DNA Robots Can Sort Molecules

In a study published in Science, researchers at the California Institute of Technology designed a group of DNA robots. They are called DNA robots not because they have “bodies”, “hands”, “arms”, and “feet,” but because they perform mechanical tasks at the nanometer scale. The robots’ current goal is to work together to find and collect fluorescent molecules.

DNA Robots

How Are DNA Robots Created?

The nucleotides that DNA is composed of are adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). These nucleotides are strung together to form the genetic blueprint for living organisms, now, researchers can manipulate them to build nanostructures — including DNA robots. Lead researcher Dr. Lulu Qian describes the robots as being “just a single-stranded molecule, it’s like a floppy rope when it’s not attached to anything.”

How They Move Around

Since the robots are made entirely of DNA, they can walk around on structures that are also made of DNA — just as long as the sequences of A, T, C and G nucleotides on their “feet” pair up with complementary sequences on the DNA strands below. The research team tested these by creating a series of “pegboard” with a parallel code for the robots to step along. The right nucleotides in the sequence in a single strand could potentially force two partially zipped other strands to unzip.

The Cargo Test

The researchers dispersed six fluorescent cargo molecules across a nanostructure testing ground and sent one of the robots to work. It took nearly 24 hours for the robot to find all six different cargo molecules. Then more DNA robots were added to the testing ground to see if they could work together — time decreased to a couple of hours.

While most applications for these robots in the human body are still science fiction, like targeting medicine or aiding in small-scale surgeries such as tumor removal, scientists say it is a big first step.

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