New DNA Origami Method Creates Amazingly Complex Molecular Structures

Illustration for article titled New DNA Origami Method Creates Amazingly Complex Molecular Structures

DNA isn’t just a building block of life—it can be a building block for other nano-size structures, too. These wonderfully intricate shapes are made by twisting and folding DNA into complex shapes using a newly developed technique, like a kind of advanced molecular DNA.

Here, DNA isn’t being used to carry genetic information; rather, it’s a structural material in its own right. Its four bases—adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine—bind more or less strongly to one another depending on how they’re paired up along the length of a DNA double helix, allowing scientists to tweak the way in which they join together.

The shapes have been made by a team of researchers from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. They represent a leap forward in terms of control and precision when it comes to folding DNA molecules into useful new shapes. “Earlier design methods used strategies including parallel arrangement of DNA helices to approximate arbitrary shapes,” explains Hao Yan, who led the research, to Science Direct, “but precise fine-tuning of DNA wireframe architectures that connect vertices in 3D space has required a new approach.”


In the past, the structures created using DNA origami have been regular and very symmetrical, but the new technique—explained Nature Nanotechonology—allows researchers to create more complex and arbitrary shapes. That’s made possible by a new means of weaving together the DNA strands at each vertex, allowing the angle of each branch to be tweaked and as many as 10 of the strands to be woven together.

Illustration for article titled New DNA Origami Method Creates Amazingly Complex Molecular Structures

The resulting shapes include intricate 2D planar patterns and even a kind of art sketch, all shown above. But the technique also allows for the production of 3D objects, including the so-called Archimedean solid cuboctahedron shown just above, with its 12 vertices and 24 edges. Interestingly, it can be made in such a way that it can be unfolded and lain down flat—like the nets you used to make at grade school.

The researchers claim that the new technique could be used to build up any kind of wireframe naonstrcuture, as long as no vertex requires more than 10 strands to join at any point. And it’s not just a question of origami for art’s sake: these kinds of structures will give rise to a new kind of nanotechnology, where the DNA structures form molecular assembly lines to make increasingly large objects.


[Nature Nanotechonology via Science Direct]

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I’ve followed news of things nanotech since reading Engines of Creation way back in the late 80s. I’m not a chemist or expert of any kind, but it’s always been an area of great interest to me.

I remember reading about Nadrine Seeman’s DNA work back in the mid to late 90s. At the time, Seeman’s work hadn’t yet arrived at a self-assembled, simple DNA machine although I did read that a team a of researchers at Lucent around 2001 had managed to self-assemble a kind of DNA-based tweezers that could grab and take tagged molecules out of “cage” molecules like buckyballs.

Since then I’ve heard nothing more on this front. But it seems promising. Chemists ability to manipulate and cut DNA to any length is pretty sophisticated in comparison to our handing of other large molecules. But it’s one thing to make DNA self-assemble into complex shapes like this article is talking about, and it’s quite another to do the mechanosynthesis Drexler and Feynman talked about decades ago. As Condliffe says, we don’t have DNA-based assembly lines yet. Something like this:

Is still many decades away and it may be completely impossible.

But I still follow advances in nanotechnology closely, just because Feynman’s idea was so compelling. By his thinking there was no principle of physics or chemistry that forbade mechanosynthesis but the devil is always in the details. Is it a pipe dream? Depends on who you ask.