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Nanotechnology Glossary


Buckyball or Fullerene or C60

One of three known pure forms of carbon (graphite and diamond being the other two) that takes a spherical shape with a hollow interior. Buckyballs, named because they resemble the geodesic domes built by architect Buckminster Fuller, were discovered in 1985 among the byproducts of laser vaporization of graphite in which the carbon atoms are arranged in sheets. Though C60, referring to the number of carbon atoms that make up one sphere, is the most common fullerene, researchers have found stable, spherical carbon structures containing 70 atoms (C70), 120 (C120), 180 (C180), and others.

Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard E. Smalley, both of Rice University in Houston, Texas and Harold W. Kroto of the University of Sussex in England, won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene, the scientific name for buckyballs.


See Nanocantilever.

Carbon Nanotubes

A form of carbon related to fullerenes, except that the carbon atoms form extended hollow tubes instead of closed, hollow spheres. Carbon nanotubes can also form as a series of nested, concentric tubes. Carbon nanotubes can be used as nanometer-scale syringe needles for injecting molecules into cells and as nanoscale probes for making fine-scale measurements. Carbon nanotubes can be filled and capped, forming nanoscale test tubes or potential drug delivery devices. Carbon nanotubes can also be “doped,” or modified with small amounts of other elements, giving them electrical properties that include fully insulating, semiconducting, and fully conducting.

Converging technologies

Science at the intersection of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive technologies.


A dendrimer is a tree-like highly branched polymer molecule (Greek dendra = tree). Dendrimers are synthesized from monomers with new branches added in discrete steps ("generation") to form a tree-like architecture. A high level of synthetic control is achieved through step-wise reactions and purifications at each step to control the size, architecture, functionality and monodispersity. Several different kinds of dendrimers have been synthesized utilizing different monomers and some are commercially available. This picture shows a "3rd generation" polyamidoamine (PAMAM) dendrimer.

DendrimerDendrimers are of particular interest for cancer applications because of their defined and reproducible size, but more importantly, because it is easy to attach a variety of other molecules to the surface of a dendrimer. Such molecules could include tumor-targeting agents (including but not restricted to monoclonal antibodies), imaging contrast agents to pinpoint tumors, drug molecules for delivery to a tumor, and reporter molecules that might detect if an anticancer drug is working.

Imaging Contrast Agent

A molecule or molecular complex that increases the intensity of the signal detected by an imaging technique, including MRI and ultrasound. An MRI contrast agent, for example, might contain gadolinium attached to a targeting antibody. The antibody would bind to a specific target – a metastatic melanoma cell, for example – while the gadolinium would increase the magnetic signal detected by the MRI scanner.


A single set of chromosomes and their genes; the genetic code for a particular individual.

Genome sequence

The ordered set of base-pairs that constitute the genetic code in a particular sample of DNA or RNA.


A type of nanoparticle made of lipids, or fat molecules, surrounding a water core. Liposomes, several of which are widely used to treat infectious diseases and cancer, were the first type of nanoparticle to be used to create therapeutic agents with novel characteristics.


A multidisciplinary field comprising physics, chemistry, engineering and biotechnology that studies the behavior of fluids at volumes thousands of times smaller than a common droplet. Microfluidic components form the basis of so-called “lab-on-a-chip” devices that can process microliter and nanoliter volumes and conduct highly sensitive analytical measurements. The fabrications techniques used to construct microfluidic devices are relatively inexpensive and are amenable both to highly elaborate, multiplexed devices and also to mass production. In a manner similar to that for microelectronics, microfluidic technologies enable the fabrication of highly integrated devices for performing several different functions on the same substrate chip. Microfluidics is a critical component in gene chip and protein chip development efforts.


The simplest micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) that can be easily machined and mass-produced via the same techniques used to make computer chips. The ability to detect extremely small displacements make nanocantilever beams an ideal device for detecting extremely small forces, stresses and masses. Nanocantilevers coated with antibodies, for example, will bend from the mass added when substrate binds to its antibody, providing a detector capable of sensing the presence of single molecules of clinical importance.


General terms for methods to create, assemble, or otherwise form nanoscale structures.


A tool for moving individual molecules or nanoscale objects, such as an atomic force microscope.


A unit of spatial measurement that equals one-billionth (10 -9) of a meter. The head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers across. A human hair is about 60,000 nanometers in diameter, while a DNA molecule is between 2-12 nanometers wide.


A nanoscale spherical or capsule-shaped structure. Most, though not all, nanoparticles are hollow, which provides a central reservoir that can be filled with anticancer drugs, detection agents, or chemicals, known as reporters, that can signal if a drug is having a therapeutic effect. The surface of a nanoparticle can also be adorned with various targeting agents, such as antibodies, drugs, imaging agents, and reporters. Most nanoparticles are constructed to be small enough to pass through blood capillaries and enter cells.


Substances that have holes or pores on the nanoscale, used, for example, to separate particles or molecules by size.


The size range roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where many of the fundamental structures of biology are formed, composite materials may take on their distinctive characteristics, and many important physical phenomena are found.


The study of unique properties of matter at the nanoscale; an interdisciplinary field of science combining physics, materials science, the chemistry of complex molecules, and related disciplines.


A device for sensing radiation, forces, chemicals, or biological agents, in which some portion of a device operates at the nanoscale, for example, by having receptors into which the particular molecules to be sensed fit.


A nanoparticle composed of a metallic shell surrounding a semiconductor. When nanoshells reach a target cancer cell, they can be irradiated with near-infrared light or excited with a magnetic field, either of which will cause the nanoshell to become hot, killing the cancer cell.


The interactions of cellular and molecular components and engineered materials—typically clusters of atoms, molecules, and molecular fragments—at the most elemental level of biology. Such nanoscale objects—typically, though not exclusively, with dimensions smaller than 100 nanometers—can be useful by themselves or as part of larger devices containing multiple nanoscale objects.


Hollow, cylindrical structures, with a diameter usually less than 5 nanometers. They are often but not necessarily, composed of carbon, and having remarkable strength and electrical properties.


A nanometer-scale wire made of metal atoms, silicon, or other materials that conduct electricity. Nanowires are built atom by atom on a solid surface, often as part of a microfluidic device. They can be coated with molecules such as antibodies that will bind to proteins and other substances of interest to researchers and clinicians. By the very nature of their nanoscale size, nanowires are incredibly sensitive to such binding events and respond by altering the electrical current flowing through them, and thus can form the basis of ultra sensitive molecular detectors.


A chemical compound, typically formed by connecting smaller molecules together, that consists of repeating structures, often arranged in a chain.


The extent to which a chemical substance is poisonous or, through chemical action, destroys living tissue.

Quantum dot (Qdots)

Nanometer sized semiconductor particles, made of cadmium selenide (CdSe), cadmium sulfide (CdS) or cadmium telluride (CdTe) with an inert polymer coating. The semiconductor material used for the core is chosen based upon the emission wavelength range being targeted: CdS for UV-blue, CdSe for the bulk of the visible spectrum, CdTe for the far red and near-infrared, with the particle’s size determining the exact color of a given quantum dot. The polymer coating safeguards cells from cadmium toxicity but also affords the opportunity to attach any variety targeting molecules, including monoclonal antibodies directed to tumor-specific biomarkers. Because of their small size, quantum dots can function as cell- and even molecule-specific markers that will not interfere with the normal workings of a cell. In addition, the availability of quantum dots of different colors provides a powerful tool for following the actions of multiple cells and molecules simultaneously.

In August 2004, researchers announced the successful preparation of water-soluble gold quantum dots that can also be constructed to emit light at a variety of wavelengths. These polymer-coated quantum dots may prove to be more suitable for use in human clinical applications.