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Chemists create nanomachines by breaking them apart

Published in Nanomachines Development.

Newswise — “Every act of creation,” Picasso famously noted, “is first an act of destruction.”

Taking this concept literally, researchers in Canada have now discovered that “breaking” molecular nanomachines basic to life can create new ones that work even better.

Their findings are published today in Nature Chemistry.

Evolved over millions of years

Life on Earth is made possible by tens of thousands of nanomachines that have evolved over millions of years. Often made of proteins or nucleic acids, they typically contain thousands of atoms and are less than 10,000 times the size of a human hair.

“These nanomachines control all molecular activities in our body, and problems with their regulation or structure are at the origin of most human diseases,” said the new study’s principal investigator Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a chemistry professor at Université de Montréal.

Studying the way these nanomachines are built, Vallée-Bélisle, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Bioengineering and Bio-Nanotechnology, noticed that while some are made using a single component or part (often long biopolymers), others use several components that spontaneously assemble.

“Since most of my students spend their lives creating nanomachines, we started to wonder if it is more beneficial to create them using one or more self-assembling molecular components,” said Vallée-Bélisle.

A ‘destructive’ idea

To explore this question, his doctoral student Dominic Lauzon, had the “destructive” idea of breaking up some nanomachines to see if they could be reassembled. To do so, he made artificial DNA-based nanomachines that could be “destroyed” by breaking them up.

“DNA is a remarkable molecule that offers simple, programmable and easy-to-use chemistry,” said Lauzon, the study’s first author. “We believed that DNA-based nanomachines could help answer fundamental questions about the creation and evolution of natural and human-made nanomachines.”

Lauzon and Vallée-Bélisle spent years performing the experimental validations. They were able to demonstrate that nanomachines could easily withstand fragmentation, but more importantly, that such a destructive event allowed for the creation of various novel functionalities, including different sensitivity levels towards variation in component concentration, temperature and mutations.