In what could be one of the significant breakthroughs in robotics, Cornell University researchers have designed self-organizing and self-assembling robots using synthetic DNA.
Playing around with DNA-based robots is not new. Scientists have already been building nanobots that can potentially kill malignant tumors. They may also be able to grow new organs from stem cells, which can help cure chronic diseases.
The brand-new research, however, is different, as these bots can behave almost the same way as the real DNA. It has its own metabolism, uses energy, evolves, grows, and dies.
How can this biomaterial function the same way as human DNA? For the study, the team used a system called DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical.
With DASH, the scientists created a self-organizing robot using 55 nucleotide units, which are the building blocks of human DNA. They replicated these blocks multiple times to produce a chain.
The team also introduced artificial metabolism into the synthetic DNA, which should then allow the biomaterial to not only use energy for fuel but also to regenerate.
True enough, when they introduced a special fluid that serves as its source of energy, the material grew new strands. Most of all, it moved as the front end grew and the tail degraded.
"In this way, it made its own locomotion, creeping forward, against the flow, in a way similar to how slime molds move," said Cornell Chronicle.
The team then took their experiment further by besting these materials against each other in an old-school race.
Depending on the environment, some of them gained an advantage over others so they ended up winning by reaching the finish line first.
Still Primitive And Not Alive
In spite of having the basic traits of life such as metabolism and regeneration, the scientists still consider these lifelike robots as primitive. They also don't want to call them alive.
"We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that's alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before," remarked Dan Luo, one of the authors.
They believe, however, that their findings can only advance robotics. These materials may also help in detecting pathogens and creating hybrid nanomaterials.
For now, the scientists are working on making these robots responsive to stimuli, seek them on their own, and decide whether these are beneficial for them or not.
The study is now published in Science Robotics.
Watch the lifelike machine in action in this video: