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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering > Nanobiology

Nathaniel C. Cady
Asst. Professor of Nanobiology
CNSE University of Albany

Nanobiology, as a field of study, signifies the merger of biological research with nanotechnologies such as nanodevices, nanoparticles, or unique nanoscale phenomena. Although molecular biologists have been working with nano-sized biomolecules for the last few decades, nanobiology was not defined as a discipline until researchers started making a focused effort to use our knowledge of nanotechnology to tackle biological problems.

August 15th, 2007


When most of us think about nanotechnology, we imagine high-tech, ultra-fast computer chips, new stain-resistant materials, or even fictional, self-replicating nanomachines. While these marvels of nanotechnology are usually associated with the technological exploits of physics, chemistry and engineering, a new type of nanoscience is being explored in laboratories across the world. The exciting new field of nanobiology has taken center stage at the interface between two worlds, the physical and the biological. The biological world that most of us experience is typically on the "macro" scale. The plants, animals, and other humans that we interact with are usually centimeters to meters in size and can be seen with the naked eye. When we move down to the cellular level, we start seeing cells on the order of one to tens of micrometers (one-millionth of a meter). Stepping down yet another size scale, biological components such as DNA and cell membranes are on the order of 2-3 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter) while proteins, such as antibodies, are 5-10 nanometers in size. Since all living things share these common components (DNA, proteins, and membranes), biology is, and always has been, living at the nanoscale.

Nanobiology, as a field of study, signifies the merger of biological research with nanotechnologies such as nanodevices, nanoparticles, or unique nanoscale phenomena. Although molecular biologists have been working with nano-sized biomolecules for the last few decades, nanobiology was not defined as a discipline until researchers started making a focused effort to use our knowledge of nanotechnology to tackle biological problems. As a merger between nanotechnology and biology, nanobiology encompasses a wide range of research topics that can be divided into two basic categories: 1) nanotechnologies applied to biological systems, and 2) the development of biologically-inspired nanotechnologies. One reason to split nanobiology into these categories is to differentiate between the sources of inspiration for the research. In the first category, we use our physical, chemical and engineering knowledge to better understand biology, visualize and detect biological processes, or to create better ways of interfacing the biological and physical worlds. This technical approach towards biology relies upon our abilities to imagine and create systems that can be used for biological research. On the other hand, biologically-inspired nanotechnologies use biological systems as the inspiration for technologies that we seek to create. This veritable "look in the rearview mirror" allows us to learn from eons of evolution that have resulted in highly elegant, naturally created systems. This type of nanobiological research can be summarized as a form of "biomimetics", which seeks to "mimic" biological systems or biological structures. While these two main categories of nanobiology differ in their general approach, they can both be used to better understand the crossover between our biological and physical worlds.

To better understand nanobiology as a field of study, it is helpful to look at some of the general research topics that are being studied both in academia and commercial settings. In very general terms, these areas of study can be divided into nanobiological structures and systems, biomimetics, nanomedicine, nanoscale biology, and nano-interfacial biology. By grouping research into these fields of study, we can observe general ways in which nanotechnology and biology are brought together for common research goals.

Nanobiological Structures & Systems
Nanobiological structures and systems research can include a wide variety of technologies and biological systems, but mainly focuses on using nanotechnology to detect, measure, or probe biological systems. The advantage of using nanotechnology for these purposes comes from the unique physical properties that can be achieved at the nanoscale. For instance, nanotechnology can be used to create nanochips or nanopatterned devices to screen large numbers of biological targets. Because of the small size of these systems, researchers can use smaller sample sizes, perform faster analyses, or use smaller amounts of expensive chemicals and reagents. In addition, unique physical phenomena at the nanoscale can be harnessed for sensing, detection, and analytical purposes. Many electrical and optical properties that occur at the nanoscale are responsive to biological molecules, yielding highly sensitive analytical techniques. The topics listed below represent some of the most relevant research areas within nanobiological structures and systems, and some of the most high profile research that is going on at major research centers, including the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) at the University at Albany.

-Lab-on-a-chip systems and sensors
(low-power, portable sensors that incorporate multiple analytical steps into one system)
(sensors that can detect biological molecules, cells, or biological processes)
-High throughput / massively parallel sensors
(sensors that detect many targets at the same time or in a rapid manner)
-Ultra-small sample volume sensors
(sensors that use very small volumes of chemicals or reagents)
-BioMEMS (Biological Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems)
(micrometer-sized mechanical and electrical "machines" coupled with biological molecules or cells)

Biomimetics, or the study of biological systems to inspire human-engineered systems, is a unique area of study that relies on natural systems for design concepts. The number of possible research areas within biomimetics is large, since this field seeks to broadly inspire technological and engineering advances from biological themes. A general example of biomimetics is the use of the lotus plant as inspiration for water-repellent technology. At the nanoscale, the leaves of the lotus plant have regularly-spaced features that cause water droplets to roll off of the leaf surface, without spreading out and "wetting" the leaf. This natural water-repellency has been mimicked by constructing similar nanostructures out of polymeric materials. These bio-inspired nanostructures accurately mimic the properties of the lotus leaf, creating a non-wettable, water-repellent surface. Other research areas that fall under the theme of biomimetics are listed below:

-Bio-inspired architecture for nanotechnology
(from cells, viruses, proteins, and other biomolecules)
-Chemical/structural mimicking of biology
(for sensors and analytical systems)
-Animal-on-a-chip and mock organs/systems
(for drug testing, drug delivery, and simulating environments)

Nanomedicine is a broad topic area that can encompass many of the other research areas within nanobiology. For our purposes, however, we can define nanomedicine as the application of nanotechnology towards the medical field. This can include the development of new types of sensors and analytical tools, as well as nanoscale methods of delivering therapeutic drugs or diagnosing disease. Many of the exciting advances within nanotechnology are beginning to be harnessed by the medical field. Nanoparticles and nano-engineered substances have been used for drug delivery and similar systems have been used to target disease-causing agents and tumor cells for therapeutics. In addition, nanoparticles, such as fluorescent quantum dots are beginning to be explored for advanced imaging and diagnostics. A brief list of nanomedical research topics is listed below:

-Nano drug delivery and therapeutics
-Nanodevices for imaging, sensing, and analytical purposes
-Nanoparticle and quantum dot labeling for diagnostics
-Nanoparticle-based therapies for disease

Nanoscale Biology
Nanoscale biology is a general description of basic biological research that is either performed on the nanoscale, or that is aided by nanoscale technologies. This encompasses multiple research topics that are often hard to group within some of the more common nanobiological research categories. At the molecular level, all biological systems are made up of nanoscale components. The DNA, RNA, lipids, carbohydrates and proteins that make up each of our cells are all nanoscale molecules that can be studied or manipulated using nanotechnology. One reason to study biology at the nanoscale is to observe properties that may not be seen at the micro and macro size scales. For instance, measuring the physical properties of individual proteins or DNA molecules could give us additional insight into their structure and function. This knowledge can be used to better understand how biological systems operate and how different components of biological systems work together to make living things move, grow, interact, or even reproduce. Just about any biological system can be approached from the nanoscale, yielding new information that cannot be observed at other size scales.

-Cellular-level studies (electrical, optical, force measurements with nano-tools)
-Molecular-level studies (DNA, RNA, lipid, carbohydrate, & proteins)
-Utilizing nanoscale tools for unique biological studies
(to better understanding protein folding, DNA replication, etc.)

Nano-Interfacial Biology
Nano-interfacial biology brings together chemistry, biochemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology. In many ways, research efforts in nanobiology (and other nanosciences) are greatly dependent upon chemical reactions and interactions at surfaces. This is especially important in nanobiology since most biology occurs either near physical surfaces, or near the surfaces of proteins, enzymes or membranes. Therefore, this research field focuses on chemical and biochemical interactions with interfaces at the nanoscale. One interesting component of nano-interfacial biology is the "self-assembly" of biological molecules. Many biological molecules can form larger, defined structures without needing any blueprints, plans, or complex nano-construction crews. This self-assembly process creates larger, three-dimensional structures that often have regularly repeating patterns at the micro and nanoscale. Self-assembly is therefore an attractive method for constructing nanoscale structures, since it greatly simplifies the fabrication process. A major push in nanobiology is to combine physical interfaces with self-assembling molecules to create unique nanoscale structures or devices. By optimizing how biological molecules or cells interact with these physical surfaces, we can begin to develop hybrid systems that are biologically powered, biologically actuated, or even nanoscale devices that trigger biological responses. This hybrid approach could greatly benefit prosthetic or implanted devices that rely on the seamless interaction between an organism and the prosthetic/implanted device. One could even imagine interfacing complex electrical systems, like microchips, with an organism's nervous system or brain. For these types of systems, some of the most important interactions are those that occur at the physical-biological interface. Some relevant research areas in this field are listed below:

-Self-assembly and patterning of biomolecules on physical surfaces
-Immobilization of proteins, enzymes, and nucleic acids at physical interfaces
-Molecular interactions at surfaces and nanostructures
-Surface chemistry including self-assembled monolayers, biochemical surface attachment, chemical and biochemical surface patterning
-Development of molecular and cellular interfaces for prosthetics & implanted devices

From this survey of research topics within nanobiology, it should be clear that nanobiology encompasses a vast array of biological, chemical, physical and engineering research. Unlike traditional biological studies, nanobiology focuses on using our understanding of nanotechnology to advance our research capabilities and approach biology from a unique, nanoscale perspective. Similar to physics and materials research, many systems have unique properties at the macro, micro and nanoscale levels. By approaching biology from the nanoscale, or by approaching nanotechnology from a biological perspective, we hope to gain unique insights into how biological systems function and how we can develop new and better bio-inspired technologies. This exciting frontier promises to develop new techniques, provide new understanding, and as in any scientific field, yield new and ever more complicated questions to be answered.

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