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Scientists Create World's First 'Molecular Robot' Capable of Building Molecules (scienmag.com) 86

New submitter re385 shares a report from Science Magazine: Scientists at The University of Manchester have created the world's first "molecular robot" that is capable of performing basic tasks including building other molecules. The tiny robots, which are a millionth of a millimeter in size, can be programmed to move and build molecular cargo, using a tiny robotic arm. Each individual robot is capable of manipulating a single molecule and is made up of just 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen atoms. To put that size into context, a billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other would still only be the same size as a single grain of salt. The robots operate by carrying out chemical reactions in special solutions which can then be controlled and programmed by scientists to perform the basic tasks. In the future such robots could be used for medical purposes, advanced manufacturing processes and even building molecular factories and assembly lines. The research will be published in Nature on Thursday 21st September. "All matter is made up of atoms and these are the basic building blocks that form molecules," explains Professor David Leigh, who led the research at University's School of Chemistry. "Our robot is literally a molecular robot constructed of atoms just like you can build a very simple robot out of Lego bricks. The robot then responds to a series of simple commands that are programmed with chemical inputs by a scientist. It is similar to the way robots are used on a car assembly line. Those robots pick up a panel and position it so that it can be riveted in the correct way to build the bodywork of a car. So, just like the robot in the factory, our molecular version can be programmed to position and rivet components in different ways to build different products, just on a much smaller scale at a molecular level."
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Scientists Create World's First 'Molecular Robot' Capable of Building Molecules

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  • watch us, we are coming.
    • by irving47 ( 73147 )

      Go pick on the Borg. (please)

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Actually, this reminds me more of the video game "SpaceChem [zachtronics.com]". It's almost as if these researchers went "hey, here's a crazy idea, let's make one of those waldos for real".

        (If you don't know the game, it's really worth checking out, one of the best puzzle games ever invented and I don't say that lightly).

        • by Cryacin ( 657549 )
          Speaking of games and nanotech awesomeness, I loved Anarchy online's take on Nano bots. As nanobots were ubiquitous on the planet, a special caste of character was used to hacking other nano bot networks, and basically performing magic. Even the engineers leveraged the bots to create stuff.

          Although it sounds crazy now, there will be a day when we can throw a bunch of lawn clippings in a pile, and get a pile of synthesized meat appearing. We won't have the concept of rubbish anymore, as literally everythin
      • Go pick on the Borg. (please)

        Resistance is futile.

    • Was that from the episode where Wesley's nanites got loose?

      And.... Holy Crap we have them now!!!

      • And.... Holy Crap we have them now!!!

        No, we don't. What they're describing is literally nothing like nanites.

        • Can you clarify? I don't like being wrong, but if I am I want to know how I am.
          • Sure, nanites (at least as popularly conceived) are molecular robots. What this article is describing is not, it's more like a catalyst.

            • Well thanks for bursting my balloon, raining on my parade, breaking my heart and ruining my day. Yeah, maybe it's the article's fault for deceptively getting my hopes up, but I'm making you mop up my tears anyhow.
  • by Gerald Butler ( 3528265 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @02:18AM (#55236857)

    World turned into "Gray Goo" in 3....2.....1

    • Re:First Gray Goo! (Score:4, Informative)

      by null etc. ( 524767 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @07:40AM (#55237663)

      3....2.....1

      Actually, the age of the universe is 10^18 seconds. A grain of sand contains 10^20 atoms. If a nanobot created one atom per second, it would take 100 times the age of the universe to construct a simple grain of sand.

      • Those numbers are comforting, but you know we'll be building 10^255 of those nanobots, right?

      • The universe has always existed. What you said was from your former point of view. That was then, this is now.
      • yes but if nano bots could create nanobots this wouldn't be a problem

        1 nano bot is 150 atoms so it would take 150 seconds to create 1 nanobot at 1 second per atom.

        so lets say you want to construct that 10^20 atom grain of sand in 1 second you need 10^20 nanobots.

        sum of a geometric series is a(1-r^n)/(1-r) for our case r is the result is 10^20 a is 1 solve for n (will give number of 150 second blocks)

        so that is log base 2 of (2* 10^20) *150 seconds that is about 2 hours 49 minutes, controlling them is anothe

        • isn't exponential growth fun.

          Exponential growth is only possible if:

          1. The nanobots aren't controlled by a centralized manager that has to scale to managing exponentially large numbers of nanobots.
          2. The nanobots can manipulate any molecule that's present, not just specially prepared molecules.
          3. The nanobots can construct other nanobots from any molecule that's present, not just specially prepared molecules.
          4. The nanobots can travel quickly enough to other molecules, once the molecules it's working on are manipulated.
          5. The nanobots

          • I agree, that there are many problems with exponential growth, it think I mentioned
            control (points1, 5),

            controlling them is another issue though.

            travel (point 4), resource availability (point 2,3)

            there will be resource limits an travel time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v549/n7672/full/nature23677.html

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "millionth of a millimeter in size" = 10^-9 m (diameter of the machine)
    " billion billion of these robots piled on top of each other" = 10^-9 x 10^9 x 10^9 = 10^9 m (size of a grain of salt according to the article).
    Or alternatively, as UK defines "billion" according to the long scale, the grain of salt is 10^-9 x 10^12 x 10^12 = 10^15 m in diameter.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Or alternatively, as UK defines "billion" according to the long scale, the grain of salt is 10^-9 x 10^12 x 10^12 = 10^15 m in diameter.

      It's a long time since that definition of "billion" was in common use here in the UK.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Well, it's a pile, not a stack, they don't have to be exactly on top of each other. One bot is 10^-27 m^3. A billion billion of those would be 10^-9 m^3 which is 1 mm^3. That's a big grain of salt, but not quite as far off.

      • by Calydor ( 739835 )

        I've got some sea salt I use for pasta which is definitely larger than 1 cubic millimeter per grain, so it's actually not off at all.

        • Yeah, the regular table salt I have right here is pretty much all ~1mm^3.

          (tastes)

          Oh wait, that's sugar.

          ("tastes" some more...)

          Hum... sugar.... <Homer>Aaaaarrrrglllllll...</Homer>

  • by Romancer ( 19668 ) <romancer@@@deathsdoor...com> on Thursday September 21, 2017 @02:31AM (#55236893) Journal

    We will build. We will become more, and many.

    Bobiverse begins.

  • by msevior ( 145103 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @02:32AM (#55236905)

    If so we will finally have self-replicating robots and all that they entail...

    • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @03:46AM (#55237011)

      May not need to.

      Given the size of the robots in question, and the means by which they are programmed/operated, it would make sense to create artificial gene sequences to use the cellular machinery inside a living cell already to manufacture, and control these molecular robots, as they would be very useful chaperons to enzymes and other proteins. (both are "huge" by comparison, if the statement given in the article is accurate.)

      Since they are controlled via submersion in different chemical solutions, the insides of a complex (by this I mean, having real organelles) single celled organism sounds like the ideal place to use and operate these, since the organisms already create vacuoles containing various solutions for a variety of purposes.

      Adding them to a cell's toolkit in this way would be a radical advancement in what can be done in petri dishes or glassware. Arbitrary modifications of existing in-vivo protein and enzyme interactions would open a lot of doors.

      • Given the size of the robots in question, and the means by which they are programmed/operated, it would make sense to create artificial gene sequences to use the cellular machinery inside a living cell already to manufacture, and control these molecular robots, as they would be very useful chaperons to enzymes and other proteins.

        DNA does not permit you to specify the position of molecules. Not all ends are achievable with DNA. That's why humans can (theoretically/occasionally) out-optimize nature. No matter how many times nature "tries" to accomplish certain ends with DNA, they will always remain impossible.

        • The idea is to use the cellular machinery to create a "soup" of precursor molecules inside some larger structure, with appropriate sized orifices, then deliver the reactants in small quantities using ion channel driven pumps, so that the microbots are manufactured through self-assembly. The cell just does some heavy lifting of taking "Large organic food molecules", turning them into more simplistic reactants, and then providing the more controlled environment for assembly.

          After that, it may drag them around

        • DNA does not permit you to specify the position of molecules

          DNA encodes the map to make enzymes, which can do much more than DNA itself

  • Millionth of a millimeter = one nanonometer. I don't think so. One micrometer would be a believable scale. Hard to take anything else in the article seriously with that gaffe.

    • One mm = 10^-3m. 10^-6 x 10^-3m = 10^-9m = 1nm = one nanometer. I have no idea what a nanonometer should be, but it's hard to take you seriously with that gaffe :-).

    • by Megol ( 3135005 )

      As the AC replied 1um is something one can do with metal work - with the semiconductor industry (with optical lithography) working on the nanometer level (tens of nm for most parts, atomic layer deposition can do better but only in one dimension).

      In fact amateurs can do work on the 1um level with some effort though not on a large scale.

  • by Suki I ( 1546431 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @04:50AM (#55237133) Homepage Journal

    How much molecular acid did they use?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Greet our new nano robotic overlords who can control my chemical structure and affect how and what I think about and are not in any way force me to say what I say now.

  • by sabbede ( 2678435 ) on Thursday September 21, 2017 @07:24AM (#55237589)
    This is huge! Yet so incredibly small...
  • I would be far more concerned about the implications of this technology especially if used for terrorism than climate change or overpopulation. We could do ourselves in very quickly with this sort of thing.
  • So from what I can gather, they seem to be talking about something that behaves like a flexible protein that they can control from outside the solution. I would be curious to see how "general use" their devices are, I would assume they'd be relatively specific to the reaction.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Removing cholesterol from one's arteries? And those damn Stents that are NOT bio-degradable.
  • I'm supposed to believe that a fully programmable robot can be created out of just 150 *basic* parts? Whatever this is, I would not call it a robot.

    • by Kogun ( 170504 )
      I've wrestled with the term robot as well and as I've previously discovered, there's not a particularly rigid definition of 'robot' that is widely accepted.

      But worrying aboutthe term misses the point of this development. This is device is a proof of concept level device and the implications are huge. To use a gross analogy, the leap in capability this represent is as significant as the agricultural revolution.
    • by tomhath ( 637240 )
      Yea, this sounds more like a catalyst than a robot.
  • When nanotech was discussed back in the 80s, there was a general feeling that developments such as this one were just a few decades off.
  • Now that we've officially entered a grey goo scenario, I think I'm going to sign up with SpaceX to help colonize Mars. Anyone with me?
  • Gentlemen this means the Extinction of all Ethanol on Earth!

  • This is not even the first artificial enzyme.
  • It sounds more like a catalyst.

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