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Nanotechnology as Portrayed in Video Games - Metal Gear Solid Saga - Part 1
The origins of Nano
Something big (or rather small) started at Caltech University on December 29th, 1959. A lecture was given at the American Physical Society meeting that inspired the conceptual beginnings of a new and fascinating field of study. Physicist Richard Feynman spoke for the first time about the direct manipulation of matter on the atomic scale.
“The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.” – Richard Fynman
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom
In his lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, Feynman considered the possibility of direct manipulation of individual atoms in a highly controlled manner, which would later come to define modern nanotechnology. He toyed with the idea of constructing billions of tiny factories which could build complex nano-sized products, or “swallowing the doctor”, a thought experiment that involved the production of tiny surgical robots that can be ingested and piloted remotely. His ideas took root in the consciousness of great thinkers of the time and continue to grow throughout the rapidly advancing modern field of nanotechnology.
“As soon as I mention this, people tell me about miniaturization, and how far it has progressed today. They tell me about electric motors that are the size of the nail on your small finger. But that's nothing; that's the most primitive… It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.” – Richard Feynman
Nanotechnology in Popular Fiction
In the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage”, a micrometre-sized shrunken submarine is injected into a human to find and destroy a life-threatening blood clot. Since then, nanotechnology has been used frequently in a diverse range of fiction, often as a justification for unusual or far-fetched occurrences, appearing in books (Michael Crichton’s bestseller, Prey), television (Star Trek, Star Gate SG-1), film (The Day the Earth Stood still and I, robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s short story of the same name) and more recently, in video games (System Shock 2, Deus EX and the Metal Gear Solid series). The Metal Gear Solid Saga in particular Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4) focused heavily on the use of nanotechnology, the most of any game I have played. So let's take look at and deconstuct some of the central applications of nanotechnology in Metal Gear and see which are fantasy, and which are not so far-fetched…
First things first - What is nanotechnology?
I think the best way to describe nanotechnology is in terms of its size. Nanotechnology deals with technological products that are smaller than 100 nano meters (nm) in size. That is very small. We are talking 1-100,000 times smaller than a human hair - small. This is in the relm of virial particles, DNA, and protein complexes. And that is just what nature has come up with so far. In the last 20 years, scientists have been producing synthetic nanomaterials for a wide range of applications. Nanomaterials exhibit unique physical and chemical properties, which differ from their properties as a bulk material. That is to say, a bar of gold has remarkably different characteristics (light scattering, absorbance, electical conductance, etc…) than nano-sized gold particles. Weird…
First Generation Nanomachines - Metal Gear Solid 1
With that out of the way, lets talk about Metal Gear Solid. Now as the MGS faithful know, the story can be a tad complex at times. In the interest of time, I will keep the details regarding the plot to a minimum and focus on the application of nanotechnology. Just prior to the Shadow Moses Incident (MGS1), Solid Snake was injected with several different types of nanomachines. These nanomachines were described as being able to supply and administer adrenalin, benzedrine, nutrients, and nootropics (aka “smart drugs”).
One of the most significant uses of nanomaterials thus far, is the application of nanocarriers in drug delivery. Nanoparticles can be designed to encapsulate drugs (micelles, liposomes and nanogels) or directly link them on the surface dendrimers and solid nanoparticles of all shapes and sizes) and have been used to great effect in nanomedicine. The advantage is in the fact that nanocarriers can specifically designed to deliver their pay load to the target site using passive and active targeting systems. For example, in oncology, nanoparticles can be loaded with chemotherapeutics and coated with antibodies that specifically recognise cancer cells, thus delivering the toxic payload preferentially to the target site, reducing off target toxicity (a major concern in cancer chemotherapy). Alternatively, temperature and pH sensitive nanocarriers are beginning to make their way through the development pipe line. Such nanocarriers could respond to changes in the microenvironment and release their cargo on demand. In theory, glucose, adrenaline, and other nutrients could be released from nanoparticles given certain biological cues. Although we aren’t quite there yet, this application of nanotechnology as described in MGS is not too far-fetched.
They also describe a nanomachine able to recharge the battery of Snake’s communication device (Codec). Depending on the chemical makeup of the battery, this technology is also in the realm of possibility. In the same way that nanocarriers can release drug molecules under the right conditions, energy providing molecules or substrates could be released to power the Codec. Even hydrogen atoms can be stably packaged into nanocarriers (fullerenes more specifically), which is an increasingly attractive avenue for the storage of energy.
FOXDIE- Metal Gear Solid 1 and 4
Along with the beneficial nanomachines, Solid Snake was unknowingly injected with the FOXDIE virus, as part of an elaborate revenge plot. FOXDIE is described as a retrovirus that was designed to kill specific people by identifying the person's DNA and causing cardiac arrest. Remember that a virus is considered to be a nanoparticle in its own right. Indeed, many scientists credit viruses as the first ever delivery vehicles and are the inspiration for modern targeted nanocarrier delivery.
FOXDIE supposedly enters macrophages in the target's bloodstream, then binds to specific DNA sequences that it has been programmed to recognize. For this to work properly, you would have to identify a very specific DNA sequence that is only present in the targeted individuals (Liquid Snake, or Kenneth Baker for example) while remaining innocuous to the general population. DNA is normally tightly packed in highly ordered superstructures called chromatin. The DNA is very well protected when stored in this way so it would be very difficult to access the DNA sequence directly. Identification of a specific DNA sequence would be problematic at best. Let’s assume that we could unpack the DNA into a form that could be more easily read. Now what?
Scientists from New York's Columbia University have created nanosized robots that can walk, turn and even create tiny products of their own on a nano-scale assembly line. The nanomachines traverse along a track comprised of DNA. The track exploits DNA's double-helix molecule - a structure of four chemicals that are paired together in rungs. By 'unzipping' the tightly packed DNA, you end up with a track that can be used rather like the teeth in a clockwork mechanism. A cog can move around the teeth, provided it meshes with them. By using strands that correspond to sequences in the track, the robot can be made to walk forward as it is biochemically attracted to the next matching stretch. As it progresses, the nanomachine could scan the DNA sequence, looking for the specific target sequence. In the MGS world, once the target has been identified, the nanomachine could be triggered to release its deadly cargo, killing the host. Back in the real world, the next logical step in this work is to make the spider walk faster (and how to make it more programmable, so that it can follow many commands on the track and make more decisions. In this case, the application of nanotechnology in Metal Gear is still fantasy, but there is a concrete theoretical basis currently being explored.
In the next part, I will focus on Sons of the Patroits, OctoCamo (active camoflague), both major themes in MGS4 and then wrap up our discussion of nanotechnology in Metal Gear. Thanks for reading and check back next week!