Productive Nanosystems: The Movies

by Eric Drexler on 2009/01/30

A still frame from an animation of DNA replication by Drew Berry.
A DNA-replication machine
in action

In his comment on Molecular Machine Assembly: The Movie, Drew Whitehouse reminded me of a set of excellent animations of biological productive nanosystems, work done by Drew Berry. These videos are based on scientific data describing molecular structure and function, and from what I’ve seen, Drew Berry’s work is the best of its kind. Below are the most complete and directly accessible videos I’ve found.

Productive nanosystems are nanoscale machines that make atomically precise products under programmable control, and artificial productive nanosystems will be central to advanced, atomically precise nanotechnologies (see nanotechnology roadmap). Drew’s animations show the productive nanosystems at the foundation of life: The devices that perform RNA-programmed protein synthesis and DNA-programmed synthesis of DNA and RNA.

What is striking about the videos is how much Drew gets right, and how well he handles the necessary cheats forced on animators by the impossibility of showing the millions of random molecular motions that typically occur between the significant biomolecular events.

I have seen videos made by other molecular-machine animators that are beautiful and informative, yet grossly misleading because they make molecular motions look purposeful in an animate sense — The simple mechanisms that, in their cooperative trillions, result in animate behavior are depicted as if each individual molecule were a walking, swimming (even choreographed) entity. Videos like these, despite other merits, transmit a profoundly false impression of the molecular basis of life. (I will not link to an example.)

Although necessarily stylized, the style Drew has created is exellent: He includes moderate thermal motion and shows actions with only a rough resemblance to macroscale machines and no resemblance at all to little worms, fish, or people. The animations even show molecular machines operating at real-time speeds: DNA being translated to RNA… Zoom!

DNA-, RNA-, and protein-fabrication machines at work:

A close-up view of DNA replication:

(With thanks to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.)

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