Viruses begin to do nanotechnology construction at MIT

From the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards for 2006, MIT’s Angela Belcher and colleagues are using viruses to build at the molecular level:

Innovators: Angela Belcher, Yet-Ming Chiang, Paula Hammond

MIT scientists reached a major nanotech milestone: re-engineering a virus to create a self-assembling product.

THE GOAL OF nanofabrication is to make tiny machines build themselves using molecules they grab from their surroundings. It’s easy to dismiss the concept as science fiction — or hype. Until you hear what’s been going on in the lab of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, a star in nanotechnology circles.

Working with colleagues Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, Belcher genetically altered a virus, the M-13 bacteriophage, inducing it to grab a pair of conductive metals — cobalt oxide and gold — from a solution. As the viruses rearrange themselves, they form highly aligned organic nanowires that can be used as a lithium-ion battery electrode — one so densely packed it can store two or three times the energy of conventional electrodes of the same size and weight.

Angela Belcher gets a great deal of attention, but also check out her chemical engineering colleague Paula Hammond‘s list of awards. Materials scientist Yet-Ming Chiang may have a similar list but it’s not on his home page. However, his work has resulted “in the discovery of a way for structures to make incremental adjustments—essentially, to morph—on demand.” Cool.

Using nature’s nanotechnology to move toward a general capability for atomically-precise manufacturing has been a pathway of interest at MIT since the earliest days of nanotech in the late ’70s. Good to see it moving forward! —Christine

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