2016: The Start of a New… Decade? Part 1

The coming of spring, like New Years Day, leads many of us to ruminate over what we did and did not accomplish in the past year and to set readily achievable and truly ambitious goals for the next. But what if you wanted to make resolutions about what you wanted to do 10 or 25 years ahead instead of just one? Undoubtedly you would examine both your past and your goals for the future with much greater scrutiny. The number 2016 might not seem particularly special at first glance, but a little more than a decade has passed since Science magazine published its open-access 125th Anniversary Issue, which presented 25 of the biggest questions “facing science over the next quarter-century.”1

Two of those big questions from 2005 are still very relevant to the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) today: “How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly?” and “What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing?”2,3 Sometimes looking back can provide hilariously entertaining results (have you ever seen VH1’s I Love the ‘90s?) but sometimes it simply offers interesting insights on goals for the future. In the next two blog posts, I’m going to talk about what the CSN has done so far and what it might do in the next decade to tackle these questions.

25 year questions
Science’s 125th anniversary issue in 2005 raised questions for “the next quarter-century” that remain relevant in 2016.  (nanotube image from Wikimedia)

“How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly?”

Self-assembly is a broad term, encompassing how individual molecules or nanoparticles can spontaneously come together to form increasingly complex, hierarchical structures. In biology, there are various examples of self-assembly. One is when proteins fold from an initial single strand of amino acids into a 3D form that serves a new function; another is when phospholipids come together to form lipid bilayers.

protein folding
A strand of amino acids self-assembling into a protein. (image from Wikimedia)

One of the questions that the CSN has been studying is how nanoparticles affect biological assembling processes and, therefore, the physiology of living systems. For example, nanoparticles are often positively or negatively charged and can interact with each other and other charged molecules. In living systems, certain amino acids in proteins and the heads of phospholipid molecules that form cell membranes can also be charged. Professor Vivian Feng answered part of the question about self-assembly in this blog post about how positively charged gold nanoparticles attach to the negatively charged phospholipid heads on the surface of the cell membrane and damage the membrane, leading to cell death.

The paper Dr. Feng wrote about also interestingly showed that these charged nanoparticles can cluster together. The clustering of gold nanoparticles reduces their overall surface area and diminishes how useful they are for applications such as biological imaging. Whether nanoparticles are grouped together or spread out affects how strongly they attach to membranes, potentially changing how the cell responds. Therefore, we want to push self-assembly to the point that we can control and predict the aggregation of nanoparticles without disrupting natural assembling processes vital to life. That way, we can optimize the performance of new nanotechnologies while mitigating any toxic effects on cells, organisms, and the environment.

Stay tuned for our next blog post, when I will discuss how the CSN is addressing another big question from Science: “What are the limits of conventional computing?”



  1. Kennedy, D. & Norman, C. What don’t we know? Science, 2005, 309 (5731), 75. doi: 10.1126/science.309.5731.75
  2. Service, R. How Far Can We Push Chemical Self-Assembly? Science 2005, 309(5731), 95. doi: 10.1126/science.309.5731.95
  3. Seife, C. What Are the Limits of Conventional Computing? Science 2005, 309(5731), 96. doi: 10.1126/science.309.5731.96


Note: Post updated April 1 to fix typos.

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