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Nanotechnology at Ames

The Life Sciences Division at NASA Ames Research Center conducts research and development in nanotechnology to address critical life science questions.


Division expertise in biology, nanotechnology, and information processing, combined with research capabilities elsewhere within Ames, is driving the development of novel biotechnologies that will benefit both space exploration and life on Earth.

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Nanotechnology, the creation of structures, devices, and systems on the atomic scale, holds the potential to revolutionize many aspects of space exploration and create novel biotechnologies with broad applications to life on Earth. At Ames, the study of nanotechnology works towards the development of ever smaller and more powerful sensors and information storage devices. These include devices that can detect single molecules of nucleic acids, such as DNA, and rapidly decode the genetic blueprints of a diverse range of model organisms from yeast to humans. Other projects combine biology with materials science to develop bio-nanotechnology techniques with the potential to open new horizons in electronics technologies. As well as conducting research supporting NASA's visions for space exploration, scientists at Ames are continually working with government, academic, and industrial partners in Silicon Valley and throughout the country to enhance the research, development, and application of nanotechnology.

Research Overview

NASA Ames has established a number of cross-disciplinary research groups to develop nanotechnology projects. The Genome Research Facility was established in 2003 by the Fundamental Space Biology Program and the Center for Nanotechnology. The facility is designed to support NASA research needs in genomics and nanotechnology, and to advance research and development in bio-sensor technology through collaborative projects with academic and industrial partners, such as Baylor College of Medicine and Stanford and Yale Universities. Specific projects include the Nanopore Project, which aims to exploit the unique properties of nanopores to identify single molecules of biological polymers, in particular those that contain life's genetic blueprint, the polynucleotide molecules of DNA and RNA. When a strand of DNA is drawn through a nanopore just 1-2 nm (1-2 billionths of a meter) wide, it disrupts the electrical properties of the pore. The different nucleotide molecules that comprise the DNA sequence each cause a distinct, "signature" disruption as they pass though, information that can be detected and translated by custom computer software into the genetic sequence. The size, cost, and sensitivity of the process, combined with speeds potentially hundreds or even thousands of times faster than current methods, means the nanopore device could replace existing DNA sequencing technology.

The Genome Research Facility also develops high-density DNA microarrays that can simultaneously determine the expression levels of up to 800,000 gene sequences. These microarrays are powerful tools for probing the functions of entire genomes rapidly and with high accuracy. The arrays were designed and produced using the SGI 3000 super-computer at Ames and an advanced photolithography method, and have been used to study the genomes of various model organisms from fruit flies ( Drosophila melanogaster ) to plants ( Arabidopsis thaliana ), as well as humans. NASA uses this technology to investigate genetic responses of model organisms to changes in their environment, which may include microgravity studies on the International Space Center (ISS) and long-duration missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Scientists at the Center for Nanotechnology focus on state-of-the-art intersection of biology and materials science. Bio-nanotechnology applies the concepts and techniques of molecular biology to engineering objectives, such as the use of proteins as templates for the production of nano-scale electronic circuits, a technique currently under development at Ames. Proteins are biomolecules that can naturally form highly-ordered structures and most importantly can be modified and manipulated by genetic engineering.