Trio wins Nobel chemistry prize for ‘world’s smallest machines’

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A trio of European scientists has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing molecular machines that could one day be injected to fight cancer or used to make new types of materials and energy storage devices. These machines are molecules with tiny movable parts that move in controlled ways and are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair. Scientists have dreamed of creating machines at such a small scale for decades. Notably, physicist Richard Feynman, himself a Nobel laureate, imagined the possibility of these creations in a key lecture back in 1959.  The Nobel announcement is posted here.

Such molecular machines can be developed in smart medicines that seek out disease or damage and deliver drugs to fight or fix it, and in smart materials that can adapt in response to external triggers such as changes in light or temperature. “There are endless opportunities,” Feringa, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, told reporters when asked to predict what his work could eventually be used for. “Think of a tiny micro-robot that a doctor in the future will inject into your blood and that goes to search for a cancer cell or goes to deliver a drug, for instance.”

First, in 1983 Dr. Sauvage and colleagues managed to forge two rings of carbon atoms into an interlocked pair, like a links in a chain, called a catenane. Then, in 1991, while at the University of Birmingham, Dr. Stoddard revealed how to make rotaxane, a structure that involved a ring of atoms that can rotate freely around an axle. Finally, in 1999, Dr. Feringa developed the first molecular motor. The Verge has a great article on the mechanism for these interactions including the template for nano-computer chips that are activated by heat.

Dr. Feringa said that the science of molecular machines is still in its infancy but would ultimately lead to many applications in health, materials and energy systems. “They have really mastered motion control at the molecular scale,” said Olof Ramström, a member of the selection committee, during Wednesday’s prize announcement at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.


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