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Environment Media News Science Technology

A Drinkable Book

drinkable book

 

Water Filters in a Book

Dr Teri Dankovich, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh USA has developed and tested a book whose pages can be torn out and used to filter drinking water. Trails are impressive, with the process bringing the water up to US drinking water standards.

The book’s pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through. Some of the particles do remain in the water however, but they remain within the legal limits.

Nanomaterials

Now here I have to add my own input to the debate. As readers might know I have written several posts about nanomaterials and it is one of the fields that I work in, and I would question how legal limits are defined.

Nanoparticles are treated like any other particles, and their scale is not taken in account, but this seems to raise some questions. The fact that they are so small means that they can pass easily into the blood stream, so their effects may not be the same as larger particles of the same materials.

So I have to leave an open question mark over the legal issue, but the fact that the water is drinkable is a great advantage. And this leads me to ponder the fact that innovation, and its level of responsibility and ethical justification, must be local. An invention or innovation that brings drinkable water to millions, is portable and cheap and could save many lives, must be seen within its context. Nanoparticles in the water in this situation, may not be same an nano particles found in water because of factory pollution or deliberate addition when other processes might be readily available.

An article on the BBC explains that “All you need to do is tear out a paper, put it in a simple filter holder and pour water into it from rivers, streams, wells etc and out comes clean water – and dead bacteria as well”. And one page can clean up to 100 litres of water. A book could filter one person’s water supply for four years.

The project is looking for funding, so if you are interested and have some money to spare click on the link at the start of the post and pass them over your pocket money.

As a final thought, nanotechnology has come in for criticism from the academic community for its lack of regulation, and rightly so. But it also brings a world of possibilities, many of which like the story above that could transform people’s lives. This is the fine line that interests me in my work, how to make the most of scientific developments at the least environmental and social costs, and for the highest number of people.

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Technology

Nanotechnology Regulation

Nanotechnology applications chart

Last week I did not post as I was preparing to chair a session at a plenary for the European Commission in Brussels. Full details are available here, but today I would like to pose a few issues that were raised during the event.

This is not the first time I have spoken at conferences about nanotechnology regulation, nor is it my first Technology bloggers post on the matter. Readers might like to take a look at these posts going back to 2012.

But as an overview my interest is in regulation. And the problems raised 3 years ago are ever more pressing. Nano products are everywhere (see the diagram above, and that is old), they do not have to be labeled, and there are still questions about health and regulation that have never been answered.

Last week’s topic was the Responsible Nano Code, a document drawn up to offer guidance to nanotechnology producers as a guide. It is voluntary, has no legal standing (I will come on to that though) and is a set of principles rather than a regulatory code.

The code can be freely downloaded here.

The principles address issues such as Director Board accountability and involvement, stakeholder involvement, worker health and safety, public health, safety and environmental risks, wider social, health, environmental and ethical implications and impacts, engaging with business partners and transparency and disclosure. And if you read the code you find nothing that anyone wouldn’t agree with.

The preparation was a serious endeavour too, it took several years to come to its final draft, and involved a lot of people. Founders included the Royal Society, Nanotechnologies Industries Association, Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network and Insight Investment.

Upon completion the code was presented across the world. In the USA however several problems were seen due to the nature of the law there. One problem is the risk of being sued. If a company states that they follow a code they become liable to legal action if someone can demonstrate that they did not in fact follow some aspect of the code. So companies are reluctant to state that they follow a code unless it is mandatory.

Also if a code is followed by a group of companies, it becomes the benchmark, so all companies are then judged according to that code, even if they do not participate. So implementation carries some really serious consequences.

In the US, nanomaterials are regulated in the same way as any other materials, and not specifically as nano, which to some seems problematic. Health issues have been raised (see my first nano post through the link above) and never resolved. And we must bear in mind that we are talking about hundreds of thousands of products in all sectors. In order to follow through on the pledges in the code, producers would have to educate and look after not only their own workers, but anyone who deals with these products throughout their entire lifespan. This includes, transport workers, salespeople, shopkeepers, waste collectors and disposal workers, end users, the list goes on.

And if there is a need for regulation, who is going to write it? I can’t write it, so do we need an expert? But can we get a nanotechnology expert who is probably positive about the undoubted advantages of pursuing a technology to write the regulations? Will they be balanced? Or should we ask a member of Greenpeace, or anyone else who might hold serious doubts about the processes and politics involved?

These are open questions, and although I cannot myself offer any answers it is something that we can and should all discuss. And it makes for an interesting line of work!

Categories
Business Environment News Science Technology

Nanofoods

This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.

Categories
News Technology

Top 10 Emerging Technologies

A couple of weeks ago the World Economic Forum published a document on its blog called “The top 10 emerging technologies for 2013”. I thought it might be interesting to have a look at what they say. The article can be read here. The comments are my own interpretation however.

World Economic Forum

1. Online Electric Vehicles.

About 100 years ago a scientist called Tesla demonstrated that electricity could be provided wirelessly. Today there is an idea that electric cars could drive while being recharged from electromagnetic fields created from cables under the road. The cars would need much smaller batteries of course.

The problem with this technology seems to be that it is difficult to measure how much power is taken, so difficult to bill for, nothing more than that. Take a look at this article about other ways of cutting pollution from transport systems.

2. 3D printing and remote manufacturing.

Much has been written and the technology undoubtedly carries advantages, but did you read my post about 3D printers potentially being used to make gun parts?

3. Self Healing Materials.

A great idea but this and other uses of nanotechnology and its production practices need to be regulated, as does the disposal of such materials. We don’t know enough about the effects upon human health as the recent report cited in another post on this blog demonstrates.

4. Energy Efficient Water Purification.

Must be a good thing. Some of Christopher’s thoughts on the issue here.

5. Carbon Dioxide conversion and use.

Geo-engineering offers the possibility of drawing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground, but this technology is extremely controversial. This article entitled Engineering a Solution to Global Warming gives an idea of some of the ethical debate surrounding such processes.

6. Enhanced nutrition to drive health.

Genetic modification of plants to make them more nutritional. Much has been written about the GM issue, it is certainly not as simple as it may sound. Great commercial interests are involved, as are problems of cross fertilization and non-reproducibility. See this article on the Bassetti Foundation website about the Vatican and its interests in the problem.

7. Remote sensing.

The buzz-phrase Smart City is all over nowadays. Have a look at this article for some ideas of how using sensors might improve urban life.

8. Precise drug delivery through nanoscale engineering.

Medicine is the area in which nanotechnology research shows its greatest potential. The problems of regulation still exist as brought up in the article above, but the possible advantages for society make this type of research extremely valuable.

9. Organic electronics and photovoltaics.

This article mentions solar panels made using fruit and vegetable juice instead of silicon, and the printing of circuits using organic materials is already a reality. Silicon is more efficient at the moment, but expensive, polluting and will eventually run out, but if scale is not a problem these solutions work well.

10. Fourth generation nuclear reactors and waste recycling.

Making nuclear energy cleaner and better is the goal. The questions of safety and sustainability as well as real cost are not raised however, again not an argument that can be expanded upon too much as it is extremely polarized, but there are cleaner and safer ways to produce electricity as the article about electricity generation cited above shows.

Well it looks like we got most of it covered at Technology Bloggers anyway, cutting edge as we are.

Categories
Media News Science Technology

Report from the Nanotechnology Lecture

Today I would like to look at some of the issues raised at the Nanotechnology lecture that I posted about last week.

The lecture was delivered by Michael Bruch, head of Research and Design of Allianz insurance company. He brought up some interesting points about nanotechnology and its production.

One problem that he raised is that we do not really know how much nanotech we are surrounded by as products containing engineered nano-particles do not have to be labeled.

Many cosmetics, sun creams and sports related products use the technique, but also food manufacturers, so it is really difficult to understand how much exposure we have to these particles. Scratch resistant paint and darkened windscreens are already here, but self repairing paint is also under trial, as is paint that changes colour.

Another problem is that their manufacturing processes are practically unregulated. Most of these materials are produced by small companies that have little or no safety procedures. And it is unclear what type of procedures would be of use.

This is because it is unclear how exposure affects the human body. These particles can enter the body in various ways, and have the capability of passing directly from the blood to the brain. This means that they can be used for medical cures such as in fighting cancer, but also that once in your body they can transfer everywhere.

Nanotechnology Lecture Panel - Jonny Hankins
The panel of speakers

Recent studies have found that exposure to nano carbon tubes does affect the heart in mice however, and similarities are drawn with asbestos as many of the fibres look similar. One complicating factor however is that materials used on a nano scale have different properties, so something that is inert such as gold might be toxic at nano scale or the other way round.

Further problems arise when we think about end of life treatment. Much of the expert knowledge is not passed down the line to those responsible for disposal of these products, so they may not be treated correctly when it comes to recycling or destroying them.

All of the above means that the nanotech industry brings with it an enormous amount of risk. Health risks are easy to see, but also environmental risks. We do not know how much is released into the atmosphere today, nor whether there will be industrial accidents and what their effects might be.

Regulation is difficult to draw up however as terms and definitions have not been agreed upon. Voluntary codes seem to be the only attempt at implementing some form of standardization.

What is safe to say is that this technology is certainly changing our lives, but that as it is developing so quickly little is known about how to treat it or the consequences it might bring.

I made a speech myself, the outline of which is below. Thanks to everyone who watched via streaming, the photos were taken from the live stream by Christopher.

Jonny Hankins nanotechnology lecture
Me at the lecture

Comment by J Hankins of the Bassetti Foundation at the Bocconi University in Milan.

I would agree with previous comments that there is definitely a role to play for insurers in innovation.

I would also argue that the lecture Dr Bruch has just delivered is not only about innovation, but also about responsibility and obligation.

Innovation is a complex phenomenon combining science, technology, finance, management, enterprise and organizations to achieve a goal that is not only scientific but also entrepreneurial and political. The ultimate use of any results will be outside science, even though they greatly need the contribution of science, in what is by definition a continuous process.

Taken literally, innovation is something that comes about when an advance in knowledge, which is a result of a discovery, is accompanied by and combined with technology, and the power to put that advancement into practice (capital). It is not simply discovery. It is something more than that. It is part of a new historical situation arising from a combination of knowledge, technology, know-how, and the risks/opportunities developed and implemented by business or other powers. That is, it is something that was not there before and which has come about through a “new” combination of knowledge and power, bringing change into the social world. This change is appropriated, negotiated, lived through, or fought, by people – whether as citizens or as consumers.

Innovation, however, is also creativity, which necessarily implies unforeseeable change. It implies increased risk/opportunity and social power. It leads to unpredictability in the socio-political field (new institutions, types of relationship, of production, of war, and new powers), in the technical and economic realms (new materials, sources of energy, tools and categories of goods), and the cultural-aesthetic field (new styles, fashions, tastes and habits).

If we look at the interest that governments currently show in nanotechnology development this relationship to power becomes easier to see. As an agent of change, risk is intrinsic to all innovation, and I would argue that it should be carried out responsibly.

The development of nanotechnology in some ways exemplifies the problem of responsibility in innovation perfectly. As we have seen in Dr Bruch’s lecture, developments in the medical field offer new treatments for cancer, in engineering we are seeing ever lighter and stronger construction materials, and these advances will continue to ever more change the way we live and our surroundings.

But as stated, these developments are not without risk, and risk requires responsibility to be taken.

It is the entire process of innovation that must be responsible through the actions of all involved in it, in all of their different roles. It would help to have a societal understanding and a political framework in place for collaborative deliberation and for a collective capacity to rethink the fundamentals of our own premises and assumptions as we go along, changing the world we live in.

I would argue that Dr Bruch’s presentation can be seen as a call for responsible innovation in its entirety. In some ways he is saying that a company can only insure you if you play your part, as the innovator you must be transparent and thorough. But the cover is also reliant upon other actors. The consumer must be educated and informed so that when they purchase something they do it knowingly. This requires reliable information on the part of the media as well as an absence of political manoeuvring. The regulator figure is also necessary, as they must inform and orchestrate the communication that underlies their decision making and intervention.

The fact that insurance cover is seen as necessary before investment means that companies that cannot find insurance cover have difficulty securing funding for their products. This puts the insurance companies in an interesting position, as they have a direct influence on the innovation process. In some ways they become the gatekeeper, allowing those that display best practices to pass, and those who may not demonstrate an appreciation of the consequences of their work may find finance difficult.

If we look at the risk analysis in Dr Bruch’s lecture we find that it is necessarily very widely drawn, sometimes even vague as the spectrum of possible effects is large and the time scale immeasurable. This does not mean however that it is not important or should be overlooked however.

If we have no loss history, as in the case of nanotechnology, how can we measure the risk involved? Can we gain foresight? Can we use the experience of the insurance industry to create an algorithm for future risk that is not based on case history. If so could we in fact do the same for responsibility?

The examples of needs and obligations given in Dr Bruch’s lecture are not only applicable to nanotechnology however. The process required for the adequate testing of exposure levels, medical studies, political decisions, the drawing up of regulation and its implementation are present throughout society. We cannot believe that ad-hoc regulation is an answer, because by definition it can only be implemented late on in the innovation process, when the factors that may be foreseeable have been measured, standardized and formalized, and we should remember that many other factors that are more difficult to see will also play their part.

Regulation is necessary, but if we accept that it can only appear late in the innovation process it cannot be the basis for our goal. The innovation process itself must be imbued with responsibility, its design and implementation must try to take implications for the future of present actions into account.

As Dr Bruch mentioned perceptual risk is also an issue that needs to be addressed. Here we move into the political arena, an arena that should certainly not be overlooked given the influence of national, international and global politics in nanotechnology. The management of the perception of risk is as real as the management of risk itself, as perception affects decision-making.

If I could raise some questions to the audience I would like to think more about ‘stewardship’, the responsibility insurance companies hold in granting cover to operators in the nanotech industry and how a premium can be calculated in the face of such uncertainty and indeterminacy.

Categories
Media News Science Technology

Nanotechnology Lecture Invitation

On Tuesday I am participating in a lecture about nanotechnology at the Bocconi University in Milan.

Nanotechnology Lecture Poster
Nanotechnology Lecture Poster

This is not a subject that is new to this website as a quick search demonstrates. In May of 2011 Hayley asked the question of whether nanotechnology research is safe. It is a well written and commented post that raises some critical questions about the ethics and practices surrounding technology that is already changing our lives and has incredible potential in many walks of life.

Hayley continued her thread in January of this year with an article about nanobots, the future of nanotechnology. Here she describes the bottom up approach that the technology is taking on, underlining the importance of self replication.

In March I followed up on these articles with a post about how nanotechnology procedures are regulated, based upon the National Research Council’s report of the same month. Many similar issues are raised in the report about environmental damage, possible risks to health and governance.

On a lighter note in April I posted about nano-art and again in May about how nanotechnology is making waterproof electronics a reality.

So all of this leads me on to Tuesday’s lecture. The main speaker is Michael Bruch, the Head of R&D and Risk Consulting at Allianz Global Corporate (the insurance company). He is going to talk about the role of insurance in innovative technologies, with a focus upon nanotechnology.

If we read the articles linked above we understand that this research is fraught with risk, and so development companies have to take out insurance against losses, but how can the level of risk be calculated with such an unknown and potentially powerful product? What might the implications be for the global financial system if something goes catastrophically wrong?

Well if anybody can tell you Mr Bruch can.

The proceedings will be streamed live through the Bassetti Foundation website, but I am travelling half way round the world to be there in person. It will also be available later on podcast, and I think will be a very interesting debate.

I will let you know next week how it all goes. Invitation enclosed.

Categories
Computers Gadgets Media Technology

Why you need waterproof electronics

When I dropped my phone into the toilet I was amazed to see that it continued to work for a few seconds. All hope was quashed however 2 minutes later when it stopped, short, never to work again. I had only paid 26 dollars for it from ebay, but this was not the first time that such an incident had occurred in my household. My wife dropped her phone in the toilet on the day I bought it for her and I fell over whilst wading through a river in a drunken moment of foolhardiness and drowned my first mobile (and almost myself).

None of this need ever occur again however, thanks to nanotechnology. A company called Neverwet has designed an all purpose waterproof coating that can be sprayed on that repels water so well that they can even show a computer dipped into water while turned on still operates. Last year they won the Grand Prix Award as an innovative start up and their product is really quite impressive. Check out the video on their website.

A man working on a computer underwater
Mr Phelps at work

The technology has many applications, it can be used to protect materials used under the sea to prevent corrosion, fabrics or small articles can be either dipped or sprayed, but the most interesting application certainly seems to be in electronics. A mother board can be sprayed and then used in wet conditions without failing. A great breakthrough I think.

If you are interested in weatherproofing you should know that there are already many all weather computers on the market. Terralogic sell a range of rugged computers and accessories for work and military purposes. Obviously if you are carrying a computer on a battlefield it cannot be a domestic lightweight and easily damageable machine, so these beasts are designed to be shock and water resistant, and they come in military green so you stand out from the crowd in your local Cyber cafe.

If you really need to go and work underwater you can purchase the WetPC, designed for the Australian military by Kord Defence Systems. This little baby is designed for underwater note taking, and offers a host of improvements over previous attempts making it much more user friendly through the adoption of its 5 key system. Combinations of the keys perform different functions making the machine suitable for underwater archeology, research and engineering as well as water sports.

If you want to go one step further how about the underwater cell phone? This little package allows you to make a receive calls as you dive, and works either at sea or in the lake or pool at the bottom of the garden.

Underwater Phone
The Alpha underwater phone in use

Joking aside the technology is designed for commercial divers. The kit can be used with any phone that has a voice dialing system, as it sits within a face mask that is attached to a long lead with a floating buoy attached. The buoy hosts the broadcasting technology so that the user can connect to their normal service. All for about $1700 US. Take a look at the Ocean Reef company website for more details and to see what else tickles your fancy.

So just dip your HP into Neverwet for domestic use or go the whole hog with a military machine, the choice is yours, but in the days of rising sea levels it is always better to be prepared.

Categories
Science Technology

NanoArt

A couple of weeks ago whilst writing about nanotechnology and the associated risk involved in such engineering techniques I mentioned Nanoart.  This week I would like to expand and to present a gallery of examples.

nano playboy logo

To quote Cris Orfescu, founder of Nanoart 21, “NanoArt is a new art discipline at the art-science-technology intersections. It features nanolandscapes (molecular and atomic landscapes which are natural structures of matter at molecular and atomic scales) and nanosculptures (structures created by scientists and artists by manipulating matter at molecular and atomic scales using chemical and physical processes). These structures are visualized with powerful research tools like scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes and their scientific images are captured and further processed by using different artistic techniques to convert them into artworks showcased for large audiences.”

One of the issues raised during discussion in my previous posts was about the usefulness and point of such artistic expression, so here I quote the NanoArt 21 website:

“The purpose is to promote  NanoArt worldwide as a reflection of a technological movement… a more appealing and effective way to communicate with the general public and to inform people about the new technologies of the 21st Century. NanoArt is aimed to raise the public awareness of Nanotechnology and its impact on our lives”.

There are several organizations that promote this form of expression and at least one international competition that offers cash prizes for the best examples (NanoArt 21 have an international competition). The German Centre for Research and Innovation hosted an exhibition of their collection in New York in 2011 and the number of artist/scientists involved seems to be growing.

The following gallery should give you an idea of this particular art form. Also take a look at the Nanobama here. The image is of nanotubes made in the shape of President Obama’s face, similar in style to the playboy above.

a guitar
A guitar

 

self explanatory

 

extra planetary
in blue
A nano landscape

You can find many other examples online. Do you like them? I personally like the 3D effect. It seems more accentuated because the images are created by electrons (electrically charged particles) rather than photons (particles of light). The electrons penetrate deeper into the structure creating images with more depth.

Categories
News Science

Nanotechnology, risks and benefits

Last year Hayley posted a really good article on this site entitled ‘What do we need to know about Nanotechnology?‘ She raised some important issues about the governance of such high technology including the facts that little research has been conducted into health implications, legal regulation is minimal and nobody really knows how much of this type of material is produced. It is however already everywhere, in cosmetics, car wax and sunscreen to name but a few.

She followed the post earlier this year with another, ‘Nanobots, the future in Nanotechnology‘. This is also an informative piece in which she describes how nanotech engineering is moving away from top down construction to a bottom up approach, and goes on to talk about the possibility of building autonomous and even self replicating robots on the nano-scale.

Last week I posted an article about synthetic biology, another branch of science that deals in the nano-scale. With synthetic biology one of the issues raised by Hayley, that of power source, is resolved, as the machines are in fact alive and get their power from the organism that they are implanted into. The two are very much related and entwined forms of science.

And all this leads me on to looking at regulation regarding these types of research and a recent publication entitled ‘A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanotechnologies’.

The document was prepared by the National Research Council and a pre publication copy is available from the National Academic Press for downloaded here.

This is a long and detailed document written with the help of a host of academics, and it raises some very important points about an industry that Barak Obama has placed at the forefront of his innovation policy. In this year’s budget Obama is asking for 123.5 million dollars to invest in nano-tech research, which if seen next to the relatively small investment of 34.8 million in 2005 signals the importance attached to this form of innovation.

Nanobama

But all of this investment is made in a technology that is as yet practically unregulated and severely lacking in health and safety legislation, with the problem being that exposure limits and contamination issues have yet to be formalized. All of this is despite the ever growing use of such particles in our everyday life.

The National Research Council document aims to develop such a research strategy starting from a conceptual framework for considering environmental, health and safety risks, through critical questions to understanding the problem, tools and approaches for identifying properties that may cause risk, resources needed and how to implement the strategy once it has been described.

The document is extremely thought provoking. The fact that safe (or dangerous) exposure levels to such particles have never been determined nor possible environmental release dangers quantified or analyzed seems to paint a picture of an entire industry that operates without a clear understanding of how to manage the risks involved in their work.

This week a rather alarming report was published on the Science News website in which scientists have discovered that exposure to nano-particles changes the way blood vessels in animals behave. They were not using a poisonous substance I might add, but a common compound of nano-particle size.

Now I am not a biologist but I imagine that if it affects mice in this way then it will probably do the same to me.

I would summarize the problem as this; regulation and law making always has a problem when dealing with high technology, lawmaking is a slow process, but technological advancement is not. Laws chase while science runs ahead. But here we are dealing with a serious situation, something is in mass production and use, generating large sums of money but practically unregulated and untested.

The possible up-sides of nanotechnology are enormous, but I would say that the down-sides need to be taken into account too.

For a more in depth debate see my and other’s posts on the Bassetti Foundation website.

Categories
Science

What is Synthetic Biology?

In my work I write about nanotechnology and synthetic biology and over the next couple of weeks I would like to describe what is happening in these high technology fields. I start with synthetic biology. I am not a scientist and cannot give any form of technical description of how they do what they do. I can present a kind of sketch though of what they are doing and their aims.

The first question then must be what is synthetic biology? Well it is something that can be described as engineering, biology, genetics or nanotechnology, the most common description is that of applying the concept of engineering to biological organisms. But what does that actually mean?

Well, synthetic biology aims to design and engineer biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesigning existing, natural biological systems. Practitioners use a systems approach, an organism is seen as a whole, or a system, and can therefore be engineered, very much like a machine.

you see, kid's stuff

The system is reduced to biological parts (bioparts) whose function is expressed in terms of input/output characteristics. Once these parts have been described in terms of their function, isolated, standardised and syntheticaly reproduced, they can then be combined to from new organisms, very much in the way that an engineer would build a machine using standard devices built from standard parts. It is just that they are parts of a living organism.

These standard parts are defined by their DNA, and this can be manipulated in order to make the perfect part for the perfect device. Parts of the DNA can be removed and synthetic pieces used to replace them. Create the right part that does the right job, put in it a carrier cell (known as chassis) and Bob’s your Uncle, you can start to construct your organism.

The Biobricks Foundation is a not for profit organization that aims to keep a register of these standard parts, maintaining open access and promoting technical standardization, something that is seen as holding the key to the further development of synthetic biology.

Obviously to do all of the above you require technical expertise, the process requires computational modeling in order to analyze the complexities of biological entities and to predict system performance. You require DNA sequencing in order to describe the genome and then of course DNA synthesis, to re-produce either part of or the entire genome itself.

But what are the potential areas of application for this technology, and what can they actually do now?

One of the main fields is undoubtedly medicine. Drugs can be produced that are more effective or have fewer or even no side effects, as the genomes of their active components can be adjusted and synthesized. An example is the development of a synthetic version of the anti-malarial drug Artermisinin that could be industrially and cheaply mass produced, and in the near future antibiotics could become much more efficient.

Another existing application is water that changes colour when in contact with different polluting agents making them instantly recognizable. Switches already exist that react to certain types of input. An example could be a cell that is part of a person’s body that reacts to the stimulus of a certain chemical that in turn stimulates the production of another. Imagine for example a device that reacts to a chemical produced by a cancerous cell. This input causes a reaction that produces another chemical to counteract this presence. All working naturally using the body’s energy to function.

Other developments involve the energy sector, the production of plants for bio mass that are not as wasteful as those used today and even the development of synthetic aviation fuels.

In other fields a synthetic form of the silk produced by the Golden Orb spider is under development. This is an extremely strong, fine and lightweight material that could lead the way towards new specialist engineering materials.

They are even working on living computer memory, and  this article describes breakthroughs and results in DNA computing.

Well this is nothing but reasonable, my memory lives in my brain and the memory of my ancestors in my DNA, and now they have the technology to read it and even change it, so why not use it in a computer?

I have written several articles on this and other related topics on the Bassetti Foundation website, and as I said I am no scientist, so all comments and criticism invited and accepted.