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10 September 2010

DNA on the move

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Deep inside a beaker in a humming chemistry lab in New York City, a spindly spider crawls over a jumble of origami. It’s not the colored-paper kind of origami, but rather is made of precisely designed segments of DNA. For that matter, so is the spider.
This spider wasn’t built to spin webs or eat bugs. It’s a DNA nanorobot, a primitive version of the machines that may someday perform tasks too small for humans to do.

For more than a decade, scientists have been developing DNA nanomachines, from tiny tweezers to two-legged “walkers” that can step to the left or right. Recent molecular robot research has gone a step further, aiming to get DNA molecules to organize themselves and move about, all without batteries or information storage in their nanobodies. These machines harness the power of natural DNA-DNA interactions programmed into the origami foundation.

“Right now there’s a molecular explosion going on in programmable behavior of molecules,” says biochemist William Shih of Harvard University. “Just like we’ve seen the evolution in electronics from the calculator to the iPhone 4, we’re going to see these things evolve into sophisticated vehicles that can sense their environment and target diseased tissue without harming healthy cells.”

The latest arachnoid nanobots have three to four legs and walk across expansive landscapes of exquisitely folded DNA. Some of these molecular machines can take 50 steps all by themselves. Others sport wiggly arms that can pick up and carry around nanoparticles.


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