Nanobots Could Soon Play a Military Role in Detoxifying Lethal Nerve Agents
Lane Long posted on September 13, 2018 |
An illustration of the movement of protective enzymatic nanobots. (Image courtesy of Ayusman Sen.)
An illustration of the movement of protective enzymatic nanobots. (Image courtesy of Ayusman Sen.)

A team of scientists at the National Meeting &Exposition of the American Chemical Society revealed last month that it has gained significant traction in making nanobots a reality. The team’s work on the use of chemical energy to create motion gave life to the idea that enzyme catalysis could be used to cause enzymes themselves to move, thus serving as vehicles to enable nanorobotics. The specific concept the Penn State researchers unveiled at the exposition involves using nanobot “pumps” to chemically break down nerve agents while simultaneously releasing an antidote. Needless to say, the work could prove highly significant for military service members who could be exposed to chemical attacks at any time.

A New Mechanism for Controllable Motion

The idea that enzymes move when they catalyze a reaction is fairly novel. Passive diffusion was long assumed to be the driver of any propulsion. The Penn State scientists have taken the discovery that catalysis causes movement and applied it by showing that the enzymes “swim” toward areas with a higher concentration of substances they might react with. This phenomenon opens the door to using enzymes as nanobots because the movement is organic and doesn’t require an external power source.

Team lead Ayusman Sen discusses the research effort dedicated to developing nanobots with military implications.

Further, the research team discovered that “anchoring” enzymes to a surface and preventing their naturally occurring movement toward reactants results in them literally pumping fluid into their surrounding area. At a rate of several microliters a second, the catalysts act as handy little devices capable of pumping significant volumes at the nanoscale. In conjunction with enzymes’ natural ability to move, this ability could have serious implications for internal use, particularly for  military service members.

Dual Protection Against Nerve Agents

The scientists are intrigued by the potential military applications of their enzymatic nanobots because they offer two theoretical lines of defense against organophosphates, a common category of nerve agents. These deadly compounds can cause long-term neurological damage to those exposed to it, and in the right doses, can even be lethal.

To start, the team fixes an enzyme to a gel that contains a natural antidote. By using a particular type of enzyme known as organophosphorus acid an hydrolase, the team leverages the natural catalysis between the enzyme and nerve agent to destroy organophosphates directly. In addition, as these destructive reactions are occurring, the nanobots are pumping out the gel’s antidote as described above. Thus, the nanobot is actively reacting with and eliminating the nerve agent and dispensing a cure simultaneously.

The scientists foresee a distant future in which such technology could be incorporated into wearables for active duty soldiers who might be exposed to nerve agents. Upon contact with organophosphorus chemical weapons, the nanobots could seek out and neutralize the invasive agents. It’s not hard to visualize warfare on the nanoscale with the protective bots hunting down damaging foreign bodies. Surely, the men and women who face such dangers regularly would be grateful for such tiny protectors.

For more on how nanobots could be used to combat malignancies in the human body, check out this article on how they might soon be able to target cancer cells.

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