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Denver 2003 Friday, 14 February, 2003, 23:32 GMT
Biology to make mini machines
Image, BBC
Black, BBC

Computers of the future will be built not by factory machines, but by living cells such as bacteria.

That at least is the vision which has been outlined by scientists speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Denver.

They have described how wires can now be made by yeast organisms, and how solar panels could be built using substances produced by sea sponges.

Researchers believe these kind of technologies will be essential if we are to continue to shrink the size of electronic devices.

Science of the small

Plants and animals produce an extraordinary variety of chemical substances, all designed to help them in their lives. But some of these substances - proteins or other kinds of molecule - might also be useful in the electronics industry, as it seeks ways of making silicon chips smaller and faster.

Another potential application is nanotechnology - science which is done at the scale of just billionths (nano) of a metre.

Materials fabricated at this level have unusual electrical and optical properties but are costly to produce. Getting the "machinery" that already exits in biological organisms to do the work has obvious advantages.

Some of the molecules that scientists are now investigating come from unlikely sources. Susan Lindquist, director of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is using yeast to produce tough wires.

"We're using a protein from yeast that is actually called yeast prion," she said.

"It resembles the prions that are responsible for mad cow disease. They form long, long fibres.

"They are very thin - just 10 nanometres in width. But they go on for thousands and thousands and thousands of nanometres in length."

Dr Lindquist has discovered how to coat these strands of prion protein in gold and silver so they conduct electricity.

Captured rays

Through genetic engineering, it should be possible to make the protein strands - and so the wires - in different shapes and configurations, perhaps even forming entire electronic components.

Another researcher speaking here, Daniel Morse from the University of California, found a number of years ago that substances developed by sea sponges could be used to make silicon-based materials.

He has now discovered that the same substances could potentially make a new generation of solar cells.

They make a material, a special kind of titanium dioxide, which is very efficient at turning the Sun's rays into electricity.

Dr Morse believes that making devices through biology rather than through factories would have other benefits, including for the environment.

Human ingenuity

He said: "Biology and bio-catalysis offers the prospects of synthesis without the recourse to toxic chemicals that are presently the basis of human manufacturing of silicon-based materials today."

Computers made with these natural processes are not just around the corner - it will be many years before the technologies can be developed that far.

But sea sponges and yeast offer us the possibility of making devices smaller, cheaper and cleaner than human ingenuity could develop on its own.

Perhaps we should not be surprised, says Susan Lindquist. After all, nature has been working on the problem for a lot longer than the human brain.

She said: "For a long time man has been harnessing horses to plough and we're just beginning to understand how to harness molecules to other kinds of purposes and just the prospect of being able to do this for the benefit of mankind is really an exciting thing."

Denver, BBC

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See also:

14 Feb 03 | Science/Nature
23 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
05 Sep 02 | Business
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