As humanity moves beyond the Information Age, nanotechnology's ability to interact with the basic structures of life will spawn the "Biological Age," said Kenneth Cox, a researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center.
"It is extremely important to understand not just the downsides, but the benefits of diversity in science, diversity in terms of education and commerce," Cox told conference attendees. "We need to change the ways we innovate and adapt (with nanotech)."
For instance, even though the deadly environment of space exploration might present possible applications for nanotech, researchers should look for earthbound equivalents in order to increase the uses for their discoveries, Cox said.
The conference, sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Multidisciplinary Research, NASA and several universities, was set up to help NASA and the research community work out joint goals for nanotechnology.
One key area for such collaboration is medicine, said Jeffery Sutton, director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. The organization, started in 1997, now involves 250 researchers from 72 universities, Sutton told the conference.
"We would love to see developments at the nano scale, and also going across scales to link some of the hardware developments with (medical) informatics," Sutton said.
The NSBRI researchers have put together a list of critical capabilities to support future manned space missions, Sutton said. The teams, whose members are often spread among several schools, want to evolve nanoscale sensors to the point where medical treatment options can fit on the same technology platform as monitoring technology, he said.
One avenue of research, which emerged from last year's NanoSpace meeting, entails helping astronauts deal with radiation exposure, said James Leary, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
As human explorations leave the protective shield of Earth's magnetic field for longer and longer periods, cell damage from cosmic radiation is inevitable, Leary said. If astronauts venture to other planets, the time lag in communications would present possibly insurmountable problems for Earth-based medicine, he said.
Nanotechnology could solve the issue by spurring the creation of devices, smaller than individual cells, that could spot radiation-damaged cells and help repair their DNA, Leary said. The nanodevices would be coated with antibodies that bind to proteins linked to DNA damage, he said.
As soon as the device attaches to an irradiated cell, it would release antioxidants that aid the enzymes responsible for rebuilding the cellular instruction manual. When the cell gives off the proper amount of messenger RNA, the device would stop releasing its payload, Leary said.
The research is almost ready to begin animal trials designed to track the movement of nanoparticles through an organism, Leary said. Questions still to be answered include finding the proper material for the particles. Semiconductor elements are the correct size but can be toxic, for instance, so researchers are looking at mechanisms to cue the body to excrete the particles once their usefulness is finished, he said.