In Brief
UK researchers develop nanoscale robots that can potentially replicate the traditional factory assembly line, except on a nanoscale.

A team of chemists based in the United Kingdom have created a nanoscale robot that can “grasp a cargo molecule, pick it up, place it in a new position some distance away and release it.”

Synthetically achieving this sequence on a nano scale is major breakthrough that could mark the beginning of a new era in robotics. This could potentially mimic a traditional factory’s assembly line to build molecular structures.

The robotic molecule was developed by David Leigh at the University of Manchester and is composed of three main components: a rotatable arm, a molecular platform, and the small cargo molecule.

“The gripping end of the robot arm possesses a thiol group. In the presence of iodine under basic conditions the thiol group of the arm and the cargo react to form a disulfide bond, ” RSC explains in their article detailing the work.

At this point, the cargo is now attached to both the gripper and the platform, and when acid is added, things really get going.

RSC continues, nothing that, “three processes occur sequentially. First the disulfide bond connecting the gripper and the cargo becomes locked, secondly the hydrazone bond between the cargo and the platform is loosened, and there is a rearrangement of hydrogen bonds at the nitrogen-rich fulcrum of the robot arm. This introduces strain, causing the arm to swing across to the other side of the platform, taking the cargo with it.”

Synthesis of transporter cargo conjugates
Synthesis of transporter cargo conjugates. Image Credit:
Stunningly Efficient

‘We are very excited about this,’ says Leigh. ‘We have taken components from the existing supramolecular toolbox and combined them into a multicomponent molecular machine where we can programme the movement of molecules to accomplish a task through highly synchronised dynamic covalent chemistry.’

Researchers have been lauded for the machine’s stunning efficiency, and the work was recently published in Nature.

“Achieving these sorts of complex machine operations but using just a single stimulus to trigger an ordered cascade of processes is one of the next important challenges for the field, as is finding ways of dealing with the waste and having machines work for multiple cycles with no drop-off in efficiency,” says Euan Kay, from the University of St. Andrews in the UK.

The study marks a huge step towards the development of artificial molecular machines allowing manipulation of substrates for molecular construction in the future.

Robotic arm operation. Credit: Murphy
Robotic arm operation. Credit: Murphy