If you were scrolling through Nature.com’s articles, you might find one called ‘A modular spring-loaded actuator for mechanical activation of membrane proteins.‘
What exactly does that mean? It means something very remarkable. According to an article written by Inserm on scitechdaily.com broken down into layman’s terms, scientists are using DNA to build a “nano-robot” to look closely at how cells work at the microscopic level.
If one lone scientist wrote this idea, this might sound like a mad-capped science-fiction idea. However, when you look into who Inserm are, they are The Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale, which is the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
Four French scientific agencies build a tiny robot using DNA
Scientists from Inserm, CNRS, and Université de Montpellier are collaborating to build a tiny robot from DNA which won’t be visible to the human eye. Their research takes place at the Structural Biology Center in Montpellier.
This scientific endeavor spans the work of four agencies these organizations belong to, including:
- The Institute of Functional Genomics,
- The Max Mousseron Biomolecules Institute,
- The Paul Pascal Research Center,
- The Physiology and Experimental Medicine: Heart-Muscles laboratory
Who are Inserm?
The Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (Inserm) is the only public research organization in France that only studies health and medicine. Around 13,000 scientists run Inserm. The Ministry of Research and the Ministry of Health both oversee Inserm. Like the National Institutes of Health in the United States, Inserm does basic and applied research through 339 research units; the Inserm units involved in the research are also members of the four organizations researching the nano-robot.
What are these organizations trying to achieve?
The organizations are trying to address a growing need in the scientific community for a nano-robot designed to apply piconewton forces in vitro and in vivo.
What is meant by piconewton forces?
Piconewton force means using a tiny amount of pressure. To understand how little the pressure of 1 piconewton is, it is one trillionth of a Newton. One Newton is the force of a finger clicking on a pen.
Piconetwton forces are used in molecular and cellular biomechanics procedures
In other molecular and cellular biomechanics procedures, optical tweezers are used to apply “piconewton forces.” Optical tweezers are used to manipulate both living cells and large molecules or particles. Nano-robot technology that will be able to work in a similar way to optical tweezers will be cutting edge.
The challenges of working at the nano level within organisms
These organizations are trying to create a nano-robot made from DNA that can work in living organisms. This can be both a strength and a weakness because it would be sensitive to enzymes that can break down DNA.
The next step for the researchers is to figure out how to change the robot’s surface so that enzymes don’t affect it as much.
Lead researcher Gatan Bellot advises that they will look into other ways to turn on our robot, such as with a magnetic field.
Nanotechnology created to work in vitro and in vivo
The nano-robots the researchers hope to make will be able to work in vivo and in vitro. “in vivo” and “in vitro” come from Latin. “In vivo” means “within a living organism,” while “in vitro” means “in glass,” like in a test tube or petri dish.
What happens if they are successful?
If they succeed, they hope to create a very clever “nano-robot,” which will make it easier to learn more about the mechanical forces at the microscopic level. These mechanical forces at the microscopic level are vital for many biological and pathological processes.
On a microscopic scale, mechanical forces act on our cells. They send biological signals for many cell processes essential for our bodies to work typically or for diseases to develop.
Using nano-technology to interact with mechanoreceptors
Mechanoreceptors are touch receptors that are also sensitive to mechanical forces. They help control critical biological processes like blood vessel constriction, breathing, pain perception, and even the ability of the ear to pick up sound waves. For example, the feeling of touch depends partly on how much pressure is put on specific cell receptors.
How to build a nano-robot made from DNA
The team of researchers at the Structural Biology Center (Inserm/CNRS/Université de Montpellier), led by Inserm, has decided to use the DNA origami method, a technique developed by nanotechnology over the last ten years. This technique enables the team to use DNA molecules to build 3D nanostructures in a way that has already been planned.
A nano-robot the size of a human cell
So far, the team has been able to make a “nano-robot” out of three DNA origami structures the size of a human cell. The robot can apply and control a force with a resolution of 1 piconewton.
This is the first time that a DNA-based object made by people can apply force with this much accuracy.
The researchers put a molecule that knows how to find a mechanoreceptor on the robot. This made it possible to direct the robot to some of our cells and apply forces to specific mechanoreceptors on the surface of the cells to make them work.
Future applications for the nano-robot
The researchers think that a tool like this will be very useful for basic research because it can be used to learn more about the molecular processes involved in cell mechanosensitivity and can also be used to find new cell receptors sensitive to mechanical forces.
Some other technologies can already be used to apply controlled forces and study these mechanisms, but they all have some problems. In particular, they are costly and don’t let scientists study more than one cell receptor at a time. Using a nano-robot, scientists hope to overcome these difficulties.
Possible cure for cancers caused by mechanoreceptors not working right
Many diseases are caused by this cellular mechanosensitivity not working right. For example, cancer cells move around the body by making sounds and constantly changing to fit the mechanical properties of their immediate surroundings.
It will be interesting to watch the future progress of the DNA nano-robot and whether it will be implemented into any real-world solutions, such as the cure for cancer.