A speck of the future

Profs. Shoseyov (left) and PorathHow are a grain of sand and a poplar tree like a computer? It might sound like a riddle worthy of the Mad Hatter but the answer gives us a glimpse into a future hi-tech wonderland where, thorough the joint efforts of two Hebrew University researchers and their teams, the minutest of computer components will self-assemble and provide hitherto unimaginable memory capacity.

The development of these ‘specks’ of computer memory using a protein from the poplar tree and the main chemical constituent of sand has been achieved by a remarkable collaboration between two laboratories specializing in highly diverse fields. Professor Danny Porath’s team is based at the Institute of Chemistry on the Edmond J. Safra Campus in Jerusalem and Professor Oded Shoseyov’s group at the Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot.

It is six years since the two first met in Porath’s office. “I could scarcely understand 20 percent of what he said,” recalls Shoseyov and, insists Porath, “I probably didn’t grasp 10 percent of Shoseyov’s presentation”. The good-humored banter between them clearly reveals research partners with tremendous mutual respect for each other and Porath, who is also a member of the Hebrew University’s Harvey M. Krueger Family Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, explains that it wasn’t clear from that first meeting how the two would cooperate but they intuitively felt there might be a project they could work on together. Indeed, their first meeting came about at the suggestion of two researchers working in their respective teams — a brother and sister — who recognized the potential synergy of bringing their professors together.

When the two met, Shoseyov had been investigating why poplar trees are able to withstand heat, drought, high salinity in soil and even freezing temperatures. His work had identified an extremely stable ring-like protein. This sort of structure is of great interest to nanoscientists like Porath who are trying to find ways to construct the tiniest of components — components too small to assemble by machine but which need to build themselves, which is exactly what biological systems do given the right genetic instructions.

In order to build a nano-memory unit, Porath needed a particle located in the center of the protein ring and which had the ability to be charged and maintain that charge over a long period of time. Years of painstaking work by Shoseyov’s graduate student Dr. Arnon Hyman who made the genetically engineered protein-silica nano-device and Porath’s graduate student Dr. Izhar Medalsy who conducted the physical and electrical measurements at the nano scale, finally produced the right combination. “Imagine a donut, the sort with a hole in the center,” explains Porath. “Now think of a ball sitting in the hole. Make it about a billion times smaller. The donut is the poplar protein ring and the ball is a silica particle”.

The challenge now is to make a self-assembling array of these nano-donuts, the next step in making a commercially viable product. The researchers are hopeful that this technology, which has been patented by Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University, and licensed to Fulcrum SP Ltd., will over the coming years become an integral part of computers of the future.

An article describing the scientists’ extraordinary progress has been published in Nature Nanotechnology.

By Susan Goodman