Nanotechnology — blessing or blight?

A massive article in the Washington Post recently did a amazing job explaining in layman’s terms the potential of nanotechnology — and its potential dangers. Could Michael Crichton be on the right track in Prey? I was quite blown away as I read just how dangerous and unpredictable this technology can be.

Scientists have known for years that tiny particles such as soot or metal powders can, when inhaled, cause lung disease, cancer and other ailments. But the laws of chemistry and physics work differently when particles get down to the nanoscale. As a result, even substances that are normally innocuous can trigger intense chemical reactions — and biological damage — as nanoscale specks….

Inhaled particles do not always stop at the lungs. Experiments by University of Rochester toxicologist Gunter Oberdoerster showed that nanoparticles can make their way from a rat’s throat into its brain, apparently via the nasal cavities and olfactory bulb.

“Who knows how they interact with cells there?” Oberdoerster asked. “Maybe they do something bad and lead to brain diseases.”

Other scientists have wondered at recent meetings whether nanoparticles can cross the placenta and get into a developing fetus.

Scientists in France recently showed that carbon nanotubes — thousands of which could fit inside a cell — can easily penetrate living cells and even make their way into the nucleus, the inner sanctum where DNA resides.

The researchers hope to harness this capacity and use nanotubes as vehicles to deliver drugs into cells. But the approach could easily backfire, they conceded.

I’ve read a lot of pieces on nanotechnology, but I have to admit this was the only one I completely understood. What an image, armies of particles only a few atoms wide, parading through our lungs, through our brains, with no way to stop them…. In the hands of the wrong guy, it sounds like they would make the most perfect weapon ever. (Please don’t forward this post to Kim Jong-Il.)

It’s certainly the most intersting technology I’ve ever heard of, with the most thrilling potential. And, according to the article, it involves a huge number of unknowns, and a huge number of risks.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

I do research on nanotechnology at a major US research university. The articles raises the dangers of nanotechnology, but doesn’t say that the same dangers apply to just about any other industrial chemical. The real dangers here are two fold.

1. Nano-sized particles have different chemical properties than their macroscopic sized counterparts. This screws up our intuition about what’s safe and what isn’t, especially with regards to how things degrade over time.

2. A lot of nanotech research is conducted by interdisciplinary teams who don’t do a lot of thinking about toxicology of materials that they are working with. The experience just isn’t there.

What’s needed are some good basic research into durability issues and the formulation of guidelines on safety checks. There will probably be mistakes and tragedies due to our inexperience. However, the materials themselves are no more fearsome than any other new industrial chemical.

A lot of people tend to lump self-replicators together with nanotechnology, but really that’s the domain of biology. Nature, after all, has been churing out successfull self-replicators for a billion years, the latest example of which is us. The really scary self-replicating stuff will come from human being building on that foundation (biological weapons, for example). I could for see a day where we could create really useful or really nasty bugs by replacing certain parts of bacterial or protozoa with synthetic components. The closest we’ve come to that is the work of Andrea Belcher in using virus to build self assembling structures. Most of the nanotech research that goes on today are for things such as single molecule transistors, materials with novel microstructures, or just ways to make very thin wires. Nobody is trying to build a self-replicator or “assembler” from scratch because that’s just too hard.

February 10, 2004 @ 6:56 am | Comment

By the way, a really interesting and cutting edge instance of nanotechnology is Jim Heath’s work on building molecular sensors to look at the machinery of individual cells. If you’re really interested in this stuff, I suggest heading over to:

and looking at ” James Heath: Nanosystems Biology 1/14/2004″.


February 10, 2004 @ 7:00 am | Comment

Really interesting article. And great post, citanon. I kind of suspected that this sort of danger wasn’t anything really new, but of course I didn’t have the knowledge to tell either way.

February 10, 2004 @ 9:32 am | Comment

Citanon, thanks for the thought-provoking information. It sounds like you’ve done your homework.

I’m not so worried about the self-replicators (yet). What the article got me alarmed about was the ability of these nanoparticles to “trigger intense chemical reactions” and pass through tissues with surprising ease.
That could give them the potential to act as lethal new weapons, no? That might be simplistic thinking on my part, but as i confessed earlier, I’m a total layman in this area.

February 10, 2004 @ 4:43 pm | Comment

Richard, the nanoparticles do sound nasty, but you have to realize that toxins like ricin are orders of magnitude more dangerous. So, the answer to your question is that no, they probably won’t be used because there are much more nasty things already available.

February 10, 2004 @ 11:52 pm | Comment

Yes, nature has had billions of years to evolve toxins far beyond our ken to make from scratch!

It’s also not like we haven’t had the knowledge of how to cross the blood-brain barrier for years now; we know of many proteins that can be used to hitch-hike things across it. But the danger is as citanon points out, that many of these nano-particles will unwittingly cross that barrier, and that testing and toxicology needs to be kept in mind at labs that make them.

Known methods exist to mitigate and manage these issues, it really is an educational issue with the teams involved.

February 11, 2004 @ 6:06 am | Comment

Check out Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler for a completely accessible description about molecular nanotechnology. It’s in-depth, long, and fascinating. It was written in 1986, but still entirely relevant when read it a couple of years ago. The idea of molecular nanotechnology was first raised by Feynman in the 60s.

February 11, 2004 @ 8:21 pm | Comment

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