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
“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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