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Molecular motor

This article is about biological molecular motors. For man-made molecular motors, see Synthetic molecular motor.

Molecular motors are biological molecular machines that are the essential agents of movement in living organisms. In general terms, a motor may be defined as a device that consumes energy in one form and converts it into motion or mechanical work; for example, many protein-based molecular motors harness the chemical free energy released by the hydrolysis of ATP in order to perform mechanical work.[1] In terms of energetic efficiency, this type of motor can be superior to currently available man-made motors. One important difference between molecular motors and macroscopic motors is that molecular motors operate in the thermal bath, an environment in which the fluctuations due to thermal noise are significant.


Some examples of biologically important molecular motors:[2]

  • Cytoskeletal motors
    • Myosins are responsible for muscle contraction, intracellular cargo transport, and producing cellular tension.
    • Kinesin moves cargo inside cells away from the nucleus along microtubules.
    • Dynein produces the axonemal beating of cilia and flagella and also transports cargo along microtubules towards the cell nucleus.
  • Polymerisation motors
    • Actin polymerization generates forces and can be used for propulsion. ATP is used.
    • Microtubule polymerization using GTP.
    • Dynamin is responsible for the separation of clathrin buds from the plasma membrane. GTP is used.
  • Rotary motors:
    • FoF1-ATP synthase family of proteins convert the chemical energy in ATP to the electrochemical potential energy of a proton gradient across a membrane or the other way around. The catalysis of the chemical reaction and the movement of protons are coupled to each other via the mechanical rotation of parts of the complex. This is involved in ATP synthesis in the mitochondria and chloroplasts as well as in pumping of protons across the vacuolar membrane.[3]
    • The bacterial flagellum responsible for the swimming and tumbling of E. coli and other bacteria acts as a rigid propeller that is powered by a rotary motor. This motor is driven by the flow of protons across a membrane, possibly using a similar mechanism to that found in the Fo motor in ATP synthase.
  • Nucleic acid motors:
  • Synthetic molecular motors have been created by chemists that yield rotation, possibly generating torque.

Theoretical considerations

Because the motor events are stochastic, molecular motors are often modeled with the Fokker-Planck equation or with Monte Carlo methods. These theoretical models are especially useful when treating the molecular motor as a Brownian motor.

Experimental observation

In experimental biophysics, the activity of molecular motors is observed with many different experimental approaches, among them:

  • Fluorescent methods: fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS), total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF).
  • Magnetic tweezers can also be useful for analysis of motors that operate on long pieces of DNA.
  • Neutron spin echo spectroscopy can be used to observe motion on nanosecond timescales.
  • Optical tweezers are well-suited for studying molecular motors because of their low spring constants.
  • Single-molecule electrophysiology can be used to measure the dynamics of individual ion channels.

Many more techniques are also used. As new technologies and methods are developed, it is expected that knowledge of naturally occurring molecular motors will be helpful in constructing synthetic nanoscale motors.


Recently, chemists and those involved in nanotechnology have begun to explore the possibility of creating molecular motors de novo. These synthetic molecular motors currently suffer many limitations that confine their use to the research laboratory. However, many of these limitations may be overcome as our understanding of chemistry and physics at the nanoscale increases. Systems like the nanocars, while not technically motors, are illustrative of recent efforts towards synthetic nanoscale motors.

See also


  1. ^ Bustamante C, Chemla YR, Forde NR, Izhaky D (2004). "Mechanical processes in biochemistry". Annu. Rev. Biochem. 73: 705–48. PMID 15189157. doi:10.1146/annurev.biochem.72.121801.161542. 
  2. ^ Nelson, P.; M. Radosavljevic; S. Bromberg (2004). Biological physics. Freeman. 
  3. ^ Tsunoda SP, Aggeler R, Yoshida M, Capaldi RA (January 2001). "Rotation of the c subunit oligomer in fully functional F1Fo ATP synthase". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 98 (3): 898–902. Bibcode:2001PNAS...98..898T. PMC 14681. PMID 11158567. doi:10.1073/pnas.031564198. 
  4. ^ Dworkin J, Losick R (October 2002). "Does RNA polymerase help drive chromosome segregation in bacteria?". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 99 (22): 14089–94. Bibcode:2002PNAS...9914089D. PMC 137841. PMID 12384568. doi:10.1073/pnas.182539899. 
  5. ^ I. Hubscher, U.; Maga, G.; Spadari, S. (2002). "Eukaryotic DNA polymerases". Annual Review of Biochemistry 71: 133–63. PMID 12045093. doi:10.1146/annurev.biochem.71.090501.150041. 
  6. ^ Smith DE, Tans SJ, Smith SB, Grimes S, Anderson DL, Bustamante C (October 2001). "The bacteriophage straight phi29 portal motor can package DNA against a large internal force". Nature 413 (6857): 748–52. Bibcode:2001Natur.413..748S. PMID 11607035. doi:10.1038/35099581. 
  7. ^ Peterson C (1994). "The SMC family: novel motor proteins for chromosome condensation?". Cell 79 (3): 389–92. PMID 7954805. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(94)90247-X. 
  8. ^ Robert Sanders, Molecular motor powerful enough to pack DNA into viruses at greater than champagne pressures, researchers report, Press release, University of California

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