Scientists observe your body's own self-assembling nanomachines in action

Your body contains natural processes that are akin to the nanomachines that we hope to build in the future — creating tiny mechanisms out of proteins that can do repair work at tiny scales. But because of the incredibly small scales and lightning fast processes of these mechanisms, we've almost never been able to see these natural nanomachines at work. Until now.

A research team in Montreal has uncovered a way to observe and chronicle these processes, offering insights that could lead to the treatment of diseases at the nanoscale.

Some proteins can do a really neat trick. They're made of long linear chains of amino acids, which have evolved over millions of years to self-assemble extremely rapidly into working nanomachines — a process that can take as little as a thousandth of a second. These transformations of proteins, from amino acid chains to microscopic machines, have enabled living organisms to monitor and transform our environment. For example, complex receptor proteins are activated in the presence of different odor molecules.

Biochemists have always wanted to understand more fully how these proteins assemble into their correct structure, given the fantastically vast space of all possible configurations. And now, bioengineers from the University of Montreal have developed a technique to capture snapshots of its shape at each stage of assembly. The researchers, Alexis Vallée-Bélisle and Stephen W. Michnick, were able to do this by integrating fluorescent probes throughout the linear protein chain so that they could detect the structure of each stage of protein assembly, step by step, until its final structure.

To get a better sense of how this works, we spoke to Dr. Michnick, who noted that all amino acids give off a unique wavelength signature when they're in a specific position. These specific orientations are in turn captured by the fluorescent probes. "It's actually dead obvious," he tells io9, "It's really old technology — the only thing that's new is that we did it." The biggest worry about this methodology is that observing the protein in this way will alter the way the process behaves — but Michnick and his team found that wasn't true.

The researchers admit that the protein assembly process is not the end of the story, as proteins continue to change on account of other chemical and aging processes. But that said, Michnhick says he's excited by the possibility of using these insights to design protein nanomachines for biotechnologies. Specific applications could include medical and environmental diagnostic sensors, and more advanced methods of drug delivery. "Everything that happens to a protein that's good or bad involves a transformation," Michnhick notes. "The implications are almost endless."

Via Eurekalert. Image via Stephen W. Michnick.