Molecular robotics: These microscopic robots can do just about anything

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Molecular robotics: These microscopic robots can do just about anything

Molecular robotics: These microscopic robots can do just about anything

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Researchers are discovering the flexibility and potential of DNA-based nanorobots.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • November 30, 2023

    Insight summary

    Molecular robotics, an interdisciplinary venture at the nexus of robotics, molecular biology, and nanotechnology, spearheaded by Harvard's Wyss Institute, is propelling the programming of DNA strands into robots capable of performing intricate tasks at the molecular level. Leveraging CRISPR gene-editing, these robots could revolutionize drug development and diagnostics, with entities like Ultivue and NuProbe leading commercial forays. While researchers are exploring swarms of DNA robots for complex tasks, akin to insect colonies, real-world applications are still on the horizon, promising unparalleled precision in medicine delivery, a boon for nanotechnology research, and the potential for constructing molecular materials across various industries.

    Molecular robotics context

    Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering was intrigued at the other potential use cases of DNA, which can assemble into different shapes, sizes, and function. They tried robotics. This discovery was made possible because DNA and robots share one thing – the ability to be programmed for a specific objective. In the robots’ case, they can be manipulated through binary computer code, and in DNA’s case, with nucleotide sequences. In 2016, the Institute created the Molecular Robotics Initiative, which brought together robotics, molecular biology, and nanotechnology experts. Scientists were excited with the relative independence and flexibility of molecules, which can self-assemble and react in real-time to the environment. This feature means that these programmable molecules can be used to create nanoscale devices that can have use cases across different industries.

    Molecular robotics is enabled by the latest breakthroughs in genetic research, particularly the gene-editing tool CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). This tool can read, edit, and cut DNA strands as needed. With this technology, DNA molecules can be manipulated into even more precise shapes and characteristics, including biological circuits that can detect any potential disease in a cell and automatically kill it or stop it from becoming cancerous. This possibility means that molecular robots can revolutionize drug development, diagnoses, and therapeutics. Wyss Institute is making incredible progress with this project, already establishing two commercial companies: Ultivue for high-precision tissue imaging and NuProbe for nucleic acid diagnostics.

    Disruptive impact

    One of the major benefits of molecular robotics is that these tiny devices can interact with each other to achieve more complex goals. Taking cues from colonies of insects like ants and bees, researchers are working on developing swarms of robots that can form complex shapes and complete tasks by communicating with each other through infrared light. This type of nanotechnology hybrid, where the limits of DNA can be augmented with the computing power of robots, could have several applications, including more efficient data storage that can result in lower carbon emissions.

    In July 2022, students from Georgia-based Emory University created molecular robots with DNA-based motors that can move intentionally in a specific direction. The motors were able to sense chemical changes in their environment and know when to stop moving or recalibrate direction. The researchers said this discovery is a big step toward medical testing and diagnostics because swarm molecular robots can now communicate motor-to-motor. This development also means that these swarms can help control chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension. However, while research in this field has yielded some advancements, most scientists agree that large-scale, real-world applications of these tiny robots are still years away.

    Implications of molecular robotics

    Wider implications of molecular robotics may include: 

    • More accurate research on human cells, including being able to deliver medicines to specific cells.
    • Increased investments in nanotechnology research, particularly by healthcare providers and big pharma.
    • The industrial sector being able to build complex machinery parts and supplies using a swarm of molecular robots.
    • Increased discovery of molecular-based materials which can be applied on anything, from clothing to construction parts.
    • Nanorobots that can be programmed to change their components and acidity, depending on whether they will be required to work in organisms or outside, making them highly cost-effective and flexible workers.

    Questions to comment on

    • What are other potential benefits of molecular robots in industry?
    • What are other potential benefits of molecular robots in biology and healthcare?

    Insight references

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