But self assembly is actually nature’s greatest trick and it operates at every level from the assembly of proteins and complex multi-protein structures such as the ribosome to the behaviour of animals such as ants and termites which build complex structures on the basis of simple local chemical signals between individuals.
Technologists are now beginning to replicate this technique and the latest effort, reported in the August 15th issue of Science, involves a swarm of 1024 robots which can form any two dimensional shape you like by varying just 3 local signals: edge following, gradient formation and localization. Of course there is a difference between these technical self-assemblies and natural ones in that in the technical assemblies the overall goal has been set by the human programmers; in nature there is no master plan at all: the pattern of operation has been naturally selected to take the course it has. In the two cases the human and natural selector are playing the same roles.
Self assembly looks like being one of science’s hottest topics for decades to come. It is the underlying theme of Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal.
Science 15 August 2014, pp.795-799.