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Nano-machines mimic self-repair capabilities of living cells

Posted: 13 Feb 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Columbia University? nano-robot? MEMS? nanoscale transport system?

A new generation of nano-robots and nano-machines will be 1,000-times smaller than MEMS, working at the nanometre scale, according to Columbia University professor Henry Hess. Taking into consideration that the existing smallest mass-produced machines are MEMS, much work still needs to be done.

"Our work is inspired by biological nano-machines, such as the motor proteins operating in your heart muscle. While MEMS devices work for eternity by not aging, hearts keep beating due to a constant rejuvenation process. It is a very different approach to achieving a sufficient lifetime, which may be the key to achieving useful mechanically active molecular devices. And I emphasise molecular devices, a thousand times smaller in lateral dimensions than MEMS," said Hess.

Henry Hess

Henry Hess

For these microscopic nano-machines Hess and Catherine Do, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia, and his former doctoral student Emmanuel Dumont (now graduated and an innovation fellow at Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute) have been trying to reproduce nano-machines "moving parts." For instance, it turns out that living cells use nanoscale transport systems, molecular shuttles, that run along microtubules (the polymer scaffold inside a cell) acting as cargo carriers propelled by kinesics motor proteins, which can deliver molecule to other destinations.

Molecular cargo carriers

Molecular cargo carriers are nanoscale transport systems in which microtubules are propelled by kinesin motor proteins as tubulin subunits are removed from the leading end. (Image: Coneyl Jayasinhe for Columbia Engineering; Source: Columbia University)

Unfortunately, Hess and his colleagues have found that wear-and-tear occurs during these operations, limiting their usefulness compared to MEMS devices, which do not significantly degrade even after millions of repetitions of the same movement. As the first research group to observe in detail this aging process in molecular machines, they measured it in terms of a car achieving 100,000 miles wear. Molecular machines age about that much after moving about a millimetre, bad news for long-term applications such as monitoring, instrumentation, delicate surgery tools and nano-robots.

"Now that we've quantified the wear processes in our nano-systems, we plan to develop strategies to counteract them," noted Hess.


Artist's rendering of a microtubule highlighting the 25nm diameter and micrometre length as well as the tubulin dimers. (Source: Columbia University)

In their observations of living cells, the team found that its nano-machines prevent (premature) aging and disease by evolving mechanisms that continually replace the parts that wear out. The research team claims that to build nano-machines and nano-robots, they too must solve that problem.

"The applications are envisioned to be artificial muscles, multifunctional materials and nano-robots for biomedical applications," stated Hess told us, but to build them they must find synthetic materials that behave like the natural nano-machines inside living cells, as well as mimic the repair processes that living cells use to constantly repair themselves, thus extending their lifetime by prolonging a degradation in their functions.

- R. Colin Johnson
??EE Times

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