Experimentalists working on dissipative self-assembly systems should have a greater appreciation of thermodynamic concepts developed by theoreticians.
In this issue, we are publishing a Perspective titled 'Dissipative adaptation in driven self-assembly'1, written by Jeremy England, a thermodynamicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the explicit intention of reaching out to experimentalists working on self-assembly.
As chemists are increasingly tackling non-equilibrium supramolecular systems2, they are bound to encounter 'emerging' properties at the nanoscale3. The explanation of these properties is beyond the limits of many notions of equilibrium thermodynamics that are typically applied in chemistry. Fortunately, theoreticians have been thinking about non-equilibrium and dissipative systems for decades. Ilya Prigogine was, for example, awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the field. Unfortunately, the complexity of the physics involved, combined with the largely empirical approach of chemistry, has meant that a lot of these concepts have not percolated into the experimental realm. As a journal that strongly supports interdisciplinary research, we are keen to help improve communication between theoreticians and experimentalists, as we have done previously with the field of molecular machines4.
The Perspective explains concepts in a manner that experimentalists working on driven self-assembly and dissipative structures should be able to appreciate. Indeed, it was intentionally peer-reviewed by experimentalists, precisely with this goal in mind. The theoretical concepts presented are not new — they have been rigorously reported before in specialized physics literature — but, as England explains, recently there has been a number of theoretical advances that, taken together, might lead towards a more complete understanding of non-equilibrium phenomena. More specifically, the meaning of irreversibility in terms of the amount of work being dissipated as heat as a system moves on a particular trajectory between two states. It turns out, this principle is relatively general, and can be used to explain the self-organization of complex systems such as that observed in nanoscale assemblies, or even in cells.
Moreover, a few recent experimental findings that can be explained in terms of this theoretical framework are discussed. We hope that the Perspective will provide experimentalists with a better appreciation of current thermodynamic conceptualizations and that, in the future, theoretical advances will inspire new experiments in dissipative self-assembly.
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Astumian, R. D. Nature Nanotech. 7, 684–688 (2012).
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Driven by theory. Nature Nanotech 10, 909 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2015.273