Nanotechnologies opened a new door towards the development of novel techniques and devices for probing biological systems such as biomolecules and single cells. The most reliable bioprobes today rely on fluorescent or radioactive labeling. Phosphorescent emitters are preferable for use in sensing or biological labeling schemes because the emission occurs over a very long timescale (for nanoscientists, 'very long timescale' is a relative term; here we are talking about 1 microsecond). Especially semiconductor nanocrystals (quantum dots) possess several properties that make them very attractive for fluorescent tagging: broad excitation spectrum, narrow emission spectrum, precise tunability of their emission peak, longer fluorescence lifetime than organic fluorophores and negligible photobleaching. Scientists have discovered that these nanocrystals can enable researchers to study cell processes at the level of a single molecule and may significantly improve the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancers. However, the band gap of most emissive semiconductors, with the exception of cadmium-containing materials, is either too high or too low to easily make visible emitting quantum dots. Unfortunately, cadmium is quite toxic and therefore not really suitable for medical applications. In a step towards circumventing the issues with cadmium toxicity, researchers have make progress in demonstrating visible phosphorescence from doped nanocrystal systems. A recent example is the synthesis of a nanoscopic material composed of the non-toxic elements zinc, selenium, sulfur and manganese which displays efficient visible emission.
Granted, they don't sell them at Gap yet, but if current research undertaken by scientists in Australia is any indication, bullet-proof vests as light as T-shirts could become reality in the not too-distant future. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have great potential applications in making ballistic-resistance materials. The remarkable properties of CNTs makes them an ideal candidate for reinforcing polymers and other materials, and could lead to applications such as ligh-weight bullet-proof vests or shields for military vehicles and spacecraft. For these applications, thinner, lighter, and more flexible materials with superior dynamic mechanical properties are required than what is currently available. Ongoing research at the University of Sydney explores the energy absorption capacity of single-walled carbon nanotubes under a ballistic impact. CNT reinforced materials might not only be very effective in stopping ballistic penetration or high speed impact, like Kevlar vests, but they might also be able to prevent the blunt force trauma that still is a problem with today's body armor.
Cancer is an enormous socio-economic problem. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), it is estimated that in 2007 there will be over 1.4 million new cases of cancer (of any type) and over 550,000 deaths from cancer in the United States (you can download a detailed Cancer Statistics 2007 Presentation; ppt download, 808 KB) from the American Cancer Society. This makes cancer the second deadliest disease category, after heart diseases. But while the mortality rates for heart diseases have dropped by more than half from 1950 to 2004, and other major disease categories show similar trends, cancer death rates have stayed pretty much the same. Shocking but true, if you are a male living in the U.S., your lifetime probability of developing some type of cancer is 1 in 2. If you are female, your probability is 1 in 3. Equally dismal are the economic cost associated with this disease: The amount of direct cancer-related costs (treatment, care and rehabilitation) have reached $74 billion in the U.S. in 2005, and growing fast, while the overall economic costs (including loss of economic output due to days off and premature death) are estimated to be over $200 billion per year (2005 data). This Spotlight will discuss existing and new approaches to fight cancer and their limitations. The goal is to stimulate readers to support and participate in interdisciplinary research and teaching efforts toward relieving suffering and death due to cancer. Fighting cancer involves three phases: (i) detection, (ii) treatment, and (iii) monitoring. Success depends on matching science to the actual practical needs. We'll take a look at - in particular nanotechnology - efforts underway in the direction of these three phases and comment on some of the practical problems encountered fighting cancer. We also speculate about some unconventional research that might be successful fighting cancer in the future.
The controversy over the use of nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics has been going on for a while now. At best, the evidence is inconclusive - it is too early to say whether there is a risk or not. Regulators have no specific research findings to act on. Cosmetic firms of course claim that their products are safe and comply with all the relevant laws and regulations. On the other hand, they fight tooth and nail to have to label their products containing synthetic nanoparticles. The cosmetic industry's stance is even more perplexing given the common sense approach that regulators are taking.
We have written plenty of Spotlights so far on carbon nanotubes and nanoelectronics. For instance, carbon nanotube (CNT) transistors have the potential to outperform state-of-the-art silicon devices. Researchers around the world have been working for years on advances at the device level, things like switches and wires and optimizing individual CNT transistors. More recently, scientists have begun to integrate nanotechnology-based materials and devices into larger systems - a crucial step in getting nanotechnology from the lab to the fab. Last year, for instance IBM reported to have built the first complete electronic integrated circuit around a single carbon nanotube (An integrated logic circuit assembled on a single carbon nanotube). Researchers in California have now reported another step towards showing nanoelectronics in systems: They have developed the world's first working radio system that receives radio waves wirelessly and converts them to sound signals through a nano-sized detector made of CNTs. Although this is only the demonstration of a single critical component (the CNT as demodulator) of an entire radio system, it is entirely possible that at some point in the future all components of a working radio could be nanoscale, thus allowing a truly nanoscale wireless communications system (apart from the magnitude of the technological achievement, this is probably great news for surveillance freaks, not so much for privacy advocates).
Nanotechnology enabled synthetic biology could one day lead to an artificial construct that operates like a living cell. That day might be a considerable distance off, given the difficulties scientists are still having in even understandiing the organizing principles and workings of a cell, not to mention being able to duplicate cell components and assembling them into a working whole. The large discrepancy between the functional density (i.e., the number of components or interconnection of components per unit volume) of cells and engineered systems highlights the inherent challenges posed by such a task. Just take 'simple' bacteria like Escherichia coli (which has an approx. 2 square micrometer cross-sectional area). The E. coli cell has some 4.6-million base-pair chromosome (the equivalent of a 9.2 megabit memory) that codes for as many as 4,300 different polypeptides under the inducible control of several hundred different promoters. The most advanced silicon chips will be able in a few years time to come close to this performance (on the other hand, you have several trillion E. coli in your gut; you would need to swallow a lot of computer chips to match this combined 'computing' power). Another way to look at the synthetic cell challenge is to regard the cellular environment as a highly complex synthetic medium, in which numerous multistep reactions take place simultaneously with an efficiency and specificity that scientists are not capable of duplicating at this scale. Researchers in The Netherlands have now succeeded in constructing nanoreactors that can be used to perform one-pot multistep reactions - another step towards the goal of artificial cell-like devices, but more promising in the short term for screening and diagnostic applications.
Proponents of 'atomically precise manufacturing' and 'molecular manufacturing' love to talk about the mind-boggling possibilities that these technologies would offer. These visions range from the modest, such as improved materials and more efficient production methods for chemicals (already on the horizon), to the outrageous, such as molecular desktop fabs (far, far out). Articles about revolutionary nanotechnology almost always skip the hard part, i.e. the tremendous amount of research breakthroughs that are required to get from where we are today to the promised land. It's as if some flight enthusiasts in 1903, when Orville Wright took off on the first powered flight, would have debated first class cabin design of 600-seat jet airliners flying New York - Tokyo non-stop. Nanotechnology researchers today are still struggling with very basic problems such as being able to control the synthesis of nanoparticles. It might come as a bit of a shock to the nanotechnology enthusiasts among you, but even something utterly fundamental as synthesizing metal nanoparticles today is more of an empirical trial and error approach than a predictable, fully controlled process. Let's take a look at new research coming out of a Spanish university that exemplifies the tiny, yet elementary, steps researchers need to take to master the nanoscale.
What do humans have in common with the pinky-sized tropical zebrafish that zip around in many hobbyists' home aquariums? Well, surprising as it may be, quite a lot actually. Zebrafish share the same set of genes as humans and have similar drug target sites for treating human diseases. For this reason, scientists, when turning to a model-organism to help answer genetic questions that cannot be easily addressed in humans, often chose the zebrafish (Danio rerio) - and save a few mice in the process. Zebrafish are small, easy to maintain, and well-suited for whole animal studies. Furthermore, its early embryonic development is completed rapidly within five days with well-characterized developmental stages. The embryos are transparent and develop outside of their mothers, permitting direct visual detection of pathological embryonic death, mal-development phenotypes, and study of real-time transport and effects of nanoparticles in vivo. Therefore, zebrafish embryos offer a unique opportunity to investigate the effects of nanoparticles upon intact cellular systems that communicate with each other to orchestrate the events of early embryonic development. In a new study, researchers explore the potential of nanoparticles as in vivo imaging and therapeutic agents and develop an effective and inexpensive in vivo zebrafish model system to screen biocompatibility and toxicity of nanomaterials. Such real-time studies of the transport and biocompatibility of single nanoparticles in the early development of embryos will provide new insights into molecular transport mechanisms and the structure of developing embryos at nanometer spatial resolution in vivo, as well as assessing the biocompatibility of single-nanoparticle probes in vivo.