A team of Australian researchers has made a scientific advance of world significance by building a functioning nanomachine a device with moving parts that are only molecules in size, the Minister for Science, Mr Peter McGauran announced today.
The breakthrough, by a team from the Co-operative Research Centre for Molecular Engineering and Technology (CRCMET) is reported in today's edition of the international scientific journal Nature. CRCMET is a joint venture of CSIRO, the University of Sydney and the industrial consortium AMBRI Ltd.
The device is a biosensor a combination of biology and physics, designed to detect substances with extreme sensitivity. Its central component is a tiny electrical switch, an ion-channel, 1.5 billionths of a metre in size.
The device was created by Dr Bruce Cornell of CSIRO and his colleagues Dr Vijoleta Braach-Maksvytis, Dr Lionel King, Dr Peter Osman, Dr Burkhard Raguse, Mr Lech Wieczorek and Dr Ron Pace. Their work was funded by the Australian Government through the Industrial Research and Development Board (IRDB) and Co-operative Research Centres scheme. Substantial commercial support has been provided by Pacific Dunlop subsidiary AMBRI Pty Ltd.
"This biosensor is a unique blend of the ability of biology to identify individual types of molecule in complex mixtures, with the speed, convenience and low cost of microelectronics," Dr Cornell says.
"It consists of a synthetic membrane that we make ourselves, chemically tethered to a thin metal film coated onto a piece of plastic. This membrane behaves like the outer skin of the cells of the human body in its ability to sense other molecules.
"As we evolved from the sea, it is not surprising that ions (single atoms) in sea water such as sodium and potassium play a role in human cell signalling and sensory systems. These depend on ion currents that flow across certain cell membranes.
"When the membrane detects its target molecule, it turns these currents on or off by opening or closing molecular channels that pass through the otherwise insulating membrane.
"We have made a synthetic version of this mechanism, that is stable, inexpensive and convenient to use as a molecular detector.
AMBRI Pty Ltd's Mr Keith Daniel says biosensors have a huge range of potential uses, especially in medicine, for detecting drugs, hormones, viruses, pesticides and to identify gene sequences for diagnosing genetic disorders.
In the pharmaceuticals industry the device may also be used to identify new drugs and medically-active compounds.
"Because of their low cost, sensitivity and ease of use, they will probably also find particular application in on-site measurements, such as ensuring food safety and quality, in environmental monitoring and drug detection in athletes," he says.
Dr Cornell describes the biosensor's sensitivity as equivalent to detecting the increase of the sugar content of Sydney Harbour after throwing a sugar cube from a ferry.
"We are designing them to be very simple to operate. We've even had corporate lawyers working them.
"It has taken us nine years to bring the device from first concept to the present stage," he says. "Without the support and trust of many people from both Government and Australian industry this project would not have survived.
"Australia was in on the ground floor of the computer revolution, in the 1940s, but we allowed the opportunity to slip away. We now have a chance to be in at the start of a new generation of technologies, such as our biosensor devices which operate on the molecular or nanometre scale. We need to take full scientific and commercial advantage of this early lead."
The team's biosensor has been operating successfully for several months in the laboratory and commercial products are expected to be launched within a couple of years.
More information:Dr Bruce Cornell, CSIRO 02 9422 3195 (office &
Mr Keith Daniel, AMBRI Pty Ltd 02 9422 3003 (office & mobile)
Hon. Peter McGauran, Minister for Science 06 277 7660 or 0419 996 766
Note: The terms Nanomachine and Nanotechnology come from the Greek word nanos. They refer to devices whose parts can be measured in nanometres, or billionths of a metre.
Artist's impression of a nanomachine (Click for full size - 125 KB)