DNA-based world’s tiniest antenna looks like Lego. Here is how it will help identify new drugs for cancers and intestinal inflammation – Times Now


From the malaria vaccine to the use of predictive AI in protein structure discovery, 2021 was a great year for scientific discovery. That trend appears to have continued into 2022 with scientists from the Universite de Montreal (UdeM) in Canada announcing the construction of the tiniest antenna ever made. No, we’re not talking about the bulky, metallic dishes that transmit radio waves but, in fact, an organic antenna that measures just five nanometers in length. 
Made out of DNA – the molecules, roughly 20,000 times smaller than a human hair, that carry genetic instructions – the nanoantenna is fluorescent, meaning it uses light signals to record and communicate information. The antenna is also fitted with a receiver capable of sensing the molecular surface of the particular protein it latches onto and studies. Depending on how the protein is changing and performing its biological function, the antenna transmits varying signals. 
“Like a two-way radio that can both receive and transmit radio waves, the fluorescent nanoantenna receives light in one colour, or wavelength, and depending on the protein movement it senses, then transmits light back in another colour, which we can detect,” said one of the authors of the paper and chemist from UdeM, Alexis Valle-Belisle. 
Proteins perform some of the most important biological functions in the human body from supporting the immune system to regulating how our organs work. However, they are large, complex molecules that constantly undergo changes to their structure, evolving from state to state as they go about their jobs. Great efforts are being made in understanding protein dynamics but there is still a great deal to work to be done before we can track proteins in action. The DNA-based nanoantenna is one of the latest scientific efforts to address this challenge. 
“Experimental study of protein transient states remains a major challenge because high structural-resolution techniques, including nuclear magnetic resonance and X-ray crystallography, often cannot be directly applied to study short-lived protein states,” explains the researchers in their paper that was recently published in the journal, Nature Methods. The DNA synthesising technology that the team from Canada utilised has, reportedly, been 40 years in the making, and enables researchers to generate bespoke nanostructures of varying lengths and flexibilities to serve specific functions. 
The advantage that the nanoantenna has in being able to capture proteins during short-lived states, explain the authors, means that its applications extend across biochemistry and nanotechnology. “For example, we were able to detect, in real-time and for the first time, the function of the enzyme alkaline phosphatase with a variety of biological molecules and drugs,” said Scott Harroun, another one of the paper’s authors. “This enzyme has been implicated in many diseases, including various cancers and intestinal inflammation.”

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