Helpful viruses - When Bad Viruses Go Good

Most Biological viruses have a nasty reputation. But scientist Angela Belcher believes that some viruses can be guided into performing a useful task: building high-tech materials.

Belcher and her University of Texas at Austin colleagues were intrigued by the way viruses can easily produce vast armies of new viruses. The researchers soon discovered that virus replication could also build nanosize materials for next-generation optical, electronic and magnetic devices. "We wanted to evolve biomolecules to control materials that nature has not evolved interactions with," says Belcher, who’s scheduled to join MIT this fall as an associate professor of materials science, engineering and bioengineering.

Using genetically engineered viruses that are noninfectious to humans, Belcher and her team created liquid crystal suspensions of viruses and nanoparticles that could be cast into thin liquid crystal films. "We took advantage of the viruses’ genetic makeup and physical shape to grow the material and to help them assemble themselves into structures that are several centimeters long," Belcher says. The material was stable enough to be picked up with forceps. She notes that it took about a week to grow a usable, uniform film.

Belcher believes that viruses have the potential to become cheap, efficient and environmentally safe nanotechnology building tools. "Biology makes material at moderate temperature using self-assembly and using nontoxic materials," she says. The most difficult part of the research was getting viruses that have evolved over millions of years to develop technologically usable materials, she adds. The researchers were ultimately able to evolve viruses during a period of months that could work on 20 types of materials, including semiconductors, magnetics and opticals.

Down the road, viruses could be used to produce microscopic switches, amplifiers and other devices. Such real-world applications, however, probably won’t arrive for at least another five to 10 years. "Most of this research is still at the basic science stage," Belcher admits. Time enough, perhaps, for people to adjust their view of viruses.

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