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"Bot Wranglers" -- The Discovery Files

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The time it takes to control DNA-based molecular machines speeds up from several minutes to less than a second, thanks to a new, magnetic control system. Researchers shrank the functionality of magnetic particles used in previous studies by a thousand-fold -- from micro-scale to nano-scale -- to command the machines, and incorporated fluorescent beacons to monitor them.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Mag-ster control.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Precise control of robotic movement is challenging. Shrink that down (Sound effect: cartoon shrink) to controlling machines in a micro world. Whoa, tiny. Now, let's go way smaller into the land of DNA-based molecular machines. (Sound effect: cartoon shrink) How do you control components in machines this small?

One way is by inducing chemical reactions to coax them to move in certain ways. But the response time is (Sound effect: slowed down speed effect) slow. Several minutes. Now, researchers at Ohio State have figured out how to use magnets to control nano-robot components. Itty-bitty rotors, rods and hinges, fashioned through a process called DNA Origami. Yep, folding strands of DNA to make, components.

These are attached to particles impregnated with magnetic material. Now, the team can command the particles to (Sound effect: cartoon robotics) swing components back and forth or rotate. They opened and closed hinges, even turned teeny rotors. Time from instruction to reaction? Under a second.

The discovery could one day enable nano-robots to manufacture tiny objects as quickly and reliably as their full-sized cousins.

This is pretty much a first. In fairness, the team points out there is one other study touting direct real-time control of DNA-based nanomachines. Hey, small world.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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