Observing and exploring organisms from a mechanical perspective

I want to spread the seeds of new research among our students. I hope they will surpass me and embark on something truly novel.

Namba, Keiichi

Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences
Protonic NanoMachine Group

Namba, Keiichi

“People say that ‘space is the final frontier’, but I think that the final frontier is life itself.” Professor Namba was intrigued by the sophisticated systems found within living creatures, and now dreams of creating microscopic machines out of his research on organic mechanisms.

Organisms: Sustaining advanced functions without expending energy

Nerves within the brain have a selective system that allows only sodium ions to be transmitted. The flagella in bacteria have motors powered by ion transmission that run at speeds of 20,000 revolutions per minute, propelling their 2-micron bodies forward 30 microns per second. These flagellar motors have a diameter of just 40 nanometers, but their performance far outstrips that of a Formula One racing machine. They use just 10 to the power of minus 16 watts of energy, most of which is a weak energy source known as “noise.” If these organisms were the size of human beings, you can imagine how powerful they would be. They could propel themselves at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour.

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Adding a different perspective: Organisms as systems

By studying information science, students of bioscience can start to look at organic structures and cells as information-processing machinery or systems. For example, humans need around 100 kg of the compound ATP for metabolism of nutrients into energy each day. However, we only have a few dozen grams of ATP stored in our body. This means that we need an advanced recycling system in order to generate enough ATP for our daily needs. This system operates unobtrusively and produces hardly any thermal energy. To understand the mechanisms behind this and other systems and networks in living things, we need to apply physics-based approaches. This is what I mean by exploring organisms as mechanical operations.

Towards “flexible” research projects

photo_namba02Some students come to graduate school after studying only physics and mathematics in their bachelor’s degrees. These students work together with bioscience majors to investigate various biomechanisms at the molecular level. Research projects that involve a diverse range of people working together in close collaboration are sure to be both flexible and dynamic in nature.