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Posted: July 31, 2008
Scientists find way to harness nanomotors to engineer nanosystems for transport and assembly
(Nanowerk News) This week’s Nature Nanotechnology
features an invited paper by two preeminent scientists in the field of
nanotechnology, Dr. Anita Goel, 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
"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."
The authors note in their conclusion that the specificity and control of assembly and
transport shown by biological systems offers many opportunities to those interested in
assembly of complex nanosystems. Most importantly, the intricate schemes of
proofreading and damage repair—features that have not yet been realized in any
manmade nanosystems—should provide inspiration for those interested in producing
synthetic systems capable of similarly complex tasks.
The importance of this work is clarified by the fact that techniques for precision control
of nanomotors that read DNA are already being used to engineer integrated systems for
rapid DNA detection and analysis at Nanobiosym Inc. (www.nanobiosym.com).
Dr. Anita Goel ,MD, PhD is the Founder, Chairman, CEO, and Scientific Director of
both Nanobiosym Labs and Nanobiosym Diagnostics, and has been recognized with
numerous awards for her work, including selection as one of the world’s top 35
innovators under the age of 35 in a 2005 edition of MIT’s Technology Review Magazine
and the recipient of the 2006 MIT Global Indus Technovator Award. Dr. Anita Goel is a
Harvard-MIT trained physicist and physician, whose fundamental research work lies at
the interface of physics, medicine, and nanotechnology, with a particular focus on
molecular machines or nanomotors that read and write information into DNA. Her work
at Nanobiosym has been recognized by a number of prestigious funding awards from the
U.S.Department of Defense, U.S. DARPA, U.S. DTRA, and U.S. Department of Energy.
In addition, Dr. Goel is a Fellow of the World Technology Network, an Adjunct
Professor at the Beyond Institute, and an Associate of the Harvard Physics Department,
and founding Chair of SETU (Sanskrit for “bridge”), a multi-disciplinary conference and
think tank housed at Stanford University. In April 2008, Dr. Goel testified as an expert
witness before the Senate Subcommittee on the importance of reauthorization of the
National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Dr. Viola Vogel is a Professor in the Department of Materials heading the Laboratory
for Biologically Oriented Materials at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in
Zürich. After completing her graduate research at the Max-Planck Institute for
Biophysical Chemistry, she received her Ph. D. in Physics at Frankfurt University,
followed by two years as postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Berkeley. As
a faculty member, she joined the Department of Bioengineering at the University of
Washington in 1990 with an adjunct appointment in the Physics Department. She was the
Founding Director of the Center for Nanotechnology at the University of Washington
(‘97-‘03) prior to her move to Switzerland in 2004.