How Microscopic Robots may one Day Save your Life

The engineering of nano applications took root in the 1990s and has now branched out to touch every field of technology . Nanotechnology is the study and engineering of matter on either an atomic or molecular scale. The potentials for it use are almost limitless and literally restricted only by the imagination. Already potential applications have been explored in such diverse industries as materials science, electronics and energy.

The medical field is no exception.

According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, almost $10 billion is being funneled to research and development into nanotech projects. Although the US is the leader, China, Japan and Germany are close behind. Russia and India have also created centers devoted to the development and application of nano products that could revolutionize transportation and construction.

Arrival of the nano-spiders

Nanotech research into bio-tech applications has been on the upswing the past several years, and now a team of research scientists has announced another new breakthrough. The team succeeded in constructing nano robots from the molecules that compose DNA. These “spider-bots” can crawl, change direction, even create their own tiny assembly line producing nano products.

The project team says the nano-spider navigates across an artificial matrix of the double-helix DNA strand, climbing it like a ladder. According to the scientists, an unzipped double-helix molecule becomes like a gear. The nano-spider uses the “teeth” in the gear to maneuver left or right as it transverses the molecule.

Professor Hao Yan of the Arizona State University explains that while “DNA walkers” (nano-spiders) are not new, until now none have been able to take more than a few steps. “This one can walk about to about 100 nanometers. That’s roughly 50 steps,” he said.

His team is addressing the challenge of finding ways to make the nano-spider travel faster, accept more programming and vary its decision-making capabilities.  

Made in Japan

The biological applications of nano robotics are at the forefront of research in Japan’s universities and large corporations. In many areas the Japanese are the world leaders in robotics applications. They were the first to create a robotic assembly line that built automotive components during the day, and then shifted to building more of themselves at night—the world’s first commercial application of self-replicating machines (SRMs) on a rudimentary scale.

Since then, the Japanese scientists and engineers have created robotic educators that teach children in classrooms, robotic caretakers in long-term care facilities, and robotic workers that man booths at trade fairs and expositions to inform and entertain potential customers.

Some of Japan’s big bio-tech centers are working hard to create nano bio-bots that can swarm through the human body programmed to seek and destroy cancer cells.

Size matters

American scientists are concentrating on size. A project team at Columbia University recently announced the creation of a robotic device 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Called a “spider bot,” the micro-machine is only four nanometers wide enabling it to travel almost anyplace in the human body.

At New York University, another team headed by Nadrian Seeman built a molecular factory. These DNA nano bots were successfully programmed to assemble gold fragments while following the guidelines of chemical marker instructions. Using multiple “hands” and various robotic configurations, the little team of nano robots transported their cargo of gold.

In a commentary published in “Nature” about the remarkable achievement, Lloyd Smith of the University of Wisconsin, Madison observed, “This is the first time that systems of nano-machines, rather than individual devices have been used to perform operations, constituting a crucial advance in the evolution of DNA technology.”

Once called the technology of the future, the nanotech has arrived. Only the endless applications of the future now await the tiny robot armies.

The incredibly small machines, operating at the current limits of human technology, will be able to clean arteries, destroy tumors, created fibrous cable 10,000 times stronger than anything now known, unblock clogged blood vessels in the brain, and even construct components for advanced computer systems.

Links to photos

A nano-spider

Nano bots clearing a blocked blood vessel

Nano bot attacking cancer cell

Nano squad