Nobel Prize in Chemistry honours Molecular Machies

nobel-prizeThe 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines”. To understand the significance of their achievements, we’ve put together this little primer for you on the Rise of the Molecular Machines. 

In the world of technology, size matters and smaller is better. The smaller we make technological components, the more powerful and efficient they become. Think about the microchip- the revolutionary invention that condenses all the knowledge of the world into a tiny, hand-held device. 

The miniaturisation of technology has redefined how machines could be used, giving rise to home computers, satellites, particle accelerators and much more. But we are reaching the limits of how small we can make things. So how do we over come this? What’s the next big technological leap?

The ultimate machine

It might sound odd, but nature is the ultimate machine. The molecular machines that nature has installed are a powerhouse of efficiency and versatility. Consider the human body, which starts with DNA that codes for proteins and cells in your body, that assemble together to form organs and bones to create a moving, intelligent entity. Day by day, the biological machines within our bodies – proteins -process food that we eat, fight off infections, transport oxygen and much more. Nature is the master of technology.

When we think about it this way, it’s no surprise that scientists, especially chemists, have found inspiration in nature. In the past, technological pursuits have focused on the top down approach, where big things were made smaller.

But nature works in reverse, starting from the most basic building blocks, like DNA, and assembling up to create large bodies.

Replicating this process has been the goal of chemists who design and create molecular machines. These are machines that have the same functionality as their large-scale counterparts, but all in molecules less than 1 ten thousandth the width of your hair. This is the power of nanotechnology.

Smaller is bigger

While the task of creating molecules that can perform such dynamic feats seems daunting, nature has already provided us with templates. The molecule ATP, the energy currency we all depend on, is synthesised using an enzyme that acts as a rotary motor, while muscle contraction relies upon the sliding and shuttling motions of proteins called actin and myosin. Using these examples, chemists have already designed and developed many molecular machines.

Molecules that rotate like a wheel, shuttle back and forth, operate like a keypad lock and elevate up and down have all been created. The research group I work with created molecular muscles, molecules that can expand and contract like a bicep.

The diversity of movements is vast, with applications limited only by imagination.

Next big leap

Looking to the miniaturisation of computer components for future technology, molecular machines could serve to enhance information storage capacity. Almost all computers work on a binary system, where a series of 1’s and 0’s are the basis for all information.

A molecular muscle, for example, could replicate this functionality where the expanded form is a 0 and the contracted form is a 1. This is taking information storage to the same level as DNA, opening up a whole new information domain.

But beyond the technological world, great advances in almost every conceivable field could be achieved. In the medical sector, molecular machines could be used as carriers to transport drugs to their target site, enhancing drug specificity. Molecular machines could become energy harvesting systems, much like photosynthetic chlorophyll.

These are not pure hypotheticals; they are promising realities that we can expect as we delve deeper into the nano-world.

Chemical prejudice

Molecular machines are in their infancy, but even with the breakthroughs that have come, is the public ready for such innovation?

A few years ago, fears spread over the presence of nanoparticles in sunscreens. In a poll conducted by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, 1 in 4 participants thought it was safer to avoid sunscreen use if nanoparticles were present. While public fears in this case were unfounded, how would the public respond to molecular machines?

Given that nanotechnology is on the scale where people can’t see it and fully appreciate how it might affect their bodies, the fear is justified. However, the terms ‘nanoparticles’, ‘nanotechnology’ and even ‘molecular machines’ are generic.

Demonising all nanotechnology because of a few harmful cases is as bad as considering all food toxic because some people are allergic to peanuts.

Each piece of nanotechnology is unique and must be treated as so. If we halt the investigation of molecular machines and other areas of nanotechnology based purely on chemical prejudice, we halt innovation and scientific growth.

Plenty of room

The world on the molecular machines is beautifully complex. Harnessing nature’s own motifs can bring about a technological revolution on par with the microchip. There is no reason not to explore the world we cannot see and bring out its full potential. To this, we must thank Nobel laureates Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for pioneering this phenomenal new area of chemistry.


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