Nanotechnology is a growing field of research that holds great promises in a wide range of areas. At the same time, it is also a very young area of research, and researchers of different background can quite liberally brand their research as “nano”. Nanotechnology also has the potential to challenge the way we perceive technology, and at the same time offer new ways of understanding biology. It is important that these issues are tackled not only from a perspective purely rooted in natural sciences, but from other disciplines as well. The idea behind this blog is to initiate a cross-disciplinary discussion on hos development in nanotechnology can be understood and what implications it has for the way we perceive technology
The field of nanotechnology is steadily expanding with an ever-growing number of publications associated with the keyword ”nanotechnology”. A search for the term in Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge yields 15,696 hits (years 1945 to 2011). However, 9,815 of theses approximately 16,000 are published within the last five years. Funding of research in nanotechnology has also increased over the last few years and recently China overtook USA when it comes to funding research in nanotechnology. Both within and outside of the research community, the potential health risks associated with nanotechnology, especially concerning exposure to nanoparticles and fibers made from carbon nanotubes, are heavily debated. However, there is no consensus regarding exactly how the use of nanomaterials should be regulated in legislation and health issues associated with, for example, nano-scale particles has been a concern even before the growth of nano-science.
Since it seems that the question what should actually be defined as nanotechnology is still debated, it might be useful to approach the subject from another perspective. Let us instead consider length scales in technology in general and see what makes the nanometer scale different. In conventional technology, the properties of an object are not directly related to the properties of the molecules it is built from. A chair, for instance, is primarily an object crafted from a bulk material. Molecular properties are of course important, but they do no define the chair. In nanotechnology, which deals with technological devices with at least one dimension in the size range between one and one hundred nanometer, the properties of individual molecules are of far greater importance. It is also an area where different types of materials meet. George M. Whitesides writes in his 1991 paper “Molecular Self-Assembly and Nanochemistry: A Chemical Strategy for the Synthesis of Nanostructures” (Science, 1991):
Structures in this range of sizes can be considered as exceptionally large, unexceptional, or exceptionally small, depending on one’s viewpoint, synthetic and analytical technologies, and interests (Fig. 1) . To solid-state physicists, material scientists, and electrical engineers, nanostructures are small. The techniques, such as microlithography and deposition from the vapor, that are used in these fields to fabricate microstructures and devices require increasingly substantial effort as they are extended to the range below 102 nm. To biologists, nanostructures are familiar objects. A range of biological structures – from proteins through viruses to cellular organelles – have dimensions of 1 to 102 nm. To chemists, nanostructures are large. Considered as molecules, nanostructures require the assembly of groups of atoms numbering from 103 to 109 and having molecular weights of 104 to 1010 daltons.
Thus, there is an overlap between biological structures on a subcellular level, molecules created by organic synthesis and conventional solid technology constructed using lithography. This means that nanotechnological objects can be constructed using both biological and non-biological material. It can be created on a molecular scale or crafted from bulk materials.
Here, we se one of the interesting aspects of nanotechnology. As the size regime is in the interface between many different types of structures, there is a possibility to expand the types of materials used to create technology to include, for example, biological macromolecules or supramolecular assemblies. An important feature, which is common between nanotechnological and biological objects, is the foundation in self-assembly as a construction principle. This design principle, where the information determining the assembled structure is an emergent property arising from the interaction between the individual building blocks, enables the creation of devices on a scale not accessible by e.g. lithography.
So far, we have seen that biological and nanotechnological objects can be constructed in the same way, using self-assembly. However, the similarities do not stop there, many nanotechnological devices are constructed either to mimic biological functions, or constructed using biological molecules. Examples of the latter involve molecular scaffolds or molecular electronics built from DNA, or nano-scale containers composed of phospholipids, the molecules that make up the cell membranes shielding the interior of biological cells from the exterior environment. Because we have entered the length scale where biological molecules are relevant, it is now possible to consider new materials, which have not been seen as technological before, as such.
At the same time as nanotechnology incorporates more and more of biological functionalities and features there is and opposing trend in the other end of the spectrum: Biological cells are stripped of many of their most fundamental features to more and more resemble purely technological objects. The development of synthetic genomes, a field of research whose most well known representative is the scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, challenges the perception of the biological cell as something other than technological devices which can be designed and assembled using man made components.
When the boundaries between technology and biology, between culture and nature, diminish, it is important to also examine the mechanism that is perhaps most closely associated with biological life: Darwinian evolution. Evolution is essentially the process of repetition with error. Stripped down to these basic concepts, evolution is by no means restricted to the realm of biology. There are already examples where evolutionary processes are implemented as fundamental mechanisms in technology. Emphasis on evolutionary mechanisms is perhaps most prominently seen in computer programming in the creation of self-improving code, but also there are instances where this perspective is combined with the manufacturing of physical objects. The process that is perceived as biological evolution comprises a multitude of material relationships in them selves featuring both repetition and error. An in-depth understanding of these processes helps loosening the strong association between evolution and life that is so prevalent. With the growth of technology relying on self-assembly, the ubiquity of the evolutionary process becomes more and more apparent.
Now, what is the purpose of this discussion? We want to raise a discussion on what technology can be. When the borders molecular assemblies and processes from biology are used to create technology and, simultaneously, technology is used to, in a way, manufacture biological cells, it is important to ask the question: What is the effective difference between living and non-living objects? Does there have to be a distinction? The understanding of biological processes on a molecular level, e.g. the replication of DNA, the translation of genes into proteins or the control of cellular processes through chemical signaling, has had a fundamental effect on the way we think about life and all that it means. Nowadays, symbols like the double helix of DNA are ubiquitous, and phrases such as “it’s in our genes” are commonly found in advertising. Does nanotechnology, comprising molecular technology based on self-assembly principles, have the same potential to change what we understand as both technology and biology?
So far there are a lot of open question, we want to investigate if theories from disciplines other than the sciences can provide valuable insight into these questions. We also want to create a cross-disciplinary platform where people active in, or just interested in, nanotechnology, systems biology, science theory, sociology or computer science can meet and share ideas on the implications of novel technologies.