The June 4 issue of Newsweek features a provocative essay by molecular biologist Lee Silver on the maverick field of synthetic biology.

Silver surveys the work of a number of researchers in synthetic biology. “SynBio engineers think they can take what we know [about living organisms] and design and construct novel forms of life that are programmed to do practical things that couldn’t otherwise be done,” he writes.

One of the researchers Silver writes about is his Princeton colleague Ron Weiss, an associate professor of electrical engineering. “We can now regard cells as ‘programmable matter,’ ” he quotes Weiss as saying. Weiss goes on to predict that soon we will be able to “program cell behaviors as easily as we program computers.”

Silver and Weiss both participated in a recent forum on genomics, health information, and ethics.

Image: Ron Weiss



Princeton researchers –using new nanoscale imaging techniques they developed — have discovered that patches of superconductivity can exist in ceramic superconductors at higher temperatures than previously thought.

This finding, reported in the current issue of Nature, might help lead to superconducting materials that could open up new frontiers in the power industry.

“If we could raise the critical temperature by making the sample more homogeneous, then superconductivity’s application to day-to-day technologies, such as power grids, becomes much more realistic,” said Mike Norman, a physicist in Argonne National Laboratory’s Materials Science Division, who was not affiliated with the research. “The nice thing with superconductors is that there is no power loss, so they could be a major player in ‘green’ and ‘efficient’ technologies for power transmission.”

The senior author of the paper is Ali Yazdani, professor of physics at Princeton. The National Science Foundation funded this work through a grant from its Division of Materials Research and its support of the Princeton Center for Complex Materials. Chad Boutin offers a full report on the work here.

Image: Yazdani Group


Ken Steiglitz’s new book on eBay, just published by Princeton University Press, is catching a lot of attention. Mark Buchanan, writing in the current issue of New Scientist, calls Snipers, Shills & Sharks: eBay and Human Behavior “a remarkable achievement” and describes it as “a short, readable account of the economic theory of auctions that doesn’t pound the reader into stupefaction with equations or some of the other dry-as-bones notions [that] economists often invoke.”

“The book does a lot more than just explain why eBay works the way it does, however,” continues Buchanan. “As promised in the subtitle, Steiglitz also explores the quirks of human behaviour in auctions, both on eBay and elsewhere, which have as much to do with psychology as with brute economic logic.”

Franz Dill, writing in The Eponymous Pickle, also gives Steiglitz a nice mention as does blogger Michael Giberson, who describes Snipers, Shills & Sharks as “the best-written introduction to auction theory I’ve seen.”

Steiglitz tells EQN that he wrote the book both for computer science experts and for nontechnical eBay enthusiasts (note to anyone allergic to algorithms: all the math has been relegated to the back of the book). Find out more about Steiglitz and his passion for collecting coins in this fascinating profile.



SteriCoat, an early stage company developing an antimicrobial coating for medical devices, this week won a new innovation prize — $250,000 of seed financing from the first annual DFJ East Coast Venture Challenge at the Columbia Business School.

Two of the founders of Stericoat are Joel Moxley and Christopher Loose, who both majored in chemical engineering while undergraduates at Princeton.

Last year SteriCoat captured the $100,000 prize in an innovation competition sponsored by MIT, where Loose and Moxley recently earned their doctorates in chemical engineering. And earlier this year SteriCoat won the the Life Sciences category of a business plan competition at Rice.

You can listen to Loose and Moxley talk about their vision for SteriCoat on this podcast (Episode 95) from the Businessmakers Radio Show. Also of interest: Moxley is one of the researchers who recently reported in Science they have engineered a yeast that promises to make ethanol production faster and more efficient. Loose is the lead author of a recent paper in the journal Nature on research that may lead to a new generation of customized microbe-killing medicines.

Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

(Christopher Loose, left, with Joel Moxley)



New research published this week in the journal Nature Biotechnology significantly advances efforts to create tiny biological computers that one day will serve as “molecular doctors” capable of monitoring health at the cellular level.

“Each human cell already has all of the tools required to build these biocomputers on its own,” says Harvard’s Yaakov “Kobi” Benenson, a Bauer Fellow in Harvard’s Center for Systems Biology. “All that must be provided is a genetic blueprint of the machine and our own biology will do the rest. Your cells will literally build these biocomputers for you.”

Ron Weiss, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, is one of the authors on the paper and a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology, which uses bits of DNA to manufacture such futuristic biocomputers.

At a recent invitation-only forum on health information, genomics and ethics at Princeton, Weiss talked about the future of biocomputers — as sentries roaming the body on the lookout for tumor cells, for example — and their potential for revolutionizing medicine.

You can read more here about the work by Benenson, Weiss, Princeton graduate student Sairam Subramanian and others. Other recent publications by Weiss, including a Scientific American article he coauthored last year on synthetic biology, can be found on this website.

Image: Yaakov “Kobi” Benenson, Harvard University just posted an interesting interview with Dan Warmenhoven, chief executive of Network Appliance, the maker of supersize hard drives that serve a wide range of industries, from financial services to video animation.

Dan Frommer of Forbes asks Warmenhoven, who received his undergraduate degree from Princeton in electrical engineering, what he considers to be the most unusual information stored on NetApp servers.

“We’re the infrastructure for the human genomics projects, so all the DNA maps of humans” are stored on NetApp servers, says Warmenhoven. Who knew? You can read the full interview, titled “Swanky Storage,” on



These days the big buzz in materials science is graphene. Kenneth Chang reported in the New York Times science section a few weeks ago that more than 100 papers about graphene were presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Physical Society meeting.

Chang’s article focused on the fascinating physics behind graphene. “The hype is bigger,” Carlo Beenakker, a professor of theoretical physics at Leiden University, told Chang, “because the physics is richer.”

The commercial applications of graphene are just as exciting, entrepreneur John Lettow tells EQN. Lettow is part of a joint venture with Ilhan Aksay and Bob Prud’homme, both professors of chemical engineering at Princeton.

“It’s terrific that top-flight physicists are pursuing this,” said Lettow. “But graphene is not just an academic exercise. It will have a big, immediate commercial impact.” According to Lettow, who graduated from Princeton Engineering in 1995 and did his senior thesis with Aksay, their company, Vorbeck Materials Corp., is the only company to be commercially producing graphene.

Lettow says that graphene is likely to eclipse carbon nanotubes, one of the hottest areas of nanotechnology. Graphene promises many of the same exciting applications as carbon nanotubes, which are costly and difficult to manufacture. “The real breakthrough is that Ilhan and Bob have found a way to produce graphene cheaply,” Lettow said.

Graphite, the most stable form of carbon on Earth, consists of many layers of graphene. Through a chemical process, Aksay and Prud’homme explode graphite into ultrathin individual sheets of graphene. The image above, captured by postdoctoral researcher Hannes Schniepp with an atomic force microscope, shows about 20 sheets of graphene. Each sheet is only a couple of nanometers high and 200 to 500 nanometers wide (to put this in perspective, the average human hair is about 40,000 nanometers wide).

Aksay and Prud’homme have collaborated in their graphene work with Princeton professor of chemistry Roberto Car, Princeton associate research scholar Je-Luen Li, and Konstantin Kudin, an associate research scholar at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. Delve further into the basic science behind their work in this Nature news article or this Physical Review Letters paper, for which Je-Luen Li was the lead author.

For more on the industrial potential of graphene, see this hot-off-the-presses issue of Plastics Technology. Aksay’s work with nature-inspired materials is mentioned in this Technology Review article. And you can look into one of Prud’homme’s many other research endeavors here.

AFM image: Hannes Schniepp



Last week MIT’s Media Lab held a symposium on how human limitations offer opportunity and, ultimately, can lead to an expansion of human ability.

“We’re hacking the human,” said Frank Moss, director of MIT’s Media Lab, by way of introducing the May 9 symposium titled “H2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities.”

Moss, who earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton in 1971 in aerospace and mechanical engineering, took over as director of the Media Lab last year.

Here is a detailed account of the symposium, which was co-hosted by journalist John Hockenberry and which featured author Oliver Sacks as a keynote speaker and Princeton professor of architecture Michael Graves as a special guest. You can download webcasts of the symposium here. Or read this coverage by the Boston Globe’s Elizabeth Cooney.



Here is a CNET report on the latest breaking news in the Pentagon’s urban grand challenge:

“The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said Friday that it has whittled down the contestants for its upcoming urban robot race from 89 to 53 teams via qualification events,” writes CNET’s Stefanie Olsen. “Among the 53 teams are the Stanford Racing team (winner of the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge–a desert robot race across 132 miles), Princeton University and Team MIT.”

For more indepth coverage of the Princeton team’s stereo-vision strategy, see Kevin Coughlin’s report in the Star-Ledger.

“The biggest challenge is the system integration–getting everything to work together,” Princeton team spokesman Gordon Franken tells Coughlin. “Over the past several weeks, we’ve been making progress towards that. Now that it’s for real, we have to buckle down and speed up our development.”

Photo: Frank Wojciechowski



It’s hard to keep up with the computer security phenomenon known as Ed Felten. Tomorrow Felten will give a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the Senate Science and Technology Caucus. He will be talking about botnets, those invisible robots that can stealthily turn the most innocent of PCs into malicious zombies (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” only with computers instead of people).

This is at least the third time that Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy, has been invited to Capitol Hill of late. Last month he testified on voting security before the House Administration Committee. Next month he will be sharing his policy thoughts in Princeton, as part of a panel of distinguished scientists — including genetics giant David Botstein — who will ponder the future of biotechnology in an invitation-only forum sponsored by Johnson & Johnson.

Felten’s blog, Freedom to Tinker, continues to be a must-read for many journalists as well as thought leaders. Recently it earned a mention in The Observer.

For those who are wondering where exactly Felten ranks among information technology luminaries, it’s official: eWeek, CIO, and

Baseline magazines recently published their “Top 100 Most Influential People in IT” and Felten is among them. If you want to find out his exact rank, you’ll have to look behind each number in this Jeopardy-like listing (hint: Felten ranks above House Speaker Nancy Pelosi). Legendary Princeton Engineering alumni Eric Schmidt (Google) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) made the list, which includes Ebay’s Meg Whitman, who also went to Princeton but who majored in economics.