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Molecular machines mechanically talk to cells

Published in Nanotech.

Artificial motors’ gentle tug can activate immune cells

For the first time, an artificial molecular motor has been created that can ‘talk’ to living cells – by gently pulling their surface with enough physical force to elicit a biochemical response. The approach could help scientists decode the language that cells use to communicate with each other in tissues.

‘There is a mechanical language in the form of physical forces applied by the cells themselves, and we want to understand what information is communicated and what the consequences are,’ explains Aránzazu del Campo, who led the study at the Leibniz Institute for New Materials, Germany. ‘Ultimately, we want to be able to provide signals to cells and guide their function when they are not able to do that by themselves in disease cases.’

Usually, studying how cells communicate by sensing mechanical stimuli and producing biochemical responses requires prodding them with pipettes or the tip of an atomic force microscope. However, this doesn’t work at the more complex tissue level.

Now, del Campo’s team has shown how this could be achieved with alkene-based molecular motors that use energy from ultraviolet (UV) light to delicately pull on cell membranes with tiny amounts of force and trigger a biochemical response.

The motors comprise a stator and a rotor part, out of which protrude four polyethylene glycol arms. Motors are attached, using two of these arms, to membrane receptors of cells in culture. Meanwhile, the other two arms are tethered to a hydrogel designed to mimic a cell surface or a protein that a cell would usually interact with.