Materials or robots that can self-assemble have been the subject of fascination and study for a while now. Self-assembly is a major step toward autonomy, a super-helpful attribute for high-tech equipment to be used in space, and a possible step toward the ability to replicate objects. Self-assembly also comes pretty close to describing the process by which the body’s cells move and join together. Physicists from the University of Oxford have attempted to solidify that idea to illustrate the possibility of self-assembling systems moving molecules around to catalyze chemical reactions.
The team used the idea of a train because when proteins, organelles, and other genetic material from inside cells need to move around inside a cell, they travel along strings of proteins that resemble train tracks. In their recent paper, the team details their creation of proteins that build their own tracks, move to wherever they need to go, then disassemble the tracks once they’re there. Even if this doesn’t break major scientific ground, I could see this experiment serving as a useful example to kids and dirty roommates everywhere.
In the video below, the tracks, which are the only immediately visible parts, are red. Then you can see the researchers adding the artificial protein shuttles that carry cargo, which is green. You can see the shuttles all over the tracks in a random formation, and then they all move to the center. They all disperse when the researchers add a DNA signal.
The artificial proteins developed are attached to DNA, which provides guidance and instruction as they usually do. Once they have a destination and direction, the tracks look like stars or spokes radiating from a central point. According to the team, this design was inspired by fish that change color by way of similarly shaped tracks inside their cells. Then all the artificial proteins need is a little fuel — ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), which is what powers organic cells, and then they’re off to chug along to whatever station they need to visit.
While it might be some time before researchers find practical applications for such a system, the fact that we can create artificial systems that mirror organic ones is sure to be at least conceptually useful, especially if organic systems aren’t working the way we need them too. One thing’s for sure though — you don’t want to buy this “train” set for the young ones at Christmas.