What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is an emerging field in which new devices are being developed at the scale of individual molecules. The term “nano” comes from “nanometer”, which is one-billionth of a meter, or one ten thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. This scale is so small that it is difficult to imagine, and it was not until recently that these structures could be measured. This capability has led to an explosion of new applications.

A recent report of the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) offers the following perspective: “Nanotechnology has been recognized as a revolutionary field of science and technology, comparable to the introduction of electricity, biotechnology, and digital information revolutions. Between 2001 and 2008, the numbers of discoveries, inventions, nanotechnology workers, R&D funding programs, and markets all increased by an average annual rate of 25 percent. The worldwide market for products incorporating nanotechnology reached about $254 billion in 2009. … Because of new generations of nanotechnology products expected to enter the market within the next few years, (this trend) is expected to continue.” [“Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020 – Retrospective and Outlook”, WTEC Report (2010)].

One of the most promising aspects of nanotechnology is that the properties of materials can change dramatically as their size is reduced to the nanoscale. For example, an inert material such as gold becomes reactive when it exists as nanoparticles. Such changes in the properties of materials can lead to new applications and this promise will drive the technologies of the future. 

Changes to the properties of materials at the nanoscale can also lead to unforeseen increases in toxicity to humans and the environment. The toxicity of synthetic or engineered nanomaterials is largely unexplored and could have long-term effects on society if it is not managed properly. 

Fortunately, Nature has already solved this potential problem and has produced marvellous nanostructures and nanoparticles that are not toxic and we can exploit these nanomaterials for new and exciting applications. This is the basis for the Phytoglycogen nanoparticles technology offered by Mirexus.

Nature’s Nanotechnology

Nature has evolved many different mechanisms to produce a broad range of specialized biomolecules such as lipids, proteins, DNA and polysaccharides that are essential for life and the world around us. In most cases, not only the chemical composition of the molecules, but also their structure, must be very specific and uniform to have the molecules perform their proper biological function. 

We often look to Nature for exquisite examples of sophisticated bio-nanotechnology that we can only hope to emulate or mimic in the laboratory. This is referred to as bio-mimicry or biologically inspired engineering. Prominent examples of this include Velcro (emulating the tiny hooks on burrs), water repellent surfaces (emulating the lotus leaf ), photonic crystals (emulating the iridescence of butterfly wings), and bio-responsive hydrogels. 

It is also possible to directly exploit bio-molecules and bio-processes produced and used in Nature, which has been called bio-klepticism (stealing from Nature) by Ned Seeman. In this way, Nature does all of the hard work in producing the molecules of interest, and we can use them in a range of different applications. An example of this is nanotechnology based on DNA origami.Phytoglycogen nanoparticles are another very promising example of bio-klepticism: particles produced by corn with special properties that can be exploited in a wide variety of applications in the personal care, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries.