Techonomic Anti-Machines: Replicators at War and the Future of Biotech and Nanotechnology

Bacteriophage are perfect micromachines that attack specific host bacteria injecting their DNA. The one to the right is of course a tinted electron micrograph version  of the T4 bacteriophage that as you can see from the next diagram (below) attaches itself to the cell body then begins the injection process or information transference. Once within the bacterial ribosomes start translating viral mRNA into protein. For RNA-based phages, RNA replicase is synthesized early in the process. In the case of the T4 phage, the construction of new virus particles involves the assistance of helper proteins. The base plates are assembled first, with the tails being built upon them afterwards. The head capsids, constructed separately, will spontaneously assemble with the tails. The DNA is packed efficiently within the heads. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

In the process of writing series of science fiction novels ( a near future dystopian quartet) I’ve taken liberties to understand such biotechnologies as they might be remodeled within a mythical DARPA like governmental agency as techonomic devices or anti-machines (technoviral nanophages) that could be used to perform a variety of tasks militarily. One can imagine the complexity of such a process of production that took the natural cycles of Darwinian selection millions if not hundreds of millions of years to perfect. As humans we enact the hubris of thinking we can reduplicate such efforts through technological means: through innovation and design and artificial transposition.

Nano Replicants of the World Unite

Innovators Angela Belcher, Yet-Ming Chiang and Paula Hammond: “What we want to do is have a beaker where you mix everything together and out comes the functional device,” Belcher says. “Toy boxes often say ‘some assembly required.’ These will be no assembly required. My dream is to have a DNA sequence that codes for the synthesis of any material you want to make.”

The goal of nanofabrication is to make tiny machines build themselves using molecules they grab from their surroundings. It’s easy to dismiss the concept as science fiction — or hype. Until you hear what’s been going on in the lab of MIT materials scientist Angela Belcher, a star in nanotechnology circles.

Working with colleagues Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang, Belcher genetically altered a virus, the M-13 bacteriophage, inducing it to grab a pair of conductive metals — cobalt oxide and gold — from a solution. As the viruses rearrange themselves, they form highly aligned organic nanowires that can be used as a lithium-ion battery electrode — one so densely packed it can store two or three times the energy of conventional electrodes of the same size and weight. So far, the team has grown an anode. The next steps-which could be completed in two years-will be to grow a cathode, and to perfect the Saran Wrap-thin polymer electrolyte that separates the electrodes.

Another candidate in the microscales is the nanobe. Nanobacteria are supposed to be cellular organisms, while nanobes are hypothesized to be a previously unknown form of life or protocells. The 1996 discovery of nanobes was published in 1998 by Philippa Uwins et al., from the University of Queensland, Australia. They were found growing from rock samples (both full-diameter and sidewall cores) of Jurassic and Triassic sandstones, originally retrieved from an unspecified number of oil exploration wells off Australia’s west coast. Depths of retrieval were between 3,400 metres (2.1 mi) and 5,100 metres (3.2 mi) below the sea bed. While Uwins et al. present assertions against it, they do not exclude the possibility that the nanobes are from a surface contaminant, not from the rock units cited.

I’m not sure of other governmental initiatives, but President George W. Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, while in December 2007 the National Nanotechnology Initiative released a Strategic Plan outlining updated goals and “program component areas”pdf,” as required under the terms of the Act. Their stated goals are to understand and master the microscales of matter. Just a basic perusal of the site gives one a false sense of security in regards to what is left unsaid.

Someday soon, targeting medical treatments at just the right part of the body will get a lot easier, and that’s because we’ll have nanomachines to help us. Scientists are building devices so small they could travel through the bloodstream like the Magic School bus to deliver insulin for diabetics who need it or attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. University of Texas announced what it is calling the smallest and best such nanomotor ever built. Mechanical engineer Donglei Fan led a group of engineers who built a motor 500 times smaller than a grain of salt. Measuring 1 micrometer across, it could fit inside a human cell.

Governmental Investment and Organizations

The United States has set the pace for nanotechnology innovation worldwide with the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Launched in 2001 with eight agencies participating, the NNI today consists of the individual and cooperative nanotechnology-related activities of 20 Federal departments and independent agencies… the department has four stated goals:

  1.  to advance world class nanotechnology research and development program (i.e., The NNI agencies invest at the frontiers and intersections of many disciplines, including biology, chemistry, engineering, materials science, and physics. The interest in nanotechnology arises from its potential to significantly impact numerous fields, including aerospace, agriculture, energy, the environment, healthcare, information technology, homeland security, national defense, and transportation systems. );
  2. to foster the transfer of new technologies into products for commercial and public benefit (i.e., implement strategies that maximize the economic and public benefits of their investments in nanotechnology, based on understanding the fundamental science and responsibly translating this knowledge into practical applications.);
  3. dthat is, the researchers, inventors, engineers, and technicians who drive discovery, innovation, industry, and manufacturing.); and,
  4. to support responsible development of nanotechnology (i.e.,  the agency aims to responsibly develop nanotechnology by maximizing the benefits of nanotechnology while, at the same time, developing an understanding of potential risks and the means to assess and manage them.)

Interesting in that last statement is that they truly think they can understand the potential risks and also provide the means to assess and manage those risks. I’ve been in engineering since the early eighties working for many fortune 500 firms both in contract and full-time and have see the hypemeter on technology rise and fall. That last statement should leave one in the red level of danger signals everywhere. We don’t have the luxury of understanding potential risks because of the antiquated philosophical frameworks in place that guide such notions to begin with. The whole concept of risk management is after the fact scenario building and modeling based on hypothetical case scenarios that are like all science fiction good for the bosses but are known by the engineers as fluff to pad the effort rather than something useful to truly combat in actual threat that might be posed by the technologies we might accidentally release upon the planet.

In the future past 2020 they forsee the massive use of nanotechnologies in smart materials and electronic devices of the of the new technocapitalist knowledge empire: NSI has five thrust areas: (1) exploring new or alternative “state variables” for computing; (2) merging nanophotonics with nanoelectronics; (3) exploring carbon-based nanoelectronics; (4) exploiting nanoscale processes and phenomena for quantum information science; and (5) expanding the national nanoelectronics research and manufacturing infrastructure network. (ibid.) Along with (1) a diverse collaborative community; (2) an agile modeling network coupling experimental basic research, modeling, and applications development; (3) a sustainable cyber-toolbox for nanomaterials design; and (4) a robust digital nanotechnology data and information infrastructure. 1

One government watchdog Center for Responsible Nanotechnology cites several danger spots that will need to be attended to in this new advance of NBIC technologies: economic disruption, economic oppression, personal risk (i.e., terrorists and criminal organizations using such nanotech), social regulation (i.e., molecular surveillance nanotech), personal nano-factory restrictions, risk of nano-weapons, environmental damage from nano-tech, nano-hackers invasive techniques leading to goo annihilation scenarios, competing government and private agencies producing risk factors unforeseen, etc. As they say “Some of these risks arise from too little regulation, and others from too much regulation. Several different kinds of regulation will be necessary in several different fields. An extreme or knee-jerk response to any of these risks will simply create fertile ground for other risks. The risks are of several different types, so a single approach (commercial, military, free-information) cannot prevent all of them. Some of the risks are sufficiently extreme that society cannot adjust to the risk while testing various approaches to prevent it. A single grey goo release, or unstable nanotech arms race, is intolerable. Threading a path between all these risks will require careful advance planning.” (see here)


1. NATIONAL NANOTECHNOLOGY INITIATIVE STRATEGIC PLAN (National Science and Technology Council Committee on Technology Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology
February 2014)

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