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Prions offer nanotech building tool

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The same characteristics that make misfolded proteins known as prions such a pernicious medical threat in neurodegenerative diseases may offer a construction toolkit for manufacturing nanoscale electrical circuits, researchers report this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists working at Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the University of Chicago write that they have used the durable, self-assembling fibers formed by prions as a template on which to deposit electricity-bearing gold and silver, creating electrical wire much thinner than it is possible to make by current mechanical processes.

"Most of the people working on nanocircuits are trying to build them using 'top-down' fabrication techniques" used in conventional electrical engineering, explained Whitehead Institute Director Susan Lindquist, a co-author of the study. "We thought we'd try a 'bottom-up' approach, and let molecular self-assembly do the hard work for us."

Construction of nanoscale microcircuits and machines is one of the highly prized goals of nanotechnology. Manufacturing is very tricky at this scale a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; a nanometer is to a meter what a small grape would be to the entire Earth. Moreover, these devices depend on nanowires to conduct electricity. So far, the mass production of these tiny wires has stymied researchers. Making very small computers and optical switches, or even biomedical devices that could be inserted into the body, could open up whole new fields of computation and medicine.

Lindquist and her colleagues took a different approach. Rather than building the metal wire itself, they let prions build a very thin fibrous template and then coaxed gold and silver to bond to the protein fibers. By themselves, the fibers are insulators; they can't conduct electricity. But when coated with gold and silver particles, they became re
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Contact: Rick Borchelt or Kelli Whitlock
newsroom@wi.mit.edu
617-258-5183
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
31-Mar-2003


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