BOZEMAN -- Most people have a favorite cooking pot, like a saute skillet with a wooden handle or a copper-bottomed sauce pan.
Right now Mark Young is pretty excited about what may be nature's smallest cooking vessel--the round shell of a virus that's been emptied of the stuff that causes disease.
Young studies viruses at Montana State University-Bozeman. He and Temple University chemist Trevor Douglas have discovered that the protein case that encapsulates a virus can be hijacked when empty and used as a "molecular cooking pot" of the nanosphere size. That's one thousand millionth of a meter.
In this scenario, viruses would work for us. Such a minuscule vessel could travel inside the body and deliver a drug to the right cellular address, for example.
"What you have is a container," said Scripps Research Institute virologist Jack Johnson. "It allows you to do chemistry on an exceptionally small scale."
He said the applications could be widespread because the goal of much of modern technology--from biology to electronics-- is to make things as small and as uniform as possible.
Last month, Young and Douglas published a paper on the discovery in the international journal Nature. Since then, the response from the scientific community has been "incredible," said Douglas.
Chemists have been trying to build cage-like structures for years, thinking they would be useful for making materials of unique value or materials that would have unique properties, Douglas said. But the results were mixed. The size wasn't always uniform, and hence, neither were the properties.
Instead of building the cages one molecule at a time, Young and Douglas are stealing them.
"The natural role for that shell is to transport [the virus]," said Young. "It evolved to survive in many different chemical environments. We're just hijacking nature."