Shuttles - whether the space shuttle, an airport shuttle bus, or a loom shuttle - basically do one thing: they transport cargo (astronauts, passengers, thread) from one point to another on a controlled route. Although not always called shuttles, the basic concept is critical to modern transportation systems and is used by nearly every society. The concept of the shuttle has been used for centuries from Egyptian barges to Roman railways and canals. Even before these inventions, however, nature employed molecular shuttles in biological organisms. In molecular shuttles, kinesin proteins propel cargo (such as organelles) along hollow tubes called microtubules. Cells use these motors to transport cargo to highly specific destinations, in order to regulate levels of macromolecules and processes, much like a train along a track. Using biological motors to transport and precisely distribute cargo requires a clear understanding of how molecular shuttles pick up and deliver specific payload. However, scientists are challenged by the need to better control the interactions along the route so that the cargo remains on the line when not needed, but when it is needed, can be picked up and transported to a specific location. Researchers in Switzerland have now built nanoscale cargo loading stations and shuttles, an important step towards assembly lines for nanotechnology.
Hands-on nanotechnology: towards a nanorobotic assembly line
(Nanowerk Spotlight) Until the twentieth century, a single craftsman or team of craftsmen would normally create each part of an industrial product individually and assemble them together into a single item, making changes in the parts so that they would fit together and work together; the so-called English System of manufacture. Then Henry Ford came along and in 1907-08 developed the assembly line for his Model T automobile. This innovation revolutionized not only industry but also our society because it allowed mass production of industrial goods at much lower cost than before. At its core, an assembly line is a manufacturing process in which interchangeable parts are added to a product in a sequential manner to create a finished product. Nanotechnology techniques today are pretty much where the industrial world was before Ford's assembly line - a domain of craftsmen and not of mass production. It has long been a dream for nanotechnologists that robots could one day be used in a similar way to produce nanodevices. A group of researchers from Denmark and Germany have now developed the rudimentary beginnings of the nanotechnology equivalent of an assembly line. They have shown 'pick-and-place' assembly of a working device using a silicon gripper - a robotic 'hand' some 10000 times smaller than a human hand. This nanogripper, controlled by a nanorobotic arm, is capable of picking up a carbon nanofiber (CN) and fix it onto the tip of an atomic force microscope cantilever.
The human body so far is the ultimate 'wet computer' - a highly efficient, biomolecule-based information processor that relies on chemical, optical and electrical signals to operate. Researchers are trying various routes to mimic some of the body's approaches to computing. Prominent among them is DNA computing, a form of computing which uses DNA and molecular biology instead of the traditional silicon-based computer technologies (see our Spotlight: "Molecular automaton plays tic-tac-toe"). Not limited to DNA, "gooware" computer scientists attempt to exploit the computational capabilities of molecules. In doing so, they expect to realize faster (massively parallel), smaller (nanoscale), and cost efficient (energy-saving) information processing devices that are very distinct from today's silicon-based computers.
Science fiction style robots like Star Wars' R2-D2 or the NS-5 model in I, Robot firmly belong into the realm of Hollywood - and so do "nanobots" a la Michael Crichton's Prey. Staying with both feet firmly on scientific ground, robotics can be defined as the theory and application of robots, a completely self-contained electronic, electric, or mechanical device, to such activities as manufacturing. Scale that robot down to a few billionth of a meter and you are talking nanotechnology robotics; nanorobotics in short. The field of nanorobotics brings together several disciplines, including nanofabrication processes used for producing nanoscale robots, nanoactuators, nanosensors, and physical modeling at nanoscales. Nanorobotic manipulation technologies, including the assembly of nanometer-sized parts, the manipulation of biological cells or molecules, and the types of robots used to perform these tasks also form a component of nanorobotics. Nanorobotics might one day even lead to the holy grail of nanotechnology where automated and self-contained molecular assemblers not only are capable of building complex molecules but build copies of themselves - "self-replication" - or even complete everyday products (this vision is nicely illustrated in the clip "Productive Nanosystems: From Molecules to Superproducts"). Whether this will ever happen is hotly debated - to understand where both sides stand, read the famous 2003 debate where Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against molecular assemblers. Today's nanorobotics research deals with more mundane issues such as how to build nanoscale motors and simple nanomanipulators.
The invention of the wheel was one of the most significant events in human history. It has been at the origin of major scientific and technological developments: from the creation of astronomical clocks or calculating machines to motor-drawn vehicles and other motor cars. At the molecular scale, the smallest at which a wheel can be created, it represents a major challenge for chemists and physicists. For years, scientists have been working on the design of molecular machines equipped with wheels. After observing the random rotation of a flat molecular wheel in 1998, designing and synthesizing a mono-molecular wheelbarrow in 2003 and then synthesizing a molecular motor in 2005, a European group of researchers managed to operate the first molecular rack with a pinion of 1.2 nm in diameter. They controlled the rotation of a 0.7 nm diameter wheel attached to a 0.6 nm-long axle in a molecule. This molecular 'wheel' could revolutionize machinery built at the nanoscale. Nanowheel rotation has been claimed before, but never shown directly.
It's not quite like in Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage, where five people travel in a submarine inside a person's blood stream, but scientists have talked for quite some time about micro and nanorobotic devices that can travel inside the human body and carry out a host of complex medical procedures such as monitoring, drug delivery and cell repair. Recent developments in micro- and nanoscale engineering have led to realization of various miniature mobile robots. It turns out that the most significant bottleneck for further miniaturization of mobile robots down to micrometer scale is the miniaturization of the on-board actuators and power sources required for mobility. Nature has already provided remarkable solutions to this problem by evolving chemically powered molecular motors. Such biomotors seem to be one of the most promising choices for on-board actuation. They are advantageous over man-made actuators because they are much smaller in size and are capable of producing more complicated motions. More importantly, they convert chemical energy to mechanical energy very efficiently. However, the major drawback of biomotors is that isolating and reconstituting them are complicated tasks with low yield and it is difficult to interface them with electronic circuitry. This has led scientists to successfully experiment with a new approach by using flagellar motors (the propulsion system of bacteria), still inside the intact cells, as actuators.
The success of nanorobotics requires the precise placement and subsequent operation of specific nanomechanical devices at particular locations, thereby leading to a diversity of structural states. The structural programmability of DNA makes it a particularly attractive system for nanorobotics. A large number of DNA-based nanomechanical devices have been described, controlled by a variety of methods. These include pH changes and the addition of other molecular components, such as small molecule effectors, proteins and DNA strands. The most versatile of these devices are those that are controlled by DNA strands. This versatility results because they can be addressed specifically by strands with particular sequences. Researchers at New York University have developed a framework that contains a binding site – a cassette – that allows insertion of a rotary device into a specific site of a DNA array, allowing for the motion of a nanorobotic arm. Changing the cassette’s control sequences or insertion sequences allows the researchers to manipulate the array or insert it at different locations.
A large number of DNA-based nanomechanical devices have been described, controlled by a variety of methods: These include pH changes and the addition of other molecular components, such as small molecule effectors, proteins and DNA strands. The most versatile of these devices are those that are controlled by DNA strands: This versatility results because they can be addressed specifically by strands with particular sequences; these strands can be added to the solution directly, or perhaps they can result from another process ongoing within the local environment. Researchers have now shown that the state of a DNA-based nanomechanical device can be controlled by RNA strands, which means that nanomechanical devices could potentially be run from transcriptionally derived RNA molecules.