Researchers at the University of Portsmouth 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' (shown in the image above) 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 (£1.36m) European Commission grant under its New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) initiative to further develop this ground-breaking new technology.
But the DNA switch has immediate practical applications 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.
'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.
The nanoactuator has been patented by the University of Portsmouth, and a patent application for the basic concepts of biosensing is pending.
The nanoactuator project is part of a multinational collaboration between the University of Portsmouth, The National Physical Laboratory (UK), TU Delft (The Netherlands), CNRS/ENS (France), INESC-Portugal, EMPA (Switzerland) and IMIC (Czech Republic).
Nanotechnology is the science and technology of building electronic circuits and devices from single atoms and molecules. It is the branch of engineering that deals with things smaller than 100 nanometers. A nanometer is about 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair; an ant is several millions of nanometers in length. Dr Keith Firman's work represents a fusion of molecular biology with nanotechnology - bio-nanotechnology.