When he's describing his potentially revolutionary work in nanotechnology, Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine biologist Mark Hildebrand likes to remind you that the transistor sat around for 20 years as a technology without an application before becoming the foundation of computer chips and radios.
Hildebrand works with diatoms, microscopic plankton whose ornate beauty is revealed only with the help of powerful microscopes. Besides being a key member at the foundation of the ocean food web and an important agent in the packaging and storage of carbon at the bottom of the sea, the diatom might serve another purpose with the help of people.
Diatoms build shells in myriad shapes, like snowflakes on the nanoscale. The shells are made out of silica, a compound related to the material used in many computer components, but unlike the tiny basic parts fabricated by people, they are three-dimensional. Diatoms can produce these advanced structures by the billions for a few dollars. What's more, they can churn out exact copies with a level of precision no amount of human machining can match.
So what if, Hildebrand asks, diatoms could grow their shells into the shapes of industrially useful nanostructures? They could produce computer circuit board components and microlasers capable of efficiently and selectively routing light across expanses only microns long.
The problem is the research has a to-do list that could take years to complete without the help of more trained biologists. Hildebrand, his grad student and a technician are alone in taking their particular research approach. They are supported, though not always understood, by others in the field of nanotechnology, one dominated by people with materials science background and a much different orientation to science.
Diatoms' environment partially dictates how they grow their shells, but most of the show is run by genetics. Hildebrand is beginning his inquiry by taking the one diatom species whose complete gene sequence is known and figuring out how it makes its cell walls and ultimately its shell. It involves identifying which proteins in a diatom cell are involved in the production and which portion of the diatom's gene sequence contains the directions.
The U.S. Air Force began funding these baby steps in October. Already Hildebrand figures that researchers have uncovered more knowledge about this diatom species than had ever been known about diatoms before. He has also applied for a National Science Foundation grant to pay for more research time but that will accelerate the pace of discovery only so much. Hildebrand is open to partnerships with corporate sponsors. A mere $70,000 buys a year of postdoctoral student time, he points out.
It might take such a relationship to speed up research to the point where Hildebrand finally sees light at the end of the tunnel and we can see a payoff in our lifetime.
Monroe is senior science writer for UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography Explorations magazine.