Optical trap provides new insights into motor molecules - nature`s ultimate nanomachines

When it comes to nanotechnology, many researchers turn to nature for inspiration. Of particular interest to nanoengineers is the naturally occurring protein kinesin - one of several ''motor molecules'' that facilitate movement in living cells.

A mere ten-millionth of an inch long, kinesin is the workhorse of the cell, hauling chromosomes, neurotransmitters and other vital cargo along tiny tracks called ''microtubules.'' While one end of a kinesin molecule holds onto its cargo, the other end uses a strange two-headed structure to grab the microtubule and pull the cargo forward.

To engineers, kinesin's remarkably fuel-efficient motor serves as the ideal model for a variety of futuristic nanotechnologies - from nanofactories that would fit inside a computer chip to nanoimplants that could be placed under the skin and deliver minute doses of medication to targeted cells.

If devices are to become reality, researchers first need to solve a fundamental mystery about kinesin: How does it move? A new laser microscope designed by Stanford University scientist Steven Block and his co-workers is providing new clues. Their latest results are published in the March 3 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Controversial movement

''How kinesin moves is quite controversial,'' said Block, a professor of applied physics and of biological sciences, and a pioneer in motor molecule research. ''The working hypothesis is that kinesin's two heads move in a hand-over-hand method, which allows it to support loads over great distances. It can't hop, because the minute it lets go of the microtubule, it would fall off.''

The Block lab's newest instrument - called a ''two-dimensional optical force clamp'' - gives researchers unprecedented ability to control and observe individual kinesin molecules.

''Using an invisible beam of infrared light, we can grasp and manipulate small things in the microscope, m

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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