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What Is a Nanosensor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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A nanosensor collects and transmits information about data on the nanoscale, measured in tiny increments known as nanometers. Such devices have a number of potential applications in science and medicine, including the ability to provide feedback that allows nanoparticles to assemble themselves into functional models. Researchers in this field may work for universities, private companies, and public labs with an interest in the potential applications of nanotechnology. In the early 21st century, nanosensors and related technology were widely considered a significant scientific breakthrough with major potential applications.

These devices can be keyed to respond to specific environmental targets. For example, a deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) nanosensor can be designed to flag specific chains of DNA in a specimen. This could be used for activities like rapid diagnosis of infections, as demonstrated by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When the sensor identifies a familiar trigger, it may send a signal or illuminate so it can be identified by another sensor device.

Applications for nanosensors in medicine are many. They can be used to provide information about what is going on inside the body on a nanoscale, inside cells and deep within structures that may be malfunctioning. In addition to relaying data to the outside, they could also be involved in nanoscale repair. A patient with a damaged liver, for example, might have a procedure to rebuild part of the organ with nanoparticles in a process known as molecular self-assembly, where the particles direct themselves in an organized fashion.

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In science, a nanosensor can be used for activities like detecting trace chemicals, minerals, and other compounds in the environment. This can be useful for detection in lab environments as well as in the field. Public safety officials, for example, could use a DNA nanosensor to detect evidence of airborne viruses and catch an epidemic early, before it has a chance to spread throughout the population. Similar sensors could pick up trace amounts of radiation or hazardous chemicals that might pose a human health and safety threat.

Some lab facilities manufacture their own nanosensor equipment for specific research activities. Others may order them from suppliers of scientific materials. Costs can depend on the level of complexity required and the size. Applications for consumer devices like air quality detectors for the home mean that a number of companies have heavy investments in the development of technology to produce affordable nanosensors for use in mass-produced products.

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