How much time and money would be required to develop a system with the capabilities of a ribosome--only better?
- Synthesizes linear chains of building blocks in programmed sequence.
- The building blocks can be very diverse--molecules or nanoparticles. Each user can use their own set of blocks in the system.
- The blocks will be linked by covalent bonds.
- The system will be programmed by a DNA sequence. Synthesize whatever sequence you want, and it will direct the synthesis of the molecule.
- The links between the blocks will be electrically conductive.
- The system is intended to be available to users as sets of chemicals in plastic vials.
- The system does not incorporate natural ribosomes.
I can hear the opinions: This is science fiction. We can't do better than biology, at least not for decades. This would cost far too much to develop, and there's no market. Take smaller steps--prove it can work first.
Well, something different happens when you put twenty scientists, one sculptor, and a team of facilitators in a room for a week. The Ideas Factory that I blogged about a couple weeks ago has done its work, and this is one of the two proposals that will be funded. They think they have found a way to make this happen in a few years for about $1.5 million (a bit less than half of the £1.5 million funding).
This will be a very powerful technology for research. Being able to put together a broad diversity of materials and molecules into chains will be extremely useful. If, as seems likely, one of the materials is DNA strands, then it should be possible to fold the chains into 2D and 3D structures.
This does not solve the problem of actuation--making the structures move robotically. The other idea, which I'll blog about tomorrow, aims at developing controllable actuators and doing mechanically guided chemistry with them.
Neither of the ideas will build a nanofactory. But they will enable research in that direction--as well as many other directions. And they should start people--scientists, users, and policymakers--thinking a bit more boldly about what's possible and on what timeline.