Astronaut walking towards a plant on an earth-like terrain

Exciting technology: bionano – or nanobio?

Some scientists are looking to nature for inspiration for new uses of nanotechnology

Molecular machines

Nanotechnology may be a new human activity, but nature has been at it for millions of years. Every cell contains thousands, or even millions, of machines and factories that can build remarkable structures with an efficiency that today’s scientists can only marvel at.

For example, the enzyme ATP synthase, which makes ATP, the chemical energy source for nearly all living organisms, is actually a tiny rotary motor. It has been attached to a nanoscale bar magnet made of nickel: this hybrid device could be a potential nanomolecular motor of the future, although the biological component is not very robust.

Others are combining components from different organisms, such as the light-detection system from plants and energy-generating enzymes from mitochondria, to create biologically based solar cells.

The future

Research into molecular manufacturing, although promising, is currently confined to the laboratory. However, the very idea once sounded like science fiction. It is possible that one day we may be using such technologies in everyday life.

Lead image:

Dennis Meene/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Cell biology, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development