Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No, it's not a nanorobot.

Once again, nano-hype. This time the subject is this very nice paper from Seeman's group at NYU, in which they use DNA-based tools to perform programmed self-assembly of some cute nanostructures (also made out of DNA). Seeman has been doing pioneering work for years on leveraging the great specificity of DNA chemistry to make interesting nanostructures. The trick is that each nucleic acid base in DNA likes to hydrogen bond with its own particular complementary base. This specificity of binding plays an essential role in eukaryotic biology, and we now know how to engineer it. In this case, Seeman and coauthors set up a situation where user-defined shapes made from DNA (created using "DNA origami") are bound in specific places and not elsewhere. The major innovation is that they've figured out a way to implement a form of error correction, and in principle they can alter the assembly parameters (that is, which peg goes into which hole) on the fly.

This is nice work, but it's not a nanorobot, not by any reasonable definition of the term. Sorry. By the way, the word "robot" doesn't appear anywhere in the paper (except in the title to one of the references).


Don Monroe said...

Fine, but most "nanotechnology" is not technology by any reasonable definition of the term, so it's hard to know what line is being crossed.

There's an interesting related commentary over at Nanodot, suggesting that scientists deliberately adopted the term "nanotechnology" for its Drexler-style associations, so it's disingenuous for them to try to distance themselves from the unkept promises.

Doug Natelson said...

See, that's why I prefer "nanoscale science" :-) As for the use of the term "nanotechnology", the colloquial use (e.g., the National Nanotech. Initiative) was decided before I was a postdoc. That's my excuse, anyway.

I'll admit, my first instinct in this blog post was to somehow work in my favorite definitions of robot. As the Encyclopedia Galactica says, a robot is a machine designed to do the work of a man. As the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation says, a robot is "your plastic pal who's fun to be with". A nanorobot would therefore be a nanoscale version. Perhaps like Jim Tour's "Nanokids".

Anonymous said...

You have to understand, Doug, the person who writes the article is the newspaper's science expert. Because they have no clue about the science, and find the description provided by the scientist to whom they talk on the phone boring, they decide to make it sexier according to their own misconceptions, in the process changing it substantially. The end product will be deceptive and uninformative but, hey, newspapers are there to sell, not to inform.

Having said that, I am sorry, I completely agree with Don. I have seen way too many colleagues of mine that instantly jumped on the "nanotech" bandwagon because they saw the opportunity to get money from gullible politicians. For them to go all up in arms when the term is used misleadingly is indeed disingenuous.

Doug Natelson said...

Well, I at least try to be consistent. It's the "gilding the lily" aspect that I find frustrating. The actual result is very cool - there's no need to couch it in language like "nanorobotics" to make that point. You could talk about how this is like a jigsaw puzzle that puts itself together, for example. I think that there are ways to convey enthusiasm and promise without overselling. Don, of course, is a trained scientist/engineer who has become a writer, so he writes with actual accuracy.