Automated molecular evolution as a tool for nanotechnology

A major nanotechnology challenge in the development of productive nanosystems is the production of molecules to catalyze specific reactions for which no natural catalyst exists. One approach is to use theory to design enzymes, as in the milestone we cited two weeks ago. An alternative is to use molecular evolution to select a molecule with the desired properties. However, this latter approach is very labor intensive. Now lab-on-a-chip technology has been used to automate the evolution of molecules so that this approach might prove useful for nanotech purposes. Excerpts from a news service article written by Ewen Callaway, “‘Darwin chip’ brings evolution into the classroom“:

A new “Darwin chip” could make evolution as easy as pressing play.

Researchers have created an automated device that evolves a biological molecule on a chip filled with hundreds of miniature chambers.

The molecule, which stitches together strands of RNA, became 90 times more efficient after just 70 hours of evolution.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” says Brian Paegel, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, California, who led the study with colleague Gerald Joyce.

…Other researchers have created similar evolution machines, but few as fast and simple as the automated chip. “It’s a big technical advance,” says Jack Szostak, a biochemist at Harvard University. Other labs are likely to follow, he says. “It doesn’t look that difficult to do.”

…Paegel also hopes to use the Darwin chip to make molecules with new chemical properties, not just improved editions of old molecules.

“We took a potato and made a really tasty potato,” says Pagael. “But we would really like to discover broccoli — something completely different.”

An interesting question for molecular nanotechnology and productive nanosystems is, just what types of “broccoli” do we need to evolve? The research was published in an open access paper in PLoS Biology.

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