Bradley Nelson

We learned of the existence of bacteria over 300 years ago, and we have far more of them in our bodies than human cells, but it was less than 40 years ago when we first realized how they swim. With the discovery of the rotary motor of E. coli in 1973, a motor just 45 nanometers in diameter, some claimed this incredible mechanism as evidence of God, though it is really just a step along the path of evolution. Now we can actually build nanorobots that swim similar to bacteria like E. coli. We’re working to use these to deliver drugs to specific locations in the body. E. coli itself is a kind of robot, it has sensors (chemoreceptors), motors, communication along protein guided pathways, and software (DNA). When you look at a bacterium from this perspective, it seems like a machine, one that we will be hopefully able to duplicate someday. So if bacteria are really just machines, then what are we?


Brad Nelson is the Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zürich, where his primary research focus is on microrobotics and nanorobotics with an emphasis on applications in biology and medicine. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Minnesota and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked at Honeywell and Motorola and served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, Africa. He was a professor at the University of Illiois at Chicago and the University of Minnesota before joining ETH in 2002.

Prof. Nelson was named to the 2005 “Scientific American 50,” Scientific American magazine’s annual list recognizing fifty outstanding acts of leadership in science and technology from the past year for his efforts in nanotube manufacturing. His lab won the 2007 and 2009 RoboCup Nanogram Competition, both times the event has been held, in which micrometer size robots competed in soccer. His lab appears in the 2012 Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Advanced Mini Robot for Medical Use.” He serves on the editorial boards of several journals, has chaired several international workshops and conferences, has served as the head of the ETH Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering, the Chairman of the ETH Electron Microscopy Center (EMEZ), and is a member of the Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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