Researchers at Georgia Tech are investigating how to harness nanonetworks for diagnostic purposes. Photo: Georgia Institute of Technology
Think the future of communication is 4G? Think again.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are working on
communication solutions for networks so futuristic they don’t even exist yet.
The team is investigating how to get devices a million times smaller than
the length of an ant to communicate with one another to form nanonetworks. And
they are using a different take on “cellular” communication—namely how bacteria
communicate with one another—to find a solution.
Georgia Tech Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ian Akyildiz
and his research team—Faramarz Fekri, professor of electrical and computer
engineering; Craig Forest, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Brian
Hammer, assistant professor of biology; and Raghupathy Sivakumar, professor of
electrical and computer engineering—were recently awarded a $3 million grant
from the National Science Foundation for the project.
Over the next four years, the team will study how bacteria communicate with
each other on a molecular level to see if the same principles can be applied to
how nanodevices will one day communicate to form nanoscale networks.
If the team is successful, the applications for intelligent, communicative
nanonetworks could be wide ranging and potentially life changing.
“The nanoscale machines could potentially be injected into the blood,
circulating in the body to detect viruses, bacteria, and tumors,” says
Akyildiz, principal investigator of the study. “All these illnesses—cancer,
diabetes, Alzheimer’s, asthma, whatever you can think of—they will be history
over the years. And that’s just one application.”
Nanotechnology is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and
molecular scale, where unique phenomena enable novel applications not feasible
when working with bulk materials or even single atoms or molecules.
Most of the nanoscale devices that currently exist are primitive, Akyildiz
says, but with communication the devices could collaborate and have a
That’s the question researchers are tackling—how would such nanonetworks
communicate? Because of their size, classical communication solutions will not
work. The team is turning its attention to nature for inspiration.
“We realized that nature already has all these nanomachines. Human cells are
perfect examples of nanomachines and the same is true of bacteria,” Akyildiz
says. “And so, the best bet for us is to look at bacteria behavior and learn
how bacteria are communicating and use those natural solutions to develop
solutions for future communication problems.”
Bacteria use chemical signals to communicate with one another through a
process called quorum sensing, which allows a population of single-celled
microbes to work like a multicellular organism. Originally discovered several
decades ago in unusual bioluminescent marine bacteria, it is now believed that
all bacteria “talk” to one another with chemical signals.
Microbiologists are beginning to learn the “languages” bacteria speak and
what activities are controlled by this cellular communication. Many
disease-causing pathogenic bacteria use quorum sensing to turn on their toxins
and other factors to use against a host. Potential therapeutics are currently
being developed by some researchers that are designed to disrupt quorum sensing
by infectious bacteria.
“A single pathogenic bacterium in your body is unlikely to kill you,” says
Hammer, a microbial geneticist. “But since they communicate, the entire group
orchestrates this coordinated behavior using chemical communication and the end
result is that they work as a group to kill their host. So can we use that same
information in a positive way by harnessing and understanding the limits of the
Georgia Tech researchers Hammer and Forest
will focus on experimentation to better understand the elements of bacterial
communication, and then work with the electrical and computer engineering
experts on the team to translate their findings into a possible communication
model for nanonetworks.
“This is really revolutionary research,” says Fekri, professor of electrical
and computer engineering. “No one has looked at these issues before. We are
dealing with the big challenges. It’s going to require a lot of talent and hard
work to address them.”
The project is expected to pave the way for research in nanoscale
communication. The range of applications of nanonetworks is incredibly wide,
from intra-body networks for health monitoring, cancer detection or drug
delivery to chemical and biological attack prevention systems.
At the end of four years, the team hopes to demonstrate the basic and fundamental
underlying theories for communication of nanodevices. They also hope to develop
a simulation tool for the public to use to see how machines can mimic bacteria
communication, which will hopefully attract other researchers to get involved
in investigating this area further.
“Existing paradigms for network protocols and algorithms do not apply
anymore. This is beyond the frontiers of networking research,” says Sivakumar. “It’s
really something that could change things and no one has done this before.”