Theory of molecular machines. I. Channel capacity of molecular machines

J Theor Biol. 1991 Jan 7;148(1):83-123. doi: 10.1016/s0022-5193(05)80466-7.


Like macroscopic machines, molecular-sized machines are limited by their material components, their design, and their use of power. One of these limits is the maximum number of states that a machine can choose from. The logarithm to the base 2 of the number of states is defined to be the number of bits of information that the machine could "gain" during its operation. The maximum possible information gain is a function of the energy that a molecular machine dissipates into the surrounding medium (Py), the thermal noise energy which disturbs the machine (Ny) and the number of independently moving parts involved in the operation (dspace): Cy = dspace log2 [( Py + Ny)/Ny] bits per operation. This "machine capacity" is closely related to Shannon's channel capacity for communications systems. An important theorem that Shannon proved for communication channels also applies to molecular machines. With regard to molecular machines, the theorem states that if the amount of information which a machine gains is less than or equal to Cy, then the error rate (frequency of failure) can be made arbitrarily small by using a sufficiently complex coding of the molecular machine's operation. Thus, the capacity of a molecular machine is sharply limited by the dissipation and the thermal noise, but the machine failure rate can be reduced to whatever low level may be required for the organism to survive.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA*
  • Information Theory*
  • Macromolecular Substances*
  • Models, Biological
  • Thermodynamics


  • Macromolecular Substances
  • DNA