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.

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.

Almost weekly, it seems, researchers are reporting yet another prototype device of Lilliputian proportions.

For example, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have devised a simple monorail system using bits of protein that scoot along exquisitely thin Teflon tracks. The idea, notes bioengineer Viola Vogel, who heads the project, is to develop a "molecular shuttle" that can carry material between two points.

Meanwhile, Cornell's Montemagno observes that his motor not only is a tool for studying biomolecular motors, but also represents an "enabling technology" for introducing nanoscale electromechanical systems into living organisms.

As the currents of biotechnology and nanotechnology cross and mingle, the ethical debates that have accompanied issues such as cloning and ownership of living organisms are likely to intensify. "One wonders where all this is leading," acknowledges Smalley. "The road we're passing down could be a road that ends up developing new life forms. Maybe we would be part of those, or maybe we would be bystanders just looking at them. That should get the ethicists amongst us working. It will be possible, it seems almost inevitable, to vastly extend the length of human life. I suspect it will be possible to pretty well eliminate most forms of disease, so the result on global population will be incredible."

Coming to terms with benefits and potential risks of biotechnology and nanotechnology involves balancing market values with other human values, according to Rachelle Hollander, who directs the Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology program at the National Science Foundation. "Ethical debates have not stopped technologies from being developed," she says. "But understanding the potential harm has changed the way they are implemented."

Understanding potential harm

She cites an example four years ago when scientists at Pioneer H-Bred, which supplies seeds to farmers, genetically engineered soybeans to incorporate a gene from Brazil nuts. The idea was to enhance the soybean's protein content. But the company was concerned that people diagnosed with allergies to nuts would use products made from the soybean unaware of the nut protein's presence. Testing showed that the protein Pioneer Hi-Bred introduced could trigger allergic reactions. The company abandoned the program.

Ironically, that example - showing the possibility that genetically modified products might harm unsuspecting consumers - has been cited as one of the key factors fueling resistance to genetically modified foods in a number of countries. Europe has been a hotbed of resistance to genetically modified foods. Japan soon is expected to require the genetically modified foods be labeled.

The impact of this resistance is being felt back at the grain silo. In August, Archer Daniels Midland asked farmers to segregate "non-genetically enhanced" crops from genetically modified crops in response to consumer demand overseas for non-genetically enhanced varieties. "As a key link in the food supply system, we must produce products that our customers will purchase," the statement said.

Last month, the chairman of Cargill Inc., an international agribusiness company based in Minneapolis, announced the company's support for voluntary labeling.

This interplay between science, technology, and the public will increase, says Hollander. Citizen involvement in decisions to implement new technologies is likely to grow. "They will not be resolved by fiat," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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