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Nanoscale construction project on time and on budget

18 November 2013

By Dr Naqash Raja

Appeared in BioNews 731

A system that allows researchers to control a tiny cellular transport network has been developed by researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick.

In the system DNA acts like a foreman on the nanoscale construction site, assembling and directing the operation of shuttles that transport molecular cargo along cellular components called microtubules.

'DNA is an excellent building block for constructing synthetic molecular systems, as we can program it to do whatever we need,' said Adam Wollman, who conducted the research at the University of Oxford's Department of Physics.

In a cell's cytoplasm, a motor protein called kinesin moves along a track on a microtubule to transport key components such as mitochondria and mRNA.

This set-up served as the inspiration for the system. 'One of the more sci-fi visions of nanotechnology is the creation of moving "nanobots", but it turns out that nature got there first', said Wollman, speaking to the online magazine Motherboard.

The Oxford team fused the kinesin with a short, synthetic DNA strand loaded with information for either assembly of the network or transportation. 'Assembler' nanobots were made with two kinesin proteins, allowing them to move tracks around to assemble the network, whereas the 'shuttles' only need one kinesin protein to travel along the tracks.

The group used fluorescent green dyes as cargo to demonstrate the system, a method inspired by melanophore, a pigment used by fish cells to control their colour.

'We first use assemblers to arrange the track into spokes, triggered by the introduction of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), then send in shuttles with fluorescent green cargo which spread out across the track', explains Wollman. 'When we add more ATP, the shuttles all cluster in the centre of the track where the spokes meet'.

The system also allows the researchers to reverse the process, or 'demolish' the site, by programming the shuttles to signal the cargo-carrying shuttles to release the fluorescent cargo into the environment and dismantle the tracks.

The developers of the self-construction system say it has the potential to speed up chemical reactions used in biotechnology by bringing the necessary compounds together into a central hub.


16 December 2013 - by Chris Baldacci 
Researchers in Germany have discovered a novel way to influence the direction of travel of sperm...

06 June 2012 - by Victoria Kay 
Scientists have developed a way of crafting DNA into complex shapes such as letters of the alphabet, symbols and even smiley faces. The nanotechnology may one day be able to create customised DNA structures that can carry therapeutic drugs to specific sites in the human body without triggering an immune response...
28 May 2012 - by Ruth Retassie 
A rewritable memory system using short sections of DNA to hold data in bacterial cells has been developed by synthetic biologists. Dr Drew Endy and his team at Stanford University in California produced the system after three years of work and 750 designs...
23 April 2012 - by Ana Pallesen 
Six new kinds of artificial genetic material have been created by scientists. These XNAs, or xeno-nucleic acids, have similar life-building properties to naturally-occurring DNA...
03 August 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
Nanoparticle delivery of a payload of toxin, straight to the tumour location, without damaging healthy cells, is as effective as chemotherapy at killing ovarian cancer in mice - but without the nasty side effects. This new method, pioneered at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research, Pennsylvania, US, is expected to be tested in humans within 18-24 months according to a report in the journal Cancer Research....

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