Scientists pioneer method for DNA microchips

17/08/2009

Researchers have found a way to create a new generation of tiny microchips that use DNA – rather than traditional silicon – to achieve potentially revolutionary advances in computing.

A team based at IBM’s Alamaden research facility in San Jose, California, has found a method for building chips that they believe could eventually replace the current standards for creating electrical circuits using silicon wafers.

The technique, which was developed in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, creates tiny microchips using strands of DNA and carbon nanotubes – microscopic cylinders constructed from carbon molecules.

In a paper published in the Nature Nanotechnology journal, the team describes a method that uses so-called “DNA origami” – pieces of genetic material which can be arranged into patterns similar to those used in the microchips common in computers and other electronic devices.

After creating a scaffold of DNA, nanotubes are then inserted into the design to build a microchip that is several times smaller – and therefore faster – than anything that today’s most advanced techniques can achieve.

“This is the first demonstration of using biological molecules to help with processing in the semiconductor industry,” IBM research manager Spike Narayan told Reuters.

“Basically, this is telling us that biological structures like DNA actually offer some very reproducible, repetitive kinds of patterns that we can actually leverage in semiconductor processes.”

Read the full story on the Guardian website.

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Pollution can change your DNA in 3 days

23/05/2009

Breathing in polluted air may wreak havoc on our DNA, reprogramming genes in as few as three days and causing increased rates of cancer and other diseases.

So says a new study that tracked DNA damage in 63 steel-foundry workers in Brescia, Italy, who, under their normal factory conditions, were exposed to particulate matter. The same damage may occur in city dwellers exposed to normal air, the researchers say.

Particulate matter includes suspended, tiny bits of dust, metal, or soot in the air, which can lodge deep in the lungs. Exposure to the substance has been linked to respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and heart problems.

Scientists know little about how inhaling particulate matter can cause health problems, according to lead study author Andrea Baccarelli of the University of Milan.

But they did find that exposed workers’ DNA was damaged by a slowed rate of “methylation,” a biological process in which genes are organized into different chemical groups.

Fewer groups means that fewer genes are expressed – or made into proteins – a crucial process in the body’s regular maintenance.

Read the full story on the National Geographic website.


Labs compete to build a living machine

15/04/2009

Scientists at more than a hundred labs around the world will be gearing up this week for a competition to build the best machine. There is only one condition. All the parts must come from living organisms.

To the scientists involved, the competition is an exercise in extreme, not to say minuscule, DIY. Instead of hinges and door knobs, they must use the microscopic components found inside biological cells. Instead of screwdrivers and hammer-drills, the tools of the trade are those of the genetic engineer.

The aim of the competition, now in its sixth year, is to take the basic building blocks of life and turn them into useful technology. Along the way, scientists hope to create the biological equivalent of a hardware store, in which strands of DNA and cellular machinery will line the shelves, ready to be pieced together by anyone with the know-how.

“Our mission has been to see if we can use biological parts to build things and operate them. A lot of people said it’s too complex and can’t be done, but every year we have systems that show it can work,” said Meagan Lizarazo, a former biologist and assistant director of the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Read the full story on the Guardian website.