Aug
17
2006

Biocrop breakout brings up nanotech questions

Green green grass: Is genetically engineered grass a form of nanotechnology?Photo courtesy StarMama
Green green grass: Is genetically engineered grass a form of nanotechnology?
Photo courtesy StarMama

A type of grass created by bioengineers in a lab has escaped out into the environment for the first time--at least that we've noticed.

The grass is being developed to resist the common herbicide Roundup. Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Monsanto, who are engineering this grass, hope to use it on golf courses so that Roundup could be sprayed to kill weeds without killing the grass.

So what's this got to do with nanotechnology?

Well, I've been doing lots of research into nanotechnology and the social concerns around its use. Just like bioengineered crops, people worry that we don't have a clue what could happen if these plants or particles, in the case of nanotechnology, escape into the environment.

Could the genes from this Roundup resistant grass find their way into wild grasses? If they do it might be that much harder to eliminate weeds that grow wild in our environment.

Okay, but really, what about this nanotech stuff?

Well, this story got me and some of my coworkers thinking about the definitions of genetic engineering and nanotech. In genetics we are manipulating DNA at the nanoscale. In nanotechnology we are manipulating molecules and atoms at the nanoscale. Despite having many people tell me that they are unique I still don't totally get it.

I think it mostly lies in the methods with which the different sciences go about manipulating things. The processes that genetic engineers use to create a new kind of grass are unique from those that nanotech scientists use to engineer something like carbon nanotubes.

So what do you think? I will ask around and see if I can get some answers to the question, "Is genetic engineering a type of nanotechnology?"

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

ARTiFactor's picture
ARTiFactor says:

I disagree with this statement.

The processes that genetic engineers use to create a new kind of grass are unique from those that nanotech scientists use to engineer something like carbon nanotubes.

DNA is being used to construct carbon nanotube assemblies. See this Buzz Blog post. I think genetic engineering is being used in nanotech engineering. "Growing" nano devices can get to the next level with instructions via DNA.

posted on Thu, 08/17/2006 - 2:11pm
bryan kennedy's picture

I wanted to relay a comment from J. Newlin, the Director of Physical Sciences here at the museum. J. says:

I think you are mixing apples with oranges.

Genetic engineering refers to making changes in organisms, or even new organisms, by changing their genetic makeup. There are lots of ways of doing this, including old fashioned plant breeding. The changes can be seen on the nano level but of course on many other levels as well.

Nanotechnology is a scale of operation. Nanotech operations can be used for genetic engineering purposes.

If we don't keep these distinctions, we'd soon have to say all of chemistry and a great deal of biology is nanotech. I think it's useful to maintain a greater specificity of terms in which nano (science, engineering, technology) means working directly at the nano scale with nanoscale materials rather than in bulk mode as in normal chemical reactions.

Well, put J. I think this jives with what Art is saying as well above.

posted on Thu, 08/17/2006 - 4:37pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Here is just a thought. Why do we need a grass that is resistant to herbicides? Is this so we can just put more herbicides on golf coarses and lawns than are already being used and released into the surrounding terrestrial and aquatic environments? It seems to me maybe someone should try working on plant specific toxins that degrade quickly and cause less problems in surrounding ecosystems.

posted on Tue, 10/03/2006 - 6:48pm

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