Nanotechnology: The biggest new thing that no one knows about…

Perhaps my title is a bit judgemental and harsh, you may be familiar with the term nanotechnology.  However, I’m willing to bet that most of the American public has heard the word but doesn’t really understand what’s involved.  For instance, many hollywood movies and sitcoms have touched on the subject.

Personally I was unawares about nanotechnology until 2003 while on a flight from Florida en route Washington, D.C. and a gentleman beside me struck up small talk.  We swapped career stories, I had just landed a position on Capitol Hill for my local congressman in Florida and he was going to the Pentagon representing his company with a new product idea for the Department of Defense (DoD).

I kid you not, this man was explaining to me that they were working on ‘forcefield’ technology–yes, the kind we think of when watching our favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode with Captain Jean-Luc Picard says “Shields up!” (yes, I admit, I am slightly a Trekkie!)

When advising my congressman on how he should vote on a bill that contained funding for nanotechnology-related subjects, I always tried to convey that this will be a big subject eventually.  Unfortunately, even though I would include the latest articles regarding nano-type discoveries/breakthroughs in his weekly reading, I know it was not a real hot topic for him or most of our Members of Congress (unless they were entrenched in the science world).  Ironically the name seems to fit its popularity or public domain knowledge regarding it: very small.

Nevertheless, it was infectious to me, the notion that our science community was now delving into an area even smaller than what we all looked at in our microscopes in science labs as children.  I’m not even sure where nanotechnology began but it certainly seems to be an inexhaustible area of study.  For parents out there: think along the lines of Dr. Suess’ “Horton Hears a Who.”

While working in Congress I had the opportunity to look over bill language and as my legislative portfolio grew, it encompassed the area that is devoted to education and the sciences.  Our budget every year for the federal government includes funding that goes toward “research and development” of nanotechnology.  Unless you are a scientist or a huge Discovery fan, you don’t realize that your tax dollars are funneled every year toward this new branch of science and technology.

In fact, many of us may already be using products that harness nanotechnology.  Samsung, for example, has clothes washers and refrigerators that use silver nanoparticles to help kill bacteria and lessen odors. 

There is a simple website online that tries to explain nanotechnology in simple terms: “Nanotechnology is the study and use of structures between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers in size. To give you an idea of just how small that is, it would take eight hundred 100-nanometer particles placed side by side to equal the width of a human hair.” sourced: www.understandingnano.com

A short article in Discover magazine’s April 2010 issue states: “Genetic Medicine Goes Nano”-It seems a cancer researcher, chemical engineer and their colleagues have teamed up to investigate how biodegradable nanoparticlels can deliver gene therapy for ovarian cancer cells.  Their treatment study utilizes the gene for diphtheria toxin (causes cell death) but they say that attaching a specific DNA sequence to the gene helps “ensure that it targets only cancerous cells, killing them while leaving healthy ones unharmed.”  Now although that idea certainly seems wonderful alternative to chemotherapy that can harm healthy cells and has nasty side effects like nausea, loss of hair, et cetera, I’m not sure about delving into an area that is so small, so amazingly tiny that something going wrong can be easily untracked. (article source: www.discovermagazine.com)

Thankfully many of these experiments, studies and so forth where nanotechnology and organisms are involved haven’t hit humans quite yet…but then again, I really don’t know that for certain either.  For one, I don’t keep up with the news updates on nanotechnology items-many times those stories are tucked in small blips in the newspaper, a random box in a magazine or a quick one-liner in the cable news ticker running along the bottom of the screen. And second point, altered nanoparticles and such could already be in our immediate environment and we may already be ingesting or coming in contact with them completely unbeknownst to us.

Ultimately, this study and exploration of nanotechnology is so young that we may come to discover that the world on a nano-level is in a constant state of being altered, adjusted, adapting and evolving.  I must remind myself to try to learn a little (no pun intended) about the current research and development in nanotechnology, not only for my own education but to help my son learn more about this new way of looking at the world.

RVSB

Note: You can all do your own research, but here’s another simple site in case you’re interested: www.nanotech-now.com

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