Sperm Powered Locomotion in Nanobots

Nicholas Moll

Marine Science Major


For years, many scientist have dreamed of one day using nanobots for medical purposes, in production and in construction. These ideas have been the stuff of science fiction for years but nanobots may be closer than you think! Chinatsu Mukai, Alex Travis and some other researchers at Cornell University are looking at human physiology for inspiration on powering nanobots. Where they are looking may surprise you.

Creating an efficient, artificial power system for anything at the cellular scale is a problem that has not been easily solved. You would need a power source that can run the system you are trying to create that isn’t too cumbersome. These scientists may have found a solution! After many tests, they may have figured out a way to create an artificial flagellum(the tail of a sperm) which may hold the key to the power system we will need!

Dr. Travis has been working with graduate students on developing this technology. “Building on their past studies of sperm’s energy-making enzymes, Dr. Travis and his colleagues are working to mimic the way these enzymes are organized in the tail, called a “flagellum”, to create enzyme machines powered by sugar. These tiny powerhouses could eventually be integrated into implanted hybrid biological/mechanical medical devices, where they would run on the sugars available in a patient’s bloodstream.” This excerpt is from Alex Travis’ bio on the Cornell website.  

Going back to basic biology, most cells in the human body have little organelles called mitochondria that produce ATP, which is basically a universal unit of energy for a cell, out of sugar. The helix structure of the flagellum is an efficient set up for the placement of the mitochondria that, if attached to any nanotech, could use sugar that is already in the bloodstream. It may even use up a couple of calories!

Now before you start get grossed out, these scientists are not actually planning on injecting sperm, in this case mouse sperm, into anyone. These researchers are merely molding their system of enzymes to mimic the effect of the flagellum. The process is actually kind of ingenious. Similar systems have been created in the past but those didn’t work very well. The old method had no way to organize how the enzymes connected with each other and the whole process was incredible inefficient. The team at Cornwell have figured out a way to connect a nickel based ion to a microscopic gold chip and these ions are fantastic for attracting the enzymes. This allows a more orderly system to be created and used in the lab. Now they are testing if the immune system will try to attack them, a deciding factor of the viability of this nanotech.

The work that is being done during the epoch of the technological revolution is astounding. There are things being created now that most people couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago. The technology that is being used to connect these enzymes to the gold chip in this lab could be the precursor for some variety of a remote controlled nanobot. That device could have the potential to diagnose many kinds of brain trauma, or strokes, within minutes! Watch what happens in science these days, you will be surprised.


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