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.

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Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.