Nano-walkers take speedy leap forward with first rolling DNA-based motor

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Dec. 7, 2015

Khalid Salaita, the Emory University chemist who led the research, discusses and demonstrates the findings.

Physical chemists have devised a rolling DNA-based motor that’s 1,000 times faster than any other synthetic DNA motor, giving it potential for real-world applications, such as disease diagnostics. Nature Nanotechnology is publishing the finding.

“Unlike other synthetic DNA-based motors, which use legs to ‘walk’ like tiny robots, ours is the first rolling DNA motor, making it far faster and more robust,” says Khalid Salaita, the Emory University chemist who led the research. “It’s like the biological equivalent of the invention of the wheel for the field of DNA machines.”

The speed of the new DNA-based motor, which is powered by ribonuclease H, means a simple smart phone microscope can capture its motion through video. The researchers have filed an invention disclosure patent for the concept of using the particle motion of their rolling molecular motor as a sensor for everything from a single DNA mutation in a biological sample to heavy metals in water.

“Our method offers a way of doing low-cost, low-tech diagnostics in settings with limited resources,” Salaita says.

The field of synthetic DNA-based motors, also known as nano-walkers, is about 15 years old. Researchers are striving to duplicate the action of nature’s nano-walkers. Myosin, for example, are tiny biological mechanisms that “walk” on filaments to carry nutrients throughout the human body.

“It’s the ultimate in science fiction,” Salaita says of the quest to create tiny robots, or nano-bots, that could be programmed to do your bidding. “People have dreamed of sending in nano-bots to deliver drugs or to repair problems in the human body.”

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