22 Oct 2009 13:58:00.000
What if material structures could ‘build themselves’ by self-assembling their molecules — guided by ‘artificial intelligence’? It sounds like science fiction, but making this possible is now the serious research aim for computer scientists, physicists, chemists and nanotechnology experts, all working in collaboration at The University of Nottingham.
Two centuries after Charles Darwin published his most famous work, On The Origin of Species, researchers plan to apply evolutionary principles and insights gained from computational theory to develop algorithms that guide the creation of new chemical structures at a molecular level.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has provided nearly £1m to fund this research. Using advances in computer science and state-of-the-art microscopy, which will monitor and encourage self-assembly, academics from fields bridging computing and the physical sciences will join forces to understand, develop and control molecular ‘self-assembly’.
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‘Evolutionary Optimisation of Self Assembling Nano-Designs’ — ExIStENcE — is the brainchild of Dr Natalio Krasnogor (Reader in Interdisciplinary Computer Science) and leader of the Interdisciplinary Optimisation Laboratory, Professors Philip Moriarty and Peter Beton from the School of Physics and Astronomy, and Professor Neil Champness from the School of Chemistry.
“Self-Assembly is one of nature’s most powerful and pervasively used engineering mechanisms,” says Dr Krasnogor. “In fact life would not be possible without it. At the core of our approach lies the assumption that self-assembly can be understood as an information-driven process and hence be better exploited by directly linking it to computational phenomena.”
“A deeper understanding of the fundamentals of molecular self-assembly, all the way up to the self-organisation of biological entities, would profoundly affect the way our species builds and controls synthetic as well as natural systems.”
In a nutshell, ‘self-assembly’ is the process by which a certain structure or organisation emerges from the mutual interaction amongst the structure’s building blocks (eg. molecules, robotic parts, parts of computer programs, cells, etc) and between these building blocks and the environment in which they exist.
The magic of this team’s approach is in the fact that nobody will do the building of the structure or organisation except the environment and the components themselves. “No master puppeteer will instruct the components when and where to go!”
Natalio Krasnogor has already worked with biologists on bioinformatics, systems and synthetic biology. This latest collaboration will create a team of 10 researchers to develop novel evolutionary algorithms (EAs) and protocols based on deeper principles than currently available for the optimisation, design and exploitation of molecular self-assembly. Dr Krasnogor and his project partners are now beginning to recruit postdoctoral researchers to strengthen the interdisciplinary make-up of the team.
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Notes to editors:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering. www.epsrc.ac.uk
The University of Nottingham
The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.
The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.
Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.