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Nanobiotechnology October 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Lucy Young

DNA-Protein Nanowires

Why is this topic significant?

Computer-aided design of synthetic biology has enabled the combination of DNA and protein in a nanowire. This new material has the potential to impact many industries.

Description

Synthetic biology has enabled scientists to custom design and build DNA and protein structures, which offer significant potential for use in, for example, advanced therapies for diseases such as cancers. Now researchers have created a new material that combines DNA and protein in long chains. The researchers, based at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, first used a computer program to help them design a nanowire, inputting the necessary properties of the structure and receiving a suggested sequence of nucleotides (to form the proteins) and nitrogenous bases (to form the double-stranded DNA). However, the researchers had to double-check the suggested sequences to make sure they were possible.

To put the designs into practice the researchers needed to find a way to attach the proteins to the DNA. When a gene is being expressed in nature, a type of protein—a transcription factor—specifically binds to the gene's DNA bases and helps with the transcription of that DNA to RNA. The researchers designed a transcription factor to have the ability to connect one end to the DNA and the other to the protein, thus acting as the bridge between the two materials. Significantly, the hybrid material is self-assembling and constructs itself only when both the DNA and protein components are present and not before, in a process called coassembly.

Implications

The self-assembly and coassembly traits of this new material could be important to its future success in industry. Self-assembly of a commercial product would mean that no specialist knowledge will be necessary to construct the material; coassembly adds to this benefit by enabling the supply of the DNA and protein separately and then their construction into the material as and when necessary. Although these traits place the DNA–protein nanowires well for scaling up for industrial processes, the researchers need to demonstrate the types of applications the nanowire could find use in. Theoretically, the material offers new combinations of functionality. Uses in health care could be the researchers' first area of focus; synthetic DNA and protein have already found use in this area. Other applications could be in the field of biocomputing—the creation of programmable systems formed of biological components—which uses DNA and protein in lieu of electronic components.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although the applications of this nanowire are not yet clear, the research from the California Institute of Technology has demonstrated the importance of computer-aided design in synthetic biology. The researchers could have used a trial-and-error approach to designing the nanowire, but that method would have taken a long time. Nevertheless, the program the researchers used was far from perfect. Software development will need to stay ahead of synthetic-biology research for the latter to flourish.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Pharmaceuticals, biocomputing, biosensors, nanoelectronics, synthetic biology

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

RNAi in Agriculture

Why is this topic significant?

Research is demonstrating that RNA interference could be a useful product in the highly specific regulation of gene expression in agriculture, enabling the control of pests and crop diseases.

Description

Ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) occurs in cells naturally to aid the cells' downregulation—or silencing—of genes. Small interfering RNA and microRNA molecules can bind to a complementary sequence of messenger RNA—which a ribosome generates based on the DNA of a gene as part of the process that usually results in the expression of a protein—targeting it for destruction and preventing the creation of particular proteins. Originally finding use as a research tool for genomics, RNAi has also shown potential for treating some diseases. For example, RNAi could find use in switching off the genes that cause some types of cancers. Some scientists are also developing the process for use in agriculture. This research focuses on using RNAi to kill pests and weeds that eat and compete with crops. For example:

  • Researchers at Cornell University have performed greenhouse trials of an RNAi insecticide for killing Colorado potato beetles. The researchers sprayed the insecticide onto the crops and found it remained effective for the 28 days during which they carried out the trial. The RNAi insecticide targets the beetle larvae, which eat the plants.
  • Monsanto has collaborated with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a specialist in RNAi. Monsanto is developing RNAi sprays for killing Colorado potato beetles and Varroa mites, as well as RNAi products for preventing crop diseases. The company has carried out field trials of its potato-beetle insecticide and hopes to have developed a commercial product by 2020.
  • Syngenta is also developing RNAi products, having bought RNAi-company Devgen in 2013 to develop the technology for use in agriculture.

Implications

RNAi is highly specific, and researchers can develop RNAi insecticides to regulate particular genes. This specificity greatly reduces the likelihood that the pesticide will inadvertently affect other organisms in the same ecosystem. Furthermore, despite concerns that RNAi would not be very effective outside of a laboratory setting, the Cornell University research suggests the double-stranded structure of the RNA molecules helps RNAi insecticide to give protection to a plant for at least a month. Additionally, opportunities exist to use some of the tools—such as nanotechnology delivery systems to increase efficacy—that medical researchers have developed for RNAi therapeutics.

Impacts/Disruptions

RNAi offers scientists the ability to control genes without altering the genome of any organism. The lack of permanent genetic modification could work in favor of RNAi agricultural products when the commercial products eventually face public scrutiny. Additionally, RNAi insecticides could offer a safer alternative to neonicotinoids, which research has linked to a decline in the number of bumblebees. Furthermore, RNAi could provide an alternative to chemical pesticides that are seeing rising resistance to their effects. However, RNAi products are likely to be vulnerable to the buildup of resistance as well, given that only unaffected insects will survive to reproduce. In addition to the technical hurdles developers must overcome, regulatory bodies will need to establish new rules for helping farmers to adapt their agricultural practices to accommodate these new products.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Agriculture, consumer goods

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: