A press release came out this week, touting an exciting new paper in Nanotechnology Letters in which enzymes from fireflies were combined with nanorods to producing easily tunable light. The release does a pretty good job of explaining the basic science involved in the work (I’ll get to that later), but I found it most notable for the forced way in which it scrapes for importance and meaning to an experiment that is already hugely important. Why, in particular, is chemistry (and its closely-related cousin, materials science) so frequently bound to “real-world” applications, while no one questions the applications of sequencing a genome or detecting the Higgs boson?

But first, why was this nanorod/enzyme science so interesting? It sits at an incredibly ripe threshold between nanotechnology and biotechnology that, from the viewpoint of many scientists, is key to developing a wide array of new technologies. The proteins developed by species over millions of years of evolution are often incredibly efficient at doing challenging chemistry. In particular, when it comes to using light to do chemistry (or vice-versa), we’re still struggling reaching the same levels of efficiency that natural selection has produced.
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