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Bacterial nanomagnets

May 9, 2012

Researchers in the UK and Japan have turned to nature (read, magnetic bacteria) to help produce electronics on a nano scale. They say the bacteria could help us make better hard drives and faster internet connections.

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Image: Fotolia/Irina Tischenko

Researchers at Britain's University of Leeds and Japan's Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have used a type of bacterium that "eats" iron to create tiny magnets inside themselves, similar to those found in traditional hard drives.

The research could lead to much faster, higher density hard drives and a range of other high-performance, environmentally friendly electronic devices, the scientists say.

"We're forever trying to make electronic components smaller but are quickly reaching our limits with traditional manufacturing techniques," Sara Staniland from Leeds University's School of Physics and Astronomy, told DW. "Nature can help us."

Magnetospirilllum magneticum

For its research, Staniland's team has used the bacterium Magnetsopirilllum magneticum. These naturally magnetic microorganisms, found in ponds and lakes, swim along the Earth's magnetic lines, aligning like compass needles.

Computer hard drives
Bacteria could help us break storage barriers in the futureImage: AP

When they eat iron, proteins interact to produce tiny crystals of magnetite, the most magnetic of all naturally occurring minerals on Earth.

The researchers, after studying how proteins inside the bacteria collect, shape and position these so-called nanomagnets, copied the method and applied it outside the bacteria, in a move that has been likened to "growing" magnets.

Enabling these nanomagnets to hold information will lead to "the hard drive of the future," Staniland said.

Industry analysts have welcomed the research.

"Dealing with data growth has been a key challenge for IT organizations of all sizes for a number of years," Simon Robinson, a storage expert with 451 Research in London, wrote in an e-mail to DW.

"While the hard drive industry has been able to respond to this challenge by massively increasing drive densities over the last decade in particular, there is a longer term concern that at some point we are going to hit a limit, though some of the major manufacturers believe 50 terabyte drives are achievable," Robinson said. "As in other parts of the technology world, the answer over the longer term may come from biology, though clearly this is still at an extremely experimental stage."

Biological wires

In a longstanding collaboration with the University of Leeds, Masayoshi Tanaka from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology used a different protein to create tiny electrical wires - "nanowires" - that could be capable of transferring information.

These biological wires could be grown to have an electrical resistance and "connected to other components as part of an entirely biological computer," Tanaka said in a statement.

The researchers aim to develop a "toolkit" of proteins and chemicals that could be used "to grow computer components from scratch," Sara Staniland of Leeds University added.

Numerous other groups are researching nanomagnets, including a group of microbiolgists headed by Christian Jogler and Dirk Schüler at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, in cooperation with the Max Planck Institutes for Molecular Genetics in Berlin and Marine Microbiology in Bremen, as well as a group of researchers headed by Will Branford from the Imperial College London.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany