Sabine Petry Awarded Support from Schmidt Transformative Tech Fund

Written by
Office of the Dean for Research, Catherine Zandonella, Princeton University
May 11, 2021

From left: Sabine Petry, associate professor of molecular biology; Akanksha Thawani, a 2020 Ph.D. graduate in chemical and biological engineering; and Howard Stone, Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (Photo by Sameer A. Khan/Fotobuddy)

The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Transformative Technology Fund spurs the exploration of ideas and approaches that can profoundly enable progress in science or engineering. Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive officer of Google and former executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1976 and served as a Princeton trustee from 2004 to 2008. He and his wife, Wendy, a businesswoman and philanthropist, created the fund in 2009. Including this year’s three awards, the fund has supported 27 research projects at Princeton.  

Biologically inspired nanoscale motors and factories

Inspired by the body’s own biological machinery, Petry's team of molecular biologists and mechanical engineers will design tiny motors and perhaps eventually entire factories dedicated to treating diseases.

The technology for building these molecular robotics draws on recent discoveries at Princeton about the nature of the cell’s skeleton, which consists of long, thin proteins known as microtubules. Nature is adept at constructing devices with moving microtubules that perform work such as propelling movement of single-celled organisms or dividing chromosomes within cells. One such device, the mitotic spindle, consists of microtubule strands that attach to chromosomes and pull them apart during cell division. Microtubules can exert force on other molecules by pulling or pushing against them, they can separate molecules or propel them together, and they can self-assemble into new structures.

Princeton researchers led by Petry have discovered how spindles form and have uncovered molecular mechanisms by which to control them. Petry will team with Howard Stone, the Donald R. Dixon ’69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, whose expertise in fluid mechanics will help build miniature channels and chips, in which the microtubule-based machines will be assembled.

The team has laid plans to build several types of microtubule-based nanoscale devices, including bio-actuators, which are capable of performing a task such as moving a particle or molecule from one place to another. By connecting microtubule-based machines via channels, guided by fluid streams into certain directions, the researchers will create nanosized assembly lines and potentially eventually factories. The researchers envision this microtubule-based nanotechnology as opening up an entirely new field of science, making complex manipulations of molecules and other small structures possible at the nanoscale.