Nanomachines Will Rock your Body
Inside your body, right now, there are billions upon billions of tiny machines mindlessly toiling to keep you alive and functioning. They enable every function in your body, from wiggling your toes to causing the neurons in your brain to fire. It might sound like science fiction, but it is an everyday, common occurrence. These nanomachines are the very basis of our biology; assembled from proteins synthesized by our DNA and RNA. In essence, we are these nanomachines.
Now, modern science is finally catching up with Mother Nature in the creation of tiny molecular machines. In the past decade the field of nanotechnology has exploded, with many new applications likely coming in the next few years. One of the most exciting of these is in the fight against cancer. Current chemotherapy drugs target all cells that are dividing rapidly, a hallmark of cancer. However, many healthy cells divide rapidly as well, and can also be targeted by these drugs, making chemotherapy an extremely uncomfortable treatment. At the UCLA California NanoSystems Institute’s (CNSI) Nano Machine Center, researchers are trying to create a selective drug delivery system that releases cancer fighting drugs only where they are needed within the body. They have developed micro-valves that respond to specific wavelengths of light, so tiny capsules could be ingested by the patient, and a particular area of skin where tumors were present would be illuminated. The light would trigger the valves to release the contents of the micro-capsules directly to the targeted area without affecting other areas. The un-triggered micro-capsules would then pass harmlessly from the patient’s body.
In the future, more advanced nanobots could be prowling our blood streams, hunting pathogens and repairing damage. At the University of Monash in Victoria, Australia, researches have developed a miniscule motor small enough to work inside human arteries. This motor could spin a tiny propeller, like the flagellum on a sperm cell, driving the nonobot through the patient’s blood stream at about 6cm per second. However, powering such a small device is a problem in itself, as a nanobot can’t exactly drag a 9-volt battery through at artery. So, Bradley Nelson at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has created a similar tiny device that is powered by a continuously changing magnetic field. The nanomachine in question has a flagella-like tail composed of semi-conducting material, and a tiny magnetic head composed of chromium, nickel, and gold. The head constantly orients itself to the changing magnetic field, causing the tail to spin and propelling the nanobot forward.
However, our best nanobots are still those based on the molecular machinery found in every single one of us. Recently, New York University Chemist Nadrian Seeman won the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for his work with DNA molecules. Referred to by the Christian Science Monitor as “Nanotechnolgy’s Henry Ford,” his lab took two important steps forward in our investigation and use of biological nano-machinery. Firstly, he was able to create entirely synthetic, 3-D DNA structures for the first time anywhere. These structures are the initial steps in our ability to create our own DNA sequences from scratch. Secondly, working closely with colleagues at China’s Nanjing University, he was able to create a DNA assembly line that has the potential to build many nano-sized structures. “An industrial assembly line includes a factory, workers, and a conveyor system,” said Seeman. “We have emulated each of those features using DNA components.”
Perhaps the most incredible use of nanotechnology isn’t in medicine or biology, it’s in the world of rock n’ roll. Researchers at Cornell have finally succeeded in creating a guitar the size of a single cell. The strings of the guitar are just 100 atoms thick, and when plucked they actually resonate (though they are obviously inaudible). The guitar was created as a demonstration of technology they have developed for creating intricate structures on this small of a scale. However, there has been no word on whether or not they have created nano-turntables for cells that prefer hip-hop.
Then there is the dark side of nanotechology. Many people fear the “grey goo” scenario, in which self-replicating nanobots harvest the material around them to create copies of themselves, eventually consuming the entire earth. If you happened to see the recent remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” you’ll remember a scene in which this exact event occurred. Thankfully, Keanu Reeves was there to save us all, as usual. These threats may seem remote and far-fetched, until you read this harrowing account of one woman vicously assaulted by a combination of chemtrails and nano-bots. Even though the nanobots in this story turned out to be nothing more than glitter, next time we may not be so lucky.