from chapter 1:
Nanotechnology is available, today, to anyone with a laboratory and imagination. You can create custom nanomachines using commercially available kits and reagents. You can design and build nanoscale assemblers that synthesize interesting molecules. You can construct tiny machines that seek out cancer cells and kill them. You can build molecule-size sensors for detecting light, acidity or trace amounts of poisonous metals. Nanotechnology is a reality today, and nanotechnology is accessible with remarkably modest resources.
What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is the ability to build and shape matter one atom at a time. The idea of nanotechnology was first presented by physicist Richard Feynman. In a lecture entitled "Room at the Bottom," he unveiled the possibilities available in the molecular world. Since ordinary matter is built of so many atoms, he showed that there is a remarkable amount of space within which to build. Feynman's vision spawned the discipline of nanotechnology, and we are now amassing the tools to make his dream a reality.
But atoms are almost unbelievably small; a million times smaller than objects in our familiar world. Their properties are utterly foreign, so our natural intuition and knowledge of the meter-scale world is useless at best, misleading at worst. How can we approach the problem of engineering at the atomic scale?
When men and women first restructured matter to fit their needs, an approach opposite from nanotechnology was taken. Instead of building an object from bottom up, atom-by-atom, early craftsmen invented a top-down approach. They used tools to shape and transform existing matter. Clay, plant fibers, and metals were shaped, pounded, and carved into vessels, clothing and weapons. With some added sophistication, this approach still accounts for the bulk of all products created by mankind. We still take raw materials from the earth and physically shape them into functional products.
Mankind did not make any concerted effort to shape the atoms in manufactured products until medieval times, when alchemists sowed the seeds of the modern science of chemistry. During their search for the secrets of immortality and the transmuting lead to gold, they developed methods for the willful combination of atoms. Chemical reaction, purification, and characterization are all tools of alchemists. Today, chemists build molecules of defined shape and specified properties. Chemical reactions are understood, and tailored, at the atomic level. Most of chemistry, however, is performed at a bulk level. Large quantities of pure materials are mixed and reacted, and the desired product purified from the mixture of molecules that are formed. Nonetheless, chemistry is nanotechnology--the willful combination of atoms to form a desired molecule. But it is nanotechnology on a bulk scale, controlled by statistical mechanics rather than controlled atom-by-atom at the nanometer scale.
We are now in the midst of the second major revolution of nanotechnology. Now, scientists are attempting modify matter one atom at a time.
Some envision a nanotechnology closely modeled after our own macroscopic technology. This new field has been dubbed molecular nanotechnology for its focus on creating molecules individually atom-by-atom. K. Eric Drexler has proposed methods of constructing molecules by forcibly pressing atoms together into the desired molecular shapes, in a process dubbed "mechanosynthesis" for its parallels with macroscopic machinery and engineering. Using simple raw materials, he envisions building objects in assembly-line manner by directly bonding individual atoms. The idea is compelling. The engineer retains direct control over the synthesis, through a physical connection between the atomic realm and our macroscopic world.
Central to the idea of mechanosynthesis is the construction of an assembler. This is a nanometer-scale machine that assembles objects atom-by-atom according to defined instructions. Nanotechnology aficionados have speculated the creation of just a single working assembler would lead immediately to the "Two-week Revolution." They tell us that as soon as a single assembler is built, all of the dreams of nanotechnology would be realized within days. Researchers could immediately direct this first assembler to build additional new assemblers. These assemblers would immediately allow construction of large-scale factories, filled with level upon level of assemblers for building macroscale objects. Nanotechnology would explode to fill every need and change utterly our way of life. Unfortunately, assemblers based on mechanosynthesis currently remain only an evocative idea.
The subject of this book is another approach to nanotechnology, which is available today to anyone with a moderately equipped laboratory. This is bionanotechnology, nanotechnology that looks to nature for its start. Modern cells build thousands of working nanomachines, which may be harnessed and modified to perform our own custom nanotechnological tasks. Modern cells provide us with an elaborate, efficient set of molecular machines that restructure matter atom-by-atom, exactly to our specifications. And with the well-tested techniques of biotechnology, we can extend the function of these machines for our own goals, modifying existing biomolecular nanomachines or designing entirely new ones.