that complex tasks, like cargo sorting,
can be accomplished with simple algo-
rithms. “The simpler the algorithm,”
she notes, “the more likely it can be
carried out by simple molecules.”
The other key demonstration is the
importance of modularity in building
these robots. Before the current experi-
ment, Qian’s group demonstrated the
viability of the walking robot using only
one leg and two feet. “We then showed
that adding an arm and a hand seg-
ment, without any changes to the leg
and foot segments, allowed the robot
to pick up and drop off cargos while
moving around in random directions,”
she explains. “This proof-of-concept
demonstration opens up future pos-
sibilities for developing additional
building blocks that can be added to
the toolbox of DNA robots.”
Eventually, that expanding toolbox
could be used to develop new applica-
tions. While the scientists are hesitant
to go into too much detail about these
applications, given the early stages of
the research, Allen observes that the
potential is tremendous: “The idea of
being able to assemble matter at the
atomic or molecular level and have
control over it at a rational level, that’s
Cameron, N.E., Bashor, C.J., and Collins, J.J.
A brief history of synthetic biology. Nature
Reviews Microbiology, May 2014.
Jung, C., Allen, P.B., and Ellington, A.D.
A stochastic DNA walker that traverses
a microparticle surface. Nature
Nanotechnology, February 2016.
Thubagere, A.J., Li, W., Johnson, R.F., et. al.
A cargo-sorting DNA robot, Science,
Vol. 357, Issue 6356.
Nielson, A.A.K., Der, B.S., Shin, J., et. al.
Genetic circuit design automation, Science,
Vol. 352, Issue 6281.
Gregory Mone is a Boston-based science writer and the
co-author, with Bill Nye, of Jack and the Geniuses: At the
Bottom of the World.
© 2018 ACM 0001-0782/18/5 $15.00
til it grabbed onto a neighboring strand
of DNA; then the previous leg released
and searched for its next mooring.
The robot’s hand was designed to
bind to strands of DNA attached to the
fluorescent molecules, so when the
robot bumped into a piece of cargo,
it would grab the molecule and continue its random walk. Eventually, the
robot would come across the drop-off
point. Another segment of the cargo
strand served as an identification tag,
almost like a Universal Product Code.
The drop-off point recognized that segment, latched on, and took the cargo
strand and the fluorescent molecule attached to it. The robot then continued
its random walk.
The entire experiment, which involved sorting six cargo items, required
300 steps and 24 hours, so the work is
not exactly designed for holiday fulfillment operations in an Amazon warehouse. Yet Qian says there are several
important, transferrable lessons coming from the experiment. The first is
Security researchers warn that
hackers are gobbling up encrypted data and waiting for the day
when quantum computers will
easily break their encryptions.
“Intelligence agencies are already recording massive amounts
of encrypted data sent over the
networks in the hope to successfully decrypt them with powerful
quantum computers in a few
years,” says Tim Guneysu, chair
for security engineering at Germany’s Ruhr University Bochum.
High on the radar of the data
thieves: trade secrets, health
records, criminal records, and any
other sensitive data hackers believe they will be able to sell, trade,
or leverage in the quantum era.
“Think of the secret recipe for
Coca-Cola, or blueprints for a su-
personic plane,” says Tanja Lange,
chair of Cryptology at Eindhoven
University of Technology in the
Netherlands. “Trade secrets are
often held close by companies
Also, “Identifying dissidents
and decrypting their commu-
nication will be worthwhile to
some regimes, even years later,”