Inventing a new kind of matter

March 24, 2017 by Lawrence Goodman

Imagine a liquid that could move on its own. No need for human effort or the pull of gravity. You could put it in a container flat on a table, not touch it in any way, and it would still flow.

Brandeis researchers report in a new article in Science that they have taken the first step in creating a self-propelling liquid. The finding holds out the promise of developing an entirely new class of fluids that can flow without human or mechanical effort. One possible real-world application: Oil might be able to move through a pipeline without needing to be pumped.

The researchers work at Brandeis' Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), part of a National Science Foundation initiative to create a revolutionary new class of materials and machines made from biological components.

The breakthrough reported in the journal Science was achieved by reproducing in the lab the incredibly complex series of processes that allow to change shape and adapt to their environment. Cells can do this because the building blocks of its scaffolding—hollow cylindrical tubes called microtubules—are capable of self-transformation. The microtubules grow, shrink, bend and stretch, altering the cell's underlying structure.

Credit: Brandeis University

The Brandeis researchers extracted microtubules from a cow's brain and placed them in a watery solution. They then added two other types of molecules found in cells— and adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

The microtubules aligned parallel to each other. A kinesin molecule came between them, connecting them like a tie between rail tracks.

Using the ATP as a fuel source, the kinesin began moving. Its top went in one direction, the bottom in another. The microtubules slid away from each other, and the structure broke apart.

Credit: Brandeis University

But the microtubules didn't remain free-floating for long. New kinesin came along and bound each to a new partner.

As these microtubules came together then separated, amazing, swirling patterns emerged in the fluid. And for the first time ever, the Brandeis team was able to get the swirls to move in the same direction, creating a "coherent flow" that pushed the surrounding liquid forward as well.

This -kinesin-ATP reaction is the same one that goes on in cells, except in cells it is much more complicated. Yet the much more simplified model created by the Brandeis scientists achieved a similar effect. Essentially they harnessed the power of nature to create a microscopic machine capable of pumping fluid.

Explore further: Tiny 'walking' proteins could be used to investigate mechanical deformations in soft materials

More information: Kun-Ta Wu et al. Transition from turbulent to coherent flows in confined three-dimensional active fluids, Science (2017). DOI: 10.1126/science.aal1979

Related Stories

Experiments show hypothesis of microtubule steering accurate

January 23, 2014

Tiny protein motors in cells can steer microtubules in the right direction through branching nerve cell structures, according to Penn State researchers who used laboratory experiments to test a model of how these cellular ...

Molecular motor grows cell's microtubules

October 26, 2015

Motor proteins that pause at the ends of microtubules and produce pushing forces can also stimulate their growth, according to researchers at Penn State. The proteins' function could be a critical component in understanding ...

Recommended for you

6 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

nrauhauser
5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2017
"One possible real-world application: Oil might be able to move through a pipeline without needing to be pumped.'

This article teases with the notion of a perpetual motion machine, but ATP is the energy source. This is an interesting development, but I think quite overstated.
Telekinetic
not rated yet Mar 24, 2017
Reminds me of the movie, "The Blob". This invention is the kind of thing that can evolve into an unstoppable nightmare. Besides, we want to stop pushing oil altogether.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2017
Reminds me of the movie, "The Blob". This invention is the kind of thing that can evolve into an unstoppable nightmare. Besides, we want to stop pushing oil altogether.

Stop oil, maybe...
But what about blood in your capillaries?
"lubricate" (if you will) them and your heart doesn't have to work so hard....:-)
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Mar 25, 2017
"One possible real-world application: Oil might be able to move through a pipeline without needing to be pumped.'

This article teases with the notion of a perpetual motion machine, but ATP is the energy source. This is an interesting development, but I think quite overstated.

Think Schauberger and helicity...:-)
Kinda the same thing...
Osiris1
not rated yet Mar 26, 2017
"The Blob" was a movie about a similar 'fluid'. Did scientists just create it?
CarnSoaks
not rated yet Mar 31, 2017
ATP is "power", the product of glucose oxidation by the cell.
this "work" replaces an electric current or magnetic field in a motor.
Get the above system to work without putting energy in from a different system, then IMPRESSED I would be...
At mo' just applying a current or magnetic field to the fluid, the micro tubules are just moving while there is a source of power.
With this in mind one could build micro pipes complexes w flagella built into the walls, moving / stirring the fluid along towards a pipe end. the walls of pipe supplying atp regularly to power the flagella.

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.