It was barely 60 years ago that scientists first discovered the structure of DNA, the molecular instructions for life. The idea that, due to the chemical properties of the components of DNA, they spontaneously assemble into the intricate shape of a double helix, was revolutionary.
Scientists are now able to use the self-assembling properties of DNA to craft even more intricate structures out of its helical strands, according to a paper published in the journal Nature. Using 3D-modeling software to guide them, researchers devised sequences of DNA that would spontaneously take the shape of a bunny, a bottle, a stick figure and more. However, this new technique is useful for a lot more than making adorably tiny trinkets out of DNA.
"Controlling matter at the nanoscale is the fundamental problem of nanotechnology. If we can precisely control the arrangements of molecules at the nanoscale, there are many applications that can be envisioned," senior study author Björn Högberg told Tech Times. "We are attaching proteins and other biomolecules to DNA nanostructures to create devices that can be used in biological research and potentially even therapeutics."
Some have referred to the new technique as "3D printing DNA," but what these shapes result from is more like automatic DNA origami. The process is similar to 3D printing in that both involve sitting down at a computer and drawing a digital 3D model. However, this new technique also takes into account the chemical properties of DNA to design the object.
"The actual 'printing,' the process in which the real-world object forms, is a result of the intrinsic self-assembly properties of DNA," explained Högberg.
Once the shape has been finalized, the program provides the user with a DNA sequence — a list of letters that represent the four particular amino acids that make up our genetic code — to order from a DNA synthesis company. When the bits of DNA arrive, all you need to do is mix them together in a test tube under the proper conditions and your structures form in there in a shape that very closely matches what you initially modeled in your 3D software.
Part of what makes the success of this new technique exciting is that the structures seem to be able to endure salt concentrations similar to those found within the human body. Previous versions of DNA origami required the addition of relatively high levels of magnesium salts for the structures to be stable.
"This means we can use these in experiments that more closely resemble the conditions in our body than was previously possible," said Högberg.
Regardless of whether you call it 3D printing or DNA origami, this technique opens up numerous avenues for research in the biomedical sciences and beyond. Hopefully, along the way, researchers will make more microscopic models of animals and such, too.