Nanobiotechnology: Pandora’s genie is pushing the cork

As a market, bionanotechnology is projected to grow world-wide by a rate of 28%. No further explanation is needed why the field is increasingly considered “the future of everything,” even if its potential for raising concerns is seldom overlooked and no FDA regulations exist to date.

As one can always safely assume with interdisciplinary areas, the father of all things is a dispute over terminology – in this case, the distinction, if any, between nanobiotechnology and bionanotechnology. Although enough ink is being spilled on that, it hardly matters: if nanobiotechnology, as a Lilliput version of biotechnology, takes concepts and fundamentals directly from nanotechnology to biotechnological use, bionanotechnology derives its concepts from mechanics, electricity, electronics, optics, and biology,  and relates structural and mechanistic analysis of molecular-level biological processes into specific synthetic applications of nanotechnology. Not a distinction without a difference, but it matters little due to one principal characteristic of all nanotechnology: at the molecular and submolecular scale, biochemistry, biophysics, biology, and all other forms of human inquiry converge.  Thus, multidisciplinarity is inherent.
The reason for which nanotechnology is widely viewed as a quantum leap in “everything” is its promise of a systemic solution rather than a symptomatic one: nanotechnology takes the solution eye-to-eye with the problem by controlling and mimicking devices and processes of molecular size. Life itself is an example of unmanageably complex nanoprocesses and nanodevices. Bringing the solution to the level of its targeted issues promises more adequate solutions to a wide array of challenges. As the scale of nanotechnology increasingly coincides with the scale of fundamental biological structures and components, biophysics and biochemistry converge and merge in applications. Some technologies are developed top-down as miniaturizations of existing concepts, for example microfluidic biochips that are reduced to nanofluidic ones. Others are based on a build up of molecular components in a bottom-up approach that is typically favored by chemists. Examples here are dendrimers.

Nanobiotechnology, as a branch of nanotechnology dealing with biological and biochemical applications or uses, attempts in its biomimetic approach to engineering solutions to mimic nature to achieve technological objectives. One of its aims is to combine biological and electronic systems enabling, for example, interfacing immensely minimized integrated semiconductor circuits with nerve cells to increasingly compensate for mechanical or degenerative damage to neurological functions. Bionanotechnology harnesses an immense and diverse array of self-assembling building blocks and processes to create nano-level structures resulting in the creation of extremely effective materials at extremely small scale. The single most fruitful approach has been to study existing elements of living organisms or natural phenomena to fabricate new nanodevices.   

The greatest promises of nanobiotechnology lay in applications for medicine, particularly biosensing, biocontrol, genomics, computing, information storage, energy conversion, nanomotors, and nanolasers. Nanodiagnostics are expected to improve sensitivity and extend limits of current-day molecular diagnostics.  Sequencing single DNA molecules is already feasible. Drug delivery - including intracellular delivery - is about to be revolutionized by nanostructures such as fullerenes, because they permit precise grafting of active chemical groups in three-dimensional orientations. And controlled-release devices operating autonomously can be conceived as a response to emerging needs.

Nanomachines are modified biological entities driven by an engine as energy source. They may identify pathogens, repair host cells, destroy infected or malignated cells, and to that end may even be equipped with high-intensity lasers. They could diagnose pathological tissues, but also remove or restore them, rendering classical invasive surgery a thing of the past. They will significantly improve implant technology, as well as tissue engineering and treatment of injuries from biological warfare and poisoning. Finally, nanobiotechnological approaches bear markedly higher promise to remedy known vascular diseases such as coronary heart disease – which is, of course, a systemic affliction not limited to either heart of brain – than conventional pharmaceutical therapies, bypass surgery or angioplasty.

Nanobiotechnology will also bring about revolutionary changes in our use and recovery of natural resources, energy (such as high-efficiency fuel cells, improved solar energy conversion, hydrogen storage in nanotubes), water, and waste. It may not be a matter of progress by innovation and economic efficiency but of sheer survival. The theory that the next major wars in the Third World are likely to be fought over water is based on the U.N.’s prediction that 48 countries representing 32% of the world population will experience severe fresh water shortages by 2025. As a result, water purification and desalination improved by orders of magnitude so that future water demands can be met globally is not merely a technological and economic challenge but an imperative of preventative safeguarding national and international security and environmental protection. Nanobiotechnology can be one of the answers also here. That fact alone most likely ought to warrant teragrowth of nanotechnology as an industry. The difficulty of measuring the full extent of its benefits lay, as always, in the accounting treatment of averted harm or loss, particularly on a global scale.

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