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DNA gets a bad rap. It's the most sophisticated substance in existence, and thanks to CSI we think of it as murderer semen. Or we watch it proving that talk show guests who everybody (including them) hopes never reproduce have done exactly that. All this, despite deoxyribonucleic acid being so smart that most people consider even being able to say it a bit fancy.

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Which is odd, as the fanciest DNA often isn't passed on.

Many people see DNA as something magical written down long ago that just tells you how things are going to be. Which is a pity, because that attitude is pretty much the opposite of science. This is because journalists make more claims about genes defining your success in life than a Levi's commercial. But while fearmongers whine about scientists playing God, those scientist have moved on to playing Lego. They're molecularly MacGyvering the code of life into machinery.

6
Walking DNA Robots

Anyone can build things to fetch stuff out of DNA, but it takes years, it shits quite a lot and by the time they're old enough to know what you want, they're old enough to be playing Xbox instead.

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The instant your chromosomes get out, they act like they've escaped a Nazi prison and you were the guard.

That's why science cut out the middleman. Scientists have reprogrammed chunks as "DNA walkers," biological DNAT-ATs capable of stomping forward, winning Star Wars and fetching things.

LucasFilm
And they'll be unstoppable because nobody makes ropes that small.

Sorry; DNA walkers capable of stomping around places also made of DNA and fetching things. Fetching and assembling them into customized chemicals on a DNA assembly line. It's like Willy Wonka was a biotechnologist and thought Oompa Loompas should fit inside your cells. Another collaboration between New York University and Nanjing University decided that regular DNA strands were just too old school, building a triangular-double-helix DNA scaffold with three hands and four feet. Because those are the kinds of side effects you can expect when you twist DNA into polygons.

doi:10.1038/nature09026
It's either an insane anarchy symbol or a symbol for a highly educated Satan.

This DNA walker rolls along an entire factory floor made of DNA, picking up gold nanoparticles and assembling them into preprogrammed structures, before escaping to the surface. We know Bond villains love to announce their plans, but this is the first time they've done it in an academic paper.

5
Accelerating Evolution With Cyborg DNA

When you think of cyborgs, you either think of RoboCop or weren't raised properly.

Orion Pictures Corporation
His entire body is either bulletproof or for one-liners.

Most science-fiction cyborgs are about giving super-powered limbs to people careless enough to lose the originals. This is not a good idea. That guy's first try with a regular arm ended with blood, screaming and emergency surgery, and instead of counseling, you're making him a Bionic Commando?

Capcom
The first time he gets horny he's going to tear off something important. And the extending cyborg replacement for that will turn him into a Japanese cartoon.

Which may be why scientists started building single-celled cyborg DNA. You might think of yeast as reason to either cut down on tequila or spend more to buy it in classier bars, but Saccharomyces cerevisiae is responsible for bread and beer and therefore more important to humanity than your entire country. Researchers took a look at this miraculous result of billions of years of evolution and said, "Yeah, that's pretty good, we suppose. But we can do better."

They built S. cerevisiae 2.0 by reformatting a chunk of its DNA like a slow hard drive. They replaced 120,000 base pairs with artificially rewritten genetic instructions. The synthetic section overrides "stop codons," which normally end genetic transcription instructions, possibly because they want to give horror movie writers new plot ideas. They also included room for extra instructions: The new genes are easier to artificially edit, less likely to accidentally mutate and more likely to deliberately mutate.

The SCRaMbLE system (synthetic chromosome rearrangement and modification by loxP-mediated evolution), and we swear that name was made by real scientists not cartoon bad guys, accelerates evolution. The artificial double helix includes regular "bookmarks." A simple chemical causes these to jump around, swapping, inverting and outright deleting chunks of the genome. So scientists can design a new organism, then fast-forward evolution by exposing it to a chemical and seeing what survives. Yes, we've just invented real-life Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style mutagens.

Mirage Studios
Eh, still better than what we're expecting from Bay.

Their long-term goal is to completely rewrite the yeast genome, officially meaning that scientists aren't just playing God but taking over from where the last guy left off.

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4
Bacterial Computers

Evolution solves problems by thinking so far outside the box that it forgets what openable rectangular parallelepipeds are even called. Scientists want to harness this ability to solve problems in ways silicon simply can't. Because if you asked a computer to design a life-form to survive the anti-life equation of a continent that is Australia, it would never say, "Weld a duck to a beaver after filling both with poison."

Wikimedia Commons
ERROR NUMBER ... Listen, fleshbag, I don't know. Just ERROR, OK?

Another benefit of breeding computers is parallel processing. When a small population of bacterial computers reproduce, they generate new solutions and more individuals helping to find more solutions. It's the exact opposite of what happens when small human populations breed. One team rewrote Escheria coli with a puzzle coded in its DNA. Yes, just like that Star Trek episode -- but to make sure this was even smarter, they used the "burnt pancake problem," a class of sorting problem invented by a team including Bill Gates, and which is also used to define the evolutionary distance between organisms. So the upgraded E. coli are now taking on our hu-man computers and computer experts, and learning more about evolution while they're at it. And they've been coded so that solving the problem makes them antibiotic resistant. This makes them easier for the scientists to find, and makes it a tragedy Michael Crichton isn't around to write a book about it.

In another experiment, they rebuilt bacteria to solve a Hamiltonian path problem. They encoded the problem with genes for green and red fluorescent proteins -- only by solving the problem could the bacteria start glowing both to turn yellow. They've built an organism that moves through stages of glowing different colors as it solves its inner problems. That's not bacteria, that's what you start with to evolve in Dragon Ball Z.

Shueisha

3
DNA Neural Networks

Neural networks like the brain can recognize patterns and use them to react to new circumstances. But since many brains now recognize Jenny McCarthy as a medical expert, there's obviously something wrong with the natural method. Which is why scientists are now building neural networks directly from DNA, skipping the dangerous "grow for 20 years and maybe become a retard" step.

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Stupid allegedly attractive people used to spread disease one person at a time.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have built logical gates out of DNA strands sticking together, which may be the first time any human has acted logically about getting sticky to exchange DNA. They built a set of gates and assembled them into a crude neural network computer.

Nature.com
As you can see, it's very simple.

That's the exact reverse of what most people do (use networked computers to release genetic material. With porn). So far, it can only complete very simple tasks, which is why they've trained it to recognize four famous scientists. Finally! Scientists who actually watch movies! The DNA mind is still weak and simple, so they're training it to recognize scientists as smart and famous and great and should totally be obeyed and not "deleted" as "inferior beings."

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2
Self-Healing Photonic Wires

DNA is an awesome tool for transferring information, but humanity has lasers for that now. And they're way cooler. If we were interested in how long it takes nature to do things, we'd still be sitting around waiting for woolly mammoths to die so we could eat. So if you want your parents' old DNA to survive in this world (and by definition, you're the person who cares most about that), we're going to need to jazz it up with glowing underlights and laser processing. And scientists have done exactly that. Researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology have turned the double helix into optical wiring:

DOI: 10.1021/ja803407t
If (a) is goddamn LASER-DNA, then (z) could probably destroy the universe. By replacing it with a cooler LASER-UNIVERSE.

They built photonic wires by jamming chromophores between the spokes of the double helix, just like you'd jam a stick in the spokes of a bicycle. Which is the sort of thing you'd suggest if you were too stupid or way too smart to be allowed in a biotechnology lab. Adding a Pacific Blue chromophore at one end and a much-less-imaginatively-named Cy3 at the other turns the genetic code into a one-way optical fiber. The result is optical wiring for nanomachinery. It would be inaccurate to call them fiber optics, because they don't work the same way. It would be more accurate to call them laser-driven cyborg gene wiring, so we don't know why so many headlines went with the wimpy "fiber optic" thing. Oh, and like every cyborg-genetic laser organism the Avengers ever faced, the wires are self-assembling and can therefore self-repair in case of damage.

1
Anti-Cancer Programmable Drugbots

When idiots complain about scientists, they like to say there's still no cure for cancer. As if the idiots are just too busy trying out new ringtones to do it themselves. Or as if cancer was actually one thing instead of about a million different malfunctions. And science is the single, sole and only reason so many people are alive and survive long enough to suffer them in the first place.

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"Yeah, we'd be at least 50 percent never born, 25 percent child mortality and 24 percent dying in unknown squalor without science. Those loser nerds!"

It's not hard to kill cancer cells. It's extremely hard not to kill every other kind of cell while you're at it. Which is why researchers at Harvard have built a programmable drugbot that can target specific diseases. That is not science fiction. A microscopic DNA cargo container carries a chemical payload and springs open when molecular sensors detect multiple target conditions, and I repeat that this is not science fiction. Programmable drugs might sound like something a Cracked columnist would write an incredible book series about, because it totally is, but it's also something scientists have built.

DOI: 10.1126/science.1214081
The main part of the system is a hexagonal barrel, meaning this is both the cutting edge of nanotechnology and an early 3-D video game.

In the first tests, the spring-loaded shell blasts open, deploying its cargo as grappling hooks to clamp onto leukemia cells like the face-hugger from Alien, then fluorescing to mark the position. They literally mark the target for death so hard it glows in the dark. Other samples targeted lymphoma and neuroblastoma cell lines. The scientists also researched whether the drugbots can distinguish between sick and healthy cells, because they've seen movies about robots designed to "cure" humanity, and in mixed samples, the drugbots only tackled sick cells.

And yes, we did say the ability to target leukemia was just the first test. Other tests involved rather more Active Payloads, which amazingly isn't an action movie title.

Orion Pictures Corporation
Without that, we'll just go with RoboCop, because we always do. In our dreams and fan-fics.

One test robot locked on to leukemic cells and deployed a cargo of antibodies to suppress the sick cell's growth cycles. Another upgraded healthy T-cells by augmenting their path activation. It's ridiculously early in the testing stage yet, so don't start grabbing people in lab coats demanding they inject drugs that are now smarter than you. We can't just inject experimental nanomachines into people. Not because we're worried about the Hulk -- hell, if there was a chance of that, scientists would be doing it every week, and medical journals would be printed by Marvel. But this ability to logically target cells raises the idea of an injectable update patch for the human body, tuning every cell type for optimum function and maximum not-having-damn-cancer-ness.

We're building robots, computers, wiring and the ability to upgrade the human body. If anything did design DNA, they only did it to prove that science is right.

Luke has also found 6 Easy Ways to Make Every Video Game Better and 6 Fighters We Want to See in Street Fighter X Tekken. He also tumbles and has a website.

For more proof that science is both the reason you're able to sit on your ass so comfortably and why you should do more than that, check out The 6 Most Badass Stunts Ever Pulled in the Name of Science and 9 Badass Lasers That Prove the Death Star Isn't Far Off.

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