Spiders at the nanoscale: molecules that behave like robots

A team of scientists from Columbia University, Arizona State University, the University of Michigan, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have programmed an autonomous molecular "robot" made out of DNA to start, move, turn, and stop while following a DNA track.

 
The latest installment in DNA nanotechnology has arrived: A molecular nanorobot dubbed a "spider" and labeled with green dyes traverses a substrate track built upon a DNA origami scaffold. It journeys towards its red-labeled goal by cleaving the visited substrates, thus exhibiting the characteristics of an autonomously moving, behavior-based robot at the molecular scale. [Credit: Courtesy of Paul Michelotti]

The latest installment in DNA nanotechnology has arrived: A molecular nanorobot dubbed a "spider" and labeled with green dyes traverses a substrate track built upon a DNA origami scaffold. It journeys towards its red-labeled goal by cleaving the visited substrates, thus exhibiting the characteristics of an autonomously moving, behavior-based robot at the molecular scale.

The development could ultimately lead to molecular systems that might one day be used for medical therapeutic devices and molecular-scale reconfigurable robots-robots made of many simple units that can reposition or even rebuild themselves to accomplish different tasks.

A paper describing the work appears in the current issue of the journal Nature.

The traditional view of a robot is that it is "a machine that senses its environment, makes a decision, and then does something-it acts," says Erik Winfree, associate professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering at Caltech.

Milan N. Stojanovic, a faculty member in the division of experimental therapeutics at Columbia University, led the project and teamed up with Winfree and Hao Yan, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University and an expert in DNA nanotechnology, and with Nils G. Walter, professor of chemistry and director of the Single Molecule Analysis in Real-Time (SMART) Centre at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, for what became a modern-day self-assembly of like-minded scientists with the complementary areas of expertise needed to tackle a tough problem.