World’s first minuscule molecule-building robot paves way for molecular factories

For years science fiction writers have described a future where tiny robots are able to move about in the human body, administering treatments on a molecular level. Now that future is on the edge of reality with the development of the world’s first ‘molecular robot’: a micrometre-sized bot capable of building molecules.

Each robot is a millionth of a millimetre in size and is made up of just 150 hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms: in order to match the size of a grain of salt, you would need to pile a billion billion of the robots on top of each other.

Each can be programmed chemically to perform basic tasks such as constructing molecules out of component atoms, meaning that in the future they could be used to aid medical treatments, or work in tiny molecular factories creating molecules for a host of industries.

“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,” said research leader Professor David Leigh, from the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry. “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.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Jantzen, www.biocinematics.com

While regular sized robots are programmed using commands imputed through a computer, these robots are instructed using chemicals.

“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,” explained Leigh.

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

The robots could be used to form microsopic version of factories. Image courtesy of Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock

While the research is at an early stage, the robots could in the future be used to work in tiny factories, which could – for example – reduce demand for materials, speed up drug discovery and dramatically cut power requirements.

“Molecular robotics represents the ultimate in the miniaturisation of machinery. Our aim is to design and make the smallest machines possible,” said Leigh.

“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.”

The research will be published in Nature on Thursday.

Researchers believe modified CRISPR could be used without editing DNA

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The UK government is launching a fintech competition to help renters get on the property ladder

The UK government is offering £2 million to fintech developers who come up with a tool that lets renters record and share their payment data.

The Rent Recognition Challenge, which was first announced as part of the chancellors’ autumn budget, will task developers with finding a way to record payment data from Britain’s 11 million renters in a bid to improve their credit scores and ultimately help them to get a mortgage.

“Most lenders and Credit Reference Agencies are unable to take rental data into account, because they don’t have access to it.

“The Rent Recognition Challenge will challenge firms to develop an innovative solution to this problem and help to restore the dream of home ownership for a new generation,” said the economic secretary to HM Treasury, Stephen Barclay.

Economic secretary to HM Treasury, Stephen Barclay. Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

The competition will provide an initial round of grant funding to six promising proposals to help turn their ideas into workable products.

A panel of leading figures from the Fintech sector will then whittle the six down to just a handful of teams who will receive further funding and support to bring their ideas to market.

“People’s monthly rent is often their biggest expense, so it makes sense for it to be recognised when applying for a mortgage. Without a good credit score, getting a mortgage can be a real struggle.”

Image courtesy of Jeff Djevdet

The government’s attempt to help more people out of private renting arrangements and into home ownership comes after Scottish Widows published a report that warned tomorrow’s pensioners will have to find huge amounts of money to pay ever-escalating rents to private landlords.

Scottish Widows projected one in eight retirees will be renting by 2032, which works out to three times the number renting today. It also said there is a £43bn gap between the income and savings people have now and what the rent bill will be in retirement.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dan Wilson Craw of campaign group Generation Rent said: “The common perception is that retirees either own their home outright or have a council tenancy, so the government will be in for a nasty shock as more of us retire and continue to rent from a private landlord.

“Many renters relying on pensions will qualify for housing benefit which will put greater strain on the public finances.”

The Rent Recognition Challenge will open to applications early in the New Year, and development will conclude in October 2018.