One of the most promising areas of the robotics field involves tiny DNA-based robots and nanodevices, which scientists believe will eventually be capable of delivering targeted medicine in the human body. They could also be used to detect pathogens and lead to the development of smaller electronics.
A recent advancement in this area came when researchers from The Ohio State University developed a new tool that enables the design of far more complex DNA robots and nanodevices than what were previously possible. At the same time, these more complex systems can be developed in just a fraction of the time.
The research was published last month in the journal Nature Materials, and it was led by former engineering doctoral student Chao-Min Huang.
The new software, called MagicDNA, helps researchers design ways to combine tiny strands of DNA to create complex structures with parts such as rotors and hinges. These parts can move and complete various different tasks, such as drug delivery.
According to Carlos Castro, co-author of the research and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the university, researchers have traditionally relied on slower tools and manual steps for these processes.
“But now, nanodevices that may have taken us several days to design before now take us just a few minutes,” Castro said.
These new designs are far more complex and create efficient nanodevices.
Hai-Jun Su is another co-author and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the university.
“Previously, we could build devices with up to about six individual components and connect them with joints and hinges and try to make them execute complex motions,” Su said.
“With this software, it is not hard to make robots or other devices with upwards of 20 components that are much easier to control. It is a huge step in our ability to design nanodevices that can perform the complex actions that we want them to do.”
The researchers hope that the software will not just create better designs and more helpful nanodevices, but that it will also quicken the timeframe for when they will become everyday tools.
The new approach enables the researchers to carry out the design process in 3D. Earlier tools worked in 2D, which meant researchers had to map the creations into 3D. By doing this, the devices were limited in their complexity.
Bottom Up or Top Down
Another key aspect of the software is that it enables researchers to create DNA structures “bottom up” or “top down.” With the former, researchers organize individual strands of DNA into the desired structure, meaning they can have fine control over local device structure and properties.
With the “top down” approach, they can decide how the overall device needs to be shaped geometrically, and they can then automate the organization of the DNA strands. By combining the two techniques, the overall geometry can become more complex while still maintaining precise control over individual component properties.
The software also allows the researchers to simulate how the designed DNA devices would operate in the real world.
“As you make these structures more complex, it is difficult to predict exactly what they are going to look like and how they are going to behave,” Castro said.
“It is critical to be able to simulate how our devices will actually operate. Otherwise, we waste a lot of time.”
Creating the Nanostructures
Anjelica Kucinic is co-author and a doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State. Kucinic led the team of researchers in making and characterizing nanostructures designed by the software.
The devices created by the team included robot arms with claws, and a hundred nanometer-sized structure that looks like an airplane. The latter is 1000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair.
These devices could prove to have big implications in healthcare.
“A more complex device may not only detect that something bad is happening, but can also react by releasing a drug or capturing the pathogen,” Castro said
“We want to be able to design robots that respond in a particular way to a stimulus or move in a certain way.”
“There is getting to be more and more commercial interest in DNA nanotechnology,” he continued. “I think in the next five to 10 years we will start seeing commercial applications of DNA nanodevices and we are optimistic that this software can help drive that.”