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Nanotechnology promises unprecedented opportunities to produce new molecular structures and ‘molecular machines’. Learning more about the properties of materials at the 'nanoscale' could lead to a range of applications ranging from tissue replacement surgery, to novel sensors and 'packages' for delivering medicines to their site of action in the body.

Some commercial applications of nanotechnology are already apparent, for example, the use of nanomaterials in the production of sun screens, burn dressings and dental fillings.

Taken literally, nanotechnology is about processes used to manipulate matter at an extremely small scale: one nanometre is one thousand millionth of a metre, about the length of a few atoms in a row. To put this in perspective, a human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometres wide.

BBSRC invests £6.1M (2007-08) in nanotechnology research across its portfolio, and through a range of funding mechanisms.

Biochemists have a long tradition of working at the molecular level and, as part of that, on the effects of changes at the atomic scale, for instance in determining the catalytic function of enzymes, or in altering protein-protein recognition. What is important about nanotechnology is that for the first time we have tools and mechanisms that enable us to synthesise and construct materials at this level of organisation in a systematic and predictive way.

Case study

Nanostructured-titania films

Professor James Durrant and colleagues at Imperial College London found that nanostructured-titania films greatly increase the surface area of flat metal oxide electrodes, enabling a much higher loading of biological molecules. This patented approach can be used for a range of technological functions, including sensing small molecules, such as nitrogen monoxide and hydrogen peroxide, and solar driven hydrogen generation. The team is now looking for a commercialisation route.

Case study

Nanobiodesign Ltd

Research led by Professor Gianfranco Gilardi of Imperial College London, combines protein molecular biology with biological electron transfer (redox systems), to generate new macro-molecular assemblies. The approach attaches P450 enzymes from liver cells to electrodes, providing quick and direct assessment of interactions between drugs and the enzymes. In 2001 Gilardi founded, NanoBioDesigns Ltd with IC Innovations Ltd. The company has raised £2.35M in equity and is now going from prototype to production, with beta-testing starting in spring 2009. The electrochemical assay should hit the market in a couple of years.

Case study

Nanofibres from peptides

In 2000, Professor Dek Woolfson and colleagues, then at the University of Sussex, created two peptides which, together, self-assemble into straight rigid nanoscale rods, which can branch, kink and interconnect to form 2D and 3D grids and matrices. ‘Decorated’ with small molecules, they can be used as scaffolds in medicine and bionanotechnology. The University of Sussex filed patents, and explored links with several companies. Now at the University of Bristol, the team developed a detailed structural model, to aid redesigns; new peptide variants stable in tissue culture, and versions that form hydrogels.

A BBSRC Industry Interchange Programme grant funded one team member to work for a year between Bristol and Unilever. The team now includes medical collaborations, and is exploring using the hydrogels as supports for nerve growth.

Public engagement

Like all new areas of science, nanotechnology raises issues, for example about regulation, applications and safety. BBSRC supports projects that investigate public attitudes to nanotechnology. For further details please refer to the Science in society section.