What if there was a magical robot that could cure any disease? Don’t answer that. It’s a stupid question. Everyone knows there’s no one machine that could do that. But maybe a swarm made up of tens of thousands of tiny autonomous micro-bots could?
That’s the premise laid out by proponents of nanobot medical technology. In science fiction, the big idea usually involves creating tiny metal robots via some sort of magic-adjacent miniaturization technology.
Luckily for us, the reality of nanobot tech is infinitely cooler. A team of researchers from Australia have developed a mind-blowing prototype that could work as a proof-of-concept for the future of medicine.
Called “autonomous molecular machines,” the new nanotechnology eschews the traditional visage of microscopic metal automatons in favor of a more natural approach.
Per the team’s research paper:
Inspired by biology, we design and synthesize a DNA origami receptor that exploits multivalent interactions to form stable complexes that are also capable of rapid subunit exchange.
DNA nanobots are synthetic nanometer-sized machines made of DNA and proteins. They’re autonomous because DNA itself is a self-assembling machine.
Our natural DNA not only carries the code our biology is written in, it also knows when to execute. That’s part of the reason why, for example, your left and right feet tend to grow at roughly the same rate.
Previous work in the field of DNA nanotechnology has demonstrated self-assembling machines capable of transferring DNA code, much like their natural counterparts.
But the new tech out of Australia is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
According to the paper:
We use the DNA origami receptor to demonstrate stable interactions with rapid exchange of both DNA and protein subunits, thus highlighting the applicability of our approach to arbitrary molecular cargo, an important distinction with canonical toehold exchange between single-stranded DNA.
These particular nanobots can transfer more than just DNA information. Theoretically speaking, they could deliver any conceivable combination of proteins throughout a given biological system.
To put that in simpler terms: we should be able to eventually program swarms of these nanobots to hunt down bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells inside of our bodies. Each member of the swarm could carry a specific protein and, when they’ve found a bad cell, they could assemble their proteins into a formation designed to eliminate the threat.
It’d be like having an army of overpowered killer robots floating through your bloodstream looking for monsters to destroy.
We’re a long ways away from that, but this research represents a giant-sized leap in the right direction. As far as we know, this is the first time a DNA nanobot capable of carrying arbitrary cargo has been demonstrated.
Hypothetically speaking, scientists should eventually be able to use these nanobots to engineer smart materials capable of responding autonomously to stress — think self-repairing clothing or windows.
And, perhaps most exciting, it may be possible in the far-future to build fully-functioning molecular computers using DNA nanobots.
In a century or two, all humans could have molecular computer systems inside their bodies. These living machines would, essentially, build and control internal bio-factories that make hunter-killer nanobots out of the proteins we ingest. They’d keep us disease-free for life.
The best part is that these computers would be completely secure. We’d inherit them from our parents’ DNA, so they’d be as much a part of us as our hearts or brains — no 5G required.
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