DNA-based construction is one of the major contenders on the pathway to atomically-precise manufacturing, and Caltech has made an important advance in that direction. From New Scientist:

A group at the California Institute of Technology, led by biomolecular engineer Niles Pierce, has created a DNA-based fabricator.

This is a system that allows the team to specify a piece of DNA with a desired shape and function, and then execute a molecular program to assemble it in a test tube. As an example, they used their system to construct a piece of DNA that walks along another strip of DNA.

Just as computer languages let programmers create any number of applications, the researchers behind the approach predict that biochemical programming “languages” inspired by their work could let bioengineers create any number of desired molecular products and processes…

The group has also developed a graphical way to represent the state of these molecular building blocks and the step-by-step interactions between them. These “reaction graphs” allow them to map out the assembly and disassembly steps needed to produce a desired sequence of reactions…

To demonstrate the power and flexibility of their programming approach, the group used it to produce several different reactions including, most dramatically, two-legged DNA molecules that walk along a ladder-like track…

Still, he says, a few years ago audience members laughed when he said he wanted to create a compiler to automate the process of encoding desired functions into DNA sequences. “Our field has now progressed to the point where the real question is not whether it can be done, but how far it can be pushed.”

Some of Pierce’s peers believe this kind of systematic biomolecular programming can be pushed very far indeed.

“It’s great work,” says computer scientist Erik Winfree, who is also at based Caltech, but was not involved with the work. “What’s remarkable is that it develops a general way of creating a very diverse set of chemical reaction pathways. It opens a lot of doors.”

Nanodot readers will recognize the name Erik Winfree as one of the 2006 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize winners.

We at Foresight remember well the days when audiences would giggle when presented with ambitious goals of atomically-precise construction. Those days are rapidly receding.

Here’s the Nature abstract, “Programming biomolecular self-assembly pathways”. People often ask, how will complex molecular machines be built? This work points the way forward. (Credit: Senior Associates Brian Wang and Jim Lewis) —Christine