With an aim to build a team of robots that work together individually to accomplish a task, researchers at Caltech University have come up with a simple but interesting robot made out entirely of DNA which is capable enough to walk, sort and lift molecules. Therefore, the leg and foot of a DNA robot can be engineered for a preferred step size-in this case, 6 nm, which is around a hundred millionth of a human's step size.
For the new study, the researchers designed a group of DNA robots that could collectively perform a predetermined task that had them walk along a test platform, locate a molecular cargo, and deliver it to a specific location.
In a series of experiments backed by Caltech, the National Science Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the DNA bots sorted six different molecules and placed them in a designated drop-off zone. Each of these parts is made of just a few nucleotides within a single strand of DNA. How rapidly each zipping and unzipping event happens and how much energy it consumes can be predicted for any specified DNA sequence, allowing researchers to regulate how fast the robot travels and how much energy it consumes to do a task.
In theory, these modular building blocks could be assembled in a number of different ways to complete different operations-a DNA robot with several hands and arms, for instance, could be used to carry many molecules at the same time. "It is one of the first steps towards developing general-purpose DNA robots", says Qian.
The nanobot, described in the journal Science, was constructed from three basic building blocks to provide "feet" for walking, an "arm" and "hand" for picking up objects, and a segment that can recognise a specific drop-off point and trigger the release of the cargo.
There are now three emerging fields within DNA nanoscience, the science of creating molecular-sized devices out of DNA: The self-assembly of nanostructures from DNA strands; molecular computation and data storage; and DNA robotics, which is the focus of the study published this week in Science.
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While many similar robots have been invented by scientists on a molecular level, these particular robots can execute a lot of tasks from their simple structure.
To see if a robot successfully picked up and dropped off the right cargo at the right location, the researchers used two fluorescent dyes to distinguish the molecules.
Are these the first DNA robots?
How do they pick up their "cargo"?
Though we demonstrated a robot for this specific task, the same system design can be generalized to work with dozens of types of cargos at any arbitrary initial location on the surface.
"When there [was] more than one robot, the amount of cargo molecules that were actually correctly delivered to the desired locations increased to very close to 100 per cent", she said.
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Dr Qian said the DNA robots function on this miniature scale in the same way regular-sized robots might work inside a mailroom.
Professor Cheng said there's a range of future applications for this type of technology, including targeted drug delivery. The robots have been designed keeping in mind small places where humans can't go such as the bloodstream.
"When you deliver them into the human body, it could potentially create risk if that genetic coding integrates into the genome information", he said. The nanoscale robot - or nanobot - is so small that it can pick up and sort individual molecules.
We don't develop DNA robots for any specific applications.
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