There is a significant and growing need across the research and medical communities for low-cost, high throughput DNA separation and quantification techniques. The isolation of DNA is a prerequisite step for many molecular biology techniques and experiments. Although single molecule techniques afford extremely high sensitivity, to date, such experiments have remained within the confines of academic and research laboratories. The primary reasons for this state of affairs relate to throughput, detection efficiencies and analysis times. For example, in a conventional solution-based single molecule detection experiment, one can only detect approximately 10,000 molecules per minute, or one molecule every 6 milliseconds. While this may sound a lot, consider that a small drop of water (ca. 5 ml) contains approx. 1.67 x 10e23 molecules, that is 1.67 followed by 23 zeros. At that speed you need over 100 trillion years to detect all the water molecules in this single drop. Using a novel nanopore array developed by researchers in the UK, expect to be able to detect up to 1 million molecules simultaneously in the same 6 millisecond time window, representing an improvement in throughput of over six orders of magnitude (and bringing the timeframe for analyzing the molecules in a single water drop down to some 60 billion years - about five to six times the estimated age of the universe).
You might have come across the acronym NBIC, which stands for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and new technologies based on Cognitive science. Initially introduced in the U.S. National Science Foundation's 'Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance' report this acronym is often used to describe the basic idea that scientific and technological innovation can be stimulated through the convergence of two, three, or all four fields. At its most radical (and most controversial), proponents of convergence suggest that nanotechnologies will promote the unification of most branches of science and technology, based on the unity of nature at the nanoscale, including cognitive sciences. We'll keep you posted on this over the next few decades and see how it all works out. For the time being, though, it would be nice to be able to report on something more hands-on and - dare I write it - even practical. As it happens, scientists at the University of Toronto have done exactly that. They have demonstrated, for what appears to be the first time, the convergence of nanotechnology, microtechnology, microfluidics, photonics, signal processing, and proteomics to build a medical device that could lead to the development of fast, portable point-of-care diagnostics for infectious disease (IDs) such as HIV, SARS and many others.
Firefighters and stuntmen certainly appreciate the fire resistant capabilities of modern textiles. Going far beyond such niche use, flame retardant materials have become a major business for the chemical industry and can be found practically everywhere in modern society. If you live in a country where houses are mostly built from wood (like in the U.S.; where, on the other hand, the things that used to be wood are now plastic - like christmas trees; flame retardant ones of course) most structural timber and wood elements such as paneling are treated to make them more fire resistant. Plastic materials are replacing traditional materials like wood and metal - just look at the toys you played with and the ones your kids have today. Unfortunately, the synthetic polymeric materials we group under the term 'plastic' are flammable. To decrease their flammability they require the addition of flame-retardant chemical compounds. The plastic casings, circuit boards and cables of your computers, electrical appliances or car are flame retardant. So is practically every material in airplanes, trains and ships from the fabric of seats to every kind of plastic structure found onboard. Name any plastic product and chances are it has been made flame retardant. Conventional methods for making plastic flame retardant involve a range of not exactly harmless chemicals. Improving the flame retardancy of polymeric materials without the use of toxic chemicals could now become possible thanks to the synergistic effect of carbon nanotubes and clay.
Some 5,000 years ago, the megalomaniac rulers of Egypt built themselves the mothers of all tombstones - pyramids. Pyramids are the largest monuments constructed by mankind (by the way, the largest of them all, the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico, has an estimated volume of 4.45 million cubic meters; which makes it almost one third larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt; the Giza pyramid is taller, though). On the other end of the size spectrum, down to earth scientists in Germany have built some of the smallest pyramids - they are only a few hundred nanometers tall. Like their big brothers in the Arabian desert the nanopyramids' purpose is to 'entomb' something. Designed to work as a new class of microcavity optical resonator, these structures rely on internal reflection of light waves from the tilted pyramid facets to achieve strong confinement of light in all three spatial dimensions with low loss. Where the Egyptian pyramids were supposed to be a place of ascendance for the pharaoh buried inside, the German nanopyramids are 'temporary resting places' for light, giving raise to quantum optical phenomena that could provide the basis for future quantum computers.
In the medical field there is a huge demand for tissue regeneration technologies, which covers a wide range of potential applications in such areas as cartilage, vascular, bladder and neural regeneration. Just consider the need for bone and dental implants: Each year, almost 500,000 patients receive hip implants worldwide, about the same number need bone reconstruction due to injuries or congenital defects and 16 million Americans loose teeth and may require dental implants. The market for medical implant devices in the U.S. alone is estimated to be $23 billion per year and it is expected to grow by about 10% annually for the next few years. Unfortunately, medical implant devices have been associated with a variety of adverse reactions, including inflammation and fibrosis. It has been suggested that poor tissue integration is responsible for loosening of implants and mechanical damage to the surrounding host tissues. Based on an expanding body of biomedical nanotechnology research work, there is a growing consensus among scientists that nanostructured implant materials may have many potential advantages over existing, conventional ones. The key, as indicated in a number of findings, seems to be that physical properties of materials, especially with regard to their surface's nanostructure, affect cell attachment and eventually the tissue response to the implant. Although nanotopography mediated cell responses have been shown in previous work, the mechanism of these responses is mostly undetermined. New research has now been conducted to determine the influence of nanopore size on cellular responses. Interestingly, these studies have revealed that larger nanopores (200 nm) trigger DNA replication and cell proliferation via various signal transduction pathways.
In his famous 1959 speech "Plenty of Room at the Bottom", Richard Feynman offered a prize of $1000 "to the first guy who makes an operating electric motor - a rotating electric motor which can be controlled from the outside and, not counting the lead-in wires, is only 1/64 inch cube." Feynman had hoped his reward would stimulate some new fabrication technology but he was quite consternated when one year later, Bill McLellan, using amateur radio skills, built the motor with his hands using tweezers and a microscope (and many, many hours of fiddling around). McLellan's 2000 rpm motor weighed 250 micrograms and consisted of 13 parts. In the almost 50 years since, not only has the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) caught up with Feynman's bet and achieved commercial production capabilities of motors many times smaller than McLellan's, but researchers have begun exploring another level of miniaturization - nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS). Efficient actuation, the creation of mechanical motion by converting various forms of energy to rotating or linear mechanical energy, is an important - and today still frustrating - issue in designing NEMS. Research on building functional nanoscale electromechanical systems is well underway, as just demonstrated with another achievement by scientists at Caltech - the place where Feynman gave his speech and McLellan's motor still is on display.
The fight against infections is as old as civilization. Silver, for instance, had already been recognized in ancient Greece and Rome for its infection-fighting properties and it has a long and intriguing history as an antibiotic in human health care. Modern day pharmaceutical companies developed powerful antibiotics - which also happen to be much more profitable than just plain old silver - an apparent high-tech solution to get nasty microbes such as bacteria under control. In the 1950s, penicillin was so successful that the U.S. surgeon general at the time, William H. Stewart, declared it was "time to close the book on infectious diseases, declare the war against pestilence won." Boy, was he wrong! These days, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the infections acquired in hospitals alone (of all places! it's 2007 and we can't even make our hospitals safe - how scary is that?) affect approximately 2 million persons annually. In the U.S., between 44,000 and 98,000 people die every year from infections they picked up in hospitals. As our antibiotics become more and more ineffective researchers have begun to re-evaluate old antimicrobial substances such as silver. Antimicrobial nano-silver applications have become a very popular early commercial nanotechnology product. Researchers have now made a first step to add carbon nanotubes to our microbe-killing arsenal.
There you are - a romantic dinner for two, soft jazz music in the background, exquisite French cuisine served on finest porcelain. You are sniffing that 1986 Bordeaux you kept for this special occasion. The expensive floral bouquet that is the centerpiece of the table is warmly lit by several candles. "Wait!" you think, "wouldn't the soot from these candles make a great source of fluorescent carbon nanoparticles?" Or so works the mind of a nanoscientist. This is why they make great discoveries in nanotechnology while you and I just waste a few hours on dinner. Researchers actually have just demonstrated that fluorescent nanoparticles can be prepared from a common carbon source - candle soot. The whole process is so simple it could be carried out in a freshman chemical laboratory. So chances are the dinner actually was a midnight snack over pizza and diet coke, the music was Talib Kweli, and the mood was decidedly unromantic.