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December 3, 2002

 

NASA Modifies Microbes to Meld to Semiconductors

Scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, have invented a biological method to make structures that could be used to produce electronics 10 to 100 times smaller than today's components.

As part of their new method, the scientists genetically engineered proteins from "extremophile" microbes to grow onto semiconductor materials.

The microbes' environments are "extreme" to us -- near-boiling, acidic hot springs -- but just right for the biological organisms to grow mesh-like structures, known as "chaperonins," presumably for their accompanying role.

"We took a gene from a single-celled organism, Sulfolobus shibatae, which lives in near-boiling acid mud, and changed the gene to add instructions that describe how to make a protein that sticks to gold or semiconductors," said Andrew McMillan, a leader of the project.

"What is novel in our work," he continued, "is that we designed this protein so that when it self-assembles into a two-dimensional lattice or template, it also is able to capture metal and semiconductor particles at specific locations on the template surface."

The genetically engineered proteins form lattice-like structures that act as templates, and particles of gold or semiconductor material (cadmium selenide/zinc sulfide) stick to them. According to McMillan, the minute pieces that adhere to the protein lattice are "quantum dots" that are about one to 10 nanometers across. Today's standard computer chips have features that are roughly 130 nanometers apart.

 

The single-celled organism Sulfolobus shibatae was modified to self-assemble into a two-dimensional lattice which can capture metal and semiconductor particles.

 

 

RELATED LINKS AND RESOURCES:

  • General information is available at the home page of Andrew McMillan at the Nanotechnolog R&D division of NASA's Ames Research Center
  • The full technical report will appear in Nature Materials, where a pre-publication abstract can be read on line (after free registration).
  • Go here for images of the source environments of the microbes, the lab processes, and technical results.

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