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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 08:49 GMT
Virus used to make nanoparticles
Image of the mosaic virus particle (Lin and Johnson, Scripps Institute)
The virus is spherical and has a diameter of 30 nanometres
UK scientists from Norwich have used a plant virus to create nanotechnology building blocks.

The virus, which infects black-eyed peas, was employed as a "scaffold" on to which other chemicals were attached.

By linking iron-containing compounds to the virus's surface, the John Innes Centre team was able to create electronically active nanoparticles.

The researchers tell the journal Small that their work could be used in the future to make tiny electrical devices.

The work is yet another example of how scientists are now trying to engineer objects on the scale of atoms and molecules.

At the nanoscale, materials can be "tuned" to display unusual properties that could be exploited to build faster, lighter, stronger and more efficient devices and systems.

Stores charge

The mosaic virus used in the experiments infects black-eyed pea plants (Vigna unguiculata), causing their leaves to become mottled and yellow.

Not infectious to humans or animals, the miniscule virus measures just 30 nanometres across - where one nanometre is a billionth of a metre.

"We started to think about the virus particles as nano-building blocks," explained Dr David Evans, a chemist at the John Innes Centre and the lead author on the Small paper.

"Because they have a defined size and a spherical shape, we thought they would be useful particles to use as a template or scaffold in nanotechnology."

Black-eyed pea leaves infected with virus (Andrew Davis)
Black-eyed peas infected with the virus become mottled and yellow
Usually, when chemists try to make similar-sized molecules, they find it a struggle; but the size of a virus is already predefined.

After isolating a virus particle from the peas, the researchers then bound ferrocene compounds to amino acids on its surface.

The team managed to attach approximately 240 of the organometallic compounds, each containing an electronically active iron atom.

The addition of these compounds meant the nanoparticle became like a molecular capacitor - a device that could store electronic charge, explained Dr Evans.

After further development, this could lead to the particles being used in biosensors, nanoelectronic devices, or for electrocatalytic processes.

The research marks the first foray into nanotechnology for the John Innes plant science research centre.

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