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Can molecules really remember how to form structures?

Can molecules really remember how to form structures?

Sometimes hearing a few notes of a song is enough to take us back in time, to a long-forgotten moment. Our brains are already capable of reconstructing entire memories from small parts. How it works?

The human brain consists of billions nervous cells who work collectively. Neurons are like the building blocks of thought, and each can serve multiple purposes. For example, different memories are encoded by different patterns of activity within the same neurons. This process is similar to how your smartphone screen can display different images using the same pixels, or how the same LEGO blocks can be used to build different objects.

Neurological research

How neurons accomplish this has been a rapidly developing area of ​​research in recent decades, and sophisticated models of neural networks are now common in digital computers.

Surprisingly, this type of computation is not limited to neurons: the same computational principles can occur in other biological and even purely physical processes.

New study

A new study conducted by researchers at the California Institute of TechnologyUniversity of Chicago And theMaynooth University In Ireland, he showed how neural network-like capabilities are integral to the natural dynamics of molecules as they self-assemble into structures. This phenomenon is similar to the way neurons work together to retrieve and reassemble memories, and can therefore be considered a form of 'Union summons“.

Self-assembly process

To understand what happens in a test tube full of molecules, imagine a large swimming pool containing hundreds of LEGO pieces. LEGO pieces can be assembled in different ways, allowing you to create a car, a castle or a caterpillar, all from the same building blocks.

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The idea of ​​how self-assembly of associative recovery is achieved is as follows: If you give a pool mixture the “seed” of a design – for example, some parts that have already been assembled to create a wheel and a windshield – the rest of the components can assemble themselves to produce the desired final product (a car In this case)? This is an example of a successful associative call.


In this study, the team designed 917 different molecules, or “Molecular tiles“, which are able to combine to form three different two-dimensional shapes: the letters H, A, or M. The team put three trillion of these molecules, with relatively equal amounts of each of the 917 variations, in a test tube and observed that the pieces actually self-assembled to form Many lowercase Hs, A's and M's, and although some of the letters were only partially formed, there were no occasional hybrids of two or three letters.This was an important first result of the study.

The future of research

The project builds on several decades of work in Winfrey's lab. ” The exciting thing about DNA nanotechnology is that it is really the only molecular design technology today that allows cutting-edge theories of molecular computation to be studied in the large N limit – here nearly a thousand different types of molecules work together. », specifies Constantine Evans, lead author of the study.


Research into how neurons encode memories has led to a remarkable discovery: molecules can also self-assemble into structures in a manner similar to a neural network. This study showed that molecules can self-assemble to form specific structures, a process that can be considered a form of “Union summons“.

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For better understanding

What is a union summons?

Associative recall is a process by which memories are retrieved. In the context of this study, this refers to how molecules self-assemble to form specific structures, a process similar to how neurons work together to recall and reassemble memories.

What is a neural network?

A neural network is a group of interconnected neurons that work together to process information. In the human brain, neural networks are responsible for many functions, including encoding memories.

What is self-assembly?

Self-assembly is a process by which molecules combine to form complex structures without external intervention. In this study, the researchers observed that molecules can self-assemble to form specific structures, a process similar to how neurons work together to retrieve and reassemble memories.

What are the implications of this study?

This study could have important implications for understanding how memories are encoded and retrieved. It could also pave the way for new developments in nanotechnology.

What is the next step in this research?

The researchers plan to continue their work by exploring other types of biomolecular processes, such as multicomponent repressors and gene regulatory networks.


Caption: Molecular tiles in solution self-assemble into three shapes—H, A, or M—depending on the concentrations of the common tiles that form a “seed,” or nucleation dot, of a particular shape. Credit: Olivier Wiart

“Pattern recognition in the nucleation kinetics of nonequilibrium self-assembly.” In addition to Evans, Murugan, and Winfrey, Jackson O'Brien of the University of Chicago co-authored this book. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Evans Foundation for Molecular Medicine, the European Research Council, the Science Foundation of Ireland, and the Carver Med New Adventures Fund.

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