Foresight Update 23

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology Awarded
For Pioneering Synthesis of 3-D DNA Objects

by Lewis M. Phelps

In recognition of pioneering work to synthesize complex three-dimensional structures with DNA molecules, Foresight Institute awarded the 1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology to Nadrian C. Seeman, Ph.D., chemistry professor at New York University.

The Feynman Prize, including a $10,000 cash award, is given biennially by Foresight Institute in recognition of scientific work that most advances the development of molecular nanotechnology. The prize was presented by K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., founder and chairman of Foresight Institute. In presenting the award, Drexler said, "Ned Seeman's work is particularly significant because it provides the first systematic way of designing and building large three- dimensional molecular objects."

Drexler presented the award during the fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, at which 300 participants from 16 nations heard 30 presentations on scientific progress toward nanotechnology and policy implications of nanotechnology. The conference was held November 9-11 in Palo Alto.

Seeman received the award for developing ways to construct three-dimensional structures, including cubes and more complex polyhedra, from synthesized DNA molecules. Since natural DNA is a linear strand, scientists hadn't previously known how to create complex DNA structures. Seeman found how to attach strands of DNA projecting from points along another DNA strand. In addition to this DNA branching technique, he also has created knots and catenanes (linked molecular loops) with synthesized DNA chains. These techniques create the means to construct complex devices on a nanometer scale.

Nadrian Seeman gives the 1995 Feynman Prize lecture

In a lucid and witty acceptance speech at which he described his work, Seeman referred to art works by E.C. Escher from which he had drawn inspiration, a photo of light fixtures created from human bones in an Italian monastery, and a deity-invoking flow chart to describe the frustrating process of crystal creation in a laboratory.

Seeman explained that he came at his award-winning solution from his background in crystallography. He and his colleagues were frustrated at their inability to crystallize molecules in which they were interested. While studying Holliday junctions in DNA (points at which four strands of DNA form four double helical arms about a central branch), he realized that it would be possible to create a synthetic DNA with more than four branching points. In a flash of inspiration "while sitting in the campus pub one afternoon," Seeman recognized that six-arm junctions could be used to create cubic lattices, he said. He was inspired by an M.C. Escher woodcut, Depth, picturing a school of fishlike creatures swimming in parallel in three dimensions, "just like the molecules in a crystal."

Since that inspiration, Seeman and his colleagues have built complex geometric figures from DNA, he said. Their progress was aided by automated synthesis of DNA, which was developed about that time. His constructions include DNA cubic structures and more complex polyhedra.

One problem Seeman faces is non-rigidity ("floppiness") of his three-dimensional DNA constructs. He illustrated the nature of the problem with a picture of a marshmallow impaled by uncooked rottini pasta as a metaphor for floppy joints holding together relatively rigid strands.

Although he has synthesized more complicated structures, including a truncated octahedron (a 14 catenane), he's going back to simpler molecules now, seeking to get around the floppiness problem. To do so, he is working with an alternating tetrahedron form, a concept for which Buckminster Fuller got a patent.

Seeman said he is hoping to use architectural properties of DNA to direct the assembly of other molecules.

The Feynman Prize is named in honor of Nobel Laureate Caltech physicist Richard P. Feynman. His 1959 talk at Caltech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," first pointed in the direction of molecular manufacturing.

For more information, see on the Web

Judges for 1995 Feynman Prize

Foresight Update 23 - Table of Contents


Progress Toward Molecular Manufacturing
Detailed by Foresight Conference Speakers

by Lewis M. Phelps

Much remains to be accomplished before molecular manufacturing becomes reality, but computer simulation and laboratory experiments are moving steadily in that direction. Challenges abound, but no insurmountable barriers have materialized as research continues.

That summarizes the view observers drew from technical presentations and policy discussions about molecular nanotechnology at the Fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. The three-day gathering of the world's foremost scientists who are working on nanotechnology-related projects was held November 9-11 in Palo Alto, CA. More than 300 people drawn from 16 countries participated in the conference. Corporate and institutional sponsors (see separate box) significantly contributed to the conference success.

Conference chair Ralph Merkle told Update at the end of the conference that the tone of this year's event differed substantially from previous years. "There are a lot more grey heads in the audience," he said. "That means very bright and highly regarded senior people have joined the discussion. The feasibility of nanotechnology is no longer in doubt among most scientists; they are now turning their attention and resources to the challenges of bringing molecular manufacturing from theory into practice."

Some two dozen technical topics, plus other policy, business, legal and economic aspects of nanotechnology were addressed during the conference. Additional researchers presented their findings using poster exhibits describing results of research they had undertaken.

As Foresight Institute moves more and more toward basing its communications upon the World Wide Web, more nanotechnology-related information will become available on the Web. In particular, Merkle says that most presentations given at the conference will be available on the Web and linked from the conference page at With that information available in detail, and with tapes also available, Update does not plan to report exhaustively on the conference proceedings. A complete listing of the speakers, and their topics, accompanies this article.

Among the conference highlights:

Video and audio recordings of the entire proceedings are available. They can be ordered directly from the production company, Sound Photosynthesis, P.O. Box 2111, Mill Valley, CA 94942-2111. Call: (415) 383-6712. Audio tapes are $10 per lecture + tax and mailing costs of $2 per three tapes. Tax is 7.25% for CA residents.

Videotapes are $35 plus tax and shipping per two-hour tape. The lectures are arranged sequentially on tape according to the conference program. Tax is as above and shipping is $3 per videotape.

A single "conference highlights" compilation videotape is available for the the same price as the other videotapes. Please email any questions to or

Foresight Update 23 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology Conference Sponsors/Speakers


Caltech Materials and Process Simulation Center
USC Molecular Robotics Lab
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing

Key Corporate Sponsor

Apple Computer, Inc.

Major Corporate Sponsors

Beckman Instruments, Inc.
Molecular Manufacturing Enterprises, Inc.

Supporting Corporate Sponsors

Biosym/Molecular Simulations, JEOL, Loral Systems Manufacturing Company
Niehaus Ryan Haller; Weil, Gotshal & Manges

Conference Speakers in order of appearance

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From Foresight Update 23, originally published 30 November 1995.