For decades, researchers have chased ways to study how biological machines power living things. Every mechanical movement — from contracting a muscle to replicating DNA — relies on energy-fueled molecular motors that take tiny, near-undetectable steps. Trying to see these movements is like trying to watch a soccer game on the moon from Earth.
Now, in a recent study published in Nature, a team of researchers including Xiaowei Zhuang, the David B. Arnold Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Pallav Kosuri, a postdoctoral scholar in chemistry and chemical biology in the Zhuang lab, and Benjamin Altheimer, a Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, captured the first recorded rotational steps of a molecular motor as it moved from one DNA base pair to another.
In collaboration with Peng Yin, a professor at the Wyss Institute and Harvard Medical School, and his graduate student Mingjie Dai, the team combined DNA origami with high-precision single-molecule tracking, creating a new technique called ORBIT — origami-rotor-based imaging and tracking — to look at molecular machines in motion.
In humans, some molecular motors march straight across muscle cells, causing them to contract. Others repair, replicate, or transcribe DNA: These DNA-interacting motors can grab onto a double-stranded helix and climb from one base to the next, like walking up a spiral staircase. To see these mini machines in motion, the team wanted to take advantage of the twisting movement. First, they glued the DNA-interacting motor to a rigid support. Once pinned, the motor had to rotate the helix to get from one base to the next. So, if they could measure how the helix rotated, they could determine how the motor moved.
But researchers face a problem: Every time one motor moved across one base pair, the rotation shifted the DNA by a fraction of a nanometer. That shift was too small to monitor with even the most advanced light microscopes.
Two pens lying in the shape of helicopter propellers sparked the idea for a solution: A propeller fastened to the spinning DNA would move at the same speed as the helix and, therefore, the molecular motor. If they could build a DNA helicopter, just large enough to allow the swinging rotor blades to be visualized, they could capture the motor’s elusive movement on camera.
To build molecule-sized propellers, Kosuri, Altheimer, and Zhuang decided to use DNA origami. Used to create art, deliver drugs to cells, study the immune system, and more, DNA origami involves manipulating strands to bind into beautiful, complicated shapes outside the traditional double helix.
“If you have two complementary strands of DNA, they zip up,” Kosuri said. “That’s what they do.” When one strand is altered to complement a strand in a different helix, they can find each other and zip up instead, weaving new structures.