Bye-bye silicon age, behold the age of DNA

Forget about 3D printing, the next exciting tech is DNA origami, which is set to bring revolutionary change to healthcare.

By Sparrho Hero and Phd Nicolas Gutierrez

A smiley face created using DNA-origami technique (source: Nature)

DNA is the most important piece of our biology, but now it may also become the future of technology, as super efficient hard drives or nano-material to build anything from precise medicine delivery systems to very tiny robots repairing our cells or even digital storage.

Your next hard drive might be DNA

Thanks to its extreme durability and density, DNA is starting to be used to store digital data, sort of a super small and durable computer hard drive (Erlich et al, 2017).

And because of these same qualities, plus the possibility of manipulating its sequence and 3D structure, DNA has been proposed as the perfect building blocks for future nano technology (Wagenbauer et al, 2017).

Nanotechnology is very, very, small technology, which will allow to work in very, very small places. It’s kind of like building a very tiny hammer to nail a very tiny painting in a very tiny house.

Folding DNA into tough little objects

Researchers have found a technique that allows for the folding of DNA into any kind of structure, similar to paper origami, but resulting in much, much, smaller and resistant objects.

These structures can be used as specific delivery systems (Hadorn et al, 2012), — a sort of Amazon drones for cells — or to build nano machines that can undertake specific tasks within the cell.

For instance, microscopic tubes based on this tech will be able to deliver medication into a specific kind of cell, avoiding side effects or overdosing. (Find and example in our 3 Minute Digest, how nanocrystals could be used to reverse neural damage caused by Multiple Sclerosis, helping people to regain mobility)

How DNA can be folded into a smiley face

To demonstrate the potential of DNA-folding, Caltech research professor Paul W. K. Rothemund had created very small smiley faces and called this DNA origami. (He also took time to explain that ‘origami’ (折り紙) in Japanese means paper folding, but now we are using the word for all sorts of cool folding! (You can read more on his technique in this article from Nature).

As Paul noted, DNA nanotechnology encompasses much more than just making shapes.

Enter the DNA machine

For example, researchers from Israel managed to build a DNA bipedal walker that walks on a DNA track. (Tomov et al, 2017). And by using chemical microfluids, they can tell the walker how many steps to make and when to stop, controlling its direction and speed.

A ‘nano-walker’ created by Harvard scientists (source: nanotechweb.org)

So, not only we will be able to “print” any kind of 3D structure on DNA but also give it a motor to create the super small machines of the future.

How DNA nanotech will revolutionise healthcare?

I believe this technology will have a huge impact on medicine, allowing us much higher precision and efficiency in medical treatments, for example, to treat cancer.

DNA nanotechnology could facilitate a specific delivery of chemotherapy only in tumor cells, avoiding collateral damage in healthy cells and preventing the heavy side effects chemo has on cancer patients, like hair loss, pain and fatigue.

It could also be important for permitting drug delivery into hard to get places, like the brain, which is protected by the blood-brain barrier, to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s Disease (Karthivashan et al, 2018).

DNA nanotechnology could also open the door to new possibilities, like in situ repair of damaged tissue — imagine a fractured bone — or even smaller chores, such as repairing DNA breakage or protein structural damage.

The possibilities are endless and medicine will change dramatically.

Welcome to the future of healthcare!

Nicolas Gutierrez, PhD 
is a postdoctoral researcher specialising in mitochondria and genetics.

Read his full pinboard here.

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