Virtually all motion in biological systems, from the swimming of a bacterium to the beating of a blue whale’s heart, is initiated on a molecular level. Chemical fuel is consumed, and the energy that’s released, rather than being dispersed randomly into the environment, is channeled into specific modes of molecular movement. Flagella turn, molecules are shuttled across cell membranes, or motor proteins crawl along cytoskeletal filaments to initiate muscle contractions that perform macroscopic work.

Chemists are still a long way from creating synthetic molecules capable of mimicking those biological processes. But a series of breakthroughs by Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Ben Feringa have provided researchers with components that may one day be assembled into larger molecular machines capable of performing complicated and useful tasks. Those breakthroughs have been honored by the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“There’s a tremendous potential for applications, yet unachieved, but mechanical chemistry has...

You do not currently have access to this content.