How Scientists Are Hacking Biology to Build at the Molecular Scale

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How Scientists Are Hacking Biology to Build at the Molecular Scale

Post by Ria on Sat May 21, 2016 11:41 am

How Scientists Are Hacking Biology to Build at the Molecular Scale

The long vision of nanotechnology suggests tiny robot “assemblers” will swarm unseen in the air, water, and even our bodies, building anything from the atoms up. It's a wild thought and still (mostly) a dream. But looked at a bit differently, these nanoassemblers are already here, and we call them “life.” Basic organic machinery is ceaselessly pulling in raw materials and building (molecule by molecule) cells, organs, and bodies—from hearts to brains, ants to blue whales.

Of course, we love to draw analogies between our inventions and the natural world. Today, DNA is software and our brains computers. These analogies help us visualize and even develop complex systems, but they’re necessarily imprecise.

bio-nanotechnology-programmable-materials-1Even so, what life does on the smallest scales and what nanotechnology aims to do aren’t so different. Both assemble and repair microscopic structures by taking in atoms and molecules in one state and transmuting them into a different one. Life does its own thing, tuning and retuning itself to suit the environment over eons. Nanotechnology, on the other hand, would be tailored to our purposes—microscopic machines we’d reprogram at will.

We don’t yet have sleek nanoassemblers, but biology may be a bridge to that future. Research at the convergence of biotechnology and nanotechnology is taking control of life's "nanoassemblers" and repurposing them. Proteins, for example, orchestrate the complicated molecular dance in living cells—but what if we could contract them to build other things too?

In a recent Dartmouth College study published in Nature Communications, researchers show an artificial protein (COP) can organize 60-atom balls of carbon—known as fullerene or buckyball—into a lattice. The two molecules self-assemble into a stable protein-fullerene structure, in which fullerene's carbon balls are sandwiched between the proteins.

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