The Why Files The Why Files --

Small is beautiful: Nanotech meets biology!
orange, red and black honeycomb looking image
Photo: Wikipedia
Graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms that's just a few nanometers thick. Phenomenal strength and electrical conductivity make graphene a promising component of future nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology and life: Natural marriage?

Heard the hype about nanotech -- the science that is measured in billionths of a meter? Strange things go down at this scale: Materials can be much stronger. Ultra-thin coatings can stretch the supply of expensive elements like gold or platinum. Intimate contact between atoms of different elements in nanotech structures is the basis for research on high-grade sensors, super batteries, cheaper catalysts, and better methods for processing energy.

A couple of decades ago, some techno-seers predicted that nanosize machines, or “assemblers,” would craft anything we wanted, based on their ability to manipulate atoms. That forecast, in equal parts fanciful and fearsome, has not yet come to pass, and it did raise the frightening prospect of run-amok micro-machines turning the entire globe into "gray goo."

The real fruits of nanotech may be more pedestrian, but only slightly. The stage is now set for a second information revolution with a series of amazing new techniques for storing, processing or transmitting information, based on physical principles that totally elude the average Why-Filer.

In this Why File, we'll look at how nanotechnology is leading to:

Instruments that radically accelerate the process of chromosome mapping

More realistic ways of growing cells in the laboratory

Nano-electrodes to read faint signals from nerve cells, suggesting a more durable way to bypass an injured spinal cord


Although nano involves a lot of physics, chemistry and engineering, the nanoscale is stock in trade to biology: Life does not bother making a gram of a substance if a microgram would suffice. The DNA inside our genes is only about 2 nanometers in diameter, yet a six-foot strand contains the entire library of a human life. Proteins are just a few nanometers across, and yet their million varieties (our guessestimate) create intricate biological structures and phenomenally efficient catalysts.

At a recent meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called Nano Meets Bio: The Risks and Rewards, The Why Files caught up with some promising examples of the marriage of nanotech to biology.

Can nano help sort out your genes?

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2021, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.