A year on, and the second Materials Today supplement on nanotechnology is published. So what has changed in the last year? There has, of course, been a huge amount of nanoscale research from biology to materials science. Funding around the world of nano-related research has soared and looks set to continue. New ‘nanoscale’ facilities are popping up across the globe. The picture has been a little less rosy in the commercial world, with the much-hyped initial public offering of Nanosys unceremoniously pulled in August. But the most significant new trend is surely the emergence of concerns about the potential health, environmental, and societal impacts of nanoscience and technology.

Some of these concerns are nothing new. The ‘gray goo’ myth has been around nearly as long as nanotechnology itself. Michael Crichton's 2002 novel Prey only served to propagate the idea of miniature bad guys set to take over the world. More recently, ETC Group and Greenpeace waded into the fray, with the former calling for a moratorium on nano-related research until concerns about the possible health and environmental impact of nanotechnology are addressed and the latter, in a more measured response, for a responsible approach in developing nanotechnology. While there is a body of evidence pointing to the detrimental health effects of ‘accidental’ micro- and nanoscale particles arising from combustion and vehicle exhausts, it has become apparent that there is very little data on engineered nanoparticles.

But emerging research in recent years paints a potentially worrisome picture. Studies have indicated that nanoparticles administered to the lung can produce more adverse effects (such as inflammation and subsequent tumors) than chemically identical larger particles [see Warheit, D., Materials Today (2004) 7 (2), 32]. Research by Günter Oberdörster, a toxicologist at the University of Rochester, has indicated that inhaled ultrafine carbon black particles can end up in the brain. On the other hand, there are so many different nanoscale particles and materials now being developed with varying properties and functionalities that it is impossible to make sweeping generalizations. While some nanoscale materials may turn out to be toxic, others will certainly be benign. The only certainty is that more research is needed.

That, I think, is the biggest change in the last year. Far from dismissing concerns regarding the potential hazards of nanotechnologies, the scientific community has embraced the debate. In the UK, at the behest of the government, a high-profile report was undertaken by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering into the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology. While the committee concluded that there was no need for a moratorium on nano-related research, the report did recommend proceeding with caution. The report also identified a number of significant gaps: in existing toxicological data, in current regulations, and in public awareness. Coming back to where this discussion began, without an informed public dialogue on the future direction of nanotechnology, the field could end up in another genetically modified foods minefield.

But there is some good news! For further coverage of these nano-related issues and more, you will not have to wait another year for the next Materials Today supplement. In 2005, we will be publishing three Nano Today supplements in the spring, summer, and fall focusing on emerging research and the issues surrounding this exciting area. Don't miss out!

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00603-0