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Are there natural nanotechnologies?

The field of nanotechnology deals with a world so small that we can't see it through a light microscope. At this scale, we're working with basic building blocks like molecules or organic cells. Mankind's experience in this realm is limited, while nature has been building at the molecular level for billions of years.

But can we say there are natural nanotechnologies? From the strictest definition, technology refers to practical application of knowledge or using technical processes to accomplish a task. In that sense, the question about natural nanotechnology is more philosophical than practical. Taking a strictly scientific approach, we wouldn't say that there is such a thing as natural nanotechnology.

Nature still plays a very important role in many nanotechnology projects. Some nanotechnologists study cellular biology, although most cells are much larger than the nanoscale. For example, oncologists are looking into nanotechnology as a potential way to treat cancer patients. The basic idea is to create tiny vessels -- perhaps just 100 nanometers wide -- to carry minute doses of an anti-cancer drug.

Currently, most anti-cancer drugs can affect healthy and cancerous tissue. That's why the side effects of chemotherapy can be so dramatic and difficult to endure. But if doctors could create a device that could target specific cancer cells, they could use medicine in such a precise way that only the cancer would be affected. As a result, patients would experience fewer side effects.

While we may have to spend decades to learn enough to create a device that can find and target particular cells, nature has already figured it out. Many viruses seek out specific types of cells. By studying viruses, oncologists hope to create the perfect cancer-seeking delivery device. Some are even planning to use virus shells as the delivery device itself. The nanotechnologists will coat the virus with proteins designed to lock with cancer cells while ignoring everything else. Inside the shell is a tiny payload of medication. When the virus finds a cancer cell, it latches on and injects the medicine -- which is technically poison -- directly into the cancer cell.

That's how viruses have worked for millions of years and it's just one example of how nanotechnologists are looking to nature for insight on how to work at the molecular level. Combining cellular biology and nanotechnology may lead to a future in which disease is largely eradicated. So even if we can't say there's such a thing as natural nanotechnology, nature will always play a prominent role in our understanding of this tiny world.

Learn more about nanotechnology by following the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Berkeley Lab. "Did you ever wonder about the invisible marvels of the nanoworld?" (March 25, 2010) http://www.lbl.gov/wonder/louie.html
  • The Ecologist. "Promising the World, or Costing the Earth?" Vol. 33, Issue 4. pp. 36-39. May 2003.
  • Personal interview with Dr. Shuming Nie. Emory-Georgia Tech Nanotechnology Center. Conducted March 13, 2009.
  • Sage Crossroads. "Nanotechnology: Past, Present and Future." April 21, 2004. (March 25, 2010)http://www.sagecrossroads.net/webcast22