Baby steps towards molecular robots

A walking molecule, so small that it cannot be observed directly with a microscope, has been recorded taking its first nanometre-sized steps. It’s the first time that anyone has shown in real time that such a tiny object – termed a ‘small molecule walker’ – has taken a series of steps. The breakthrough, made by Oxford University chemists, is a significant milestone on the long road towards developing ‘nanorobots’.

‘In the future we can imagine tiny machines that could fetch and carry cargo the size of individual molecules, which can be used as building blocks of more complicated molecular machines; imagine tiny tweezers operating inside cells,’ said Dr Gokce Su Pulcu of Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry. ‘The ultimate goal is to use molecular walkers to form nanotransport networks,’ she says. However, before nanorobots can run they first have to walk. As Su explains, proving this is no easy task.

For years now researchers have shown that moving machines and walkers can be built out of DNA. But, relatively speaking, DNA is much larger than small molecule walkers and DNA machines only work in water. The big problem is that microscopes can only detect moving objects down to the level of 10–20 nanometres. This means that small molecule walkers, whose strides are 1 nanometre long, can only be detected after taking around 10 or 15 steps. It would therefore be impossible to tell with a microscope whether a walker had ‘jumped’ or ‘floated’ to a new location rather than taken all the intermediate steps.

As they report in this week’s Nature Nanotechnology, Su and her colleagues at Oxford’s Bayley Group took a new approach to detecting a walker’s every step in real time. Their solution? To build a walker from an arsenic-containing molecule and detect its motion on a track built inside a nanopore. Via Baby steps towards molecular robots.

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