Breakthrough in Controlling DNA-Based Robots

Real-time magnetic actuation of DNA nanodevices via modular integration with stiff micro-levers.

DNA illustration

September 24, 2018 | Source: The Ohio State University, news.osu.edu, 1 June 2018, Jeff Grabmeier

Researchers use magnets to move tiny nano-devices faster than ever before.


Researchers have devised a magnetic control system to make tiny DNA-based robots move on demand—and much faster than recently possible.

In the journal Nature Communications, Carlos Castro and Ratnasingham Sooryakumar and their colleagues from The Ohio State University report that the control system reduced the response time of prototype nano-robot components from several minutes to less than a second.

Not only does the discovery represent a significant improvement in speed, this work and one other recent study herald the first direct, real-time control of DNA-based molecular machines.

“Imagine telling a robot in a factory to do something and having to wait five minutes for it to perform a single step of a task. That was the case with earlier methods for controlling DNA nano-machines,” said Castro, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.The discovery could one day enable nano-robots to manufacture objects – such as drug-delivery devices -- as quickly and reliably as their full-size counterparts. Previously, researchers could only move DNA indirectly, by inducing chemical reactions to coax it to move certain ways, or introducing molecules that reconfigure the DNA by binding with it. Those processes take time.

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“We had discovered a way to harness the power of magnetic forces to probe the microscopic world—a hidden world of astounding complexity,” he said. “But we wanted to transition from the micro-world to the nano-world. This led to the collaboration with Dr. Castro. The challenges were to shrink the functionality of our particles a thousand-fold, couple them to precise locations on the moving parts of the machines and incorporate fluorescent molecules as beacons to monitor the machines as they moved.”

For this study, the team built rods, rotors and hinges using DNA origami. Then they used stiff DNA levers to connect the nanoscopic components to miniature beads made from polystyrene impregnated with magnetic material. By adjusting a magnetic field, they found they could command the particles to swing components back and forth or rotate them. The components executed the instructed movements in less than a second.

For example, the nano-rotor was able to spin a full 360 degrees in about one second with continuously controlled motion driven by a rotating magnetic field. The nano-hinge was able to be closed or opened in 0.4 seconds, or held at a specific angle with a precision of 8 degrees.