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What is DNA Origami?

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  • Written By: David White
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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An exciting new method of manipulating DNA could hold great promise for the future of molecular electronics. It's DNA origami, the brainchild of Caltech researcher Paul Rothemund. DNA origami is mind-boggling in its possibilities, yet employs the simplest of techniques and one of art's most elegant practices.

Remember that DNA comes in the celebrated "double helix," a pair of strands of molecular material that intertwine. DNA is used by nearly every organism on the planet to make proteins via a special set of "instructions." If we could somehow make those instructions work for us, then we could construct on our own things that would otherwise be made by nature. DNA origami is the first step in this process.

DNA origami might sound a bit like the sort of cloning that is part of the ongoing public ethics debate, but it is in essence what Rothemund and others are doing. Rather than molding whole animals or humans, however, these researchers are making far smaller products as they make large contributions to the future of DNA research. Specifically, they are folding DNA strands into rudimentary forms like smiling faces and snowflakes, first of all, to show that it can be done. More complicated figures have been created, of course, including a rather impressive map of the Western Hemisphere, and the ultimate goal is to form ever more complex shapes in order to produce the desired ultimate result, molecular electronics. DNA origami, meet electronic pathways.

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DNA origami is so named because of the way in which the DNA is manipulated. By molding the strands of DNA into various shapes, the scientists are mirroring origami, the practice of folding paper into various shapes. Folding DNA into something resembling a circuit board might be in the relative future, since the two-dimensional shapes that Rothemund and others have already created are only the first steps in a process that is anticipated to include 3D shapes in the not too distant future. Scientists could then take those DNA origami circuit boards and hook up super-tiny wiring or tubing to them to create a super-tiny electrical processor. The ultimate extension of this could be a larger electrical processor produced by connecting a whole lot of little ones, on the same theory that the 2D smiling faces of today's DNA origami are the precursors to the 3D figures of tomorrow.

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