Molecules, muscles, and machines: Universal performance characteristics of motors

James H. Marden, Lee R. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Animal- and human-made motors vary widely in size and shape, are constructed of vastly different materials, use different mechanisms, and produce an enormous range of mass-specific power. Despite these differences, there is remarkable consistency in the maximum net force produced by broad classes of animal- and human-made motors. Motors that use force production to accomplish steady translational motion of a load (myosin, kinesin, dynein, and RNA polymerase molecules, muscle cells, whole muscles, winches, linear actuators, and rockets) have maximal force outputs that scale as the two-thirds power of mass, i.e., with cross-sectional area. Motors that use cyclical motion to generate force and are more subject to multiaxial stress and vibration have maximal force outputs that scale as a single isometric function of motor mass with mass-specific net force output averaging 57 N·kg-1 (SD = 14). Examples of this class of motors includes flying birds, bats, and insects, swimming fish, various taxa of running animals, piston engines, electric motors, and all types of jets. Dependence of force production and stress resistance on cross-sectional area is well known, but the isometric scaling and common upper limit of mass-specific force production by cyclical motion motors has not been recognized previously and is not explained by an existing body of theory. Remarkably, this finding indicates that most of the motors used by humans and animals for transportation have a common upper limit of mass-specific net force output that is independent of materials and mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4161-4166
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 2 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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