NATURE NANOTECHNOLOGY | VOL 8 | JULY 2013 | www.nature.

com/naturenanotechnology 475
thesis
Nanobots today
Nanobots have in the past been a fixture of science fiction writing and illustration, and such ideas are
now also appearing in scientific research. But, as Chris Toumey explains, practical nanobots are diferent
from their science fiction counterparts.
Science fction writers produced stories
of miniaturized machines long before
the prefx ‘nano’ was crafed to mean a
billionth of a metre (or a litre, or a gram,
and so on)
1
. Te most famous of these
machines was the Proteus, which appeared
in the 1966 flm Fantastic Voyage. In
the flm, a small submarine and its crew
were temporarily miniaturized for the
purpose of saving the life of an important
scientist by entering his blood stream and
destroying a clot in his brain. Tis was
good science fction, especially the urgency
for the crew to exit the patient’s body
before they returned to normal size.
Some 20 years later, as nanotechnology
came to the attention of a new generation
of science fction writers and fantasy
illustrators, the theme of ultra-miniaturized
devices blossomed again.
Tree kinds of nanobots (abbreviated
from ‘nano-robots’) populated latter-day
science fction illustration. Te frst was
a family of machines with the abilities of
mechanical diggers that would excavate
plaque and other nasty substances on
the inside surfaces of our blood vessels.
Te second was a group of submarine-
like vessels that would locate viruses and
other pathogens, and then destroy them
with lethal rays. Te third was the nano-
louse, which had mechanical claws to
seize a red blood cell and insert a needle
into it. Te pictures of nano-lice seemed
especially vivid in conveying the idea that
nanomedicine would soon have the ability
to cure diseases by using a remarkably
precise device.
Brigitte Nerlich explains that
illustrations of nanobots were intended
to make nanoscale machines seem real,
familiar and benefcial
2
. Nanotechnology
would be acceptable to non-scientists if
they judged it in terms of these pictures.
And yet there was a puzzle in the
portraits of the nano-lice. What exactly
were they doing? Once when I was leading
a discussion of nanotechnology with a
group of high-school students, we observed
a picture of a nano-louse, and one of the
students asked what operation it was
performing. Some students thought the
needle was injecting a substance into the
red blood cell; others said it was extracting
something; a third group said it was doing
neither, but merely grasping it frmly so
it could move the cell from one place to
another. Te answer, I said, was that it
was doing whatever the illustrator meant
for it to do, even though we could not
tell what the illustrator had in mind. Tis
raises a good caution: it is not a good idea
to create a picture of what nanomedicine
can do if it leaves the viewer wondering
what the device is doing, with three equally
plausible answers.
Another irony is that these supposed
nanobots are not nanoscale. If they
were real they would be measured in
micrometres, not nanometres. Tey are
approximately the size of one or two red
blood cells, which are usually 5 to 10 μm
in diameter. And although it is possible
to make moving parts at the scale of
micrometres, there is no control system —
no on-board microcomputer — small
enough to make each of them behave the
way their illustrators suggest they would.
And no such thing is on the horizon.
With or without these caveats,
nanobots were especially prevalent in a
window of time from about 1999 to 2001.
Andreas Lösch explains that illustrations
of nanobots in German media served as
a device by which scientifc, economic
and mass media discourses could each
project optimistic visions of the future of
nanomedicine. Scientists were originally
comfortable with these illustrations,
says Lösch, but they later feared the
nanobots had a “weak reference to current
developments in nanomedicine”
3
. Tis
was a polite way to say that scientists
did not want to be held accountable for
A computer-generated illustration of a nano-louse attached to a red blood cell.
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© 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved
476 NATURE NANOTECHNOLOGY | VOL 8 | JULY 2013 | www.nature.com/naturenanotechnology
thesis
the extravagant expectations of naïve
non-scientists.
In April 2010, Michael Cobb
conducted survey-based research on
public expectations for nanomedicine
4
.
Interviewees read an optimistic article
about nanomedicine; one group also saw a
picture of a nano-louse, which illustrated
the article, whereas the other group saw no
illustration. In Cobb’s words: “Respondents
were slightly less supportive of nano if
they saw the image”; “Tey were also a
little a little less likely to report that it
would be benefcial”; and “Te image
appears to increase uncertainty among
the uninformed”.
So much for the idea that nanomedicine
automatically benefts from pictures
of nanobots.
Even though that idea is problematic
and even misguided, there are other
devices at another scale, which are also
called nanobots, and their grounding in
reality is more credible than the nano-
lice. Molecular-scale devices (measured
in nanometres) are being built to target,
penetrate and destroy cancer cells.
One good example is from
Shawn Douglas and colleagues at the
Wyss Institute at Harvard University who
have built a molecular-scale device to
attack cancer cells, and to leave normal
cells alone
5
. Tis is, in their words, “an
autonomous DNA robot capable of
transporting molecular payloads to cells”.
Te frst step towards this device is an
exercise in DNA origami, which is to say
that strands of DNA are linked to form
two-dimensional surfaces, and those
surfaces can then be folded into three-
dimensional shapes, including containers
that open and close. Inside an origami
structure are placed two molecular
payloads: a gold nanoshell of 5-nm
diameter and a fragment of an antibody.
Te container is hinged on one end and
sealed with a chemical lock at the other. On
the exterior there is an aptamer, a molecule
that recognizes the surface of a particular
kind of cancer cell. When recognition
occurs, the chemical lock at the front of
the container receives a signal to dissolve,
and then the device opens up. Te two
molecular payloads make contact with the
cancer cell and penetrate it, whereupon
they send a signal from its interior for it to
initiate its own death.
Douglas and colleagues used their
nanobot on a species of lymphoma and
a species of leukemia cell, with positive
results both times. Other cancers would
need other customized aptamers.
Tis is the irony and the glory of
nanotechnology: if one knows what a
molecule does, and it does so consistently
in the right conditions, then devices
measured in nanometres can do things
that gadgets measured in micrometres
cannot. Furthermore, the molecular
devices can operate autonomously without
needing either impossibly small on-board
computers or external controls.
And this brings to mind a major fault-
line in thinking about building micro- and
nanoscale devices. In top-down processes,
a larger-scale machine is supposedly
reduced, more or less intact, to a much
smaller scale — the Proteus or the nano-
lice, for example. Bottom-up processes put
together a limited number of molecules and
functionalize them, without their builders
caring whether they resemble larger
machines. Te Wyss-bots illustrate this
latter approach.
Tese nanobots, like their science fction
cousins, also have a caveat. Tey have been
tested only in vitro. It will be wonderful
if they were tested too in vivo, and with
similar successful results. But it is a long
distance between in vitro tests and clinical
trials with human subjects. If it is true that
patience is a virtue, then one will need a
great deal of that virtue between now and
the day that clinical trials succeed.
And yet the nanobots from the Wyss
Institute have already become celebrities.
When the Obama administration
announced its initiative to map the active
human brain, in February 2013, its fact
sheet referred vaguely to developments
in nanoscience and to “molecular-
scale probes”
6
. John Markof, writing in
the New York Times, gave a particular
example, namely, the nanobots from the
Wyss Institute (along with a mention
of the Proteus)
7
. How will these cancer-
killers serve the mission of mapping brain
activity? How will we get from oncology to
neurology via the devices from Wyss?
I asked Markof about this, and he told
me that he referred to the Wyss nanobots
as an example of the state of the art: not
exactly to say that the brain mapping
initiative is going to enlist the Wyss cancer
killers today or tomorrow, but rather that
nanoscience can soon deliver nanoscale
devices for a variety of diagnostic and
therapeutic tasks (J. Markof, personal
communication). Te brain activity
mapping project will beneft from the
things that nanoscience can do now and in
the years ahead.
I agree, and I note that multiple
nanoscale medical devices are currently in
clinical trials
8
.
So this is the biography of the nanobots:
frst there were various miniaturization
stories in science fction, including
Fantastic Voyage; then nanotechnology
caught the attention of another generation
of sci-f writers and illustrators; afer
that there were many lovely pictures of
nanobots in the media, but then they
became passé; and meanwhile, molecular
devices are being developed to fght cancer
cells and other evil things. Not as sexy as
the Proteus perhaps, but still totally cool if
they work in vivo. ❐
Chris Toumey is at the University of South
Carolina NanoCenter.
e-mail: Toumey@mailbox.sc.edu
References
1. Lynn, S. in Encyclopaedia of Nanoscience and Society Vol. 2
(ed. Guston, D.) 700–701 (Sage, 2010).
2. Nerlich, B. Science as Culture 17, 269–292 (2008).
3. Lösch, A. Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society Vol. 1
(eds Fischer, E. et al.) 123–142 (Springer, 2008).
4. Toumey, C. & Cobb, M. Leonardo 45, 461–465 (2012).
5. Douglas, S., Bachelet, I. & Church, G. Science
335, 831–834 (2012).
6. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-ofce/2013/04/02/
fact-sheet-brain-initiative
7. Markof, J. New York Times D1, D6 (26 February 2013).
8. Service, R. Science 330, 314–315 (2010).
© 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved