Cockroaches might be the new guinea pig. Bioengineers have successfully injected them with nanorobots made from DNA that can unfold to dispense drugs.

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The nanoscale robots were made using DNA strands that fold and unfold like origami. They can function like mini-computers, carrying out simple tasks. One day similar nanorobots could be programmed to seek out diseases inside humans and treat them at the site, with medical precision.

The work is being led by Daniel Levner from Wyss Institute at Harvard University and scientists at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He and his colleagues programmed the DNA nanorobots to interact with each other and move around inside a living cockroach.

The programs were simple logical operations that directed the DNA to unfold and release a molecule, for example, when it encountered a specific protein.

Each nanorobot had a fluorescent marker so the team could track the robots as they moved around inside the roach and see where the bot unfolded to deliver a substance carried in the folds, New Scientist’s Sarah Spickernell reported. The research was just published in Nature Nanotechnology (abstract).

“This is the first time that biological therapy has been able to match how a computer processor works,” Ido Bachelet from Bar Ilan University’s Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials told New Scientist. Next, they said they plan to scale up the computing power that can be put inside a single cockroach — enough to equal a Commodore 64.

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Cockroaches have the advantage of not rejecting the tiny machines as foreign invaders like mammals do, although the team told New Scientist they are confident about making the bots stable enough to start human trials within five years. When mini robots eventually do prolong our lives, we’ll have the lowly cockroach to thank.

Photo Credit: iStockPhoto.