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Yesterday’s ‘Impossible’ Nanobots are Taking Flight Today

In 1895, the president of the Royal Society declared: "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." I try not to make similar declarations about nanobots.

by
Howard Lovy

Bio

February 26, 2012 - 12:06 am
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“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1895

This is one of my favorite quotes, for many reasons. I think of it every time I read news like this about a DNA nanobot being developed for drug delivery. I enjoy it because it was just about a decade ago, when I first began to write about nanotechnology, that nanobots were derisively dismissed as impossible by many leading scientists. As a result, just the fact that I gave the possibility any ink at all in commentaries at Small Times magazine and on my old nanotech blog made my life as a reporter and editor a bit more difficult.

But, keeping in mind Lord Kelvin’s quote about the impossibility of flight, when I write about nanotech I try my best not to embarrass my future great-great-grandchildren who might someday go on an archaeological dig into the caves of the early Internet to see what kind of nonsense their ancestor wrote using stone knives and bearskins.

So, I think I did OK in giving a voice to the minority opinion.

Now, in this latest experiment in DNA nanobots (we’re calling them nanosized robots because they sense and react to their environment, but more on that later), the scientists used a technique called DNA origami, which I have written about in various contexts over the years. It was actually used as a part of an art exhibit at the MOMA, with tiny happy faces made using this technique.

With this new study described in Science, “A Logic-Gated Nanorobot for Targeted Transport of Molecular Payloads,” it sounds like DNA origami is moving beyond a novelty act and is finding a path forward to true nanotech enabled drug delivery.

Over the years, I have been in touch with the inventor of DNA origami, Caltech’s Paul Rothemund, so I recently used this news to knock out a note to him to congratulate him on the continued success of this technique and to ask him how he feels about helping to create the once-impossible nanobot.

I told him that I can remember when the “conventional wisdom” was that the nanobots of our imagination were not only declared to be impossible by leading scientists at the time, but that their images in popular culture were derided as harmful to the “real” nanotech research going on.

Professor Rothemund surprised me with a lengthy answer that covered, among other things, the issue of what to call these little buggers that sense and react. It might seem like simply a semantic issue, whether or not to call them nanobots, but I think there’s more involved that gets at what captures the public imagination — a factor that cannot be discounted in whether and how the public supports its continuing development.

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