Okay, so you need to be a Trekkie to know what a “nanite” is.
A nanite is built by manipulating atoms and contains gigabytes of computer memory. It is small enough to enter living cells and can be programmed to do numerous tasks. Nanites are used by the Federation for medical purposes and are designed to work inside nucleii during cellular surgery. When they are not used, nanites are stored in a non-functional state. When necessary nanites can be destroyed with a burst of high-level gamma radiation.
In the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Evolution”, Wesley Crusher experimented with nanites aboard the USS Enterprise-D to see if he could enhance their capabilities, by letting them work together. Of course, things got out of hand and the nanites multiplied and developed a group mind that started wreaking havoc on the ship’s systems. The targeted nature of these actions became proof of sentience and they became perceived as lifeforms. Data was able to talk to the nanites and as their spokesman was able to come to an agreement with Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The enhanced nanites repaired the damage to the ship’s computers and were then transferred to Kavis Alpha IV, where they founded their own civilization.
In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Battle Lines”, Julian Bashir found similarities between nanites and the artificial microbes that resurrected the Ennis and the Nol-Ennis on a moon in the Gamma Quadrant.
In the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Meld”, The Doctor designed and used nanites that recognized unusual DNA patterns. He used it to identify Lon Suder’s Betazoid DNA in Frank Darwin’s fatal head wound.
Why am I crying “The nanites are coming!”? Because the FDA has proposed rules for regulating nanotechnology in food packaging. Apparently it’s already out there in cosmetics, but they don’t regulate that, per se.
The FDA issued proposed guidelines Friday for food and cosmetic companies interested in using nanoparticles, which are measured in billionths of a meter. Nanoscale materials are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A sheet of paper, in comparison, is 100,000 nanometers thick.
The submicroscopic particles are increasingly showing up in FDA-regulated products like sunscreens, skin lotions and glare-reducing eyeglass coatings. Some scientists believe the technology will one day be used in medicine, but the FDA’s announcement did not address that use.
The draft guidance suggests the FDA may require food companies to provide data establishing the safety of any packaging using nanotechnology.
Dennis Keefe, director of FDA’s office of food additive safety, said companies are studying whether nanoparticles can reduce the risk of bacterial contamination in certain foods. He said the agency is aware of just one food package currently on the market that uses nanoparticles but did not identify it. He said more are expected in coming years.
The FDA has previously stated its position that nanotechnology is not inherently unsafe; however, materials at the nano scale can pose different safety issues than do things that are far larger.
“This is an emerging, evolving technology and we’re trying to get ahead of the curve to ensure the ingredients and substances are safe,” Keefe said.
The FDA will take comments on the proposal for 90 days. There is no deadline for finalizing the documents.
So, how far away would you say we are from nanites?
For an interesting introduction to current nanotechnology, click here.