North­west­ern Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and mem­ber of the US Pres­i­dent's Coun­cil of Ad­vi­sors on Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (PCAST),

Dr Chad Mirkin is in­ter­ested in mak­ing things smaller to find so­lu­tions to re­gional prob­lems like water pu­rity and de­sali­na­tion.

In this day and age, much sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment in­volves mak­ing things smaller. Com­puter en­gi­neers work to cre­ate smaller pro­ces­sors that al­low lap­tops, tablets and mo­bile phones to shrink down with­out sac­ri­fic­ing pro­cess­ing power. Smaller mem­ory stor­age sys­tems mean that we can now carry more data around in our pocket than re­searchers 20 years ago could have stored on a stack of 50 CD-ROMs. In medicine, smaller tools are con­stantly be­ing de­vel­oped to pro­vide pa­tients with safer and less in­va­sive surgery op­tions. North­west­ern Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Dr Chad Mirkin is also in­ter­ested in mak­ing things smaller, but his re­search takes the prac­tice to a whole new level. It doesn't get much smaller than cre­at­ing struc­tures one mol­e­cule high.

Dr Mirkin is an en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor and the direc­tor of the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Nan­otech­nol­ogy (IIN) at North­west­ern Univer­sity's main cam­pus in Evanston, Illi­nois. The in­sti­tute con­tains $600 mil­lion worth of re­search and ed­u­ca­tional in­fra­struc­ture, all fo­cus­ing on nanoscience, the prac­tise of work­ing with ma­te­ri­als bil­lionths of a me­tre in size.

“One of the tenets of nan­otech­nol­ogy is that ev­ery­thing when minia­turised is new,” Mirkin says. “It has new prop­er­ties. When you take gold and you shrink it down to the 13 nanome­tre scale, it's no longer gold in colour. It's red in colour. The way it in­ter­acts with light is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Its chem­istry is com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

Nan­otech­nol­ogy has prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tions in many dif­fer­ent fields. Ev­ery­thing from op­tics to en­ergy can be af­fected by these mi­nus­cule struc­tures. Even re­gional prob­lems, like the is­sue of water pu­rity and de­salin­i­sa­tion in Qatar, can be tack­led more ef­fi­ciently through nanoscience.

An­other im­por­tant field for nanosci­en­tists is medicine. The most im­por­tant devel­op­ment to come out of the IIN, Mirkin says, is what are called spher­i­cal nu­cleic acids, tiny balls of DNA that can in­ter­act with cells in ways to­tally unique from reg­u­lar, lin­ear strands of DNA. These spher­i­cal nu­cleic acids can se­lec­tively bind to cer­tain types of cells and, as he puts it, “flip ge­netic switches”. This tech­nol­ogy can be used to tar­get and at­tack dis­eases like, in his ex­am­ple, brain can­cer. Us­ing this process, the IIN saw tu­mour re­duc­tion and

"This re­gion is poised to have the first nanomedicine and nan­otech­nol­ogy cen­ter of its kind, and we're ex­plor­ing whether that's a pos­si­bil­ity and whether Qatar is the best place to es­tab­lish it."

in­creased sur­vival in an­i­mals with the dis­ease, a promis­ing first step to­wards new can­cer treat­ments that Mirkin pre­sented to the sec­ond Mid­dle East Con­fer­ence on Bio­med­i­cal En­gi­neer­ing held in Doha.

“So this is a very pow­er­ful form of what's called gene reg­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy,” Mirkin says. “That can be used, in prin­ci­ple, to be­gin to treat some of the world's most de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­eases.”

An­other ad­vance­ment that has come out of the IIN is a process called Dip Pen Nano­lithog­ra­phy, which al­lows tiny struc­tures one mol­e­cule high to be drawn on a sur­face. In line with many other im­pres­sive sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies, this in­ven­tion hap­pened com­pletely by ac­ci­dent. A stu­dent had left the tip of an atomic force mi­cro­scope (AFM) – a tool that al­lows re­searchers to mea­sure sur­faces down to the atomic scale – in con­tact with a sur­face while he went out­side to smoke a pipe. When he re­turned, he found that a tiny amount of water had con­densed from the air and had been de­posited on the sur­face by the tip of the mi­cro­scope. He then found that he could cre­ate pat­terns by mov­ing the tip of the mi­cro­scope, pat­terns that could be only a few mol­e­cules high. Be­cause these pat­terns were made of water, though, they would soon dis­ap­pear.

“I said, look, the world's only go­ing to care so much about mak­ing what we called metastable pat­terns of water,” Mirkin says. “A chemist re­ally wants to build things, so let's put mol­e­cules on there that will chem­i­cally re­act with the sur­face and form a layer that stays there for­ever.”

Mirkin's team then de­signed chem­i­cals that would re­act with a gold sur­face. Then, by uti­liz­ing not one but mil­lions of AFM tips, they were able to cre­ate larger pat­terns with a molec­u­lar level of res­o­lu­tion.

The IIN acts as a cen­tre of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion in pur­suit of ad­vanc­ing nan­otech­nol­ogy. As the largest in­sti­tute of its kind in the world, it at­tracts great sci­en­tific minds from across the globe. Mirkin's team alone in­cludes re­searchers from 13 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and there is much more room for in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion out­side of the United States. The in­sti­tute has set up sis­ter cen­tres in several in­ter­na­tional lo­ca­tions like China and Sin­ga­pore that not only help to de­velop hu­man tal­ent in the field but also in­crease the po­ten­tial for col­lab­o­ra­tion on projects that can af­fect pop­u­la­tions all over the world.

Whether the gulf re­gion, or even Doha in par­tic­u­lar, could be able to join in this global part­ner­ship is still up for dis­cus­sion.

“This re­gion is poised to have the first nanomedicine and nan­otech­nol­ogy cen­tre of its kind, and we're ex­plor­ing whether that's a pos­si­bil­ity and whether Qatar is the best place to es­tab­lish it,” Mirkin says. “That's go­ing to be a dia­logue that takes place over the next few months. We will ei­ther see a syn­ergy or not and move for­ward or not.”

In ad­di­tion to ad­vanc­ing the field of nan­otech­nol­ogy, Mirkin has also been in­volved with mak­ing pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions to the Amer­i­can govern­ment as a mem­ber of the Pres­i­dent's Coun­cil of Ad­vi­sors on Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (PCAST) since 2009. PCAST is a group of the best and bright­est minds from sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal fields in the United States who meet to rec­om­mend pol­icy to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

“It's in­tel­lec­tual gym­nas­tics,” Mirkin says. “These are meet­ings where you've got, when I started, three No­bel Prize win­ners on the com­mit­tee. There are several of the most ac­com­plished univer­sity pres­i­dents. There are guys who rev­o­lu­tionised Wall Street, guys like D E Shaw. There are peo­ple who had built un­be­liev­able busi­nesses, Eric Sch­midt of Google and Craig Mundie, one of the smartest guys out of Mi­crosoft. They are gi­ants in their field. They're peo­ple that have an un­be­liev­able set of cre­den­tials and ac­com­plish­ments yet a de­sire to give back through their ser­vice to govern­ment.”

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