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22 March 2018

New Formation

A fleet of migrating birds, shoals of fish, clouds of fireflies – each a graceful display of coordination and control that makes a swarm stronger than its individual members. Rather than living creatures, these are strands of DNA artificially coloured red and green, coming together in a golden swirl. Each of these ‘nanorobots’ is 1000 times smaller than a firefly. Chemical signals written with DNA (an example of DNA computing) trigger the robots to flock together or break formation. A different swarm responds to bursts of light. While the technology is at an early stage, researchers hope to replicate the power of natural swarms – creating complex shapes and structures that are able to divide labour when set a task. Getting the principles right in the lab is the first step towards artificial muscles, drug-delivering robots and particles that fly through our bodies at the flick of a switch.

Written by John Ankers

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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BPoD is also available in Catalan at www.bpod.cat with translations by the University of Valencia.