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May 1st, 2006
The Biological Frontier of Physics
Molecular machines are the basis of life. DNA, a long molecule that encodes the blueprints to create an organism, may be life's information storage medium, but it needs a bevy of machines to read and translate that information into action. The cell's nanometer-scale machines are mostly protein molecules, although a few are made from RNA, and they are capable of surprisingly complex manipulations. They perform almost all the important active tasks in the cell: metabolism, reproduction, response to changes in the environment, and so forth. They are incredibly sophisticated, and they, not their manmade counterparts, represent the pinnacle of nanotechnology. Yet scientists have no general theory for their assembly or operation. The basic physical principles are individually well understood; what is lacking is a framework that combines the elegance of abstraction with the power of prediction.
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