Friday, March 26, 2010

Look at the Little Bricklayers

Check this out: using nothing more complicated than a swarm of about 5,000 bacteria and a computer-controlled magnet, researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal built a very, very simple step pyramid using the bacteria as workers and tiny epoxy bricks.

There's a lot more technical detail here, but watching the video itself is pretty amazing. Well, it doesn't seem amazing until the last fifteen seconds or so when the action is sped up -- but then you watch the video again to watch these little hoddies at work.

There's a lot of talk out there about using nanotechnology to do things from deliver cancer drugs precisely to tumors to building tiny electronic components to repairing organs and cells. The big problem with a lot of the research going on out there is that the material being used to build the nano-robots is stuff like carbon and titanium dioxide. Further research shows that the titanium dioxide is toxic at nano-scale, and that the carbon strings used in this technology can cause asbestos-like lesions in lungs. So why not use a natural bacteria as the robots and engines, while figuring out a way to make them do what you want.

That's where this particular bacteria, magnetospirillium, comes in. They have tiny strucutres within their cells that react to magnetic fields. Tun on a magnet on, say, the east side of a petri dish, these little buggers swarm to the east side. Get them bunched up ad as they swarm, they can push and/or carry stuff. That's how the pyramid is built.

Watch the video, then marvel at how science is able to figure things like this out.

Honestly, I feel for the little guys. I called them hoddies -- that's slang for a bricklayer's assistant, which I used to be growing up. Dad and my older brother Albert didn't have magnets to make me work, but the call of the paycheck was enough to keep me motivated. So I understand how these little bacteria must feel.

No comments: