The murk of nanotech

In “The DNA Data Deluge,” a recent article in IEEE Spectrum, the authors elaborate at length on the following conundrum (which is a problem, in their opinion):

As [DNA] sequencing machines improve and appear in more laboratories, the total computing burden is growing. It’s a problem that threatens to hold back this revolutionary technology. Computing, not sequencing, is now the slower and more costly aspect of genomics research.

The performance of a DNA sequencer has improved three- to five-fold each year since 2008 — astonishing, and far more rapidly than the capabilities of computer processors, which still chunk along according to Moore’s Law. (“Computer processors basically doubled in speed every two years over that same period,” say the authors.)

DDT_Tim LangBut then, really, is this  so surprising, that we’re doing faster than knowing, creating faster than understanding, compiling faster than categorizing?

Take two recent studies written up in Chemical & Engineering News: “Nanoparticles In Athletic Apparel May Seep Into Sweat” and “Nanoparticles Could Disrupt Immune Cell Function.” In the first, scientists in Germany tested the toxicological implications of sports clothes interlaced with titanium dioxide and silver nanoparticles. “Little is known about what effects these materials have on human health,” according to the article. (I’m surprised this phrase is still used without irony.) The experiment ultimately presented three conclusions. First, the titanium is not absorbed by sweat at dangerous levels. Second, the silver may be absorbed at dangerous levels. Third, more experimentation is needed.

In the second article, researchers moved beyond the standard toxicological test of cell survival in the presence of nanoparticles and instead focused on cell function. When exposed to iron oxide, they found that immune cells are less effective at killing bacteria. Robert L. Tanguay of Oregon State University, who was not an author on the study,

says these results suggest that nanoparticles may need additional safety testing on top of the standard toxicity studies. “That could open up a huge Pandora’s box,” he says, adding to the number of variables researchers consider when assessing nanomaterial toxicity.

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I suppose if there really is a storm of progress, then it’s blowing hard as ever, pushing those angels along, uncovering one new mess after another.

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