A scientist at the University of Bristol has been awarded £1.3 million to unlock the secrets of miniscule algae cells that have the remarkable ability to produce silica – the fundamental constituent of glass. It is hoped the findings from the research could lead to the next generation of medical imaging tools.
Inspired by the diatoms, a type of algae dubbed 'Nature's nanotechnologists', Dr Paul Curnow from the University's School of Biochemistry has been awarded the prestigious European Research Council (ERC)-funded grant to understand how diatom cells manipulate silica to coat themselves in an intricate outer sheath of clear glass.
Dr Curnow is already working with colleagues at Bristol to study a unique set of diatom proteins that recognise and transport soluble silica. The ERC grant, one of only 30 such grants awarded to UK bioscientists in 2011, will enable him to use these proteins to create a synthetic diatom that can behave as a novel 'nanoreactor' for the controlled synthesis of functional silicon nanomaterials.
Dr Curnow, Research Fellow, said: "Diatoms have found a way of controlling silica at the nanoscale that is very sophisticated and is far beyond what we can achieve in the lab. Learning the secrets of these remarkable cells should enable us to make new catalysts, sensors, diagnostic devices and medical imaging tools."
Nanotechnology is the study of materials and processes that occur at nanometre length scales, typically around 100,000 times smaller than a millimetre. At this miniscule size, many materials exhibit unusual properties that are commercially valuable. The global market for nanotechnology products is expected to be worth $1,000 billion by 2015.
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