Scientists draw lessons for nanotechnology from wide range of biological machinery

Biological molecular motors have long been eyed to power nanotech devices. Beyond this potential direct use, a recent review article delineates engineering principles that may prove valuable for engineering complex nanosystems that can be discerned from the molecular mechanisms by which such biological molecular motors operate and are controlled. The review is behind a pay wall at Nature Nanotechnology (abstract), but Nanowerk News provides a brief description “Scientists find way to harness nanomotors to engineer nanosystems for transport and assembly“:

This week’s Nature Nanotechnology features an invited paper by two preeminent scientists in the field of nanotechnology, Dr. Anita Goel [Foresight note: winner of the 1999 Foresight Institute Distinguished Student Award], of Nanobiosym Labs and Department of Physics, Harvard University and Dr. Viola Vogel, of Department of Materials, ETH, Zurich.

The paper outlines a roadmap for harnessing nanomotors for a broad range of applications, ranging from nanoscale sensing, and transport to assembly. It focuses on two broad classes of nanomotors that burn chemical energy to move along linear tracks: assembly nanomotors and transport nanomotors.

“Nature has developed intricate schemes for employing nanomotors,” Dr. Goel stated. “If we look at how the biological machinery of our cells carries out many different functions with a high level of specificity, we can immediately identify a number of engineering principles that can be used to harness these sophisticated molecular machines for applications outside their usual environments.”

The paper outlines how living systems use biological nanomotors to build life’s essential molecules—such as DNA and proteins—as well as to transport cargo inside cells with both spatial and temporal precision. Each motor is highly specialized and carries out a distinct function within the cell. Some have even evolved sophisticated mechanisms to ensure quality control during nanomanufacturing processes, whether to correct errors in biosynthesis or to detect and permit the repair of damaged transport highways.

In general, these nanomotors consume chemical energy in order to undergo a series of shape changes that let them interact sequentially with other molecules. The paper reviews some of the many tasks that biomotors perform and analyzes their underlying design principles from an engineering perspective. Dr. Goel and Dr. Vogel lay out a roadmap for harnessing biomotors outside their usual environments and discuss experiments and strategies to integrate biomotors into synthetic environments for applications such as sensing, transport and assembly.

The paper extracts seven key engineering design principles that enable nanomotors moving along linear templates to perform a myriad of tasks. Equally complex biomimetic tasks have not yet been mastered ex vivo, either by harnessing biological motors or via synthetic analogues.

“These engineering insights into how such tasks are carried out by the biological nanosystems will inevitably inspire new technologies that harness nanomotor-driven processes to build new systems for nanoscale transport and assembly,” Dr. Goel said. Sequential assembly and nanoscale transport, combined with features currently attributed only to biological materials, such as self-repair and healing, might one day become an integral part of future materials and bio-hybrid devices. “Understanding the details of how these little nanomachines convert chemical energy into controlled movements will nevertheless inspire new approaches to engineer synthetic counterparts that could some day be used under harsher conditions, operate at more extreme temperatures, or simply have longer shelf lives.”

If you have institutional access, are a subscriber, or are willing to pay US$32, the review is worth a read. Each of the seven proposed engineering principles is justified by a wealth of knowledge of biological molecular machinery.

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