Molecular robotics is an area of science that manipulates minuscule materials – like DNA and proteins – to create a biological robot. This may be strange to consider as we usually associate robots with metal, but robots are purely something that can act on their own on behalf of people.
A DNA-based breakthrough
Now, graduate student Selma Piraej from Emory University has made another huge advancement in molecular robotics, creating a first-of-its-kind DNA-based motor with integrated computer functions.
The motor uses computing power to process chemical information from the environment and moves accordingly – similar to some basic properties of living cells. This robot is the first to autonomously move and is 1,000 times faster than any other synthetic motor.
How does the DNA motor work?
Hundreds of DNA strands, acting as “legs,” can be engineered onto a micron-sized glass sphere. This is then placed on a glass slide coated in an RNA fuel. Specific DNA sequences bind with specific RNA molecules on the slide, directing the sphere’s movement in a particular direction.
“It’s a major goal in the biomedical field to take advantage of DNA for computation,” Piranej says. “I love the idea of using something innate in all of us to engineer new forms of technology.” Using DNA as the main component of this robot makes the materials extremely cheap and also biodegradable.
What are the applications of a DNA-based motor?
“Selma’s breakthrough removes major roadblocks that stood in the way of making DNA computers useful and practical for a range of biomedical applications,” says Khalid Salaita, senior author of the paper.
These impressive motors can be programmed to respond to a specific DNA sequence or pathogen and have many potential applications in medical testing. Also, this technology opens the door for motor-to-motor communication. “The ability for the DNA motors to communicate with one another is a step towards producing the kind of complex, collective action generated by swarms of ants or bacteria,” Salaita says.
The team is currently exploring potential avenues for this DNA-computing technology in-home testing for COVID-19 and other diseases.
Source study: Nature Nanotechnology – Chemical-to-mechanical molecular computation using DNA-based motors with onboard logic