DNA Spider Robots – Autonomous, Creepy, And Possibly Useful
Science always has to push it. Not content with big ol' Frankenstein-complex robots that have started building our cars and mimicking our women, some of our greatest minds have been busy creating molecular-level robots that can tool around inside the human body. So cue the dramatic music, and enter the DNA spider.
Originally created by Milan N. Stojanovic from Columbia University, this Spider robot, made entirely out of DNA and scotch tape, has been upgraded from its initial version by a team of researchers from schools like Caltech, Columbia, Arizona State, and the University of Michigan. It can now walk up to 100 nanometers unaided by using one of its biotin-labelled DNA legs to bind to and then cut itself from a trail of DNA "bread crumbs", located on what has been dubbed "DNA origami", though you'll find few cranes and sailing-ship designs here.
This distance doesn't sound like much, since every time you twitch with laughter at the clever wit of the blog post you're reading, you're moving hundreds of millions of nanometers, but its a big deal in the nano-world. Previous DNA robots could only move five or ten nanometers before crapping out, so this is alot like seeing your first child actually make it across the room on two feet without smacking headfirst into the coffee table. Ice creams all around!
There are a number of interesting things about these little robots, the first of which is that they are robots in function, but not form as we traditionally conceive it. A robot is typically defined as a man-made device that can sense and react to its environment, with its decision-making process determined by the information the environment provides. The same is true of the DNA spider. We also tend to think of robots as machines of cold steel, pulsing electronics and microchips, but all of these are far too large to be of any use at a molecular level. The spider is instead entirely biological, and its processes are dictated by the DNA cues seeded in its immediate environment.
This leads nicely to the second interesting thing about these little fellas – they cannot be internally programmed. Due to size constraints, the "programming" they receive must all be external. This makes truly autonomous function difficult, because as much attention must be paid to the environment as to the robot itself. If the bread is stale or it doesn't like Rye, there could be a problem.
At this point, the robot can walk in a straight line, but all that's going to get him is out of a DUI. The next step is to have two robots working together for the greater good, with the ultimate goal of having drug-equipped nano spiders working in concert to eradicate cancer cells or other problematic cellular issues.
This is fantastic technology, and with further development obviously has stunning potential in the biomedical field.
Still, robot DNA spiders crawling around inside our bodies is just creepy, but so long as they're not laying any eggs in there, we can probably deal with it.