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MIT Researchers Merge Electronics with Biology

US researchers recently moved a step closer toward integrating electronics and biological functions by successfully being able to remotely control certain aspects of biomolecules using radio-frequency energy and a novel nanocrystal antenna (see Fig). Their work is part of a new field known as biomolecular engineering.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists reported in the January 10 issue of the journal Nature that in the laboratory, they were able to remotely control the behavior of DNA, the basic genetic building block of humans and other forms of life, causing it to switch from one state to another at will.

They created an electronic interface to a biomolecule by inductively coupling a radio-frequency (RF) magnetic field to a 1-nanometer long metal nanocrystal antenna linked covalently to a DNA molecule. The inductive coupling, that is, the transfer of energy to the nanocrystal antenna, increased the local temperature of the bound DNA, allowing the change of state to take place, while leaving molecules surrounding the DNA relatively unaffected. The new technology also allows the switching to be fully reversible, because dissolved biomolecules dissipate the heat in less than 50 picoseconds, the researchers said. The technology eventually could be applied to control changes in DNA from an RF signal generated outside the body. The signal used in the experiment was 1GHz.

More and more research is being devoted to understanding the precision with which biomolecules perform complex tasks on a molecular scale, and some researchers have even compared biological processes to the ways computers work. Scientists have tried to mimic or harness the processes of biomolecules because of their efficiency and versatility, but this has been a very difficult task. So far, biomolecules have been used to perform some computational operations and actuation, to construct some artificial transcription loops that act like elements of simple circuits, and to direct the assembly of nanocrystals. But new tools need to be developed, the scientists say, to go further in the chemical and physical manipulation of biological systems. Direct electronic control over biomolecular machinery in a specific and reversible way has not yet been accomplished. But the scientists were able to move a step closer toward that in the experiment published in Nature.

EngeneOS Approach

Several of the MIT researchers who co-authored the Nature article are associated with a Massachusetts company called engeneOS (pronounced “ingenious”), which is a sponsor of the MIT Media Lab. The company also has licensed the technology from the MIT Media Lab.

The one-year-old company is attempting to merge genomics and biological sciences with cutting-edge electronics and physical sciences to create programmable biomolecular machines and hybrid devices composed of biological and non-biological materials. EngeneOS says that living systems possess remarkable capabilities, including exquisite molecular specificity, parallel information processing, novel material characteristics, environmentally-friendly catalysis and self-assembling systems. While engineers often look to macro-scale natural systems for design ideas, the trend toward ever smaller electronic devices has caused them to look now to exploit molecular biological systems, and to broaden the applications arenas.

“We were interested in creating a new method to electronically and remotely control individual biomolecules,” said MIT Media Lab professor Joseph Jacobson, also a founder of engeneOS and a member of its scientific advisory and directors$B%f(B boards.

EngeneOS plans to both develop its own products and services, and to work with partners and customers to develop and apply its technology. Potential applications include novel biomolecular devices and systems, including new protein chips that could be used for drug discovery, as well as programmable logic that enables a particular molecular structure with a desired function or functions. The company also is developing a proprietary technology called “molecular memory” that will enable stable recording of events both inside and outside of cells, both from inside and outside of the human body.

by Lori Valigra

(March 2002 Issue, Nikkei Electronics Asia)

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