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Can fundamental principles of biology be uncovered by nanotechnology?

by PhilipJ on 21 April 2007

Hello from Toronto! I’m at the Chemical Biophysics Symposium at the University of Toronto, where this evening we tried to answer:

Can fundamental principles of biology be uncovered by nanotechnology?

Not surprisingly, what “nanotechology” and “fundamental principles of biology” meant varied from person to person. Is an AFM nanotechnology? Quantum dots? Can one study cell-cell interactions using nanotechnology, since the dimensions are necessarily microns and larger? Are cell-cell interactions going to tell you anything about the fundamentals of biology?

I’ve always felt like nanotechnology is one of those vacuous terms that means whatever you want it to mean, depending on your sales pitch. For that reason alone I’m going to say the question is malformed to begin with. Can you do nanotech using an AFM? They’ve been around since the late 80s, long before the “nano” buzzwords came about. Lots of people say they are.

It goes without saying that studying biology on the scale of one to hundreds of nanometres will unearth all kinds of interesting clues about biological molecules, self-assembly, the innards of cells, etc. Whether “fundamental principles in biology” even exist, however, is up for grabs. Bob Laughlin (and others) wrote in The middle way* (no subscription required) that a commonly held belief is that biology has no principles save Darwinian evolution, but wondered if this was only because of our limitations in measuring the properties of matter on the mesoscale. The jury is still out, but it’s an interesting idea, and one that might be fundamental to answering that question.

Well, once we can agree on what “nanotechnology” really is.

* The middle way and its sister article The theory of everything (also free to read!) are two papers I often turn to when I’m down on science and need to be reminded why we do the things we do.



  1. Kurt L. Hanson    3660 days ago    #

    I’ll read these papers and surf the sites mentioned here though in reference to the question of whether nanotechnology will uncover the basic principles of biology …

    How does one correlate the mechanisms of and for cellular ribosomal transcription to explain why human beings put their foot prints on the moon? Tongue in cheek I ask if there Is a Darwinian bridge to explain why a biological creature puts forth the tremendous effort and energy to travel to the moon. The definition of “principles of biology” entails other science disciplines and their systems, and as such determines how one goes about seeking a practical, working definition of biological “principles.” If it were possible to possess a comprehesive understanding and working knowledge for all the biological mechanisms life forms adhere to, this knowledge could not predict human behavior. Surely one must consider human behavior when seeking definition for the “principles” of biology …, n’est ce pas?

    I reread this post and the word principles, in regards to biology, the word seems to be throwing me and my thoughts off on a tangent. I’ll have to give further thought to this question, and perhaps at a later time I’ll clarify myself.


  2. Kurt L. Hanson    3654 days ago    #

    If I am and all humans are in actuality a created “thing,” and because I have no recourse to reveal and then understand the intentions of this Creator, than I as a created thing cannot recognize and then proffer a true defiition for the principles of biology. The principle of biology are elusive and difficult to define because of our perspective as created beings.

    Though if I were to imagine myself to be a (The) Creator of the human race and all life forms in the universe, the idea of and for the “principles of biology” has a perspective which enables or allows definition. These principles would be synonymous to the intentions of the Creator. These intentions have been posited through questions and statement, in various ways, by the sages past, and now by the present.

    Hmmm …? If a Creator exists than this line of thought makes some sense, and if there is no Creator than it’s nonsense …

    Two hours to think through, edit and write this post, and I must go do something else now. Bye.


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