quite stunning.

BioScience in NZ: some statsy goodness Pt II aimee whitcroft Feb 17

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Part II: How far along they are, how they’re battling and how we’re benefiting

Having set out the basics of the bioscience industry – who’s doing what, in essence – I though it would be interesting to see how the organisations involved are doing.

So, first up, let’s have a look at how far into the development stages of each type of tech the bioscience industry as a whole has got.

2 development stage

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Interestingly, whereas DNA coding and ‘proteins molecules’ have organisations involved throughout the development process, cell/tissue engineering sees more organisations having it as patr of an already-developed product that they’re selling (or that makes up part of a product sold), and of course process biosciences tends to be primarily part of the production process.

Next, we’ll have a look at some news that seems to have particularly enthused those covering it in the media: how quickly the various types of organisations intend to have a new product developed and ready.

2 products core

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Of the Core organisations (of which there are 108), 57 (53%) introduced a new or significantly improved bioscience products and services in the last 2 years, and 78 (72%) intend to do so again in the next 2 years.  Gosh.  Possibly in line with the development of the industry as a whole, (and the ever shortening innovation cycles allowed companies) more companies are expecting to introduce new products/services than have in the past.

2 products active

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Amongst the Active organisations, of which there are 123 in total, 28 (39%) have introduced a new or significantly improved bioscience product within the last two years, whereas 57 (46%) intend to do so within the next two years.  While speculation is, of course, generally a silly thing to do when it comes to stats (that’s why humanity uses qual as well as quant),this may reflect the fact that as the technology available improves (and, possible, gets cheaper), it may be integrated into more business processes.

2 products research

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Finally, amongst Research organisations, the difference is the smallest.  Of the 36 total, the split (as above) is 18 (50%) to 21 (58%).  This may reflect the lessened commercial pressures exerted on research organisations (and, possibly, less R&D money as well).

To look a little more closely into what might be getting in the way of life for our bioscience organisations, let’s have a look at the three graphs below:

constraints core

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

For Core organisations (and, indeed, for all three) access to capital is by far the most difficult constraint.  Then again, I’d argue that for just about any industry and organisation, capital is going to be a major issue, particularly in industries where expensive innovation/R&D is required.  Amongst Core organisations specifically, however, it would appear that regulations also form somewhat of a thorn in the proverbial and, for commercialisation at least, so does a lack of marketing and distribution channels.  Access is also an issue for these organisations, especially in the R&D phase.

constraints active

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Amongst Active organisations, regulations are again a constraint (as is capital), but interestingly, most of the constraints listed are more important in the R&D phase than in the commercialisation phase.

constraints research

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Finally, Research organisations show a slightly different pattern – for them, regulations are no more of an issue than patents and public perception!    However, like the other two types, they also find access a problem, particularly for the R&D stages of a product/service/project.

And what are we getting out of this industry, despite the constraints of it all?


Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

We’re getting economic, social and environmental benefits.  Hooray!  And the largest gains to be had are economic – given NZ’s focus on trying to up our DGP and living standards, this can’t be a bad thing (see the previous post to get a look at some of the money that’s being generated).  In terms of social and economic benefits, the Core organisations are of course the most significant contributors.  Interestingly, Active organisations are the largest contributors to the environmental benefits.

So, dear readers, there you have it.  This is only a soupcon, mind you, of the full amount of data released.  There’s oodles more, including a breakdown of the local and international alliances which have formed, the IP landscape of the bioscience sector, and even a breakdown of activity by region in New Zealand.  Feel free to peruse*(there’s a written release, and you can also have fun with the data itself, as I have).


* StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

BioScience in NZ: some statsy goodness Pt I aimee whitcroft Feb 15


Part I: The basics

Today, StatisticsNZ released a, well, release on bioscience in NZ.  Who’s doing it, where, what it’s costing them and what they’re making of of it.  And, of course, what they’re actually doing.

To explain, then: the bioscience survey replaces its predecessor, the biotech survey.  Apparently, it was to enable the survey to track a wider, and therefore more representative, section of technologies.  It then goes on say:

The information gathered is intended to measure the contribution of bioscience to the New Zealand economy and to assist in the formation of policies and procedures in support of bioscience business activity. The survey measures the use of biosciences and their uptake by organisations. The survey also asked respondents about the characteristics of their organisations, including the use of strategic alliances, information sharing, and constraints on bioscience work.

To specify further, bioscience activities occur in the following areas (list taken from the release):

  • agriculture feedstock and chemicals
  • aquaculture, horticulture, and forestry
  • human and animal therapeutics and diagnostics (including clinical trial providers)
  • medical devices and equipment
  • research testing and medical laboratories
  • microbes

Now that we feel appropriately girded, let us have a look at some of the data that came out of the survey.

First, it differentiates between three different types of organisations involved in bioscience:

  • Core – Organisations where bioscience is what they do (i.e. they make bioscience goods and products)
  • Active – These organisations are involved in as far as they use bioscience processes to make stuff (products) but actually operate in fields other than bioscience
  • Research group – This would appear to be self-explanatory.   They can include CRIs, universities, and other types of research organisation.
  • no. organisations

    Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Please note: – part of the spike in number since 2008 is due to the increased scope of the survey

Of these, you’ll notice that Active organisations are no longer the majority – they’ve been taken over by Core organisations.  This can only be a good thing, of course, as it shows that bioscience is becoming an increasingly important part of our economy, and that we’re sufficiently good at it to be supporting a growing number of businesses therein.

Of course, within these are a number of different types of industries.

application area

Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

As you can no doubt see, two of the largest areas in which organisations are involved are in the innovative foods and human biomedical sciences.  This makes sense, I guess – after all, we’ve got to eat, and we do tend to get sick!  If you’d like to see a little more detail, I’ve also included a graph at the bottom of this post.

(I should also point out, where you see those ellipses on the x axis, that they complete as follows: ‘Innovative foods and human nutrition’, ‘Bioprocessing technologies and biomanufacturing’ and ‘Human biomedical science and drug discovery’.)


Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

As you can see, those industries who work in the ‘Professional, scientific and technical services’ industry form the vast majority of the organisations involved in bioscience, across all three categories.  Active organisations are also very involved in manufacturing and processing – not perhaps surprising given the fact that one of the major areas of expertise is in the ‘innovative foods and human nutrition’ field.

And how much money does this generate for us?  Well, the graph below shows only the financial data for the Core organisations – this makes sense, as it would probably be a bit tricky (and, possible, confidential) to split out bioscience-related activities in the other two types.


Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Encouragingly (as always), it’s good to see that income outstrips expenditure.  And knowing that bioscience-based export alone brought in almost $150 million in the last financial year is, I think, quite exciting.  After all, it’s a growth industry, so this can only be a good thing for us!

Finally, below is the graph showing the fuller breakdown of the different areas in which bioscience organisations are playing (apologies for the image quality – WP isn’t very happy with tables, though).


Source: StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

I’ve highlighted, in terms of %, any areas in which 10% of over of organisations are involved.  These included the functional foods/pharmaceuticals (supplements and so forth), biomanufacturing, diabetes and CVD (while I can’t be sure, I wonder whether LCT is part of this?) and medical diagnostics and devices (for more of which, watch out for my upcoming series on high temperature superconductors).

In the next post, I’ll look into the where these organisations are in the development stages of bioscience, the benefits it brings, and the constraints faced by those who work in it.  Didn’t want to overwhelm anyone!


StatsNZ BioScience Survey 2009

Science articles some of NYT’s most emailed aimee whitcroft Feb 10

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Apparently, the New York Times has a list of its most emailed articles, and researchers looking at the list have found something surprising (and wonderful) – that science-related articles are amongst the most emailed.


I know!  One would have thought articles about politics, gossip, sex and diets would win outright but it would appear that NYT’s readers are somewhat more…sophisticated than this.  Quite a bit, in fact.

Haivng controlled for factors such as placement, time of posting, amount of exposure received etc, 20% of articles that appeared on the home page made the list, but, and here’s the amazing bit, the rate rose to 30% for science articles!

And, even better, it’s not the miserable, or fluffy, science pieces that are most popular.  The researchers found that people preferred to email positive pieces but, even more interestingly, they preferred ‘awe-inspiring’ pieces than light pieces.

And they hypothesize that, in most cases, this comes from a wish for emotional engagement.

Anyway, I won’t write anymore about it, as the NYT’s John Tierney has already written a lovely article on the subject.

But go science!

Drink up! Beer benefits bones… aimee whitcroft Feb 08


I can hear the whoops of joy emanating around the world.  Joined, of course, by mine.


For years, we’ve known that a glass or two of the vino has its benefits.  However, I’ve never heard of anything particularly beneficial coming as a result of drinking beer (apart from general joi de vivre, of course).

But now, praise be, this time has come to an end.  Researchers have discovered* that beer is good for bone mineral density, meaning moderate consumption of it could help fight osteoporosis.  Overconsumption, of course, could lead to exactly the kind of falls which break bones…

To explain further.

Beer, the oldest and most widely consumed alcoholic beverage on earth (according to wiki) occurs, for the most part,  when malted barley is fermented.  Sometimes hops (that distinctive bitter taste) or fruit is added.  Sometimes the barley is replaced by wheat (my favourite), maize and rice.  All of these things to be expected from a concoction to which ancient odes have been written, and with which we’ve apparently been playing since something like 9,000BC.

It’s the barley, it turns out, that is particularly beneficial.  Its husk contains large amounts of silicon,of all things.

This silicon is present in the resulting beer orthosilicic acid (OSA).  In fact, it constitutes a large proportion of the dietary silicon intake of us Western folk.  And the American NIH is of the opinion that this OSA stuff may be important for the growth and development of bone and connective tissue.

Happily for us, it appears that the malting process itself has little effect on the amount of OSA in the beer, as malting doesn’t really affect barley husks.  Interestingly, and no one knows why, the malts which have the highest silicon are the pale ones (which have had less roasting).  On the other hand, the darker malts, which have undergone more heat stress and roasting, have less silicon.

And for those of you liking your beer hoppy – even better news!  Hops has oodles of silicon in it – apparently, up to 4 times as much as barley, although of course hops is used in far lower quantities than barley.

To paraphrase, then: for the best bone densities around, drink moderately of beers  made with much of malted barley and hops.  Possibly preferably pale.  Sadly, for those (including me) who love their wheat beers , ales and so forth – while there’s definitely anecdotal evidence about their medicinal** qualities, they’re not quite as good silicon-wise.


Casey, T., & Bamforth, C. (2010). Silicon in beer and brewing Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.3884

**Truly.  Especially the Paulaner Brauhaus’ weissbier.  My father and I are both willing to attest to this.

Local coverage:

First seen on the NZ Herald website, here.

Living with robots – don’t panic aimee whitcroft Feb 05

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Yes, that was indeed an H2G2* reference.  I sneak ‘em in whenever I can…


Asimo, by Honda

This is just a short post to point you all in the direction of a marvellous little video put together by the makers of Asimo.  And various cars and bikes over the years.

In it, Honda** talks to a number of very interesting poeple, some of whom work in its robotics division, about the past of robotics, how people think and react to them, the influence of the film industry on such perceptions, and where robotics is headed to in the future.

Lovely stuff, with nice production value (we love PD).

*watch out for upcoming post on the subject

** Incidentally, my first few cars were Hondas of various types, and I absolutely swear by them.  What troopers.

HT: IEEE spectrum, a favourite source of geeky joy

Hydrogels or, how to replace petroleum-based plastics aimee whitcroft Feb 04


Well, wonders will never cease.  Not only is water already one of the strangest,and most interesting fluids/substances around, but clever scientists from the University of Tokyo just added another layer of WTFness.

hydrogel small

A hydrogel (with hair). Credit: Nature 463, 339-343 (21 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08693

In essence, they have developed a sort of non-fluid, yet still transparent and flexible, water.  A hydrogel.  That’s flexible.  And transparent.  (That was worth repeating).  I’ve seen a reference on the web to ‘elastic water’ but thought that was pushing it a bit far.

Published in the Jan 21 edition of Nature, the paper outlines how the researchers were able to create a high-water-content hydrogel using only water, a bit of clay, and a pinch of organic components (details below).

‘But why’, I hear you ask.  ‘We already have other plastic materials – they’re called, you know, ‘plastic”, I hear you say.  And that’s the problem – they’re all based on petroleum, which is based on oil, which is an increasingly unsustainable thing on which to be based.  You know, what with the inevitability of world oil supplies beginning to decrease and stuff.

So scientists feel it’s reasonable to start exploring other means of constructing plastic materials.  Plastic in the true sense of the word: flexible and mouldable.  Hydrogels – flexible water-based gels – seem an obvious thing to start looking into (and of course we won’t get into the water debate here).

The recipe for this hydrogel goes something like this:  take some water.  Add about 2-3% by mass of clay.  Mix, and add 0.4% by mass of certain organic components*.  Shake well, at least metaphorically, for 3 minutes or a bit longer.

And voila! The final product is a transparent hydrogel with some very interesting properties.  It’s able to stick together, which means it can easily be built into structures etc.  It also keeps its shape, so any structures it’s used for can be free-standing – all due due to its ‘outstanding mechanical strength’.

It’s able to self-heal when damaged, and preserves biologically active proteins for catalysis (great for setting up reactions involving enzymes).  In fact, it has some interesting applications for building reaction sequences using blocks containing different enzymatic activities.

Hydrogel structures

Hydrogels structures (blue and clear). Hydrogels with and without 0.01% methylene blue (for visibility) were prepared using 3.0% CNS, 0.21% G3-binder and 0.09% ASAP, and cut into small blocks. a, b, A bridge constructed by connecting together seven hydrogel blocks can be suspended horizontally (a) and held vertically (b). Diffusion of methylene blue from one block to the other hardly takes place, probably because of its adhesion to the CNS surfaces. c, d, Pictures of a heart-shaped hydrogel object before (c) and after (d) being immersed for 6 h three times in fresh THF at 20 °C. Credit: Nature 463, 339-343 (21 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08693

Most hydrogels have poor transparency, are brittle and can’t self-heal.  In addition, making them is an involved process of multiple iterations of heating and cooling, agitation using sound, and in situ polymerisation or crosslinking reactions.  Our little hydrogel, however, is the polar opposite.  It’s transparent, flexible, and great for building structures with.  It’s easy to make – All one requires is water, the three ingredients, and mixing at room temperature for a few minutes (as few as 3).  In addition, it’s able to persist in briny or pH-positive/negative (acid or alkaline, folks) conditions, and can, with the addition of a couple more compounds, even be made using salt water itself.

I mean c’mon – it’s even environmentally friendly!  I’d take this hydrogel home to meet the parents, as it were.

In short, this hydrogel is going where no hydrogel has gone before, and kudos goes to Wang et al – great work, guys.


Wang Q, Mynar JL, Yoshida M, Lee E, Lee M, Okuro K, Kinbara K, & Aida T (2010). High-water-content mouldable hydrogels by mixing clay and a dendritic molecular binder. Nature, 463 (7279), 339-43 PMID: 20090750

*In their words: “CNSs, a dendritic macromolecule (Gn-binder; n, generation number) and sodium polyacrylate (ASAP)”

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