Open Access

Quantum dots for Immunofluorescence

Guest post by Dave Mason

In modern cell biology and light microscopy, immunofluorescence is a workhorse experiment. The same way antibodies can recognise foreign pathogens in an animal, so the specificity of antibodies can be used to label specific targets within the cell. When antibodies are bound to a fluorophore of your choice, and in combination with light microscopy, this makes for a versatile platform for research and diagnostics.

Most small-dye based fluorophores that are used in combination with antibodies suffer from a limitation; hit them with enough light and you irreversibly damage the fluorochrome, rendering the dye ‘invisible’ or photobleached. This property is the basis of several biophysical techniques such as Fluorescence Recovery After Photobleaching (FRAP) but for routine imaging it is largely an unwanted property.

Over 20 years ago, a new class of fluorescent conjugate was introduced in the form of Quantum Dots (QDots); semiconductor nanocrystals that promised increased brightness, a broad excitation and narrow emission band (good when using multi-channel imaging) and most importantly: no photobleaching. They were hailed as a game changer: “When the methods are worked out, they’ll be used instantly” (ref). With the expectation that they would “…soon be a standard biological tool” (ref).

So what happened? Check the published literature or walk into any imaging lab today and you’ll find antibodies conjugated to all manner of small dyes from FITC and rhodamine to Cyanine and Alexa dyes. Rarely will you find QDot-conjugated antibodies used despite them being commercially available. Why would people shun a technology that seemingly provides so many advantages?

Based on some strange observations, when trying to use QDot-conjugated antibodies, Jen Francis, investigated this phenomenon more closely, systematically labelling different cellular targets with Quantum dots and traditional small molecule dyes.


Figure 3 from doi:10.3762/bjnano.8.125 shows Tubulin simultaneously labelled with small fluorescent dye (A) and QDots (B). Overlay shows Qdot in green and A488 in Magenta. See paper for more details. See UPDATE below.

The work published in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology (doi: 10.3762/bjnano.8.125) demonstrates a surprising finding. Some targets in the cell such as tubulin (the ‘gold standard’ for QDot labelling) label just as well with the QDot as with the dye (see above). Others however, including nuclear and some focal adhesion targets would only label with the organic dye.


The important question of course is: why the difference in labelling when using Quantum Dots or dyes? This is discussed in more detail in the paper but one explanation the evidence supports is that it is the size of the QDots that hinder their ability to access targets in the nucleus or large protein complexes. This explanation further highlights how little we really know about the 3D structure of protein complexes in the cell and the effect of fixation and permeabilisation upon them. Why for example, can tubulin be labelled with QDots but F-actin cannot, despite them both being abundant filamentous cytosolic structures? At this point we can’t say.

So why is this study important? Publication bias (the preferential publication of ‘positive’ results) has largely hidden the complications of using QDots for immunofluorescence. We and others have spent time and money, trying to optimise and troubleshoot experiments that upon closer study, have no chance of working. We therefore hope that by undertaking and publishing this study, other researchers can be better informed and understand when (or whether) it might be appropriate to use Quantum Dots before embarking on a project.

This paper was published in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology, an Open Access, peer-reviewed journal funded entirely by the Beilstein-Institut.

UPDATE [2017-06-13]: in response to a comment below, I’ve updated the overlay figure to use green/magenta instead of green/red. The original figure can be seen in the paper or here.

Time to reclaim the values of science

This post is dedicated to Paul Picard, my grand dad, who was the oldest reader of my blog. He was 17 (and Jewish) in 1939 so he did not get the chance to go to University. He passed away on the first of October 2016. More on his life here (in French) and some of his paintings (and several that he inspired to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren). The header of my blog is from a painting he did for me

A few recent events of vastly different importance eventually triggered this post.

A  (non-scientist) friend asked my expert opinion about a campaign by a French environmental NGO seeking to  raise money to challenge the use of nanoparticles such as E171 in foods. E171 receives episodic alarmist coverage, some of which were debunked by Andrew Maynard in 2014. The present campaign key dramatic science quote “avec le dioxyde de titane, on se retrouve dans la même situation qu’avec l’amiante il y a 40 ans {with titanium dioxide, we are in the same situation than we were with asbestos 40 years ago}” is from Professor Jürg Tschopp. It comes from an old media interview (2011, RTS) that followed a publication in PNAS. We cannot ask Professor Tschopp what he thinks of the use of this 5 years old quote: unfortunately he died shortly after the PNAS publication. The interpretation of this article has been questioned since: it seems likely that the observed toxicity was due to endotoxin contamination rather than the nanomaterials themselves. There is on the topic of nanoparticles a high level of misinformation and fear that finds its origins (in part) in how the scientific enterprise is run today. Incentives are to publish dramatic results in high impact factor journals which lead many scientists to vastly exaggerate both the risks and the potential of their nanomaterials of choice. The result is that we build myths instead of solid reproducible foundations, we spread disproportionate fears and hopes instead of sharing questions and knowledge. When it comes to E171 additives in foods, the consequences of basing decisions on flawed evidence are limited. After all, even if the campaign is successful, it will only result in M&M’s not being quite as shiny.

I have been worried for some time that the crisis of the scientific enterprise illustrated by this anecdote may affect the confidence of the public in science. In a way, it should; the problems are real, lead to a waste of public money, and, they slow down progress. In another way, technological (including healthcare) progress based on scientific findings has been phenomenal and there are so many critical issues where expertise and evidence are needed to face pressing humanities’ problems that such a loss of confidence would have grave detrimental effects. Last week, in the Spectator, Donna Laframboise published an article entitled “How many scientific papers just aren’t true? Enough that basing government policy on ‘peer-reviewed studies’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be“. The article starts by a rather typical and justified critique of peer review, citing (peer-reviewed) evidence, and then, moves swiftly to climate change seeking to undermine the enormous solid body of work on man-made climate change. It just happens that Donna Laframboise is working for “a think-tank that has become the UK’s most prominent source of climate-change denial“.

One of the Brexit leaders famously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. A conservative MP declared on Twitter that he”Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world. Yesterday, Donald Trump, a climate change denier was elected president of the USA: “The stakes for the United States, and the world, are enormous” (Michael Greshko writing for the National Geographic). These are attacks not just on experts, but on knowledge itself, and, the attacks extends to other values dear to science and encapsulated in the “Principle of the Universality of Science“:

Implementation of the Principle of the Universality of Science is fundamental to scientific progress. This Principle embodies freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information and research materials. These freedoms are highly valued by the scientific community and generally well accepted by governments and policy makers. Hence, scientists are normally able to travel to international meetings, associate with colleagues and freely express their opinions regardless of factors such as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender, sex or age. However, this is not always the case and so it is important to have mechanisms in place at the local, national and international levels to monitor compliance with this principle and intervene when breaches occur. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and its global network of Members provide one such mechanism to which individual scientists can turn for assistance. The Principle of the Universality of Science focuses on scientific rights and freedoms but implicit in these are a number of responsibilities. Individual scientists have a responsibility to conduct their work with honesty, integrity, openness and respect, and a collective responsibility to maximize the benefit and minimize the misuse of science for society as a whole. Balancing freedoms and responsibilities is not always a straightforward process. For example, openness and sharing of data and materials may be in conflict with a scientist’s desire to maintain a competitive edge or an employer’s requirements for protecting intellectual property. In some situations, for example during wars, or in specific areas of research, such as development of global surveillance technologies, the appropriate balance between freedoms and responsibilities can be extremely difficult to define and maintain. The benefits of science for human well-being and development are widely accepted. The increased average human lifespan in most parts of the world over the past century can be attributed, more or less directly, to scientific progress. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that technologies arising from science can inadvertently have adverse effects on people and the environment. Moreover, the deliberate misuse of science can potentially have catastrophic effects. There is an increasing recognition by the scientific community that it needs to more fully engage societal stakeholders in explaining, developing and implementing research agendas. A central aspect of ensuring the freedoms of scientists and the longer term future of science is not only conducting science responsibly but being able to publicly demonstrate that science is being conducted responsibly. Individual scientists, their associated institutions, employers, funders and representative bodies, such as ICSU, have a shared role in both protecting the freedoms and propagating the responsibilities of scientists. This is a role that needs to be explicitly acknowledged and embraced. It is likely to be an increasingly demanding role in the future.

It is urgent that we, scientists, reclaim these values of humanity, integrity and openness and make them central (and visibly so) in our Universities. To ensure this transformation occurs, we must act individually and as groups so that scientists are evaluated on their application of these principles. The absurd publication system where we (the taxpayer) pay millions of £$€ to commercial publishers to share hide results that we (scientists) have acquired, evaluated and edited must end. There are some very encouraging and inspiring open science moves coming from the EU which aim explicitely at making “research more open, global, collaborative, creative and closer to society“. We must embrace and amplify these moves in our Universities. And, as many, e.g. @sazzels19 and @Stephen_curry have said, now more than ever, we need to do public engagement work, not with an advertising aim, but with a truly humanist agenda of encouraging curiosity, critical thinking, debates around technological progress and the wonders of the world.


How to Elucidate the Structure of Peptide Monolayers on Gold Nanoparticles?

I have recently submitted my PhD thesis and we have now pre-printed on bioRxiv the work constituting its major chapter. Together with the pre-print, the data have been made publicly available in an online repository of the University of Liverpool. Well isn’t it perfect timing that this week is open access week? 😉

This work has been conducted nearly entirely during the 2 years of my PhD spent at the A*STAR Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) in Singapore.

In this study, peptide-capped gold nanoparticles are considered, which offer the possibility of combining the optical properties of the gold core and the biochemical properties of the peptides.

In the past, short peptides have been specifically designed to form self-assembled monolayers on gold nanoparticles. Thus, such approach was described as constituting a potential route towards the preparation of protein-like nanosystems. In other words, peptide-capped gold nanoparticles can be depicted as building-blocks which could potentially be assembled to form artificial protein-like objects using a “bottom-up” approach.

However, the structural characterization of the peptide monolayer at the gold nanoparticles’ surface, essential to envision the design of building-blocks with well-defined secondary structure motifs and properties, is poorly investigated and remains challenging to assess experimentally.

In the pre-printed manuscript, we present a molecular dynamics computational model for peptide-capped gold nanoparticles, which was developed using systems characterized by mean of IR spectroscopy as a benchmark. In particular, we investigated the effect of the peptide capping density and the gold nanoparticle size on the structure of self-assembled monolayers constituted of either CALNN or CFGAILSS peptide.

The computational results were found not only to well-reproduce the experimental ones, but also to provide insights at the molecular level into the monolayer’s structure and organization, e.g., the peptides’ arrangement within secondary structure domains on the gold nanoparticle, which could not have been assessed with experimental techniques.

Overall, we believe that the proposed computational model will not only be used to predict the structure of peptide monolayers on gold nanoparticles, thus helping in the design of bio-nanomaterials with well-defined structural properties, but will also be combined to experimental findings, in order to obtain a compelling understanding of the monolayer’s structure and organization.

In this sense, we would like to stress that, in order to improve data reproducibility, enable further analysis and the use of the proposed computational model for peptide-capped gold nanoparticles, we are making the data and the custom-written software to assemble and analyse the systems publicly available.


Snapshots of the final structure of the simulated 5 (left) and 10 (right) nm CFGAILSS-capped gold nanoparticle, illustrating different content and organization of secondary structure motifs.


I ran today a one hour training session for researchers at the University of Liverpool about online presence. About 20 researchers from very different backgrounds (from language to physics, chemistry  ecology, etc) mostly at the post-doctoral level attended. We started with a round table where I asked each participants to tell which social media they use and what they expected from the workshop.

Many were Facebook users, mostly for personal networking, while a few had started to use it for professional networking too. Research Gate and LinkedIn were prominent as well (often with low level of usage). Google+ had one mention. One or two had limited experience of Twitter. One question that came several times was the personal versus professional limit. How much should we keep private? I don’t think there is any easy answer to this question, except that it is useful to understand how each tool you use work and therefore how to control what you are actually sharing or not. In that context, Facebook is a bit of a pain while Twitter is simple: everything is public so don’t share what you want to keep private.

Does it mean though that everything on your Twitter feed has to be serious professional stuff devoid of any personal aspect? I asked this question to Twitter during the event itself

Vladimir Teif responded immediately

I don’t actually agree with Vladimir (you can check my reply to him on Twitter), but thanks to him for this nice demonstration of the power of real-time conversation and crowdsourcing of  information.

When preparing this session, 12 hours before the event, I had asked on Twitter suggestions on of posts an points on social media for academics. I got a number of responses:










I ended up talking too much, mostly advertising the benefits of Twitter. Whether I have convinced them or not will be seen in the number of them that join and tweet me in 2015. Or participate in the comments section below. So far so good:


Extracting diffusion dynamics from the fluctuations in photothermal images


This is a guest post by Dan Nieves, who was until recently a joint member of Raphael and Dave’s labs. Dan has moved as far as he could go from us: he is now residing in Sydney at the EMBL Australia node for Single Molecule Science at the University of New South Wales.

Today, our paper from my time at Liverpool “Photothermal Raster Image Correlation Spectroscopy (PhRICS) of gold nanoparticles in solution and on live cells was published in the new Royal Society open-access journal, Royal Society Open Science.  This journal is committed to an open peer-review system, thus, the review history and referees comments are viewable alongside the article, and also post publication peer-review in the form of a comments section below the paper is facilitated. Additionally, the data that supports the conclusions of the paper are (and have to be) readily accessible (here at Figshare). This is exciting, as not only are the discussions between authors and referees are available to everyone, but you can also join in the discussion fully after publication with access to the primary data. Therefore, the critical evaluation/re-evaluation of the work is totally encouraged and should never stop!

Our paper describes the development of an extension of photothermal heterodyne imaging; a technique used to detect and image single gold nanoparticles much smaller than the diffraction limit at high signal to noise via scattering induced by laser light absorption (nice explanation here). The extension employs fast raster-scan imaging of the sample in which fluctuations, or “streaks” (top panels, Fig.1), are observed due to the movement of nanoparticles through the detection volume during the scan. From these fluctuations it is possible to extract how fast the nanoparticles are moving from the application of image correlation analyses.  In our particular case, we applied the raster image correlation spectroscopy (RICS) method, developed in the lab of Enrico Gratton (original paper here). Briefly, after acquiring many raster scan images; the images are then spatially correlated with themselves by shifting the image pixel by pixel in all directions (x and y in this case) and calculating the correlation function.  This means repeating fluctuations within the image, i.e., nanoparticle diffusion, will be reflected in the time it takes for the spatial correlation to decay, for example, the spatial correlations for movement of slow moving objects decays quite differently to that of fast moving objects (lower panels, Fig.1). From the spatial correlations the diffusion behavior, such as the diffusion coefficient, can be extracted.  In our case, I applied the analysis to photothermal images of 8.8nm gold nanoparticles diffusing in solutions of different viscosity to verify the PhRICS approach (Fig.1). Here, we were able to extract the diffusion coefficients of the nanoparticles in the different solutions. The advantage of this approach compared to the current photothermal heterodyne techniques for probing diffusion (photothermal tracking and absorption correlation spectroscopy) is that not only can we acquire rapidly information on fast diffusion dynamics, but we can also observe the distribution of nanoparticles over the relatively large area of the image (≈ 40 μm2).



Fig.1 – Example of gold nanoparticle diffusion in solutions of different viscosity (top panel) with the corresponding spatial correlations (bottom panel).

We then turned our attention to the use of the technique to observe the diffusion of fibroblast growth factors labelled with gold nanoparticles on live cells. FGFs are involved in a wide range of essential biological processes from the formation of morphogen gradients and signalling to homeostatic control of glucose and phosphate levels.  Here, 8.8 nm gold nanoparticles were used to covalently label single fibroblast growth factor 2 proteins (FGF2-NP: via this method), and then incubated with live rat mammary fibroblast cells (Fig.2).  It was observed previously in our lab that there is significant heterogeneity in FGF2 distribution and diffusion in the pericellular matrix when bound to heparan sulphate. We found the diffusion coefficient of the FGF2-NP could be extracted, and that diffusion measurements were variable depending on the area imaged.  Additionally, it is apparent that the image data contained much more information than we could extract using the simple diffusion model applied.  The observation of the formation and dissolution of intense peaks within the images, added to the 2D-movement of such peaks from image to image (see Movie1), gives more insight into the dynamic long range restructuring of the pericellular matrix of live cells at “short” (μs and ms) and “longer” (secs and mins) timescales.


Fig.2 – Photothermal image of rat mammary fibroblast incubated with 600 pM of FGF2-NP.  Blue boxes indicate the areas where PhRICS imaging was performed on the cell.


Movie1 – PhRICS image series from box 5 in Fig.2

The paper is now available at the Royal Society Open Science , and if your interest has been piqued thus far, I strongly encourage you check the paper out.  Better still would be for you to engage in the post-publication comments section should you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

A good day for science; respect to the Editor…

Earlier, I reported on the publication of our article on the internalisation of peptide-capped nanoparticles in cells. Today, I want to share with you the publication process as it happened at PloS One. The paper was submitted on the 20th of November 2014. The academic editor sent his decision, major revision, along with two referees reports on the 22nd of December, i.e. one month after submission [great turn around time!].

Reviewer 2 was very supportive but reviewer 1 much less so: there appeared to be a real difference of interpretation regarding the impact of cell-penetrating peptides on the intracellular localisation of ingested nanoparticles. The reviewer also requested additional experiments that we could not easily do at this time and that we felt were unnecessary to support our main conclusions. The academic editor himself, Dr Pedro V. Baptista [more on PloS One editorial process here], was author on a paper which in some ways could be seen as conflicting with our results and interpretation. The response to the referees and editors took me a long time to write. It was submitted on the 29th of January. I share it below.

The paper was accepted on the 6th of February. I welcome this decision, not just because our paper gets published -this is of course also great news!-, but because it demonstrates that there is space for open scientific debate in the peer reviewed literature. For this, I am immensely grateful to Dr Baptista.

Response to the referees.

Dear Dr Pedro V. Baptista

On behalf of my co-authors, I would like to thank you for handling our article and to thank the reviewers for their careful reading and for their comments.

Reviewer 2 notes that the context of our ms is the existence of conflicting reports on the effect of TAT and HA2 on intracellular fate of nanoparticles. Indeed, some articles have reported efficient access to the cytosol, while other studies indicate that most particles remain confined in endosomal compartments. Our own experiments are in line with this second group of articles. Reviewer 2 notes that “the study is well designed and executed and the results are interpreted appropriately”. Reviewer 2 supports publication in its current form.

Reviewer 1 has concerns about novelty. Reviewer 1 also suggests that we should add three references. These fall in the first category mentioned above, i.e. articles that support the notion that TAT enables access to the cytosol. It is of course appropriate that we should cite studies from both groups of articles. One of the three, […], was in fact already cited. We have now added the other two, i.e.: […]

Experiments related to this topic have led to many articles in the past 10 years. However, the persistence of conflicting reports and the importance of the topic for many envisioned applications require new insights. This we have provided through the use of imaging modalities that provide information across different scales: electron microscopy measures what occurs to a few nanoparticles in a very small part of the cell; photothermal microscopy measures what happens to the bulk of nanoparticles across a large part of the cell. This combination is thus uniquely able to address, in at least one cell type and a particular formulation of nanoparticle, the fate of TAT-functionalised nanoparticles after they bind to the cell surface.

Below we respond to the detailed queries of reviewer 1 and trust that the manuscript now meets the standards required for publication in PLOS One.

Dr Raphaël Lévy,

Detailed response to reviewer 1 queries:
• Novelty. Our article is a significant piece of work that adds useful information towards understanding and clarifying the impact of cell penetrating peptides on intracellular localisation of nanoparticles. The work is novel because it builds on a new imaging methodology that directly images the nanoparticle cores (as opposed to an attached fluorescent molecule) and gives a better overview of an entire cell than just electron microscopy. It is also novel because our peptide self-assembled monolayer approach enables us to do systematic variations of the surface chemistry of the nanoconjugates.
• “To include as a new figure, the extinction spectra of all the nanoconjugates as well as all the scattering spectra […]”. The reviewer is right that extinction spectra are very useful to characterise functionalisation and colloidal stability. We have added the requested figure as Fig. S0. For the conjugates used in Fig. 1, the formation of the self-assembled monolayers results in a minimal shift of the plasmon band of ~1-3 nm. This shift is small compared to the width of the plasmon peak. Because photothermal microscopy relies on absorption at the wavelength of our heating laser which matches the position of the maximal absorbance, differences due to a 1-3 nm plasmon shift are negligible. Interestingly, particles presenting a higher percentage of TAT in their monolayer do show a larger plasmon shift indicative of aggregation. We have modified the paragraph on the formation of the SAMs as follows: “Formation of the monolayer was immediately visible because of the increased colloidal stability and of a small red shift of the nanoparticles plasmon band (Fig. S0). Higher proportions of TAT in the monolayer resulted in nanoparticle aggregation and therefore were not used for further studies (Fig. S0).”

• “To include the images and quantification in Figure 1 with cells only with naked gold nanoparticles and cells only with PEG-gold nanoparticles and compare intensities.” The images and quantification for “cells only” were already included (Fig. 1A and first column of Fig. 1F). We have not included “naked gold”. Instead, as a reference point, we have used PEG-gold particles that have a capping composition made of CALNN and CCALNN-PEG. “naked gold” does not remain naked: non-specific adsorption of proteins, e.g. serum albumin in the cell medium, very rapidly changes the properties of the surface [see for example, Time Evolution of the Nanoparticle Protein Corona, Casals et al., ACS Nano, 2010, 4, pp 3623–3632]. The CALNN and CCALNNPEG composition was optimised, as discussed p 7, line 213-220 and Fig. S2 “Gold nanoparticles uptake decreases with increasing percentages of CCALNN-PEG”. The selected composition leads to minimal uptake as shown in Fig. 1B and the second column in Fig. 1F. From this reference composition, we have made systematic variations where we include defined percentages of the two functional peptides (dHA2 and TAT). For all these conditions, exemplary images are shown in Fig. 1 A-E, additional images are shared via figshare ( and the quantifications are shown in Fig. 1F.

• “To perform other technique to quantify the gold content […].To include more time points in the TEM studies […]. […] the efficacy results reported by the authors are premature without the additional data described above.” While we agree that the suggested experiments are interesting, they are not necessary to reach the conclusions arrived at in the ms. Those conclusions do not concern “efficacy”, but increased uptake and intracellular localisation. The increase in photothermal signal as well as in the counts of nanoparticles in EM images unambiguously demonstrate increased uptake. The non-homogenous distribution of signal observed in the photothermal images and the electron microscopy analyses unambiguously rule out cytosolic distribution of the nanoparticles. The time point of 3 hours used in our studies is a key point both from the perspective of applications and of cell entry mechanisms. We agree that a systematic analysis as a function of time after uptake would provide further insights into endocytotic mechanisms, but it is outside of the focus of this study. Furthermore, it has been done extensively by cell biologists since the 1950s using a variety of probes. Notably, one of the first applications of gold nanoparticles in biology precisely focused on the mechanisms by which cells probe their external environment (Electron microscopy of HeLa cells after ingestion of colloidal gold, Harford et al., J Biophys Biochem Cytol 1957 3:749-756; reference added into the ms).

The standards in the field have been to publish only one or two representative electron
microscopy images. The photothermal imaging provides a unique means for the reader to understand nanoparticle distribution over biologically representative scales. Importantly, we are sharing here 942 EM images and 37 photothermal images. By publishing all of our data alongside the study [1], we enable other scientists to check and challenge our conclusions and propose alternative hypotheses. PLoS One is a particularly good forum for our article because of its commenting platform where this discussion can continue in the open after the publication of the article.
[1]. DOIs of the data:

10.6084/m9.figshare.1088379, 10.6084/m9.figshare.875584, 10.6084/m9.figshare.875630, 10.6084/m9.figshare.875545, 10.6084/m9.figshare.875477, 10.6084/m9.figshare.874219, 10.6084/m9.figshare.874153, 10.6084/m9.figshare.874033, 10.6084/m9.figshare.873852, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1088399, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1246458, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1246609,
10.6084/m9.figshare.1246622, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1246660, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1246696, 10.6084/m9.figshare.1246707

Novelty, reproducibility, and data sharing in (nano)materials science

Half-random ranty post that might develop into something more structured at some point… Feedback very much welcome.

Andrew Maynard has blogged about the extent to which novelty should (or, in fact, should not) be the main consideration for the evaluation of nanomaterials risks (initially published as an editorial in Nature Nanotechnology). It’s entitled “Is novelty in nanomaterials overrated when it comes to risks” and is well worth reading in full. A central point is that:

Novelty as a result is a subjective, transient, and consequently a rather unreliable indicator of potential risk. It tends to obscure the reality that conventional behaviour can sometimes lead to harm, and that mundane risks are still risks. And it favours the interesting (and possibly the headline-grabbing) over the important. But if novelty is an unreliable guide to potential risk, how can approaches be developed that help identify, understand and manage plausible risks associated with emerging materials and the products that use them?

Apparently unrelated (but wait for the next paragraphs), there are various initiatives to encourage or even mandate sharing of data related to the characterization of (nano)materials. It is thought that this will boost innovation and facilitate the coming together of computational and experimental work. Maybe the most impressive and concerted effort comes from the White House Office for Science and Technology as exemplified by this post It’s Time to Open Materials Science Data. Publishers have smelled something and are moving to the area of providing services for data sharing and curation; NPG launched Scientific Data in partnership with FigShare; Elsevier has just launched an initiative specifically targeted to open data in Materials Science.

Now for the (arguably subtle and tenuous) link. Novelty is overrated not just when it comes to risk. It is overrated in materials science full stop. This seems not intuitive; surely scientific endeavour in materials science is about discovering new materials. The problem here (and arguably the opportunity too) is that there is an immense combinatorial space of potential new materials. We work on peptide-capped gold nanoparticles. By varying the peptide sequences and making various mixed monolayers, we can potentially generate hundreds of novel materials every day (and we do make a fair number). The combinatorial space of potential nanomaterials vastly exceed the number of potential molecules. Most of these materials are not interesting, but they are novel: nobody made them before.

I see a lot of research articles which can be summarised as

  1. This is a novel nanomaterial (and it truly is: nobody has made before this gold-nanorod-with-carbon-dots-at-the-tips-graphene-oxide-on-the-side-and-some-antibody-labelled-conductive-polymer-wrapped-around [1])
  2. It could be used for [delete as appropriate] energy/biological imaging/curing cancer (and it will never be).

When it comes to safety, Andrew argues convincingly that the focus should be on plausible scenarios rather than on novelty. When it comes to what should be curiosity-driven science, there seems to be a lot of new materials generated for the sole purpose of highly improbable applications rather than in the pursuit of general principles that would help us explore the materials landscape. This has the very unfortunate consequence that the materials characterisation is often poor and limited to whatever is thought to enable the envisioned application. An extremely large proportion of these new materials are made by a single group for the purpose of a single paper. The experiments are not reproduced independently. Capturing all of this data into platforms that are open and suitable for data mining is a noble and worthwhile purpose which I support, but it must be accompanied by a change of focus and higher standards of characterisation otherwise I fear that it will not help understanding much.

Thanks to who chronicled the reaction of materials scientists to an OFST presentation at the MRS conference in Boston in December 2014.

[1] Novel Nano-Lychees for Theranostics of Cancer; Charles Spencer and Edna Purviance; Nature Matters-to-all (2015) 7  101-114