Scientists build working model of life's engine

January 31, 2012 By Robert Perkins
Research associate Shayantani Mukherjee and USC Dornsife professor Arieh Warshel liken the rotation of F1-ATPase to that of a fan.

( -- Researchers at the University of Southern California have built a theoretical working model of the cellular engine that powers all life.

The will allow scientists to better understand the forces of life at the molecular level and potentially replicate them, including designing miniscule mechanical motors for and nanorobots. The work was published online last month in .

“We were able to take a system that is very complicated and reproduce the crucial action in the system,” said Arieh Warshel, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry in USC Dornsife. “We still have a lot of questions, but this is clearly a large step toward understanding the action of such ubiquitous engines in living systems.”

The body’s cellular engine is a protein molecule whose rotation generates the universal “fuel” — adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — that powers processes in living cells. The 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the scientists who elucidated the structure of this protein and outlined the principles of how it may operate.

The protein rotates, drawing in raw materials and synthesizing them into ATP. This fuel-generating engine can be divided into two parts, one of which is a rotating piece called F1-ATPase.

Warshel and research associate Shayantani Mukherjee built a computer-generated model of F1-ATPase that was remarkably successful at replicating the essential physical forces underlying the workings of the engine, mirroring the cellular motor’s unique unidirectional rotation.

Previous attempts to build such models relied on complex systems in which every atom was represented — making it difficult to determine why the motor is working, Warshel said.

Instead, Warshel and Mukherjee took a bare-bones approach, simplifying the structure — a strategy known in the computational biology world as “coarse-graining.”

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler,” Warshel said.

Their simplified model rotated in the same manner as F1-ATPase, even pausing at exactly the same places. It also provided the clearest description yet of how the chemical energy of the ATP is used to rotate the motor and why the motor actually works.

Explore further: Scientists solve mystery of how largest cellular motor protein powers movement

Related Stories

NIH grant ratchets up ASU research in molecular motors

May 30, 2011

Empowered by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Arizona State University scientist Wayne Frasch is deciphering how one of the world’s smallest molecular motors works in living cells. In ...

Deciphering the mechanism of an ion pump

December 16, 2011

From an analysis of the sodium-transporting vacuolar ATPases (V-ATPases) of the bacterium Enterococcus hirae, Takeshi Murata of the RIKEN Systems and Structural Biology Center, Yokohama, and colleagues recently obtained valuable ...

Scientists pioneer new method for watching proteins fold

December 22, 2011

( -- A protein’s function depends on both the chains of molecules it is made of and the way those chains are folded. And while figuring out the former is relatively easy, the latter represents a huge challenge ...

Scientists create first 3-D map of human genome

January 4, 2012

( -- For the first time, scientists have developed a method for generating accurate three-dimensional models of the entire DNA strand of a cell, known as a genome.

Recommended for you

Winter season reverses outcome of fruit fly reproduction

November 24, 2015

Male fruit flies could find their chances of fathering offspring radically reduced if they are last in the queue to mate with promiscuous females before winter arrives, according to new University of Liverpool research.

New insight into leaf shape diversity

November 24, 2015

Many of us probably remember the punnett squares by which we were introduced to the idea of genetic inheritance in school: a dominant allele in each of my brown-eyed parents hides a recessive allele that explains my blue ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.