November 10, 2004 4:00 AM PST
Perspective: Better living--and smarter rats--through chemistrySee all Perspectives
A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany, have devised a specially designed chip that can stimulate or monitor brain tissue when placed under it. A synapse fires, and a corresponding spike in voltage occurs in the adjacent chip. Alternatively, electricity courses through the chip, and chemical synapses fire in the brain tissue.
So far, the group has only used the technology to study the reactions of snail neurons, sections of rat brain and a few other types of nerve cells. The group is not close at all to delivering a product--but the technology creates the possibility that the movements of mind can be mapped (or guided) by computers.
"The real goal is to make content-addressable memory" in living beings, said Peter Fromherz, speaking at the International Congress of Nanotechnology this week in San Francisco. "You can really look at brain dynamics with a CMOS chip," he said, referring to complementary metal-oxide semiconductors.
If you want to get a glimpse of the future, a nanotechnology conference is the place to be. Other ideas discussed at the three-day event include a fuel cell that runs on plant matter, including matter scavenged from the ground; a chip that can detect the onset of a disease days before any physically visible symptoms appear; and computers controlled by domino-like chain reactions among zinc-oxide molecules.
Although it's often viewed skeptically by investors, analysts and the general public, nanotechnology--the art of making products from designer molecules or components that measure 100 nanometers or less--is rapidly taking off. (A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter, or 90,000 times thinner than a human hair.)
The national governments in the United States, the European Union and Japan will each invest more than $900 million in nanotechnology research in fiscal 2004, according to Michael Roco, the chair of the nanoscale science subcommittee at the National Science Foundation. Early experimental results show promise. Three years ago, Roco estimated that molecules for detecting cancer far earlier might appear in 20 years to 30 years. Now, such molecules might come by 2015.
The big appeal of nanotechnology is that scientists can manipulate material at the molecular level and thereby create new materials or harness phenomena that couldn't earlier be controlled. The exploitation of activity found in nature has become a dominant theme.
For instance, the University of Genoa showed off at the conference early research that has led to small tube that can regenerate human nerve tissue. When cut, nerves typically release proteins that form scar tissue, which helps heal the wound but prevents the nerve from being reconnected.
The outside of the tube releases antibodies to inhibit the proteins responsible for scar formation, while the inside contains fibers to help promote nerve regeneration. If a victim can get to the hospital in a few hours, that Skil Saw mishap can be repaired.
Meanwhile, Sandia National Laboratories has devised what it calls the "micro chem lab," a chip that can detect dangerous biological agents in a very small sample of air, said Terry Michalske, director at the center of integrated nanotechnologies at Sandia.
The micro chem lab, like the nerve tube and the brain chip, is not a nanoscale device. It can be measured in millimeters. What makes it a nano product is a membrane inside that can trap individual molecules for analysis. (In the brain chip, the nanoscale element is a 50-nanometer barrier that conducts signals from the chip to the tissue and vice versa).
The future is also not all fun and gadgets. The world's oil production may peak by 2007 or 2008, leading to subsequent shortages, noted Steven Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a Nobel prize laureate. Worse, prolonged droughts in the southwest United States will be a precursor to a global disaster brought on by warming from greenhouse gases unless new fuels are developed, he said.
"In 150 years, if we don't fix this one, life on this planet won't continue," he said.
One way to avoid this fate may lie in synthetic biology, creating plants--or genetically modified bacteria--that can manufacture methane or other fuels. Jay Keasling at Lawrence Berkeley has already devised a strand of e.coli in the lab that secretes an antimalarial drug that in nature comes from a somewhat rare weed in Southeast Asia, Chu said.
Synthetic biology "is more of a twinkle in my eye than something real," Chu said. Nonetheless, the Berkeley lab has created a group to study it.
The computer industry also faces some massive technical hurdles, said Hans Coufal, director of IBM's Almaden Research Center. The expense of chip facilities, combined with a finite range for shrinking chips means that Moore's Law will come to an end in the coming years, a notion even Intel agrees with.
"That means the end of our business model," Coufal said.
Luckily, early research is promising, and financially, the change could be a boon.
"We will persuade them (chips) to assemble themselves," Coufal said.
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time share resort, among other occupations.