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A new development based on DNA will make it possible to isolate atoms and ions in the future

The tongs that will move the robots forward

See below an update for the date 21/8/2000

Researchers from Bell Laboratories and the University of Oxford have for the first time designed tiny forceps made of DNA. The purpose of developing the forceps, which are five orders of magnitude smaller than a pin, is for example to isolate and remove one atom from the 30 trillion particles contained in one drop of water.

The principle of the forceps operation is based on the biological mechanism of DNA: the DNA molecule looks like a double helix consisting of two strands, each of which is made up of subunits called bases. The strands connect to each other only when there is a perfect match between their base pairs. The base of the forceps is actually a regular DNA molecule, with each strand functioning as an arm. In a certain section, a third folded strand connects to the two arms, which prevents them from connecting to each other and spreads the two arms to the sides. A fourth strand is attached to the two outstretched arms, also folded, which completes the creation of the pincers, and in fact does not leave a single strand of DNA exposed. This, in order to prevent the adhesion of the 2 arms back into a double coil.

According to Dr. Bernard York of Bell Labs, who heads the research team, one day the forceps may also isolate and extract ions - atoms that have removed or added electrons - and these will help in building molecular structures, and will also allow (with the help of electrical forces, ion concentration differences, etc.) the The movement of tiny machines, such as robots. According to him, Bell Labs - part of Lucent Technologies - is not directly interested in the idea of ​​the forceps, but in demonstrating the mechanism in which the two strands connect to each other independently, without external aids. He explains that this is the proof that in the future it will be possible to connect electronic components to a double-stranded DNA molecule, and the strands will connect to create a fast computer with a much higher data storage capacity than what exists in computers today.

The rapid advances in the field of high-tech have greatly improved the memory of computer chips, but according to experts, we will eventually reach the limit of the ability to develop electronic components with the existing technology, and then we will have to find new and more efficient ways to store information. DNA is the natural means of storing huge amounts of information in a tiny space: the space between the bases in each of the strands is 0.34 nanometers (a billionth of a meter). The minimum size of the tiny technological devices today is about 100 nanometers.

The development of the forceps is part of an initial attempt to use DNA as an electronic scaffold, from which microscopic computers or tiny robots will be developed in the future that can move through the circulatory system and heal injuries. In the past, three-dimensional structures have already been developed from DNA, like mechanical switches that turn off and on every time a chemical substance is added to the DNA solution. This year the biotechnology company "Nanogan" registered a patent for DNA dyed with fluorescent colors that creates an optical memory that can store more information than a CD.

However, experts believe that at least ten years will pass before it will be possible to use DNA to solve everyday problems. According to other experts, it is even possible that other chemical elements will prove to be more effective than DNA for the same uses. Chemistry professor James Tor, from Rice University, says that working with DNA might be "a nice experimental laboratory, but it's not clear how practical it is." According to him, there are basic problems when working with DNA: it works better in a liquid environment, and is not a good conductor - something that limits the connection of electronic components to it.
{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 14/8/2000}
Update 21 / 8 / 2000
A microscopic switch" with which, they claim, molecules can be programmed just as computers are programmed, in a technique known as "molecular mechanization", reports the E-commerce Times news site. "The 'molecular computer' will allow us to perform operations that have not yet occurred to us," says James Hales from UCLA University.

Based on the assumption that every computer system is made up of small bodies that can be in an "on" or "off" state, the researchers want to build in the future a series of molecules that will perform actions according to "programming" through electric currents or exposure to light. The researchers located a molecule called catenane, which is made up of two circles of single atoms. External influences, such as light or electrical interference, cause the two circuits to separate, thus giving the molecule the image of being "off".

Earlier this month, a group of researchers from Bell Labs and the University of Oxford created an extremely tiny molecular motor, so tiny that 30 trillion of it can fit into a single drop of water. The new technology, known as nanotechnology, is still in its infancy, but scientists foresee great potential. Not long ago, the scientists developed a version of the molecular "switch" for single use, or in an environment where the temperature is low. The publication from last weekend refers to a "version" that can be reused and is resistant to room temperature.

Many companies in the world, including IBM, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard (HP) are among the leading companies in the experimental array of molecular electronics. The American government invests a lot of resources in the development of nanotechnology, and reports the transfer of about 500 million dollars a year for development on this subject.

Several studies on the subject indicate that in the future about a billion molecular circles will be able to approach each other with the help of a chemical reaction, and form one body. This means developing the ability to produce chips that will significantly reduce production costs and improve performance, compared to today's computers based on silicon components. In addition, the computers based on molecular mechanization will allow more reliable storage of information than is currently accepted. Their advantage will also be their tiny size, which allows them to be woven into clothing details or to create tiny robots, capable of sailing inside the human body and healing injuries.
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