What can machines tell us about the human body? Scientists are working on creating machines that can simulate the body’s functions down to the cellular level and smaller, making it possible to test medications, procedures, and theories about how diseases such as cancer work without putting people at risk. For example, scientists in Manchester, in England, recently created a robot ribosome that mimics the part of the cell that builds proteins out of DNA.
This can help researchers in figuring out exactly how real ribosomes do what they do, how the process sometimes goes awry, and how it can be harnessed in the service of health. The robot itself can also be used to manufacture organic compounds out of molecules that are difficult to produce in the lab by standard techniques.
“Just as robots are used to assemble cars in factories in the big world, one day we hope we will be able to use artificial machines like these in molecular factories to construct new things with great efficiency,” David Leigh told the BBC. Leigh and his team were the researchers behind the robotic ribosome. He went on to suggest that his machine could someday go beyond the ribosome and use molecules biological mechanisms can’t act on.
Cellular ribosomes read the instructions encoded in DNA to assemble chemicals called amino acids into protein chains called polypeptides. These proteins are then used in the construction of organs and other tissue.
“[W]ith our artificial machines, we’re not limited by the same building blocks of nature. So, we should be able to make new materials with other types of building blocks—new types of plastics, new types of catalysts, pharmaceuticals and so on,” Leigh said.
In the future, the process may be used to synthesize medications for specific conditions. The technique might even be able to make medications to order, fist figuring out what the illness might respond to and then building a medication to fit. The artificial ribosome, and the lab-created code it reads, wouldn’t be restricted to organic substances found in nature.