Bionanotechnology: a revolution at single molecule level
24 April 2009
Progress in bionanotechnology is essential for our understanding of cells and for the development of new therapeutics, which nowadays increasingly function at the molecular level. This was one of the statements made by Prof. Nynke Dekker during her inaugural address at TU Delft, the Netherlands earlier this month.
The biological world contains a great many components and is, therefore, not straightforward to understand. However, research is accelerating as a result of the confluence of various disciplines. Collaboration between biologists, physicists and engineers has been particularly productive recently. These days, physical technologies enable us not only to perceive a single biological molecule (such as DNA) in a cell, but also to film, as it were, the interaction of this molecule with proteins.
As Prof. Nynke Dekker puts it: “With the development of biology in the direction of the molecular scale, cell biology is taking on an increasingly ‘engineering’ character: the biologist’s approach is rapidly changing into that of the engineer.”
Bionanotechnologist Dekker explains: “Physicists and engineers are highly skilled in making, controlling and measuring small objects. You only have to look at the developments in quantum physics at the nanoscale, in which TU Delft has played a leading role.”
Bionanotechnology is located on the interface between biology and nanotechnology and is, scientifically speaking, still largely unexplored. It is expected to become one of the key scientific areas of the 21st century. With the tools provided by nanotechnology, biological molecules can be accurately imaged, studied and controlled. This will lead to new insights in the functioning of the living cell.
Prof. Nynke Dekker is one of the prominent researchers in this field. She studied physics at Yale, USA, and obtained her doctorate at Harvard University, USA. She is also a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and received the prestigious European Young Investigators (EURYI) Award in 2007. According to the European Science Foundation, ESF, this puts Prof. Dekker in the top twenty excellent young researchers who are seen as potential world leaders in their fields.
Pulling and turning
She received the EURYI Award for her research into molecular motors and their interaction with individual DNA molecules. “Such experiments, in which you can control the state of DNA by pulling and turning it, have generated a lot of interest. If you can manipulate DNA to this extent, and watch it in real time, the next step is easy: why not add a protein that changes something about the DNA and see whether this is discernible?”
“A good deal of research focuses on using such single-molecule techniques, which the field has developed to such an extent that molecular motor movement along the elementary building blocks of DNA can be viewed. We hope to improve our understanding of the action of proteins at the molecular level in this way. This is essential for our understanding of the cell and for the future development of new therapeutics, which nowadays have an increasingly specific targets at the molecular level.”
TU Delft recognises the enormous significance of the bionanosciences and, for this reason, is setting up a new department for this field. In the next decade, the university will be investing 10 million euros in this new department, which will form a part of the university’s successful Kavli Institute of Nanoscience.
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