The progress of science and technology is so often characterized by a focus on compressing technology into smaller and smaller packages. Computers have gone from filling entire rooms to being smaller than a grain of rice. Nanotechnology, in many ways, is the future of science.
Nanotechnology is the branch of science that deals in technology at the scale of nanometers. To put it in perspective, a human hair can be around 1,00,000 nanometers wide. That’s the amount of detail and precision that goes with working in this field.
Since its inception, nanotechnology has permeated several fields and found applications there. This includes the IT field, energy generation, medicine, and biology among others.
Nanotechnology in biology is a relatively new field of research, but interest in it is rapidly growing. This discipline, also called nanobiotechnology, bionanotechnology, or nanobiology, covers a wide area of research and development of technology.
One of the notable factors is that it is helping to take biological investigations from a bulk approach to a molecular and cellular level.
When we say biology, we mean different fields like botany, agriculture, medicine, food production, and so on. Nanomedicine is of particular interest because of the potential of nanotechnology to help fight or even cure diseases previously thought incurable.
The areas applications of nanotechnology in biology are far and wide. It has been integrated into the world of biology these days in several beneficial ways. Here are a few of the particularly interesting applications.
Genetic engineering is making changes in an organism by adding, removing or editing a gene.
Genetic editing to eliminate undesirable human characteristics, including deformations and affinities to diseases, or to enhance desirable characteristics, has long been used as a trope found in the utopian societies of science fiction stories. But nanotechnology opens a door that shows the possibility of this fantasy being realized.
Plant genetic engineering: Gene editing in plants using nanotechnology is already being done to improve production, resistance to diseases, and efficiency in the consumption of resources.
Human genetic engineering: Experiments on editing human genes are also being done enthusiastically by researchers. Nanoparticles can be used to turn off or change particular genes responsible for adverse characteristics, thereby reducing the risk of diseases.
A recent experiment showed the use of nanoparticles to successfully perform gene editing in the liver to reduce blood cholesterol. Another team showed how nanoparticles can successfully turn off genes in the bone marrow, which could be beneficial in the treatment of heart disease or stem cell deficiencies.
Replacing viral vectors: Nanoparticle-based gene editing can also be a better alternative to the expensive method of using viruses for the same.
Using DNA in nanotechnology: There is even research going into using genetic material to create devices at the nanoscale.
Applications of Nanotechnology in Biology
Nano drug delivery systems are perhaps one of the well-known applications of nanotechnology in biology. There is a necessity for these systems because a brute force approach to drug delivery has several drawbacks- high rates of side effects due to the effect of drugs on undesirable parts of the body, as well as poor bioavailability and low solubility of chemical components.
Nanoparticles can be utilized as a precise and controlled delivery system for drugs. They act as carriers and deliver the right dosages to the right locations, providing primarily the following advantages-
Helps avoid delivering repeated drug dosages, by better retention and increasing the amount of the medicine absorbed by the system.
Drugs can also be transported across barriers within the body that are naturally hard to permeate. This is termed as the Enhanced Permeability and Retention Effect (EPR).
Drugs having poor water solubility can be absorbed more efficiently with targeted delivery.
Delivering drugs exclusively to diseased cells reduces or even eliminates the inverse side effects the drug may have on healthy organs and tissues.
Early-stage diagnosis of diseases has proven to be a long-standing challenge for researchers. Modern diagnostic techniques are mainly focused on detecting biomarkers in a body and determining relationships between them and disease progression.
The sensitivity of nanodevices can be used to provide highly precise and accurate diagnoses through non-invasive methods.
Technologies like nanoparticle-based bio-bar codes can be used for ultrasensitive detection, enabling detection of very small concentrations of components like proteins, thereby increasing the chances of early-stage detection and diagnosis of diseases.
Nanotechnology can also help pave the way for personalized medicine, where a person’s unique characteristics are taken into account to formulate more effective treatments.
Nanotechnology also has applications in neuroscience, and it may be possible to noninvasively map the detailed workings of the brain to an extent that hasn't yet been achieved.
Real-time DNA sequencing may also be soon possible with nanotechnology, with an emerging technology called nanopore sequencing.
A lot of the cancer treatment options facilitated by nanoparticles are an extension of the capabilities mentioned above- targeted drug delivery, early diagnosis, mapping and labeling tumors, and so on.
Chemotherapy can be targeted and delivered only to cancerous cells, thereby drastically increasing the efficiency of treatment and reducing the side effects associated with it.
Recently scientists performed successful experiments to show that bowel cancer survival rates could be improved through such targeted delivery of chemotherapy.
Using nanotechnology to deliver immunotherapy has also been proven successful in patients. Augmentation of radiation therapy, as well as genetic modifications to prevent cancer, are also among the avenues being explored.
Nanotechnology can be used to provide more accurate diagnoses of early-stage cancers, which is crucial for improving survival rates. Novel molecular contrast agents and other materials using nanotechnology make this possible and also enables continuous monitoring of treatment and mapping of progress.
A recent development even successfully produced gold inside cancer cells. It may seem quirky to us, but researchers have identified possible groundbreaking clinical applications for this.
Nanotechnology can be, and is being, used in many ways to improve agricultural production.
Pesticides and Fertilizers: Nanotechnology has been explored as a means to encourage sustainable forms of agriculture. Pesticides and fertilizers based on nanoformulations have been found to have little or no toxicity, while also improving yield results.
Nano Fungicides and nano insecticides also have considerable potential. Nanotechnology-based delivery systems have also been proven beneficial, reducing wastage.
Detection: Nanoparticles have been found to be useful for the detection of toxins in the soil as well as for the detection and diagnosis of crop diseases.
Plant genetic engineering: Tailored benefits like better yield can be induced in crops through genetic engineering as mentioned above.
Detection of pathogens: Sensitivity of nanodevices can be used for fast, economical, and efficient detection of phytopathogens, thereby reducing the chance of large-scale destruction of crops.
Livestock industry: Nanotechnology is used for better breeding results, monitoring and improving the health of animals, as well as for better production.
Food processing: Better packaging materials that have antimicrobial and other qualities can be developed with the implementation of nanotechnology.
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Researchers around the world are working around the clock towards preventing and controlling the coronavirus pandemic, and nano technology has had a significant role to play.
Vaccine development: The Pfizer mRNA-based vaccines are made usable by the backing of nanoparticles. Nanoparticles can target cells part of the immune system for better delivery.
Treatment: There is great potential for use of nanotechnology for improving the effectiveness of COVID-19 treatment. Fabrication of nanoparticles with desirable characteristics could result in treatments with less toxicity, and therefore less adverse effects, and faster results.
For instance, a COVID-19 therapeutic agent being currently employed, dexamethasones, is introduced through different nano-formulations.
Diagnosis: Nanoparticles could be used for diagnosing COVID-19 effectively without the use of expensive equipment.
Research is still being done on fully realizing the possible contributions of nanotechnology in the fight against COVID-19, but needless to say, the potential is noteworthy.
Nanotechnology may well be the answer to everything from curing cancer to unlocking and manipulating the secrets of the genome, but there is still a long way to go before its potential is fully realized. Widespread use of nanotechnology in biology would involve figuring out how to overcome several barriers.
One of them is a lack of an economical method for the large-scale production of nanoparticles and materials, which limits the scope of nanotechnology severely. Another is that like any new technology that affects the health and lives of humans, extensive testing needs to be done before real-life performance can be implemented.
There are ethical issues related to nanotechnologies such as a lack of understanding of possible toxicity and environmental issues of nanomaterials. There is also a potential for large-scale job losses in the agricultural sector with the spread of nanotechnology. The potential of nanotechnology for genetic engineering also poses ethical conundrums.
These challenges take time to overcome, but what we can be sure of is that the nano revolution is underway, and there is no stopping it.
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