Researchers at Ohio State University have developed new software that allows them to rapidly design and simulate DNA nanorobots. Previously, it was challenging to engineer such tiny devices, but now researchers can map out their design in minutes. DNA-based devices have significant promise as medical technologies with potential applications in drug delivery and diagnostics.
Researchers are still pursuing the sci-fi dream of tiny machines that can enter our bodies and help to heal us. This latest development brings that reality a little closer. Developing DNA-based robots and devices at such a tiny scale poses a unique set of challenges. The new software, called MagicDNA, aims to streamline this process and acts as a replacement for older types of software that involved more painstaking manual design.
“Researchers have been doing this for a number of years with slower tools with tedious manual steps,” said Carlos Castro, a researcher involved in the study, in an Ohio State press release. “But now, nanodevices that may have taken us several days to design before now take us just a few minutes.”
The new software allows researchers to design the objects in 3D, which makes it easier to develop more complex objects. Researchers can also either use a “bottom up” design approach, in which individual strands of DNA can be manipulated into place, or a “top down” approach where the overall shape of the object is designed and then the software automatically populates it with DNA strands, or a combination of both approaches.
“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,” said Hai-Jun Su, another researcher involved in the study. “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 software also allows scientists to simulate how the designed device might move, to help them iron out any flaws before construction. “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 Castro. “It is critical to be able to simulate how our devices will actually operate. Otherwise, we waste a lot of time.”
So far, the researchers have successfully tested some of their designs in the real world. They have hopes that their software will pave the way for functional DNA robots for therapeutic applications, including devices that can recognize a pathogen in the bloodstream.
“But 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,” added Castro. “We want to be able to design robots that respond in a particular way to a stimulus or move in a certain way.”
Study in Nature Materials: Integrated computer-aided engineering and design for DNA assemblies