Radio-controlled DNA act as gene switches

Jan. 14, 2002 at 6:34 PM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 14 (UPI) -- MIT researchers say newly developed radio-controlled DNA may one day act as electronic switches, allowing scientists to turn genes on and off by remote control.

Since virtually all biological molecules can be linked with tiny metal radio antenna crystals, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., say radio frequency biology in the future may help control a wide range of biological processes electronically.

"Regulation of biomolecules using electronic radio frequency control represents a new dimension in biology," said researcher Shuguang Zhang, associate director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering. "Radio frequency biology provides us with some extraordinary tools and with unprecedented precision."

The scientists attached tiny radio-frequency antennas -- gold crystals made up of less than 100 atoms -- to DNA. When a radio-frequency magnetic field is transmitted into the tiny antennas, the molecules the crystals are attached to are zapped with energy.

"It's a really simple technique -- it's really just working by heat," said lead researcher Kim Hamad-Schifferli in an interview with United Press International. "It's just that the tools we've decided to use make it such that you can localize the heat."

The radio technique can unzip double-stranded DNA in a matter of seconds, a reversible process that leaves neighboring molecules untouched. It may one day prove possible to hook the antennas into living systems and control DNA via electronic switches, the scientists say.

"It's clever to find a way to bridge two very different worlds -- the biochemical world of nucleic acids and the physical world of electromagnetic waves," commented biochemist Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "You can even start to think of differential receivers -- different radio receivers that respond differently to different frequencies. By dialing in the right frequency, you can turn on tags on one part of DNA but not other tags."

The crystals -- each no larger than nanometers or billionths of a meter -- can be attached to proteins as well as DNA. This opens up the possibility of controlling more complex biological processes such as enzymatic activity, protein folding and biomolecular assembly.

"There are already numerous examples of nanocrystals attached to biological systems for the purpose of sensing," Schifferli said. "However, we hadn't come across any examples where they are used as a means of controlling the biology. We feel that's what's new about our work."

Ultimately, cell component functions and the cell life cycle itself may be electronically regulated using radio waves, said researcher Joseph Jacobson, head of the MIT Media Lab's molecular machines group. Biological machines may one day be used to perform computation, assemble computer components or become part of computer hardware or circuitry.

"If we're interested in molecular-scale machines, biology is a wonderful place to start," Jacobson said. "Manipulation of DNA is interesting because it has been shown recently that is has potential as an actuator -- a hard drive component -- and can be used to perform computational operations."

Exquisitely fine electronic control of biology also will likely become more and more important in dissecting intricate molecular interactions and formations in great detail. There is currently no way to achieve this fine control over one molecule without disturbing its neighbors.

"The development of molecular biology has witnessed many examples of ways to design new tools that accelerated uncovering nature's secrets," Zhang said. "These new tools and technologies will undoubtedly accelerate and advance our knowledge in finest detail. It not only opens new avenues for us to ask big and deep questions but also to attain the ultimate answers in biology."

The researchers reported their findings in Nature.

(Reported by Charles Choi in New York.)

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