Microscopic DNA robots might one day help facilitate game-changing advances in the field of medicine. These tiny products of nanotechnology are capable of transporting individual molecules to specific locations, and if everything goes according to plan, the robots could be used to deliver cancer-fighting drugs, or other forms of medication that need to reach parts of the human body that are otherwise unreachable.
Although the robots are extremely small, measuring only 20 nanometers tall and made up of just 53 nucleotides, the team of Caltech researchers behind the new discovery were able to give the robots functional limbs. According to the Los Angeles Times, the DNA robots’ body parts include a hand and an arm for gathering cargo, a leg, and two feet, one of which is used for walking.
In order to test the robots out, the researchers designed a flat surface composed of DNA, with pegs that the robots could use to plant their feet in when walking. The surface also came with some sample cargo in the form of fluorescent pink and yellow molecules, and drop-off points for the robots to bring the cargo to. The scientists programmed the DNA robots to walk around the 60-by-60 nanometer surface until they found the pieces of cargo, then to deliver the cargo to the correct drop-off points.
Although it might seem that the robots aren’t that smart as they need to keep walking around the DNA surface for another drop-off location if the type of cargo doesn’t match, study author Lulu Qian told Gizmodo that her team has yet to program the DNA robots in such a way that they have built-in memory. She added that making the molecules as simple as possible was the key to making the robots work effectively in the experiment.
“You might think that the robot is not smart. But here is a key principle for building molecular machines: Make individual molecules as simple as possible so they could function reliably in a complex biochemical environment, but take advantage of what a collection of molecules can do, where the smarts are distributed into different molecules.”
The range of potential applications for the DNA robots is quite impressive. According to the Los Angeles Times, they can be used in “all sorts of medical contexts,” including the detection of cancer and other classical signs of certain diseases. In theory, there’s also a chance the robots could be used to cure diseases, as they could set up microscopic molecular factories in the human body to create drugs and transport them into the bloodstream. Still, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to perfect the technology and understand how the robots could work in a wider variety of situations.
“I am interested in taking the lessons we learnt from building this system into designing therapeutic tools,” said lead author Anupama Thubagere in an email to the L.A. Times.
“But in order to do so we will have to understand the stability of such systems in more complex and changing environments.”
Designing DNA robots to deliver drugs and transport them to specific cells is not an entirely new idea. According to a 2016 article from The Conversation, a team of Harvard Medical School researchers had created a similar nanorobot that delivers drugs to cells once it comes in contact with the right ones. Experiments had mostly proved successful, as the robots were able to target and kill half of the cancerous cells they were exposed to, while leaving the healthy cells alone.
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