Carpenters use dead trees to build furniture and houses - most people probably agree that wood furniture and houses were a big improvement over stone tables, caves, and mud huts. People also intuitively appreciate that the use of wood in housing is entirely technological - nature never anticipated the ubiquitous two- by-four. The greatest advance in my field, nanotechnology, was Ned Seeman’s realisation that we could use DNA the way a carpenter uses wood: that DNA doesn’t just have to assume the form of a linear double helix, that DNA can branch and form joints, and that DNA joints can be used to create an endless variety of nano-sized architectures for technology, from (hopefully) smaller electronic circuits to factories of miniscule machines. My bet is that if we succeed in building a mature nanotechnology, one with injectable surgical nanorobots and automobiles grown from tiny seeds, Ned Seeman’s invention of ‘Structural DNA nanotechnology’ will have played a major role.
More generally, I would cite the computer as the human race’s most important innovation. One could trace this amazing invention back through time, through twentieth century mathematicians like Turing and Von Neumann to the medieval Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, but really it was invented by nature, hundreds of millions of years ago in the form of the nervous system. The human neural computer sitting atop our shoulders, together with the electronic and eventually molecular computers that it will build, are the foundation for all future innovation.
Dr. Paul W K Rothemund is a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology and the inventor of ‘scaffolded DNA origami,’ a method to make arbitrary nanoscale shapes and patterns. Winner of the 2006 Feynman prizes in theory and experiment. Winner of the 2006 World Technology Network prize in Biotechnology.