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Large, open protein cages designed and built

Posted by Jim Lewis on December 7th, 2014

A molecular cage created by designing specialized protein pieces. On the left is one copy of the designed protein molecule. The 24 copies of it on the right, each colored differently, make the molecular cage. The lavender image on the right indicates the openness of the empty space in the middle of the container and is not actually part of the molecular structure. Credit: Yen-Ting Lai, Todd Yeates

While some protein scientists make impressive progress designing novel protein folds, others combine natural protein oligomers in novel ways to make unexpected extreme structures not seen in nature. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this University of California-Los Angeles news release “UCLA biochemists build largest synthetic molecular ‘cage’ ever“:

UCLA biochemists have created the largest-ever protein that self-assembles into a molecular “cage.” The research could lead to synthetic vaccines that protect people from the flu, HIV and other diseases.

At a size hundreds of times smaller than a human cell, it also could lead to new methods of delivering pharmaceuticals inside of cells, or to the creation of new nanoscale materials.

The protein assembly, which is shaped like a cube, was constructed from 24 copies of a protein designed in the laboratory of Todd Yeates, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry. It is porous — more so than any other protein assembly ever created — with large openings that would enable other large protein molecules to enter and exit.

The research was recently published online in the journal Nature Chemistry [abstract] ….

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Broadening the synthetic biology path to molecular nanotechnology

Posted by Jim Lewis on December 6th, 2014

A novel three-helix, hyper stable helical bundle in which five (5) distinct helix-helix interacting layers were designed. Credit: Institute for Protein Design, University of Washington

The first journal article to call for the development of molecular manufacturing (Drexler 1981, journal publication) identified the task of designing more stable proteins as a path toward more general capabilities for molecular manipulation. Proof of principle for this goal was already apparent by 1988, and we have followed progress since then (for example, here and here). A brief comment in a recent issue of Science introduces two papers that took two different routes to use rational and computational design to make new protein structures based on alpha-helical coiled coils. In the first, a collaboration headed by David Baker, co-winner of the 2004 Foresight Feynman Prize for Theory, reported the custom design of a set of hyperstable proteins with fine-tuned geometries that can be adapted for a range of applications. From “Custom design of novel alphahelical bundles“:

Researchers at the Institute for Protein Design have developed a novel computational approach for the custom design of hyper-stable alpha-helical bundles with fine-tuned geometries. The parametric design approach and experimental characterization of the resulting helical bundles is described in detail in a recent Science publication [abstract] entitled High thermodynamic stability of parametrically designed helical bundles.

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Nearly perfect carbon nanotubes key to energy-saving lights

Posted by Jim Lewis on December 2nd, 2014

Planar light source device (Left-front, Right-rear) Photo Credit-N. Shimoi/Tohoku University

Foresight’s recent Workshop on Directed/Programmable Matter for Energy focused on the potential of atomically precise materials for energy production, transport, and efficient use. A hat tip to Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence for describing how scientists from Tohoku University in Japan had combined carbon nanotube field emitters with a solution of indium oxide and tin oxide to produce a very efficient planar light source. From an AIP Publishing news release by Zhengzheng Zhang “Beyond LEDs: Brighter, New Energy-Saving Flat Panel Lights Based on Carbon Nanotubes“:

Even as the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has enshrined light emitting diodes (LEDs) as the single most significant and disruptive energy-efficient lighting solution of today, scientists around the world continue unabated to search for the even-better-bulbs of tomorrow.

Enter carbon electronics.

Electronics based on carbon, especially carbon nanotubes (CNTs), are emerging as successors to silicon for making semiconductor materials, And they may enable a new generation of brighter, low-power, low-cost lighting devices that could challenge the dominance of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in the future and help meet society’s ever-escalating demand for greener bulbs.

Scientists from Tohoku University in Japan have developed a new type of energy-efficient flat light source based on carbon nanotubes with very low power consumption of around 0.1 Watt for every hour’s operation — about a hundred times lower than that of an LED.

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Micrometer-scale structures built from DNA bricks

Posted by Jim Lewis on November 19th, 2014

Researchers have achieved 32 different-shaped crystal structures using the DNA-brick self-assembly method. Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute

The saga of using DNA bricks to build complex 3D nanostructures continues to evolve. A hat tip to ScienceDirect for reprinting this news release from Harvard’s Wyss Institute “Crystallizing the DNA nanotechnology dream“:

DNA has garnered attention for its potential as a programmable material platform that could spawn entire new and revolutionary nanodevices in computer science, microscopy, biology, and more. Researchers have been working to master the ability to coax DNA molecules to self assemble into the precise shapes and sizes needed in order to fully realize these nanotechnology dreams.

For the last 20 years, scientists have tried to design large DNA crystals with precisely prescribed depth and complex features — a design quest just fulfilled by a team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The team built 32 DNA crystals with precisely-defined depth and an assortment of sophisticated three-dimensional (3D) features, an advance reported in Nature Chemistry [abstract].

The team used their “DNA-brick self-assembly” method, which was first unveiled in a 2012 Science publication when they created more than 100 3D complex nanostructures about the size of viruses. The newly-achieved periodic crystal structures are more than 1000 times larger than those discrete DNA brick structures, sizing up closer to a speck of dust, which is actually quite large in the world of DNA nanotechnology.

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Notes for 400 hours of Richard Feynman's Hughes Lectures

Posted by Jim Lewis on November 12th, 2014

John Neer writes to announce that he has made available “to the public for non-commercial use” an extensive collection of notes for lectures that Richard Feynman delivered to employees of Hughes Aircraft Company from 1966 through 1971, for two hours on Monday evenings, 9 to 10 months per year. No attempt was made to record or capture Feynman’s board work for these lectures. Mr. Neer, accomplishing what would seem to have been a Herculean task, took notes as extensively as possible during Feynman’s two-hour lectures, and then spent four to six hours transcribing each lecture as soon as possible afterward. References and subsequent results from the Internet were added some time later. The lecture notes are available at

These notes are for all those who want to learn more about science, math and nature as Feynman did; to learn more of how he taught and embrace his charge to pass on what we have learned.

I believe consistent with Feynman’s interest to teach as many as he could about science these notes are free and open to the public for non-commercial use.

As to Mr. Neer’s motivations for making available more than 1000 pages (about 132 MB) of notes from more than 400 hours of Feynman’s lectures on topics from cosmology to molecular biology, he writes:

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Using DNA nanotechnology to cast arbitrarily shaped nanoparticles

Posted by Jim Lewis on November 11th, 2014

By creating molds from stiff DNA, researchers were able to cast gold 'seeds' into complex metal nanoparticles. From left to right, this 3D polygonal particle was formed by designing a DNA mold, planting a gold seed, then chemically forcing the seed to expand until complete formation. Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute

The great advantage of DNA nanotechnology is that the unique molecular recognition code of DNA bases provides a way to build complex structures with atomically precise addressability. At least as long ago as 2003 DNA nanotechnology pioneer Nadrian C. Seeman proposed using DNA nanotechnology to construct a “molecular pegboard” to organize nanoscale components into functional arrays. Initial progress toward that goal was reported in 2005 “Self-Assembling a Molecular Pegboard” [abstract; full text, courtesy of authors]. Two months ago we pointed to improvements in the scaffolded DNA origami approach that provided a “10-fold larger breadboard and 350-fold lower DNA synthesis costs”. Over the years we have cited other work in which addressable DNA scaffolds have been used to organize functional components. Such achievements have been used to precisely spatially organize small numbers of larger, atomically complex, nanoscale objects. Recently researchers have asked whether atomically precise DNA molds can be used to cast large numbers of inorganic atoms into predetermined complex (but not atomically precise) 3D nanoparticles that can be arranged in space to form larger, more complex nanoscale objects. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this news release from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard “DNA nano-foundries cast custom-shaped metal nanoparticles“:

Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have unveiled a new method to form tiny 3D metal nanoparticles in prescribed shapes and dimensions using DNA, Nature’s building block, as a construction mold.

The ability to mold inorganic nanoparticles out of materials such as gold and silver in precisely designed 3D shapes is a significant breakthrough that has the potential to advance laser technology, microscopy, solar cells, electronics, environmental testing, disease detection and more.

“We built tiny foundries made of stiff DNA to fabricate metal nanoparticles in exact three–dimensional shapes that we digitally planned and designed,” said Peng Yin, senior author of the paper, Wyss Core Faculty member and Assistant Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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Grant program to support nanotechnology and other infrastructure

Posted by Jim Lewis on October 25th, 2014

GENI is a fast, open, next-generation network for exploring future internets at a national scale. Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Gayle Pergamit writes with news of a US National Science Foundation initiative that “addresses one of the big problems that we talked about at the [Foresight Directed/Programmable Matter for Energy Workshop]: not having enough processor power. This will be a huge boost to getting true nanotech done.” The new initiative builds upon a June 2012 Executive Order to make broadband construction faster and cheaper. From the NSF press release in June 2012:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that it will serve as the lead federal agency for a White House Initiative called US Ignite, which aims to realize the potential of fast, open, next-generation networks.

US Ignite will expand on investments in the NSF-funded Global Environment for Networking Innovation (GENI) project which lays the technical groundwork for this initiative. …

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Light-driven molecular flapping emits white light

Posted by Jim Lewis on October 10th, 2014

A phosphorescent molecular butterfly that can generate dual (white) emission upon photoexcitation (credit: M. Han et al./Angewandte Chemie)

Speaking of improving energy supply and usage through improved precision in the control of matter, Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence News reports a butterfly-shaped molecule that changes molecular structure upon photoexcitation, shortening the distance between two platinum atoms, producing both red and greenish-blue emission, resulting in white light production. From “‘Butterfly’ molecule could lead to new sensors, photoenergy conversion devices“:

A novel molecule that can take your temperature, emit white light, and convert photon energy directly to mechanical motions has been enhanced by Florida State University researchers.

Biwu Ma, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering in the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, created the molecular structure resembling a butterfly in a lab about a decade ago, but has continued to discover it has many other unique capabilities, described in the latest edition of the journal Angewandte Chemie [abstract].

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Foresight Directed/Programmable Matter for Energy Workshop

Posted by Jim Lewis on October 10th, 2014

Foresight has had a long-term interest in the directed evolution of nanoscale science and technology toward productive nanosystems and atomically precise manufacturing (see, for example, the 2007 Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems and the 2013 conference Illuminating Atomic Precision). Foresight has also had a parallel interest in integrating incremental advances in nanotechnology to meet pressing human needs (see, for example, the Foresight Nanotechnology Challenges and the 2014 conference The Integration Conference). Bringing together these parallel interests, a recent invitation-only workshop gathered leading researchers to focus on the opportunities created to better meet human energy needs through greater control over the structure of matter. Not every useful advance in nanoscience and nanotechnology will lead to molecular/atomically precise manufacturing, and molecular/atomically precise manufacturing will not be required for every advance in nanotechnology to meet human needs, but just where do the greatest opportunities lie?
—James Lewis, PhD

Directed/Programmable Matter for Energy (DPM) Workshop

A small, highly interactive 2-1/2 day meeting focused on long-term prospects for revolutionary advances in energy storage, transmission, and generation based on improved precision in our control of matter was held September 5-7, 2014 in Palo Alto, California.

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A Breakthrough in 3D Imaging by EM Alone

Posted by Stephanie C on October 8th, 2014

Credit: Azubel-fig

The need for improved imaging and characterization on the nanoscale was emphasized in the 2007 Roadmap and again at the 2013 Foresight Conference on Atomic Precision. We noted last year a new advancement in atomic-scale resolution of 10-nm platinum particles, requiring multiple imaging techniques in combination, and recently the marked improvement in optical imaging for characterization of biological machinery at 1-nm. Now researchers at Stanford University successfully used high-resolution electron microscopy alone to characterize 1-nm gold nanoparticles (containing 68 gold atoms) – a capability new enough that x-ray scattering was used to verify the result.  This type of advancement could help remove one of the bottlenecks in progress towards nanometer-scale manufacturing.

The news release, from the Academy of Finland (the structure of the nanoparticle had been predicted by researchers at University of Jyväskylä, Finland), was reprinted at

Electron microscopy is similar in principle to conventional light microscopy, with the exception that the wavelength of the electron beam used for imaging is close to the spacing of atoms in solid matter, about a tenth of a nanometre, in contrast with the wavelength of visible light, which is hundreds of nanometres. A crucial aspect of the new work is the irradiation of the nanoparticle with very few electrons to avoid perturbing the structure of the nanoparticle. The success of this approach opens the way to the determination of many more nanoparticle structures and to both fundamental understanding and practical applications.

With the progress recently described in assembly-line style molecular synthesis and new NSF and DARPA funding for nanomanufacturing (see several recent posts), increased emphasis on imaging and characterization across each incremental size regime should receive more targeted attention.
-Posted by Stephanie C, Oct 2014

Tailoring the shapes of organic molecules by assembly-line synthesis

Posted by Jim Lewis on October 3rd, 2014

The image shows a hypothetical molecular assembly line where reagents are effectively added to a growing carbon chain with extraordinary high fidelity and precision. By controlling the precise orientation of the building blocks added to the carbon chain, the conformation of the molecule can be controlled so that it adopts a helical (shown) or linear shape. Credit: Amber Webster,

To develop a productive nanosystem for molecular manufacturing/atomically precise manufacturing it would be very useful to have a nanoscale assembly line. A month ago we posted here about a proof of principle for one such assembly line based upon biomolecules. This month Christine Peterson sends word of an assembly line for complex artificial organic molecules. An article on SingularityHUB led to this news release from the University of Bristol “Chemists create ‘assembly-line’ for organic molecules“:

Scientists at the University of Bristol have developed a process where reagents are added to a growing carbon chain with extraordinary high fidelity and precise orientation, thereby controlling the conformation of the molecule so that it adopts a helical or linear shape. The process can be likened to a molecular assembly line.

Nature has evolved highly sophisticated machinery for organic synthesis. One of the most beautiful examples is its machinery for the synthesis of polyketides, a very important class of molecules due to their broad spectrum of biological activities (for example antibiotic, antitumor, antifungal, antiparasitic).

In this process, a simple thioester (small building block) is passed from one enzyme domain to another, growing as it does so until the target molecule is formed. The process resembles a molecular assembly line.

The Bristol researchers sought to emulate nature in the construction of their own molecular assembly line through a related iterative process. But iterative processes are very challenging as each iteration must occur with >99.5 per cent efficiency, and >99.5 per cent stereocontrol otherwise mixtures would result.

In a paper published in the journal Nature today [abstract], the scientists report a reagent which reacts with their small building blocks (boronic esters) with exceptionally high fidelity and stereocontrol.

Through repeated iteration they have converted a simple building block into a complex molecule (a carbon chain with ten contiguous methyl groups) with remarkably high precision over its length, its stereochemistry and therefore its shape.

Different stereoisomers were targeted and it was found that they adopted different shapes (helical/linear) according to their stereochemistry.

This work should now enable molecules with predictable shape to be rationally designed and created which could have an impact in all areas of molecular sciences where bespoke molecules are required.

The ability demonstrated here to control the spatial configuration of the addition of each new subunit of a long molecule to achieve programmable molecular shapes is certainly a useful step toward a molecular assembly line. One interesting question is how many specially designed or specially chosen building blocks and reagents will be needed to construct a generally useful molecular assembly line.
—James Lewis, PhD

Nanomanufacturing grants available from US National Science Foundation

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 27th, 2014

US National Science Foundation

Speaking of US government programs to advance nanomanufacturing, Christine Peterson sends word of a US National Science Foundation nanomanufactring program that explicitly mentions nanorobots and other nanomachines “The NSF Nanomanufacturing Program“:

… The NSF Nanomanufacturing Program supports fundamental research in novel methods and techniques for batch and continuous processes, top-down (addition/subtraction) and bottom-up (directed self-assembly) processes leading to the formation of complex heterogeneous nanosystems. The program supports basic research in nanostructure and process design principles, integration across length-scales, and system-level integration. The Program leverages advances in the understanding of nano-scale phenomena and processes (physical, chemical, electrical, thermal, mechanical and biological), nanomaterials discovery, novel nanostructure architectures, and new nanodevice and nanosystem concepts. It seeks to address quality, efficiency, scalability, reliability, safety and affordability issues that are relevant to manufacturing. To address these issues, the Program encourages research on processes and production systems based on computation, modeling and simulation, use of process metrology, sensing, monitoring, and control, and assessment of product (nanomaterial, nanostructure, nanodevice or nanosystem) quality and performance.

The Program seeks to explore transformative approaches to nanomanufacturing, including but not limited to: micro-reactor and micro-fluidics enabled nanosynthesis, bio-inspired nanomanufacturing, manufacturing by nanomachines, additive nanomanufacturing, hierarchical nanostructure assembly, continuous high-rate nanofabrication such as roll-to-roll processing or massively-parallel large-area processing, and modular manufacturing platforms for nanosystems. The Program encourages the fabrication of nanomaterials by design, three-dimensional nanostructures, multi-layer nanodevices, and multi-material and multi-functional nanosystems. Also of interest is the manufacture of dynamic nanosystems such as nanomotors, nanorobots, and nanomachines [emphasis added], and enabling advances in transport and diffusion mechanisms at the nano-scale. …

The description of the program is broad enough to cover numerous topics relevant to both the integration of current nanomaterials and nanodevices into near-term nanofabricated products across a wide range of applications, and progress toward productive nanosystems and atomically precise manufacturing. It will be interesting to see what research actually gets funded by this program.
—James Lewis, PhD

DNA nanotechnology and the atoms to micrometer nanofabrication gap

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 26th, 2014

A PowerPoint slide shows the two technical areas DARPA’s Atoms to Product project will concentrate on. (Slide courtesy of DARPA)

A few weeks ago we posted the announcement of a new DARPA program, the Atoms To Product (A2P) project. For those who were not able to catch the webinar explaining the initiative, more information is available in an article on Fedscoop “DARPA wants help closing nanotechnology’s ‘assembly gap’:

The Pentagon’s advanced research agency wants to do something that currently cannot be done: Take things built at a really, really small level and scale them for production in really big systems.

Solving that problem will be the task of those behind the Atoms To Product (A2P) project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Defense Sciences Office. DARPA is soliciting proposals for how researchers can further advance and leverage nanotechnology.

Stephanie Tompkins, director of the Defense Sciences Office, said the project fits into two of the office’s main focal points: finding ways to adapt to a growing market of globally available technology and incorporating it into military systems. Currently, technology is moving too fast and the adoption costs are unsustainable for military systems. DARPA hopes the A2P project will provide a cheaper way to integrate new technology on a variety of scales. …

A2P will focus on two technical links in the scaling hierarchy: moving atomic-level tech into the micron or molecule level, then moving the micron level into the millimeter level. The atoms-to-micron level will produce what’s known as feedstock — raw materials used in product manufacturing — with that material eventually allowing scientists to move it into millimeter-sized components. …

Yesterday’s post on extensions to the scaffolded DNA origami method fall toward the far end of the TA1 step in the above slide, the atoms to micrometer step. Perhaps the real challenge remaining in this first step is not an increase in scale per se, since the 300 nm by 200 nm DNA arrays are only a factor of three from the micrometer scale, but a way to use these arrays as organizing scaffolds for methods to make an array of molecules much wider than the world of biomolecules.
—James Lewis, PhD

Scaffolded DNA origami improvements advance DNA nanotechnology

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 25th, 2014

Scaffolded DNA origami utilizes numerous chemically synthesized, short DNA strands (staple strands) to direct the folding of a larger, biologically derived strand of DNA (scaffold strand). Molecular recognition (base pairing, i.e., A binds to T and G binds to C) directs the DNA to self-assemble into a specific structure as programed by the staple strand sequences. Unique staple strands produce a molecular pegboard with single-digit nanometer site-specificity precision. The atomic force microscopy image (right) demonstrates the final origami structure. Image credit: Alexandria Marchi.

Scaffolded DNA origami provided the starting point for the modular molecular composite nanosystems approach to atomically precise productive nanosystems (see Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap PDf page x, page 51). Over the past seven years we have pointed here to numerous advances in structural DNA nanotechnology and the related underlying technologies as advances toward atomically precise manufacturing, but one limit has been the maximum size available of the conventional single stranded scaffold available from the bacteriophage M13, which limits the scale of the uniquely addressable DNA structures that can be built. A second limit has been the cost of synthesis of the DNA staple strands. Now both of those limits have been greatly extended. A hat tip to ScienceDaily for reprinting this North Carolina State University news release “Researchers Create World’s Largest DNA Origami“:

Researchers from North Carolina State University, Duke University and the University of Copenhagen have created the world’s largest DNA origami, which are nanoscale constructions with applications ranging from biomedical research to nanoelectronics.

“These origami can be customized for use in everything from studying cell behavior to creating templates for the nanofabrication of electronic components,” says Dr. Thom LaBean, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper describing the work.

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Novel multifunctional nanoparticle for diagnosis and therapy

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 14th, 2014

Schematic illustration of construction of a multifunctional nanoparticle (credit: Yuanpei Li et al./Nature Communications)

A variety of nanoparticles have been designed for multiple nanomedical purposes. An article at presents news from UC Davis of a “nanoporphyrin” platform for developing multifunctional nanoparticles based upon treelike dendrimer structures made using porphyrin, cholic acid, amino acids, and polyethylene glycol “A multifunctional medical nanoparticle“:

Researchers at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and other institutions have created biocompatible multitasking nanoparticles that could be used as contrast agents to light up tumors for MRI and PET scans or deliver chemo and other therapies to destroy tumors. The study was published online in Nature Communications [abstract].

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Proof of principle for nanoscale assembly line

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 2nd, 2014

microfluidic molecular assembly line

The assembly carrier moves through several reaction chambres where different molecules bind to its surface. The graph below shows the trajectory of a single shuttle. (Graphics: from Steuerwald et al. 2014)

One step toward nanofactories for atomically precise manufacturing would be the development of nanoscale production lines for assembling molecular cargo or other nanostructures into larger functional devices. Over the past few years we have cited here various advances toward this goal based on structural DNA nanotechnology, such as DNA walkers moving along tracks formed by DNA origami: DNA-based ‘robotic’ assembly begins (2010), DNA molecular robots learn to walk in any direction along a branched track (2011), AFM visualization of molecular robot moving along DNA scaffold (with video) (2011), and DNA motor navigates network of DNA tracks (2012). Back in 2006 another possibility was pointed out by bionanotechnologist Viola Vogel, working with natural motor proteins and cytoskeletal components, in an interview cited here: “Maybe in the future we can build an assembly line to assemble nanosystems into working devices, like a car assembly line, but at the nanoscale.” The future has apparently arrived. A hat tip to nanotech-now for drawing our attention to this news release from Prof. Vogel’s group at ETH Zürich announcing an important proof of principle demonstration “Nanoscale assembly line“:

ETH researchers have realised a long-held dream: inspired by an industrial assembly line, they have developed a nanoscale production line for the assembly of biological molecules.

Cars, planes and many electronic products are now built with the help of sophisticated assembly lines. Mobile assembly carriers, on to which the objects are fixed, are an important part of these assembly lines. In the case of a car body, the assembly components are attached in various work stages arranged in a precise spatial and chronological sequence, resulting in a complete vehicle at the end of the line.

The creation of such an assembly line at molecular level has been a long-held dream of many nanoscientists. “It would enable us to assemble new complex substances or materials for specific applications,” says Professor Viola Vogel, head of the Laboratory of Applied Mechanobiology at ETH Zurich. Vogel has been working on this ambitious project together with her team and has recently made an important step. In a paper published in the latest issue of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Lab on a Chip journal ["Nanoshuttles propelled by motor proteins sequentially assemble molecular cargo in a microfluidic device" abstract; full text requires payment], the ETH researchers presented a molecular assembly line featuring all the elements of a conventional production line: a mobile assembly carrier, an assembly object, assembly components attached at various assembly stations and a motor (including fuel) for the assembly carrier to transport the object from one assembly station to the next.

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DARPA announces new program on nanoscale assembly and integration

Posted by Jim Lewis on September 1st, 2014

Image courtesy of DARPA

One of the most innovative funding agencies has announced a new program aimed at assembling three-dimensional systems from the “atomic scale.”

DARPA will explain the new initiative in a webinar on September 9 and 11. Deadline for registering is September 5 at 5 PM Eastern time for US citizens; see the DARPA site for non-US citizen registration info.

Those of us who pursue atomically-precise manufacturing will want to view this webinar


New program also seeks to develop revolutionary miniaturization and assembly methods that would work at scales 100,000 times smaller than current state-of-the-art technology.

Many common materials exhibit different and potentially useful characteristics when fabricated at extremely small scales—that is, at dimensions near the size of atoms, or a few ten-billionths of a meter. These “atomic scale” or “nanoscale” properties include quantized electrical characteristics, glueless adhesion, rapid temperature changes, and tunable light absorption and scattering that, if available in human-scale products and systems, could offer potentially revolutionary defense and commercial capabilities. Two as-yet insurmountable technical challenges, however, stand in the way: Lack of knowledge of how to retain nanoscale properties in materials at larger scales, and lack of assembly capabilities for items between nanoscale and 100 microns—slightly wider than a human hair.

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What kind of nanomachines will advanced nanotechnology use?

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 31st, 2014

Dr. Richard Jones

Dr. Richard Jones

Long-term readers of Nanodot will be familiar with the work of Richard Jones, a UK physicist and author of Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, reviewed in Foresight Update Number 55 (2005) page 10. Basically Jones follows Eric Drexler’s lead in Engines of Creation in arguing that the molecular machinery found in nature provides an existence proof of an advanced nanotechnology of enormous capabilities. However, he cites the very different physics governing biomolecular machinery operating in an aqueous environment on the one hand, and macroscopic machine tools of steel and other hard metals, on the other hand. He then argues that rigid diamondoid structures doing atomically precise mechanochemistry, as later presented by Drexler in Nanosystems, although at least theoretically feasible, do not form a practical path to advanced nanotechnology. This stance occasioned several very useful and informative debates on the relative strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to advanced nanotechnology, both on his Soft Machines blog and here on Nanodot (for example “Debate with ‘Soft Machines’ continues“, “Which way(s) to advanced nanotechnology?“, “Recent commentary“). An illuminating interview of Richard Jones over at h+ Magazine not only presents Jones’s current views, but spotlights the lack of substantial effort since 2008 in trying to resolve these issues “Going Soft on Nanotech“:

… RJ: I’m both a fan of Eric Drexler and a critic — though perhaps it would be most correct to say I’m a critic of many of his fans. Like many people, I was inspired by the vision of Engines of Creation, in outlining what would be possible if we could make functional machines and devices at the nanoscale. If Engines set out the vision in general terms, Nanosystems was a very thorough attempt to lay out one possible concrete realisation of that vision. Looking back at it twenty years on, two things strike me about it. Read the rest of this entry »

Seeing and touching a single synthetic molecular machine

Posted by Jim Lewis on August 24th, 2014

a single synthetic molecular machine

Schematic illustration for single-molecule motion capturing and manipulation of 1-nm sized synthetic molecular machine by optical microscopy using a bead probe. A large bead attached to the rotor part of the synthetic molecular bearing (double decker porphyrin) traces its motion. credit Tomohiro Ikeda

Molecular machines are a central component of efforts to develop atomically precise manufacturing. Optical microscopy and optical trap manipulation of single molecules, made possible by attachment of micrometer-scale beads, have facilitated greater understanding of the workings of biomolecular machines. For example, a 2008 paper published in Cell (“Intramolecular Strain Coordinates Kinesin Stepping Behavior along Microtubules“) revealed how the kinesin molecular motor molecule coordinates its two motor domains to achieve one-way stepping along microtubule proteins. When additional peptides were inserted into the mechanical “neck linker” elements that span the two motor domains, tension was reduced, and as a result, the motor’s velocity was reduced. Motor velocity returned to near normal when external tension was applied via an optical trap operating on a 920 nm diameter bead attached via an antibody to the molecular motor. Nanotechnologists can use similar techniques to study a wide variety of biomolecular machines, including naturally occurring molecular motors with typical length scales of 10 nm. Until now, however, it has not been possible to use similar approaches to study smaller synthetic molecular machines, with typical length scales on the order of one nm. A hat tip to Asian Scientist for reprinting this press release from the University of Tokyo “Seeing and touching a single 1-nm-sized synthetic molecular machine“:

Single-molecule imaging and manipulation with optical microscopy using a bead probe as a marker (single–molecule “motion capturing”) unveils fundamental properties of biomolecular machines such as direction of motion, step size and force the molecule exerts, which cannot be resolved by whole-molecule measurements. As a result, it has become an essential method for research of biomolecular machines. In addition, single-molecule motion capturing could also become a powerful tool to develop “synthetic” molecular machines. However, it is difficult to apply the conventional method to individual molecules because the size of a typical synthetic molecular machine is only 1 nm, about one-tenth the size of a biomolecular machine. This miniaturization of the target molecule causes significant problems such as low efficiency of the bead probe immobilization reaction and undesired interaction between the surfaces of the bead and substrate.

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Recent cases of 'accessible' high-tech: Open source chips & Origami robots

Posted by Stephanie C on August 22nd, 2014

From "An origami robot transforming from flat to 3D. Photo courtesy of Seth Kroll, Wyss Institute."

Nanotech promises more commonplace access to advanced technology as material and fabrication costs fall and traditional barriers to innovation are removed. Examples are already being seen globally: more access to laptops and cell phones in developing countries, desktop 3D printers, a surge in establishment of shared-use research facilities, etc.

A couple recent cases getting attention on include the latest release of RISC-based open source chip from UC Berkeley, and self-folding ‘origami’ robots developed at the Wyss Institute and published in Science.

About the chips:

Fed up with the limitations of current computer chips and their related intellectual property, a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, is pushing an open source alternative. The RISC-V instruction set architecture was originally developed at the university to help teach computer architecture to students, but now its creators want to push it into the mainstream to help propel emerging markets such as cloud computing and the internet of things.
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