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Foresight Update 23

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 23 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4


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

  • K. Eric Drexler, molecular nanotechnologist at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.
  • Carl Feynman, computer scientist.
  • William A. Goddard III, professor of chemistry and applied physics at Caltech.
  • Tracy Handel, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley.
  • Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and President of Teknowledge Inc.
  • Arthur Kantrowitz, professor of engineering at Dartmouth College.
  • Ralph C. Merkle, computational nanotechnologist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.
  • Marvin Minsky, MIT Media Lab professor.
  • Charles Musgrave, Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT and winner of the 1993 Feynman Prize.
  • Nils Nilsson, professor of computer science at Stanford's Robotics Laboratory.
  • Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Zurich, Nobel Laureate in Physics.
  • George M. Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard.

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:

  • Retired Admiral David Jeremiah, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed global security implications of nanotechnology. After painting a bleak picture of a politically unstable future world, Jeremiah summarized a future world in which "idealogy will be a major factor [in which] good or bad leaders will inspire the passion of five, 500, 5000, or 5 million people with consequences that will require some form of military force." He also forecast that "economics will play an increasing role in national security." He sees a world of continuing regional conflicts, in which "there will be a high demand to protect our own information and exploit open source and our opponent's intelligence." Battlefields of the future will feature "small, lethal, sensing, emitting, flying, crawling, exploding and thinking objects that may make the battlefield (or sea) highly lethal to humans in steel (or ceramic, or carbon-fiber) boxes. While there will be an enormous increase in the mass of sensors and other minute devices on the battlefield, there will be fewer weapons."

  • A panel of four speakers (George Whitesides, Tracy Handel, Bruce Paul Gaber and Richard Colton) focused the attention of researchers on the need (as Gaber put it) to "do the science that will lead to something useful." Panelists singled out areas where a need for nano-scale devices is most apparent, including (as Whitesides proposed) biological sciences ("probes that are small on a mammalian cell scale"), space launch related items, near-field optics, computer memory, x-ray fabrication, the human genome project, and national security-related projects (especially a highly efficient battery). In the future, said Gaber, "The technical hurdles will be very, very steep. Getting funding will be difficult; you have to be prepared to see what will spin off your research in the near term to keep the project going."

  • Neil Jacobstein, President of Teknowledge Inc. and chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, discussed the challenges of converting technological breakthroughs into commercial success, noting among other things that "being first is not enough," the need to "limit the number of breakthroughs needed to succeed," and the need to "distinguish technologies from markets." In the rapidly changing business climate we face today, "there is no finish line," he said. "Technical mastery at one level is no more than a ticket to get into the next round."

  • Ralph Merkle described an architecture for an assembler which is simpler than previous proposals. He also discussed convergent assembly - a manufacturing architecture very different from an assembler - intended to build large complex structures with molecular precision by successively assembling larger parts from smaller parts.

  • Richard Colton of the U.S Naval Research Laboratory outlined Tip-Surface Interactions research conducted at NRL. He discussed one technology that his group has developed which allows identification of chemical compounds, even individual molecules, eight orders of magnitude more sensitive than other available technologies. This technology should provide the military with a means to detect and alert for presence of viruses and toxins without having to wait hours or even days to collect enough sample, he said. The same technique has broad implications for civilian applications in medicine and other areas, he said.

  • Don Brenner of North Carolina State University presented his findings on "Simulated Engineering of Nanostructures." He outlined a molecular dynamics simulation of a basic mechanosynthetic operation - the abstraction of a specified hydrogen atom from a diamond surface using a hydrogen abstraction tool. He also referred to his next area of focus, metal/hydrocarbon interactions.

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

  • Ralph Merkle, Xerox PARC; Conference Chairman, Introduction.
  • Richard Smalley, Rice University; Nanotechnology at Rice.
  • William A. Goddard III, Caltech; Computational Chemistry and Nanotechnology.
  • J. Fraser Stoddart, University of Birmingham, UK; The Art and Science of Self-Assembling Molecular Machines.
  • Eric Drexler, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing; Directions in Nanotechnology.
  • Aristides Requicha, USC; Molecular Robotics.
  • Admiral David Jeremiah, USN (Ret.), Technology Strategies and Alliances; Nanotechnology and Global Security.
  • Ralph Merkle, Xerox PARC; Design Considerations for an Assembler.
  • Richard Colton, NRL; Tip Surface Interactions.
  • Charles Musgrave, MIT; Chemical Synthesis of Nanomachinery.
  • Donald Brenner, North Carolina State University; Simulated Engineering of Nanostructures.
  • Elizabeth Enayati, Weil Gotshal & Manges; Intellectual Property Update.
  • George Whitesides, Harvard; Self Assembly and Nanotechnology.
  • Tracy Handel, UC Berkeley; Protein Design.
  • Bruce Paul Gaber, NRL; Towards the Molecular Machine Shop - Spatially Controlled Enzymatic Modification of Solid Surfaces.
  • Neil Jacobstein, Teknowledge and IMM; Entrepreneuring in Molecular Manufacturing: Lessons from the Computer Industry.
  • Paul E. Sheehan, Harvard; Nanomachining, Manipulation and Fabrication by Force Microscopy.
  • Geoff Leach, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology; Advances in Molecular CAD.
  • Rod Ruoff, Molecular Physics Lab, SRI; Experimental Study of the Mechanical Properties of Nanotubes and Nanorods.
  • Subhash Saini, NASA Ames; High Performance Parallel Computation Nanotechnology.
  • Tom McKendree, Univ. of Southern California; Implications of Molecular Nanotechnology Technical Performance Parameters on Previously Defined Space System Architectures.
  • Stephen L. Gillett, University of Nevada; Near-Term Nanotechology: Nanotechnology, Pollution Control and Resources.
  • David C. Turner, NRL; Patterned Microtubule Assemblies for Kinesin-Based Transport.
  • Paul S. Weiss, Penn State University; Nanometer-Scale Features and Properties in Self-Assembled Systems.
  • Tanya C. Sienko, National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Japan; The Track of Japanese Nanotechnology Efforts: Present, Players, and Possibilities.

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From Foresight Update 23, originally published 30 November 1995.


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