Researchers in the United Kingdom have found a way to tap the chemical-electrical properties in DNA to create a microscopic electronic switch. The development is being called a bio-nanotechnology first and heralds many future breakthroughs linking living organisms to computers.
The device, tentatively named the nanoactuator, consists of a strand of DNA, a microchip, a “bead magnet,” and a mechanical “dynamo” or lever less than one molecule in size. The DNA powers the nanoactuator through the substance adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the University of Portsmouth researchers explain.
ATP is a sugar-carbon nucleotide that exists in human cells. Its unique properties enable a number of cellular and larger biological functions such as metabolism, or the movement of fuel molecules across cell-membranes resulting in energy. In the nanoactuator, ATP runs the dynamo device, pulling the magnetic bead and creating an electric reaction. The chip reads the electricity and, in turn, sends signals to a computer.
“The possibilities are very exciting. The nanoactuator we have developed can be used as a communicator between biological and silicon worlds,” says molecular biologist Keith Firman. “I could see it providing an interface between muscle and external devices. But it has to be pointed out that such an application is still 20 to 30 years away.” Firman is leading the team of researchers from across Europe.
More immediately, researchers could apply the new knowledge to the problem of sensing and detecting airborne pathogens. Firman believes the experiments provide new and valuable insight into biology on the molecular level.
“The real breakthrough is that the nanoactuator can indicate events at the limits of chemical sensitivity by reporting events that occur between single molecules. This device could provide the spur that shows how biological machines can be used in nanotechnology and provide the start point for the revolution that bio-nanotechnology offers,” says Firman.
He reports that one of his most frustrating challenges was convincing potential financiers that the nanoactuator was possible. In view of the team’s success, the European Commission has awarded them a grant of [euro]2 million (approximately $2.72 million) to conduct further research. -Patrick Tucker
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007