Seeing the Cubs win the World Series after 108 years was a thrill beyond compare. But lately I’ve been quietly celebrating another victory that came to light when the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was announced last month.
This year the Nobel Committee honored 3 world-class chemists who, over the past 4 decades, have pioneered the development of machines 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
These molecular machines include such marvels as a tiny lift, artificial muscles and miniature motors. Research conducted by Nobel Laureates Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa laid the groundwork for their development, and I’m proud to have played a part.
As a PhD candidate at the University of Miami, I had the opportunity to help build the foundation of Dr. Stoddart’s research. At the time, I was studying rotaxanes – mechanically interlocked structures made of a dumbbell-shaped molecule threaded through a circular macrocycle that rotates around the dumbbell or moves between two points along its axis.
My work under Dr. Angel Kaifer eventually led to a 3-month assignment with Fraser Stoddart at the University of Birmingham (UK). Our synthesis and characterization of a molecular shuttle and its movement via electrochemistry and acid-base chemistry was described in a 1994 article published in the British scientific journal Nature.
Those years, especially the months spent in Fraser’s lab, were an incredibly exciting time for me. Fraser’s cutting-edge concepts attracted great thinkers from organic, inorganic, physical and analytical chemistry. Successful outcomes depended on all of us coming together to affirm what Fraser had always believed: that these machines, far from being purely academic curiosities, could perform real work.
That work is taking shape as the development of nanomachines moves forward. For example, rotaxanes can function as on-off switches, which means we may soon use them to store binary information for processes we want to carry out at the molecular level.
In reality, we can only imagine all the ways that molecular machines may improve our lives in the future. But knowing that miniaturization brought us the digital revolution, it’s easy to see that these tiny structures may drive the next wave of technological progress.
Fraser has given more than 30 years of his life to show the world what molecular machines may someday do for us. Within his work are the contributions of hundreds of students and fellow researchers who benefited from his mentorship. When I saw the diagrams of rotaxanes I had originally created for the Nature article in this Nobel video, I cheered for all of us who’ve been part of the larger effort.
Now a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, Fraser continues to guide and inspire young investigators. In an interview following the Nobel award, he stressed the collaborative value of bringing scientists together from many countries and cultural backgrounds.
“When you put them together in a research laboratory, they work like sisters and brothers,” he said, noting that he felt a fatherly and now, even grandfatherly relationship with his associates.
Many years after our first meeting, I can’t help but feel grateful for the chance to work with Fraser. I look forward to seeing what will happen next, and I’m hopeful that nanomachines will eventually help us fulfill Alfred Nobel’s vision of doing the greatest good for mankind.
Emilio Cordova is the CEO of SAMDI Tech, Inc. a contract research company offering label-free assays for high-throughput screening and peptide substrate discovery. The company recently expanded its space at the University Technology Park at IIT to serve its growing base of clients across the U.S. and the world.