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Yellowstone May Aid Technology

November 30, 2002|Usha Lee McFarling | Times Staff Writer

Harnessing the biological prowess of "extremophile" microbes gathered from the steaming, sulfurous springs of Yellowstone National Park, scientists have found a way to make tiny structures that could one day be used to make nanoscale electronic components.

A team from the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley used modified proteins from single-celled organisms taken from near-boiling acidic muck to grow mesh-like structures.

Those crystalline structures are about 20 nanometers across, or 5,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Today's standard computer chips have features that measure about 130 nanometers apart.

The structures can pick up pieces of gold or semiconductor -- a first step in creating a new generation of "nanoparticles" that could serve as computer memory, sensors or calculators.

The team worked with an organism that could withstand high temperatures so it would have a protein able to tolerate the heat of lab processes.

The progress, said project leader Jonathan Trent, "takes advantage of the innate ability of proteins to form into ordered structures and for us to use genetic engineering to change nature's plans, transforming these structures into something useful."

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