Podium: The Lilliputian laboratory is changing science

Dr Andrew de Mello

From the `Scientists for the New Century' lecture delivered by the Zeneca lecturer in analytical sciences to the Royal Institution

SCIENCE AND technology now dominate nearly every aspect of our lives. But what could we say has been the greatest scientific achievement of our century? The 20th century has been an epic phase of discovery in which the fundamental scientific principles laid down in the centuries before have been refined and redefined, and our description of nature is almost complete.

If honest, most scientists would come to the conclusion that the most fundamentally important scientific revolution of the 20th century is due to the development of the quantum theory, which reduced the mystery of matter to a few postulates. The standard model created has been uniquely successful in predicting the properties of everything from tiny quarks to the behaviour of huge stars.

Although the quantum theory is the most fundamental revolution in this century, it is not the most tangible scientific revolution for the man in the street. That honour goes to two other great revolutions, which were facilitated directly by the quantum revolution.

The first began in 1948 with the very first transistor. This was a quantum mechanical device that performed a simple function - altering an electric current and allowing one circuit to switch another on and off. This device formed the basics of modern electronics and heralded the birth of the microelectronic revolution. The integrated circuit had been born, the last requirement for the computer.

Early computers were approximately 50 billion times slower than today's computers. Today the smallest elements printed on the most advanced microprocessor chips are less than one millionth of a metre in length. This high degree of miniaturisation means that today's computers are able to perform tasks that were unimaginable even 10 years ago.

The second revolution was the genetic revolution that was announced to the world in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. They discovered the rather important molecule, deoxyriboneucleic acid, or DNA. DNA demonstrated the way in which the molecule can unravel, replicate and then pass on the genetic information contained within it.

So. The quantum revolution has, in turn, given birth to both the computer and the genetic revolutions, but what does it hold for the next century? Importantly, it represents the result of the natural synergy between the microchip, and the new biology and chemistry.

That marriage has given rise to a new generation of analytical instrumentation, called a laboratory-on-a-chip. The goal is to create microchips that do not solely perform electronic functions, but primarily perform chemical and biological functions.

Of the top 10 causes of death in the Western world, nine have a genetic contribution. By extracting the information contained within our own personal genetic blueprint we can in many cases infer susceptibility to both infectious and hereditary diseases. If we can make our instrument small, the cost of making it should be much less. We shall need much smaller amounts of sample in our analysis. Using less material will reduce the cost per analysis. If our instrument is portable we can take it to the sample rather than bringing it into a laboratory. This will change the face of health care in the next century.

The past five to 10 years have demonstrated that we can create microchip devices that are capable of performing all sorts of chemical and biological analyses. The challenge over the next five years will be clearly to define the primary application areas, which we may as yet not even have identified.

In many ways the modern-day micro-technologist can relate to Gulliver's problems in Lilliput, but always concludes that in the realm of biochemical analysis, smaller is better.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect