Scientists At Haverford College Receive
Major Funding For Nanotechnology Research
A team of scientists at Haverford
College are working in an area of research that until recently
was the subject of science fiction, rather than serious scientific
pursuits. Constructing materials only visible under special
high-resolution microscopes, the college researchers are developing
devices for use in medicine and engineering which will be 5,000
times smaller than a human hair.
This cutting edge research, known
as nanotechnology, promises dramatic advances in fields like
medicine, electronics and environmental science. Taking its
prefix from the Greek word, nano, meaning dwarf, nanotechnology
refers to applications whose dimensions are billionths of meters.
As a result of dramatic advances in computer and microscope
technologies, scientists can now work in the "nano" environment
with materials at the most fundamental atomic and molecular
levels. By manipulating the structure of individual molecules
and taking advantage of their chemical and electrical properties,
scientists not only can alter material properties like strength,
flexibility, and electrical conductivity, but synthesize unique
materials and "nanomachines" that may prove as useful as they
With the support of a $966,020 grant
from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Cal.,
scientists at Haverford will be working on a five-year project
entitled, "Protein-Based Biomaterials for Nanotechnology."
The research team plans to mimic
in the lab a natural process involving proteins that have been
modified by the addition of porphyrin-like molecules. (Porphyrin-related
molecules are building blocks used by Nature to achieve certain
functions, such as carrying oxygen to the blood or capturing
solar energy in plants). By binding synthesized porphyrins with
synthetic proteins, they hope to build unique nanoscale or molecular"wires"
capable of capturing and transporting energy.
These wires will be 1,000 times smaller
than those presently found in the most highly miniaturized electronic
circuitry, allowing for further miniaturization of electronic
circuits and computer chips, as well as the possible development
of alternative and environmentally friendly energy sources.
The researchers also see potential for these biomaterials in
the development of microscopic medical biosensors, devices that
measure such biological processes as blood sugar levels. The
wires will be designed in such a way that they can be controlled
by environmental factors including acidity, salt concentration
and light stimulation.
Various stages of this five-year
project will rely on the interdisciplinary expertise of Haverford
faculty in what are the latest methods and technologies needed
to work with nanoscale materials. Mathematician Robert Manning,
for example, will use computer simulations to help the team
predict the properties of the nanoscale materials they create
in the lab. Through electron microscopy, scanning probe microscopy,
and laser tweezing, physicists Suzanne Kane and Walter Smith,
and biologist, Karl Johnson will make it possible for the researchers
to observe and in some cases, manipulate, the nanoscale materials.
The team also includes a biologist,
Rob Fairman, and a chemist, Karin Åkerfeldt, who have
expertise in the design of new proteins with novel functions,
and a second chemist, Julio de Paula, who has been involved
in the development of new laser-based techniques that allow
researchers to probe molecules actively engaged in photosynthetic
The potential benefits of this project
and other nanotechnology research are staggering. Scientists
can envision, for example, the creation of materials with one-sixth
the density of steel but 100 times the strength; "nano robots"
designed to travel to specific parts of the body to cure localized
lesions or protect artificial organs against immune reactions;
nanomembranes capable of filtering pollutants; and diagnostic
devices capable of detecting hundreds of diseases from a mere
drop of blood.
"It is exciting to be involved in
such a forward-looking interdisciplinary initiative, for the
enormous implications that it has for biotechnology, and for
the opportunity it offers us to educate our students at the
forefront of science," says assistant professor of biology,
Rob Fairman. "Our group has recognized that the field of protein
design is poised to make major contributions to the materials
and nanotechnology sciences and we intend to play an active
role in this research arena."
For more information about these
professors and their research interests, please click on the