Doesn’t kill you: makes you weaker

As things stand a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Here’s a fun experiment. Give your child – or a neighbour’s child, if you don’t have one of your own – a couple of large glasses of Malbec and then send them off to school. The wine probably won’t kill them, just as the neonicotinoid-based pesticides in routine use on our agricultural land aren’t directly killing bees. The child may well make it across the roads safely and get to school, just as most of the bees are still leaving the hive and finding pollen-bearing flowers. The chances are that the child will perform as badly at school that morning as the pesticideridden bees do at bringing back pollen. But you could still choose to label two glasses of wine a safe dose.

Last month, when the UK government told the EU that neonicotinoids aren’t a proven problem for bees, it brandished scientific evidence. Yet the tests it referred to showed little more than whether the likely doses were lethal. They did not look at whether neonicotinoids hamper a bee’s ability to go about its business effectively – to gather pollen, to navigate between flower sources and hives, or to communicate with other members of the colony.

Better tests show that all these activities are hampered by everyday exposure to neonicotinoids, which may have contributed to the ongoing collapse of bee colonies. For instance, studies carried out by researchers at the University of Stirling found that bumblebees will produce 85 per cent fewer queens. And scientists at Royal Holloway, London, discovered that bumblebees exposed to real-world neonicotinoid levels are 55 per cent more likely to get lost while foraging. That makes sense in the light of studies carried out by researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Dundee, which showed a disruptive effect on the honeybee brain, “observed at concentrations . . . encountered by foraging honeybees and within the hive”.

None of this is surprising. These pesticides are toxins that cause disorder in the brain. Just because they don’t cause immediate observable harm to a single bee when the chemicals are assessed individually doesn’t mean they are not a problem when all the various neurotoxins in the bee’s environment accumulate. As the Dundee and Newcastle researchers reported, “exposure to multiple pesticides . . . will cause enhanced toxicity”. There are probably safe doses of gin, vodka and whisky for a toddler. Give those measures all at once, however, and harm will ensue.

Anyone can avoid accepting inconvenient evidence in science, where findings are rarely black and white. A paper published last autumn in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, for instance, demonstrates how epidemiologists and toxicologists work out the effects of interacting exposures to chemicals in different ways, which can lead to completely different conclusions about whether there is any effect at all.

But arguing over definitions is no good to bees. The collapse of the jerry-built garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month offers a salutary lesson applicable to bee-colony collapse: you can rationalise the greedy pursuit of short-term gain all you like, but if catastrophe strikes, you are still responsible for the loss.

Economists put the annual value of insect pollinators to the UK economy at roughly £440m. Moral considerations aside, ensuring that their working conditions are as safe and sustainable as possible seems to make economic good sense. As things stand, however – and soon they might fall – a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Bees. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
Show Hide image

Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.