Nano-train powered by DNA lays its own tracks

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Now that I think about it, DNA does kind of look like train tracks.

When it comes to toy trains, nothing is more fun than making the mini-models go where you want them to, right? Well, researchers from the University of Oxford have created a molecule-sized train that can lay the track all by itself, and may one day chug along inside a human body!

Instead of an engine, the University of Oxford system uses proteins called “kinesins,” which have the ability to carry other molecules and assemble them into certain structures. Two kinesins paired together are called “assemblers,” and in this case, the assemblers are responsible for laying down a miniature track.

Instead of metal and wood, the assemblers use tiny pieces of DNA to get from place to place. “DNA is an excellent building block for constructing synthetic molecular systems, as we can program it to do whatever we need,” said Adam Wollman, who conducted the research at Oxford University’s Department of Physics.

Now, while an assembler is made up of two kinesins, a single kinesin can be used to make “shuttles” that travel the tracks and deliver materials. If this were a real train, the shuttles would be like little cargo compartments filled with supplies. For the purposes of this experiment, the researchers filled the shuttles with dye, but they can potentially carry all sorts of possibilities. “We design the chemical structures of the DNA strands to control how they interact with each other,” said Wollman. “The shuttles can be used to either carry cargo or deliver signals to tell other shuttles what to do.”

Someday, the tiny structures can be used as a way to deliver medicine to specific parts of the body, or transport biological supplies to areas that need them most.

Featured image courtesy of EMSL on Flickr.