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DNA Triggers Shape-Shifting in Hydrogels, Opening a New Way to Make ‘Soft Robots’

Johns Hopkins engineering faculty members, from left, David Gracias, Thao (Vicky) Nguyen and Rebecca Schulman, teamed up with their students and used DNA sequences to trigger significant shape-changing in a hydrogel sample.

Johns Hopkins engineering faculty members, from left, David Gracias, Thao (Vicky) Nguyen and Rebecca Schulman, teamed up with their students and used DNA sequences to trigger significant shape-changing in a hydrogel sample.

November 6, 2017 | Source: Johns Hopkins University, releases.jhu.edu, 15 Sept 2017, Phil Sneiderman

Biochemical engineers at Johns Hopkins University have used sequences of DNA molecules to induce shape-changing in water-based gels, demonstrating a new tactic to produce soft robots and “smart” medical devices that do not rely on cumbersome wires, batteries or tethers.

The research advance, supervised by three faculty members in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering, is detailed in the Sept. 15, 2017, issue of the journal Science.

The team members reported that their process used specific DNA sequences called “hairpins” to cause a centimeter-size hydrogel sample to swell to 100 times its original volume. The reaction was then halted by a different DNA sequence, dubbed a “terminator hairpin.

This approach could make it possible to weave moving parts into soft materials. The researchers have suggested that their process could someday play a role in creating smart materials, metamorphic devices, complex programmed actuators and autonomous robots with potential marine and medical applications