October 1, 2013 at 2:59 am #543MikeKeymaster
A fullerene sounds an awful lot like a prion. It is interesting that
the scientist chose wide-mouth bass in a fish tank to study the
effects of fullerenes. One would have thought that they would study
monkeys first since they are closest to us in DNA.
It scares the bejesus out of me that they are planning to use these
things in medicine.
The promise and perils of the nanotech revolution
Possibilities range from disaster to advances in medicine, space
Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Nanotechnology could revolutionize science, technology, medicine and
Nanotechnology could ravage the environment, eliminate jobs and lead
to frightening new weapons of war.
Those are two extreme takes on the hottest, and potentially most
controversial, new technology since biotech and PCs.
For years, science fiction writers and techno-visionaries have
imagined the construction of “nano”-size — one nanometer equals a
billionth of a meter — molecules and machines that could clean
cholesterol from your bloodstream, break down chemical spills and
lead to superstrong new materials. The late physicist Richard Feynman
once said, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” — by which he
meant humans could re-engineer atoms and molecules to do humanity’s
But there have also been warnings of nano-machines that might race
out of control, mass-replicating like bacteria and reducing Earth’s
surface into what a few nanotechnologists call a “gray goo.”
Few experts take that scenario seriously, but in recent months, the
less frightening potential health and environmental impacts of nano-
gadgets have drawn increasing attention.
The possibility that one type of nanotech — large carbon molecules
called fullerenes — damages fish brains is described in this month’s
issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s just the latest in a
series of studies by researchers around the world who are
investigating the impacts of fullerenes and other nanotechnologies on
health and environment.
“It is likely than nanomaterials can affect wildlife if they are
accidentally released into the environment. … (It) is possible that
effects in fish may also predict potential effects in humans,” said
the article’s author, Eva Oberdorster of Southern Methodist
University. She based the warning on her study of the impact of
fullerenes on the brains of largemouth bass in a fish tank.
Discovered in the 1980s, fullerenes are the third known type of pure
carbon molecules; the others are diamond and graphite. The name is
short for “Buckminsterfullerenes,” a moniker that the discoverers of
the molecule (who later won the Nobel Prize) awarded in honor of the
late architect-engineer Buckminster Fuller.
Fuller had nothing to do the discovery of fullerenes, but their
soccer ball shape reminded the scientists of a two-sided version of
his famous geodesic domes. The molecules also are known familiarly
as “buckyballs,” each of which contains 60 or 70 carbon atoms.
This year, Mitsubishi Corp. is planning to manufacture thousands of
tons of buckyballs. Their many possible applications range from
carrying drugs to various parts of the body, like tiny submarines, to
use in new types of electronic products.
Although Oberdorster stresses that the damage to the fishes’ brains
is subtle and doesn’t affect their behavior, her discovery suggests
that industry should “go cautious” in mass-manufacturing fullerenes,
lest they leak into the environment.
“If such preventative principles had been applied to compounds such
as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), significant
environmental damage could have been avoided,” she writes in her
She’s not alone in her observations. About 20 papers were published
in 2003 and 2004 about the impact of fullerenes on animals and cell
cultures, but there were “disagreements in data from different
laboratories,” said an April report by E. Clayton Teague, director of
the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which is funding
extensive research into the health and environmental effects of
fullerenes and other nanotechnologies.
Decades ago, chemical companies sometimes marketed new products whose
health and environmental impacts they hadn’t adequately tested. No
longer, said chemistry Prof. Vicki Colvin of Rice University — in
part because of the financial consequences of lawsuits and widespread
“A lot of young chemists are committed to not letting that happen
again,” said Colvin, who is also engaged in studying the health
effects of fullerenes. “Companies really have paid the price, and
they continue to pay the price, for ignoring environmental concerns
early in technology’s history.”
Still, optimism springs eternal.
“Nanoscience will make the physical sciences as sexy as the life
sciences were in the last 10 years,” Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., said at
an Energy Department-run “NanoSummit” in late June in Washington.
Despite the concerns of some scientists and environmentalists about
the possibly adverse impact of nanotechnologies, “we don’t have a
fear of things going sour (for nanotechnology) in the long term. …
The advance of the field is inexorable. It’s a powerhouse. This is
not something that can be stopped,” said Christine Peterson,
president of the pro-nanotechnology Foresight Institute in Palo Alto.
At the DOE conference last month, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
praised nanotech’s economic potential. But he also cautioned the 340
attendees: “Major questions such as the ethical and safety
implications of advanced nanoscience research and the proper role of
government in this research should be examined by groups such as this
on a regular basis if we are to see this technology flourish.”
Insurance companies fear a repeat of the asbestos catastrophe, which
resulted in a deluge of lawsuits from the 1970s on and severely
strained their coffers.
“Questions abound regarding the opportunities and, from an insurance
perspective, the hazards of nanotechnology,” said a report issued in
May by the reinsurance firm Swiss Re. “What makes nanotechnology
completely new from the point of view of insuring against risk is the
unforeseeable nature of the risks it entails and the recurrent and
cumulative losses it could lead to, given the new properties, hence
different behavior, of nanotechnologically manufactured products.”
Nanotech recently caught the eye of Britain’s Prince Charles, who
frequently speaks out on environmental issues. Writing in the English
newspaper Independent on July 11, he recalled the thalidomide
catastrophe of the 1960s, which left numerous children deformed.
It “would be surprising if nanotechnology did not offer similar
upsets unless appropriate care and humility is observed,” wrote the
Americans hold a somewhat contradictory view of nanotechnology. On
the one hand, they have a “generally positive” view of the potential
benefits and safety of nanotechnology — yet at the same time, “most
Americans do not trust business leaders in the nanotechnology (field)
to minimize potential risks to humans,” according to a telephone
survey of 1,536 Americans released July 14 by political scientist
Michael Cobb and his colleagues at North Carolina State University.
Specifically, 60 percent said they had “not much trust” in nanotech
businesses’ sense of responsibility, and only 5 percent expressed “a
lot” of trust.
In the survey, the most feared possible risk was “losing personal
privacy to tiny new surveillance devices,” which was cited as the No.
1 concern of 32 percent of the respondents. Others expressed concern
about a “nanotechnology- inspired arms race,” nanoparticles “that
accumulate in your body,” and “the uncontrollable spread of self-
replicating nano-robots” like those depicted in the Michael Crichton
Research into the safety issues around nanotechnology is quickly
becoming big science. Although it has been conducted relatively
quietly until recently, federal funding for research into the health
and environmental effects of nanotechnology is heavy and has risen
sharply in recent years, Teague’s report said. In federal fiscal year
2004, the funding is $106 million (11 percent of the entire U.S.
National Nanotechnology Initiative budget), compared to $56 million
in fiscal year 2001.
One of the recipients is Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in
Berkeley, which, according to Teague’s document, is studying topics
that include ways that nanoparticles are transported and altered in
the environment, including within air, water, living organisms and
cells, including the cells’ genetic material. Other recipients of the
funding include the Environmental Protection Agency, the National
Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation (which, in
turn, is funding studies by UC Davis, UC Berkeley and other
campuses), the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of
Defense and others.
Perhaps the most unusual proposed use of nanotechnology is for the
construction of an “elevator to space.” Using superstrong types of
fullerenes known as carbon nanotubes, payloads could be lofted into
space via cables from orbiting platforms. Such a cable would have to
be extraordinarily strong — stronger than existing materials — and
some nanotechnology fans claim that carbon nanotubes fill the bill.
In theory, they’re almost 100 times stronger than steel.
However, there’s a catch: Carbon nanotubes, like other fullerenes and
nanotech materials, would be extremely small and lightweight and
could remain aloft indefinitely. If nanotubes flaked off the space
elevator, like rust off metal, they might be inhaled by people or
other organisms, with as-yet unknown health or environmental effects.
“The effects of extremely small fibers in the tissues of the body are
unknown. … Animal studies are only just beginning,” said health
physicist Ron Morgan of Los Alamos National Laboratory in a September
2003 report on environmental issues associated with the space
In an online copy of his report, he cautions researchers who
investigate the possible health effects of nanotubes to handle them
with care: “Don’t be the guinea pig!”
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