Big Opportunities in a Nano World

Could you be a nanotechnologist without realising it? Chances are that, if you work at the molecular level, your skills could find application in this up-and-coming field. You just need to think in a slightly different way.

Dr Duncan Graham usually defines himself as a colloid scientist, but "for the purposes of today my research interest is nanoparticles", he declared at a meeting held at the Royal Society on 9 May. Graham, from the department of pure and applied chemistry at the University of Strathclyde, was just one of the multidisciplinary scientists taking part in ?Biological Aspects of Nanotechnology?. Dr Andrew Turberfield of the department of physics at the University of Oxford was another. You might not expect to find a physicist studying DNA, but for Turberfield its rigid, helical structure makes it ideal for use as the ?concrete girders? of nanostructures.

Nanotech may be a very ?device-orientated? discipline, but there?s still plenty of room for biologists among the physicists and engineers. DNA is not the only natural product providing inspiration; others include flagella rotors and proton pumps. That?s why nanobiotechnology has been a priority research area for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which organised the meeting, since 2000.

Training and research in the field fall primarily under the remit of the Engineering and Biological Systems Committee of the BBSRC. They are currently funding 20 project grants worth £4 million [supplemented with £800,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)], and awarded eight PhD studentships in 2001 and a further nine in 2002. The four key research topics identified by the committee are surface chemistry, interfacing higher-order biomolecular systems, theoretical modelling and simulation, and nanofabrication and molecular assembly. The aim of the meeting was to bring together grantholders to present their work, and provide an opportunity for the BBSRC to gage whether the four research priorities, established in 2000, need revisiting.

To stimulate research in the field, two Interdisciplinary Research Centres (IRCs) have been set up jointly by EPSRC, BBSRC, and the Medical Research Council (MRC). Chosen on the basis of how well they addressed the initially defined research priorities, one comprises the Universities of Oxford, York, and Glasgow and the MRC?s National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, London. The second brings together expertise from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol and University College London.

Unfortunately, because they are still so new, neither centre yet has a functioning Web site. However, Professor Mervyn Miles of the University of Bristol, co-director of the Cambridge IRC, explained how the funds have been allocated. The Cambridge-based IRC was awarded a total of £32 million, of which £20 million is for new buildings (the first is to be opened in Cambridge in September 2002) and £4 million for staff. The IRC has "72 years of postdocs" to fund. There are four 6-year ?core? projects, and the remaining funding will be awarded to exploratory projects on the basis of an internal competition. Each application will have to involve at least two departments. Once a project is off the ground it will look for another source of funding, or be taken up by one of the spin-off companies that the IRC anticipates creating. This liberates the dedicated IRC funding to make way for a new exploratory project. "£32 million sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn?t go far," pointed out Miles.

Nonetheless the IRCs are definitely on the look out for ?new blood?. "There are lots of employment opportunities [in nanotechnology in the UK] and not enough people to fill them," lamented Professor John Ryan, director of the Oxford-based IRC, which is why half of the Oxford-led project?s funding is going toward a graduate school.

So, for biologists with a knack for engineering, and physicists with an interest in molecular biology, now is a good time to break into nanoscience. The meeting concluded that the original research priorities defined by BBSRC are still relevant to the nanotech community. However, the BBRSC wants to encourage even more "high quality, cross-disciplinary proposals," concluded Professor David Clarke of the University of Manchester in summing up the day?s discussion.

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