Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com

Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com
News, Quotes, Companies, Videos
Friday, June 5, 2009
U.S. Edition
Today's Paper
Journal Community
Personal Finance
Log In
Life & Style
Personal Technology
Small Business
2 of 9
Chinese Delay Plan
for Censor Software
Real Estate
All Things Digital
1 of 9
Register for FREE
Lower Price Tag
For Plasma TVs
Comes ...
3 of 9
Joost to Revamp, Change CEOs
NTT Communications May
Invest in Tata...
JUNE 5, 2009
Gene Expression: Origami at the Molecular Level
In an Effort to Make Assembly Lines of the Future, Researchers Fold DNA Into Shapes That
Can Copy Themselves
Yahoo Buzz
Comments (13)
Save This
For centuries, masters of origami have been folding paper into cranes, dragons and other
intricate shapes from the universe of possibilities in a single page. Combining art, chemistry and
computer science, bioengineers are taking origami into a new dimension, where creations are a
thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair and materials are molecules that not
only fold themselves but make endless copies of the result.
In dozens of laboratories, these researchers
are folding DNA into complex shapes,
experimenting with molecular origami like
apprentices learning to pleat their first paper
It seems playful, but it's a serious pursuit.
Taking advantage of DNA's ability to
assemble itself in predictable ways,
researchers are toying with devices on an
Bioengineers learn to fold DNA into complex shapes,
which researchers hope will one day revolutionize
manufacturing, medicine and computing. WSJ's Robert
Lee Hotz reports on how scientists are manipulating
DNA's chemical rules.
atomic scale that can build themselves from
scratch and then replicate for as long as there
are raw materials. "This is a different kind of
chemistry," says bioengineer Erik Winfree at
the California Institute of Technology. Still in its infancy, it promises to one day make the
molecular machinery of life into a factory production line.
To showcase the possibilities, Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund and his colleagues made a
Recent Columns
gallery of attention-getting DNA devices. They made a smiley face so small it can only be seen
with an electron microscope. They made a map of the Western hemisphere so tiny that one
A Wandering Mind Heads Toward Insight
nanometer -- the distance occupied by about five carbon atoms placed side by side --
Origami at the Molecular Level
represents 125 miles. They wrote D-N-A with DNA in letters no bigger than a virus.
Heady Theories on Contours of Einstein's Genius
In February, chemist Nadrian Seeman at New York University and researchers at Nanjing
University in China unveiled a DNA "crab" with pincers that can grab another molecule. In April,
About Robert Lee Hotz
Dr. Seeman demonstrated a DNA "walker" that can stride down a molecular path. Last month, a
team at the Danish National Research Foundation built a DNA cube with a lid that can be
opened, closed and then locked with a DNA key.
"These are like peacock feathers," says
Harvard University chemist William Shih. "By
making these different shapes that are so
Robert Lee Hotz is the Journal's science columnist. He was a
Pulitzer finalist in 1986 for his coverage of genetic engineering
issues and again in 2004 for his coverage of the space shuttle
Columbia accident, and shared a 1995 Pulitzer Prize at the Los
Angeles Times for earthquake coverage. He also has received
national awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the
intricate, we are strutting our stuff."
American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the
American Geophysical Union. He is an elected fellow of the
The allure of the process is undeniable.
American Association for the Advancement of Science; an honorary
life member of Sigma Xi, The Research Society; and is a past
Scientists have hawked the promise of
View Slideshow
1 of 5
7/1/09 10:34 AM
Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com
Paul W. K. Rothemund, Nature
Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund and his
colleagues made a gallery of attention-getting DNA
devices, like this smiley face so small it can only be
seen with an electron microscope.
nanotechnology for decades. Indeed, novel
president of the National Association of Science Writers. He is a
nanotechnology materials have been
incorporated into hundreds of consumer
director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which funds
independent journalism projects around the world, and a
products, from slick cosmetics to baseball
bats made stronger with carbon nanotubes,
distinguished writer in residence at New York University.
accounting for $60 billion in annual sales, according to the Project on Emerging
Nanotechnologies. All told, federal research on nanotechnology this year is a $1.6 billion
People Who Viewed This Also Viewed...
On WSJ.com
In My Network
Surplus of Bachelors Spurs Scam in China
Only now, however, is DNA nanotechnology edging into the mainstream. The field is based on a
radically different notion of the molecule that we all have in common, which holds our genetic
code. In a universal language of life, DNA is the biochemical text for our growth and
development written in linked base pairs of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine.
In molecular origami, DNA is more a building material than an instruction manual.
"The way we are using DNA is very different than the way biology uses DNA," says Duke
University biomolecular engineer Thomas LaBean. "It is a little weird that we use it as a
structural material, instead of a genetic material."
Initial Findings in Crash Expected
Making a Big Bet on Really Thin TVs
Jet Sensors Probed in Air France Crash
New Crop of Confusing U.S. Acronyms
These master folders are harnessing a natural assembly line perfected by evolution. Left to
itself, DNA naturally coils into the distinctive spiral ladder of the double helix, governed by rules
that dictate how its four chemical base units bind to each other: adenine automatically links to
thymine, and cytosine to guanine. By manipulating these chemical rules, the researchers can
program DNA to fold into almost any pattern they can conceive -- at least in theory -- which will
then copy its new form almost indefinitely.
Mossberg Solution:
Reviewing The
RealPlayer SP
"The only thing that is really good at this is nature," says Dr. Shih. "So we copy nature. We stick
More in Personal Technology
with the DNA double helix and treat it like Lego bricks. You can imagine trillions and trillions of
these bricks coming together into something the size of a human hair."
To be sure, folding is itself a form of information. The crease patterns of conventional origami
can reveal subtle geometric relationships. In biology, folding also affects function.
China Delays
Filtering Initiative
HDNet Chairman
Mark Cuban: The
Full D7 Session
The Swiss Army Knife of Portable Videos
Most Popular
Jackson Will From '02 in Spotlight
Ugly Alligator Gar Has New Fans
Opinion: We'll Need to Raise Taxes Soon
McMansions Out of Favor, for Now
Opinion: O'Grady: Honduras Defends Its Democracy
Most Read Articles Feed
Latest Headlines
Some Amish Lived It Up Until Hard Times Hit
Cities Grow at Suburbs' Expense
Franken Bolsters Democrats' Hand
Schwarzenegger Turns to Democrat for Aid
Some Hard-Hit States Get Less Stimulus
Oshkosh Wins U.S. Truck Contract
U.S., Russia Seek More Weapons Cuts
China to Block Imports of U.S. Chicken
U.S. Issues Sanctions to Press N. Korea
Large Corn Crop Lowers Prices
More Headlines
2 of 5
7/1/09 10:34 AM
Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com
More Science Videos
Dissecting the Genius of Einstein's Brain
Ocean Acidificaton Threatening Coral
Looking Through Galileo's Lens
Proteins, for example, control all the cellular
processes in our body but won't work
properly unless they first can fold themselves
into the correct three-dimensional shape. If
they misfold, the flaws can cause serious
health problems, such as Alzheimer's disease
or cancer. The folding techniques being
perfected in DNA origami may one day help
scientists to better understand and correct
such protein folding errors. So far, protein
origami is well out of reach.
In the meantime, DNA folding is challenge
enough. "It is much more difficult to program a
protein than DNA," says Dr. LaBean. "It is
easier to build something out of DNA because
Ebbe Sloth Andersen, Nature
Scientists at the Danish National Research
Foundation used DNA origami to construct a box out
of helices with a lockable lid and keys.
we understand the rules."
The original idea of using DNA as building
material appeared in a daydream. In 1980, Dr.
Recommended Reading
Seeman was sipping a Bass Ale in a campus
Scientists at Caltech are studying DNA
pub at the State University of New York in
Albany and musing about molecular structure.
In Nature, Harvard University researchers
reported a new way to fold DNA in "SelfAssembly of DNA into Nanoscale ThreeDimensional Shapes."
For no apparent reason, as he recalls it today,
he thought of a picture by Dutch artist M.C.
Researchers at the Danish National Research
Foundation reported on "Self-Assembly of a
Nanoscale DNA Box With a Controllable Lid."
New York University chemist Ned Seeman,
who originated this field, discusses "DNA
Engineering and Its Application to
Nanotechnology" in the journal
In Science, he reported on making a
two-legged walker from a strand of DNA in "A
Bipedal DNA Brownian Motor With
Coordinated Legs."
Escher, whose work explores exotic
geometry. Then into his mind there popped a
way to make Escher's patterns from strands
of DNA.
Today, 40 laboratories are exploring the
ramifications. Even so, it could easily be
decades before anyone can translate such
fundamental control over DNA assembly into
anything useful.
"DNA origami is still really quite immature,"
The National Nanotechnology Initiative
coordinates federal nanotechnology research
and development.
says Dr. Rothemund at Caltech, who is
A report from the National Research Council
assessed the government's plan for research
on the potential health and environmental
risks posed by nanomaterials.
of control over how to integrate these
structures with other man-made things."
pioneering the technique. "We can make a lot
of different structures, but we don't have a lot
Others are convinced that DNA
nanotechnology is about to get serious. "We
are trying to move from art into real technology," says Dr. LaBean.
In a key development last month, Dr. Shih and other Harvard researchers for the first time
showed how to use DNA to build almost any three-dimensional shape. As part of their
construction kit, the research team also released design software that lets someone with no
prior experience or special expertise program complex DNA structures with only a day's
In essence, they found a way to program DNA so it will form sheets that fold into thick volumes
of pleats like an accordion bellows. In a process more like a recipe for bouillon than a blueprint
for the future of technology, they stirred these molecules into a solution of salts, covered the pot
and let it simmer for a week, until the molecules had finished folding.
From the resulting broth, they fished billions of familiar shapes: Depending on the molecular
programming, the strands of DNA had assembled themselves into three-dimensional square
nuts, blocks, hollow bottles and stacked cross bars.
"These are real breakthroughs," says Dr. Winfree, who was not involved in the project. "The
important thing here is not that a particular object was built, but that there is a systematic way to
build many different things. What's being demonstrated is a capacity to manipulate matter in an
unprecedented way."
In their hands, DNA is a shape of things to come.
Robert Lee Hotz shares reading suggestions, reader comments and more photos at
3 of 5
7/1/09 10:34 AM
Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com
WSJ.com/Currents. See a video on DNA origami at WSJ.com/Video. Write to
[email protected]
Write to Robert Lee Hotz at [email protected]
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A11
Printer Friendly
Order Reprints
Sponsored Links
Brand New BlackBerry®
Everything You Need. Anywhere You Go. Find Your BlackBerry Today.
Layaway Options - HSN
Save w/ FlexPay Options - Pay Over Time w/ No Interest - Shop HSN.com
Up to 90% Off Retail
Hottest Consumer Electronics Always In Stock and Ready to Ship
Add a Comment
All comments will display your real name.
Go to Comments tab
Want to participate in the discussion?
Or log in or become a subscriber now for complete Journal access.
Editors' Picks
Schwarzenegger Turns to
Democrat for Aid
NFL Tutors Players on
Lincoln Center Rejoins the
Ugly Alligator Gar Has
New Fans
Some Chrysler Dealers
Run Out of Hot Cars
WSJ.com Account:
Tools & Formats:
News Licensing
Site Map
Today's Paper
Subscriber Billing Info
Video Center
About Dow Jones
Register for Free
Privacy Policy - Updated
Subscribe Now
Subscriber Agreement &
Terms of Use - Updated
Market Data
Copyright Policy
Jobs at WSJ.com
Personal Finance
Create an Account:
Help & Information Center:
Customer Service
Copyright ©2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Contact Us
4 of 5
My Account
Life & Style
RSS Feeds
Digital Network
Virtual Stock Exchange
Journal Community
7/1/09 10:34 AM
Origami at the Molecular Level - WSJ.com
New on WSJ.com
WSJ U.S. Edition
Tour the new Journal
My Journal
WSJ Asia Edition
Real Estate
Small Business
WSJ Europe Edition
WSJ India Page
Foreign Language Editions:
WSJ Chinese
WSJ Portuguese
WSJ Spanish
5 of 5
7/1/09 10:34 AM