Biological systems have evolved to harness non-equilibrium processes from the molecular to the macro scale. It is currently a grand challenge of chemistry, materials science, and engineering to understand and mimic biological systems that have the ability to autonomously sense stimuli, process these inputs, and respond by performing mechanical work. New chemical systems are responding to the challenge and form the basis for future responsive, adaptive, and active materials. In this article, we describe a particular biochemical-biomechanical network based on the microtubule cytoskeletal filament-itself a non-equilibrium chemical system. We trace the non-equilibrium aspects of the system from molecules to networks and describe how the cell uses this system to perform active work in essential processes. Finally, we discuss how microtubule-based engineered systems can serve as testbeds for autonomous chemical robots composed of biological and synthetic components.
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