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Artificial-life nanostructures: medicine of the future?

Oct. 06, 2023.
4 min. read 8 Interactions

Viral vaccines (modified and weakened versions of a virus) and artificial life forms to diagnose and treat diseases

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Editor, Mindplex

Peptide-DNA conjugate, building blocks for de novo design of hybrid nanostructures (credit: Mathias Bogetoft Danielsen et al.)

Two researchers have proposed that we use a type of “artificial life” called “hybrid peptide-DNA nanostructures” (based on viral vaccines and artificial life forms) to develop new methods of diagnosing and treating diseases.

Associate professor Chenguang Lou from the Department of Physics, Chemistry, and Pharmacy, University of Southern Denmark and Professor Hanbin Mao from Kent State University have just written a research review of such nanostructures, published today in the open-access journal Cell Reports Physical Science.

Lou’s vision is to create viral vaccines (modified and weakened versions of a virus) and artificial life forms to diagnose and treat diseases.

“In nature, most organisms have natural enemies, but some do not,” Lou says. “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.”

Artificial cellular organisms

Lou also envisions that such artificial life forms can act as vaccines against viral infection—using nanorobots or nanomachines loaded with medication or diagnostic elements, and sent and delivered to a patient’s body.

“An artificial viral vaccine may be about 10 years away,” says Lou. “An artificial cell, on the other hand, is on the horizon, because it consists of many elements that need to be controlled before we can start building with them. But with the knowledge we have, there is, in principle, no hindrance to produce artificial cellular organisms in the future.”

Building blocks: DNA and peptides

“DNA and peptides are some of the most important biomolecules in nature, making DNA technology and peptide technology the two most powerful molecular tools in the nanotechnological toolkit today,” according to Lou. “DNA technology provides precise control over programming, from the atomic level to the macro level; but it can only provide limited chemical functions since it only has four bases: A, C, G, and T.

“Peptide technology, on the other hand, can provide sufficient chemical functions on a large scale, as there are 20 amino acids to work with. Nature uses both DNA and peptides to build various protein factories found in cells, allowing them to evolve into organisms.”

Mao and Lou have recently succeeded in linking three-stranded DNA structures with three-stranded peptide structures, creating an artificial hybrid molecule that combines the strengths of both (see “Chirality transmission in macromolecular domains” by Lou et al., 2022).

Other Approaches

Other researchers are also working on connecting DNA and peptides, because this connection forms a strong foundation for the development of more advanced biological entities and life forms. These include:

Oxford University: A nanomachine made of DNA and peptides that can drill through a cell membrane, creating an artificial membrane channel through which small molecules can pass (Spruijt et al., Nat. Nanotechnol. 2018, 13, 739-745).

Arizona State University: Nicholas Stephanopoulos and colleagues have enabled DNA and peptides to self-assemble into 2D and 3D structures. (Buchberger et al., J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2020, 142, 1406-1416)

Northwest University: researchers have shown that microfibers can form in conjunction with DNA and peptides self-assembling. DNA and peptides operate at the nano level, so when considering the size differences, microfibers are huge. (Freeman et al., Science, 2018, 362, 808-813)

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev: scientists have used hybrid molecules to create an onion-like spherical struture containing cancer medication, which holds promise to be used in the body to target cancerous tumors. ()

“In my view, the overall value of all these efforts is that they can be used to improve society’s ability to diagnose and treat sick people. Looking forward, I will not be surprised that one day we can arbitrarily create hybrid nanomachines, viral vaccines and even artificial life forms from these building blocks to help the society to combat those difficult-to-cure diseases. It would be a revolution in healthcare,” says Lou.

Citation: Mathias Bogetoft Danielsen, Hanbin Mao, Chenguang Lou. (Oct. 5, 2023) Peptide-DNA conjugates as building blocks for de novo design of hybrid nanostructures. Cell Reports Physical Science (Open Access) DOI: (open access)

Citation: Pandey, S., Mandal, S., Danielsen, M. B., Brown, A., Hu, C., Christensen, N. J., Kulakova, A. V., Song, S., Brown, T., Jensen, K. J., Wengel, J., Lou, C., & Mao, H. (2022). Chirality transmission in macromolecular domains. Nature Communications, 13(1), 1-11. (open-access)

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