Molecular photoswitches mediating the strain-driven disassembly of supramolecular tubules

Jean W. Fredy, Alejandro Méndez Ardoy, Supaporn Kwangmettatam, Davide Bochicchio, Benjamin Matt, Marc C.A. Stuart, Jurriaan Huskens, Nathalie Katsonis, Giovanni M. Pavan*, Tibor Kudernáč

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)
122 Downloads (Pure)


Chemists have created molecular machines and switches with specific mechanical responses that were typically demonstrated in solution, where mechanically relevant motion is dissipated in the Brownian storm. The next challenge consists of designing specific mechanisms through which the action of individual molecules is transmitted to a supramolecular architecture, with a sense of directionality. Cellular microtubules are capable of meeting such a challenge. While their capacity to generate pushing forces by ratcheting growth is well known, conversely these versatile machines can also pull microscopic objects apart through a burst of their rigid tubular structure. One essential feature of this disassembling mechanism is the accumulation of strain in the tubules, which develops when tubulin dimers change shape, triggered by a hydrolysis event. We envision a strategy toward supramolecular machines generating directional pulling forces by harnessing the mechanically purposeful motion of molecular switches in supramolecular tubules. Here, we report on wholly synthetic, water-soluble, and chiral tubules that incorporate photoswitchable building blocks in their supramolecular architecture. Under illumination, these tubules display a nonlinear operation mode, by which light is transformed into units of strain by the shape changes of individual switches, until a threshold is reached and the tubules unleash the strain energy. The operation of this wholly synthetic and stripped-down system compares to the conformational wave by which cellular microtubules disassemble. Additionally, atomistic simulations provide molecular insight into how strain accumulates to induce destabilization. Our findings pave the way toward supramolecular machines that would photogenerate pulling forces, at the nanoscale and beyond.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11850-11855
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number45
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2017


  • Artificial molecular switches
  • Light
  • Supramolecular machines
  • Supramolecular polymers


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