Technology & Science

DNA could spur growth of new materials

The genetic material that acts as a blueprint for life can also act as the guiding force for building a new class of nanomaterials, according to U.S.-based researchers.

The genetic material that acts as a blueprint for life can also act as the guiding force for building a new class of nanomaterials, according to U.S.-based researchers.

Writing in Thursday's issue of Nature, two separate teams of researchers say deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, can be used to assemble tiny gold particles into more complex structures.

The research was hailed in an accompanying article in Nature as an important step in nanotechnology, the science of manipulating things smaller than 100 nanometers, or more than 800 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Both research teams described processes whereby individual engineered DNA strands were attached to gold nanoparticles and then mixed in water at high temperatures.

In the processes described, the single strands seek out complimentary strands and join together to form DNA's unique double helix structure, which was discovered by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953.

The DNA-assisted processes assemble the gold particles into three-dimensional crystal structures, with the structure determining the gold's properties.

"These structures are a new form of matter that would be difficult, if not impossible, to make any other way," said Northwestern University chemistry professor Chad Mirkin, a senior author of one of the studies.

By altering the sequences or length of DNA strands, scientists could use this process to create different structures, opening the door to the manufacture of nanomaterials with unusual electronic or optical properties, wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Jon Crocker in an accompanying article in Nature.

"The applications of such materials might include high-efficiency solar panels and lasers, super resolution microscopes — and even coatings to render objects invisible," he said.

Gold is a popular material for use in nanotechnology because it is biologically inert and can absorb light and convert it to heat, making it useful in medicine.

But Crocker said the process described could be used with nearly any material.

Crocker cautions the processes described imply structures that are inherently fragile and thus have limited practical applications, but said they could pave the way for future materials.

"The ultimate dream is the creation of a DNA tool kit that will make possible the self-assembly or nearly any material reliably at the nanoscale," he said.