November 29, 2000

Cornell Creates Mini-Machines

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Cornell researchers are capturing international attention for successfully creating miniature, functional machines that are smaller than most viruses.

These biomolecular machines are tiny motors that can rotate a propeller at eight revolutions per second, for up to two and a half hours. Although these machines are not sophisticated enough for any immediate applications, some future uses might include the purification of pharmeceuticals by sorting through individual molecules.

“This is an engineering technology that allows [people] to precisely integrate engineered devices with living systems,” said Prof. Carlo Montemagno ’80, agricultural and biological engineering, leader of the research group working on these tiny motors.

Their source of energy is adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the same molecule that normally provides energy for living cells.

Building these motors requires ATPase enzyme, a component of living cells. The integration of living systems and synthetic motors is one highlight of this technological advancement, Montemagno said.

The new motors have propellers about 750 nanometers (nm) in length and 150 nm in diameter. One nm represents one-billionth of a meter, and a single silicon atom is about one-quarter nm in diameter.

Nanobiotechnology refers to the science field that involves working with living systems and objects at the nanometer scale. The pioneering contribution to nanobiotechnology by Cornell’s team is the ability to “precisely” manufacture machines, according to Montemagno.

Previous to this breakthrough, scientists have only been able to manufacture parts of the whole. Now they can integrate the pieces to work together in the machine.

“This represents a new area [in nanotechnology] that integrates living material with custom nano-fabricated features,” said Ricky Soong grad, who helped create the motors.

The successful building and testing of these new biomolecular motors is reported in the Nov. 24 issue of the journal Science, but has found widespread attention in other places, including MSNBC, The New York Times, The Discovery Channel and the BBC British news service.

“This is like discovering that we can control the flow of electricity in a wire,” said Montemagno. “[However, this research] is a basic enabling technology, and will still take many years to reach maturity.”

“The device we built was a working prototype to illustrate engineering principles and techniques that can [eventually] be applied to more complex situations, [such as] manipulating biological systems at the nanometer,” Soong said.

Montemagno; Soong; Prof. Harold Craighead, applied and engineering physics, director of the Cornell Nanobiotechnology Center; George Bachand, research associate; Hercules Neves, senior research associate; and Anatolia Olkhovets grad contributed to the article which appeared in Science.

The Discovery Channel will produce a program on these nano-devices, which will air on Science Live! at 8:00 p.m. today on the Science Channel.

Archived article by Peter Lin