Nobelist: Molecular machines can work like smart drugs

In science things often go wrong, sometimes for a long time, but these failures can lead to something beautiful, says 2016 Nobel Prize Laureate Ben Feringa.

Ben Feringa during a lecture at the Comenius University. He visited Slovakia at the invitation of the Slovak Chemical Society at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and his stay was supported by Comenius University in Bratislava, the Embassy of the Netherlands to Slovakia and the ESET Foundation within the ESET Science Award project. Ben Feringa during a lecture at the Comenius University. He visited Slovakia at the invitation of the Slovak Chemical Society at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and his stay was supported by Comenius University in Bratislava, the Embassy of the Netherlands to Slovakia and the ESET Foundation within the ESET Science Award project. (Source: Courtesy of Comenius University)

Ben Feringa was 20 years old when he made a brand new molecule. It turned out to be of no use, but that did not disappoint him. Feringa still remembers how proud and happy he was about his discovery. His career as a scientist has been paved with several moments of disappointment and frustration, yet he never lost his passion for science and joy of discovery. In the end, he was awarded the prize every scientist dreams of.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Ben Feringa, who with J. Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why did you decide to focus on chemistry?

Ben Feringa (BF): I grew up on a farm in a very small village in a remote area of the north-east of Holland. I was a typical natural science boy who wanted to discover. I read books about discoverers and adventurers like Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Einstein or Newton and I liked maths, biology, chemistry and physics. The most important decisive moment came in high school where I had a very good and encouraging chemistry and physics teacher. He did experiments with us, told beautiful stories and put them in the context, and challenged us to learn and discover. That set me on to study chemistry.

TSS: You made your first molecule when you were 20. What kind of molecule was it?

BF: I studied at the University of Groningen back then. In my third year, I got a small research project and I made a completely new molecule. My professor told me: “Oh, this is fantastic. You made a molecule that nobody made before in the whole world. But it is absolutely useless.” Nevertheless, I felt so proud and happy. I still remember this feeling.

TSS: Was this feeling stronger than when you received the Nobel Prize?

BF: You have several moments in life when you are excited. Imagine artists, athletes or journalists. Sometimes you come up with things and think “Wow, this was great, I learned or discovered something”. But there are also many moments of frustration, like in science you often get it wrong. And sometimes it goes wrong for a long time. Building a nanocar took me 10 years with several generations of students. But sometimes you discover something and it’s really joyful and it’s beautiful. That is what I mean when I talk about passion for discovery and science. Then you can also withstand the obstacles and climb mountains.

TSS: Did the Nobel Prize change your life?

BF: It changed it from the very first moment. I now know a little what it is like to be a celebrity. People recognise me on the street and they want to have selfies with me. I go to high schools and public events a lot to educate why science and education is important. I also try to make clear to the general public and politicians why we should invest in science and education because it is important for our future.

TSS: You have built the first nanomotor in the world. What will it be used for?

BF: You have to first realise that your body is filled with biological molecular motors and machines. The effect is that we can speak with each other, move our arm, write, walk and that things are transported within your body. In the world around us the cars on the street, trains, factories are full of motors, but a piece of plastic does not move. Now we can make it move as we can make molecules and materials that can move - nanomotors and nanomachines, 1 billion of a metre in size. This was the main discovery.

TSS: What drives them?

BF: The first motor that we developed was powered by light and was rotational. Recently we also made an artificial muscle - many motors put together in a kind of a fibre. When we put a lamp on it, it moves like the muscle in your arm. It can pick up a piece of paper, for example.

TSS: How do you build nanomachines? Do you use tiny instruments?

BF: Not at all. You build it by chemical reactions, like in your body. All these machines in your body, proteins and the DNA, are built by these reactions. You have molecules, and you can use them to make chemical reactions, i.e. break chemical bonds and make new ones. This is how we make new molecules. Sometimes it needs 10 steps and sometimes even 30 chemical steps in the lab.

TSS: How did you come up with the idea to develop the molecular machine?

BF: In science, things often happen by accident. This happened when we were designing molecular switches. We discovered that one switch was not switching back and after some experiments with students we realised that it was rotating. We thought: Wow, it is like a motor. And it worked only when we used light. That was the eureka moment. Six years later, we discovered that we could use it to rotate something. We could see with the naked eye the motor rotating an object that was 10,000 times larger than it. Can you imagine how exciting this moment was?

TSS: These molecular machines can be used for pharmaceuticals, for example. What other purposes might they serve?

BF: It is very early days for molecular machines. This is a fundamental science. I often feel like a baby taking the first steps and trying to walk and maybe in the future it can run a marathon.

Now people around the world, including our group, are working on self-healing material. When you scratch your finger, it heals itself after a few days, but when you scratch your mobile phone, you have to buy a new coating. If it has this kind of machine-type moving function, you can imagine that it repairs itself because it moves molecules and clicks them together again.

We can also think about a tiny robot that can deliver the drug in your body or maybe carry out a repair or about self-cleaning windows.

TSS: When do you think such materials will become common?

BF: In China, they are now preparing the first self-cleaning window experimentally. Lots of people are working on self-repairing materials. Maybe 10 years from now, you can make a coating that will repair itself with just one wipe when scratched. This means, if you scratch your car, you will not have to go to the garage in future. But it is difficult to predict. Nobody would have predicted in the 1950s that we would have smartphones today.

TSS: Did the nanocar you built really drive?

BF: It could move, not very straight but autonomously. We wanted to show that by rotation you can move something forward. We had a discussion with my students, and they said: Let’s build a nano-car. We built a four-wheel drive. And it worked.

TSS: If we enlarged it, would it look like a real car with wheels?

BF: No. In your body, there are many nanomachines and transporters. And they don’t look like a car at all.

TSS: At your lecture at Comenius University you used an example about a pigeon and an airplane. Both fly but they use completely different mechanisms. Is this the way scientists usually think?

BF: In science you think about opportunities. Think about smartphones. Inside of each is a computer and it can get all kinds of information and it can do calculations and translations. It isn’t engineered like your brain, but it works perfectly. It is the same as with a plane, which does it job perfectly.

Scientists think about designing new materials and how could they be used. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as the nature does it. But we can learn from nature and then use molecules and materials and built new ones. At the end it is all based on Mother Earth and what we have around us because there’s nothing else to use. But we should use it in a way that doesn’t destroy our world. Everybody likes to drive, fly and use computers. Our mission is to do this better and keep ourselves flying and using computers even hundred years from now. If we are smart enough, we can do it.

TSS: What are the biggest challenges in chemistry today?

BF: One of the challenges is how to recycle materials. Can we use our plastics again? That means we have to go back to the components, purify and use them again, without burning or throwing them away. That is not so easy. A second important aspect is how to carry out our chemical process, the way we make things in a more efficient way, i.e. use less energy, generate less waste or make better products. When you have a new pharmaceutical, it works for maybe 70 percent of the people. If we get a much better understanding of what happens between molecules, how the molecules communicate, we can make more effective drugs. There are many of these challenges where nanotechnology can be used.

TSS: Are young people interested in science or in chemistry?

BF: I get a lot of possible feedback when I go to schools. Of course, not everybody will be a scientist. Sometimes children ask me: “What should I do?” There is not one rule. I always say that I don’t know how to make their choices but I advise them to follow their dreams. Every kid is talented. One is talented to become a journalist or a teacher or to work at a company. You should follow your talent even if it’s difficult. But you should get that good feeling from it like you did something great. If you never get that feeling, you can’t be passionate about your work.

TSS: You will also have a Slovak student in your group.

BF: It’s wonderful when you have students from other countries. They come from Slovakia, Japan, China, America and they are all working together in one team or institute. They challenge each other, but they also learn from each other about different cultures. This is the beauty of community at universities and I enjoy it very much.

TSS: Sometimes it takes years to make a discovery. Do you get exhausted or burn out?

BF: I never burn out because I get energy from my students. If you cannot stand uncertainty or frustration, never become a scientist. Science is often a hard struggle and you need room for failures because you learn a lot from them. If everything goes perfect in school and later in life you face failure, you will become frustrated. You have to learn how to handle failure and learn from it. It’s like climbing the High Tatras: in the middle you realize that you have to climb hundreds of metres more. But at the top of the mountain you feel great that you did it.

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