Artificial molecular machine could hold key to more efficient manufacturing (w/ video)

Jan 10, 2013

An industrial revolution on a minute scale is taking place in laboratories at The University of Manchester with the development of a highly complex machine that mimics how molecules are made in nature.

The artificial molecular machine developed by Professor David Leigh FRS and his team in the School of Chemistry is the most advanced molecular machine of its type in the world. Its development has been published in the journal Science.

Professor Leigh explains: "The development of this machine which uses molecules to make molecules in a synthetic process is similar to the robotic in car plants. Such machines could ultimately lead to the process of making molecules becoming much more efficient and cost effective. This will benefit all sorts of manufacturing areas as many manmade products begin at a molecular level. For example, we're currently modifying our machine to make drugs such as penicillin."

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Professor Leigh’s molecular machine is based on the ribosome. It features a functionalized nanometre-sized ring that moves along a molecular track, picking up building blocks located on the path and connecting them together in a specific order to synthesize the desired new molecule. First the ring is threaded onto a molecular strand using copper ions to direct the assembly process. Then a “reactive arm” is attached to the rest of the machine and it starts to operate. The ring moves up and down the strand until its path is blocked by a bulky group. The reactive arm then detaches the obstruction from the track and passes it to another site on the machine, regenerating the active site on the arm. The ring is then free to move further along the strand until its path is obstructed by the next building block. This, in turn, is removed and passed to the elongation site on the ring, thus building up a new molecular structure on the ring. Once all the building blocks are removed from the track, the ring de-threads and the synthesis is over. Credit: Miriam Wilson

The machine is just a few nanometres long (a few millionths of a millimetre) and can only be seen using special instruments. Its creation was inspired by natural complex molecular factories where information from is used to programme the linking of molecular building blocks in the correct order. The most extraordinary of these factories is the ribosome, a massive found in all living cells.

Professor Leigh's machine is based on the ribosome. It features a functionalized nanometre-sized ring that moves along a molecular track, picking up building blocks located on the path and connecting them together in a specific order to synthesize the desired new molecule.

First the ring is threaded onto a molecular strand using to direct the assembly process. Then a "reactive arm" is attached to the rest of the machine and it starts to operate. The ring moves up and down the strand until its path is blocked by a bulky group. The reactive arm then detaches the obstruction from the track and passes it to another site on the machine, regenerating the active site on the arm. The ring is then free to move further along the strand until its path is obstructed by the next building block. This, in turn, is removed and passed to the elongation site on the ring, thus building up a new molecular structure on the ring. Once all the building blocks are removed from the track, the ring de-threads and the synthesis is over.

Professor Leigh says the current prototype is still far from being as efficient as the ribosome: "The can put together 20 building blocks a second until up to 150 are linked. So far we have only used our machine to link together 4 blocks and it takes 12 hours to connect each block. But you can massively parallel the assembly process: We are already using a million million million (1018) of these machines working in parallel in the laboratory to build molecules."

Professor Leigh continues: "The next step is to start using the machine to make sophisticated molecules with more . The potential is for it to be able to make that have never been seen before. They're not made in nature and can't be made synthetically because of the processes currently used. This is a very exciting possibility for the future."

Explore further: Pinpoint laser heating creates a maelstrom of magnetic nanotextures

More information: The paper "Sequence-Specific Peptide Synthesis by an Artificial Small-Molecule Machine" will be published in Science on Friday 11 January.

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winthrom
not rated yet Jan 10, 2013
I wonder if this method can be made efficient enough to create very long double bond pure carbon strings e.g.: c = c = c ... such that extreme mechanical strength is achieved suitable for carbon fiber construction.
flashgordon
not rated yet Jan 10, 2013
Whatever limitations this molecular factory probably has could be fixed by the abundance of other dna-nanotechnologies. Molecular manufacturing seems well on its way this year.
grondilu
not rated yet Jan 10, 2013
Please make your videos work with gnash or provide a download link or something.
RealScience
not rated yet Jan 11, 2013
This is a very impressive feat.
A few decades ago when scientists often acted arrogant toward nature's achievements, I figured that until we could build a ribosome from scratch (without copying nature's design), we had no right to be arrogant, and that after that we'd have enough appreciation not to be arrogant.

A real ribosome uses a three-block base-4 code with 20+ states and grabs an amino acid from the correct Transfer RNA to add to the chain, it runs a million times faster than this, and can build chains at least ten thousand times longer, and cooperates with chaperones to ensure that the resulting protein folds correctly.

We're not there yet, but this is at least a solid start. And with the speed of progress it should take a lot less than hundreds of millions of years, and might even happen within my lifetime!

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