July 07, 2006

Keeping synthetic biology away from terrorists

Scientists want to adopt a set of declarations to improve the security of research that uses DNA synthesis. Drew Endy, Asst Prof of Bioengineering at MIT, is interviewed at the MIT Technology Review about these policy efforts.

Issues related to the development of synthetic biology can be organized into four topics: safety and security, ownership and sharing, understanding and perception, and community organization. It is irresponsible to develop any technology without also directly addressing the associated nontechnical issues. For example, today, not all DNA synthesis companies check what they make. This was demonstrated recently by the Guardian, which published a front-page article stating you could order a piece of smallpox DNA through the mail. We tried to dissuade the journalist from going forward with this stunt.

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Survey of the status of Synthetic Biology work

Solitons could power molecular electronics, artificial muscles

Since the 1980s, scientists have known that solitons can carry an electrical charge when traveling through certain organic polymers. A new study now suggests that solitons have intricate internal structures.

Scientists may one day use this information to put the particles to work in molecular electronics and artificial muscles, said Ju Li, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Ohio State University.

Li explained that each soliton is made up of an electron surrounded by other particles called phonons. Just as a photon is a particle of light energy, a phonon is a particle of vibrational energy.

The new study suggests that the electron inside a soliton can attain different energy states, just like the electron in a hydrogen atom. The soliton's quantum mechanical properties -- including these newly discovered energy states -- are important because they affect how the particle carries a charge through organic materials such as conducting polymers at the molecular level.

Broadband light amplifier on a photonic chip created

Cornell University researchers have created a broadband light amplifier on a silicon chip, a major breakthrough in the quest to create photonic microchips. In such microchips, beams of light traveling through microscopic waveguides will replace electric currents traveling through microscopic wires.
The amplifier uses a phenomenon known as four-wave mixing, in which a signal to be amplified is "pumped" by another light source inside a very narrow waveguide. The waveguide is a channel only 300 x 550 nanometers (nm = a billionth of a meter, about the length of three atoms in a row) wide, smaller than the wavelength of the infrared light traveling through it. The photons of light in the pump and signal beams are tightly confined, allowing for transfer of energy between the two beams.

The advantage this scheme offers over previous methods of light amplification is that it works over a fairly broad range of wavelengths. Photonic circuits are expected to find their first applications as repeaters and routers for fiber-optic communications, where several different wavelengths are sent over a single fiber at the same time. The new broadband device makes it possible to amplify the multiplexed traffic all at once.

The process also creates a duplicate signal at a different wavelength, so the devices could be used to convert a signal from one wavelength to another.

New ion trap may lead to large quantum computers

Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have designed and built a novel electromagnetic trap for ions that could be easily mass produced to potentially make quantum computers large enough for practical use. The new trap, described in the June 30 issue of Physical Review Letters,* may help scientists surmount what is currently the most significant barrier to building a working quantum computer--scaling up components and processes that have been successfully demonstrated individually. The new NIST trap is the first functional ion trap in which all electrodes are arranged in one horizontal layer, a "chip-like" geometry that is much easier to manufacture than previous ion traps with two or three layers of electrodes. The new trap, which has gold electrodes that confine ions about 40 micrometers above the electrodes, was constructed using standard microfabrication techniques.

NIST scientists report that their single-layer device can trap a dozen magnesium ions without generating too much heat from electrode voltage fluctuations--also an important factor, because heating has limited the prospects for previous small traps. Microscale traps are desirable because the smaller the trap, the faster the future computer. Work is continuing at NIST and at collaborating industrial and federal labs to build single-layer traps with more complex structures in which perhaps 10 to 15 ions eventually could be manipulated with lasers to carry out logic operations.

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