Ever since humans imagined the ability to deliberately manipulate matter on the atomic scale, they have glimpsed the boundless possibilities of the science of nanotechnology. And for almost as long, they have disputed whether molecular machines should be built using a “hard” (physical engineering) or “soft” (biology-based) approach. On his blog, Richard Jones, author of the book Soft Machines, discusses some of the more intricate details and debates in molecular nanotechnology.
In a recent post, Jones delves into the issue of what lessons nanotechnology should take away from biological systems: should we view cell biology as the penultimate achievement in nanotechnology, or can we improve upon the slap-dash, trial-and-error approach of evolution by making rational choices in materials? In his words:
The engineers’ view, if I can put it that way, is that nature shows what can be achieved with random design methods and a palette of unsuitable materials allocated by the accidents of history. If you take this point of view, it seems obvious that it should be fairly straightforward to make nanoscale machines whose performance vastly exceeds that of biology, by making rational choices of materials, rather than making do with what the accidents of evolution have provided, and by using the design principles we’ve learnt in macroscopic engineering.
The opposite view stresses that evolution is an extremely effective way of searching parameter space, and that in consequence is that we should assume that biological design solutions are likely to be close to optimal for the environment for which they’ve evolved. Where these design solutions seem odd from our point of view, their unfamiliarity is to be ascribed to the different ways in which physics works at the nanoscale. At its most extreme, this view regards biological nanotechnology, not just as the existence proof for nanotechnology, but as an upper limit on its capabilities.
Ultimately, argues Jones, nanotechnology has a lot to learn from biological systems — but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of improving upon it, either. He cites the emerging science of synthetic biology as a field that is using a sensible engineering approach to the development of biological nanodevices such as molecular motors, and wonders if this approach may ultimately lead to a biomemetic nanotechnology.
The right lessons for nanotechnology to learn from biology might not always be the obvious ones, but there’s no doubting their importance. Can the traffic ever go the other way – will there be lessons for biology to learn from nanotechnology? It seems inevitable that the enterprise of doing engineering with nanoscale biological components must lead to a deeper understanding of molecular biophysics. I wonder, though, whether there might not be some deeper consequences. What separates the two extreme positions on the relevance of biology to nanotechnology is a difference in opinion on the issue of the degree to which our biology is optimal, and whether there could be other, fundamentally different kinds of biology, possibly optimised for a different set of environmental parameters. It may well be a vain expectation to imagine that a wholly synthetic nanotechnology could ever match the performance of cell biology, but even considering the possibility represents a valuable broadening of our horizons.
In a more recent post, Jones announces the upcoming Soft Nanotechnology meeting in London next year.
A forthcoming conference in London will be discussing the “soft” approach to nanotechnology. The meeting – Faraday Discussion 143 – Soft Nanotechnology – is organised by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and follows a rather unusual format. Selected participants in the meeting submit a full research paper, which is peer reviewed and circulated, before the meeting, to all the attendees. The meeting itself concentrates on a detailed discussion of the papers, rather than a simple presentation of the results.