MagicDNA: Complex, Tiny DNA Robots Produced in Minutes


Someday, Researchers believe tiny DNA-based robots and other nanodevices will carry medicine inside our bodies, identify the presence of harmful pathogens, and help to create frequently smaller electronics. Scientists took a significant step toward that future by designing a unique tool that can produce much more complex DNA robots and nanodevices than were ever permissible before in a fraction of the time.

In a paper issued in the journal Nature Materials, on April 19, 2021, Scientists from The Ohio State University – directed by former engineering doctoral student Chao-Min Huang – revealed unique software they call MagicDNA.

MagicDNA helps scientists develop techniques to use tiny strands of DNA and merge them into complex structures with parts like hinges and rotors that can move and perform a variety of tasks, including drug delivery.

This video shows a DNA nanodevice that is 1000 times tinier than the width of a human hair made to look like an airplane in motion and composed of strands of DNA. Source: Ohio State University

Scientists have been doing this for many years with tedious manual steps and slower devices, said Carlos Castro, co-author of the research and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University.

“But with this, we are able to produce nanodevices in just a few minutes instead of several days to develop,” Castro said. And now, scientists can create much more complex – and valuable – nanodevices. “Earlier, we could develop tools with up to about six different components and combine them with hinges and joints and try to execute complex motions,” said research co-author Hai-Jun Su, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University. “With this software, it is not challenging to develop robots or other devices with upwards of 20 parts that are simpler to regulate. It is a big step in our understanding to develop nanodevices that can do the complex operations that we want them to do.”

A robot arm nanodevice with a claw created with MagicDNA software. Source: Ohio State University

The software has many benefits that will help experts design better, more effective nanodevices and – scientists hope – shorten the period before they are in daily use.

One benefit is that it lets scientists carry out the complete design truly in 3D. Previous design devices only supported the creation in 2D, forcing scientists to outline their creations into 3D. That suggested designers couldn’t make their tools too complex.

The software also permits designers to create DNA structures “top-down” or “bottom-up.” 

In “top-down” design, scientists decide how their overall device needs to be shaped geometrically take appropriate strands of DNA and then automate how the DNA strands are put together. But they can also take the “bottom-up” approach, where researchers take particular strands of DNA and choose how to organize them into the structure they need, which allows fine control over local device properties and structure. Another essential component of the software is that it enables simulations of how designed DNA tools would move and work in the real world.

“As you make these structures more complicated, it is challenging to predict specifically what they are going to look like and how they are going to act,” Castro said. “It is really necessary to be able to simulate how our tools will work. Otherwise, we waste a lot of time.”

As proof of the software’s ability, co-author Anjelica Kucinic, a doctoral scholar in biomolecular and chemical engineering at Ohio State University, guided the scientist in creating and identifying many nanostructures created by the software.

Some of the tools they built included robot arms with claws that can pick up smaller objects, and a hundred nanometer-sized structure that looks like an airplane. The ability to create more complex nanodevices indicates that they can do more beneficial things and yet carry out various tasks with one tool, Castro said.

For example, it is one thing to have a DNA robot that, after injection into the bloodstream, can discover specific germs.

“But a more complex tool may not only discover that something wrong is happening but can also respond by releasing a drug or catching the pathogen,” he said. “Our main aim is to develop robots that respond in a selective way to a stimulus or move in a certain way.”

Castro said he assumes that for the next several years, the MagicDNA software will be used at research labs and universities. But its value could grow in the future.

“DNA nanotechnology will be more and more Commercially popular,” he said. “I believe in the next five to 10 years DNA nanodevices will be open for commercial use and we are confident that this software can help to accelerate that.”

Journal Reference

“Integrated computer-aided engineering and design for DNA assemblies” by Chao-Min Huang, Carlos E. Castro, Joshua A. Johnson, Anjelica Kucinic, and Hai-Jun Su 19 April 2021, Nature Materials.