Lab-made motors could move and glow in cells

One of nature’s best strategies for cellular-scale movement involves powerful molecular motors: complex molecules that convert chemical energy into mechanical energy to accomplish tasks such as transporting components within the cell, contraction of muscle fibers and separation of DNA strands.

Since 1999, chemists have been designing synthetic molecules that rotate 360 ​​degrees in response to light or chemical stimuli. These single-function motors can generate forces on a surface, transport cargo to sensors, and power nanoscale devices. But researchers can’t easily control or track them when they’re placed in opaque biological tissue.

According to a study published in Scientists progress. “Few compounds show two different responses to light, and this is the first-ever engine to show this property,” says Maxim Pshenichnikov, a spectroscopist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and co-author of the new study.

Pshenichnikov and his colleagues, led by Groningen organic chemist and 2016 Nobel laureate Ben Feringa, created the dual-function molecule by attaching a chemical called triphenylamine to a basic molecular motor. This allows the motor to respond to different light energies in different ways. The low-energy light gave the motor just enough power to spin, while the higher-energy light over-excited it, causing it to dump excess energy by emitting photons: it was fluorescent. Additionally, unlike typical molecular motors driven by tissue-damaging ultraviolet light, this new compound responds to shades of infrared that can penetrate deeper beneath the skin without harm.

An engine like this could help applications that require precise location. For example, a fluorescent engine could interact with different cellular structures and light up for tracking while delivering and activating a drug. “How cool would it be if we could really track the movement of the motor in the cells and use that for mechanical interference, [drug] delivery and detection? said Feringa.

Salma Kassem, a chemist at the City University of New York, who was not involved in the study, says the design is an important step towards light-focused pharmacology: “It’s difficult to combine the self-declaration and functionality in a small molecule without the two properties interfering with each other. This work achieves the separation of roles in a simple and elegant way.

The researchers intend to apply the technology to a motor with a biological function, such as binding to certain cell receptors. Then they will test its performance in living cells or tissues. The study’s lead author, Lukas Pfeifer, an organic chemist at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, says the success of this technique “gives me hope that we can easily transfer it to engines made with different chemical compounds. “.

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