Ion channels are proteins with a hole down their middle that are the gatekeepers for cells. Ion channels control an enormous range of biological function in health and disease. In channels with a diameter greater than 100 nm, the interaction between the channel wall and electrolyte solution hardly affects the flow of ions. When the channel diameter enters the the below-10 nm range, things change dramatically, however. Then, the interaction between the solution and channel wall starts to dominate ionic flow and ion transport through such narrow, nano-scaled channels is dominated by electrostatics. The same is true for biological ion channels where charged amino residues in the selectivity filter determine the ionic flow through the channel, along with the dielectric charge on the channel wall, and the concentrations and potential in the bulk solution. The role electrostatics play in biological pores has been confirmed by numerous mutation studies where amino acids residues in the selectivity filter were replaced by others. Ion channels have simple enough structure that they can be analyzed with the usual tools of physical science. With that analysis in hand, researchers are trying to design practical machines that use ion channels. By exploiting the electrostatics in nanochannels a group of US and Dutch scientists managed to make a diode. Like a solid-state diode allows current flow in one direction, the ionic equivalent they designed can be used to direct the flow of ions across a membrane that separates two electrolyte solutions. Now that they know how to manipulate the ion selectivity in these devices, they hope to be able one day to selectively amplify currents carried by individual chemical species - a stunning prospect for molecular nanoelectronics.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization in which representatives of 30 industrialized countries in North America, Europe and the Asia and Pacific region, as well as the European Commission, meet to co-ordinate and harmonize policies, discuss issues of mutual concern, and work together to respond to international problems. Most of the OECD's work is carried out by more than 200 specialized committees and working groups composed of member country delegates. The OECD's Environment, Health and Safety Division has taken up the safety of nanomaterials as one of their priority issues. After several preliminary meetings in 2005 and 2006, the OECD's Chemical Committee set up a Working Party to address the health and environmental safety implications of manufactured nanomaterials (the WPMN). After a meeting in Berlin, Germany earlier this year, the WPMN has just released a document that compiles information provided by member countries and other delegations on current developments on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials in their countries or organizations and also on current activities related to nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in other International Organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The report makes clear that there are numerous projects and initiatives going on with regard to nanotechnology safety research. It would be nice at some point to see all these research results come together in one coherent and conclusive set of results as to where and what the risks are and how they will be controlled and managed.
In the good old days, say 5,000 years ago, a bearing was simply the placement of tree trunks under the huge stone blocks that your worker army used to construct a pyramid. Since then, bearings have become a bit more sophisticated and are an essential part of much of today's machinery. Consequently, many kinds of bearings have been developed to suit particular purposes - sliding, rolling, fluid, or magnetic bearings, to name a few major categories. Bearings are now widely used for instance to reduce friction between shafts and axles or absorb the weight placed on moving parts and they are found in applications ranging from automobiles, trains and airplanes, computers, construction equipment, machine tools, to ceiling fans and roller skates. The same way that bearings have become an integral part of our modern world, they will also play an important role in the extremely miniaturized micro- and nanodevices of the future. Engineers will just have to come up with ingenuous ways to construct bearings at the nanoscale. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) offer one possibility. Researchers have demonstrated that the relative displacements between the atomically smooth, nested shells in multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) can be used as a robust nanoscale motion-enabling mechanism. Even better, a group in Switzerland has demonstrated batch fabrication of such CNT bearings is possible.
Self-assembly is Nature's way of building stuff. This fundamental principle that governs natural structures on all scales, from molecules to galaxies, generates structural organization from pre-existing parts or components. In nanotechnology, self-assembly is seen as a key technique that will one day allow the fabrication of materials and devices from the bottom up. Still only tinkering with the basics, scientists so far have designed and created simple systems that could mimic natural functions by connecting biological components to abiotic materials to understand the workings of the biological system or to take advantage of the unique properties of the nonbiological components in a natural setting. Most nanotechnologist, even if they manage to self-assemble functional nanodevices, still operate exclusively at the nanoscale (it will be a while before you can order "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot" from your food replicator in the wall). Bridging the gap between the nano- and the macroworld has proven to be a huge hurdle. In a novel approach that merges material chemistry, biology and medicine, researchers in Germany have used living bacteria to show that self-assembly of functional materials and living systems is possible through a chemically programmed construction.
Freshwater looks like it will become the oil of the 21st century - scarce, expensive and fought over. While over 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, most of it is unusable for human consumption. According to the Government of Canada's Environment Department (take a look at their Freshwater Website - a great resource for facts and all kinds of aspects about water), freshwater lakes, rivers and underground aquifers represent only 2.5 per cent of the world's total freshwater supply. Unfortunately, in addition to being scarce, freshwater is also very unevenly distributed. The United Nations has compared water consumption with its availability and has predicted that by the middle of this century between 2 billion and 7 billion people will be faced with water scarcity. It gets worse: In the developing countries, 80 per cent of illnesses are water-related. Due to the shortage of safe drinking water in much of the world, there are 3.3 million deaths every year from diarrheal diseases caused by E. coli, salmonella and cholera bacterial infections, and from parasites and viral pathogens. In fact, between 1990 and 2000, more children died of diarrhea than all the people killed in armed conflicts since the Second World War. The use of nanotechnologies in four key water industry segments - monitoring, desalinization, purification and wastewater treatment - could play a large role in averting the coming water crisis. But hoping that the 'magic' of nanotechnology will solve all water problems is naive - the basic problems of accessibility to technologies, affordability, and fair distribution still need to be solved.
Vaccination has resulted in the eradication of smallpox and control of measles, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, and other infectious diseases in many areas of the world (at least where vaccines are available and affordable; providing vaccines to many parts of the developing world still is one of the basic medical needs that is far from being met). The basic idea of vaccination (the word comes from the Latin vacca - cow - because the first vaccine was derived from a virus affecting cows) is to inject weakened or killed forms of pathogens such as bacteria or viruses into the body in order for the immune system to develop antibodies against them; if the same types of microorganisms enter the body again, they will be destroyed by the antibodies. About 25 years ago, the basic idea of vaccination gave rise to bactofection - the technique of using bacteria as non-viral gene carriers into target cells. The DNA cargo is transported inside the bacteria and, once it arrives at the target location, the bacteria is broken up in order to release the therapeutic gene or protein. A novel technique takes advantage of the invasive properties of bacteria for delivery of nanoparticles into cells. Here, the gene or cargo is not carried inside the bacteria, but rather remains on the surface conjugated to nanoparticles. Consequently, this approach does not require bacterial disruption for delivery, or any genetic engineering of the bacteria for different cargo.
In the early 1870s, the German physicist Ernst Karl Abbé formulated a rigorous criterion for being able to resolve two objects in a light microscope. According to his equation, the best resolution achievable with visible light is about 200 nanometers. This theoretical resolution limit of conventional optical imaging methodology was the primary factor motivating the development of recent higher-resolution scanning probe techniques. The interaction of light with an object results in the generation of what is called 'near-field' and 'far-field' light components. The far-field light propagates through space in an unconfined manner and is the visible light utilized in conventional light microscopy. The near-field (or evanescent) light consists of a nonpropagating field that exists near the surface of an object at distances less than a single wavelength of light. So called near-field microscopy beats light's diffraction limit by moving the source very close to the subject to be imaged. When the first theoretical work on a new technique called "scanning near-field optical microscopy" (SNOM or NSOM) appeared in the 1980's, Abbé's classical diffraction limit was overcome, and resolution even down to single molecule level became feasible. However, light microscopy is still the only way to observe the interior of whole, or even living, cells. The use of fluorescent dyes makes it possible to selectively obtain images of individual cell components, for example, proteins. Today, the wavelength dogma has been overcome with the development of the stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscope. Now, the German team that developed STED is reporting layer-by-layer light microscopic nanoscale images of cells and without having to prepare thin sections with a technique called optical 3D far-field microscopy. They use a chemical marker for fluorescence nanoscopy that relies on single-molecule photoswitching.
A revolutionary new environmental biotechnology - the Microbial Fuel Cell - turns the treatment of organic wastes into a source of electricity. Fuel cell technology, despite its recent popularity as a possible solution for a fossil-fuel free future, is actually quite old. The principle of the fuel cell was discovered by German scientist Christian Friedrich Schoenbein in 1838 and published in 1839. Based on this work, the first fuel cell was developed by Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove in 1843. The operating principle of a fuel cell is fairly straightforward. It is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts the chemical energy from fuel (on the anode side) and oxidant (on the cathode side) directly into electricity. Today, there are many competing types of fuel cells, depending on what kind of fuel and oxidant they use. Many combinations of fuel and oxidant are possible. For instance, hydrogen cell uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen as oxidant. Other fuels include hydrocarbons and alcohols. An interesting - but not commercially viable yet - variant of the fuel cell is the microbial fuel cell (MFC) where bacteria oxidize compounds such as glucose, acetate or wastewater. Researchers in Spain have fabricated multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWCNT) scaffolds with a micro-channel structure in which bacteria can grow. This scaffold structure could be used as electrodes in microbial fuel cells.