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See Inside October 2006

Viral Nano Electronics

M.I.T. breeds viruses that coat themselves in selected substances, then self-assemble into such devices as liquid crystals, nanowires and electrodes
Andrew Lippman



WEBB CHAPPELL

For many years, materials scientists wanted to know how the abalone, a marine snail, constructed its magnificently strong shell from unpromising minerals, so that they could make similar materials themselves. Angela M. Belcher asked a different question: Why not get the abalone to make things for us?

She put a thin glass slip between the abalone and its shell, then removed it. We got a flat pearl, she says, which we could use to study shell formation on an hour-by-hour basis, without having to sacrifice the animal. It turns out the abalone manufactures proteins that induce calcium carbonate molecules to adopt two distinct yet seamlessly melded crystalline forms--one strong, the other fast-growing. The work earned her a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1997 and paved her way to consultancies with the pearl industry, a professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a founding role in a start-up company called Cambrios in Mountain View, Calif.

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