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Small solutions for the future’s biggest problems

22 January 2020
Advances in nanoscience and microbiology hit well above their weight
The potential to detect and treat cancers, mitigate climate change, create artificial intelligence, sustainably produce chemicals and ensure water security are some of the many challenges that could be solved by harnessing the power of innovations that come from the smallest of scales.

A recent hot topic in science journals, the media, Parliament House and on social media has been the looming threat of climate change, brought into sharp focus as the bushfires and our politicians - on all sides - rage. But what do micro-scale bacteria have to do with this impending existential crisis?

Bacteria that eats carbon dioxide

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are bacteria we are all very familiar with, whether you know it or not. They live in your gut and some strains of the bacteria can cause you to fall ill. Before you dismiss these little guys as trivial or admonish them for causing illness, you need to know about this recent discovery published in the journal Cell. Scientists have developed a strain of E.coli that eats carbon dioxide.

3d detailed illustration of E coli Bacteria

E.Coli lives in our gut and in some cases can cause illness.

How, you might ask? This was achieved by a combination of gene manipulation and directed evolution.

The bacteria’s genetics were manipulated in two main ways. First, the bacteria were engineered with genes that allowed it to convert CO2 into organic compounds, just like photosynthetic organisms such as plants and algae do. It was further altered to produce enzymes that allowed it to get its energy from formate – an organic molecule.

The researchers then deleted the enzymes that control its normal metabolism, forcing it to depend more heavily on its new diet of formate and CO2. The bacterium’s diet was altered over time by reducing the amount of its preferred food, sugars, while drastically increasing the amount of CO2 the bacteria was exposed to.

Evolution then took its natural course. The bacteria most capable of surviving on the new diet of CO2 were naturally selected to reproduce, eventually leading to E.coli capable of eating and surviving off of carbon dioxide.

While there is further work to be done and some time before this concept is applied, this bacteria could produce renewable fuels and foods, extraordinarily useful chemicals, and also consume carbon dioxide-helping us to combat climate change. If that isn’t a win-win then I don’t know what is.

Nanoscale neuromorphic networks

Another small-scale innovation that could have a profound impact is research by Professor Zdenka Kuncic from the University of Sydney, who collaborated with researchers from the United States and Japan on the creation of nanoscale neuromorphic networks which mimic the complex neural pathways and connections between neurons in the brain.

They created and tested a network of interconnected silver nanowires which are approximately one thousand times thinner than one of the hairs on your head. When electrically stimulated, the nanowire network showed behaviour beginning to resemble cognitive functions like memorisation, forgetting and learning.  

Professor Kuncic believes an understanding of the emergent properties of these neuromorphic networks could even lead to a greater understanding of the brain itself. Incredibly, this has implications for further advancing research on AI, the bugaboo that has inspired science fiction writers for decades and has great potential to help humanity if used ethically.

Micrograph image of the nanowire network

Optical micrograph image of the nanowire network from the study.

The possible consequences of Professor Kuncic’s research are awesome, she anticipates it could take humanity beyond the edge of AI.

“Using nanotechnology, we’ve been able to create a synthetic neural network that exhibits electrical properties similar to a real biological neural network. This suggests the potential to emulate cognitive functions and to learn in a similar way to how the brain’s neural network hardware learns, without any AI software add-on. We think this could lead to a new type of machine intelligence beyond AI.”
Professor Zdenka Kuncic

Indeed, it would appear the future of AI could be the next key step in the digital revolution, or it may even propel us into a new age altogether!

These examples—just two of many—go to show how small-scale emerging innovations could revolutionise how we understand our world and how we tackle the greatest challenges of our time. This has always been what science is quintessentially about, and seemingly always will be.

Written by Louis Casey

Bachelor of Science and Advanced Studies student, University of Sydney