The UK’s science and engineering academies – the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering – were widely praised for their 2004 report on nanotechnology – Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, which was commissioned by the UK government. So it’s interesting to see, two years on, how they think the government is doing implementing their suggestions. The answer is given in a surprisingly forthright document, published a couple of days ago, which is their formal
Archive for October, 2006
I remember, when I was a (probably irritatingly nerdy) child, being absolutely fascinated by making a tic-tac-toe playing automaton out of match-boxes and beads, following a plan in one of Martin Gardner’s books. So my eye was caught by an item on Martyn Amos’s blog, reporting on a recent paper in Nano Letters (abstract and graphic freely available, subscription required for article) from a group in Columbia University, demonstrating a tic-tac-toe playing computer made, not from matchboxes or even more high-tech transistors, but from individual molecules.
The basic logic gate of this molecular computer is a single short DNA strand of a prescribed sequence which can act as a catalyst – a deoxyribozyme. Like the protein molecules used in the molecular computing and signalling operations inside living cells, these molecular logic gates operate by allostery. This is the principle that when one molecule binds to the gate molecule, it changes its shape and makes it either easier or harder for a second, different, molecule to bind. In this way you can get differential catalytic activity – that is, you can get a situation where the logic gate molecule will only catalyse a reaction to produce an output if a given input molecule is present. This simple situation would define a gate that implemented the logical operation YES; if you needed two inputs to stimulate the catalytic activity, you would have an AND gate, and if you have an AND gate whose catalytic activity can be suppressed by the presence of a third molecule, you have the logical operation xANDyANDNOTz. It is these three logical operations that are integrated in their molecular computer, which can play a complete game of tic-tac-toe (or naughts and crosses, as we call it round here) against a human opponent.
The Columbia group have integrated a total of 128 logic gates, plausibly describing it as the first “medium-scale integrated molecular circuit”. In their implementation, the gates were in solution, in macroscopic quantities, in a multi-well plate, and the outputs were determined by detecting the fluorescence of the output molecules. But there’s no reason in principle at all why this kind of molecular computer cannot be scaled down to the level of single or a few molecules, paving the way, as the authors state at the end of their paper, ” for the next generation of fully autonomous molecular devices”.
The work was done by Joanne Macdonald and Milan Stojanovic, of Columbia University, and Benjamin Andrews and Darko Stefanovic of the University of New Mexico – there’s a useful website for the collaboration here. Also on the author list are five NYC high school students, Yang Li, Marko Sutovic, Harvey Lederman, Kiran Pendri, and Wanhong Lu, who must have got a great introduction to the excitement of research by their involvement in this project.
My review of David Berube’s book Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz has been published in Chemical and Engineering News, the magazine of the American Chemical Society.
The most sophisticated exercises in using self-assembly to make nanoscale structures and machines have used, as a constructional material, the biomolecule DNA. This field was pioneered by NYU’s Ned Seeman. DNA is not exactly stuff we’re familiar with as a constructional material, though, so I don’t suppose many people have much of a feel for some of its basic mechanical properties, like its stiffness. An elegant experiment, reported in Science at the end of last year, Rapid Chiral Assembly of Rigid DNA Building Blocks for Molecular Nanofabrication (abstract free, subscription required for full article), sheds a lot of light on this question.
The achievement of this work, reported also in this Science News article, was to devise a method of making rigid DNA tetrahedra, with edges less than 10 nm in size, at high (95%) yield (previous methods of making DNA polyhedra had much lower yields than this). A model of one of these tetrahedra is shown below. But, not satisfied with just making these tetrahedra, Russell Goodman (a graduate student in Andrew Turberfield’s group at Oxford) was able to image them with an atomic force microscope and measure the response of a tetrahedron to being compressed by the AFM tip. In this way he was able to measure the spring constant of each tetrahedron.
The spring constants he found had an average of 0.18 N/m, which is reasonable in the light of what we know about the stiffness of DNA double helices. We can use this number to estimate what the stiffness – the Young’s Modulus – of the solid that would be made if you coupled together many of these tetrahedra. The precise value will depend on how the tetrahedra are linked, but a good estimate is about 20 MPa. Compared with a covalently bonded solid, like diamond (whose modulus, at around 1000 GPa, is 50 thousand times greater than our DNA solid), it’s very much floppier. In fact, this modulus is in the range of a relatively hard rubber, of the kind a shoe sole might be made of. On the other hand, given that the material would be mostly water, it’s pretty stiff – probably about a thousand times stiffer from Jello, which is similarly made up of a network of biopolymers in water.
A rigid tetrahedron formed by self-assembly from DNA, figure from Goodman et al, Science 310 p1661 (2005)