Since the 1980’s, scientists have been making shapes out of DNA. In recent years, technological advances have increased to the point where we can now make beautiful designs from the molecule that encodes our existence. It’s called DNA Origami.
The idea is relatively simple. A single strand of a DNA molecule is used as a scaffold. The scaffold is then molded to design the shape desired with “staple molecules” or short complementary sequences of DNA that will fold the scaffold strand.
With the right computer programs, you can make a wide variety of shapes, including smiley faces, teddy bears, or even a box equipped with a lid and a lock.
Of course, it’s always fun when scientists get to play around, but there are some pretty impressive applications to this technique as well.
Scientists have been adapting DNA origami to form various objects (a sphere, or a box) able to carry drugs to a target site within the body. For example, chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs for cancer patients wreak havoc on the body. However, if they are able to be transferred to the tumor itself, not only would you have reduced toxicity, you would also potentially increase your chance of destroying the tumor.
Others have also worked to create “nanobots” (extremely small functional robots) from DNA. These nanobots reportedly have the capability of being pre-programmed to travel to certain areas and perform basic functions. While the technology is very new and has not been tested in humans yet, it appears to be a promising avenue of research.
While DNA origami technology has come a long way, scientists have been limited on one aspect; size.
Currently, the largest a DNA origami shape could be is about 100 nanometers. If larger than that, the shapes loose their stability.
Yesterday however, four papers published in Nature describes methods of evading this problem.
By creating small DNA origami V-shaped structures and allowing them to link together, scientists have overcome the size restrains. These structures can then be used to make large, stable structures like the sphere below.
These larger spheres then possess the capability of carrying a wide variety of items, including drugs for various diseases.
Researchers also developed a new design software that can generate pictures and make DNA origami representations of pictures, like the Mona Lisa for example.
Another complicating aspect to DNA origami is price. Creating the proper strands to make these complex structures takes a lot of time, and a lot of resources. One way to overcome the price is to develop a long single stranded DNA molecule that possess not only the staple and scaffold strands, but also section able to break apart the other sections of the same molecule (called a DNAzyme). This one strand will therefore be able to cleave the scaffold and staple strands from itself and be able to make the structure, thus decreasing the cost.
The advancement of creating DNA structures has been fascinating to watch the last decade, and with these new advancements, DNA origami technology will quickly become a pioneer technique in a variety of scientific fields.
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- Service, Robert F., Scientists shape DNA into doughnuts, teddy bears, and an image of the Mona Lisa. Science. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/scientists-shape-dna-doughnuts-teddy-bears-and-image-mona-lisa
- Zhang, Fei, Yan, Hao. DNA self-assembly scaled up. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-017-07690-y#ref-CR2
- Wagenbauer, K. F. et al. Nature 552, 78–83 (2017)
- Tikhomirov, G. et al. Nature 552, 67–71 (2017).
- Featured image- https://www.yourgenome.org/activities/origami-dna