The brave new world of biotechnology and beyond
Genetic engineering and nanotechnologies will not only change our world, but perhaps even bodies
Carlo Montemagno's motor will not be an overnight hit with Maytag. It's only 12 billionths of a meter in diameter.Skip to next paragraph
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But its "shaft" spins at about 1,000 r.p.m., and it can be attached to a precisely placed microscopic dollop of nickel, copper, or gold.
Built in a lab at Cornell University, Dr. Montemagno's motor - a tiny enzyme found in nearly every living organism and anchored to a metal foundation only about three times the enzyme's size - highlights one of the most far-reaching themes emerging from half a millennium of advances in physics, biology, and chemistry. Science is giving humanity the knowledge and the tools to manipulate and mix matter at its most fundamental levels to yield uniquely human combinations of form and function.
Genetics and biotechnology have been at the forefront of this revolution as scientists have turned gene-splicing into a speedy way to make novel organisms or enhance or alter traits of familiar ones. Others are looking at ways to turn collections of atoms and molecules into transistors, coatings, motors, pumps, and plumbing whose size is measured in billionths of a meter.
Initial applications of such nanotechnologies are likely to be modest. Nanoparticles bearing drugs designed to interact only with diseased cells might be among the first uses for nanoscale devices, researchers say. Over the longer term, however, others foresee self-assembling molecular computers or nano-factories rolling out thin coatings with the strength of diamonds for use on automobiles or army tanks.
Some of the most profound changes could involve humans themselves, speculates Rice University chemist and Nobel laureate Richard Smalley. "We're heading in a direction that in the next 50 to 100 years, we could actually change the nature of human beings," he says. "We are going to learn to build gadgetry at the size level of living cells. We could have implants to dramatically augment our senses. Either what we build will be something we can couple directly, like an implant, or we'll learn that we can change the genetic code and stay within the realm of biotechnology."
Putting atoms where we want to put them
"I'm convinced that the next century is going to make this century seem rather calm by comparison," Dr. Smalley says. "What we've done so far has not really harnessed the power that one will get when one can really put atoms where one wants to put them."
Known collectively as nanotechnology, the field has yet to reach infancy, Smalley notes. Indeed, some researchers prefer to call the field nanoscience, since so much basic research still needs to be done before some of the near-term applications become possible.
Such unknowns haven't prevented enthusiasts from speculating about the technological possibilities of working in the nanoworld. By many accounts, the first person to engage in such speculation was Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman. In a 1960 speech entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," he described in broad terms concepts for tiny computers with wires 10 to 100 atoms in diameter, as well as concepts for nanorobots to manufacture materials and intelligent machines that could perform surgery once swallowed.
In addition to these areas, Dr. Roco adds, nanotechnology could well reshape the aerospace industry by shrinking the size, weight, and energy demands of components for spacecraft and aircraft. The Pentagon has put money into nanoscience for more than a decade in the quest for robotic weapons, stealthier battlefield sensors, and lightweight, high-performance materials for combat vehicles.
During the last fiscal year, the federal government spent $234 million for nanoscience research. Roco's task force, the Interagency Working Group on Nano Science, Engineering, and Technology, hopes to see that figure reach $500 million over the next three years. Meanwhile, aware of what some analysts see as an enormous shift in the economic balance of power that would accrue to the winner of the nanotech race, Japan and the European Union have mounted vigorous research efforts as well.