All life is composed of nanotechnology. From the original molecular structures that developed the ability to replicate themselves a billion or more years ago to the most sophisticated life forms, we all have resulted from an evolutionary process that started with, and uses at every level, nanotechnology concepts. Life started at nano-scale, and a huge majority of all life forms, the greatest bio-diversity, still exists at nano-scale.
Take a close look at a human hair, for instance. It wicks perspiration away from the skin very efficiently and allows it to evaporate into the air from the much greater surface of the hairs, removing excess heat from the air next to our skin when we are hot. When we are cold it holds air near the skin and provides insulation to retain heat. Its surface can wear from friction, which can change its surface area as well as other aspects of its mechanical behavior (link). The research is only beginning, however, and many more questions are yet to be asked, let alone answered. For instance, does hair have an especially large surface area at nano or very small scales? Does it have a molecular structure that mimics water molecules to the extent of using surface tension to wick perspiration out onto the hairs, or is there some other special affinity for sweat that makes hair more effective at helping to cool us?
Blood cells are another interesting aspect of nano-scale functionality in humans. Blood cells are essentially autonomous creatures that receive nutrients and chemical instructions from other parts of our bodies, and wander through our circulatory system and tissues doing specific jobs that keep us alive. This strongly suggests that we, like jellyfish and all other life forms, are community organisms, made up of smaller scale entities that work together for the common survival. We would not survive without the independent microorganisms that digest our food, remove or otherwise neutralize unfriendly intruders, and generally take care of every function by which we live.
Many of our cells have given up their mobility to better do their particular jobs. Nerve cells, for instance, can not move around at all, at least once they reach maturity. They can, however, grow connections to other nerve cells and use them to exchange electrical and chemical signals without which we would not live, creating the incredibly complex network we use for everything from movement and sensing of ourselves and our surroundings to actual thought.
Cells can transform themselves, and have stages of life. Stem cells are generated in our bone marrow, and then travel through our blood stream until they receive signals or information that tells them to differentiate into other cell types, which may involve those cells losing their mobility and “settling down” to a more sedentary existence. Each cell contains incredibly complex instructions for growth and function in its DNA, and specific signals activate chemical switches in that DNA that tell the cell how to grow and function. At least one of those DNA instructions limits how many times a cell can divide to produce new cells of the same type, and if this particular instruction is broken it allows other cells, if also broken, to cause the cell to divide an unlimited number of times, a key aspect of cancer, the runaway division of cells.
We have only scratched the surface of the nanotechnology all around us. The human study of nanotechnology will need a lot more time and effort to catch up with a billion years of evolution. At this point we might be like the early human who discovered the use of the lever. That human had found a way to use knowledge that accomplished something useful, but a full understanding of why and how that function worked was still a long way off. There is an incredible universe of knowledge and understanding out there which we are only becoming aware of now, and it will be an exciting future, but especially if we all support further research we need to control our destiny as a species and planet. Please support basic scientific research (the kind that can’t say what it is expecting to find or promise specific results) when you communicate with your government and corporate representatives. It is only through the pursuit and application of knowledge that we will have a chance of maintaining our great standards of living in the future, especially as we exhaust our natural resources and learn to control our population and ecological impact.
As always, I welcome your comments.