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Nadrian C. Seeman - Why you should care about molecular nanotechnology

This regular opinion feature asks experts including researchers, business professionals and policy makers the question: “Why should individuals care about nanotechnology?”

Why Care About Nanotechnology?

picture of Nadrian C. Seeman

Nadrian C. Seeman,
Professor of Chemistry, New York University and former President, International Society for Nanoscale Science, Computation and Engineering

“Our different programs are of value in several ways. The program to facilitate the structural basis of drug target crystallization could enable scientists to develop new cures for various illnesses.”
— Nadrian C. Seeman

Why care about nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is really just another word for the chemistry of building new materials. The history of our species could be written as progress in our ability to control the structure of matter on finer and finer scales. Until fairly recently, these scales were macroscopic, but we as a species are now learning how to control the structure of matter to make devices with smaller and smaller features, particularly for electronics and molecular biology applications.

Nanotechnology largely deals with organizing matter on the same scale that the cell does, a few nanometers. Needless to say, it is important for the public to understand the key features of all aspects of science, and more and more of science is currently falling under the rubric of nanotechnology.

What are your research goals?

In a nutshell, we seek to control the structure of matter in three dimensions on the finest possible scale. We work with branched DNA molecules to do this. The combination of branched DNA and cohesive interactions, such as sticky ends allows one to design and to build specifically structured networks in 2D and 3D.

We have demonstrated this in 2D, and we are working to improve our arrays (crystals) in 3D.

Why do we want to do this? The first goal is to use our branched DNA system to scaffold the organization of biological macromolecules into crystalline arrays, thus overcoming the crystallization problem of biological crystallography. This will enable the 3D structural characterization of potential drug targets, leading to rational drug design.

If one can imagine organizing biological components this way, one can also imagine organizing nanoelectronic components in the same way. It is commonly accepted that the currently used top-down methods of building computer components will hit the wall in the next decade or so. DNA nanotechnology will enable us to assemble these components bottom-up. This will lead to smaller, faster architectures. In addition, bottom-up assembly offers the possibiity of 3D, not just 2D organization.

Our other goals involve the use of DNA nanomechanical devices. We have built robust sequence-dependent devices, and a little nanorobot that walks on a sidewalk. We have used the sequence-dependent devices to build a machine that emulates the action of a ribosome: It translates DNA signals into polymer assembly instructions, just as the ribosome translates the genetic code into protein assembly instructions.

Having built this prototype, we hope to generalize the device to build polymers with the same specificity that the cell uses to build proteins. We envision the nanorobot as a component in a nano-assembly line. It could bring supplies to particular stations along the line. In addition, a group of them could be organized to weave polymers together into stronger fibers.

How is your research relevant to the general public?

Our different programs are of value in several ways. The program to facilitate the structural basis of drug target crystallization could enable scientists to develop new cures for various illnesses. The HIV protease inhibitors were developed from crystal structures of the protease, but there was a lot of luck involved in getting those crystals. We would like to eliminate the dependence on luck.

The program to organize nanoelectronics in 3D from the bottom-up is a potentially disruptive technology that will increase the speed and decrease the sizes of computuational devices. In addition, we expect that there will be biomedical applications. Note that we are NOT proposing to use any electrical properties of DNA itself, just to use DNA as a scaffold.

We feel that the DNA-based nanomechanical devices will enable us to build previously unimagined new materials. We will gain unprecedented control over their composition, and in addition we will be able to control their spatial organization, leading to new, and perhaps environmentally-responsive properties.

In context with your research, how do you see it impacting the future?

All of the themes outlined above are areas of active research in our laboratory. New York University has licensed our patents to Nanoscience Technologies, Inc., which plans to bring our findings to the marketplace, thereby bridging the gap between the academic work that we do and the real-world applications that will result from them. It is likely that the new drugs, greater computational power and new materials that will result from our research program are likely to have a huge impact on our future.