Norwich Science Festival 2018: Norwich researchers could build robots out of DNA

On October 25, Dr Zoe Waller, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Biology at the UEA School of Pharmacy, gave a talk at Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form. Dr Waller’s research focuses on alternative DNA structures. The talk, called “The Changing Shape of DNA”, was part of the Norwich Science Festival.

When most people think of DNA, they probably picture a double helix. But this is not the only structure DNA can form. It can also form a “quadruple helix”: a four-strand structure a bit like a cube. This happens when the DNA contains large amounts of the chemical guanine. These shapes were found in human cells in 2013.

When DNA contains large amounts of another chemical, cytosine, it forms a different type of quadruple helix called an i-motif. These were not found in human cells until earlier this year.

These alternative DNA structures can work like switches, turning other genes on and off. This is one of the areas Dr Waller researches: by encouraging these shapes to form, scientists, can control which genes are switched on.

Being able to control DNA in this way has many uses. Microsoft are researching ways of using DNA to store data. DNA is very stable, so the data could last a long time without being corrupted. One pound of DNA could store more data than all the electronic computers ever built.

They are also researching DNA computers. By changing the shape of DNA, it can be made to act as an ON/OFF switch. This means circuits could be made out of DNA instead of silicon.

No complete DNA computers have ever been built, but some researchers think they could be more accurate and faster than traditional computers. Also, an electronic computer does tasks one at a time: to multitask, you need more than one processor in the computer. A DNA computer could work on many tasks at once, making it much faster.

DNA can also be used to build nanotechnology. For instance, a tiny box made of DNA and containing medicine can be designed to only open and release the medicine when it reaches the right part of the body. DNA could even be used to make nanobots: tiny robotic devices that respond to changes in temperature or pH. This is another area that Dr Waller is researching—using the pH as a trigger to make DNA change its shape and structure.

After Dr Waller’s talk, there were several interesting questions from the audience. These included whether it was possible to create life. Dr Waller said there were various ways to “create life” with DNA, including cloning and genetic modification, but that there were a lot of difficult ethical questions surrounding this area of research.

Dr Waller’s talk covered much of the latest research in DNA chemistry and raised some very interesting questions about how it could be used in the future. It also made it clear that a lot of fascinating research into DNA is going on here in Norwich.

Phoebe Sayer

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