Small groups of scientists around the world are pioneering a new field called “hybrid peptide-DNA nanostructures.” The purpose: to create nano-scale life forms that can patrol your body to fight invading viruses and bacteria, diagnose illness, and deliver medicines.
“In nature, most organisms have natural enemies, but some do not,” biochemist Chenguang Lou at the University of Southern Denmark told Science magazine. “For example, some disease-causing viruses have no natural enemy. It would be a logical step to create an artificial life form that could become an enemy to them.”
Also, designer life forms could serve as anti-viral vaccines or carry payloads of medication or diagnostic sensors to specific places in the body.
Magnetic guidance systems for devices inside the body already are at work in hospitals. The life forms could include magnetic materials that technicians could use to steer them around the body. Also, the life forms could be engineered to bind to specific substances, such as the surface membranes of cells.
The foundation of the work is to combine DNA and peptides. DNA is the blueprint for the proteins that make up a living organism; peptides are short chains of amino acids that can be assembled into proteins.
Combining custom-built DNA and custom-built peptides eventually will allow researchers to create new life forms. In Lou’s lab, scientists have already linked a three-strand DNA assembly with a three-strand peptide structure.
An Oxford University group has grown a nanomachine from DNA and peptides. The device can poke a hole in a cell’s outer membrane to pass molecules of nutrients or medication into the cell.
Bioengineers at Arizona State University have designed a method enabling DNA and peptides to self-assemble into three-dimensional structures. DNA and peptide self-assembled systems have created microfibers, structures far larger than themselves, according to work done at Northwestern University.
TRENDPOST: Deployment of hybrid peptide-DNA nanostructures is still more than a decade away, in no small part because of ethical and public concerns about losing a living synthetic organism inside the human body.
Once the nanodevices are in use, they are likely to be saved for special purposes, perhaps to be used in cases for which there are no alternative treatments.
It will take another two or three generations growing up with the technology to feel comfortable with it.