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Goldmark: Nanotechnology offers big changes from small packages

A man displays a chip containing the entire

A man displays a chip containing the entire Hebrew Bible at the Technion University in Haifa. Using nanotechnology, the entire 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible was inscribed on a silicon particle the size of a grain of sand. The chip can be read through a microscope. (April 26, 2009) Credit: AP

When my great-grandparents were young, the great frontier was the Wild West. When I was young, it was outer space.

But today our frontiers are more conceptual than geographical. And one of the newest and most fascinating is the frontier of small -- the world of nanotechnology.

The scientists at work on this frontier deal with creatures and structures on a scale you and I can barely imagine. So let's start with getting our minds around how small a nanometer is.

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Here's how the Boston Museum of Science dramatizes how small a nanometer is: if each human being were only one nanometer tall, you could get all 7 billion of us into a single car -- and that car would only have to be about 4 inches long.

Nano-scale machines are called Nano-Electrical-Mechanical Systems, or NEMS. The cost of nanotechnology is coming down, which means that commercial applications using NEMS are proliferating. The first human genome cost a few billion dollars to sequence last decade. Today the cost is nearly down to $10,000. This enormous decline over a few years dwarfs Moore's law for semiconductors, which states that every two years the number of transistors you could put on a microchip would double and the price would halve. We are not far away from the $100 personal genome, which will trigger a revolution in personal health care and dramatically change arranged marriage customs in countries like India.

Now let's put some of these pieces together and imagine an even more powerful example of nanotechnology. NEMS can sequence genes -- which means they can identify genetic mutations and altered genes -- which means they can distinguish a cancer cell from a normal cell by looking at its DNA. NEMS can fit easily inside normal blood vessels that, for a NEMS, would seem as big as the Mississippi River. And a NEMS can carry a tool that can destroy a cancer cell once it's been detected.

We are talking here about a kind of miniature submarine that can navigate your circulatory system to seek and destroy cancer cells. It will take a fleet of NEMS anti-cancer submarines to deal with a flotilla of such malignant cells; but a NEMS can manufacture more NEMS. And unlike chemotherapy or radiation treatment, this treatment will attack only the cancer cells, without the indiscriminate destruction that many present therapies inflict.

While we're talking about operating at the nanoscale level, why not design NEMS that will disarm or neutralize bacteria and viruses from dangerous diseases? And NEMS that will reconfigure the carbon products from fossil fuel combustion so that the emissions don't fry the planet?

There is, of course, potential danger as well as benefit down this road. Less charitably minded scientists may design NEMS that will engineer poisons, say, into our food; for every scientific advance, there's the possibility of using that advance for evil.

But we hitched the human adventure on this planet to science and technology a long time ago, and now we are completely dependent on them. There may have been a moment, a century or more ago, when there was an alternative, "crunchy" road of healthy food and no fertilizers, pesticides, advanced medicines or modern technology. But we didn't see or understand that fork in the road as we sped by it; back then we thought progress was an unalloyed good that we could achieve without collateral risk. Today we no longer have any choice -- our future is yoked to science and technology. Let's hope the positive results of the rising nanotechnology wave will be powerful and early.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.