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The nanotechnology of life-inspired systems

Abstract

For some decades now, nanotechnology has been touted as the 'next big thing' with potential impact comparable to the steam, electricity or Internet revolutions — but has it lived up to these expectations? While advances in top-down nanolithography, now reaching 10-nm resolution, have resulted in devices that are rapidly approaching mass production, attempts to produce nanoscale devices using bottom-up approaches have met with only limited success. We have been inundated with nanoparticles of almost any shape, material and composition, but their societal impact has been far from revolutionary, with growing concerns over their toxicity. Despite nebulous hopes that making hierarchical nanomaterials will lead to new, emergent properties, no breakthrough applications seem imminent. In this Perspective, we argue that the time is ripe to look beyond individual nano-objects and their static assemblies, and instead focus on systems comprising different types of 'nanoparts' interacting and/or communicating with one another to perform desired functions. Such systems are interesting for a variety of reasons: they can act autonomously without external electrical or optical connections, can be dynamic and reconfigurable, and can act as 'nanomachines' by directing the flow of mass, energy or information . In thinking how this systems nanoscience approach could be implemented to design useful — as opposed to toy-model — nanosystems, our choice of applications and our nanoengineering should be inspired by living matter.

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Figure 1: Structure, function and external control of complex biological nanosystems.
Figure 2: Artificial nanosystems with built-in feedback.
Figure 3: Wet-stamped reaction–diffusion microsystems.
Figure 4: Communication between nanosystems.
Figure 5: Nanoparts for existing and hypothetical nanosystems.
Figure 6: Visualizing systems by 'etch-a-system'.

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Acknowledgements

B.A.G. acknowledges the support of the Institute for Basic Science Korea, Project Code IBS-R020-D1. W.T.S.H. acknowledges support from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Gravitation programme 024.001.035).

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Correspondence to Bartosz A. Grzybowski or Wilhelm T. S. Huck.

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Grzybowski, B., Huck, W. The nanotechnology of life-inspired systems. Nature Nanotech 11, 585–592 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2016.116

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