Nature still sets standard for nanoscience revolution

Apr 19, 2011 by Ron Walli

(PhysOrg.com) -- By striving for control and perfection in everything from computer chips to commercial jets, scientists and engineers actually exclude a fundamental force that allows nature to outperform even their best efforts.

Although it may appear to defy logic, imperfections and the seemingly among even the lowly bacteria help keep nature a couple of steps ahead, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Peter Cummings and Mike Simpson, co-authors of a paper published in ACS Nano.

"Contrarian investing is one strategy for winning in the stock market," Cummings said, "but it may also be a fundamental feature of all natural processes and holds the key to many diverse phenomena, including the ability of the to withstand modern medicines."

In their paper, Cummings and Simpson outline a theory that maintains that in any given population, an imperfect minority - the "noise" - is beneficial to the whole. Less perfection is actually good.

"That is the lesson of nature, where a humble bacterial cell outperforms our best by a factor of 100 million, and it does this in part by being less than perfect," Simpson said.

If we think of a computer chip as a lot of on-off switches, modern technology has become pretty good at making the switches perfect. When we turn them on, they are on. But life works differently, as it has the element of chance, where like the flip of a coin, the outcome can't be predicted, just the likelihood - a 50 percent chance of heads - can be known. In contrast to the computer chip, the bacterial cell has imperfect chance-ridden switches, and through these imperfections, the bacteria can do things the computer chip cannot.

"Instead of trying to make perfect decisions based on imperfect information, the cell plays the odds with an important twist: it hedges its bets," Simpson said. "Sure, most of the cells will place bets on the likely winner, but an important few will put their money on the long shot."

These few contrarian bets can have consequences that belie their rarity. For example, the AIDS virus has one of these chancy switches in which most of the infected cells are made to produce new virus that can make them infect other cells. But just a few of the infected cells flip the switch the other way and the virus enters a dormant state.

"Like ticking bombs, these dormant infections can become active sometime later, and it is these contrarian events that are the main factor preventing the eradication of AIDS," Simpson said.

From the point of view of the virus, it is this imperfect switch that allows it to deal with the threat of therapy.

Circling back to the computer chip, Cummings noted that they get faster and more powerful mostly by getting smaller. They have gotten so small now that they are entering the world of nanotechnology, where things become less perfect and more affected by chance.

"But our technology has fought against this chance using a brute force approach that consumes a lot of power," Cummings said.

In fact, one of the factors limiting the building of more powerful computers is the grid-busting amount of energy they require. Yet residing atop the cabinets of these supercomputers, basking in the heat generated in the fight to defeat the element of chance, the lowly bacteria show us another way.

Explore further: Simpler process to grow germanium nanowires could improve lithium ion batteries

More information: The paper is titled "Fluctuations and Correlations in Physical and Biological Nanosystems: The Tale is in the Tails."

Related Stories

How HIV hides itself

Apr 01, 2008

Researchers have discovered how Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, can hide itself in our cells and dodge the attention of our normal defences, scientists heard today at the Society for General Microbiology’s ...

Building a Molecular Computer Chip

Feb 13, 2007

For Dr. Jerry Bernholc, a trip to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is like a suburbanite’s trek to Costco. Bulk consumption is the name of the game.

Statistical physics shows new approach to fighting viruses

Dec 12, 2005

Computer viruses pose an ongoing threat and their neutralization calls for new strategies, researchers at Tel Aviv University say. Eran Shir and colleagues propose a solution that helps an 'antivirus' program reach an at-risk ...

Bone marrow can harbor HIV-infected cells (w/ Video)

Mar 07, 2010

University of Michigan scientists have identified a new reservoir for hidden HIV-infected cells that can serve as a factory for new infections. The findings, which appear online March 7 in Nature Medicine, indicate a new ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (8) Apr 20, 2011
It would be interesting to see the evolutionary story for the HIV virus. Where did it evolve from?

Also very interesting how incredible processes inside the cell that outperforms anything man has created so far is attributed to the amazing design skills of nature, instead of the creator. Take the human brain for instance - certainly outperforms anything man has ever imagined or will imagine for a long, long time. Just how did any random process and natural selection come up with that one?
We were created in the creator's image with the ability to reason, love, enjoy music, communicate, design and build - and unfortunately chose rebel against him to also destroy,kill,maim,lie, fornicate and steal.

orsr
5 / 5 (5) Apr 20, 2011
It would be interesting to see the evolutionary story for the HIV virus. Where did it evolve from?

Also very interesting how incredible processes inside the cell that outperforms anything man has created so far is attributed to the amazing design skills of nature, instead of the creator. Take the human brain for instance - certainly outperforms anything man has ever imagined or will imagine for a long, long time. Just how did any random process and natural selection come up with that one?
We were created in the creator's image with the ability to reason, love, enjoy music, communicate, design and build - and unfortunately chose rebel against him to also destroy,kill,maim,lie, fornicate and steal.



If your creator is the one described in the bible, then human beings were also created to destroy, kill, maim, lie, fornicate and steal in his image, since these are common acts of the biblical creator. You can look up the direct evidence in the bible.
CSharpner
not rated yet Apr 20, 2011
Kev, if the universe were created 6000 years ago, why can we see objects BILLIONS of light years away?

POOF! I just made Kev dissapear from this thread. I guess he's right; magic DOES exist. :)