Stanford scientists use noise to sort proteins

Two Stanford scientists have invented a device that could simplify the study of cells by isolating the molecules that inhabit the cell walls.

The device, which sorts molecules found in the cell membrane, is powered by an unconventional energy source, 'thermal noise' -- the random variations in energy found in a population of molecules at a given temperature.

"The ability to separate membrane-associated molecules is extremely important," says Steven G. Boxer, professor of chemistry at Stanford, "because they play a vital role in the life of the cell and have proven exceptionally difficult to purify, characterize and study."

Boxer and postdoctoral fellow Alexander van Oudenaarden developed the new sorting system and report on its design and operation in the Aug. 13 issue of the journal Science.

Unlike conventional separation techniques, their system can separate membrane molecules in their native environment and do so continuously, rather than in batches. Because it relies on fabrication techniques developed in the microelectronics industry, the device should be inexpensive to manufacture in volume and relatively simply to modify for specific purposes, Boxer said.

The array is a realization of a theoretical device called a Brownian ratchet, popularized by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, who used it to illustrate the inviolability of the second law of thermodynamics, the law that explains why it is always easier to make a mess than it is to clean it up.

The original Feynman version of a Brownian ratchet is a mechanical device that consists of two boxes joined by an axle. Four small vanes are attached to one end of the axle. Attached to the axle's other end is a ratchet, a saw-tooth wheel and a small pawl attached to a spring that permits the wheel to turn in only one direction.

The ratchet is powered by Brownian motion, the random motion exhibited by small particles floating through the air. The jerky motion is caused by the impact o

Contact: David F. Salisbury
Stanford University

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