Molecular Nano-Machines Team Up to Mimic Real Muscles

Molecular Nano-Machines Team Up to Mimic Real Muscles

For the first time, an assembly of thousands of nano-machines capable of producing a coordinated contraction movement extending up to around ten micrometers, like the movements of muscular fibers, has been synthesized by a CNRS team from the Institut Charles Sadron. This innovative work, headed by Nicolas Giuseppone, professor at the Université de Strasbourg, and involving researchers from the Laboratoire de Matière et Systèmes Complexes (CNRS/Université Paris Diderot), provides an experimental validation of a biomimetic approach that has been conceptualized for some years in the field of nanosciences. This discovery opens up perspectives for a multitude of applications in robotics, in nanotechnology for the storage of information, in the medical field for the synthesis of artificial muscles or in the design of other materials incorporating nano-machines (endowed with novel mechanical properties). This work has been published in the on-line version of the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Nature manufactures numerous machines known as “molecular”. Highly complex assemblies of proteins, they are involved in essential functions of living beings such as the transport of ions, the synthesis of ATP (the “energy molecule”), and cell division. Our muscles are thus controlled by the coordinated movement of these thousands of protein nano-machines, which only function individually over distances of the order of a nanometer. However, when combined in their thousands, such nano-machines amplify this telescopic movement until they reach our scale and do so in a perfectly coordinated manner. Even though synthetic chemists have made dazzling progress over the last few years in the manufacture of artificial nano-machines (the mechanical properties of which are of increasing interest for research and industry), the coordination of several of these machines in space and in time hitherto remained an unresolved problem.

Not anymore: for the first time, Giuseppone’s team has succeeded in synthesizing long polymer chains incorporating, via supramolecular bonds (1), thousands of nano-machines each capable of producing linear telescopic motion of around one nanometer. Under the influence of pH, their simultaneous movements allow the whole polymer chain to contract or extend over about 10 micrometers, thereby amplifying the movement by a factor of 10,000, along the same principles as those used by muscular tissues. Precise measurements of this experimental feat have been performed in collaboration with the team led by Eric Buhler, a physicist specialized in radiation scattering at the Laboratoire Matière et Systèmes Complexes (CNRS/Université Paris Diderot).

These results, obtained using a biomimetic approach, could lead to numerous applications for the design of artificial muscles, micro-robots or the development of new materials incorporating nano-machines endowed with novel multi-scale mechanical properties.

The research leading to these results was funded by the European Research Council under the European Community’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Starting Grant agreement no. 257099 (N.G.). We wish to thank the CNRS, the icFRC, and the University of Strasbourg for financial support, and the Laboratoire Léon Brilloin (LLB, CEA, Saclay, France) for beamtime allocation. This work was also supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-09-BLAN-034-02) (N.J.), and a doctoral fellowship from the Chinese Scholarship Council (G.D.).

Scientists from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) have reported the development of an artificial muscle construct that uses thousands of individual molecular nano-machines to contract and extend a polymer chain over a length of 10 micrometers. The main component of the chain is rotaxane, a mechanically-interlocked molecular architecture that has been under investigation for use in molecular machine construction.

The compression and elongation of the chain is triggered by changing the pH of its environment, causing thousands of individual components to expand or contract by about one nanometer. The tiny combined motion of each molecular piece creates an overall displacement that is significant, pointing toward the creation of artificial muscles and nano-scale mechanical machines for medicine and other uses.

From the study abstract published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition:

Double-threaded rotaxanes can be linked to coordination units and polymerized in the presence of iron or zinc ions. pH modulation triggers cooperative contractions (or extensions) of the individual rotaxanes, thus resulting in an amplified motion of the muscle-like supramolecular chains with changes of their contour lengths of several micrometers (see picture).

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