by PhilipJ on 21 April 2007
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.