In every cell in your body, tiny protein motors are toiling away to keep you going. Moving muscles, dividing cells, twisting DNA — they are the workhorses of biology. But there is still uncertainty about how they function. To help biologists in the quest to know more, a team of Stanford bioengineers has designed a suite of protein motors that can be controlled remotely by light.

“Biology is full of these nanoscale machines that can perform complex tasks,” said Zev Bryant, PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering. “We want to understand how they can convert chemical energy into mechanical work and perform their specific tasks in cells.”

Bryant’s team, including doctoral student Muneaki Nakamura, designed blueprints for protein motors that would respond to light. Splicing together DNA from different organisms such as pig, slime mold and oat — the oat had the light-detecting module — the bioengineers created DNA codes for each of their protein motors.

The remote-controlled nanomotors are described in a paper that appeared online Aug. 3 in Nature Nanotechnology. Bryant is senior author of the paper, and Nakamura is the lead author.

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