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Active biomimetic systems

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Understanding molecular motors

EU-funded scientists studied intracellular ‘railroad tracks’ and the mechanism by which molecular motors interact with them to transport molecules. Potential applications of biological motors include medicine and nano-scale manufacturing.

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Cells are often modelled as small factories with numerous departments (organelles) responsible for specific functions. Moving ‘cargo’ (typically protein-based molecules) within the intracellular milieu from one department to another or to the cell membrane for insertion or ‘expulsion’ is often carried out by molecular transporters. A molecular motor molecule binds the molecule to be transported and also binds to structural elements of the cell that are much like railroad tracks. Binding and unbinding to these tracks moves the cargo along in an energy-dependent way. Cellular distribution systems are ‘train tracks’ of actin filaments together with myosin motors (the muscle contraction system) or microtubules with either kinesin or dynein motors. European researchers initiated the ‘Active biomimetic systems’ (Active Biomics) project to study two types of molecular machines, growing filaments that generate a pushing force and stepping motors that generate a pulling force. The goal was to understand the self-assembly and force-generating mechanisms in both systems and thus develop and control the activity of biomimetic motors (those that imitate biology). Experimental work provided insight into molecular mechanisms underlying force generation by thick bundles of actin filaments and molecular mechanisms accounting for their motility. Several biomimetic actin-myosin systems were developed and built on the nano-scale, an important step toward development of ‘nanomuscles’. Molecular modelling complemented by experimental investigation elucidated important facets of the mechanism and molecular binding domains between the kinesin motor and microtubules. Scientists also studied the behaviour of kinesin when immobilised on a structured surface, important to eventual building of a biomimetic motor. Active Biomics developed novel assays and experimental techniques as well as theoretical models of so-called molecular motors. Results facilitated elucidation of mechanisms and structural entities involved in force generation. Eventual commercial availability of biomimetic motors could have important impact on bioengineering of artificial muscle, medical sorting devices and active drug delivery, not to mention development of nano-scale manufacturing.

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