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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – L – Synthetic Biology 5

Rendering of a strand of DNA engineered to act as a robot, moving in a nanostructure to build a complex molecule. Image credit: Scientific Illustration

Molecular robotics

The progress of technology that allows us to manipulate the DNA, CRISPR and others, is allowing researcher to create DNA that can serve specific purposes, outside of its usual cell environment where it is used to create copy of mRNA that are used by the cell to build proteins.

A single strand of DNA, the one forming our genes is a double strand, the double helix, tends to look for pairing molecules and by bringing them in close proximity can have them stick with one another.  In practice it behaves like a searcher and a builder. Researchers have discovered, and can create, specific snippets of DNA to serve specific functions like search for a given molecule, once it is found go on and search for a different one. It works this way: the DNA strand in a random way moves in a solution or on a nanostructure -as represented in the picture- and once gets into proximity to the desired molecule the part of the DNA that has been designed to search for that molecule sticks to it. This sticking blocks the part of the DNA that was “looking” for that molecule and frees the next strand of DNA that will be in charge to perform the next action, like searching for the next molecule. Once this is found it sticks to the related DNA strand and finds itself in proximity with the previous found molecule and this leads to their binding. The molecular robot has build an entity made omof those two molecules, and so on. Further actions may require to transport this created ensemble to a different place where a specific molecule is found (notice that all these operations are based on random movements, exactly as it happens within our cells). In a way, molecular robotics is about building a DNA tool having hands and legs plus a “mind” deriving from the sequence of actions designed that can operate on its own.

This, in a nutshell, is the basic of molecular robotics a new science/technology that has been gaining steam in the last decade and that, according to the FTI’s report, will make significant progress in the coming years.

Researchers are creating origami using DNA strands that fold in desired ways to implement a sequence of activities. Libraries of these origamis are becoming available giving rise to more and more complex sequences “ready to use” (watch the clip).

Molecular robotics is a further toolkit that adds on to the growing set of technologies in the nanotechnology domain.

Molecular robotics can also be based on RNA. Both RNA and DNA robots can operate inside living cells and the expectation is to have them applied to cure diseases (beyond genetic diseases where the goal is to modify the cell DNA), including some types of cancer. The recent success of mRNA based vaccines is a proof of the potential of this technology, although this represent a (relatively speaking) easier case study since the mRNA enters into the cell and relies on the cell metabolic organisation to create the spike protein.

It is also expected to see growing application in agriculture.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.