Imagine sitting down at your computer, typing out a message, and then having that message translated into a tiny self-assembling machine. In essence, this is what a group of Danish German and American researchers have done. Using short bits of DNA to link up distant regions throughout a very long single strand of DNA these folks were able to build six square walls and have them assemble, on their own, to form a sealed box. What's more, they were able to affix several molecular locks on each edge of the hollow cube. This allows the box to be opened at will when the right combination of molecular "keys" are introduced to the solution. Each cube is approximately 1/10,000th the width of a human hair. Billions of these boxes were assembled in a test tube and a few were imaged using an atomic force microscope.
Start listening to this Nature podcast at 11 minutes and 15 seconds in to hear a description of this project from Jørgen Kjems, the paper's last author.
This work literally expands the arsenal of a technique known as DNA origami. Paul Rothemund explains this technique in the first TED talk below.
The above talk was given in 2007. In the next talk (posted a year later) you can see a larger potential being realized for the application of DNA origami. The idea that DNA can be programmed by human beings to form circuits is more momentous than I think people realize. If this technology is pursued it might mean that self-assembling, self-replicating, molecular machines designed by humans may emerge and evolve in the not-so-distant future. The implication here is that humanity may in fact be creating a new form of life in which evolving neural networks could emerge without programmer input. This is by definition - artificial intelligence. Of course we don't have to get out our matrix survival kits quite yet. But these human-made DNA machines could help us colonize the moon, mars, or explore other potentially habitable planets. Imagine conjuring a self assembling, self replicating, thinking, adaptable machine capable of flying out of earth's orbit.
If images of the Borg immediately flood your mind you are not alone. This will indeed be a complex set of decisions we must face. How do we advance technology while preserving human moral integrity? It should not be up to the President's council of bioethics, but rather the citizens of the world that will have to live alongside these creations. In a case such as self replicating artificial intelligence we can not be afraid of the boggy men in deep space but rather be aware of the potentials for good and ill and voice our opinions accordingly.
Andersen, E., Dong, M., Nielsen, M., Jahn, K., Subramani, R., Mamdouh, W., Golas, M., Sander, B., Stark, H., Oliveira, C., Pedersen, J., Birkedal, V., Besenbacher, F., Gothelf, K., & Kjems, J. (2009). Self-assembly of a nanoscale DNA box with a controllable lid Nature, 459 (7243), 73-76 DOI: 10.1038/nature07971