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Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded for Molecular Machine Discoveries

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    Three investigators were named co-winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in designing and developing molecular machines.

    Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Ph.D., of the University of Strasbourg, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, and Bernard L. Feringa, Ph.D., of University of Groningen, were cited for developing molecules with controllable movements that can perform a task when energy is added.

    “The development of computing demonstrates how the miniaturization of technology can lead to a revolution. The 2016 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have miniaturized machines and taken chemistry to a new dimension,” the Nobel Assembly said in a statement.

    Dr. Sauvage took the first step toward developing a molecular machine in 1983, when he linked two ring-shaped molecules together to form a chain, called a catenane. The molecules were linked by a mechanical bond that was freer than the covalent bonds through which the atoms typically share electrons, allowing for movement of parts relative to each other, a property essential for machines to perform a task.

    Seven years later, Dr. Stoddart threaded a molecular ring onto a thin molecular axle, and showed that the ring was able to move along the axle. He applied that discovery, called a rotaxane, in the development of a molecular lift, a molecular muscle, and a molecule-based computer chip.

    Dr. Feringa in 1999 became the first person to develop a molecular motor when he got a molecular rotor blade to spin continually in the same direction. Using molecular motors, he rotated a glass cylinder that is 10,000 times bigger than the motor, and also designed a nanocar.

    “In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors,” the Nobel Assembly added. “Molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems.”

    Another application of molecular machines “could be delivering drugs within the body, for example, by applying them directly to cancer cells,” NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said in a separate statement by the agency.

    The NIH noted that Dr. Stoddart has been funded since 2010 by its National Cancer Institute, which has provided more than $2 million. “NIH is proud to have supported this work,” Dr. Collins added.

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