Here is an essay I wrote while reflecting on and researching a lecture I heard by Yale Goldman, Professor of Physiology at the Pennsylvania Muscle Institute, and associate director of the NBIC at Penn.
How do you make a nanobot?
Imagine you are playing with a set of Legos. This set is one of the newer
ones. It has all kinds of blocks, gears, wheels, pulleys, batteries, etc. Put diﬀerent
combinations of them together and you can build a house or maybe if you’re feeling
clever, a machine. Suppose you make a small battery-powered car. Imagine shrinking
this car. As it shrinks, the number of atoms in each Lego block must become fewer.
Eventually, you may reach the limit where each block is one atom. What if we could
make machines like this?
Eric Drexler had this vision in his 1987 book Engines of Creation: The Com-
ing Era of Nanotechnology. He imagined if we could manipulate atoms like Legos,
we could build nanomachines from the ground up, atom by atom. One could create
diﬀerent kinds of machines by simply using diﬀerent assemblies of atoms. Drexler
hoped that these “nanobots” could be used to do all sorts of things, like deliver drugs
to speciﬁc sites within the body. Micheal Crichton in his 2002 novel Prey envisioned
these nanobots existing, but in a typical Crichton ending the bots take over and kill
us. While Drexler’s vision is intriguing (and Crichton’s vision is scary), these hopes
(fears) should be looked at skeptically. For starters, it’s simply not possible to build
nanomachines using Drexler’s scheme.
Why is this? Consider a Lego block ﬂoating in a cup of water. This block is
surrounded by water molecules. The water molecules are constantly jostling about
due to a phenomenon called Brownian motion. You won’t see the eﬀect of this phe-
nomenon with the Lego. Change the Lego to a speck of dust. The dust is much
smaller than the Lego and so is more aﬀected by the jostling of the water molecules.
(You can actually see the dust being randomly jiggled around if you do this experi-
ment.) Now, imagine changing the speck to a single sugar molecule, comparable in
size to the water molecules. What was gentle jiggling of the dust translates into vio-
lent jostling of the sugar molecule. In fact, the sugar molecule collides with the water
molecules about a trillion times per second! So we really can’t place atoms together
in an orderly fashion like we can with Legos: the wind is too strong. In brief, the
nanoscale is a much harsher environment than the macroscale.
Despite the seemingly impossible construction challenge of Brownian motion,
nanomachines are ubiquitous. They are around us and already inside of us! Fear not,
as they are supposed to be there. They are naturally occurring biological molecules
that keep us functioning. So in order to make artiﬁcial nanomachines, we might need
to steal ideas that nature is already using. Biological nanomachines make use of a
few tricks, that scientists one day hope to copy. First, their molecular makeup is pre-
programmed by a DNA sequence. Secondly, they undergo self-assembly to make up
their ﬁnal shape. Lastly, they use the Brownian motion of the surrounding molecules
to their advantage rather than detriment.
One example of a natural nanomachine is myosin. There are several diﬀerent
varieties of myosin. They are all motor proteins that “walk” along long actin ﬁbers.
All myosins are actuators, machines that convert one form of energy to another. Like
the motor in a battery-powered car converts electrical energy into motion, myosin con-
verts the energy of a chemical reaction (ATP to ADP) into motion. Clearly myosin
is a great model nanomachine to study for future technology. One common variety
of myosin (II) is responsible for ﬂexing our muscles by sliding the ﬁlaments against
each other. One variety (V), is responsible for moving large amounts of cargo along
actin ﬁbers. Myosin V has two “hands”, and seems to move hand-over-hand along
actin, similar to a child on monkey bars [Corrie, J.E.T., et. al. Nature 422, 399
(2003)]. However there does seem to be a key diﬀerence. The child on monkey bars
releases one hand, then does a power stroke with the free hand to get to the next
rung. Myosin does the same motion, but its power stroke only takes it 2/3 of the
way. It then lets the Brownian motion of the surrounding water push the rest of the
way [Shiroguchi, K. et. al. Science 316, 1208 (2007)]. By taking advantage of this
Brownian motion the eﬃciency of the system is about 50%, very comparable to an
While artiﬁcial nanomachines are still only a vision, it’s clear that natural
nanomachines are excellent prototypes. Unfortunately, our technology is not at the
stage where we can really imitate them. What scientists can do (and are doing now)
is try to understand more deeply how these fascinating natural nanomachines work,
and use this understanding to inform future technologies.
 Drexler, Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, 1987
 Crichton, Micheal. Prey, 2002
 Goldman, Yale. “Nature’s Nanotechnology: Biomolecules Explored One at a Time” Penn Science Café Lecture, 20th October 2010.
 Corrie, J.E.T., et. al. Nature 422, 399 (2003).
 Shiroguchi, K. et. al. Science 316, 1208 (2007).