Could the tiniest organisms be the foundries of the future? Angela Belcher thinks so. The MIT materials scientist engineers viruses to manipulate compounds at the molecular level. A 2004 MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. “genius grant”) winner, she’s also a cofounder of Cambridge, MA’s Cambrios Technologies, which applies her work to everything from lighting to microchip fabrication.
Technology Review: What do you do?
Angela Belcher: We look at how nature processes materials and then evolve organisms to make new types of materials.
TR: But you don’t like being called a nanotechnologist?
Belcher: I’m a materials chemist who works on nanosize materials.
TR: In fact you’re a materials chemist who’s engineering viruses to build computer chips. Are distinctions between conventional academic disciplines losing their meaning?
Belcher: You want to be an expert at some discipline of science or engineering. Then you integrate other things.
TR: The legend is that you began by wondering how sea shells were made, while walking on the beach as a grad student at UC Santa Barbara.
Belcher: It’s a nice story, but people have been studying the toughness and hardness of shells for fifty years.
TR: So do abalones do nanotech?
Belcher: They do. The hardness and luster is a function of the very, very uniform structure of calcium carbonate, deposited a molecule at a time. That’s also what makes pearls.
TR: Why jump from that to something as complex as microchips?
Belcher: Chips are the dream. We have roughly thirty other shorter-term projects – magnetic storage materials, [solar cells] for energy-efficient lighting, flexible batteries.
TR: The chip-making techniques you’re talking about promise features a tenth the size being achieved with conventional methods. How close are you to something that actually works?
Belcher: We’re making components right now, simple transistors. The next thing is to make useful architectures.
TR: Your company describes its business as “directed-evolution technology.” So the goal is something with potentially very broad application?
Belcher: It’s a platform technology, yes. The aim is to work our way through the whole periodic table and be able to design materials of all kinds in a controlled way. My biggest goal is to have a DNA sequence that can code for the synthesis of any useful material.
TR: But so far you have to use millions of viruses to find one or two that do something useful. Are there shortcuts?
Belcher: That’s what we’re working through now – what the rules are for how viruses interact with materials. But until we achieve that, we’re still making progress through trial and error and a lot more genetic manipulation.
TR: Presumably the answer is, design better organisms and you’ll get better materials.
Belcher: Exactly. And we’re not limited to viruses. We work on yeasts, too.
TR: So a wholly new organism could create a wholly new material?
Belcher: We’re working toward that, yes – new alloys, for instance.
TR: Nanotech meets genetic engineering: there’s a lot here to upset technophobes.
Belcher: We’re not making dangerous materials. In fact, we’re trying to reduce the amount of harmful materials going into the environment, not increase it.
TR: Some people find “self-assembly” worrisome.
Belcher: I don’t really understand why. So many things in the world self-assemble. Mix sodium and chlorine together, and it self-assembles to form a crystal. People often mix up “self-assembly” and “self-replication.” Things aren’t going to self-assemble out of control. It’s like worrying about your table salt replicating out of control. It just won’t happen.