Scientists At Haverford College Receive Major Funding For Nanotechnology Research
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 are innovative.
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 Ã…kerfeldt, 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 processes.
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."
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