Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The Electric Kool-Aid Nano Test

A great deal has been written in the popular press recently about the slippery definition of "nanotechnology." At Small Times, we often subject the word to unspeakable torture in our attempts to extract information on whether a company conforms. Here's a little peak behind the scenes in an e-mail exchange between correspondent Jack Mason, staff writer David Forman and me.

From: Jack Mason
Sent: Wednesday, August 06, 2003 12:07 PM
To: Howard Lovy
Subject: Chlorogen: Plant-Made Drugs

Harris & Harris just invested ... I think this kind of "wet" bionanotech is fascinating.

Chlorogen Inc. is focused on developing plant-made drugs and vaccines for the treatment and prevention of human diseases. Its patented chloroplast technology permits the expression of foreign proteins only within plant chloroplasts. According to Chlorogen, this provides two significant benefits. First, the chloroplast technology dramatically enhances the protein production of a cell. Second, because chloroplast DNA is not inherited through pollen, Chlorogen's technology can prevent foreign genes from being transferred to other crops through pollen. Chlorogen's initial focus will be on developing pharmaceutical proteins in tobacco.

From: Howard Lovy
To: Jack Mason; David Forman

Thanks, Jack! I'm forwarding this to David, who will determine whether this is nanotech and write a brief if it is.

Howard Lovy
News Editor
Small Times Media

From: David Forman
To: Howard Lovy; Jack Mason;

The big question (and I certainly don't have the answer) is whether 'wet' bionanotech is just biotech. Any takers?

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

No. THIS is an example of wet nanotech.


From: Jack Mason
To: David Forman; Howard Lovy

I think it can be argued both ways:

On the one hand, biotech has been using genetic engineering to do similar things, like produce human insulin with bacteria, for a long time.

On the other, the degree of control and complexity of what might be produced by such modified biofactories seems to be a level of growing sophistication that at least borders on a new category one might call bionanotech.

I've been rereading Drexler's Engines of Creation, and am reminded that he talked about protein engineering and DNA synthesis as being both models for and precursors to his idea of molecular manufacturing.

One other thought ... I just finished James Watson's excellent book DNA: The Secret Life. The complexity of the DNA molecule, and the tremendous abilities science has developed to manipulate such infinitesimal stuff, makes me wonder if biotech really is an advanced nanotechnology, but one that merely developed without benefit of the 'nano' prefix.

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

Well, here's the official Small Times definition of nanotechnology: "The creation, use or manipulation of matter on the nanoscale to take advantage of properties that reign at that scale. Typically, this is defined as 100 nanometers or below."

The judgment call we make every day is that "take advantage of properties" part of it, and you can argue that we've been pretty loose on that with other applications (nanocoatings, textiles, etc.)

Here's the company's description of the technology. The key phrase there is: "Chlorogen has invented and patented genetic sequences or regulatory signals, which tell foreign genes to function within the chloroplasts and only the chloroplasts."

You could argue that if it wasn't nanoscale, it wouldn't work – but does it take advantage of any "special properties?" Not sure. We'd need help from somebody with some initials after his name.

From a news standpoint, though, Harris & Harris – a company that specializes in nanotech investments, therefore is always on our radar – decided to invest in this company. Let's find out why, and let them tell us whether they see it as nano, bio, potato or potawto. Either way, let's not call the whole thing off. It's probably a brief.

P.S.: Harris & Harris' investment in Chlorogen has generated some "Nanalyses" over at Nanalyze.


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