Friday, January 20, 2006

Microbes and Microbots

In his consistently excellent blog, Richard Jones discusses the history of the nanobot; the "Fantastic Voyage"-style nanoscale submarine cruising our bloodstream looking for nasties like cancer cells and broken capillaries.

"Attempts to write the nanobot out of the history of nanotechnology thus seem doomed, so we had better try and rehabilitate the concept. If we accept that the shrunken submarine image is hopelessly misleading, how can we replace it by something more realistic?

Personally, I believe that we would be better served by taking a step back, and first considering the feasibility of microbots, before we even contemplate such devices on the nanoscale. Richard makes the valid point that the science fiction images of incredibly miniaturised submarines do the field of nanotechnology a great disservice, as they do nothing to dispel the myth of nanotech being "engineering, only smaller".

Based on my interpretation of Richard's book Soft Machines (he nabbed my title, the rotter ;-), I think he might agree with me that a rather more realistic (and certainly interesting) route would be to re-engineer existing living systems for the purposes of providing such applications.

As I point out in my own popular science book Genesis Machines: The Coming Revolution in Biocomputing and Synthetic Biology (Atlantic Books, November 6th -- watch this space for updates and sneak previews):

"Nature has computation, compression and contraptions down to a fine art...A human genome sequence may be stored on a single DVD, and yet pretty much every cell in our body contains a copy. Science fiction authors tell stories of "microbots" -- incredibly tiny devices that can roam around under their own power, sensing their environment, talking to one another and destroying intruders. Such devices already exist, but we know them better as bacteria."

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Microdots? I never realised that one. But blos arn't really the source of modern information are they. Where are the papers?

And as for the comment about soft machines, are you sure it was yours in the first place?

Richard Jones said...

Well, both Martyn and I recycled "soft machines" from William Burroughs, but I got there first!

Martyn, I absolutely agree with you that re-engineering a bacteria is going to be quite the easiest way of making a nanobot (I'm using nano- rather than micro- in deference to the long sci-fi tradition of these submarines being comparable in size to red blood cells). But, some people may worry that a bacteria is just too effective, so if only for that reason it may be worth trying to make a crude synthetic analogue.

Martyn Amos said...

Richard, you're absolutely right, and projects such as PACE are trying to do exactly that.

In response to "anonymous", above, I'm not sure where you got the "microdots" from, as I never mention those in the post. I would happily provide links to "synthetic biology" papers (as I have done in the past - if you would care to check the archive, you'll see many links to work on rengineering cells for the purposes of computation), but the tone of your comment is sufficiently aggressive to lead me to believe that it would be a waste of time.

As for the comment about the title, it was meant to be a light-hearted remark, and certainly not intended to be taken seriously. You know, anonymous, there are caffeine-free alternatives to coffee that are just as tasty...

Anonymous said...

caffeine free I do not understand. Sorry for the bad english I am from China and do not understand light-hearted remark?

I will check archieve and look for the work on the synthetic biology.

Martyn Amos said...

The synthetic biology website would be a good place to start (as linked to in a previous post).

Anonymous said...

What is PACE?