How nanoscience brings physics into biology

Louis Minion reviews Nano Comes to Life: How Nanotechnology is Transforming Medicine and the Future of Biology by Sonia Contera

Nanobots in medicine cartoon
The future is nano The development of nanoscience means biology and medicine can be approached from an engineering perspective. (Courtesy: Shutterstock / FrimuFilms)

Part showcase, part manifesto, Sonia Contera’s Nano Comes to Life makes the ambitious attempt to convey the wonder of recent advances in biology and nanoscience while at the same time also arguing for a new approach to biological and medical research.

Contera – a biological physicist at the University of Oxford – covers huge ground, describing with clarity a range of pioneering experiments, including building nanoscale robots and engines from self-assembled DNA strands, and the incremental but fascinating work towards artificially grown organs.

But throughout this interesting survey of nanoscience in biology, Contera weaves a complex argument for the future of biology and medicine. For me, it is here the book truly excels. In arguing for the importance of physics and engineering in biology, the author critiques the way in which the biomedical industry has typically carried out research, instead arguing that we need an approach to biology that respects its properties at all scales, not just the molecular.

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As evidence for this, Contera introduces the reader to experiments on the mechanical properties of cells, showing that the right tweak or pinch can cause a cell to completely change its properties. Particularly fascinating is the description of work showing that stem cells can be made to behave more like brain cells when grown on a softer surface and more like bone when on a harder one. As Contera puts it, “Biology does not distinguish between the domains of science; it uses them all.”

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However, we are being held back, she argues, by institutional inertia. Pharmaceutical companies have devised highly automated high-throughput methods of testing new drugs but still rely on a chemistry-centred approach – hardly better than blindfolded dart throwing. With new knowledge from biophysics and biomedical engineering, we can instead approach medicine from multiple scales – making nanoparticles tagged with antibodies and emitters to simultaneously treat and image, or using advances in 3D-printed tissues to investigate new processes for “organs on a chip”. These new ideas, which view biology from an engineering perspective, allow us to see ourselves as machines that are part of the physical and mechanical world around us.

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Despite the complex ideas conveyed in Nano Comes to Life, I never found myself bogged down in technical details. Indeed, some of the unfamiliar concepts are illustrated with high-speed atomic force microscope images from the Contera’s own lab, giving us a nanoscale peek into how scientists know what is going on at such small scales.

Nano Comes to Life is aimed at both the general reader as well as scientists, emphasizing and encouraging the democratization of science and its relationship to human culture. Ending on an inspiring note, Contera encourages us to throw off our fear of technology and use science to make a fairer and more prosperous future.

  • 2022 Princeton University Press 240pp £14.99pb