Researchers at the University of Portsmouth, UK, have developed an electronic switch based on DNA – a world-first bio-nanotechnology breakthrough that provides the foundation for the interface between living organisms and the computer world.
The new technology is called a ‘nanoactuator’ or a molecular dynamo. The device is invisible to the naked eye – about one thousandth of a strand of human hair.
The DNA switch has been developed by British Molecular Biotechnology expert Dr Keith Firman at the University of Portsmouth working in collaboration with other European researchers.
Dr Firman and his international team have been awarded a €2 million European Commission grant to further develop this ground-breaking new technology.
But the DNA switch has immediate practical application in toxin detection, and could be used in a biodefence role as a biological sensor to detect airborne pathogens.
The future applications are also considerable, including molecular scale mechanical devices for interfacing to computer-controlled artificial limbs. [Emphasis added. --CP]
‘The possibilities are very exciting. The nanoactuator we have developed can be used as a communicator between the biological and silicon worlds,’ Dr Firman said.
‘I could see it providing an interface between muscle and external devices, but it has to be pointed out that such an application is still 20 or 30 years away.’
The molecular switch comprises of a strand of DNA anchored in a miniscule channel of a microchip, a magnetic bead, and a biological motor powered by the naturally occurring energy source found in living cells, adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
These elements working together create a dynamo effect which in turn generates electricity. The result is a device that emits electrical signals – signals that can be sent to a computer. The switch, therefore, links the biological world with the silicon world of electronic signals.
Here’s the not-so-good news:
The nanoactuator has been patented by the University of Portsmouth, and a patent application for the basic concepts of biosensing is pending.
Depending on how broad the nanoactuator patent is, this could inhibit progress in nanodevices, which would be a very bad thing. And note that they are also going for a patent on “the basic concepts of biosensing”. This sounds very bad indeed. We should be taking a look at the patent process; is it still serving the public good?
Arrogant Americans — if any read this blog — may want to note that this work is not being done in the U.S. If anyone thinks that the current patent system will always benefit the U.S., it’s time to rethink that too. —Christine