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October 22, 2001

Emory to host nanobiology conference

By Jan Gleason


The first-ever Nanobiology Conference will bring 70 of the world’s most authoritative life scientists, physical scientists and engineers to Emory Oct. 25–27 to discuss the latest developments in understanding the physics of biological processes at the nanometer scale.

The conference’s goal is to see how biology works at the nanometer scale and how biological molecular machines made of a few molecules can be duplicated. Emory physics Professor Fereydoon Family, Professor Miguel Arizmendi of the Universidad Nacionál de Mar del Plata in Argentina and Professor Tamás Vicsek, head of biological physics at Eötvös University in Hungary, are organizing the conference.

Nanotechnology involves the design and creation of devices out of a few atoms and small molecules—devices roughly the size of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter. A million nanoscale devices can fit on a single dot on a page. Nanodevices have innumerable technological applications; some function like tiny machines, such as motors, pumps and other mechanical devices that can transport and manipulate things. Some act as extremely tiny, but powerful, electronic and chemical appliances, like computers, lasers and storage devices.

The conference is expected to influence the field of nanotechnology, as scientists introduce novel nanoscale structures that can be fabricated or self-assembled, as well as explain the dynamics of nanoscale biological motors and machines.

“We need to understand the physics of nanoscale machines and how they operate under different conditions,” Family said. “Scientists cannot just build these structures randomly and hope that they will function properly.”

Family’s team of researchers has been working to find out how nature works at the nanoscale, particularly how transport takes place in biological systems at the nanoscale.

Nature already makes great use of nanotechnology, he said. “Nature has elegantly endowed each cell with a network of highways, made of polymerized proteins, along which nanoscale robots and molecular motors are busy at work delivering energy, carrying food to where it is needed, transporting waste out of the system, and defending the cell and its components against outside influences.

“What is actually happening in biological systems at the nanoscale is truly amazing and quite counterintuitive,” Family said. “Inside a cell, a molecular motor is continuously bombarded by the random forces of water molecules hitting it from all directions. How can this molecule move so precisely inside a cell and do what it does? The laws of physics would say that under such a noisy condition the molecule would be pushed around and made to go back and forth—but on average it will stay where it is. What allows the nanoscale motor to move in a particular direction is that the system goes out of equilibrium so that random noise has been changed to a deterministic motion.”

The situation gets even worse for the nanoscale motor. “It is easy to realize that not only are these molecular motors being pushed around by a hail of random forces, they also are often moving in a rugged landscape, a landscape with irregular hills and mountains. What we have discovered is that this adds a nonlinear force to the dynamics of the motion of the molecule, so that tiny perturbations throw the system into a chaotic state. How does nature avoid this trap? Why don’t biological molecular motors move chaotically?”

The answer Family found was in the synchronization of the inherent frequency of the motion of the molecule and the external noise. “There is, in fact, an extremely robust range of parameters in which the system can be easily controlled back into regular motion.

“The impact of nanodevices in medicine will be revolutionary,” Family said. “There will be new generations of prosthetic and medical implants whose surfaces are molecularly designed to interact with the body. Specially designed molecules will react with the body fluids to regenerate bone, skin and other damaged tissues or act on plaques in the brain to fight against buildup of amyloid deposits and Alzheimer’s disease. The work we’re doing to discover the physics of nanobiology will help take us there.”


Back to Emory Report October 22, 2001