Scientists create world's first 'molecular robot' capable of building molecules

September 20, 2017
Artist's impression of the molecular robot manipulating a molecule. Credit: Stuart Jantzen, biocinematics.com

Scientists at The University of Manchester have created the world's first 'molecular robot' that is capable of performing basic tasks including building other molecules.

The , which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.

Each individual is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt.

The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks.

In the future such robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines. The research will be published in Nature on Thursday 21st September.

Professor David Leigh, who led the research at University's School of Chemistry, explains: 'All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form . Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist.

'It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car. So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level.'

The benefit of having machinery that is so small is it massively reduces demand for materials, can accelerate and improve drug discovery, dramatically reduce power requirements and rapidly increase the miniaturisation of other products. Therefore, the potential applications for molecular robots are extremely varied and exciting.

Prof Leigh says: 'Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible. This is just the start but we anticipate that within 10 to 20 years molecular robots will begin to be used to build molecules and materials on assembly lines in molecular factories.'

Whilst building and operating such tiny machine is extremely complex, the techniques used by the team are based on simple chemical processes.

Prof Leigh added: 'The robots are assembled and operated using chemistry. This is the science of how atoms and molecules react with each other and how larger molecules are constructed from smaller ones.

'It is the same sort of process scientists use to make medicines and plastics from simple chemical blocks. Then, once the nano-robots have been constructed, they are operated by scientists by adding inputs which tell the robots what to do and when, just like a computer program.'

Explore further: A DNA nanorobot is programmed to pick up and sort molecules into predefined regions

More information: Salma Kassem et al, Stereodivergent synthesis with a programmable molecular machine, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature23677

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15 comments

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johnhew
5 / 5 (4) Sep 20, 2017
Dear god, someone might need a new artist. What on earth is the robot arm made out of then?
humy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2017
"...
The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimetre in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm.
..."

There is something extremely fishy about this claim.

A "a millionth of a millimetre" is just one micron.
Fitting a computer circuit brain so small that it can fit into a robot just micron across would mean the circuit would have to be less than one micron across and I am a computer and AI expert and I can tell you that, with our current technology, we cannot even get close to squeezing enough transistors and memory elements into such a minute circuit to 'program' it to do anything meaningful or effective with something like as complex as a robot arm where the circuit would need to analyze and respond to signal input from sensors on the robotic arm; they are talking COMPLETE BOLLOCKS! I am telling you there is something very wrong here!

Perhaps this is a misedit?
humy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2017
Oh hang on; it say;

"..The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist..."

That makes their claim seem not so absurd as if you can direct what the robot does with chemical inputs then you might be able to do away with the memory elements in the circuit controlling the robot and perhaps even the whole circuit! BUT that then would be stretching the meaning of the word "programmed" to breaking point! So I am still a bit suspicious of their claim here.
Parsec
5 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2017
So essentially this is a giant molecule that facilitates the building of specific compounds while not being used up in the process. Isn't that the definition of a catalyst?

To put this entire article into a different context, these guys have figured out how to combine different types of compounds, each of which is specialized to do only one thing, together in such a way that large molecules can be efficiently assembled from scratch using chemicals for energy and different co-catalysts for different effects.

That is unbelievably cool.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2017
Fitting a computer circuit brain so small that it can fit into a robot just micron across would mean the circuit would have to be less than one micron across and I am a computer and AI expert and I can tell you that, with our current technology

Erm...why would the computer brain have to be in the robot? And why would you think it has to be a circuit?

The 'programming' here is done by how the 'robot' is constructed (i.e. it will perform a certain movement based on environmental factors...which can be anything from pH gradients to magnetic/electric fields to chemical gradients. From the linked abstract it seems to be the latter)

Isn't that the definition of a catalyst?

Since it can perform four different actions it's more than a catalyst.


That is unbelievably cool.

Agreed. If this can be extended to true molecular/atomic assembly at reasonable timeframes then (together with disassembly) this will be THE end-all of transformative technologies.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2017
Basically these are artificial enzymes. This is the kind of nanotechnology that people were talking about twenty years ago. It took us this long to do it; there's a long road ahead that will end up with us having command over matter.
humy
2 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2017
Fitting a computer circuit brain so small that it can fit into a robot just micron across would mean the circuit would have to be less than one micron across and I am a computer and AI expert and I can tell you that, with our current technology

Erm...why would the computer brain have to be in the robot?

They CLAIM to be able to 'program' these robots.
How can they 'program' these robots without some sort of 'brain' in the robot?

And why would you think it has to be a circuit?

What would these robot 'brains' in these robots consist of if not a circuit?
humy
1.5 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2017
Basically these are artificial enzymes.

If that is all they are then, as an IA expert, I assert they shouldn't be calling them "robots" but rather just "artificial enzymes" and those two things don't equate at all.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2017
They CLAIM to be able to 'program' these robots.
How can they 'program' these robots without some sort of 'brain' in the robot?

Go to the linked abstract. Programming something just means you prime it to perform a specific function. How you do that isn't specified by the word 'programming'. (There are many things that aren't computer programs that are also called programming, e.g. neuro-linguistic programming)

You're thinking about computer programs. The article does not mention those.

(Important lesson with scientific articles: Read what it says. Not what you *think* it says. Scientific articles are very precise. If something isn't mentioned *explicitly* then it's not in there)

I assert they shouldn't be calling them "robots" but rather just "artificial enzymes" and those two things don't equate at all.

Enzymes only have one function. These robots are multifunctional (i.e. you can program/choose what they should do).
humy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 21, 2017
Enzymes only have one function.

Actually, there are many enzymes that have more than one function (technically we call that "enzyme moonlighting" see https://en.wikipe...lighting ) and even have functions that vary with the organic molecules they are in current contact with. By your loose definition of "programming", why wouldn't that be "programming"? Its a fascinating subject that I have (only informally) studied.
Da Schneib
not rated yet Sep 21, 2017
@humy, I've been thinking of enzymes as natural chemical robots or molecular machines for long enough that I can see merit in both points of view. @anti is right, and the abstract of the article specifically mentions enzymes as examples of similar substances, and the exact method of programming the "molecular robots" referred to in the paper. This appears to me to be more a matter of terminology than function.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2017
By your loose definition of "programming", why wouldn't that be "programming"?

Well, it's not an active choice of the enzyme. The way I read the linked abstract in the article is that one way they 'program' the robot to do a different function is via photoactivation and can also steer transport directions.

enzymes are sort of "you dump them in and then it's fire-and-forget'. What they do here is change behavior based on an external stimulus (i.e. you could actually attach a computer with a photodiode as output to the beaker to change the robot behavior. Which potentially makes this very selective where you can have some robots do one task while other - identical ones - do a different task at the same time within the same substance)
rwoodin3
5 / 5 (1) Sep 23, 2017
"a millionth of a millimetre is just one micron."

No, one millionth of a millimeter is equal to ‎1×10−9 m, which is one nanometer. The critical dimension in integrated circuit manufacturing on 2017 is around 14nm. Researchers have however, created working logic gates around the 1nm scale, in the lab.
nanotech_republika_pl
not rated yet Sep 24, 2017
I've skimmed through the 2 associated articles in this issue of the Nature magazine and here is my take on it. I'm not a chemist so I would love to hear from somebody that understands what they're talking in the paper exactly.

It is not a molecular assembler or a molecular arm as envisaged by Drexler in 90's. It has some highlights of it, but as pointed out by somebody else, we are at least 20 years away from some "Drexler" molecular arm. Despite this great achievement, it shows you how far we are from the true molecular nanotechnology where you can build macroscopic objects atom by atom.)

To my taste it is still unfortunately mostly chemistry rather than mechano-chemistry. This molecule-robot is able to change its conformation by 180 degrees. It carries a substrate that is (can be) built up in 4 different ways depending on which way the molecule-robot is oriented during the sequential steps of the production.
nanotech_republika_pl
not rated yet Sep 24, 2017
All these processes during production: the change in conformation of the molecule-robot, the attachment of the substrate to the base, as well as the change (building up) of the substrate, are chemical processes. If I understand right, the substrate is just brought close enough to the base so the random noise can initiate the reaction. So the substrate is not really pushed mechanically onto the base to initiate the reaction.

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