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Molecular engineering

Molecular engineering is a means of manufacturing molecules. It may be used to create, on an extremely small scale, new molecules which may not exist in nature. Today this is an arduous process, requiring manual manipulation of molecules - eventually it is expected to exploit life-like self-reproducing 'helper molecules' that are themselves engineered. In either form, it is a precision form of chemical engineering that includes protein engineering, the creation of protein molecules, a process that occurs naturally in biochemistry, e.g. prion reproduction. It provides far more control than genetic modification of an existing genome, which must rely strictly on existing biochemistry to express genes as proteins, and has little power to produce any non-proteins.

Molecular engineering is an important part of pharmaceutical research[?] and materials science. Emergence of scanning tunnelling electron microscopes[?] and picosecond-burst lasers[?] in the 1990s, plus discovery of new carbon nanotube applications to motivate mass production of these custom molecules, drove the field forward to commercial reality in the 2000s.

Molecular engineering is sometimes called generically "nanotechnology", in reference to the nanometer scale at which its basic processes must operate. That term is considered to be vague, however, due to misappropriation of the word in association with other techniques, such as X-ray lithography[?], that are not used to create new free-floating ions or molecules.

Even the staunchest advocates of molecular engineering techniques, e.g. K. Eric Drexler, have cautioned from the beginning that these techniques are extremely dangerous, and have unforseen (and some unforseeable) side effects:

New molecules that do not exist in nature, which are extremely rare, which exploit biochemical processes to "bootstrap" some industrial process, or which exploit their own chemosynthetic[?] or photosynthetic[?] energy chain, are known to be unpredictable. Some are also known to be very dangerous: prions are thought to be effective weapons of mass destruction if dispersed widely, and cannot easily be eliminated by traditional methods such as burning, chemical cleansers, or ultraviolet light.

One view, popular among researchers, of the potentials and dangers of molecular research, is that a "technological singularity" may occur from the release of significant numbers or types of new molecules. Potential augmentations to the human species[?] such as silent communication (or "telepathy"), drastically enhanced senses, increased healing rates, organ or limb regeneration, and the ability to subconciously 'offload' complex processing to networks of molecular computers embedded in the bloodstream or brain, are considered by some to be a long-term potential of new molecules and their application to human medicine - more extreme claims include access to unlimited energy, self-insulating and self-healing 'second skins', and even effective immortality. Even if the molecular engineering itself had no directly harmful side effects, the intentions and actions of humans so augmented would be hard to predict, harder to restrict, and likely to lead to conflict. Some researchers, including Hugo de Garis, predict a "gigadeath war" over the issue of artificial intelligence alone - itself considered an easier goal to achieve than most of the human body augmentation goals. The term "singularity" refers to the uniqueness of the event, and the impossibility of being able to predict events past its horizon.

Controversy over molecular engineering techniques and their applications in medicine, materials, and the military may be following a similar sequence as prior technologies like nuclear power and genetic modificiation: In the beginning, they attract interest for their medical and military potential. Over time, side effects are discovered and concerns about them slowly raised, but in the meantime commercial or political forces spur the research on to new and revolutionary changes. Eventually, the public discovers the implications (atom bombs in the hands of terrorists, human cloning) and strongly objects to the proliferation of the technology. But, by that point, it is simply too late, and substantial effort is required to "put the genie back in the bottle", if that is possible at all.

See also:

protein engineering, genetic modification, weapons of mass destruction, human augmentation[?], technological singularity

External references:

Small Times (http://smalltimes.com)

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