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Protein Machine (video)
April 24, 2003

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Interviewees: Viola Vogel and Henry Hess, University of Washington.

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Produced by Ann Marie Cunningham

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy Rutgers University.

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As spring arrives, walking, running, bike riding and all kinds of other pleasant outdoor activities beckon. Any physical movement—or even just sitting to read or think—would be impossible without hardworking molecules called motor proteins.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, some scientists think motor proteins could accomplish even more. Perhaps these busy molecules could help repair injuries from inside the body—or help mend protective gear.

Magnificent Mini-Machines

Kinesins, or motor proteins, are the workhorses of the body. They make it possible to move around, or to think. These open, flexible molecules, found in every cell of the human body, look like twisting or folded ribbons. Their very flexibility allows them to convert chemical fuel called ATP into mechanical energy to move muscles. They also carry chemical messages that signal nerve and brain cells to function.

At the University of Washington’s Center for Nanotechnology, director Viola Vogel and her fellow bioengineer, Henry Hess, think that hardworking motor proteins are capable of much more. The researchers would like to use motor proteins as a “monorail on the nanoscale” to carry incredibly tiny wires or tubes to repair injuries on site—inside either living cells or synthetic materials. “There’s currently not a single synthetic material that can repair itself or grow on demand,” Vogel points out, “whereas all biological tissues do.”

A molecular transport system made of motor proteins could serve as a conveyor belt to assemble incredibly tiny working machines. Scientists can make tiny parts of these nanoscale machines, but the big question facing nanotechnologists is figuring out how to make tiny working devices that can assemble themselves. Vogel believes that nanotechnologists can learn from studying biological systems and how they work. Proteins are capable of binding with certain other proteins—a key part of self assembly.

“How do motor proteins assemble themselves into large structures that work so well, so reliably? In my lab, we are lucky if every tenth experiment in self-assembly works,” says Vogel. “But in the body, everything works—for 60 to 80 years. Currently, we don’t have any synthetic building blocks that are even close to the sophistication at which proteins work right now.”

Hess thinks a nanoscale monorail of motor proteins could work the way ants do. “Just as ants can carry material and build a huge ant hill, I think we can try to use our nanotrains to assemble things on the nanoscale.” But Vogel and Hess acknowledge that they are nowhere near this stage on the nanotrain. At present, they are focusing on basic questions, such as how to guide a nanotrain, control its speed, and allow it to load cargo at particular stations.

by Ann Marie Cunningham

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