Biology

Swappable DNA tiles makes for world's smallest tic-tac-toe game

An artist's render of how the DNA tic-tac-toe game played out
An artist's render of how the DNA tic-tac-toe game played out
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An artist's render of how the DNA tic-tac-toe game played out
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An artist's render of how the DNA tic-tac-toe game played out

DNA is the building material of life, but recent work has shown how the stuff can also be used to make art or even store data for long periods of time. Now, a team at Caltech has used DNA to make the world's smallest game of tic-tac-toe, and the technique could have applications in designing reconfigurable nanomachines.

The game is built on a few key properties of DNA. Essentially, the four bases – A, T, C and G – pair up in predictable ways. A goes with T, and C goes with G. This also applies in strands, so for example the sequence ATTAGCA will naturally cosy up to TAATCGT. But if there are two chains that only partially "match" those segments will still pair up, while the non-matching sections will just hang off the end.

But now let's say a new strand comes along that matches more bases. The two partially-joined strands will uncouple and the better match will pair up instead, in a process called strand displacement. The researchers use the analogy of a dating couple breaking up after one of the partners meets someone with more mutual interests.

The Caltech researchers took advantage of this phenomenon to make their playable tic-tac-toe game. First they made a blank board of nine tiles in a solution in a test tube. Each of the tiles had specific DNA strands along the seams, so they would self-assemble into the familiar 3 x 3 grid.

Then, each of the scientists playing the game took turns adding either an X or an O. The trick is that each of these "marked" pieces has a stronger bond on the edges, so when they're added they kick out the blank tile in that spot. Because it takes time for the bonding and unbonding to happen each turn, the whole game took about six days to play. And, spoiler alert, the X player won.

Technically, for the game to work each marked tile has a designated spot on the grid, and each player has nine tiles they can play – one for each spot. So for example, a player puts an O in the top left corner by playing that specific tile. It's the only way it works for the precisely-programmed DNA.

This game obviously isn't going on sale any time soon. Instead, the team says it's a fun little proof-of-concept that could have more serious and useful applications. Currently if there's a problem with a DNA nanomachine, the only option is to throw it out and make a new one. But with this technique, parts become swappable.

"When you get a flat tire, you will likely just replace it instead of buying a new car," says Grigory Tikhomirov, co-first author of the study. "Such a manual repair is not possible for nanoscale machines. But with this tile displacement process we discovered, it becomes possible to replace and upgrade multiple parts of engineered nanoscale machines to make them more efficient and sophisticated."

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications. An animated version of how the game played out can be seen in the video below.

Source: Caltech

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2 comments
amazed W1
Does this mean we are nearer to finding out how instincts like migration, nest building and species recognition work so well in insects, like ants, and in migrating birds just as well as they do in the marine mammals that have rudimentary cognitive memories? I hope we are nearer if only to shift those intellectuals who still are discomfited by the non-causality of evolution, and/or don't get the significance of how their intellects are frequently beaten by the rest of their brains.
EH
The tiles are a bit under 100nm on a side, or about 10 billion per square centimeter, which was unfortunately difficult to figure out even by downloading the paper.