Scientists from New York’s Cornell University have developed a new kind of artificial ‘biomaterial’ ‘on par’ with biologically complex organism. The material used to build ‘organic machines’ with the ability to continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself is developed from synthetic DNA.
Dan Luo, a professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences described his team’s breakthrough as:
“a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before.”
Professor Luo insists that despite displaying almost all of the qualities that define something as ‘alive’, and its biology being described as on the same level as something like mould, the team have not created ‘life’. Rather, the ‘machines’ are described as ‘artificial biological systems’.
The team’s engineers and scientists used DASH (DNA-based Assembly and Synthesis of Hierarchical) to create materials able to autonomously emerge from their nanoscale building blocks and arrange themselves — initially into polymers and eventually mesoscale (0.1mm to 5mm) shapes.
The synthetic DNA molecules were multiplied into chains of repeating DNA a few millimetres long and injected with a reaction solution that provided energy. This resulted in a biosynthesis process and the DNA spontaneously growing its own new strands. As the front end of the simple ‘bio-robot’ grew and its back end decayed, the result was ‘locomotion’ and the material moving forward, very much like a slime mould would. The scientists started experiments that ‘raced’ bits of the biomaterial or robots against each other.
Shogo Hamada, lead author of the paper, which is published in the Science Robotics journal, explained:
“The designs are still primitive, but they showed a new route to create dynamic machines from biomolecules. We are at a first step of building lifelike robots by artificial metabolism.”
While the research is clearly at a very early stage, it raises the tantalising and disconcerting prospect that we will one day be using materials and creating machines that tick most of the boxes for what is defined as ‘alive’.