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Crystallizing DNA: Scientists make first large DNA crystals for nanotechnology

20 October 2014, 9:35 pm EDT By James Maynard Tech Times
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The development of DNA crystals, formed into a pre-determined length and shape, could lead to a new generation of computers.   ( Russ London )

By crystallizing DNA, researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created structures unlike any seen before.

The DNA crystals could potentially be used as the basis of a programmable material platform. Development of these intricate structures could lead to new advances in computing, biology and many other fields.

Researchers have experimented with DNA for two decades, learning ways to assemble DNA into the precise structures needed for such nanotechnology. To bring about such advances, the genetic material would need to be designed to precise lengths, having exact structural properties. The Harvard team created 32 DNA crystals in exacting detail.

In 2012, the team developed a "DNA-brick self-assembly" method which they used to develop over 100 biological structures, roughly the size of viruses. The method uses short clips of DNA, acting like children's building blocks, which assemble together into a larger structure. The process takes advantage of the fact that base pairs of DNA only group together into certain pairs - cytosine binds solely to guanine, and adenosine pairs only with thymine. Each "brick" in the structure is composed of just 32 base pairs. These can be used to construct small blocks, which are used as the basis for more advanced construction. Each small piece of the structure can be placed either parallel or at right angles to neighboring bricks. This allows pre-determined construction of crystalline DNA for the first time, and the new structures are almost the size of a grain of sand.

"We are very pleased that our DNA brick approach has solved this challenge, and we were actually surprised by how well it works," Peng Yin, of the Wyss Institute and Harvard Medical School, said.

Biomolecular computing, also called DNA computing, takes advantage of the many base pairs in DNA to run parallel processes, testing several possible answers to a problem at a single time. Researchers are attempting to use DNA to play the role of logic gates in processors, assigning conditions of "and," "or," and "not" in algorithms. A wide variety of feedback loops in DNA could allow for intricate control of biochemical computers.

"Peng's team is using the DNA-brick self-assembly method to build the foundation for the new landscape of DNA nanotechnology at an impressive pace. What have been mere visions of how the DNA molecule could be used to advance everything from the semiconductor industry to biophysics are fast becoming realities," Don Ingber, founding director of the Wyss Institute, stated in a press release.

Development of the crystalline DNA formations was announced in the journal Nature Chemistry

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