New Technique Enables Building Complex DNA Robots in Minutes

Researchers from the Ohio State University have recently taken a big step forward in designing more complex DNA robots and other nano-devices than ever before, taking just a few minutes to complete.

Up until now, building DNA robots was a slow and tedious manual process which took several days start to finish and allowed for no more than six components slapped together with joints and hinges.

In order to solve this problem, the research team, led by former engineering doctoral student Chao-Min Huang, developed a new software tool called MagicDNA that makes it possible to build nano-devices with upwards of 20 components, which are easier to control than their predecessors.

A sample nano-robot with a robotic arm built by the researchers. Image courtesy of Ohio State University

Unlike earlier design tools, MagicDNA allows researchers to design nano-robots in full 3-D without having to worry about mapping two-dimensional models onto three-dimensional space, which used to prevent them from building more complex devices.

In addition, the software was developed such that design could be performed both “top down” and “bottom up”.

“Top down” design works by first setting the overall geometrical parameters and then automating the actual building process, while “bottom up” design involves taking individual strands of DNA and organising them into the desired structure with great precision.

Using both approaches for the same project gives researchers much greater control of the final product.

As a demonstration, the team built a number of devices with robot arms capable of picking up other objects, and a plane-like nano-structure that’s 1,000 smaller than the width of a human hair.

MagicDNA also has a simulation module which is crucial for building more complicated devices: “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,” said co-author Carlos Castro. Not knowing how a device will likely operate in the real word could waste a lot of valuable time.

The ultimate goal of this type of research is to build nano-robots that would detect pathogens in the bloodstream and isolate them or release specific drugs in a targeted manner, but without requiring any invasive procedures.

In the near future, Carlos expects the software will be used only in universities and research labs, but could eventually be deployed in clinical settings.

“There is getting to be more and more commercial interest in DNA nanotechnology. I think in the next five to 10 years we will start seeing commercial applications of DNA nano-devices and we are optimistic that this software can help drive that.”

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