Paul Weiss: Nature is often underestimated as a source of inspiration for nanotechnology

From reshaping our understanding of the world to innovations in medicine and sustainable lab-grown meats – nanotechnology is more than just atomic-sized tech. Explore the vast potential with respected nanoscientist Paul Weiss.

By Pavla Hubálková

(Image courtesy: Jakub Straka)

This article was originally published by WIRED CZ

“Why are you doing all this?” young neuroscience professor Anne M. Andrews asked colleague Paul Weiss in 2002, a nanoscientist who focuses on the development of new nanomaterials and techniques. He asked her what direction she thought his research lab should take with their newly developed capabilities, and she suggested how his work could advance her goal of exploring brain function at the nanoscale. “So, I did the three most obvious things: I took her class in brain chemistry, we started collaborating, and sometime later, we married,” said Paul Weiss, a leader of an interdisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, and clinicians with broad interests and collaborations around the world. 

The aim of his laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is to research the ultimate limits of miniaturization to develop a deeper chemical understanding of the physical and biological worlds. 

In 2007, he also established the scientific journal ACS Nano , which he led for nearly 15 years. The journal covers original research articles, reviews, perspectives, interviews with distinguished researchers, and views on the future of nanoscience and nanotechnology. As a result, he possesses an extensive mastery of the nanoscale world. He has a long-term collaboration with Czech scientists. During his recent visit to Prague he shared his insights exclusively with WIRED.CZ. 


How would you summarize the current state of nanotechnology for the layperson? What are the most exciting trends in this field?

​​The truly special aspect of nanoscience and nanotechnology is the collaboration of experts from various fields — chemistry, physics, biology, medicine, toxicology, engineering, and materials science — who have come together to form this new field. We share our distinct challenges and methodologies, creating new tools and approaches. In this process, we cultivate communication skills that are unparalleled and distinct from what anyone else has had or has today. In my view, it is then incumbent upon us to look at the bigger world and to see where and how we can work together to take on the challenges the world faces.

This is one reason that my group has diversified its focus, encompassing projects with wide-ranging impact in nanoscience and other fields, such as helping develop and advance the BRAIN Initiative and the US Microbiome Initiative , as well as developing efficient, safe methods of treating genetic diseases like sickle cell and thalassemia, and efficient, economic methods of growing meat and fish in the laboratory for helping feed the world.

What about the trends? 

At the 10th anniversary of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the USA, we looked at what the advances had been and there were two disparate discoveries. One significant advance has been our ability to create atomically precise structures. I contributed to this by being among the first to manipulate atoms on a surface. This was achieved using a tool that our team, then at IBM, and other researchers developed, the scanning tunneling microscope. That microscope and its cousins ​​opened up our minds to many possible goals. For instance, if we could make atomically precise, optimized interfaces for electronics, your laptop and your iPad would not get so hot and would last substantially longer, because there would be lower resistance at the connections on the chips where all the work is done.

The other crucial insight was that, even at the very smallest scales, there is heterogeneity, which is something that we also know from biology. Proteins can change configuration slightly and their function varies as a result. This is also a principle in biological signaling; a function can be dialed up and down, or turned on and off, by making small chemical or structural changes to biomolecules. 

Most startling, in my mind, was the realization that we seemed to be unique in nanoscience and nanotechnology in developing these cross-field communication skills. It would be wasteful not to take on the world’s problems with this special insight.

Can you name any current applications of nanotechnologies that are having a significant impact on our daily life but the general public might not be aware of?

People might not realize that devices like mobile phones and computers are fundamentally based on nanotechnologies. However, there are many more examples, and new ones are still emerging. For instance, the scale of function in biology is nano, so with control of both the physical and chemical structure at the nanoscale we can interact with biological systems both for measurements and for control. The most successful recent examples are the vaccines for covid. They are based on lipid nanoparticles and that was a technology that was developed over several decades that found very rapid and successful application once the pandemic hit.

A lot of people are scared of nano. How do you think we can improve public understanding and acceptance of nanotechnology?

What is fascinating are the very different perceptions of nano in different parts of the world. For example, when you visit the cosmetics counter in a department store in the US, “nano” is an advertisement. If one goes to cosmetics counters in Japan or Korea, the price is higher for nano-containing cosmetics. However, in Europe nano is avoided, because people are afraid of it. 

(Image courtesy: Jakub Straka)

In the end, nanomaterials are just like any other materials, perhaps with greater variety. There can be positive and negative aspects. Biology is full of nanoscale objects and nanoscale functions that our lives depend upon; likewise, we are able to develop nanomaterials that help us. So, in nanoscience and nanotechnology, we put a lot of effort into trying to understand what the safety and advantages and disadvantages of those are. It is a field where safety by design and understanding the full life cycles of materials are both extremely important.

What do you think about the current use of nanotechnology? Do we use it in the right way or do you have any concerns?

It’s essential to develop materials while aiming to understand their function and safety throughout their lifecycle. I am a strong believer in reverse engineering – working backwards – so that we understand what happens from the time that we make it through the time that we’re done with it. We are also now trying to categorize nanomaterials by class, as safe vs not safe vs requiring further study. Regulations regarding nanomaterials are informed by these studies and, in turn, assure potential manufacturers as to which classes of nanomaterials are safe to use and which will need testing, if they are to be used (and which to avoid, of course).

What about potential health risks? How much do we know about toxicity?

The issue of toxicity is not just about nano but about all materials and chemicals, in general – there are molecules that we know quite a lot about and we can say they are safe because billions of people have been exposed to them, but there are many we don’t know much about. In nanomaterials we try to understand the interactions and test if there are any health concerns. 

How would you respond to the questions you frequently pose to your students: “Which crucial, high-impact tests are you currently conducting?” And how likely are they to succeed?”

One of the things I am very excited about is that we have developed a way to grow a three-dimensional tissue very efficiently and for a number of applications. One is growing meat and fish in the laboratory to meet sustainability issues in the world. It turns out that the same scaffold is also useful in growing human tissue and particularly the application we look at is in growing an avatar of an individual patient’s tumor. It enables us to do what is called the high-throughput screening to test potential therapeutics against that patient’s tumor. We are testing this approach on breast tumors and pediatric brain cancers. I am very excited about this project, as it pulls together what we know about materials, chemical interactions, new technologies, and human health. 

Your research is often focused on practical applications. What are the main obstacles or challenges that you had to face to get from the basic research into the applications?

We try to do both; I love the combination of fundamental research with potential applications. Our strategy for success starts from having a very broad research group in terms of expertise, including people from chemistry, physics, biochemistry, biology, medicine, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, neuroscience, material science, and so forth. These collaborations are extremely important. This proximity of engineering and medicine was also the reason why we moved to UCLA 14 years ago.

In your opinion, what is the next big breakthrough in nanoscience?

It’s challenging to pinpoint any one outcome, as nanoscience has moved in many directions. However, I see great possibilities in personalized medicine, like individual drugs, even though the regulatory part of the process can be quite slow. One of the other things that we try and do in our laboratory is efficient high-throughput gene editing to treat diseases like sickle cell and other genetic diseases using simple, safe, and economical techniques that can be used in established medical centers and also where resources are more limited, such as in the developing world. 

How about the future? Which current “science fiction” concept in nanotechnology do you believe might become a reality in the near future?

Science fiction has inspired or predicted a great deal of technologies, from satellites to mobile phones. However, I would say that nature itself is a much better source of inspiration. Whenever creative teams from the entertainment industry working on new movies, TV shows, or games approach me, I usually point out that many “futuristic” concepts already exist in biology – like the intricate mechanisms of viruses or the cellular processes in our bodies.

In nanoscience, as in many other areas, what we aim to achieve is often something nature already knows how to do. Unfortunately, we often don’t understand it well enough to know how to reproduce it in the laboratory, and that is a key part of my job. I even know a very innovative scientist and engineer from Beijing who watches TV shows about nature to get inspired and then he uses some of these extraordinary capabilities in the lab to create new materials with new functions. 

My last question is more philosophical. Have the advances in nanotechnology sparked any discussions or implications concerning our perception of life and the universe? 

Absolutely! Recall that at the dawn of quantum mechanics, a century ago, individuals were fascinated by the behavior of individual atoms. As our tools advanced, allowing us to observe molecules and materials, our focus shifted. We transitioned from pondering individual atoms to reflecting on ensembles, collections, and solids with their periodic structures. However, the emergence of the scanning tunneling microscope and similar technologies in the early 1980s pulled us back to those earlier thoughts. Suddenly, we found ourselves capable of visualizing, measuring, and even manipulating at the atomic level. This shift in the philosophical outlook of the field has occurred multiple times, but it’s worth noting that the current viewpoint is something that seems intrinsically bound to our scientific inquiries and advances, moving forward.