Machines made of atoms are being used to sew together new materials molecule by molecule, which could open the floodgates to all manner of innovation
Simple molecular machines have existed for about two decades. Early examples include molecular wheels that could move along an axle, creating a piston-like mechanism. Three pioneers of this work – Fraser Stoddart at Northwestern University in Illinois, Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and Jean-Pierre Sauvage at the University of Strasbourg, France – were recognised with a Nobel prize in 2016.
More useful machines are now being made and tested. A few years ago, James Tour at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and his colleagues created a molecular machine that could drill through cell membranes. This allows it to open holes through which drugs could be delivered.
Such devices can be built on to create even more sophisticated machines. The potential is huge: after all, living things use biomolecular machines to do many useful jobs. Ribosomes, for example, are biomolecular machines that assemble proteins. They add molecules called amino acids together in specific sequences to create a vast array of amazing materials, from the keratin in fingernails to the disease-busting antibodies of our immune systems.
“Molecular machines are going to change everything in terms of material design”