Tag Archives: molecular machines

Teaching molecular and synthetic biology in grades K-12

This* story actually started in 2018 with an August 1, 2018 Harvard University news release (h/t Aug. 1, 2018 news item on phys.org) by Leslie Brownell announcing molecular and synthetic biology educational kits that been tested in the classroom. (In 2019, a new kit was released but more about that later.)

As biologists have probed deeper into the molecular and genetic underpinnings of life, K-12 schools have struggled to provide a curriculum that reflects those advances. Hands-on learning is known to be more engaging and effective for teaching science to students, but even the most basic molecular and synthetic biology experiments require equipment far beyond an average classroom’s budget, and often involve the use of bacteria and other substances that can be difficult to manage outside a controlled lab setting.

Now, a collaboration between the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and Northwestern University has developed BioBits, new educational biology kits that use freeze-dried cell-free (FD-CF) reactions to enable students to perform a range of simple, hands-on biological experiments. The BioBits kits introduce molecular and synthetic biology concepts without the need for specialized lab equipment, at a fraction of the cost of current standard experimental designs. The kits are described in two papers published in Science Advances [2018].

“The main motivation in developing these kits was to give students fun activities that allow them to actually see, smell, and touch the outcomes of the biological reactions they’re doing at the molecular level,” said Ally Huang, a co-first author on both papers who is an MIT graduate student in the lab of Wyss Founding Core Faculty member Jim Collins, Ph.D. “My hope is that they will inspire more kids to consider a career in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and, more generally, give all students a basic understanding of how biology works, because they may one day have to make personal or policy decisions based on modern science.”

Synthetic and molecular biology frequently make use of the cellular machinery found in E. coli bacteria to produce a desired protein. But this system requires that the bacteria be kept alive and contained for an extended period of time, and involves several complicated preparation and processing steps. The FD-CF reactions pioneered in Collins’ lab for molecular manufacturing, when combined with innovations from the lab of Michael Jewett, Ph.D. at Northwestern University, offer a solution to this problem by removing bacteria from the equation altogether.

“You can think of it like opening the hood of a car and taking the engine out: we’ve taken the ‘engine’ that drives protein production out of a bacterial cell and given it the fuel it needs, including ribosomes and amino acids, to create proteins from DNA outside of the bacteria itself,” explained Jewett, who is the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology, and co-corresponding author of both papers. This collection of molecular machinery is then freeze-dried into pellets so that it becomes shelf-stable at room temperature. To initiate the transcription of DNA into RNA and the translation of that RNA into a protein, a student just needs to add the desired DNA and water to the freeze-dried pellets.

The researchers designed a range of molecular experiments that can be performed using this system, and coupled each of them to a signal that the students can easily detect with their sense of sight, smell, or touch. The first, called BioBits Bright, contains six different freeze-dried DNA templates that each encode a protein that fluoresces a different color when illuminated with blue light. To produce the proteins, students simply add these DNA templates and water to the FD-CF machinery and put the reactions in an inexpensive incubator (~$30) for several hours, and then view them with a blue light illuminator (~$15). The students can also design their own experiments to produce a desired collection of colors that they can then arrange into a visual image, a bit like using a Light Brite ©. “Challenging the students to build their own in vitro synthetic programs also allows educators to start to talk about how synthetic biologists might control biology to make important products, such as medicines or chemicals,” explained Jessica Stark, an NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Jewett lab at Northwestern University who is co-first author on both papers.

An expansion of the BioBits Bright kit, called BioBits Explorer, includes experiments that engage the senses of smell and touch and allow students to probe their environment using designer synthetic biosensors. In the first experiment, the FD-CF reaction pellets contain a gene that drives the conversion of isoamyl alcohol to isoamyl acetate, a compound that produces a strong banana odor. In the second experiment, the FD-CF reactions contain a gene coding for the enzyme sortase, which recognizes and links specific segments of proteins in a liquid solution together to form a squishy, semi-solid hydrogel, which the students can touch and manipulate. The third module uses another Wyss technology, the toehold switch sensor, to identify DNA extracted from a banana or a kiwi. The sensors are hairpin-shaped RNA molecules designed such that when they bind to a “trigger” RNA, they spring open and reveal a genetic sequence that produces a fluorescent protein. When fruit DNA is added to the sensor-containing FD-CF pellets, only the sensors that are designed to open in the presence of each fruit’s RNA will produce the fluorescent protein.

The researchers tested their BioBits kits in the Chicago Public School system, and demonstrated that students and teachers were able to perform the experiments in the kits with the same success as trained synthetic biology researchers. In addition to refining the kits’ design so that they can one day provide them to classrooms around the world, the authors hope to create an open-source online database where teachers and students can share their results and ideas for ways to modify the kits to explore different biological questions.

“Synthetic biology is going to be one of the defining technologies of the century, and yet it has been challenging to teach the fundamental concepts of the field in K-12 classrooms given that such efforts often require expensive, complicated equipment,” said Collins, who is a co-corresponding author of both papers and also the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering & Science at MIT. “We show that it is possible to use freeze-dried, cell-free extracts along with freeze-dried synthetic biology components to conduct innovative educational experiments in classrooms and other low-resource settings. The BioBits kits enable us to expose young kids, older kids, and even adults to the wonders of synthetic biology and, as a result, are poised to transform science education and society.

“All scientists are passionate about what they do, and we are frustrated by the difficulty our educational system has had in inciting a similar level of passion in young people. This BioBits project demonstrates the kind of out-of-the-box thinking and refusal to accept the status quo that we value and cultivate at the Wyss Institute, and we all hope it will stimulate young people to be intrigued by science,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “It’s exciting to see this project move forward and become available to biology classrooms worldwide and, hopefully some of these students will pursue a path in science because of their experience.”

Additional authors of the papers include Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., Nina Donghia, and Tom Ferrante from the Wyss Institute; Melissa Takahashi, Ph.D. and Aaron Dy from MIT; Karen Hsu and Rachel Dubner from Northwestern University; Keith Pardee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto; and a number of teachers and students in the Chicago school system including: Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Tom Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander Hill, Jemima Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzales, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, and TaRhonda Woods.

This research was supported by the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence Grant, The Defense Threat Reduction Agency Grant, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program, the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, The Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada. [emphases mine]

Well, that list of funding agencies is quite interesting. The US Army and Air Force but not the Navy? As for what the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada is doing on that list, I can only imagine why.

This is what they were doing in 2018,

Now for the latest update, a May 7, 2019 news item on phys.org announces the BioBits Kits have been expanded,

How can high school students learn about a technology as complex and abstract as CRISPR? It’s simple: just add water.

A Northwestern University-led team has developed BioBits, a suite of hands-on educational kits that enable students to perform a range of biological experiments by adding water and simple reagents to freeze-dried cell-free reactions. The kits link complex biological concepts to visual, fluorescent readouts, so students know—after a few hours and with a single glance—the results of their experiments.

A May 7, 2019 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert and received via email) by Amanda Morris, which originated the news item, provides more details,

After launching BioBits last summer, the researchers are now expanding the kit to include modules for CRISPR [clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats] and antibiotic resistance. A small group of Chicago-area teachers and high school students just completed the first pilot study for these new modules, which include interactive experiments and supplementary materials exploring ethics and strategies.

“After we unveiled the first kits, we next wanted to tackle current topics that are important for society,” said Northwestern’s Michael Jewett, principal investigator of the study. “That led us to two areas: antibiotic resistance and gene editing.”

Called BioBits Health, the new kits and pilot study are detailed in a paper published today (May 7 [2019]) in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology.

Jewett is a professor of chemical and biological engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology. Jessica Stark, a graduate student in Jewett’s laboratory, led the study.

Test in a tube

Instead of using live cells, the BioBits team removed the essential cellular machinery from inside the cells and freeze-dried them for shelf stability. Keeping cells alive and contained for an extended period of time involves several complicated, time-consuming preparation and processing steps as well as expensive equipment. Freeze-dried cell-free reactions bypass those complications and costs.

“These are essentially test-tube biological reactions,” said Stark, a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow. “We break the cells open and use their guts, which still contain all of the necessary biological machinery to carry out a reaction. We no longer need living cells to demonstrate biology.”

This method to harness biological systems without intact, living cells became possible over the last two decades thanks to multiple innovations, including many in cell-free synthetic biology by Jewett’s lab. Not only are these experiments doable in the classroom, they also only cost pennies compared to standard high-tech experimental designs.

“I’m hopeful that students get excited about engineering biology and want to learn more,” Jewett said.

Conquering CRISPR

One of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past decade, CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The powerful gene-editing technology uses enzymes to cut DNA in precise locations to turn off or edit targeted genes. It could be used to halt genetic diseases, develop new medicines, make food more nutritious and much more.

BioBits Health uses three components required for CRISPR: an enzyme called the Cas9 protein, a target DNA sequence encoding a fluorescent protein and an RNA molecule that targets the fluorescent protein gene. When students add all three components — and water — to the freeze-dried cell-free system, it creates a reaction that edits, or cuts, the DNA for the fluorescent protein. If the DNA is cut, the system does not glow. If the DNA is not cut, the fluorescent protein is made, and the system glows fluorescent.

“We have linked this abstract, really advanced biological concept to the presence or absence of a fluorescent protein,” Stark said. “It’s something students can see, something they can visually understand.”

The curriculum also includes activities that challenge students to consider the ethical questions and dilemmas surrounding the use of gene-editing technologies.

“There is a lot of excitement about being able to edit genomes with these technologies,” Jewett said. “BioBits Health calls attention to a lot of important questions — not only about how CRISPR technology works but about ethics that society should be thinking about. We hope that this promotes a conversation and dialogue about such technologies.”

Reducing resistance

Jewett and Stark are both troubled by a prediction that, by the year 2050, drug-resistant bacterial infections could outpace cancer as a leading cause of death. This motivated them to help educate the future generation of scientists about how antibiotic resistance emerges and inspire them to take actions that could help limit the emergence of resistant bacteria.
In this module, students run two sets of reactions to produce a glowing fluorescent protein — one set with an antibiotic resistance gene and one set without. Students then add antibiotics. If the experiment glows, the fluorescent protein has been made, and the reaction has become resistant to antibiotics. If the experiment does not glow, then the antibiotic has worked.

“Because we’re using cell-free systems rather than organisms, we can demonstrate drug resistance in a way that doesn’t create drug-resistant bacteria,” Stark explained. “We can demonstrate these concepts without the risks.”

A supporting curriculum piece challenges students to brainstorm and research strategies for slowing the rate of emerging antibiotic resistant strains.

Part of something cool

After BioBits was launched in summer 2018, 330 schools from around the globe requested prototype kits for their science labs. The research team, which includes members from Northwestern and MIT, has received encouraging feedback from teachers, students and parents.

“The students felt like scientists and doctors by touching and using the laboratory materials provided during the demo,” one teacher said. “Even the students who didn’t seem engaged were secretly paying attention and wanted to take their turn pipetting. They knew they were part of something really cool, so we were able to connect with them in a way that was new to them.”

“My favorite part was using the equipment,” a student said. “It was a fun activity that immerses you into what top scientists are currently doing.”


The study, “BioBits Health: Classroom activities exploring engineering, biology and human health with fluorescent readouts,” was supported by the Army Research Office (award number W911NF-16-1-0372), the National Science Foundation (grant numbers MCB-1413563 and MCB-1716766), the Air Force Research Laboratory Center of Excellence (grant number FA8650-15-2-5518), the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (grant number HDTRA1-15-10052/P00001), the Department of Energy (grant number DE-SC0018249), the Human Frontiers Science Program (grant number RGP0015/2017), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (grant number DE-EE008343) and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Program. [emphases mine]

This is an image you’ll find in the abstract for the 2019 paper,

[downloaded from https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381]

Here are links and citations for the 2018 papers and the 2019 paper,

BioBits™ Explorer: A modular synthetic biology education kit by Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Jessica C. Stark, Melissa K. Takahashi, Nina Donghia, Tom Ferrante, Aaron J. Dy, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Keith Pardee, Michael C. Jewett, and James J. Collins. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5105 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5105

BioBits™ Bright: A fluorescent synthetic biology education kit by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Peter Q. Nguyen, Rachel S. Dubner, Karen J. Hsu, Thomas C. Ferrante, Mary Anderson, Ada Kanapskyte, Quinn Mucha, Jessica S. Packett, Palak Patel, Richa Patel, Deema Qaq, Tyler Zondor, Julie Burke, Thomas Martinez, Ashlee Miller-Berry, Aparna Puppala, Kara Reichert, Miriam Schmid, Lance Brand, Lander R. Hill, Jemima F. Chellaswamy, Nuhie Faheem, Suzanne Fetherling, Elissa Gong, Eddie Marie Gonzalzles, Teresa Granito, Jenna Koritsaris, Binh Nguyen, Sujud Ottman, Christina Palffy, Angela Patel, Sheila Skweres, Adriane Slaton, TaRhonda Woods, Nina Donghia, Keith Pardee, James J. Collins, and Michael C. Jewett. Science Advances 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 4, no. 8, eaat5107 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5107

BioBits Health: Classroom Activities Exploring Engineering, Biology, and Human Health with Fluorescent Readouts by Jessica C. Stark, Ally Huang, Karen J. Hsu, Rachel S. Dubner, Jason Forbrook, Suzanne Marshalla, Faith Rodriguez, Mechelle Washington, Grant A. Rybnicky, Peter Q. Nguyen, Brenna Hasselbacher, Ramah Jabri, Rijha Kamran, Veronica Koralewski, Will Wightkin, Thomas Martinez, and Michael C. Jewett. ACS Synth. Biol., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.8b00381 Publication Date (Web): March 29, 2019

Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

Both of the 2018 papers appear to be open access while the 2019 paper is behind a paywall.

Should you be interested in acquiring a BioBits kit, you can check out the BioBits website. As for ‘conguering’ CRISPR, do we really need to look at it that way? Maybe a more humble appraoch could work just as well or even better, eh?

*’is’ removed from sentence on May 9, 2019.

2016 Nobel prize winner introduces anti-aging skincare line

When last mentioned here (Oct. 6, 2016 posting), J. Fraser Stoddart, along with his French colleague Jean-Pierre Sauvage and his Dutch colleague Bernard “Ben” Feringa, had just been awarded a 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing molecular machines. In what seems like an unusual career move, Stoddart has recently introduced a skin care line. From a December 5, 2017 article by Marc S. Reisch for Chemical and Engineering News (c&en), Note: A link has been removed,

In 2016, J. Fraser Stoddart won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his part in designing a molecular machine. Now as chief technology officer and co-founder of nanotechnology firm PanaceaNano, he has introduced the “Noble” line of antiaging cosmetics including a $524 formula described as an “anti-wrinkle repair” night cream. The firm says the cream contains patented Nobel Prize-winning “organic nano-cubes” loaded with ingredients that reverse skin damage and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

Other prize-winning chemists have founded companies, but Stoddart’s backing of the anti-aging cosmetic line takes the promotion of a new company by an award-winning scientist to the next level.

The nano-cubes are made of carbohydrate molecules known as cyclodextrins. The cubes, of various sizes and shapes, release ingredients such as vitamins and peptides onto the skin “at predefined times with molecular precision,” according to the Noble skin care website. PanaceaNano co-founder Youssry Botros, former nanotechnology research director at Intel, contends that the metering technology makes the product line “far superior to comparable products in the market today,” However, the nanocubes aren’t molecular machines, for which Stoddart won his Nobel prize.

A November 27, 2017 PanaceaNano news release on Cision PR Newswire provides more details about the skin care line,

The NOBLE skin care breakthrough technology is based on patented Organic Nano-Cube (ONC) molecules, which are made up of hollow cubes that work as molecular reservoirs to store and release skin care active ingredients in an extended release formulation directly onto the skin in a controlled manner, allowing for continuous skin revitalization, renewal and repair over a longer period of time.

Unlike other products, with ONC, you have more than just extended release. ONC molecules provide tunable release profiles that are engineered for delayed and multiple release of different ingredients that each have their own characteristics. ONC molecules are controllable at a smaller nano-scale to better control the individual molecular ingredients. NOBLE is “Skin Care with Molecular Precision” because ONC molecules really control the release of active skin care ingredients at the molecular level, instead of just putting the ingredients in a macroscopic slow-release matrix like other products in the market today.

“This molecular precision enables the NOBLE luxury skin care product line to reduce visible signs of aging more effectively by precisely releasing the anti-aging ingredients for over a longer period. Because of the revolutionary ONC technology, NOBLE has a much longer duration of anti-aging benefit with continuous and steady efficacy, making it far superior to comparable products in the market today,” says Dr. Youssry Botros, PanaceaNano Co-founder and CEO. “Other skin care brands have immediate release formulations whose active ingredients are often depleted immediately. NOBLE products are clinically proven to reverse and slow down skin aging.”

NOBLE skin care products will immediately start working on the skin. Most consumers notice relatively visible results within two weeks, while significant results are observed by most consumers after 10 to 12 weeks.

“It is an exciting moment to witness the birth of commercial products that improve the quality of life of people based on renewable, safe, organic, bio-degradable functional nanomaterials,” stated Sir Fraser.

For additional information, please go to www.noble-skincare.com

Noble/Nobel? Was someone indulging in word play?

According to the Noble skin care product page, costs range from $249. for .5 oz of anti-aging eye cream to $524 for 1.7 oz of anti-wrinkle repair cream, presumably in US dollars. Note: I am not endorsing this product as I have not used it.

For anyone interested in the parent company, PanaceaNano can be found here.

Bob McDonald: How is Canada on the ‘forefront of pushing nanotechnology forward’?

Mr. Quirks & Quarks, also known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Bob McDonald, host of the science radio programme Quirks & Quarks, published an Oct. 9, 2016 posting on the programme’s CBC blog about the recently awarded 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Canada’s efforts in the field of nanotechnology (Links have been removed),

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week for developments in nanotechnology heralds a new era in science, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic induction 185 years ago. And like electricity, nanotechnology could influence the world in dramatic ways, not even imaginable today.

The world’s tiniest machines

The Nobel Laureates developed molecular machines, which are incredibly tiny devices assembled one molecule at a time, including a working motor, a lifting machine, a micro-muscle, and even a four wheel drive vehicle, all of which can only be seen with the most powerful electron microscopes. While these lab experiments are novel curiosities, the implications are huge, and Canada is on the forefront of pushing this research forward. [emphasis mine]

McDonald never explains how Canadians are pushing nanotechnology research further but there is this (Note: Links have been removed),

Many universities offer degree programs on the subject while organizations such as the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are conducting fundamental research on these new novel materials.

Somehow he never mentions any boundary-pushing research. hmmm

To be blunt, it’s very hard to establish Canada’s position in the field since ‘nanotechnolgy research’ as such doesn’t exist here in the way it does in the United States, Korea, Iran, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, and others. It’s not a federally coordinated effort in Canada despite the fact that we have a Canada National Research Council (NRC) National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Alberta. (There’s very little information about research on the NINT website.) A Government of Canada NanoPortal is poorly maintained and includes information that is seriously out-of-date. One area where Canadians have been influential has been at the international level where we’ve collaborated on a number of OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development) projects focused on safety (occupational and environmental, in particular) issues.

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology project that appeared promising, hasn’t made many research announcements and seems to be a provincial (Alberta) initiative rather than a federal one. In fact, the most activity in the field of nanotechnology research has been at the provincial level with Alberta and Québec in the lead, if financial investment is your primary measure, and Ontario following, then the other provinces trailing from behind. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across any nanotechnology research from the Yukon or other parts North.

With regard to research announcements, the situation changes and you have Québec and Ontario assuming the lead positions with Alberta following. As McDonald noted, the University of Waterloo has a major nanotechnology education programme and the University of Toronto seems to have a very active research focus in that field (Ted Sargent and solar cells and quantum dots) and the University of Guelph is known for its work in agriculture and nanotechnolgy (search this blog using any of the three universities as a search term). In Québec, they’ve made a number of announcements about cutting edge research. You can search this blog for the names Sylvain Martel, Federico Rosei, and Claude Ostiguy (who seems to work primarily in French), amongst others. CelluForce, based in Quebec, and once  a leader (not sure about the situation these days) in the production of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). One side comment, CNC was first developed at the University of British Columbia, however, Québec showed more support (provincial funding) and interest and the bulk of that research effort moved.

There’s one more shout out and that’s for Blue Goose Biorefineries in the province of Saskatchewan, which sells CNC and offers services to help companies  research applications for the material.

One other significant area of interest comes to mind, the graphite mines in Québec and Ontario which supply graphite flakes used to produce graphene, a material that is supposed to revolutionize electronics, in particular.

There are other research efforts and laboratories in Canada but these are the institutions and researchers with which I’m most familiar after more than eight years of blogging about Canadian nanotechnology. That said, if I’ve missed any significant, please do let me know in the comments section of this blog.

2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize for molecular machines

Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 was the day three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on molecular machines, according to an Oct. 5, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday [Oct. 5, 2016] for developing the world’s smallest machines, 1,000 times thinner than a human hair but with the potential to revolutionize computer and energy systems.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Scottish-born Fraser Stoddart and Dutch scientist Bernard “Ben” Feringa share the 8 million kronor ($930,000) prize for the “design and synthesis of molecular machines,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

Machines at the molecular level have taken chemistry to a new dimension and “will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems,” the academy said.

Practical applications are still far away—the academy said molecular motors are at the same stage that electrical motors were in the first half of the 19th century—but the potential is huge.

Dexter Johnson in an Oct. 5, 2016 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) provides some insight into the matter (Note: A link has been removed),

In what seems to have come both as a shock to some of the recipients and a confirmation to all those who envision molecular nanotechnology as the true future of nanotechnology, Bernard Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and Sir J. Fraser Stoddart have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of molecular machines.

The Nobel Prize was awarded to all three of the scientists based on their complementary work over nearly three decades. First, in 1983, Sauvage (currently at Strasbourg University in France) was able to link two ring-shaped molecules to form a chain. Then, eight years later, Stoddart, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., demonstrated that a molecular ring could turn on a thin molecular axle. Then, eight years after that, Feringa, a professor at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, built on Stoddardt’s work and fabricated a molecular rotor blade that could spin continually in the same direction.

Speaking of the Nobel committee’s selection, Donna Nelson, a chemist and president of the American Chemical Society told Scientific American: “I think this topic is going to be fabulous for science. When the Nobel Prize is given, it inspires a lot of interest in the topic by other researchers. It will also increase funding.” Nelson added that this line of research will be fascinating for kids. “They can visualize it, and imagine a nanocar. This comes at a great time, when we need to inspire the next generation of scientists.”

The Economist, which appears to be previewing an article about the 2016 Nobel prizes ahead of the print version, has this to say in its Oct. 8, 2016 article,

BIGGER is not always better. Anyone who doubts that has only to look at the explosion of computing power which has marked the past half-century. This was made possible by continual shrinkage of the components computers are made from. That success has, in turn, inspired a search for other areas where shrinkage might also yield dividends.

One such, which has been poised delicately between hype and hope since the 1990s, is nanotechnology. What people mean by this term has varied over the years—to the extent that cynics might be forgiven for wondering if it is more than just a fancy rebranding of the word “chemistry”—but nanotechnology did originally have a fairly clear definition. It was the idea that machines with moving parts could be made on a molecular scale. And in recognition of this goal Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science this week decided to award this year’s Nobel prize for chemistry to three researchers, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, who have never lost sight of nanotechnology’s original objective.

Optimists talk of manufacturing molecule-sized machines ranging from drug-delivery devices to miniature computers. Pessimists recall that nanotechnology is a field that has been puffed up repeatedly by both researchers and investors, only to deflate in the face of practical difficulties.

There is, though, reason to hope it will work in the end. This is because, as is often the case with human inventions, Mother Nature has got there first. One way to think of living cells is as assemblies of nanotechnological machines. For example, the enzyme that produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—a molecule used in almost all living cells to fuel biochemical reactions—includes a spinning molecular machine rather like Dr Feringa’s invention. This works well. The ATP generators in a human body turn out so much of the stuff that over the course of a day they create almost a body-weight’s-worth of it. Do something equivalent commercially, and the hype around nanotechnology might prove itself justified.

Congratulations to the three winners!

A 244-atom submarine powered by light

James Tour lab researchers at Rice University announce in a Nov. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Though they’re not quite ready for boarding a lá “Fantastic Voyage,” nanoscale submarines created at Rice University are proving themselves seaworthy.

Each of the single-molecule, 244-atom submersibles built in the Rice lab of chemist James Tour has a motor powered by ultraviolet light. With each full revolution, the motor’s tail-like propeller moves the sub forward 18 nanometers.
And with the motors running at more than a million RPM, that translates into speed. Though the sub’s top speed amounts to less than 1 inch per second, Tour said that’s a breakneck pace on the molecular scale.

“These are the fastest-moving molecules ever seen in solution,” he said.

Expressed in a different way, the researchers reported this month in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters that their light-driven nanosubmersibles show an “enhancement in diffusion” of 26 percent. That means the subs diffuse, or spread out, much faster than they already do due to Brownian motion, the random way particles spread in a solution.

While they can’t be steered yet, the study proves molecular motors are powerful enough to drive the sub-10-nanometer subs through solutions of moving molecules of about the same size.

“This is akin to a person walking across a basketball court with 1,000 people throwing basketballs at him,” Tour said.

A Nov. 16, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides context and details about the research,

Tour’s group has extensive experience with molecular machines. A decade ago, his lab introduced the world to nanocars, single-molecule cars with four wheels, axles and independent suspensions that could be “driven” across a surface.

Tour said many scientists have created microscopic machines with motors over the years, but most have either used or generated toxic chemicals. He said a motor that was conceived in the last decade by a group in the Netherlands proved suitable for Rice’s submersibles, which were produced in a 20-step chemical synthesis.

“These motors are well-known and used for different things,” said lead author and Rice graduate student Victor García-López. “But we were the first ones to propose they can be used to propel nanocars and now submersibles.”

The motors, which operate more like a bacteria’s flagellum than a propeller, complete each revolution in four steps. When excited by light, the double bond that holds the rotor to the body becomes a single bond, allowing it to rotate a quarter step. As the motor seeks to return to a lower energy state, it jumps adjacent atoms for another quarter turn. The process repeats as long as the light is on.

For comparison tests, the lab also made submersibles with no motors, slow motors and motors that paddle back and forth. All versions of the submersibles have pontoons that fluoresce red when excited by a laser, according to the researchers. (Yellow, sadly, was not an option.)

“One of the challenges was arming the motors with the appropriate fluorophores for tracking without altering the fast rotation,” García-López said.

Once built, the team turned to Gufeng Wang at North Carolina State University to measure how well the nanosubs moved.

“We had used scanning tunneling microscopy and fluorescence microscopy to watch our cars drive, but that wouldn’t work for the submersibles,” Tour said. “They would drift out of focus pretty quickly.”

The North Carolina team sandwiched a drop of diluted acetonitrile liquid containing a few nanosubs between two slides and used a custom confocal fluorescence microscope to hit it from opposite sides with both ultraviolet light (for the motor) and a red laser (for the pontoons).

The microscope’s laser defined a column of light in the solution within which tracking occurred, García-López said. “That way, the NC State team could guarantee it was analyzing only one molecule at a time,” he said.

Rice’s researchers hope future nanosubs will be able to carry cargoes for medical and other purposes. “There’s a path forward,” García-López said. “This is the first step, and we’ve proven the concept. Now we need to explore opportunities and potential applications.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Unimolecular Submersible Nanomachines. Synthesis, Actuation, and Monitoring by Víctor García-López, Pinn-Tsong Chiang, Fang Chen, Gedeng Ruan, Angel A. Martí, Anatoly B. Kolomeisky, Gufeng Wang, and James M. Tour. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b03764 Publication Date (Web): November 5, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is an illustration of the 244-atom submersible,

Rice University scientists have created light-driven, single-molecule submersibles that contain just 244 atoms. Illustration by Loïc Samuel

Rice University scientists have created light-driven, single-molecule submersibles that contain just 244 atoms. Illustration by Loïc Samuel

University of Windsor (Canada) chemists and molecular machines

Thanks to Instapundit (June 30, 2012 item) for the heads up regarding work being done at the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada) by a team of chemists led by Nick Vukotic.

The University of Windsor News Daily’s June 16, 2012 item provides more detail (Note: I have removed links),

A graduate student and his team of researchers have turned the chemistry world on its ear by becoming the first ever to prove that tiny interlocked molecules can function inside solid materials, laying the important groundwork for the future creation of molecular machines.

“Until now, this has only ever been done in solution,” explained Chemistry & Biochemistry PhD student Nick Vukotic, lead author on a front page article recently published in the June issue of the journal Nature Chemistry. “We’re the first ones to put this into a solid state material.”

Here’s how they do it (from the UW June 16, 2012 item [links removed]),

The material Vukotic is referring to is UWDM-1, or University of Windsor Dynamic Material, a powdery substance that the team made which contains rotaxane molecules and binuclear copper centers.  The rotaxane molecules, which resemble a wheel around the outside of an axle, were synthesised in their lab. The group found that heating of these rotaxane molecules with a copper source resulted in the formation of a crystalline material which contained structured arrangement of the rotaxane molecules, spaced out by the binuclear copper centers.

“Basically, they self-assemble in to this arrangement,” said Vukotic, who works under the tutelage of chemistry professor Steve Loeb. Other team members include professor Rob Schurko, and post-doctoral fellows Kristopher Harris and Kelong Zhu.

Heating the material causes the wheels to rapidly rotate around the axles, while cooling the material causes the wheels to stop, he said. The entire process can’t be viewed with a microscope, so the motion was confirmed in Dr. Schurko’s lab using a process called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

“You can actually measure the motion and you can do it unambiguously by placing an isotopic tag on the ring,” explained Dr. Harris, who helped oversee that verification process.

This image may help you better visualize these molecular machines,

This schematic shows how the various elements assemble themselves into mechanically interlocked molecules. (Courtesy University of Windsor)

James Lewis over at the Foresight Institute blog, where they have a very strong interest in molecular machines, commented in a June 26, 2012 posting,

A key component of exploratory engineering studies for molecular manufacturing or productive nanosystems is the ability to model molecular systems reliably. Modeling motions of molecules in solution is very difficult. A method to produce molecular machines in a solid state environment is a huge step forward.