Evolving Nanoscale Communication

As molecular biology, nanoscale engineering and robotics converge, we can better target problems in the human body.

Today networks of smart devices have already transformed our world, and we’re just starting to connect our bodies to them in meaningful ways. We see signs that we might be able to create new bio-based networks inside our own bodies and manipulate the ones already there.

As molecular biology, nanoscale engineering and robotics converge, we may be able to use microscopic robots to target specific interactions among many natural nanoscale processes within our bodies’ cells.

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We may be able to use microscopic robots to target specific interactions within our bodies’ cells.

In the next few decades, communication technology could take on a whole new meaning, as we gain the ability to coordinate interactions among these tiny bio-nanobots and natural human bio-electrical functions.

IFTF researcher Michael Liebhold spoke with Dr. Ian Akyildiz, a preeminent researcher in nanoscale networks. A professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of the Nano Communications Center, Dr. Akyildiz has established several highly regarded research centers.

What is the current status of nanoscale communication in the body?

Nanoscale communication will be a reality in the near-term.

We’re already working on bacteria communication and investigating how to engineer synthetic programmable bacteria so they can communicate and help the body attack natural bacteria. The significance is that genetically engineered bacteria will be able to fight any bacteria-based illness in the human body.

We’re investigating cell-to-cell communication among bacteria because as they create and work as colonies — called quorum sensing — billions of bacteria colonies work together.


Can you describe networking and signaling in these environments?

Bacteria communication is based on molecular communication. Bacteria release and diffuse molecules or particles, communicating among bacteria.

If you think of bacteria as nanoscale machines, the molecules they release are like messages or packages they use to communicate with other bacteria. Cells use signaling molecules such as calcium ions to control processes.

Our investigation involves collaboration among communications, biology and mechanical engineering teams.

What are some potential uses of nanoscale communication?

We’re looking at how specific components in the body such as calcium, iron, potassium and astrocytes are communicating. The next step would be to apply our findings on communication to particular illnesses such as Crohn’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

How can human networks communicate with these nanoscale networks?

From nanoscale networks within the human body, we’ll need to create a gateway to the outside. We’re thinking about using a type of nanoscale cell phone that will be the gateway to the outside world, like using the internet for doctor’s examinations.

We call this the “Internet of Bio-Nano Things.”

We can create Bio-Nano Things in the body or in body components as the network, and then we’ll have a gateway or multiple gateways outside the body. Eventually, we’ll be able to genetically engineer human cells and program them.

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Eventually, we’ll be able to genetically engineer human cells and program them.

The world will be totally different, with billions of nanoscaled devices circulating in the human body as additional red blood cells or white blood cells. As soon as they detect any tumors or diseases, they’ll communicate and attack. In the next 10 to 20 years, practical, wide-scale applications will become a reality.

It’s a long-term process.

Can you describe a few highlights from projects in your labs?

All my research centers in the world are taking one of two tracks.

One is intrabody molecular communications, using the communication aspects and the nature of calcium ions and other molecular markers.

The other track is nanoscale machines, using nanomaterials like graphene, which are considered nanomaterials because they’re so light and thin they’re almost two-dimensional. Of course, it’s three-dimensional, but graphene is harder than diamonds and much stronger than steel.

Using such materials, we can create nanoscale machines, like nanoantennas, nanotransceivers and nanobatteries. Then we’ll be able to create integrated, graphene-based nanoscale machines. We also look at how these machines will communicate.

We’re already producing integrated devices.

All the components — transceivers, antennas and batteries — already exist. We’re in the process of physically showing that they work.

What are the implications for an interface with neurocommunications?

All these different communications going on within the human body — such as molecular motors, calcium ions, bacteria, neurons and astrocytes — are now all separate aspects of communication. My research agenda is to learn how these separate islands of communication networks all affect each other.

This article first appeared on the Institute for the Future’s Future Now blog and was republished with permission.

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Mike Liebhold is a senior researcher and distinguished fellow at IFTF.

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