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Scientist develops DNA nanomotor designed to rotate autonomously

Posted on 22 March 2017

A scientist at the University of York has succeeded in conducting the first tests on a tiny rotating machine that is made entirely from DNA.

The technology has potential applications in molecular processing, DNA computing, biomedical sensing and photonics. 

In living things, DNA stores genetic information. However, it is also possible to use chemically synthesized DNA molecules to build artificial structures and devices that are so small they could fit thousands of times across the diameter of a human hair. 

Most DNA nanomotors move in straight lines, and the few DNA machines that do rotate are generally unable to do so independently. 

Important role

Dr Katherine Dunn, from the University of York’s Department of Electronic Engineering, has now developed a DNA nanomotor that is designed to rotate autonomously. 

She said: “Naturally occurring rotary molecular machines play extremely important roles in living things, and it is now possible to use DNA to make synthetic rotary motors that operate without external intervention.

“This work represents a significant advance, and the motor has a number of exciting potential applications.” 


The motor consists of two wheels that counter-rotate. Each wheel is made entirely from DNA and supports a DNA strand called a tape. The tape of one wheel can stick to the tape of the other wheel, and the two tapes are designed to unwind each other from the wheels, driving rotation. 

The DNA rotary motor could be adapted to act as a biosensor, in which a change in the motor’s behaviour would signal the presence of a target molecule such as a biomarker associated with a particular disease. 

Alternatively, the motor could be combined with elements that interact with light, allowing the optical and photonic properties of the overall system to be controlled by the rotary machines. 

DNA sequencing

A motor could also be used as a gatekeeper for a nanopore, a tiny hole with a diameter of approximately one nanometre. In this case, the motor could potentially control the passage of molecules such as biological polymers, for applications such as DNA sequencing. 

The research was funded by the University of York’s Research Innovation Office, and the results have now been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science

The paper was written by Dr Katherine Dunn, with co-authors from the Departments of Physics, Biology and Electronic Engineering. 

The University of York filed a patent application for the technology and commercial partners are now being sought to develop it further.  Any interested parties are invited to get in touch.

Further information:

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