Monday, August 31, 2009

DNA Nanotechnology

In recent years the term “DNA” has become a bit of a buzzword in pop culture, thanks in part to several well-written and researched science fiction shows, and also some that aren’t. The use of the term has come to the point that I often find myself wincing at its use whenever it pops up outside the realm of science, and even sometimes within it. Often when someone should say “gene” or “genome” they instead say “DNA”, which ends up confusing the terminology, and ends up mystifying what DNA actually is, making it seem as if scientists don’t know what the chemical actually does or looks like.

Scientists often say that DNA is a blueprint for life. Not quite. The genome is the blueprint for life (all of the information), a gene is a single sketch, and DNA is the substrate (blueprint paper) on which it is drawn.

If this is the case, new technologies involving DNA turn this on its head and instead of following the blueprint, instead use the properties of this “blueprint paper” to construct new constructions, particles and nano-machines.

Source: Science/AAAS, via Wired 

So where am I going with this? Well, my aversion to the term DNA except in actual scientific journals means that I greet articles that plug DNA technology revolutionizing a field with an extreme degree of skepticism. Turns out for once those preaching the merits of DNA are on to something.

The same properties that make DNA such a good encoding molecule for biological information also makes it a great candidate for creating machines on the nano-scale. What’s more, 40 years of research in molecular biology has given us many of the tools to manufacture and manipulate DNA in ways that just aren’t possible yet for other nano-materials.


By just changing sequences of stretches of DNA we can make them self-assemble into micro-machines that can be used as filters, scaffolds, cages, even happy faces:


It may be reaching at this point, but ever larger and more complex structures seem to be materializing in the future with this technology – and hints of the fabled DNA computer (though this goes into the realm of science fiction so far).


I expect big things from this field in the future. The simplicity by which DNA is manipulated (via the tools of molecular biology) makes this approach to nanomachines easily automatable, scalable, and replicatable than other comparable technologies. DNA nanotech shows promise. I look forward to what this will bring us in the future.

Wired: Self-Assembling DNA Makes Super 3-D Nano Machines
Read more: Tag-teaming with nature to build nanomachines
New York Times: Scientists Use Curvy DNA to Build Molecular Parts

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